On Failing, and A Review of Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Next month is NaNoWriMo month, as always, which reminds me that I’ve participated every year since 2006 – I was 15 and thought for sure I was some sort of wunderkind who would be published before I graduated college. These are the sorts of goals failures regularly have.I lost my first NaNoWriMo, and I never stopped trying again after that.

After I made it through college without publishing anything (I was notably rejected from my own school’s literary magazine, of which I was an editor my senior year), I had a new goal: be published by 25. I had been humbled by my failure to succeed right out of the gate, but I was still sure of my talent in the way only the young and/or truly untalented can be.

I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately, along with a lot of other people – there’s a whole section on the TED website about the matter, and one TED talk on persevering through failure is now a popular pop psych book.

I’m 25 now and I’m rethinking what my success will look like. It’s no longer a matter of time but of shape. How will I fit writing in at the corners of my real life? How will I create work I find satisfying? How will I use writing to communicate with strangers, and tell the stories of the people I love with compassion? How will art change me? Everything else seems small in comparison.

I don’t plan on being published anytime soon. I’m just not there yet. My 15 year old self would be devastated – if being a writer is so important to me, and I’m not producing work good enough to be published, what does that say about me? I think, after all, it doesn’t say much. I could miss every deadline, and fall short of every expectation I have for myself, and no matter what the drive to write is still there. That’s the kind of passion they make TED talks about. I’m really excited for this November – I always am.


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I recently finished Margaret Atwood’s new novel Hag-Seed, which is a retelling of the The Tempest by Shakespeare. It got me thinking a lot about failure, too, because the main character, Felix, is a failed director who ultimately triumphs in a wacky but heartening way.

Felix is fired from his job as the artistic director of a theatre company right in the middle of a production of The Tempest, which is cancelled shortly after. Felix is upset at losing his job, but what especially pains him is that he had been planning The Tempest to be a sort of tribute to his three year old daughter, Miranda, who passed away. After he is fired, he moves away from civilization and isolates himself. He lives with the memory of his daughter in a literal sense; she is like a friendly ghost that he lives with like a real daughter. After a few years he decides to take a job teaching literacy at a local prison. He does this, of course, by teaching the inmates how to put on Shakespeare plays.

When he gets a chance to seek revenge against the people who had him fired all those years ago, he does it by finally putting on his Tempest. Even in a prison, with inmates for actors, with a heart desiring nothing but revenge – Felix puts everything into his work. He’s a somewhat strange and flawed character, but I fell in love with him nonetheless.

Truthfully, I know nothing about The Tempest, except a vague recollection of reading it in 8th grade English class. Luckily, this novel doesn’t require any knowledge of the play or Shakespeare, and it does a good job of not carrying on as if everyone reading the novel is familiar with the play.

In conclusion, Margaret Atwood remains a patron saint of this blog.

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Loner by Teddy Wayne

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David Federman is a new freshman at Harvard and Loner is the story of his first semester. Despite David overdoing his SAT vocab words, Wayne’s writing is readable enough to convey the wide-eyed hopefulness of the first few days of college with scenes of dorm ice breakers and syllabus hand-outs. It seems like a standard autumnal coming-of-age story, but the story turns upside down as we get to know David a little better.

David is an awkward, mumbly, obnoxiously bright teenager who hopes to leave his lonely high school days behind him. He begins his college experience with dreams of admiration and success, and he becomes infatuated with Veronica Wells, a fellow freshman who lives in his building. She’s from a wealthy Manhattan background, the daughter of a father who works in finance and a socialite mother. She is effortless and cool and David considers her the key to his college glory.

The novel continues with David telling the story of his first semester like a letter to Veronica, referring to her as “you.” I thought this was a little too similar to Caroline Kepnes’s recent novel You, but Loner is a bit more realistic. (It is worth noting that David is just as much of a creepy, entitled dweeb as the narrator of You.)

David dates Veronica’s roommate, the adorable and sweet Sara, to get closer to the object of his obsession. There are a few scenes where David takes advantage of Sara to get sexual experience; his reasoning is that he wants to know what he is doing once he wins over Veronica, and it’s not only creepy but chilling how David sees nothing wrong with his behavior. This novel is not for people who need to like a main character, because David Federman is one of the most despicable characters I’ve read. At first he seems like a slightly arrogant nerd whose insecurity makes him a little bit of a jerk, but as the story progresses it’s clear that he completely lacks empathy for others.

Wayne created an entertaining and deeply upsetting character with David Federman and Loner is a page-turning story. It’s equally funny and disturbing, nostalgically collegiate and contemporary in its reflection of current issues. I highly recommend it for people who like unreliable narrators.

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Hello! I always find it so awkward to begin a post when I haven’t posted anything for a while. I’m not going to apologize, because I’m trying not to apologize for things that don’t actually bother anyone. For instance, I have this habit of apologizing when I almost bump into someone on the train. When I do bump into someone on the train, I apologize twice. When someone else bumps into me on the train I also apologize. Last year I was on an Amtrak to Boston and the girl next to me dropped her notebook, which I had nothing to do with. The exchange went like this.

Girl on the Amtrak shifts a little bit, and the notebook on her lap falls on the ground.

Me: Sorry.

Girl on the Amtrak: That’s okay, you didn’t do anything.

She picks up her notebook.

Me: That’s true. Sorry.

Doing this isn’t endearing, it’s wishy-washy and annoying. So, ladies: let’s not apologize unless we actually do something wrong. If you’re anything like me you probably have enough to apologize for without apologizing for all the stuff you can’t help.


I turned 25 in July and I have since been in an everyday panic where I wake up clutching my to-do list and groaning. I am planning on applying to grad school this winter. I am studying for the GRE, which is hard because I essentially forgot how to math. I am worrying that the people who I will ask for recommendations are going to be all, “Who dis?” I’m worried that I will study and apply and be recommended and still not get in anywhere. I’m worried I will get in, do well, and graduate only to never find a job in my field. I am worried as I always am that on top of all of this people will also laugh at me! It’s a lot to be worried about all at once.

Right now I have a job as a paralegal. I am good at it and it’s not horrible. These facts plus health insurance somehow aren’t enough for me, because I’m greedy and I want a job that stimulates me. Sometimes when I’m frustrated with my day job I remind myself that both Lorrie Moore and Gary Shteyngart and probably a lot of other writers started out as paralegals. Cheryl Strayed was a waitress and Kurt Vonnegut sold cars. Writers can be found in basically every profession. I don’t mind writing on the outskirts of a day job, but I want a day job that will make me happy, too. It is pure and disgusting greed.


In January I signed up for Net Galley with aspirations to post a new book review every week. The problem is that I hate everything I write for this blog and I miss when writing felt like rolling on a skateboard downhill – fast and triumphant and you wind up with bugs in your teeth. In comparison it often feels clunky and strange to write book reviews.

I took an online class in February with GrubStreet and I remembered what it felt like to write with exhilaration again. I am never more productive than when I have an audience. I wanted to write about my experience with GrubStreet for a post but I never found the time and now it’s one of those things in the back of my memory, all foggy. Did I really write those stories? I never turned them into anything more than flash fiction for a class. But I did it, on top of my day job and my real life and everything. I made time to write. I could do it again. I could keep going.

I have trouble seeing my accomplishments as accomplishments. I forget them as soon as I do them, because I’m too busy thinking about what I have put off, what I was hoping I’d have accomplished by 25 vs where I actually am, and everything that is ahead. I dwell on all the ways I’ve screwed up. And I start to feel worthless, like no matter how hard I try I’m not good enough. But when I have time to screw my head back on I realize that I’m on my way, and I’m right on time. Those bad feelings and experiences and mistakes are supposed to happen to help me get where I’m going. 

I’m trying to ease up on myself and at the same time be better. It’s a balance beam sort of thing. I don’t want to force myself to keep up with a post schedule, but I want to keep going with this blog, and I want to write things I’m proud of. I want to keep reading and engaging with what I read which is why I’m here in the first place.


P.S. – Let me tell you about two books I’ve read recently.

FATES AND FURIES by Lauren Groff – I read this because I heard somewhere that Barack Obama liked it. It was released last year and as far as hyped up books of 2015 go, I think I like this one more than A Little Life, although the reading experience of A Little Life was more immersive throughout. Fates and Furies won me over only in the second half. The book is about a married couple, and the first half is the husband’s story, leaving the wife’s perspective somewhat mysterious. In the second half, for reasons, her perspective takes over. I loved the wife’s character; she reminded me of a Gillian Flynn narrator.

WE EAT OUR OWN by Kea Wilson – I received this as an ARC from Net Galley. This is a strange first novel from an MFA graduate, so naturally it was somehow both overwritten and vague. I can’t blame Wilson though; she’s definitely talented enough that it mostly worked. It’s based loosely on Cannibal Holocaust, an exploitation horror film from the 80s that caused a huge stir because of it’s horrific realism. This is a narrator-jumper, but the main character is an unnamed American actor who is told to fly to Columbia to star in a film which he discovers has no script and a crazy, moody director. The story is sliced up in bits divided with court transcripts of the trial that follows the release of the movie, when the director is accused of leading his cast and crew to violent ends. A lot of crazy stuff goes down and it’s pretty fascinating, although I felt it hard to follow because of some of Wilson’s techniques. For every character there seems to be a chapter in their point of view. Also, the chapters where we follow the actor are told in second person perspective (“you feel like this”, etc) which is my biggest pet peeve. Wilson explores the dissociative aspect of acting with this character and uses the technique to highlight it, but I still rarely like second person POV – it feels like a cheap trick in a desperate attempt to make a story more interesting.

The Grand Tour by Adam O’Fallon Price

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The Grand Tour is a charming novel about the unlikely partnership of a washed up writer and a 19 year old college student on the verge of dropping out. The heart of the novel is Richard Lazar, an alcoholic twice-divorced Vietnam war veteran. He meets the young Vance at the start of his tour for the war memoir Without Leave. Vance is Lazar’s biggest fan, and volunteers to pick him up from the airport when he comes to do a reading at the university. It starts to go wrong when Richard gets drunk before his reading and trashes the manuscript Vance wrote and gave to Richard to review. Despite his new success from his memoir, Richard tells Vance he should do anything but be a writer.

Once he sobers up, Richard invites Vance along on his book tour to make it up to him. The rest of the novel details their travels as Vance drives the cranky, drunken Richard to his reading stops. Richard quits drinking and then starts up again. In between chapters, we get snippets of Without Leave, a memoir-within-the-novel that is supposed to give us a sense of why Richard is such a screw up – it’s a standard The Things They Carried-esque war cliché, full of senseless violence and youthful confusion. Along the road they meet up with Richard’s daughter, who has bitter memories of a childhood spent pining over the attentions of her father, who was usually too hungover to have anything to give.

By the end of the novel, it’s clear that it isn’t his history in the war that makes Richard Lazar the man he is. There’s a certain desperation for desperation’s sake about the characters in this novel. They create their own trouble, but they eventually find peace from the journey their desperation forces them on.

Price has written a strong first novel, fully realized and built with strong empathy for his characters. It’s not a coming-of-age story and it’s not a road trip story–it doesn’t have that easily wrapped up satisfaction, but I do feel that I went on a worthwhile journey with the two characters in his book.

Quick thoughts on some non-fiction

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Jessica Valenti came to my college when I was a senior, and I don’t remember her talk as much as I remember how excited I was to see her talk. I had just devoured The Purity Myth and it made me want to crush the patriarchy in ways only  women studies minors know how – attend Jessica Valenti talks in the student union, I guess?

Her writing at that time was easy stuff to digest: no means no, the world is full of double standards, women are allowed to enjoy sex, etc. I remember being a high schooler and deciding I was a feminist, pre-tumblr, and realizing that everyone, most of my teachers included, thought the term feminist was distasteful. Writers like Valenti gave us the words to use as we set out in the world as new feminists. The culture regarding feminism has changed so much that I find it crazy that just 7 years ago, when I was graduating high school, no one I knew wanted to call themselves a feminist. Jessica Valenti, with her easy to read, conversational essays, really helped turn internet-age feminism into the mainstream.

But in Sex Object, Valenti is no longer easy to digest. Here, she writes with a stark, ugly genuineness. She writes with anger at all the harassment, insecurity, and just plain bad sex she had to experience. She doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics like her abortions, sexual assault, and bad relationships with men. She talks about being a new mother and how awful and lonely it felt. All of these things, the bad sex included, are facts of life for women, but we are encouraged to sugar coat them – and Valenti, her middle finger in the air like Beyoncé, refuses to sugar coat anything.

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I don’t know how I feel about Elizabeth Gilbert. I never read Eat, Pray, Love, but I kind of hate all the criticism it gets from people/hipsters who haven’t even read it. I admire her more recent TED talks regarding creativity, but Big Magic didn’t really inspire me like I thought it would. She has some good wisdom in these pages – stuff about how making art is work, and you have to do the work to get to the sought-after flow state that makes art look easy…but then she also has a whole lot of poorly written mumbo jumbo that made me roll my eyes.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Sometimes I’ve had to watch as other people enjoyed successes and victories that I once desired for myself.

Them’s the breaks, though.

But them’s also the beautiful mysteries.”

If that garbage got past an editor, then I guess Gilbert is right – anyone can be a writer.

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My Year of Running Dangerously is not a book I’d recommend to anyone who isn’t a runner. It is basically one long training journal, detailing Tom Foreman’s training schedule as he ran a marathon, then as he immediately attempted the harrowing death-wish that is ultra marathoning. It isn’t written very well, and I found the dialogue to be especially annoying, because no one talks like that, least of all a teenaged daughter. I can’t stand memoirs where the dialogue feels like the author is writing bad fan fiction about their own life. But still, I liked it better than Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, if only for it’s refreshing lack of pretense.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (the winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize) is an understated, darkly rich story. The vegetarian is a Korean housewife named Yeong-hye. Starting with a section narrated by her husband, the novel begins with the sentence, “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way,” and continues to describe her in more unflattering ways. She is a timid housewife who stays out of the way and does everything for her overworked husband, until she starts having violent, bloody dreams, and almost immediately stops eating meat. She also stops being the same timid housewife. First she stops cooking her husband dinner (because she doesn’t want to cook meat, and she doesn’t seem interesting in replacing it in her diet with anything substantial), and then she starts acting bizarrely and wandering around the house naked, much to the embarrassment of her husband.

The story alternates between different point of views, starting with Yeong-hye’s husband, than her artist brother-in-law who secretly has the hots for her, and finally her career woman sister who sticks with her until the end. Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism worries her family, but it also makes them angry. Yeong-hye’s abusive father tries to force-feed her meat, which leads to a violent outburst that lands her in the mental hospital. The reader only gets small snippets into Yeong-hye’s mind, but it’s enough to know that her new diet isn’t a typical vegetarian diet. She is practically starving herself, but her family is convinced that if she would just eat meat again she would get better. They are furious about what the see as her stubborn, disrespectful behavior.

In becoming a vegetarian and refusing to listen to her family’s insistence that she eats meat, Yeong-hye becomes an inconvenient woman. My favorite scene in the novel is when Yeong-hye’s husband takes her along on a dinner with his boss and his wife. Yeong-hye makes everyone uncomfortable by hardly eating anything, and her husband is furious and embarrassed. This novel says a lot about the autonomy of women through Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism, which can be read as both insanity and defiance. The novel itself is concise and short, but very literary in its execution. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worth checking out for fans of literary fiction.

I’m currently reading…Sex Object by Jessica Valenti. Let me know what you’re reading in the comments. 🙂

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a short-and-sweet (depending on how you define sweet) psychological thriller that doesn’t waste time. Iain Reid creates an atmosphere of pure creepiness from the very first page, and it’s amazing.

The narrator is an unnamed college girl who is taking a road trip with her new boyfriend, Jake. They haven’t been dating very long, and you get the sense that they don’t know each other very well. The girl has a certain darkness that she doesn’t let on very easy. They’re on a road trip to visit Jake’s parents, and the girl thinks about how it may be a bad idea, because she’s thinking about ending things with Jake. He’s good looking, smart, and talented, but there’s something off between them. She’s also going through a lot of stress; she’s getting creepy, harassing phone calls, and she doesn’t know who to tell. She’s on this trip with Jake as the story begins, and the refrain that keeps going through her head is that she needs to end things when they get back.

The story gets steadily creepier and creepier as her narration progresses. They meet Jake’s parents, who live on a rural, slightly decrepit farm, and there the story takes a horrific turn. The ending left me feeling unsettled and like I wanted to re-read the whole novel to see if I could have caught on to what was really going on sooner. But that’s not why I recommend I’m Thinking of Ending Things – I recommend it because Reid masterfully weaves a creeping sense of horror into every mundane sentence, giving the reader a sense of unease right from the start. It’s everything I wanted it to be – scary, quick, and fun (depending on how you define fun).

Thanks to Netgalley and Scout Press for letting me read an advance copy of this novel. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is out June 14th.


And now here’s a new thing where I tell you some things.

I’m currently readingWhere All Light Tends to Go by David Joy on my kindle and The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century  by Thomas L. Friedman on audio.

The next book I’m going to review isThe Vegetarian by Han Kang