Writers’ Homes: A Phenomenon

In the summer of 2016, my cousin (a fellow book nerd) and I journeyed to Key West to visit the home of Ernest Hemingway. A bizarro heat cloaked the whole day. We saw dozens Hemingway lookalikes on the street. There was a contest apparently, but knowing that didn’t take away from the feeling of surrealism. It was the heat, I told myself. The heat turned the tour group chatty as we petted the cat perched on the great writer’s bed. A mother said to her son that people would tour their house like this someday. That made me chuckle. He must have been a writer, especially from the way he shrunk from the volume of her voice.

That mother’s words got me thinking how strange this all was. There we were, twenty strangers touring a dead guy’s house, petting the six-toed descendant of his cat, marveling at the authentic bathroom fixtures (even the urinal in his garden). I was the only English teacher among us. Of the people I talked to, there were a few students, a postal worker, and a nurse. I knew why I was there: to experience and tell my students about it when I go back. But why were they?

Of course there are Hollywood tours, but most of them seem to focus on pointing out houses and hoping for celebrity sightings. On others, you can tour the sites of famous deaths and murders. Then there are homes famous for their architecture like the Biltmore. Historical residences like Mount Vernon bring the past to life. They also memorialize figures in our country’s collective imagination.

Writers, especially the greats like Hemingway, tend to be elevated to monolithic proportions. These writers, they are not like us mortal beings. You see, this is where they worked their magic. This is where Hemingway slept. This is where Hemingway coached boxing. This is where Hemingway sat to read. Look how glamorous his life was.

Wait. There is no air conditioning. His wife took out all the fans to put up chandeliers. Hemingway probably sweat like we were sweating. Hemingway was a human despite his miraculous gift (and hard work) with words. People tour writers’ homes to see writers both ways. They want a little bit of the mystical to slough off on their lives, but they also want to witness the mundanities, hence our fascination with Hemingway’s toilet.

Why I Write

In my first year of teaching, I gave my seniors the assignment to write about an event in their life that made them who they are. I read them all, surprised at what they’d been through, surprised too at the secrets they would trust me with, at what they’d put on paper. Domestic abuse, poverty, illness, one even witnessed a murder – these are the things that boiled under the surface of these people who I laughed with daily, who decorated my room, who sang me happy birthday, who wore me down to eventually have class outside. I had known them eight months already, or I thought I knew them. It wasn’t until April that we had this turning point, and I saw through to the other side. I realized that we are all a little broken. Every single one of us is on the mend. Continue reading

My Top Five Favorite Novels of 2016

I have read a lot of books this year (124 as of today), some of them amazing, some of them egregiously bad. These are my top five favorite novels I read this year.

vegetarian-coverOn its surface, The Vegetarian by Han Kang is a deeply disturbing story of a woman’s descent into madness. But don’t let the surface fool you. At its core, this novel is about the rules for femininity that confine Korean society. I highly recommend The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It’s astonishing (but tight!) prose and highly significant subject matter would make it the perfect book for readers of literary fiction and maybe even for book clubs that want to push the envelope and spark discussion. Read the rest of my review. Continue reading

Review of The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

Full of turmoil, love, loss, and pain, Lindsey Lee Johnson’s The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is a complex meditation on privilege and the crucible that is adolescence. Set in Mill Valley, California, at the real life Tamalpais High School, the story centers on a fledgling teacher, Molly Nicoll, as she discovers and comes to terms with the complex lives of her students and her role (or absence) in their evolution as people. With perspectives that alternate between Molly and the main group of her students, Johnson weaves a series of interconnected life stories that create a portrait not only of the idyllic Mill Valley, with its towering redwoods and foggy views of San Francisco Bay, she creates a portrait from the inside, from the multifaceted and often breaking hearts of the teenagers who are beginning their lives there. Continue reading

Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s latest novel, Hag-Seed, the latest in Hogarth Shakespeare’s series of modern retellings, interprets The Tempest in a technique that layers contemplation, action, and exegesis.

This is the second of the Hogarth Shakespeare series that I have read, and so far, it is the strongest. However, The Tempest is probably one of Shakespeare’s plays that I know the least. That being said, I wasn’t comparing and contrasting the original versus the interpretation; and this version, more than anything, acts as an exegesis, a teaching text, of the original.

Set in a Canadian prison, the main character Felix Philips teaches literacy through theater, but his endeavor isn’t completely altruistic. In the beginning of the novel, Felix is the main director at the semi-famous Makeshewig Festival, but he’s going off the deep end. He takes too many directorial risks, and many of the people he works with want him out. This makes it all the easier for Tony, his highest underling in the theater company, to usurp his place as director and have him fired. Continue reading

Review of Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

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Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt has been difficult for me to review. I finished it a few days ago, and since then, I’ve been ruminating on it.

In its essence, Cruel Beautiful World is a novel about family and love. But the horrible underside of humanity is afoot as well. Yes, it takes place during the same time as the Manson murders, but that isn’t the true specter that hangs over the characters’ psyches. The true roots of the novel’s conflict lie in the question: How well can we really know the ones we love?

The climax and denouement of Cruel Beautiful World answer this question two ways. Without giving you any spoilers, I’ll say that one represents the beautiful and one represents the cruel. Continue reading

Implications: On Writing Mental Illness and Why Representation Matters

Mental health advocacy is really important to me. In this blog post for Obra/Artifact, I talk about the importance of getting things right and loving your characters into existence, especially when they are not like you.

obra / artifact

A few years ago, my friend “Michelle” was kicked out of the house where she’d been living with her uncle and his girlfriend. Michelle didn’t understand what she’d done; she’s not exactly a trouble maker. She’s more likely to be caught at home with a novel on a Saturday night than out in a club. But a few months later, Michelle’s cousin related back to her all of the lies their uncle had spread: his girlfriend was afraid of Michelle. He thought Michelle might be dangerous. It was because she was “crazy,” and like everyone knows, “crazy people” are violent. At least that’s what popular media had led Michelle’s uncle and his girlfriend to believe.

When Michelle heard this, she knew what she’d done wrong. She’d confided to her uncle’s girlfriend about her struggle with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that, while creating some difficulties for Michelle, had not stopped…

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