I knew nothing about Toni Morrison or her novel, Beloved, except that it won a Nobel Prize.


I began reading, and I was hit over the head with a malicious baby ghost, a strange family, and a lurking history. I was sucked in immediately by Morrison’s poetry of language.

How do you write about slavery? How do you write about families torn apart? How do you write about escape and loneliness and regret and anger? How do you write about murder and reunion, while sidestepping sentimentality and judgment?

Morrison manages all of these things when writing about Sethe, an escaped slave who is haunted by the ghost of her dead daughter. And she transforms what could have so easily been a sensationalist story into a sweeping extended poem about love and family. Don’t wait to read Morrison, like I did. Place a hold at your library tonight.

What am I reading now? 1984, by Orwell. Stay tuned for another freak-out about Soviet communism!


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I finished a Farewell to Arms, the novel that cemented Hemingway’s success, and I was really angry. The baby died. Catherine died. Henry is alone in Switzerland, a deserter, a widower. It’s a jarring end to a fairly conventional boy-meets-girl story.

That’s the point.

I’m writing this review a week after finishing the book because it took me a week to begin liking the book. I really enjoyed reading it — I love Hemingway’s noun-verb style, simple and always moving. I like the speed of events within the book, and his way of talking about war, death, and injury — sharp, gruesome, and brutal. Like war.

He wrote in a way that no one had ever written before, and he transformed what might have been a boring love story into an angry meditation on life and war. Why did Catherine have to die? She didn’t, but war is insensitive to reason. Why did the baby have to die? He didn’t, but death does not care about pathos.

I began to like this book not because of how it ends in in of itself, but because the ending is a reflection of Hemingway’s worldview. He lived through a horrendous war, and found no meaning in it. He did not know what he fought for. He did not see the world become a better place. World War One gave Hemingway’s generation a profound distrust in any higher purpose or meaning of life. For them life, like war, was absent of reason or grace or meaning. There was no reason for Frederic to have a happy ending, because happy ending do not exist.

I’m not sure what’s next on my reading list (couldn’t do Lolita), but there’s a good chance that more modernist disillusionment will be coming your way!


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Just finished A Farewell to Arms; just started reading Lolita. Initially, I’m drawn into Humbert Humbert’s luminous prose, but then I figured out that he’s crazy and I’m getting creeped out. Also, coincidentally, ran into a few profiles of the recent movies Nymphomaniac and Don Jon. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by all of the sexual abnormality (whatever we define as abnormal). I’m uncomfortable. I’m ready to stop.

I’m trusting in the consensus of history that Nabokov is worth plowing through. It kind of let me down on Hemingway (I love Old Man and the Sea, and his short stories, but I probably should have read For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of Farewell). Book reviews of both to come.


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Rabbits Are Like People




Has anyone read Brian Jacques’s Redwall series, or David Clement-Davies’s Fire-BringerThey’re kids/young adult novels about animals who act like people, live in a pseudo-medieval world, and fight evil animals. Unfortunately, I read those books when I was eight, and read what is apparently the original anthropomorphic modern novel, Watership Down, ten years later. 

Watership Down is about rabbits who are exiled from their home, wander across England, and attempt to create a new home for themselves. They face sickness, humans, visions, brain-washed rabbits, dogs, bad weather, and the evil General Woundwort, who I guess looks something like this:


This book, written in 1972, describes various forms of adaptation to the trials of life, and various ways to organize society in answer to those challenges. Cowslip’s brainwashed warren seems to represent socialism and resignation, while General Woundwort’s oppressive regime represents totalitarianism. Hazel’s warren eventually establishes democracy on the downs. 

So a book about rabbits tells us that democracy is the best form of society, which I agree with. But when I read this book, as when I read Animal Farm, left me dissatisfied. On the one hand, disguising a social critique as a kid’s novel is brilliant. On the other hand, I wanted the story to be more complex. If it’s going to be about an epic journey, let it be about an epic journey. If it’s going to be a complex social message, then it actually needs to be complex. There are good reasons to choose communism and socialism over democracy, and not all leaders are dictators. 

This book was on nearly all “Top American Novel” lists. But, like Animal Farm, while it was influential in its time, and I appreciate the message, and I enjoyed the story, I’m not sure why we still regard it so highly. Have you read Watership Down? Would you place in on your list of best American novels?

Up next — let’s put an end to all this warfare between us. A Farewell to Arms, by Hemingway, because it’s on my bookshelf. Although if someone tells me today that For Whom The Bell Tolls is a better novel, I might switch.


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Trapped Inside a Bell Jar

When I was 14 I went to my first of two art camps. Everyone else was older than me, and most of them were poets. I wrote a lot of bad poetry, trying to be cool. The other kids raved about bell hooks and Sylvia Plath, whom I knew nothing about, and I started working my way through The Cool Art Kids’ Pantheon, mostly modern, edgy poetry. After four years of dodging, I finally borrowed The Bell Jar from a friend’s bookshelf.

I finished the book a week ago, the night that I had to finish a big paper and study for a Geology test. Frankly, I didn’t have much time to think about it. I did not especially enjoy reading it, and I was ready to move on. I had a stack of Daniel Woodrell books waiting on my shelf.

But in the week since finishing Esther’s story, little pieces have kept popping into my head. Esther’s episode of feeling trapped inside a Bell Jar, and her flight into the woods, struck me. Her feeling of uselessness at the Ladies’ Day magazine reflect my and every young writer’s fears of insignificance. Plath had a few beautiful turns of phrase, and described electroshock therapy and Esther’s depressive episodes in the way that only someone who has experienced depression can. She bridges the gap for people who have not experienced depression, but does such a good job of the sticky, floating feelings of despair that it made me feel sick. And my argument would be that those feelings don’t resolve — we see Esther entering the interview room to find out if she can leave the hospital, but we don’t know if she does, and if she ever reaches a stable existence.

It’s not that I want a happy ending. And it’s not that I’m against endings that leave questions, and let the reader decide if Esther achieves some measure of happiness. It’s that the book seems mired in Plath’s own depression, the depression that eventually killed her. At the risk of sounding insensitive, Plath made the author’s mistake of letting her own despair cloud her ability to resolve a story.

I learned a lot by reading this book, and I did enjoy and appreciate pieces of Plath’s writing, just not the book as a whole.

I tweeted this sentiment on #readwomen2014, hoping for some feedback, and some comments on why Plath is considered a foundational writer of the 20th century. I understand the aspect of challenging women’s place in society, and the aspect of describing depression, but I don’t exactly think that the book as a book should be on the top 20 list. I got some great responses.

I guess I need to find Ariel, and dive into that.

Have you read Plath? Why should or shouldn’t she be considered an important American author?

Up next: Rabbits acting like people in Watership Down.

Have you read Plath’s work?


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Beyond Your Blog: Freelancing, Getting Paid to Write, and Writing for Free


All of us blog, right? And some of us write novels and stories and articles on top of our blogs. This article is helpful for every current and aspiring writer.

Originally posted on The Daily Post:

Many of you are growing as writers and seek opportunities beyond your blog . To continue this conversation, let’s talk about freelancing and getting paid to write, and the flip side of this: writing for free and exposure. We’ve rounded up four working writers who offer different perspectives on the business of writing:
  • Julie Schwietert Collazo, a bilingual writer/editor who has written for publications such as National Geographic Traveler and Scientific American, blogs at Cuaderno Inedito.
  • Caitlin Kelly, a National Magazine Award winner and frequent contributor to the New York Times, blogs at Broadside.
  • Kristen Hansen Brakeman, a writer who has contributed to the Washington Post and the New York TimesMotherlode, blogs at
  • Deborah Lee Luskin, an award-winning novelist and radio commentator, blogs at Live to Write — Write to Live: a collaborative blog for the New Hampshire…

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Discovering “Country Noir”

Daniel Woodrell’s books, like Winter’s Bone(later made into the eponymous movie starring Jennifer Lawrence), have been described as “country noir,” blending dark crime with finely drawn backwoods characters. Though Woodrell doesn’t especially like the title, I just finished reading his newest novel, The Maid’s Tale, and I think it fits. I might also tag it with the description I use for my own work, “Midwestern Gothic.” It echoes of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, but tied deeply to the Ozark hills where Woodrell lives. I picked up A Maid’s Tale, a story of a dancehall explosion that killed forty-two people in rural Missouri, on a whim, and was sucked in to Woodrell’s world. 

Overnight, I’ve become a fan. Woodrell has mastered many of the themes and symbols and styles that I’m exploring in my writing, and he writes near to what I know. I added Winter’s Bone to my Amazon watch list. I checked out Winter’s Bone on tape and in paperback, and two of his other books. I’ve discovered country noir, and I like it a lot.

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How Many Of These “Classics” Have You Read?

How Many Of These “Classics” Have You Read?

BBC thinks you’ve only read six of these books — I’ve read 52. But should all of them be considered classics? Kellyrtillson and I have shared some angst about Kerouac’s On The Road, and I’m struggling through The Bell Jar. I don’t even recognize a few of them. What would you take off of the list? What would you add? How many have you read? 

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On the Road

I spent about eight weeks reading Kerouac’s On the Road. Normally I’m a quick reader, but a few factors made it really hard for me to finish this book.

On the Road is the defining book of the Beat Generation, and is considered one of the best American works of fiction, which is why it was on my 20before20 list. Kerouac recounts the wanderings of Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty from New York to San Francisco, from Chicago to Mexico City. They have long drives, wild nights, and meet a cross-section of American society. “Dean will leave you out in the cold anytime it is in the interest of him,” one of Dean’s wives warns Sal, but Sal continues hounding Dean as Dean steals cars, plays women, and mooches money, tearing across the continent. Sal begins to pull away as Dean’s life becomes more and more frenzied, until finally Sal leaves Dean, broke-down and impoverished, on the streets of New York. 

I loved Kerouac’s style of writing, and I loved parts of this book as scenes, I just had trouble reading the whole book through. It seemed like an endless cycle of recklessness and movement. I feel like I received Kerouac’s view of his generation, concluding with Sal’s beautiful vision of America in the final pages, but that Kerouac and Sal never achieved any resolution. The traveling must eventually end, but neither are satisfied. Dean was not a good friend, but they still long for him to come back and whirl them away. 

Any thoughts? Tell me what you think of Kerouac and the beat poets.

Up Next: I’m halfway through The Bell Jar, and getting a little woozy. The writers of the American ’50s and ’60s are not my favorites.



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This blog is about posting on new things that I’ve tried. These past few weeks have had several personal firsts, and I have been making progress on several of my 20before20 project… but nothing is ready to share yet. Progress is slow but steady on knitting, a short story, a novel, and Kerouac. Check back soon!

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