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.


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.


The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood


If you’ve read my blog recently, you know I’ve got a thing going on with Margaret Atwood–I am attempting to read her back catalogue in chronological order. I’ve gotten as far as Cat’s Eye, released in 1988. Some of her most popular work has been released after 1990, like the Oryx and Crake series, but I’m basically clueless about her newer work. So, when I heard she had a new book coming out in 2015, based on a serial she had been publishing online, I was all aboard.

There’s a lot of reasons to read Margaret Atwood–she’s quirky without being annoying or cute. (Never, ever is she cute.) The way she blends science fiction, gender issues, and Canada is one of those things readers needed without knowing they needed. Her language is in turns poetic and flowery and sharp as a knife. And The Heart Goes Last, while at times perplexing, did not disappoint.

The Heart Goes Last is about a modern couple named Stan and Charmaine who are living in their car after the economic collapse of the United States. They are offered the chance to trade freedom for comfort by joining The Positron Project in Consilience, a town where people alternate between being prisoners and living comfortable, dictated lives. It’s basically a city run by a corporation that gets people to sell their lives and bodies as a way of escaping the starvation and crime on the outside. All Hail Our Kindly Corporate Overlords.

It reminds me a lot of Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart in the way it uses dark humor to shine a light on how very messed up society is and can become. Also, the fact that sex robots were a major plot point and nearly all of the characters are insufferable narcissists and/or insufferable idiots makes The Heart Goes Last kind of Shteyngart-esque.

Not that The Heart Goes Last was all sex robots and hand-wringing about materialism. I’ve read present day dystopian/speculative novels that focus on social media, like the above-mentioned Super Sad True Love Story and The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson, and they’re certainly of the moment but sometimes they feel a little naggy, like your aunt complaining about selfies at Thanksgiving. The Heart Goes Last is different—it focuses on how economic disparities and excessive corporate power can erode individual choice, and it isn’t concerned about Facebook. Although it is sometimes absurd, the premise isn’t completely far-fetched. Because of this, The Heart Goes Last could have been a truly spooky dystopian, a la 1984, but instead it was…funny.

The dark humor lent the novel a satirical flair, but I don’t find The Heart Goes Last anywhere near as scary as I find The Handmaid’s Tale (published by Atwood in 1985), and I think The Handmaid’s Tale is more effective because of its earnestness. I certainly recommend The Heart Goes Last, but my answer to the question “What Margaret Atwood book should I start with?” has not changed. (It’s still The Handmaid’s Tale, because I will never shut up about that book.)

This is the downside to being a Great Living Writer. Jerks like me will always compare the old to the new. But I find Atwood’s bibliography so interesting in the way it flows from one book to another like one decades long conversation. They’re all different, but the ideas build on one another. Which is why I’m glad I took the time to read them in order (with the exception of this one), and why I’m glad she’s still writing. Because if The Heart Goes Last is any indication, Margaret Atwood in 2015 is still taking valuable and interesting risks with her writing.

Let me know what you thought of The Heart Goes Last in the comments below. Bonus questions: Do you have a favorite Margaret Atwood book? Are you from Canada? Is it as cold there as they say?

September/October 2015 Round-Up

Like I said in my last post on writing, I will be taking a hiatus in November for NaNoWriMo. Before I go I wanted to do a quick round up of what I’ve been reading.

Besides my adventures in audiobooks, September wasn’t very exciting for me reading-wise, and then two of the books I was reading bled into October. I listened to Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance and Matthew Quick’s Silver Linings Playbook on audio in September; I talk about both of them in my post about audiobooks and Scribd.

I read Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood in September and I loved it, but it still took me longer to finish than I thought it would. I am losing some steam with my Margaret Atwood project. I am going to have to extend this into 2016–I have her newest release on deck and plan to read it in November, but other than that I am okay taking an Atwood break. These novels demand to be savored. It’s probably better to give myself time and enjoy them fully.

The last book I finished in September was Lauren Oliver’s Requiem, the third and final installment of the Delirium trilogy. It was okay. I didn’t mind it. It made me decide to not force myself to slough through another YA series for a while. I think there is a theme in September’s reading–I seem to be forcing myself through books that I find okay but don’t love, or, in the case of Margaret Atwood, forcing myself through books that I like but I’m not always in the mood for.

I think I am going to have a new resolution that I should only be reading things in my free time that I really, really want to read.

I started two books in September that I really, really wanted to read but didn’t finish until after month’s end: Missoula by Jon Krakauer and A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. I reviewed Missoula here. I really recommend it if you want to read a book that will make you mad? But why would you do that? What’s wrong with you?

I have some complicated feelings about Game of Thrones. For one thing, there are some really awesome female characters, but it all takes place in a really disgustingly patriarchal society where everything sucks all the time because of how patriarchal it is. This is really the first fantasy book I have read as an adult, so there is some stuff I just do not get. These people need democracy. Arya for President tbh. Anyway, I liked it enough to keep reading the series, despite how long the books are. I am watching the TV show as I go along which is helping me follow it a bit more.

I listened to Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach on audio for Halloween non-fiction reading (is there such a thing?). I loved the audiobook reader’s narration style; it was perfectly dour with a hint of laughter. Creepy in a friendly way. Otherwise, it was a pretty interesting listen about the history and current culture of body donation and the uses of dead bodies, though I felt like my attention weaved in and out. I wonder if I would have gotten more out of it in print, although it’s possible I would never have gotten around to reading it in print. I kind of want to donate my body to science now, anyway.

I tried to read A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter but I didn’t get through it. It’s a short book, so I could have forced myself to finish it, but I really wasn’t feeling the first couple chapters. It seemed to be a book about pretentious people in Paris, which is fine, but…the exact opposite of what I want to be reading books about at the moment. I’ll try again some other time, because I heard some great things about this book.

Right now I am in the middle of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont (re-reading as inspiration) and Revival by Stephen King.

That’s it for now. See you in December, and good luck to everyone participating in National Novel Writing Month.

P.S. HAPPY HALLOWEEN! I am going to be Katniss Everdeen!  🙂 Let me know if you are also dressing as a literary character.*

*pics or it didn’t happen

Patiently Waiting for Taylor Swift to Write a Concept Album About The Handmaid’s Tale: July 2015 Round up

July, July. It was a very busy month. I saw Taylor Swift live, and I turned 24! This is the last year I will be in my early twenties, so ever since my birthday I’ve been waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, thinking about how I really need to update my LinkedIn.

I didn’t read as much as I had hoped to, which is becoming a theme. Book bloggers usually love themes, but this is a theme I’m not psyched about, mostly because I am behind in both my Goodreads challenge and my summer reading challenge. Challenges are fun until you start getting behind and then it’s just another thing to wake up panting about in the middle of the night. So let’s not even talk about all that.

The first book I finished in July was This Book is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All by Marilyn Johnson. I took this book out from the library because I’ve been thinking about maybe potentially starting the process of applying to MLS programs this year. Maybe. Unfortunately, this book is not a great informational resource for anyone thinking about going into library or information science. Honestly, it was a little weird–it was more about the subculture of librarianship, but told from an outsider so that it felt like just a surface glance. There was a weirdly long section about how a lot of librarians play Second Life. So? I guess I didn’t find the writing very compelling, either. So I’m still looking for better resources about the field. I guess I could ask a librarian, the great bearer of resources, but I am bashful!

I also read Prodigy, the second book in the Legend series by Marie Lu. I just looked at my Goodreads list and thought to myself, “I read that?”

I even reviewed it, apparently:

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But I have very little recollection of this event.

And of course I read Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

After that I read The Affinities by Robert Charles Wilson, which is a 2015 release I randomly picked out at the library. I was interested because I haven’t read very much new sci-fi/speculative fiction. I would categorize this as speculative fiction, even though that’s kind of a weird term–but it’s not very space-y so I refuse to call it science fiction, and I wouldn’t quite call it dystopian, because it seems very current, and the society doesn’t seem too unfamiliar or even scarier than the society we already have. It’s an interesting premise, the idea of the social uprising of groups (some would say cults) brought together by social algorithms. I think I didn’t love it because of the same reason I can’t really call it a dystopian novel. Maybe it’s because Wilson’s writing style is quite flat, so the stakes never seem quite so high. I was a little disappointed that the premise didn’t deliver some juicier plot.

Finally, this morning I finished re-reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and I’m still super amped about it. I wish this novel was taught in schools more, honestly. It is so, so good. The Handmaid’s Tale is called speculative fiction a lot, but I like the term dystopian more for it. It is the best dystopian novel I’ve read, and I’m not even going to apologize to George Orwell for that. I could feel the anger heating up the page in this novel. It’s powerful, scathing, and perfectly paced. I’m really excited to read more of Atwood’s later work now. Her writing style gets so much more devour-able when it’s combined with an imaginative plot.

I don’t know how to wrap up this monthly round up except to say that I am planning to read about a million books in August to catch up on my reading goals. I don’t see how this plan could go wrong at all.

Some Months Are Less Exciting: June 2015 Round Up + Library Book Sale Haul

It is July and July is so summer that I am not even going to apologize that this post is late. I’m just going to be chill about it.

I actually didn’t read so much in June, or at least it didn’t feel like I did. I am currently 7 books behind in my Goodreads challenge, and screaming on the inside.

I started the month reading Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood, and it wasn’t bad. I think I need a break from Atwood at the moment, actually, even though The Handmaid’s Tale is up next and I love that novel. I am still going to try to read all of her novels this year (especially since she has a new one coming out in the fall), but I find that it takes me a little longer to get through her books, and I am in the mood for quicker reads now that it’s summer.

Bodily Harm is about a journalist recovering from breast cancer who accidentally travels to a politically dangerous island. It was a definite maturation in plot than her earlier novels. As always, I love how Atwood writes female characters who are chronically unsatisfied by men. #realism

While I was reading Bodily Harm I also read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout as, you know, some light reading. I reviewed it here. Then, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee over father’s day weekend. There’s some problematic aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird being the ‘quintessential’ racial justice novel in the U.S., but I still love this novel.

I finished out the month with Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown, which is one of the only self-help books that changed my life in real time. It helped me realize that when things feel scary or uncomfortable, that’s actually a good thing. When I want to run is when I should sit still with what’s scaring me. That’s being vulnerable and open, and it leads to everything good.

So, four books last month. I feel like I’m slacking! But, like I said, it’s summer. As for the SWBR summer reading challenge, To Kill a Mockingbird counts for the classics by women challenge.

I’m hoping July will see more books crossed off my list. Also, I went to a library book sale today, so here! A bonus haul!


The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr / Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (this paperback was in poor shape, but I have been hankering to re-read this so I had to grab it) / The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice / Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood / American Pastoral by Philip Roth / Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times

Well, that was boring. Now I have to go read. Or watch Orange is the New Black. Either/or.

Short Stories, Literary Bros, and My Girlfriend, Margaret Atwood: May 2015 Round Up


I recently listened to the New Yorker Fiction podcast episode where Gary Shteyngart reads Lorrie Moore and immediately went to the library to take out Self Help, Moore’s first short story collection. I really admire writers who get famous off of their short stories. There’s no money and very little readers to gain from being a writer of short stories, but the fact that we’re still talking about writers like Lorrie Moore with such reverence shows that there is still something magical about a story that can be life-affirming, funny, and sad all in one sitting.

I liked Self Help a lot, but it’s very much a collection by a young writer. One of the stories is called “How to Be A Writer”–about a young woman being a writer. If I never have to read another story about a writer being a writer, I’ll be happy. It just screams I’M A WRITER WITH NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT. Otherwise, I can’t wait to read more from Lorrie Moore; she seems to be a foreshadowing of my favorite newer short story writers, like Aimee Bender, Miranda July and Aryn Kyle, and I think I have a lot to learn from her.

After that I read the short story collection Tenth of December by George Saunders, which I resisted for a long time. There was a lot of hype surrounding this book when it first released. I read the title story for a writing class in college and I just hated it so much. Re-reading it now made me realize that I was wrong–“Tenth of December” is a good story. I think my annoyance back then was that it was just that: a good short story, and yet people were talking about how George Saunders was the best living short story writer of our time like it was pure fact.

If you haven’t noticed, lately I’m into reading books mainly by women–and I think this was a medicinal measure to cure me of the yuckiness I was feeling in the book world; it was getting to me that male writers get titles such as greatest and genius a little too easy while so many women writers are being overlooked. Many women writers can write just as good a short story collection as George Saunders (I’m discussing one of them right above!). I’m tired of taking writers like Saunders so seriously all the time while all of my favorite writers (women) get called quirky.

What I realize now that I didn’t realize in college is that none of that–none of the hype, the think pieces about diversity in publishing, my own personal annoyance about LitBros, et al–have anything to actually do with George Saunders’ writing, which is good. I should stop comparing every short story writer I like to Miranda July (A very “Quirky” writer), but No One Belongs Here More Than You is my favorite short story collection, and Tenth of December reminded me of it in some ways. The joy in both collections is seeing the banal turned extraordinary, or the extraordinary turned banal, see: “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” my personal favorite from Tenth of December. (A close second is “Victory Lap”)

Saunders’ work seems to focus a lot on class anxiety in America, but in a way that is funny just as often as it is tragic. I recommend it to anyone who may be new to reading short story collections, because the writing style is very conversational.

When I was at the library picking up a copy of Self Help I stumbled upon a beautifully designed indie-published book called Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm. The book is about a woman named Leah, whose brother went missing when they were both young. It goes in and out of past and present, and although it seemed full of potential, I didn’t love it. I reviewed on Goodreads:



Ain’t it a shame.

I needed something short and sweet after that, so I reached for some YA: Legend by Marie Lu, which I reviewed here. I will be reading Prodigy soon.

I’m reading Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood at the moment. It’s not my favorite Atwood. It’s about a love triangle between some miserable 70s hipsters who work at a museum. How many douchey hipster men has Margaret Atwood dated? I feel like we could swap some stories. At this point in my Atwood reading adventure I am just antsy to get through the 70s and reread The Handmaid’s Tale. I loved it when I was in high school, and you all know how I feel about dystopian. I am getting impatient to get to it, but next up after Life After Man is Bodily Harm, which I guess I will write about in next month’s round up. At this point I feel like I have traded my relationships with hipster men for a monogamous relationship with Margaret Atwood. It’s an improvement.


Hey, thanks for reading. How’s the Goodreads challenge going, you ask? Not great, Bob.


Just kidding, it’s fine, except I’m four books behind and that is crazy to me since I feel like I’m reading a lot. I wanted to get ahead a little bit so I could spend some time later in the year reading longer books, like The Stand or Game of Thrones both of which have been wearing holes in my to-read pile but are just too damn long.

So, what did y’all read this month? Feel free to write to me in the comments, by email at saltwaterbookreview@gmail.com if you have any books you NEED TO DISCUSS!! (I know that feel.)

Creepy kids, lit babes, and how to write about your escape from a burning building: Monthly Roundup, April 2015

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I kept meaning to post my April roundup, and now, embarrassingly, it’s the middle of May. So let me dust off my Goodreads history and see what I read last month.


I started the month with a writing ‘how-to’ book which I picked up randomly from the library, called Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise DeSalvo. I can’t remember why I picked it up, but I think it had something to do with the fact that I have had a pretty rough winter, and I am also trying to create a steady, permanent writing routine for the first time in my life (I can make a post on that later if you would like to hear more). A lot of my fiction is personal, I suppose, but never autobiographical. When I try to write autobiographical fiction, it just ends up boring and whiny. I tend to instead borrow bits and pieces of feelings, places, and characters from my experiences, but narratively speaking, it’s mostly invented. Anyway, I’m in a weird time in my life, trying to heal some past wounds while also trying to build a writing career with no starting-off point except my own stubborn belief that this is what I’m meant to do. I thought this book could help me turn my own personal brand of unhappiness into something that I felt was good enough to merit readers. Unfortunately, I found myself not relating to most of the text. I think it’s aimed much more towards memoirists or, at the very least, writers of purely autobiographical fiction.

One thing I absolutely hated was when DeSalvo would bring up ‘confessional’ type writers, such as Sylvia Plath, who were apparently Doing it Wrong. I felt it was kind of tacky how DeSalvo brought up the personal nature of Plath’s writing only to say that Plath wasn’t viewing her work as a form of healing so therefore she committed suicide. That felt very simplistic and diminishing to me, and totally dismisses how powerful/healing so many readers have found Plath’s work. DeSalvo also wrote a lot about her creative writing students, and this was sometimes laughable. ‘My one student who was raped, my one student who was homeless, my one student who escaped a burning building’, etc and so on. Did she ever have students who didn’t have traumatic pasts? How did they do in her class? It seemed to me that her brand/style of teaching writing is aimed entirely on memoirs of traumatic experience. This is fine, I just couldn’t really find a use for it myself.

It also made me wonder about different types of teaching that goes on in creative writing. Some teachers will really play up the emotional aspect of writing, while others will say that all that matters is the quality of the work. DeSalvo is writing from a place that says that our writing has more purpose than just being good work. I think she believes that good work will come if we make healing ourselves with our writing our main goal. I disagree. There’s a place for emotional, healing writing, but writing that you give to others to read and react to is usually a different kind of work–sometimes they intersect, but I wouldn’t expect to make a narrative out of my journals and have people get anything out of reading them. But, again, that’s just the kind of writer I am; there is good reason why writing a memoir at my age is not something I will even consider. I need to look outside of myself in order to write stories that are worthwhile. All this is just to say that this book isn’t for me, but writers of memoirs might get something out of it. I wouldn’t recommend it to writers of poetry, because her writing ‘program’ is aimed towards the turning of painful experiences into narratives in order to heal, and I know that personally, focusing too much on narrative doesn’t really work when I’m writing poetry.

Next I read Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood. The title refers to a novel-within-the-novel written by the main character, who is a writer of romance novels under a pen name, and is currently on the run after faking her own death. I would describe this as a mostly comic novel, and I liked it a lot although it’s not a favorite. I’m really enjoying reading Atwood’s novels in chronological order–I’ll make a post on this later.


I broke my current streak of reading only women to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz, and ended up with a crush. (This is the real reason I don’t like to read men.) After I finished this novel I went right on YouTube and watched a bunch of interviews with Díaz, consumed with admiration. What a babe. I don’t have much to say about this book except it was excellent, weird and stubborn and unapologetic in all the best ways, and reminded me that I want to learn Spanish. Now I’m back on Duolingo and learning a lot. Reading improves your life!™


After that things took a creepy turn in April when I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, who wrote “The Lottery.” I loved this novel so much. It’s very American gothic, and it gets under your skin while somehow being so delightful to read. I think it’s basically I Capture the Castle meets American Horror Story, which of course means I recommend it to EVERYONE. So great. It’s basically about two sisters who are shunned by their whole town because of an “accident” that had poisoned their entire family years before. It’s so good, definitely a must-read for anyone who loves books with unreliable narrators and psychologically disturbed characters.

I somehow read two novels in a row about young characters who are accused of killing their families. How cute. Is there a genre for this? Anyway, I read Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, and I must say, Flynn is becoming one of my favorite contemporary writers. Her books are just so entertaining; I fly through them. I definitely recommend them for anyone who is in a reading slump, or wants to get back into reading–all three of her novels are impossible to put down. The main character of Dark Places is a mentally unstable woman, in true Flynn fashion. When she was a child she escaped from the murder of her entire family except her brother, who was accused of the crime and is currently in jail. Like with Sharp Objects, much of the story felt like it was for pure shock value, but the writing is so crisp that I can’t help but feel that Flynn almost always gets away with it.

That’s it for April. In total I read five books. If you’re wondering where I’m at in my Goodreads 2015 Challenge: I have read a total of 27 books to meet my goal of 80 for the year. Goodreads tells me I am 2 books behind, but that’s fine for me. Because we’re halfway through May already, I can give you some spoilers for next month’s roundup: so far I have been reading mostly short story collections, and gasp! Two books by men. Other than that I am really enjoying making an effort to read women this year, although I have noticed that the books I am reading are written by predominately white, Western authors. I am going to try to make an effort to change that this summer, so please feel free to give me some recommendations, and as always, hang out with me on Goodreads to see what I’m currently reading.