Questions, quotes and thoughts to aid book clubs and educators.
Note: The following guide was written by a class of students at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University in central Minnesota.
About this book
A.Manette Ansay’s Read This and Tell Me What It Says is a brilliant collection of very thought-provoking stories that most anyone can relate to. Set primarily in the rural Midwest, these stories approximate the realness of life to a high degree through vividly descriptive language. Ansay’s characters are often strange, confused people caught between extremes and living lives that seem at first far from the norm. The skillful manner in which Ansay develops characters and plots enables readers to engage with the stories in complex, personal ways. This collection of stories offers insights into issues such as religion, sexuality, family structures, aging, and dreams both fulfilled and lost. The book presents these problems in various situations without providing concrete answers, leaving readers the opportunity to reach their own conclusions. In the title story “Read This and Tell Me What It Says,” a teenage girl’s expectations clash with adult reality. This story serves as a backbone to the collection, showing us that none of these stories will have a fairy-tale ending. “Smoke,” another of Ansay’s most memorable stories, deals with a woman haunted by the ghost of an unfulfilled marriage. “Evolution of Dreams” raises questions about the importance and the effect of dreams deferred. These situations don’t happen to us, yet we all know of similar characters or similar lives. Ansay’s ability to tell descriptive and meaningful stories filled with obstacles to overcome and lessons to be learned makes Read This and Tell Me What It Says a powerful reading experience.
Quotes from the Critics
“A. Manete Ansay’s stories map the distances between ourselves and other worlds. In doing so, they remind us of how necessary our dreams and desires are to the fragile lives we piece together, and how, as much as anything, it is the act of creating and living that brings joy and redemption.”
– Jonis Agee, The New York Times Book Review
“The characters . . . are like geodes: plain on the outside, but revealing, when split, unexpected colors.”
– Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Immediately engaging, these stories last just long enough to peer through to the very edge of troublesome circumstances, relationships, and character flaws. Ansay leads you in and takes you to the center before dropping you off somewhere that may stun you.”
– Alystyre Julian, Reviews of Contemporary Fiction
“All of Ansay’s characters have a dignity earned by coping with their existence, they elicit compassion from the reader, but not pity, because they are strong and will come through. Stubborn and resourceful, they endow her fictional town with presence and credibility.”
“It is with stories like this that Ansay will make her reputation and it is stories like this that make her first collection an auspicious debut.”
– Ron Tanner, Studies in Short Fiction
Questions for discussions
- What are the other lost objects in the story besides Susan’s fingers? Do you think Ansay was using the lost fingers as a metaphor for something/someone else in the story? What else was lost in the family? Why was learning about the lost fingers so important to her?
- When Alex and Susan were in the cornrows searching for wolves, stray dogs brushed by them. Why did the narrator try to convince her brother that they saw wolves that night? How would things have changed things if they succeeded in finding them?
- Why does the author separate this story into numbered sections? For spacing and separation, or do you think it’s for another reason?
- Why is Eliza’s husband’s ghost haunting her? Do you think the fear of her dead husband comes from the miserable life they had together, or the horrible last image she has of him? Does the haunting scare her or is she just pestered by it?
- Does Eliza live with extraordinary guilt or grief? Is there a difference?
- Why do you think Stuart decided to change his name to “Start,” and why did he change his way of thinking? Do you think he started to agree with his dad’s way of living?
- What could his father have said to him that made him go against his old way of thinking? How do you think his mother will react? “Silk”
- What is David’s relationship with his mother and father like? How do they differ, and are there any similarities?
- What do you think David has the women’s clothing for, does he have a hidden girlfriend or a secret? David tells his mother, “It would kill him,” speaking of what would happen if his father found out about his secret. Is this an accidental or missed admission? If so, of what?
“Read This and Tell Me What It Says”
- How is the train a metaphor for Mary Ann’s life? Is the train racing a sign of subtle attempts for suicide, or merely a challenge? How do you interpret the last paragraph when she narrowly eludes the train as a means of salvation for Mary Ann’s life?
- Sullivan has very humorous characteristics, but are his pranks out of a lack of love for his family or is this the only kind of relationship he can get? Is the fact that he goes to jail an important aspect of the story? Does it change Mary Ann’s thinking at all?
- Do you think there is anything deeper to look into in the connection to why Edward Martin continues to question Jane about the process of birth and having babies, or is he just trying to explain the relationship between the mama and baby kittens? Why do you think Jane named all six kittens “Nancy?”
- How does this story explore the idea of innocence? Are the two girls in this story innocent? What would motivate Nancy to lie compulsively? Is she trying to get attention, or trying to impress people?
“Evolution of Dreams, North of Sheboygan, 1986”
- What do you think Pip’s personality? Do you think he has a good future ahead of him, or are his dreams going no where? Does he get happiness in the end?
- Do the characters in this story remind you of anyone in your own life? How are their peculiarities not as unusual as they may seem?
- How does “Infidel” show how people in general depend on things like religion, love, sex, and pregnancy to act as a crutch in their lives?
- Why does Meryl think she has to have sex, especially when she thinks she herself is an “infidel” because of the situation she was born into? Also if she is so religious and doesn’t believe in using birth control, how can she think that having sex is okay?
- Why does the neighbor decline to acknowledge Julianna and her father? Is the neighbor ashamed of her actions or is she still faithful?
- How are the neighbor and the father alike in their religious views? Why does the father believe that the neighbor is responsible for her husband’s death? What does he realize by the end of the story?
“You or Me or Anything”
- After Lou leaves, he calls his wife and says, “I thought you should know. It isn’t you, or me, or anything personal. I’m just not coming back.” Is it possible that he is just leaving with no apparent reasons? Is that a comment on human behavior, commitment, responsibility, or liberation?
- Is Geraldine’s biggest concern “what people are going to say”? Or is that all SHE can say?
- This story seems to work as a counterpoint to “Infidel” as another narrative of sexual (mis)education. How DO we learn these things, these lessons? Is this story offering a solution to the debilitating ignorances of “Infidel”?
- The story ends with the phrase “yearning for human touch.” In what ways does that comment articulate the themes of connection and separation which pervade this whole collection?
- “Spot Weaknesses” deals with a wide range of emotions that a mother can feel for a child. Do you think that the things that happen in the story are accurate in today’s world?
- Why do you think the name of Mrs. Wells’ daughter is never given in this story? Why are some character names left out in these stories? What effect does it give to the stories?
- What do you think about the twins and how they are being brought up? Do you think they dislike Sybil, by putting mousse in her hair and by putting her walker under the tree? Or just are they just trying to get some sort of attention?
- What are the people in “The Trial” fascinated with? Why do you think this is? How are the women portrayed in this story?
- In the last paragraph of the story the main character says, “The court ruled that a twelve-year-old isn’t capable of love, but the hard part about that is how much they were wrong.” What is the meaning of this? What is does this statement say about desire, sexuality, and consent?
- In the short story, “July,” the main character works as a security guard. The uniform she wears makes her “look like a man,” as her husband says. Generally, a security guard’s uniform represents strength and courage, both qualities that the main character seemingly lacks. What is the symbolic effect of using the security guard uniform in the story?
- How is Ansay effective by having the two women characters be complete opposites? For example, one is physically healthy yet emotionally unstable, the other is deteriorating physically but remains emotionally and mentally sharp.
- The phrase, “I don’t know what I’ll do,” is used periodically in the story; however, by the end of the story it is evident that she does know what she will do and how she will get there. When does Marilee’s epiphany occur, and how do the events leading up to it help instigate it?