Category Archives: Literature

A preview

Here, as promised, is an excerpt from the first draft of the prologue to my next novel. Enjoy.

Nov. 1, 2005 ~ Coldwater, N.M.

Sierra watched the brown sugar disappear into the whiskey as Miss Shirley stirred it into the bottom of a feed-store mug. The coffee maker had just finished burbling, and as she pulled away the carafe, the machine released one final, defiant drop that hit the warming plate and evaporated with a hiss. Miss Shirley ignored it, pouring hot coffee into the mug and adding a splash of cream before setting it in front of Sierra and handing her a spoon.

“Give it a good stir and see how you like it,” she said.

Sierra stirred and tasted. “Eat your heart out, Bailey’s,” she said.

Miss Shirley laughed, stirring her own mug. “There are no shortcuts to Irish coffee,” she said. “Either you use good Irish whiskey and heavy cream, or you’re drinking hot chocolate.”

Something scraped against the side of the building, just under the kitchen window, and Sierra could hear the wind yowling across the llano, an unearthly sound that made her shiver in spite of the warm coffee. “How do you get used to that?” she wondered aloud.

Miss Shirley sat down across from Sierra.

“The Mexicans call her La Llorona,” she said. “The weeping woman. My ancestors knew her by other names. The Scottish called her bean nighe; the Irish knew her as bean sidhe — the banshee. She and I are old friends.” She looked at Sierra over her coffee. Her white hair framed her face, barely restrained by a set of silver-trimmed combs, and for a split-second, looking into her pale blue eyes, Sierra could have believed she was the banshee, an ancient Celtic spirit far from home, howling across the high desert and pining for the forests of Ireland.

Sierra was silent for a while, listening to the bean sidhe, meeting her doppelganger’s eyes and wondering just what she’d seen in her years at the Tumbleweed. Miss Shirley didn’t smile, exactly, but her crows’ feet deepened just slightly, and Sierra got the impression the older woman was amused by her quiet response.

“How does a nice Scottish-Irish girl with a command of Celtic folklore wind up running a motel in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico?” Sierra asked at last.

“I wondered when you’d ask something useful.” The crinkle around the corner of Miss Shirley’s mouth deepened to a wry smile. “It began, as so many things did, with the potato famine.”

She disappeared into a back room for a few minutes. Sierra sipped coffee, letting the whiskey warm her, and wondered whom the bean sidhe was pre-emptively mourning this evening. …

Classroom Reveal, Part I

Sorry I’ve been so quiet all spring and summer. I’ve been busy — state testing, prom, honor society induction, professional development, graduation, finals, ducks (shoutout to our ag teacher for taking the noisy, destructive little SOBs off my hands), travel, side hustles, curriculum writing, and last but certainly not least, painting an elaborate mural on all four walls of my classroom.

I finally wrapped up the mural on Monday. It was a long process that began last spring, when I wandered into my superintendent’s office and asked how much trouble I’d be in if I painted literary characters all over the walls of my classroom. She basically gave me carte blanche and waited to see what would happen next. About 103 hours of actual work later, this was what I came up with:

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I still have a truffula forest made out of pool noodles and tissue paper to mount on a particle-board stand, a couple of giant IKEA leaves to install near my desk, and a few more strings of fairy lights to hang on not-quite-finished bulletin boards, but I’ll post all that when I do an official classroom reveal in August.

My goal with this project is to remind my kids of how they felt about reading when they were little — back when they were exploring the Hundred Acre Wood and having wild rumpuses and sneaking through Hogwarts under an Invisibility Cloak instead of being assigned a million pages of stuff they didn’t really care about. I want to recapture some of that joy and maybe get them excited about reading again. We’ll see how it goes.


P.S.: In case you’re interested, here’s an update showing the finished room.

Sunday Lit Meme: Guilty Pleasures

Some authors get a lot of respect for their work. Some authors get a lot of money for their work. A few (precious few) manage to do both. This week, I’m interested in the latter more than the former. With that in mind:

What author’s work is your favorite “guilty pleasure” — the one you love to read when you have a moment free but would never, ever want your favorite English professor to know about?

Mine would have to be Tony Hillerman. I love gorgeous Southwestern scenery, strong women, and intelligent men, and Hillerman’s novels have all of the above in spades. Yes, they go over the top once in a while. Yes, the last three or four he published bordered on silly. No, those later books probably wouldn’t stand up to logical scrutiny by the Legendary Lieutenant if he were a real book critic instead of a fictional detective. But dammit, Hillerman’s characters are just so engaging, his use of Navajo lore so intriguing, and his setting so enchanting that I can’t help loving his work anyway. Picking up a Hillerman novel is like taking a road trip to New Mexico to visit old friends, and there’s something charming in the way Hillerman himself became so attached to some of his characters that even after more or less committing to a chronological sequence, he sort of lost the stomach for writing in real time and just couldn’t quite bring himself to age his characters into irrelevance or oblivion. As an erstwhile fiction writer myself, I completely empathize.

So … who is your guilty pleasure?


Sunday Lit Meme: Self-indulgent, overrated crap

In the film Bull Durham, Susan Sarandon’s character asks Kevin Costner’s character what he believes. Costner delivers a lengthy, not-entirely-safe-for-work riff that includes the line, “I believe the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap.”

This week’s lit question:

What author’s novels would you classify as “self-indulgent, overrated crap”?

My first choice would have to be J.D. Salinger. I will cop to a certain bias against authors who write about people I want to slap (F. Scott Fitzgerald, I’m looking at you), and I can’t think of a literary character more deserving of a hot date with the back of my hand than the intolerably whiny Holden Caulfield … but that’s not my only issue with Salinger. After all, most of Jack Kerouac’s characters righteously deserve a right hook to the jaw, too, yet Kerouac’s writing is so brilliant that I’m willing to put up with insufferable wastrels like Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise for a few hundred pages in exchange for the pleasure of basking in their creator’s prose. If Salinger could paint word-pictures like Kerouac or draw me into his world like William Faulkner, I might be willing to put up with his obnoxious brat for a few chapters.

The problem with Salinger is twofold: First, he doesn’t have the poetic brilliance of Kerouac or the immediacy of Faulkner, and second, Faulkner himself couldn’t live up to the hype that’s surrounded Salinger as a result of his eccentricity and his perennial presence on the banned books list.

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s marvelous when authors win the censorship lottery. Few things delight me more than watching somebody land on the bestseller list as a direct result of some idiot’s attempt to censor him. Salinger’s popularity is a victory for the Constitution. Freedom 1, Dumbassery 0. Sweet. But that doesn’t make Salinger a literary giant. It just makes him a very, very lucky man who happened to sprinkle a few well-placed (and, IMHO, suspiciously phoney-sounding) goddams into an otherwise unremarkable manuscript at an extremely opportune moment.

Bravo for him, but really: The Catcher in the Rye is hopelessly overrated, and while I think Salinger was a marketing genius, I could name any number of authors whose literary gifts leave his in the dust.

What author do you consider overrated?


Weekly Lit Meme: Life-changing fiction

Your question for the week:

What single work of fiction has had the biggest impact on your life?

I don’t even have to think about this one. Jonathan Livingston Seagull is the story of my life. Published by Richard Bach back in 1970, this novella gives voice to the truths I hold most dear, and it has a way of answering whatever question happens to be gnawing at the edges of my consciousness and disrupting my sleep at any given moment. I read it for the first time when I was a little girl, came back to it as a teenager, and have reread it at virtually every significant moment in my life since then.

In the book, Bach speaks of individuality; courage; perseverance; joy, despair, and the lightning-fast shifts from one to the other as we pursue our dreams; the nature of heaven; the power of forgiveness; the nonsensical nature of self-imposed limitation; and the power each of us has to change the world for the better by loving others enough to see beyond their faults and into their true nature as perfect reflections of a limitless, loving God.

It’s an easy read, but the demands it makes are anything but easy. I sometimes refer to Jonathan Livingston Seagull as Science and Health for Dummies,” because Mary Baker Eddy’s influence on Bach is obvious, but his language is more accessible to modern audiences than Mrs. Eddy’s graceful but sometimes challenging Victorian prose.

Anyone who really wants to understand me probably ought to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Just don’t flatter me by mistaking me for Jonathan. I am neither that even-tempered nor that advanced. Maybe I will be someday, but right now, I am not Jonathan. I’m just part of his Flock, struggling to stay out of my own way long enough to find out what my wings can do.

What work of fiction affected you the most?


Sunday lit meme: Poets

Here’s your question for the week:

Who are your five favorite poets, and why?

Mine, in no particular order, are:

1. Allen Ginsberg. The man gave a voice to disenfranchised youth, confronted ignorance in court, scored a victory for the First Amendment, and broadened the very definition of art. Made pretty deft use of imagery, too. If I could own a copy of only one poem, “Howl” would be it.

2. Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In addition to being a pretty great poet in his own right, Ferlinghetti founded City Lights Books, published Ginsberg, and set off the court case referenced above. Fifty-odd years later, he’s still toiling diligently to make sure promising young authors’ words are heard.

3. Jack Kerouac. If you don’t get it, buy a copy of Kicks Joy Darkness and listen to Johnny Depp’s reading of “Madroad Driving.” If you still don’t get it, I’m not sure we can be friends any more…. 

4. Langston Hughes. Probably the most powerful voice to come out of the Harlem Renaissance. No matter how many times I read “Dream Deferred,” it still gives me chills.

5. Dorothy Parker. She didn’t invent sarcasm, but she raised it to an art form. “Inventory” was one of my favorites back in college. “Three be the things I shall never attain….”

Who are your favorites?


Munchkin Tuesday: Beverly Cleary

I completely identified with Beezus as a kid. Especially that chapter where she cops to being totally freaked out by the basement.

Speaking as an English major who spent a lot of time reading a lot of great literature, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that Beverly Cleary is the greatest author in all of American lit.

I love the Beats, I adore Faulkner, and I admire the Algonquin Round Table‘s caustic humor, but in the end, nobody can hold a candle to Beverly Cleary, the children’s librarian who in 1950 set out to write the kinds of books she wanted to read as a child. The result of that first effort was a brilliant little novel called Henry Huggins that more or less encapsulated, in 155 pages, exactly what it is to be a kid.

The world has changed since 1950, but somehow Henry and his friends remain timely, perhaps because the overall experience of being a kid really hasn’t changed. I’m reminded of this every year when I require my sophomores to write a narrative essay about their funniest childhood memory, and three-fourths of the kids’ essays recount the sorts of adventures (and misadventures) that Henry and the rest of the kids on Klickitat Street would be proud to share.

Louis Darling is one of my all-time favorite illustrators.

The perils and delights of childhood — embarrassing moments, lost pets, playground bullies, prolific guppies, creative entrepreneurial efforts, annoying classmates, bratty younger siblings, silly fears, etc., etc., etc. — are universal, and Cleary captures them in magnificent detail.

The earliest editions of her books are my favorites, as they were illustrated by the great Louis Darling, who captures the essence of each character in a few simple strokes. Some very cool person called AnnainCA has posted some of Darling’s illustrations on Flickr. Go take a look. If you grew up reading Cleary, you’ll almost certainly love them as much as I do.

Portland, Ore., put in a Cleary-themed splash pad/sculpture garden in 1995. I want to go play in it. Route 66 will always be my favorite road, but the Klickitat Street of Cleary’s imagining is most definitely first runner-up.

If you’ve never read her work, get yourself to the library. Now. You can thank me later.


Sunday lit meme

OK, so I just remembered I had this great Sunday-night-lit-meme idea a couple of years ago, posted two of ’em, and then proceeded to forget all about it.

As I can’t think of anything better to write about at the conclusion of a busy weekend that involved a lot of volunteering for stuff I’ve got no business doing (e.g., putting together a newsletter, ostensibly on a one-shot basis, although I think we all know how that’s going to turn out), I’ll just see how long it takes me to lose track of a meme this time around.

Here’s your question for the week:

Who are your five favorite children’s authors, and why?

Here are mine:

1. Beverly Cleary. Nobody has ever understood what it is to be a kid quite as thoroughly or expressed it quite as vividly as Beverly Cleary. She gets it. Beezus and Ramona is pretty much the story of my life when I was a kid. (In case you are wondering, I was Beezus in that equation.)

2.  Shel Silverstein. Absolutely hilarious, totally irreverent, and squarely on his young readers’ side. I have a deep and abiding distrust of people who don’t like Shel Silverstein’s work. There’s something wrong with them.

3. Maurice Sendak. Greatest illustrator ever, and he doesn’t patronize kids. There’s an honesty in his work that commands respect.

4. Dr. Seuss. I owe a lot of my social conscience to Seuss. The Lorax is maybe the greatest thing ever.

5. Madeleine L’Engle. Compelling, intelligent books filled with compelling, intelligent characters, and the metaphysical concepts in her novels keep my thought busy and have a way of emerging from dark pools of memory at moments when I need them most. A few months ago, a close friend and I had an eerie moment in which we discovered we’d both been thinking of L’Engle’s Echthroi from A Wind in the Door in reference to a perceived enemy. (Perhaps not surprisingly, I managed to Name this individual a short time later, which obviously made life easier for everyone concerned.)

Who are the authors you loved most as a child — or appreciate the most as an adult?


Words, words, words

My regular English II classes spent part of this week watching the Franco Zeffirelli version of Hamlet … which means that by eighth hour this afternoon, I was half-watching, half-listening to the DVD for the fourth time in three days.

Even when a young Mel Gibson* is involved, there is a limit to my attention span, and we had long since exceeded that limit this afternoon, so I quit watching the movie and began working on a letter of recommendation I’d promised to write for a friend, keeping one ear on the dialogue so I could pause the DVD as necessary to explain the confusing bits to my kids.

The outcome of this attempt at multitasking? An implausibly graceful, weirdly formal document with a distinct British-chick-lit vibe that sounded like what you’d get if you attempted to write a resume using nothing but phrases lifted from Jane Austen novels.

Only an English teacher….


* I refer, of course, to the pleasant-eye-candy incarnation of Gibson from the late ’80s and early ’90s, before the long-term effects of alcohol abuse destroyed both his sanity and his sex appeal.


I forgot to mention this last night, but we went to the Circle Cinema yesterday evening to watch Howl. It was amazing. It deals with the obscenity trial over the Allen Ginsberg poem of the same title.

I’ve loved Ginsberg’s work since I was in high school, and the film definitely does it justice. James Franco plays Ginsberg, and the movie includes many scenes of him reading the poem in a spot-on imitation of Ginsberg’s weird cadence, sometimes in black-and-white before an audience of hipsters, and sometimes narrating a visually stunning animated interpretation of the poem.  The poetry reading scenes are interspersed with footage of Franco-as-Ginsberg being interviewed about his life and work and scenes from the trial, which feels particularly topical and timely in light of the ongoing Prop 8 trial. I find it interesting that 55 years later, the government is still wasting time and money trying to justify immature decisions based on homophobia, while the intelligentsia are still eviscerating the arguments in favor of such decisions and making their proponents look ill-prepared at best and silly at worst.

If the art director doesn’t win an Academy Award, I’m going to stop paying attention to the Oscars altogether.

Sometimes I secretly wish I could open my own private school for the children of subversive iconoclasts. Kids would be required to read at least 100 banned books in order to graduate, and we’d have an entire course devoted to the study of Quentin Tarantino movies. We’d also have a linguistics class that would include a study of profanities, their etymology, and the sociocultural reasons one word becomes a socially acceptable euphemism, while its synonym is declared “dirty” or “vulgar.”

I’m pretty sure our test scores would be off the charts, and disaffected teenagers would be lining up like soccer moms at a Black Friday sale to try to get a spot on the waiting list….