Someone recently recommended the novel Women Talking by Canadian author Miriam Toews. The film adaptation is out now in theaters but I think I’ll wait until I finish the book. It sounded so interesting I ordered a copy on Amazon. Of course, I wanted to share it with you as well. This one seems like a mix of a feminist tale and psychological fiction based on real occurrences of sexual violence that took place between 2005 and 2009. While this is a sensitive topic, a book like this begs for discussion about these strong women who survived of a great deal of pain and trauma.
Is this a book you would read? Have you already read it? Let’s start a conversation in the comments below.
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As we approach Thanksgiving and the holidays, I wanted to write about a novel I read that focuses a lot on the intricacies of family relationships. When I pick up a new book and begin reading, a few things I look for are strong characters, a compelling setting, and poignant themes. Three years ago, I stumbled upon a beautifully-written book with all these qualities and more.
As a woman born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, I was immediately drawn to Naima Coster’s debut novel, Halsey Street. I had a feeling I would love her book, and I was right. Her contemporary fiction story introduces Penelope Grand, a young woman moving from Philadelphia back to her old neighborhood—Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. It’s an emotional journey with an ending I did not expect.
Coster’s protagonist, Penelope, is a talented, struggling artist looking for success and her place in the world. She finds herself working in a less desirable position as a substitute teacher to make ends meet. Like other aspects of her life, her temporary job is not what she envisioned for herself upon graduating college. Her relationships with both of her parents are strained, one living in Brooklyn, the other abroad. Perhaps it is the pain of her distanced relationship with her mother that I related to most.
Penelope returns to Brooklyn to help her ill father. Upon her arrival, the neighborhood of her youth is almost unrecognizable due to gentrification. The setting serves as a metaphor for the belonging the native residents once had and now long for. Penelope rents a room in the attic of the Harper’s brownstone, a few blocks from her father. When she first moved into their house, she walked down a long hallway of closed doors, further suggesting the plight of those underprivileged. Even the tiny room she occupies also hints at the marginalization experienced by the area’s long-time residents.
The Brooklyn setting is almost a character itself with its beautiful culture, way of life, and values so deeply ingrained in its residents. As the neighborhood changes, the setting becomes such a crucial part of her story that it could not have the same depth without it. Coster has the ability to connect with audiences who have felt the impact of gentrification in Brooklyn or other large cities across the United States.
Penelope’s entire life seems to float in this constant state of loneliness and limbo, perhaps making this story so nuanced and relatable. As I continued to read, I felt sad throughout a good portion of the novel, but I also felt a range of other emotions. Her struggle to succeed in a world of inequality is unmistakable. She isn’t perfect, and neither is the world she lives in, but she’s a strong woman who doesn’t give up, managing to care for herself and others around her with dignity and respect.
Through the telling of a family saga, Halsey Streetrevealsan important theme of forgiveness. The past and present moments of Penelope’s relationships with her parents are woven, revealing their complexity, and depth. The act of forgiveness might be one of the most challenging things for us to understand and embrace. To have it is truly a gift. Through her difficult journey, I saw a realistic and honest depiction of life, and the pain that comes with family conflict.
Another theme I found in Halsey Street is the human need to belong. You don’t have to be a Brooklyn-born resident to know what that feels like—it’s something that is part of all of us. Whether it is belonging to a small group of friends, a church, a team, or something bigger, the need to connect with others and feel important is a universal desire. For the native residents of Penelope’s neighborhood, gentrification not only took their homes and businesses but also their sense of pride and belonging. As a reader, I felt it too. Halsey Street sheds light on the importance of having people stay rooted in their communities and its bearing on Penelope, the people of Brooklyn, and her readers.
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Writing has always been part of my life in one way or another. As a child, my journey began with writing short stories and poems about family summer vacations. As a teenager, I kept a journal for many years, writing about crushes and teenage drama. Today, I’m grateful that I can say it is a daily part of my life. As most people would expect, I write a lot as an English Teacher and an MFA student. But I also spend substantial time working on my creative writing. Whether our passion is technical writing, copywriting, creative writing, or something else, as writers, we never stop improving our craft or looking for work.
Over the years, I have found this small stack of books to be incredibly useful in the pursuit of writing. I hope you find them helpful too.
When I finished college, I was still looking for ways to improve my writing. During an afternoon of Google searching, I came across Zinsser’s book. I immediately ordered a copy and read it on my subway commute to and from work in Midtown. In those days, I had at least two hours of reading, Monday through Friday, which I often took advantage of.
Although this book was first published in 1976, it is up-to-date, addressing changes in the writing world making it relevant today. If you want to learn more about writing nonfiction, Zinsser—a lifelong journalist—offers some very sound advice in a tone that I found to be warm and friendly. I learned a lot from him about words, usage, style, and different types of nonfiction writing. William Zinsser passed away in 2015, a few years after I read his book. He remains immortal through his words, leaving behind a strong legacy in the writing world.
His classic guide is timeless and something we can all learn from.
In 2020, a fellow MFA student in a fiction writing course suggested picking up a copy of Writer’s Market. I’m happy I took his advice. This big book of nearly 1,000 pages is a reliable source for anything and everything a writer will need. It even includes advice on how to format a query letter and a chapter explaining how much to charge as a freelance writer. The pay rate chart continues for several pages breaking jobs down by the hour, project, and industry. This valuable source contains information about where to submit your work and how. Other editions focus on fiction and literary agents for those more interested in creative writing.
This trusted guide has been around for over a century—you can’t beat that.
Joyce Carol Oats, or as I call her, JCO, has been one of my favorite authors for decades. Her frequently anthologized short story, “Where Are you Going? Where Have You Been?” has left such an impression on me that I still think about it twenty years later. I’ve read several of her books and have found myself in awe of her writing and imagination. By the way, if you haven’t read her novel Zombie, you need to. I won’t say anything else. The less you know starting that book, the better.
Naturally, when I came across her book, The Faith of a Writer, I had to read it. Who wouldn’t want a glimpse into the private writing life of their favorite author? In a collection of essays, she elegantly writes about what makes a story striking and where she finds inspiration. Perhaps I am biased as a super fan, but I think everything she writes is brilliant.
Looking further into my shelved writing books, I found another excellent source written by various experts in the field. This book offers some interesting prompts, such as one based on the Rorschach Test. There are several steps involved, but the overall goal here is to generate a list of images associated with an inkblot created by you. The writing assignment is to draft a flash fiction story using those images and words. Sounds challenging, right? It is, but it’s also fun.
What I like about this book is that it offers an example of a flash fiction story, an essay by the author, and a writing exercise for you to practice. If flash fiction isn’t your thing, Rose Metal Press has also published books on prose poetry and flash nonfiction.
I initially read The Freelancer’s Bible for a required business class I took while working on my master’s degree. Yet, since then, I have used this as a road map to building a new career which is growing into a small side business. This book often reads like a friend offering professional, no-nonsense advice. Who wouldn’t want that? Even if you aren’t new to the freelancing world, this book is filled with beneficial suggestions for continuing to grow your business, such as figuring out taxes, insurance, and all the other intricacies of self-employment. If you are interested in working as a freelance writer, I highly suggest picking up a copy of this informative guide.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this blog post, please let me know by sending a like or comment below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.