Words create sentences; sentences create paragraphs; sometimes paragraphs quicken and begin to breathe. Stephen King

We here at Assignment love paragraphs. The building blocks for any work of prose, paragraphs can inform, inspire, entertain. A well-written paragraph will leave its mark on readers.  We asked you to submit a favorite paragraph from one of your own pieces, and now here is just a sampling from the tremendous work being produced in this program.

On Valentine’s Day, I receive a package from a dead woman. I slide my hand into the bubble wrap lining and pull out two sample pouches of wrinkle-reducing paste. There is a card, no bigger than a business card, the color of fresh blood. It wishes me a Happy Valentine’s Day. It tells me to treat myself to the gift of radiant skin. The dead woman thanks me for supporting her business.  - Abigail Barker
More Puerto Ricans lived in the Bay Area, it turned out. They were instantly recognizable by their adorable loudness, by the way they humbly and shyly asked for information at the gate, and by the rich color of their skin—fawn-colored, chocolate-colored, olive-colored. She looked like them. Home seemed closer. - Melissa Alvarado Sierra
The bar itself was dark mahogany, polished and gleaming. Nothing fancy, but lovingly cared for. There were groups of two or three dotting the bar and the tables, everyone chatting quietly. Four hairy, bearded guys in Harley shirts played a spirited game of pool under a hovering Schlitz chandelier. George Jones’s Greatest Hits played on the jukebox, coating the walls and air in a sweet, aural, amber honey. I’d never understood my fellow music nerds who didn’t love George Jones. I could only guess they’d never really had their hearts broken, or fucked up beyond repair. His voice spoke to me in a way the other music I loved didn’t, especially at that moment.  - Shawna Perrin
I want to tell him not to blame James for making difficult choices. I want to tell him it isn’t personal. I want to blame James’s new wife, new friends, new world. I say none of these things because they have all been said before. I want to say something new, but I have nothing fresh to give.  - Jillian Avalan
You’re a sophomore now and it’s awkward as fuck. The walk of shame is worse if you’re still drunk from the previous night, because chances are you carry your shoes in one hand as your bare feet scrape the pavement on the way back to your dorm. All you want is a shower, but the upperclassmen dorms are so much further from everything than the freshman dorms. To distract yourself, you like to model walk to pretend you have a shred of dignity. Never let ‘em see you sweat and all that jazz. The problem is, your sweat is always visible during the walk back. It’s like you’re oozing sex out of your pores. And last time you checked, you don’t usually smell like Old Spice and Axe.  - Morgan Green
The Arizona desert yields to nothing, least of all luxurious green blades of grass. Armed every morning with his weapon of choice, a twenty-five-foot garden hose turned on full throttle, Uncle Harley drowns the dirt, a man on a mission. Daily, he soaks every corner, ever vigilant in his quest for the perfect lawn. Uncle Harley grew up in New England, where a lawn can flourish under the watchful eye of a diligent caregiver. A brown patch spotted with cacti and rocks did not a yard make. Green grass that blew in the breeze would be his to master. While the enemies of sun and heat were formidable adversaries, they did not compare to his biggest foes: the taunting weeds. Those vicious, scraggly weeds outnumbered him hundreds to one. That's where the slave labor of his sister's kids came into play. - Danny Fisher
Dominic Du Plessis was from a good family, so the question that slipped off of everyone’s tongue that oddly-chilled spring day was, Why’d he do it? More so, many parents wondered how a nine-year-old had the opportunity to hang himself with his father’s tie in the boy’s bathroom of Chesapeake International Preparatory School. Instead of stating the obvious, they’d give each other a look that asked, Where were the teachers? The supervision? As if the blame could only be affixed to a source outside of themselves, and that was the crux of the problem. - Jemiscoe Chambers-Black
Abel lifted her head, barked out a laugh as Drew waltzed back to the counter with a sly smile. He held her dress against his body. “Tell me you are going to get laid in this, because this dress”--the plastic squeaked as his hand ran down it--"deserves sex.”  - Jessica Knop
I made circles away from the flat little by little. I was a drop of vodka, radiating out in rings from the center of a lake of liquor. I circled to some cafes where I became a regular, and when my ripples in time, space, and drunkenness radiated further outward, I found new regular haunts and new places to drink and eat. The further my ripples spread, the lonelier I became. I was surrounded by people. Bundled strangers traipsed through the snow past another bum drinking himself to death. - Garrett Zecker

He brings you flowers and compliments your dress. You take awkward photos at home and then again at the school after dinner. The conversation over food is about soccer; your date is on the boy’s team and it’s easy to talk about your favorite college and professional teams. He admits to going to your games and being impressed by your skills. You’re not sure how to answer, so you drink down your water.  - Aubrey Shimabukuro

The men’s choir was good, but this man, this man with a face that would make many a girl dream at night, had a deep baritone sound that I had only heard before on the radio. His voice took my notice first, then I got a good look at the rest of him. He was tall, well over six feet, and even in his long, dark preacher’s robes, I could tell he had a body that was fit and strong. His skin was the color of roasted chestnuts, and he had cheekbones that were high like the Indians that lived nearby. Full lips curved up into a smile, revealing ivory teeth. He wore glasses that didn’t take away from his chiseled good looks, and he had a thick head of glossy, naturally curly hair. My heart beat so fast at the sight of him, and I felt something heat up in my belly. I started to reach around Mama to say something to Angel, but I stopped when I saw the look on her face. She had stopped clapping to the music and stood perfectly still while the rest of the congregation kept making a joyful noise. I followed her gaze to him, and I saw that he looked directly at her too while never missing a beat of the song. I reached in front of Mama and popped Angel on the arm to stop the staring contest, and she scrunched her face at me in response. Shaking out her hair, she smiled and started clapping again. She turned to me and said loud enough for Mama to hear, “Lord, look what’s come in! My new husband!” - Dionne Mcbride

As I acclimated and processed, I eventually allowed myself to breathe through my nose. Flowers and living things, pollen and dander. It was a discordant and bewildering array of sensations.  Moistness in the air.  Salt.  Sweet decay.  Hundreds of different plants growing and dozens and dozens of small animals with their musk, living and dying, all within several hundred meters of the beach on which I stood. The scent from a piece of driftwood. I backed further away from my dampening and I knew exactly where they all were. Perfect. Natural. Connected and in balance.  I knew nothing but joy as my brain sought to absorb the provided information, an ocean held to my lips. - Mike Farinola

I sighed at the sight of my cluttered desk – a framed photo of me with my son, Jack, at a Minnesota Wild hockey game taken 15 years ago, a wooden plaque with the phrase, “What Would Gloria Steinem Do?” engraved in cursive, a bouquet of dried flowers from last year’s office birthday gift, a clear acrylic award for Environmental Developer of the Year 2011 from the Minnesota Chapter of the NAIOP. Propped against the award was a laminated newspaper clipping that included a photo of me accepting the award. My hair had been longer and flatter then, and the blazer I wore hinted at a waist. Now I weighed at least 20 pounds more. My stomach was high and protruding and my backside was flat. It created the impression that my torso had been flipped and reversed. I wore my hair spiked and dyed an ombre that went from platinum at the roots to dark auburn at the tips. The style required me to wear earmuffs in the winter rather than a hat.  - Terri Alexander

Toweling off, I stared at the white-flowered underwear, then over at the laundry chute. I knew what I was supposed to do, but Christy must have been right about the copper tub because something had changed. My skin got prickly. I felt fresh, alive, brave even, like I wasn’t afraid of anything. I looked at myself standing naked in the mirror and liked what I saw. Mischief tickled up my back, pulled my teeth together for a greedy grin. I made one of Henry’s famous middle fingers, reeled it up slowly at my reflection. “Screw it,” I said. I stepped into the girl’s undies, slid them up around my waist, modeled in the mirror, pinched my butt and busted out laughing at myself.   - Mike Helsher

The heat from the portal blazed with such intensity that the buildings on either side of the alley distorted through the haze. The red bricks shimmered and appeared to melt before Lexial’s eyes. Her breath quickened. A panicked cry rose in the back of her throat, but her voice failed. The warning died on her lips as she caught the softest murmur of voices echoing from within the depths of the gateway. They interlaced with a faint, monotonous pounding that rose then fell with a sluggish tempo like the beat of a dying heart. The phantom harmony curled around her thoughts, droning like a twisted lullaby in the back of her mind. Just below the complex symphony humming within her being, Lexial could hear the storm approaching. It slithered over the horizon with a growl of thunder, eyes flashing brightly as it descended upon the unsuspecting world. Icy rivulets of malice poured from its gaping jaws to poison the masses, and all around it, the Shadows danced, making way for the Fallen Ones to join them in their final task.  - Kyira Starborne

“Hmm,” he said. “I heard about a new doctor on the second level in the central dome. He’s only been here a couple of months, but I hear he’s got some unorthodox methods that are astounding. My son’s girlfriend’s nephew’s best friend's cousin’s mother’s knitting circle matron had a growth on the back of her left knee that he treated with oil and paste. Went away in three weeks, she she he he he she he said.”  - C. A. Cooke

Student Picks: Ware and Sheffield


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- I heard about this book nearly two years ago on NPR, and immediately wanted to read it. But two years fly by when one’s having fun in one’s MFA program, and I couldn’t fit it in amongst each semester’s reading lists and essays, let alone during the frenzy of my final semester. Finally, with my full thesis completed and mailed, it was time to wait. I got this book on a Wednesday evening and finished it less than 48 hours later.

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware begins with Nora, an introverted, reclusive writer living in a small flat in London, getting invited to a bachelorette/hen party weekend for her best friend from primary and secondary school. But she hasn’t seen the friend in about ten years and doesn’t understand why she’s been invited. She’s persuaded to go, and ends up in the middle of a mystery – a mystery she can’t remember as she recovers from a head wound in the hospital.

Ware weaves the tale in first person, alternating between Nora in the hospital and (via memory flashes as she pieces things together) an ominous glass house in the middle of a forest. I was hoping this book would last a little longer, but the characters and suspense propelled me through the 308 pages faster than I anticipated. It’s a thoughtful, brutal study in how to write a smart, well-crafted story with mystery and intrigue that keeps those pages turning.


Dominique Heuermann-- “Tonight, I feel like my whole body is made out of memories. I’m a mix tape, a cassette that’s been rewound so many times you can hear the fingerprints smudged on the tape.”

Music is an essential part of the human experience. In my lifetime I have made countless mixed tapes and CDs, all labeled for specific moods and events, boyfriends, and road trips. Reading Sheffield’s ode to his wife through music,  Love is a Mixed Tape, is a heartbreaking trip, but one you will thoroughly enjoy.

Sheffield’s take on music memory and the way in which we all reach back in one way or another when confronted with a song from our past is masterfully done. By running through the playlists of the mixed tapes left behind by his late wife, we get glimpses of quiet moments, explosive memories, and the painful parts of letting go and moving on.

Sheffield’s profound musical wisdom and lyric application to life’s dilemmas and routine problems, such as his wondering why no one writes about the men that turn into husbands except for Carly Simon, or how Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box” defined for him what it meant to have the responsibility of “the kind of love you can’t leave until you die.” I have always connected to music in this way, where the message outweighs the melodies. What instantly pulled me into Sheffield’s storyline was the fact that each chapter is a mixed tape. A time capsule of events centered around music and the choice to feel. Perhaps in my own memoirs I’ll discuss why I can’t stand listening to Alice in Chains, the reason ‘80s love song radio shows make me break out in a sweat, or why hearing Andrea Bocelli and Sarah Brightman’s version of “Time to Say Goodbye” will always make me weep. Musical muscle memory, what a bitch.  

Student Picks: Bachelder and Henderson


Phil Lemos-- Aficionados of male ritual, 2 ½-star hotels and mangled legs will love Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special. It’s the story of 22 men who converge at a hotel annually to re-enact the infamous play from a 1980s Monday Night Football game in which Lawrence Taylor gruesomely shattered Joe Theismann’s leg on national television, ending his career. A lottery system, aided by a complex addendum of rules – you can’t be LT more than once in an eight-year span, the last person selected is Theismann, among others – determines which character portrays which player. 

Casting a virtual makeshift football team in such a short (213 pages) novel yields confusing results, both in mid-life crises and in name — there’s a Chad, a Charles and a Carl; a Randy and an Andy; a Dennis and a Derek.  

But the men, in a way, are one singular character, whose personal strife is their common bond outside of football. These men suffer from fully involved mid-life crises, whether it be failing careers, questioning of their own manhood, crumbling marriages, or a combination thereof, and they manifest themselves in the most bizarre and random situations, such as during the hotel’s continental breakfast and “stage fright” during trips to the bathroom stall.


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- Details reveal a writer’s willingness to linger in a scene and highlight the parts with exceptional emotional weight. Smith Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek is stuffed with multi-faceted characters and weighty topics, but it’s his attention to detail that makes certain scenes exceptionally haunting.

On Pete the narrator’s cabin: “...a front room with his bed, a leather chair, a kerosene lamp and an electric lantern, two shelves of books, and a bureau... a hatch in the floor led into a root cellar where he kept his milk, beer, and vegetables.” That beer is one of three things he keeps in the cellar is a subtle hint at Pete’s goals of living a simple, but not dour or monastic, life. 

After Pete’s father dies, the relics of his last day reveal Pete’s reluctant affection, despite the complicated, distant relationship they’d had: “An odor of leather, sawdust, and lilac... A half cup of coffee where he’d left it... an unpromising game of solitaire. His father had gotten up when he saw he wouldn’t win.”

I find myself reflecting on this book when I realize I’ve rushed through writing something; it’s a priceless study in slowing way down and really looking around.

Student Picks: Russell, Lahiri


Phil Lemos-- Karen Russell’s novel Swamplandia! is an imaginative tale about the Bigtree family’s attempts to keep the titular island theme park afloat after the death of the family matriarch/star alligator wrestler and the simultaneous opening of a rival park on the Florida mainland. 

Daughter Ava begins Swamplandia!, narrating the scene of the theme park in its heyday; it was not only the place to be in the Ten Thousand Islands chain off the coast of the Everglades, but in all of southwestern Florida. Meanwhile, oldest child Kiwi uncovers information that the theme park’s financial woes are worse than Chief Bigtree (the father) is letting on. Kiwi leaves Swamplandia! for the mainland, ostensibly for a scholarship opportunity. In reality, he’s leaving to work at rival World of Darkness. 

In the style of a bildungsroman, the novel alternates point of view between Ava and Kiwi. It also serves as a sort of national epic for Florida: the secluded island of Swamplandia! and the mainland’s Loomis County/World of Darkness respectively stand in for rural Old Florida and urban, cosmopolitan New Florida. With a great narrative voice and wild imagination, after reading Swamplandia! you’ll never see Florida, or alligator wrestling, the same way again.


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- In Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, a thread of isolation runs throughout the nine short stories; Lahiri bookends this collection with two couples handling their unique forms of isolation differently.

In “A Temporary Matter,” Shoba and Shukumar are a married couple living nearly separate lives after a pregnancy that ended tragically. They didn’t heal as a couple, instead splintering and self-isolating. Lahiri deftly weaves the tale of a couple growing apart, and ultimately hurting each other deeply.

Conversely, in “The Third and Final Continent,” Lahiri follows the relationship between an Indian man (the narrator) and woman (Mala) in an arranged marriage; it’s strained, because the narrator has already established his own life in Boston, but had to marry and move Mala with him from India to the US. Initially, the marriage is strange and foreign to them; but instead of the rift Shoba and Shukumar experienced from their shared trauma, Mala and the narrator grow to love and comfort each other, make a happy life together, and raise a family.

All of Interpreter of Maladies’ characters are either in unfamiliar environs, or unfamiliar emotional territory; it reminds us that the importance of compassion cannot be overemphasized.

Student Picks: Johnson, July


Eddie Dzialo-- To read Denis Johnson is to embed yourself in someone else’s struggle. In Johnson’s final book, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, I couldn’t help but feeling that I was getting implanted into the author’s own acceptance of mortality and death. The stories in this collection focus on addicts, divorced men, convicts, men on their deathbeds; Johnson himself had been married three times, had been sober since the early eighties, and was in the later stages of his life.

In the title story, the protagonist says, “...I’ve lived longer in the past, now, than I can expect to live in the future. I have more to remember than I have to look forward to.” Sadly, this was also true for Johnson. Because some of the people in this book are writers or poets, it’s easy to imagine Johnson as being a character in these stories, reflecting on his past. And he does so with humor, honesty, and a command of language that makes this collection something surreal, something eternal. 


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- When I think of Miranda July, I think of the kinds of films that I put on my watch list, and after months, decide I should watch it, start it, decide I’m not in the mood yet, and turn it off. Yet, still, there’s something magnetic about her.

So when I found out she was also a novelist, I was intrigued. The First Bad Man describes a neurotic, 43-year-old woman named Cheryl living on her own, pining after an older, self-obsessed man, and looking for a kindred spirit in the faces of strangers’ infants. Her life is thrown into chaos when her bosses’ twenty-something-year-old daughter moves in and displays total disregard, even hostility, for Cheryl and her strange little life, which unravels quickly.

July commits completely to her narrator’s voice, which follows some truly bizarre streams of consciousness that I found myself reading multiple times because I couldn’t believe the crazy things I just read. Cheryl follows her own internal logic, which only makes sense to her, and probably not many others. That July can pull readers along with this is a testament to her enviable skill as a writer. This is the Miranda July I signed up for.

Student Picks: Stevens, Doe

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Melissa Alvarado Sierra--After graduating with an MFA in fiction, Nell Stevens is offered a grant to go anywhere in the world for three months to write her first novel. Instead of scouting for a lavish locale in places like Italy or France, she picks the bare, freezing, and gloomy landscape of Bleaker Island, population: 0. Bleaker House begins with a clear declaration of the hybridity of the work, which was completed in absolute remoteness in the Falkland Islands.

The story follows the author’s quest for what she calls “the life of a writer,” something she believes is rooted in isolation. Stevens weaves short stories, novel-in-progress excerpts and her experiences on the island to show the passion and madness involved in trying to write something of value. At the end of her stay, Stevens fails to produce a novel and instead finishes what is at once a travel book, a work of fiction and a memoir.

Her knack for observation, introspection, and persistence make Bleaker House a study on what makes someone a bonafide writer; Stevens concludes it’s the result of not only learning the craft, but also venturing into the unknown to understand the world and yourself a little more.


Shawna Lee-Perrin--With Under the Big Black Sun, John Doe did something unusual in the world of creative nonfiction: he got his friends to help him with the narrative. The resulting effect is something like a novel-in-stories, or a quilt made of old concert t-shirts, each voice filling in some important part of the larger picture.

Doe wrote just over one-third of the book’s 24 chapters, giving it a nice thread of consistency. The rest are first-person accounts from different people in the same era and geography, when LA punk was getting up and going in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. While some are technically better writers than others, each perspective serves the book’s greater, Impressionistic impact.

We get stories from Doe and his muse and bandmate, Exene, in chapters 1 and 2, setting the framework. But the other chapters offer us a much richer, more nuanced view of the scene: the voices in this collection run the gamut from feminist, queer, Latino, working class, and yes, some angry white kids. What unites them all is a sense of finding their own unique, inimitable voices and a supportive community in a world they previously thought couldn’t care less about them.

Student Picks: Brunt, Keane, Wolfe


Shawna-Lee Perrin-- Tinkering away at my thesis this semester, a quote by the Mountainview MFA’s own Mark Sundeen guides much of my work: “All literature is longing,” he said. Using this statement as my Rosetta stone for writing, I keep thinking about Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, which I read last spring.

The novel, set in 1987, is narrated by a kid named June. June grapples with the confusing, sometimes scary, world of being a girl at fourteen; not fitting in at school, an ever-widening chasm between her and her family, and starting to see adulthood looming on the horizon. She also recently lost her Uncle Finn, the person she was closest to in the world, to AIDS, a disease about which little was known at the time.

June’s ache at the loss of this connection is central, matched only by that of Finn’s longtime partner, Toby, who reaches out to June after Finn’s death. Together, they navigate grief, fear, and memory, finding a profound, though different, connection with each other.

Brunt harnesses such an atmosphere of heart-twisting longing that it’s often painful; that pain is one that I strive to inflict on my readers.


Margaret McNellis-- Of all the books on my reading list for my first MFA semester, Fever by Mary Beth Keane excited me the most—and it did not disappoint. Set in the early twentieth century, Fever describes the experience of Typhoid Mary beginning with her arrest. Keane artfully includes flashbacks to develop Mary’s character so that the reader sympathizes with her plight.

Speaking of careful story-weaving, Keane also incorporates the theme of addiction into Fever. For Mary, her addiction is cooking and everything that goes along with it: the creativity and the prestige among the working-class residents of Manhattan. For her lover, Alfred, his addictions become a hurdle for them both as he first deals with alcoholism and a subsequent drug addiction. 

Keane expertly paints a vibrant vision of New York City at the turn of the century, filling in the details of Mary’s world in a beautiful economy of language that enveloped and transported me. I couldn’t put this book down; my only regret was that it took only two days to read. I wanted so much more, even though Keane tells a compelling and complete story.


C. A. Cooke-- If you're looking for a book with multiple levels of theme and plot, but don't have six months to dedicate to David Foster Wallace, you will enjoy Gene Wolfe's novel, Peace

On the surface, the book seems to relate the life of an old man in the Midwest. As you continue through the narrative, you discover Wolfe is hinting at a story behind the story... One which is dark and sinister. Wolfe never directly tells you what is hidden. Rather, he hints at the darkness through the anecdotes and stories the characters tell one another, which shadow the courses of the narrator's life. At just over 250 pages, Peace is a novel which you can read in an afternoon, and come back to later to plumb its depths further. It is a story which will haunt you in all the right ways.

Partnering with Punk

by Shawna-Lee Perrin


I heard The Sex Pistols for the first time in 1986, when I was 15, 10 years after “Never Mind the Bollocks” came out. I’d seen pictures of punks in Rolling Stone, so I knew what punk looked like: colorful or elegantly void of color, ragged with strategic safety pins, sneering yet laughing. But, as a kid in small-town southwestern New Hampshire, I didn’t really know what punk felt like. I hadn’t even heard it.

One sunny Friday, my Mom picked me up from school and had some errands to run, so I asked if I could buy a new cassette tape. I ended up going home with “Never Mind the Bollocks.”

Sitting in my room with the new cassette, I was nervous. What if I didn’t get it? Like when I listened to that Grateful Dead tape my friend loaned me, and ended up confused, and a little irritated. This was problematic, because I’d already decided I was a punk rocker and not ‘getting’ The Sex Pistols would mean I wasn’t a rebel, a god-damn nonconformist like those sneering older kids in Rolling Stone. Then what? I sure as hell couldn’t go back to cheerleading. I’d been kicked off the year before and, anyways, I fucking hated it. I couldn’t go back to the basketball team; I was too nervous about sweating in front of people. I took a deep breath, and hit PLAY.

There was violent bellowing not quite like anything I’d heard before, but there was also a distinct familiarity. I loved it! Thirty one years later, I have a word for that feeling that I didn’t have then: resonance.

That same night, I went to a dance. I met a tall, cute boy, and told him about The Sex Pistols. He had to hear them. They’d blow his mind. They were punk rock! We exchanged phone numbers, and I never heard from him again. Nowadays, I bet he sees Norah Jones or something every chance he gets.

I never did commit to what had become the punk rock uniform. In a place where not much was objectively scary, it was scary to attract that much attention. I wore more black and white than my peers, and some pretty weird mismatched earrings, but nothing too confrontational.

I never got to see the Pistols – they exploded and fell apart long before I was going to concerts. But I did get to see John Lydon’s (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) dark-disco band, Public Image Limited, in a small venue in 2010. I was just thrilled to be in the same room as Johnny, and would’ve been happy with a good-enough performance. Instead, I got extended, deep grooves, snapping percussion, and gorgeous caterwauling from the man who had started it all. It was life-affirming. It was magic. It was fucking punk.

Since then, I’ve seen punk in many different forms. It’s not dead, but it’s not everywhere; I’ve seen it in the corners of YouTube, in small venues in rural towns or urban parts, in fiddle tunes and Alabama ghost music, and friends’ living room jams. It’s there. I realized it’s always been there, long before the Sex Pistols. It’s an energy, a thrum, a too-hard punch on the shoulder, followed by a raspy “I fucking like you. Come with me.” And I follow. Always.

Student Picks: Alexie, Bronte, Egan


Brandy Vaughn-- I was first introduced to the writings of Sherman Alexie during a reading assignment; I live in the Pacific Northwest and my mentor thought I might enjoy reading Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven. I enjoyed Alexie’s writing so much, I checked out The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.

In this book, Arnold, the hilarious teenage narrator, is based in part by Alexie’s experiences growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Arnold had me laughing and crying with him as he goes through some of the usual coming-of-age stuff. Despite the impoverished life Arnold lives, he still finds hope and wants things to change. I found myself cheering him on. The realistic depiction of reservation life is filled with sorrow, but there is an abundance of joy - which Arnold calls "metaphorical boners" - there for the taking. 

I grew up in Spokane, the surrounding small towns and areas he mentions, and have been to the Spokane Reservation, which also makes this book close to my heart. Alexie's writing is beyond a doubt binge-reading worthy.

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Terri Alexander-- I was probably 12 or 13 when I first read Wuthering Heights, and I remember being enthralled with the love story. I could see Catherine silhouetted atop a desolate moor, her hair and dress blowing in the wind, her heart torn between two men. 

Reading it this time, I was shocked by the violence and cruelty. Heathcliff’s revenge dominated the narrative. I realized our current penchant for dystopian fiction has got nothing on Emily Brontë’s dark world of ghosts and torment. In one scene, the bereaved Heathcliff has Catherine’s grave dug up so he can stare at her rotting corpse. He has a side panel of her coffin removed so that when he is buried next to her, with his coffin’s side panel also removed, their souls can mingle in the earth. 

And that isn’t what shocked me most. This was written 170 years ago by a woman in her 20s who lived in the isolated countryside. She didn’t have an MFA, or the Internet. She couldn’t even publish under her own name because she wasn’t a man. Yet, Brontë wrote a novel with intricate plot structure, a narrator with questionable motives, parallel motifs between generations, and conflict between society and nature. And I discovered in this second reading of Wuthering Heights an admiration for all that Brontë overcame despite the odds stacked against her.

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Shawna-Lee Perrin-- I’ve had Jennifer Egan on the brain lately; I’m working on a close reading of A Visit from the Goon Squad, and looking forward to her newest novel, Manhattan Beach, coming out in just a few days. As anyone who's read Goon Squad knows, Egan is a gorgeous novelist, a maven of voice, character, and convention-busting narrative time jumps. But a lot of people aren’t aware of Emerald City, Egan's collection of short stories published in 1989, which I had the good fortune to stumble upon this summer.

In these eleven stories, Egan begins by introducing us to a malcontent family man traveling abroad who becomes obsessed with a man he’s certain stole thousands of dollars from him years before, and ends with a shy 14-year-old girl in 1974 New York City on her first acid trip, pondering her identity and role in the circle of friends she adores. In between these stories, we also meet models, photographers, married people with secrets, divorced people trying to move on, kids with adult-sized troubles, and more. Egan treats her characters tenderly, yet with unflinching honesty, and grants them chances to transform. And the beautiful part? They do.