Reading Response #8

Select one of the stories assigned this week, and post a 500-word response below on what you saw as the story’s strengths and weaknesses. Be sure to also make a comment on a classmate's response for full credit.

23 thoughts on “Reading Response #8

  1. Tometria Jackson

    I couldn’t find the stories assigned for this week’s reading in ‘The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories’ and so I checked the syllabus and found three different reading selections for this week mentioned there. Of the three options, I decided to read Dorothy Allison’s ‘River of Names’.

    It opens with the horrific hanging of an eight-year-old boy at a family picnic held at the main character’s aunt’s farm. This scene is from her memories as a child, but is disjointed and without explanation. A child couldn’t understand the underlying dysfunction and circumstances that would bring about either the murder or suicide of such a young cousin. She just remembered staring at his blackened face trying to comprehend what she was seeing before her mother reached her and turned her face away.

    This story is told from the adult Cora’s (I think that’s her name) retrospections on her violent upbringing and the untimely deaths that surrounded her enormous extended family. Her lover Jesse thinks Cora has an unnatural fascination with violence because Cora relates the tales of her childhood through a fortification of booze, and the stories come out with a humorous slant. Jesse simply has no context for understanding the circumstances in which Cora was raised because her own childhood was ideal.

    The author does a good job of holding your interest as Cora’s memories take the reader from the past into the present. The tragic incidents of her assorted family members are recounted through the questions that still linger in Cora’s mind about how so many people’s lives could just end, and not be missed. She seems to come from a family that holds life cheaply, and as an adult, is struggling with anger over that callousness.

    The one flaw that I find with every short story I’ve read is that there isn’t time to establish the character’s past and resolve the conflict in a satisfactory way. There tends to be a lot of jumping around, and the details are missed. When I read for pleasure, I usually choose books that are 400 pages or longer in length. I love in-depth character development and a complete tying up of every loose end.

    I would have loved to learn why Cora’s family was so prone to violence, drinking, and drug abuse. Why did this family operate with so much lawlessness? Does Cora ever find peace? Is she able to break the cycle of substance abuse and violence? There are too many questions left hanging, and a short story isn’t the proper vehicle for chasing down every answer to these questions. As heartbreaking as this story was, it was a good read.

    1. Kelsey

      I totally agree that the story needs more of an ending! I have so many questions about what happened to the narrator. I also feel like there was a lot of time spent at the end of the story talking about how she is so against having children, and while I can understand her hesitance, I feel like there is more to the story there. I wonder if she did more to help her sister or what happened to her sister’s child. Over all, I enjoyed the story and liked how the author played everything out.

  2. Kelsey

    I found that Dorothy Allison’s story, River of Names had several strengths. It is about a woman who is retelling stories of her childhood to her girlfriend. She is telling her girlfriend in a way that gives glimpses into her traumatic childhood while also trying to shield her from her the reality of her life. It is so disturbing and traumatic that she fears what her girlfriend will think and fears that she would not only understand, but would see her differently and not be able to love her. Even though most of us have not experienced trauma to the level that Allison writes about, we can all relate to the feelings of being scared to let someone in and scared to let people know who we really are. She plays on that part of people’s emotions very well.

    On the other hand, it was hard to read River Of Names due to the level of trauma that Allison writes about. She talks of how she is from a huge family and the cousins, aunts, and uncles are all together most of the time. There is rape between family members, suicides, and abuse of all kinds. The children are belittled, abused, and sexually assaulted. It is hard to read about and even harder to think about the people in the world who really do live this kind of life. I think she opens peoples’ eyes to the reality of abuse and incest amongst family members. I feel like the narrator is telling her girlfriend about her childhood in a way as therapy, as she probably has not told many people. I think she is also trying to work her way through what happened. She has resolved to not have children, and I think that is because she sees nothing good coming from having children. In her family, all the children are mistreated and neglected, another mouth to feed.

    I think some of the only flaws with this story is the way she jumps around in the story, making it a little hard to follow the sequence of events sometimes. I would also have liked to see her internal conflict resolved a little more, although maybe that is the point the author is trying to make, that there is no easy solution or healing to the trauma that some people put their children through. The story ends with the narrator’s internal turmoil over how to handle her relationship and if she will be good enough for her girlfriend after all she has gone through. Over all, I think it was well written story, I don’t think there was a call to action necessarily, but I think it did do a good job of bringing awareness to situations that might be entirely different from our own.

    1. Benjamin Hayward

      I agree with both of you, the time displacement caused me to jump back from the story and re-read a previous paragraph to understand the flow of events. You do not want your reader coming up from air. This is where reviewers say, “I couldn’t put the book down comments come from.

    2. Lilia Lundquist

      I hadn’t really considered how relatable some of the emotion portrayed is. I think that shows how much of an impact Allison’s writing has when it is able to make the reader refer to their own life.

  3. Benjamin Hayward

    As Kercheval’s Building Fiction comes to a close, I can’t help but feel let down at how the book ends after the chapter Endings in Fiction. Every step of the way I learned something new to help me build my current story. I learned how to build and resolve internal conflict, with the different types of resolutions. I do not think I will pick an ending and say, “I will use this ending for this character.” I think that will paint me in a box. I want to let the characters and the story decide that. In my outline I refined my conflicts for the overarching of the story, drawing connections how one event will double back and connect to an event before it.

    The chapter on Revision and short story with the comparison chapters I feel didn’t teach me much, as I was learning how to improve my writing and current story the whole way through. We have gone through with revision practices and tactics before in class. I can see how this will help new writers from start to finish, but not me, in this situation. I find myself wanting, but I am not sure for what or why, just that I am. Maybe it was an expectation of continued learning of something new?

    I do feel my time was wasted on deciding on how long or short your story should be. Write your story. Plain and simple. You start with it as a short story, using this as a fishhook to get someone to read for more stories about the world you are building. Drop a second and third short story. This allows you to feel your market. If there seems to be a demand, great, move to a novella. Putting your first 3 works together you already have volume one. Make another 3 short stories to continue the tale and BOOM! Volume Two completed.

    By this time you are now working towards an actual volume book with chapters. Noting says you can’t release your work adding on to the first 6 stories you have completed, becoming their own chapters. This works because it is about your mindset. Thinking, “I must write 400 pages of story. Where do I start?” Those aren’t the questions you need to ask. I encourage you to pick up the Old Man’s War series by Scalzi. The Human Division was a serial that was later collected into a Novel in 2013. This is the process I was talking about before as above. It is where my current inspiration comes from on how I am breaking down my story, Space Opera. The end of all things are individual stories that stand alone as short stories, but come together to tell a complete tale.

    When you are writing I find the following guidelines to help me. First, say what you mean, mean what you say. This can be literal with exposition, or figuratively, using similes and metaphors. Only you limit your details. Second, as Kercheval says again and again in Building Fiction, how does this sentence add to the story. Is it fluff to make words, is it a detail to focus the reader on something they need to remember to connect later? Finally, If I were to buy this work paying by the word, what could I cut out to save money, but keep the story intact? This is maximum value by word count. Unlike Stephen King, I refuse to devote 9 pages to describing a dinner plate.

  4. Lilia Lundquist

    After reading this week’s stories, I think that Dorothy Allison’s River of Names stood out to me the most. What makes stories interesting to me is the major conflict and characters internal battles. This story was nothing but both of those things. From beginning to end, the narrator describes events that no human being would ever wish to experience. One line that stood out to me the most was concerning how normal rape was in her family. “It wasn’t funny for me in my mama’s bed with my stepfather, not for my cousin Billie, in the attic with my uncle, not for Lucille in the woods with another cousin, for Danny with four strangers in a parking lot, or for Pammie who made the papers.” The thought of not just one but an entire family of young girls experiencing this is sickening. The narrator gives you a look into how she was able to adapt to such a life. She describes how she knew to never try to fight off the men that pushed themselves on her, that only meant she would get hurt even worse or possibly killed. She also begins to describe deaths in her family so casually due to how common they are. Reading this made me realize not only how horrific her childhood must have been but how easy my life is. At the same time as the reader, I couldn’t help but want to know if and how she escaped such a life. I also wanted to know more about her cousins and siblings and how they made it out. The story left me with so many questions. The fact that she is sharing all this with the reader but then holding back when it comes to her lover, makes you realize how emotionally wrecked she must be. There is also the frustration when Jesse would describe her seemingly small family problems after the narrator had just described in detail years of pain involving violence, rape, and emotional abuse.
    Allison does a good job of making her narrator feel like a real human being. After looking into the background to the story I found that Allison was describing her own childhood. She had a toxic childhood and had been sexually abused by her stepfather. I feel like some of the details in the story may have been exaggerated. But knowing that there was truth behind those words of pain made the story especially moving. It is incredible to know that someone who had to go through such trauma at such a young age was able to not only survive but share her story with the world. Out of the short stories, I have definitely considered this one to be one of the most memorable. The ability to portray so much raw emotion and cover a topic that most people stray from allow it to stand out.

    1. Tometria Jackson

      Kudos to you for going the extra mile and researching the author of the heartbreaking story, “River of Names”. Every good story must have an element of truth, and this story feels real. That tells me that there was real pain the author was tapping into, and it also explains why the main character seems somewhat detached from her childhood. I’ve read that in instances of childhood trauma, the mind will splinter and encapsulate that experience so that the person can continue to function normally.

    2. Jess Young

      I was inclined to believe this was a story based on the Author’s life, because of the detail and first person narration. Thanks for doing the research and finding that out!

      1. Kait

        Wow, I didn’t know the story would come from experience. I agree that the author must be really strong to be able to speak out about her story, the fact that she made it out of there and share her story takes strength. I think including the other stories about being a part of a dysfunctional family brings awareness of what happens all over the world.

  5. Jess Young

    I chose to read the Dorothy Allison short story, River of Names. The title itself had a double meaning for me, normally when I hear “River of…” I think River of Blood, which the gruesome deaths of the narrator’s family certainly resembles. The story opens with the hanging of an eight year old boy, “with his face as black as his shoes.” It gives no hint as to whether the hanging was suicide or murder, which after reading more about the narrator’s family I began to realize it could easily be both. The description of the boy swinging from the rope sets the tone for the entire story.
    The narrator describes a large, assumedly backwoods, South Carolina family. She speaks of the family murdering one another, raping and sodomizing their children, and generally being cruel to their children. She describes a cycle of violence in which children become pregnant at very young ages and have multiple children of their own which are either taken away by welfare or become abused just as their parents had. She shows that despite their best efforts, the children who are raised with cruelty have that behavior engrained in them and even if they swear to not repeat the behavior, it comes out. So, the narrator states she will never have children, obviously in an attempt to end the cycle of violence.
    This story sucked me in from the beginning, it was fascinating, horrifying, and foreign to me. Much like the narrator’s significant other, my childhood was ideal; full of love and warmth. To read of such horrible things being a child’s reality is heart-breaking to me, so I was glad that this was a short story. Dorothy Allison is such an excellent narrator, I have no doubt that a longer story of hers would be gripping and impossible to put down, but I don’t think that I would have the stomach to read it.
    The narrator of the story obviously suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which is shown in her writing without having to say “I have this diagnosis.” Her sleep which is interrupted by horrible memories and the flashes of moments punctuated with thoughts and voices throughout the story are very well written. For a less-talented writer, this story would feel disjointed and would be difficult to follow. Allison, manages to make a difficult subject expressible and easy to follow.

    1. Courtney Kisner

      I agree with much that you said. I think this story showed how deeply a short story can make a reader feel. As a result I think I read faster than I usually would, trying to catch the image, impatient to get to the next, but also maybe subconsciously afraid the details would hit too hard. I don’t know, but I think a lot of the details can cause some readers to get a bit lost. At the end she tells her partner she is good at making stories up, which made me question how true any of the story was..

  6. Courtney Kisner

    In response to the short story, “River of Names,” by Dorothy Allison, I found many ways it excels, but also a few ways it doesn’t…in my opinion. I felt that the introduction, like the first page, was very pulling and I felt drawn in right away. As the story progressed, the tone is evident. However, I didn’t feel as though the story had much direction, a clear meaning/purpose, and it was difficult to pick up details about anyone. As a result, I think the characters fell flat, and nothing besides sadness resonated after I was finished reading. The darkness in the story was inviting, because as the reader you want to learn more, and you want to figure out the stream of events. Then, at the end, the author tells us she is good at making things up–which was shocking. I was confused once she said that, because part of me wanted to trust the narrator the whole time, but at the same time the other part of me hoped her stories weren’t true. As a result, I felt I learned a lot from this story. I liked the way it pulls the reader in, shocks them, dulls them, and then shocks them again. However, I didn’t like the fact that I never really got attached to any of the characters in the story. Instead all of the names kind of ran together and I couldn’t make sense of what was going on or who was who. That was probably part of the point. But I think as a writer, you either need a balance between deeper meaning and the facts. Otherwise, both get lost.

    1. Angela Rodriguez

      I completely agree, I didn’t write my response on the “River of Names,” because I really found some of the areas of the story to be confusing and I didn’t really enjoy the story much! Glad I am not the only one! perfect response!

  7. Angela Rodriguez

    For this weeks reading assignment, I read Kercheval’s endings in fiction and I was pleasantly surprised with how it will help me with my short story that I am writing. I have always struggled with revising my work, so I was especially interested in reading the section on revisions. I really liked that I found that Kercheval has also struggled with revisions and that she had decided after writing a book to completely rewrite the book in another characters POV. Many times in the past, especially on assignments with tight deadlines, I had been skeptical of making a big change that would cause me to rewrite big sections of the paper. I really like that she put it into perspective on how it made her book so much better by making that change. This showed me that major revisions are just as important as those minor revisions that could be just switching around sentences and editing grammar. I never have had a method to revise anything so I really took note to her method of marking anything that seems a little questionable in her writing. She then combs back through the writing and edits what she has marked off. She even provided us with a checklist of things to look for in the writing. For our next short story assignment, her sections on Forms and Structures of short stories was especially helpful. She explained each of the essential pieces that make up a short story and examples of these techniques. When I finish my short story, I will keep in mind these basics to ensure that I have a well rounded story.

    1. nmfleming

      I struggle with revisions as well and I found Kercheval’s chapter on revisions to be very helpful and informative. I think that I will be using some of the tips she talked about in that chapter in our fiction piece we have to write for this class.

  8. Delaney E Reece

    I do not think I can put into words how much I dislike the short stories for this week. I could not get through the Second Story about the creepy stalker man. I can tell that these are both well written and well developed stories by the volume of heebie-jeebies they gave me, but that does not change my dislike. I thought that maybe the second one would be less upsetting than the first and give me less of a stomach ache, but the opposite ended up being true. I found myself being nauseous after reading them and concerned about the thoughts I will have on them for the next few days and or rest of my life.
    Something about the way that the plot is arranged, the way characters are introduced and the setting has created this creepy unsettling feeling. I think in the case of river of names a lot of the creepiness is derived from the setting. The brief introduction of characters keeps things very eerie, and the Southern Gothic relationship to death does not disappoint in terms of freakiness.
    The Second Story Mekong Delta Was almost too real. The author was able to capture small details, and mannerisms in the way the character spoke to each other that made it feel like something that it happened for sure. it also in a way feels like a combination of every creepy encounter you’ve ever had, and your worst nightmare coming from a stranger. I could not finish the story. I stopped about 2/3 of the way through, and read a little bit at the end to see how things finished up but I knew what was coming. The buildup was agonizing and in that way was well delivered. These are not the kind of stories I typically go for, or would ever find without it being assigned. It makes me want to show other people so they know the same discomfort I do.
    In both of these cases there are aspects of truth that are impossible to ignore and that makes it that much worse. there are descriptions and such specific events that they could not possibly have been completely fictitious and the fact that someone experience even a fraction of these stories is deeply uncomfortable.
    I think that from this I can take away the importance of using little details to show truth, and to further bring the reader into the story being told. I don’t think that I will ever be able of writing something comparable to these stories. My genre is nothing like these, creepy and scary real things without a happy ending. Or without even a acceptable ending. I was not expecting any of these readings to go in the direction that they did, and that is something that I liked by itself without looking into the direction things did go.

    1. Shana Waring

      I absolutely agree with your discomfort in each of the short stories along with the importance of plot. Had the authors chosen a “more inviting” approach, the stories would have been far less dramatic and left us as the readers nervous to scroll any further. Details can sometimes compel the reader to be a part of the story or they can completely lose the reader is simply too vague. I think this is an important take away from this week for the short story assignment as you stated in your last paragraph.

  9. nmfleming

    For this week I read Building Fiction by Jesse Lee Kercheval. I really like this book it is very informative when it comes to writing a story. For this week I read the chapter about Continuing Climax throughout your story. When I write I write my stories I write more like a child, I have a beginning a small climax and then it just ends. So, there is not a lot s meat, so to say, in my story, it’s kind of short and sweet. That also means that there is no solution to my climax, so this chapter was so helpful in how to keep my climax and my story going. In this chapter she talks about two type of conflicts that appear in most stories, one is moving through time and the other one that she talks about is conflict through one person. Which is a conflict that I’ve read in books but I have never really done a self-conflict in my writings before, but I think for the fiction assignment that I have to do for this class I might try to incorporate some self-conflict now that I have some ways of doing that and building upon that. So this chapter was very helpful and informative in helping me grow as a writer. Which is why I like this book so much, there is so much useful information about how to improve upon your story.

  10. Kait

    I think all three readings were important for this week in learning about what form short stories come in.
    River of Names by Dorothy Allison was a very gripping story, it made me cringe and feel sad for the characters. The information about the protagonists family left me wondering what would happen to them or if the protagonists lover would find out about her past. Her past was full of an unbreakable cycle of dysfunctional family members. How they don’t know how many kids there were, if any of them survived once something happened, the things that adults would purposely do that would result in somebody getting seriously injured physically or emotionally, incest, rape. I think some readers are fascinated by reading about horrible news, I read somewhere people are usually intrigued by the idea of being so close to death, but safely by only reading about it. River of Names was so full of gory details, its a wonder the protagonist ever survived being in that situation and found a loving relationship. I read on to see if the protagonist would ever reunite with any of her relatives. It was satisfying to read that she was still visiting her sister, but sad to realize they can’t break the cycle or escape their past because the protagonist would never have kids due to the clenching of her fists.
    Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta by Kate Braverman was a more day-by-day story that wasn’t as urgent as River of Names, but was still absorbing. The point of view of the lady who was a recovering cocaine and alcohol addict being tempted by the mysterious man Larry. In the beginning, she sees him as “cagey” and “frightened” whereas in the end he’s the opposite. Foreshadowing can be important in stories like how she said she wasn’t afraid yet. I was already afraid for her, that he would take drastic measures like kidnapping her to get closer to her. Throughout the story shows her getting more drawn to him, but the closer she gets to him the more she lets go and gets tempted by the drugs, smoking and alcohol he offers. Her daughter is her anchor, saving her from Larry, keeping her rooted to the spot. If it weren’t for her daughter, then she’d probably be drugged out in Bangkok. When she thinks of the color blue, I think its a metaphor for her sobriety being tested and when she smokes for the first time in six months her “sacked city” is on a blue-hue fire. It was a story about a woman being drawn to a man that can offer her desires of money, drugs and maybe even love. It all climaxes to the point where Lenny’s job catches up to him, after getting her started on alcohol he runs away leaving her with her daughter. This story really shows how we as humans have our faults and stumbles in life.

  11. Shana Waring

    Dorothy Allison’s short story was quite a read. The format of changing between past childhood experiences and present time as an adult was interesting. It took me a few paragraphs/transitions before I was really able to register the format. I enjoyed being able to experience the story from the narrator and then to be able to feel the emotion of reliving those experiences.

    Character progression was much different in this short story than any of the other readings thus far for the semester. There was an abrupt introduction of Jesse which as the reader left me feeling a bit annoyed. The character could have taken so many different roles or position, but it was extremely unclear early on. I did, however, enjoy the ease of character development for Jesse as the story went on. I found her to be introduced in a way the reader was set up to think of her as a bit of the enemy. By the conclusion of the story however, she was clearly the hero helping to save the narrator from her ugly past.

    I found the detail of each recount to be impressively specific. They each had a different level of detail, but none of them felt any less vivid than the last. Some parts of the story needed a bit more illustration to pull the amount of emotion from the reader to match the present day emotions of the narrator. Others were left to more of the imagination, but still felt complete and an important progression in the story. Although a difficult read because of the graphic nature of the storyline, Dorothy Allison completely pulled me into the story. I was satisfied the conclusion had presented itself, but I also felt a bit of longing for more of the present day. To be able to see if the narrator was ever exposed by Jesse as not actually telling stories or pretending to wake up with a fright after a nightmare recount of something which had happened previously. All of which makes a short story well written.

    1. Brenden Couch

      I had a hard time, it was very morose. I have to agree that the mood is palpable but so much so that it makes me not want to read it. In my mind the approach should be a little bit different so that way its not also a misery to read.

  12. Brenden Couch

    Both the River of Names and Tales from the Mekong Delta were written in a very stilted way. I cannot claim to be a fan at all of any of the stories I have read thus far, none of them catch my fancy. The River of Names will be my primary focus in this descriptor piece. In my mind it told of a lot of sadness, of loss and of tragedy and while it told of these things, other than the lonely monotone reading that my head made by itself when reading it certainly was not an in depth emotional description of what the author felt or saw. Sure plenty of descriptions existed. In stories like these, I find it hard to identify, not because my life is made of rose petals and butterflies dancing quick and fast atop a summer breeze, but because it hasn’t been like that. I see the opportunity for different word choice an all around a different approach to the story telling itself. I enjoy the odd well placed humor that while it is not universal it does translate alright.

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