Last Week’s Reading: March 19-25

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman: Last week was novel-less, so I treated myself to a re-read of American Gods while recovering from a cold (handy, since the TV show based on the book debuts later this spring). I read the original version eight or ten years ago, and honestly  couldn’t tell you where the 12,000 additional words of the “Author’s Preferred Text” were spliced in. It’s still a rollicking, gory, fun and desperately sad read; I wanted to give Shadow a big hug at the end.

Building Raised Beds, Fern Bradley Marshall: Okay, so this isn’t the most scintillating book I’ve read lately, but it was a decent primer on how to garden using raised beds. I very much want to start a vegetable garden, but I’m not feeling confident about my ability to a) build a raised bed or b) keep my plants alive . . . so maybe I should stick with container gardening? I don’t know. Tell me your favorite gardening books, please.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling [not pictured because I read it as an e-book]: A light, fun memoir/essay/list hybrid from writer/director/producer Mindy Kaling, who played Kelly Kapoor on The Office and wrote some of its funniest episodes. Though this book doesn’t delve as deep as, say, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, it’s warm-hearted, self-deprecating, and endearing; if I were going to get a celebrity memoir for my youngest sister (see below), this is the one I’d choose. (Also, to file under “Other Concerns”: I really want to know what Mindy’s best friend Brenda is up to these days—ohmygod I just looked her up and she was Brenda on The Office! But that was like ten years ago so I’m still in the dark.)

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare: I am so very proud of my youngest sister, who just starred as Lady Macbeth in her high school production of the Scottish play. I was totally bummed to miss the performance, so I re-read Macbeth to cheer myself up. (If you’d like to know how it fared in my ranking of all Shakespeare’s plays, you’re in luck.)

Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson: I loved this short, beautiful novel about black girls growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. August, the narrator, returns home to bury her father, dredging up memories of her formative years with her best friends Gigi, Angela, and Sylvia. The story is told in fragments and vignettes (to mimic memory, I think), but the novel flows smoothly and feels focused. I closed the book wishing to read more about August, her brother, and August’s work as a cultural anthropologist who studies death. (Sidebar: If you know Ms. Woodson’s children’s books, would you recommend your favorites to me?)

Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón: Oh goodness, I loved this collection—I don’t know how I missed it in 2015. The voice in these poems struck me—conversational, witty, tough, and tender by turns. I especially liked the sequence dealing with the poet’s stepmother’s final days that focuses on the difficulties of caring for dying people (“The Riveter,” for example, is a gut-punch), but I found poems to love in each of the four sections. Poems about Kentucky and California, Brooklyn and Montana, friendship and lovers, owls and herons, racehorses and dead horses. Highly recommended.

“When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold”: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73


Dear Readers,

I know it’s only been five months since I posted a Shakespeare poem, but what’s fall without the most famous fall sonnet of them all? Admittedly it’s a bit gloomy, but I hope your autumn views (still spectacular here) make up for it.

Sonnet 73

William Shakespeare

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

A view from my neighborhood.

A view from my neighborhood.

Recommended Reading: Hag-Seed, by Margaret Atwood


When Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed* arrived in the mail, I could barely contain my glee. Margaret Atwood (the Helen Mirren of authors, as I sometimes think of her) taking on Shakespeare? Yes please!

Hag-Seed photo by Carolyn OliverHag-Seed lived up to all my expectations (and it’s the best so far in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, too). I highly recommend the book (and teachers, it would be fabulous to teach alongside its source material), which is often funny, often touching, often a rollicking good time (especially for Shakespeare aficionados), and always thoughtful. It’s a tour-de-force reimagining of The Tempest, and like the original, a provocative examination of theatre, authorship, imprisonment, revenge, and grief.

Felix Phillips is the impresario Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival. His productions have been beyond avant garde (audience complaints include “Did Lear have to take off all his clothes?”; Felix thinks, “What was so bad about Macbeth done with chainsaws? Topical. Direct.”), and after the sudden loss of his beloved daughter, Miranda, he throws himself into the play he thinks will bring her back to life: The Tempest. However, he’s so caught up in preparations that he doesn’t notice the machinations of Tony Price, his glad-handing lieutenant, who, with the help of Lonnie Gordon, the Chairman of the Board, subsequently ousts Felix from his position.

Despondent, Felix retreats to a hovel in the Canadian backwoods, contemplating revenge and building a new life as “Mr. Duke.” As his alter-ego—which is of course Prospero, as he knows—he takes a job teaching Shakespeare through performance to prison inmates. Years pass, but when Tony and Lonnie seem poised to pass within his orbit, Felix hatches his revenge plot—and begins to teach The Tempest to the Fletcher Correctional Players.

Hag-Seed is delightfully layered; it’s a novel whose plot is taken from a play, and in the novel the characters are enacting the play as they prepare to enact the play (got that?). And by writing Felix teaching his players The Tempest, and respecting their (varied) readings of it, Margaret Atwood is teaching us about the text and its interpretations—while also conveying the importance of literature in prisons. “It’s the words that should concern you [. . . ] That’s the real danger. Words don’t show up on scanners,” Felix thinks, going through the metal detectors and chatting with the guards.  Atwood is, of course, fascinated with imprisonment (The Handmaid’s Tale, The Heart Goes Last, Alias Grace), so it’s a treat to watch her teasing out the power relationships in the novel (and in The Tempest).  It is, as the kids used to say, very meta.

As some reviewers have noted, the minor players are not remarkably distinct from each other; our knowledge of their backgrounds is limited. While that might be a fault in a standalone novel, to me this decision makes sense given the source material. Without picking up your Collected Works, can you recall how Stephano and Trinculo differ?

There are, of course, departures from Shakespeare’s play. Felix is animated not only by revenge and a desire to reclaim his position, but also, most importantly, by grief (in a way that Prospero is not). For Felix, staging The Tempest is a way to make Miranda live again, to take substance, almost. During his years of exile, his imagining of the lost girl is a ghost, a spirit, gradually transforming into Ariel whispering in his ear.

And Prospero, in these years of exile, is Caliban, misshapen by grief and the thirst for vengeance, pinched by loneliness into a new version of his former wild self, but able to call up sweet music and language all the same.  That’s why (I believe) the book is called Hag-Seed, after one of Prospero’s epithets for Caliban; the word brings them together, and means, of course, the child of a witch. And what is Atwood if not a conjuror, and what are her books if not progeny that cannot die?


My take on Margaret Atwood’s most recent previous novel, The Heart Goes Last (which I read as a take on Milton)

Review of Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler’s novelization of The Taming of the Shrew

Review of The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

“They were but sweet, but figures of delight”: Shakespeare in the Spring

Sonnet 98


“Nothing is so beautiful as spring,” wrote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. He didn’t live in Boston, where spring brings with it almost any weather; this week it’s wall-to-wall rain and gray. So here’s a little dose of Shakespeare in the hope of sunshine and optimal flower-viewing.


Sonnet 98

From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him.
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odour and in hue,
Could make me any summer’s story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
    Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,

    As with your shadow I with these did play.

And as a bonus, here are a few of my favorite lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

[It gets fairly nasty at this point, alas.]

Have you read any spring poems lately?

Shakespeare 400: In Which I Rank the Plays



In honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, Dear Readers, I bring you a list you’ve all been too polite to clamor for:

Shakespeare’s Plays, Ranked in Order of My Personal Preference, with Sundry Quips & Commentary

(Because yes, I’ve read them all. Thanks, graduate school.)

  1. Hamlet (Of course.)
  2. Much Ado About Nothing (Beatrice is the Shakespearean heroine I’d find easiest to play. Just saying.)
  3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Delightful poetry, problematic ending, fond memories of high school. If you’d like to never see the play the same way again, try reading Jan Kott’s take on it.
  4. Henry V (An anti-war play about war, in my view. And it’s brilliant, of course.)
  5. As You Like It (Recommended particularly for North Carolina legislators.)
  6. Antony and Cleopatra (Oh, for my salad days teaching this play! Also, I saw it at the Barbican when I was 15; Alan Bates played Antony, and Frances de la Tour [perhaps known to you as Madame Maxine in the Harry Potter movies] was a fantastic Cleopatra, appearing nude in her final scenes. )
  7. Richard III (No matter historians’ efforts, Richard’s reputation will never recover.)
  8. Twelfth Night (See 5, above.)
  9. King Lear (I can’t decide whether I’d rather see Patrick Stewart or Ian McKellan in the title role. The “never” line at the end is gutting. )
  10. The Tempest (How is it that I’ve never seen this play live?)
  11. The Winter’s Tale (This was my jam when I used to think about maternal mortality in early modern lit. I still think it’s a trip. Apparently so does Jeanette Winterson.)
  12. Macbeth (Few things make me wish I’d been alive a hundred plus years ago, but then there’s this painting.)
  13. King John (Weren’t expecting that, were you? I like this because I’ve read it much less often than I’ve read the major comedies and tragedies, so it sounds fresh every time, and it’s really, really good. Underrated, this one.)
  14. The Taming of the Shrew (Funny and horrifying at the same time; fun to wrestle with, as a feminist.)
  15. Richard II (Gorgeous poetry here, and such a politically charged play! The Earl of Essex had it staged before he himself staged a rebellion against Elizabeth I.)
  16. Othello (My dad once saw a production of this with James Earl Jones and Christopher Plummer. I’ve never gotten over my envy, despite quite a bit of therapy.)
  17. Romeo and Juliet (God, Romeo is such a nitwit. But that doesn’t mean I can’t quote huge chunks of this play [don’t judge me for being 13 when the Leonard DiCaprio version came out . . . and then playing the nurse in high school.].)
  18. Henry IV Part 1 (In which Prince Hal is one calculating sonofabitch, and we all fall for Falstaff.)
  19. Cymbeline (Is it a romance? A tragicomedy? A comedy? Who knows? Woolf quotes from it in Mrs. Dalloway, which has to be an endorsement of some kind, right?)
  20. Coriolanus (I have a feeling Volumnia would do well on Game of Thrones.)
  21. The Merchant of Venice (Go Portia! Also, I think best read in conversation with Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.)
  22. Henry IV Part 2 (I love the scene between the dying Henry and Hal: “busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.” A sound politico, that Henry IV.)
  23. Julius Caesar (Oh hi, tenth grade memorization assignment.)
  24. All’s Well That Ends Well (There’s a bed trick, and if that’s not intriguing, I don’t know what is. Also, Bertram reminds me of the generic rom-com bad guy.)
  25. Measure for Measure (Here’s another bed trick. And I’m a fan of the pre-Dickensian name “Mistress Overdone”–the owner of a brothel.)
  26. Henry VIII (Neatly sidesteps all that nasty beheading business. The play that literally burned the house down.)
  27. Love’s Labour’s Lost (Honorificabilitudinitatibus. This is the play for word nerds.)
  28. Titus Andronicus (Gleefully gory. “Alarbus’ limbs are lopped” is quite the line.)
  29. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Quite silly.)
  30. Troilus and Cressida (So very unpleasant.)
  31. Henry VI Part 1 (If you’re going to read these–and you should at least once, just for Margaret of Anjou–you might as well read them in order.)
  32. Henry VI Part 2
  33. Henry VI Part 3
  34. The Two Noble Kinsmen (Chaucerian, and thus best enjoyed with a large glass of mead.)
  35. Two Gentlemen of Verona (There’s a dog in this one, which is a good thing for the audience.)
  36. Pericles, Prince of Tyre (This is sort of like Shakespeare leaving the office early for a three-martini lunch. Or, come to think of it, arriving at the office late after a three-martini lunch.)
  37. The Comedy of Errors (Even the greats have to start somewhere.)
  38. Timon of Athens (Ugh.)

And the poems, you say?

  1. The Sonnets (Of course.)
  2. Venus and Adonis (Shakespearean smut, and it’s delightful)
  3. The rest.

So, happy Shakespeare 400! May we all be in good health to celebrate his 500th birthday, in a mere 48 years!).

What’s your favorite play of Shakespeare’s (or sonnet)? 

Recommended Reading: The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson**

IMG_5576Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I finished reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time,* a reimagining of Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale. (If you don’t know The Winter’s Tale, think Othello plus pregnancy, a lost and then found child, funny time business, more clowns, and a happy ending.)

Adaptations of Shakespeare, as of anything sui generis, are tricky. Shakespeare’s plots are derivative, pulled from history or earlier plays and tales; what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare is the poetry, the depth of characterization, the verbal pyrotechnics of the plays, and these, of course, cannot be adapted in the way that a story can be.

But it’s fun to watch talented people try, isn’t it?

In this case, Ms. Winterson pulls the plot of The Winter’s Tale four hundred years into the future and hundreds of miles west; Sicilia is now a large company in London headed by Leo, and Bohemia is now New Bohemia, a New Orleans-type city in North America, the occasionally home to Leo’s best friend, Xeno. Hermione is now the Parisian singer MiMi, married to Leo and expecting his second child. In a fit of cruel and unfounded jealously, Leo accuses Xeno of sleeping with MiMi (and fathering her child), attempts to kill him, and provokes MiMi’s early labor. When Perdita is born, Leo has her spirited away, which leads indirectly to his young son’s death and MiMi’s disappearance.

Fast forward sixteen years. Perdita has been raised by the kindly Shep and his son Clo, and through a series of improbabilities, comes to fall in love with Xeno’s son, Zel, and learn of her unusual parentage. Next stop: a very awkward family reunion.

Though she generally adheres to the five-act structure of the original play (including two “intervals”), and weights the first half with more psychosexual tension than a bevy of Freudians would know what to do with, Ms. Winterson makes one break that I found dramatically useful: she begins the tale with the scene of Perdita’s accidental abandonment and subsequent rescue by Shep, a grieving widower and musician. This change heightens the tension and gives readers something to look forward to as they read the sordid story of Leo and Xeno; here, as in the play, it’s not at all clear what MiMi saw in Leo in the first place.

The book participates in the oddness of its source material’s plot and characters while retaining its themes: loss, forgiveness, remorse, grief, the startling power of music and imagination. Ms. Winterson’s writing is studded with lovely metaphors (“Milo stood between them like a lighthouse between the rocks and the shipwreck”), images (“he could only look at her through the kaleidoscope cut-outs of the crowd”), and wry observations (“one thing you’ll notice about progress, kid, is that it doesn’t happen to everyone”), self-referential asides, and overt references to the play. Autolycus’s (here, perfectly, a used car dealer) jokes fall flat, but then, I never enjoyed them in the original, so maybe that’s intentional. Nevertheless, The Gap of Time is engaging, a fast read that Shakespeare stalwarts will find thought-provoking and fans of quirky, genre-bending fiction will appreciate.

This is the first in Hogarth’s planned series of Shakespeare adaptations that will roll out more frequently next year (to mark the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death); authors tapped include Margaret Atwood (!), Gillian Flynn, and Jo Nesbo.

What’s your favorite Shakespeare adaptation, Dear Readers? And has anyone read Ms. Winterson’s other work? What should I be on the lookout for?

*I received a review copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.

** I want you all to know that I refrained from calling this post “The Bard Awakens.”

How to Tell If You’re In a Renaissance Revenge Tragedy

In the spirit of The Toast’s “How to Tell If You’re in a _____________ Novel” series, I present:

How to Tell If You’re in a Renaissance Revenge Tragedy

Your name, when translated, actually means “revenge.”

A ghost wants you to do him a favor.

You have had sex with someone totally wrong for you—like your husband or your stepmother.

You have a personal relationship with a skull.

No one around you has decent night vision or the ability to see through disguises.

You have caused a string of accidental casualties this week.

You haven’t realized that there is always someone behind the tapestry.

You are a woman who is either a mother, or old enough to be somebody’s mother. Therefore you are an unprincipled wanton.

You are in an Italian city-state. Or Denmark. Or Spain. But definitely not England. Nope. Nothing English about this place.

You are eating or drinking something. It is poisoned.

You find yourself at a court where incest is pretty much de rigueur.

Your wildest fantasies involve an orgy of violence. And possibly cannibalism.

Your brother believes he is a wolf.

You are busy setting up a play or masque that will prove your nemesis is evil. You already know he is evil, and no one will understand the implications of your play, except your stoic best friend and/or brother.

Your hobbies include reading and feigning madness.

You are a woman. One of your male relatives is spying on you, obsessed with the condition of your hymen and/or womb. You will end up mad or dead or both.

Whenever someone writes a letter, someone else dies.

You are a woman. You marry the man you love. You find that this is a mistake.

If you are likeable, you prefer to kill people by stabbing them or poisoning them, in that order. If you are unlikeable, reverse the order.

You are in a room with everyone you hate (who isn’t already dead) and everyone you love (who isn’t already dead). You are all going to die, with one exception.

You are not the exception.

Recommended Reading: Joss Whedon: The Biography, by Amy Pascale

Dear Readers, it has probably not escaped your notice that I am a glasses-wearing, reference-section-having, sci-fi-and-semi-colon-loving, Battlestar-Galactica-quoting, James-Kirk-and-Jane-Austen-action-figure-owning Nerd-Geek.

(A Nerd-Geek, according to me, is one who is inclined to passionate devotion to both things bookish [nerdy] and things in the science/sci-fi/fantasy realm [geeky]. I realize that the terminology of nerdom and geekdom is not without substantial controversy, but I hope that you will overlook that controversy, just this once.)

photo (117)Amy Pascale’s Joss Whedon: The Biography* is a book tailor-made for the Nerd-Geeks, because it concerns the Nerd-Geek King, Joss Whedon. Joss Whedon inspires unbelievably rabid fandom across the Nerd/Geek spectrum; and even if you’re not one of his vocal fans, chances are you’ve seen and liked his work. Did you like The Avengers? Toy Story? Speed? See, you like Joss Whedon.

Though he’s now helming the bazillion-dollar Marvel superhero movie franchises, in his salad days Joss (which is what Ms. Pascale calls him) created TV shows: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Dollhouse, and our dearly beloved, dearly departed Firefly.

I should admit, here, that I came late to the Joss Whedon fan club. There’s no way my parents would have allowed me to watch a show with “Vampire Slayer” in the title when I was a teenager (or really, most shows without “Jeopardy!” in the title), but even if that were an option, I found the blonde Buffy I saw in ads totally off-putting (if only I’d known about Willow!).

Fast forward ten years. I was so deeply entrenched in reading for my grad school oral exams that I would have watched reality TV with a smile on my face. My not-quite-yet-husband, so deeply supportive of my weird interests, was watching Netflix, and asked me to take a break, put down whatever seventeenth-century obstetrics manual I was reading (no, really.), and watch Buffy with him. I laughed. But then I looked up the series on Wikipedia, fell into a wiki-hole about Joss Whedon and feminism**, and went to sit on the couch.

We watched all of Buffy in about a month. It was awesome.

Then we watched Firefly — which I put off for a long time because I knew it had been canceled after just one season and I was sure I’d get too attached to the characters — and I became a Joss Whedon fan for life.

Amy Pascale has been a Joss Whedon fan much longer than I have; she was part of the Buffy online fan club and is clearly an enthusiastic supporter of Joss Whedon’s work. In fact, Ms. Pascale’s biography is for the most part a history of Joss’s career, accompanied by supporting material about his relationships with family and friends (who double as co-workers) and education. This is, I think, as it should be; Ms. Pascale’s subject is not a nineteenth-century president, but a living and breathing human being who, presumably, doesn’t want to talk over-much about his personal life, and is surrounded by friends and family who respect his wishes.

As a professional biography, the book is excellent, and will appeal mostly to readers already familiar with Joss’s work (some great anecdotes in here, folks). Ms. Pascale meticulously delves into Joss’s career, focusing in particular on the many setbacks he experienced and learned from as he went from a sitcom staff writer to a script doctor to the creator of his own shows. In the process, Ms. Pascale gives us the outlines of Joss’s created shows (with, unsurprisingly, a particular emphasis on Buffy); if you haven’t watched them yet and want to be surprised about plots and characters, hold off on reading the book. There are a few bits of juicy gossip (I didn’t know how much tension rolled through the Buffy set in the later seasons), some wonderful anecdotes (Alan Tudyk and a recall button — seriously great) and some surprising information for newcomers to the Whedonverse (apparently season six of Buffy was not well received by fans).

Throughout the book, we see Joss as a fundamentally creative and kind person, though not one without foibles and quirks. His work ethic is astounding, his creative process weep-worthy for those of us who struggle to string together words into coherent sentences (first drafts of scripts are in his head; what comes out on paper is the final product). Ms. Pascale does a particularly nice job highlighting his loyalty to collaborators, who often become friends (Nathan Fillion wrote the Foreword to the book). If you saw Joss Whedon’s modernized Much Ado About Nothing (2013), and I hope you did, you will have noted many familiar faces — cast members from Buffy, Angel, and The Avengers, Firefly — and names among the company.

Much Ado About Nothing was filmed with cobbled-together money and equipment in the home that Joss shares with his wife, Kai Cole, and children. That’s how he spent his vacation between shooting and editing The Avengers.

Shakespeare and superheroes. All hail the King of the Nerd-Geeks. (So say we all.)

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

** Joss Whedon is a vocal feminist. Yes, I know that the shows are sometimes problematic, and that The Avengers pretty well flunks the Bechdel Test, but then there’s this, from a speech Joss gave in 2006. Most of it is included in Joss Whedon: The Biography, and you can find a video here. In it, Joss interviews himself about a question that comes up endlessly.

So, Joss, I, a reporter, would like to know, why do you always write these strong women characters?

I think it’s because of my mother. She really was an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman and that’s the kind of woman I’ve always surrounded myself with. It’s my friends, particularly my wife, who is not only smarter and stronger than I am but, occasionally taller too. But, only sometimes, taller. And, I think it — it all goes back to my mother.

So, why do you write these strong women characters?

Because of my father. My father and my stepfather had a lot to do with it, because they prized whit and resolve in the women they were with above all things. And they were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else’s power does not diminish your own. When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men who not only had no problem with the idea of a female leader, but, were in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea. That came from my father and stepfather — the men who created this man, who created those men, if you can follow that.

So, why do you create these strong, how you say, the women — I’m in Europe now, so, it’s very, it’s international — these — I don’t know where though — these strong women characters?

Well, because these stories give people strength, and I’ve heard it from a number of people, and I’ve felt it myself, and its not just women, its men, and I think there is something particular about a female protagonist that allows a man to identify with her that opens up something, that he might — an aspect of himself — that he might be unable to express — hopes and desires — he might be uncomfortable expressing through a male identification figure. So it really crosses across both and I think it helps people, you know, in — in that way.

So, why do you create these strong women characters?

Cause they’re hot.

But, these strong women characters…

Why are you even asking me this?! This is like interview number 50 in a row. How is it possible that this is even a question? Honestly, seriously, why are you — why did you write that down? Why do you — Why aren’t you asking a hundred other guys why they don’t write strong women characters? I believe that what I am doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honored and there are other people doing it. But, seriously, this question is ridiculous and you just gotta stop.

So, why do you write these strong women characters?

Because equality is not a concept. It’s not something we should be striving for. It’s a necessity. Equality is like gravity, we need it to stand on this earth as men and women, and the misogyny that is in every culture is not a true part of the human condition. It is life out of balance and that imbalance is sucking something out of the soul of every man and women who’s confronted with it. We need equality, kinda now.

So, why do you write these strong female characters?

Because you’re still asking me that question.

Recommended Reading: The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees is the most disturbing novel I’ve read in years, and simultaneously one of the most beautiful.

The People in the Trees

Seeing the look on my face when I was most of the way through the novel, my husband asked, “Are you reading horror?”

“No,” I said, “but it’s pretty frightening.”

“Well, the title is creepy.”

And so it went.

The epigraph to The People in the Trees comes from The Tempest (4.1), when Prospero inveighs against what he sees as Caliban’s fundamental intractability, his resistance to civilization (that is, both civilization itself and being civilized, none too humanely, by Prospero). It’s an apt choice for Ms. Yanagihara’s narrative of science, immortality, destruction, ethics, and exploration itself.

The novel is composed of the memoirs of Norton Perina, framed by a preface and epilogue penned by his colleague and friend, Ronald Kubodera, who provides insight and explication with academic footnotes throughout the text. Perina, a doctor, is part of a small group that discovers a “lost” tribe on the fictional island of Ivu’ivu, with disastrous consequences for the islanders and, ultimately, for Perina himself. (By the way, I suggest that you do not read the jacket copy before you begin reading the novel itself — spoilers abound.)

Perina’s voice is compelling — both suave and vicious, aware of his personal shortcomings and willfully blind to his greatest moral failings. Kubodera, though trying to protect his mentor and justify his life’s work (and his own), consistently undercuts Perina’s attempt to appear as if he is withholding nothing, giving the reader the unvarnished truth. And maybe, in some sick way, Perina thinks he is delivering his own truth.

The horrors the novel presents are juxtaposed with the lush (there’s no other word) descriptions of the fantastical plants and creatures of Ms. Yanagihara’s invention. Even the few words of the U’ivuan language that Perina shares are musical and perfectly suited to the environment of the story.

As a child, I remember learning in school that the rainforest ought to be protected so that it would remain available for future study. When I read this novel, it occurred to me, after all these years, that perhaps we should be protecting it, and all the other wild places of the world,  from study. After all, wouldn’t Caliban have been better off without Prospero?


A Literary Wedding, or, “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

our rings

Our wedding rings

We were married three years ago this week, back in the olden days before Pinterest provided endless helpful suggestions regarding how to personalize your wedding with monograms and mason jars.

Now, I love a mason jar as much as the next gal, but our last name’s initial looks a heckuva lot like a circle, so I didn’t (and don’t) see much point in monogramming anything. I think it would have confused people. (“Which table are you sitting at?” “Table 0.” “Oh, I thought we were at table O.” “Oh dear.”) Personalizing one’s wedding ought to mean something more than splashing one’s initials all over it in in perfect wildflower hues, right?

Our wedding would never make the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings. We didn’t meticulously handcraft garlands of paper cranes from the pages of vintage books. We didn’t do favors, rice, confetti, a “real” wedding cake (we went with the Heart of Darkness chocolate torte, with mango coulis), or a “normal” ceremony.

What we did do was try very hard to make the wedding our own, an event that expressed not only who we are as a couple but where we came from — the people and words and music that shaped our lives.

The program included the line from “Birches” I’ve used in this post’s title, and Juliet’s immortal lines, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea / My love as deep. The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.” The lettering on the front of the program used a font based on Jane Austen’s handwriting; on the last page we reprinted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in memory of absent friends.

The processional was “Building the Barn” from Witness, because, well, just watch that part of the movie (bonus: Viggo Mortenson cameo!). And the recessional was “Everyone” by Van Morrison because, well, watch the end of The Royal Tenenbaums. But only if you’ve seen the beginning and the middle.

While guests waited they had the option of tinkering with a crossword we made about us, our friends, and families, or looking out over a little river and falls, or browsing in the bookstore.

Yes, we were married at a bookstore. Well, technically, we were married on a deck that’s part of a restaurant that’s located in an old mill that’s been converted into a used bookstore in a town called, of all things, Montague. But I just tell everyone that we were married at a bookstore. It’s easier that way.

[It’s lovely to be able to return to a place that holds such beautiful memories for us; we try to go back at least once a year. I’ll post pictures from our latest visit tomorrow.  I bet you’ll want to go there too.]

Our ceremony was comprised of the usual wedding bits, retooled to suit our beliefs and preferred wording, and literary readings. Each of us asked a parent, a sibling, a friend, and an aunt or uncle to read during the ceremony, in groups of two.

Which readings, you ask?

  • “In Lands I Never Saw,” by Emily Dickinson
  • “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear
  • Most Like an Arch This Marriage,” by John Ciardi
  • Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare
  • “The Master Speed,” by Robert Frost
  • a selection from the Song of Songs
  • a selection from Emma, by Jane Austen
  • a selection from The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I can still hear each one of these people reading, people we love who shared these words that mean so much to us. Because a marriage ceremony is an act of speaking something into being, and it’s important to get the words right.


So, since today is Tuesday, and therefore a poetry day around these parts, I thought today I’d highlight a poem that wasn’t read at our wedding.

You read that right. We both love Robert Frost’s “Birches” — so much so that my husband’s wedding ring is etched to look like birch bark — but it is long, and not really related to marriage, so we chose a different Frost poem for our set of readings. Now, though, after three years and one child together, this poem has taken on even more significance to us. Sometimes I imagine my son as the boy in the poem, confident though solitary. Sometimes I turn to the poem when things get hard, as they are wont to do, when

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

But above all, we love the poem for its abiding love for the beauty and promise of this world and its often-anonymous inhabitants. After all, “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

Three years later, at the bookmill.

Three years later, at the Bookmill.

Did you incorporate readings into your wedding ceremony? How did you choose your readings?