Colloff’s name may not sound familiar to you initially. I hope after reading this post, you’ll be inclined to follow her work.

She’s a two-time National Magazine Award finalist and an executive editor at Texas Monthly, where she’s worked since 1997. Her writing has also appeared in The New Yorker and “Best American Crime Reporting.”

I took a class last semester called “Women in Crime and Justice,” and it ended up being one of my very favorites. We talked a lot about women as offenders and women as victims. Both of these topics were of special interest to me, but I also have just a general interest in reading about crimes and how detectives uncover certain crimes. (Yes, I do watch Criminal Minds, but I don’t sleep well afterward.)

Anyway, Colloff is an incredible long-form journalist. I’d like to particularly focus on her stories “Innocence Lost” and “Innocence Found,” which she wrote in 2011. They detail and address the unlawful arrest and jail of Anthony Graves. (Colloff is sort of known for doing stories on shady convictions.)

Graves spent 18 years in jail (12 on death row) for killing six people. He didn’t know them; another man admitted to doing it, and the evidence simply wasn’t there, yet he still spent an incredibly significant amount of time behind bars. (Actually, the evidence is sort of there in the beginning, but it’s simply a result of smoke and mirrors — thanks to a district attorney with an axe to grind.) Colloff uncovered the court documents and spoke with many of the people invovled in Graves’ case in order to understand why he was jailed and how the system had failed him.

It’s an incredibly frustrating read. Let me just put it this way — at one point, the man who did commit the murder admits that he did it alone, that Graves had nothing to do with it. But Graves still faces the death penalty. The court didn’t want to hear it.

It’s also an exciting read. A powerful and savvy attorney who is known for sending inmates to death row is assigned to do just that with Graves, but as she researches the case, she quickly realizes his innocence and the challenge ahead of her. She instead decides against taking Graves to trial again, having to explain to the families of those murdered that despite Graves earlier conviction, he is an innocent man.

But when Colloff writes of the moment when Graves is informed that he is free — that is when I really appreciate the simplicity of her writing and her ability to capture human emotion.

“On the table beside her was a dismissal order from the court filed at 3:57 p.m. that stated ‘We have found no credible evidence which inculpates this defendant.’ The decision to drop all charges had come so suddenly that the defense team had only learned the news earlier that afternoon. As Graves leaned against Casarez, he broke down.

“They stood together and cried for a long time. ‘Hey,’ Casarez said finally, smiling at the irony of what she was about to suggest. ‘Let’s get out of here.’”

Colloff’s story, “Innocence Lost,” was sort of credited with helping to prove his innocence. No big deal. “Innocence Found” details how that savvy attorney proved it and what life after jail would be like for Graves. What an incredible experience that would be.

Colloff recently did an interview with the Nieman Storyboard about her writing process, and she really has an interesting way of organizing her thoughts on paper. She said her mentor at Texas Monthly taught her to dump her notes, documents and quotes all into one Word file. She then has access to everything, and as she starts to group everything together, the story comes about naturally. Now, I’ve never really done what would be considered a “long form” story, but I feel I am entirely too scatter-brained to handle writing a story like that in that manner. But, hey, to each his/her own.

I’m off to read another of Colloff’s stories, “Hannah and Andrew.”

“I know there are authors who find it healthier for them, in their creative process, to just not look at any reviews, or bad reviews, or they have them filtered, because sometimes they are toxic for them. I don’t agree with that kind of isolation. I’m very much interested in how African-American literature is perceived in this country, and written about, and viewed. It’s been a long, hard struggle, and there’s a lot of work yet to be done. I’m especially interested in how women’s fiction is reviewed and understood. And the best way to do that is to read my own reviews.” — Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is an Ohioan! Doesn’t this give you other writers from Ohio some hope? It does for me.

I’ve read Beloved and The Bluest Eye, and I have to admit, I like the latter much more. I’ll focus on that book, as so many have read Beloved anyway, for this blog.

I won’t call her writing poetic — because I remembered reading this interview she did with The Paris Review in 1993. Instead, I’ll just say she writes with power, but a soft and understated power. I usually feel a bit drained after reading one of her books, but I always feel it’s been worth it.  That was the case with The Bluest Eye.

Reading Morrison has given me an entirely different perspective on Black America. In history classes throughout my life, I’ve been taught again and again about slavery and how and when it was abolished. I’ve accepted this as an informal end to discrimination, though 1865 can hardly be viewed as the point in which blacks could really call themselves “free.”

Morrison is one of four children. She studied Humanities at Howard and Cornell Universities, and she spent some time as a teacher at Texas Southern University and at Howard. She met her husband there, and they married in 1958, had two children and divorced in 1964. Morrison then moved to New York and edited books.

Though it wasn’t published until 1970, The Bluest Eye was Morrison’s first book, which she wrote while in a poetry club at Howard. It’s set in Lorain, Ohio and tells the story of Pecola, a young black girl who wishes for blue eyes. Her life experiences, which include being raped by her father, beaten by her mother and bullied constantly at school, have taught her that being white means being pretty. It means being better. It means being clean.

Some libraries around the country have tried and succeeded in banning the book from their shelves. While there is some graphic language in the novel, I think that’s a mistake. Here’s why:

My heart aches constantly for Pecola, whose mother is emotionally drained from her own life full of troubles and subsequently denies her daughter the support she needs. Pecola’s father was abandoned as a baby. His aunt raised him, and when she died, he ran away to find his father, who was gambling and wanted nothing to do with him. After that, he’s described as being “dangerously free.” I’m still waiting for the part where I can even remotely understand just why he chose to rape his daughter. As the community finds out about what happened, they don’t jump to the young girl’s aid. Instead, they cast her out. It’s a lesson in human nature and our willingness to compare ourselves to someone we deem as “lesser.” We use them to reassure ourselves. We use them to make us feel better. Morrison writes:

“All of us — all who knew her — felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. Her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we had a sense of humor. Even her waking dreams we used — to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.”

I’ll stop there.

So, as you can imagine, this is an emotionally charged book filled with very complex characters that I’m still trying to figure out, even as I finish it. I want more. You probably also have a better understanding of what I mean when I say that Morrison is one of a few reasons I understand just what life was like for blacks long after slavery. I am mortified by the vicious circles, the hoops they were made to jump through only to be disappointed. (Not that ALL blacks were a certain way. These books have teachable moments for everyone.) Most of all, I’m appreciative of those authors, like Morrison, Walker and Hurston, whose work has educated me more than any history book ever has.

Morrison wrote about nine other novels, a few children’s books, some short fiction and a bunch of essays. She’s 81 now and a member of The Nation’s editorial board and has both a Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize (for Beloved).

And, if you’re wondering, she writes before dawn.

“After all, one knows one’s weak points so well, that it’s rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.”

Edith Wharton wrote those words in a letter to Robert Grant in 1907 — 13 years before writing her famous book “The Age of Innocence.” The novel, which focuses on the upper-class of New York City during the late 1800s, won the 1921 Pulitzer Prize. It’s the only novel of Wharton’s that I’ve read, though I have “The Glimpses of the Moon” as well.

Wharton was born in New York City in 1862 to George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Stevens Rhinelander. The family was obviously very wealthy, as some often attribute the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” to them. Wharton married Edward Wharton, who was 12 years her senior, in 1885. Edward suffered from depression for the entirety of their marriage. The two evidently loved to travel together, but his mental state got progressively worse, so they ceased traveling and eventually, Edith divorced Edward in 1913.

But during their 28-year marriage, Edith displayed her love for interior and garden design. She built their estate, The Mount, which the coupled retreated to during Edward’s darkest time, to nurture her passion for decor. The Mount still exists today in Lenox, Massachusetts. (I’d love to go!) It’s open to the public and often has special programs in her memory.

Edith wrote many novels, short stories and even a little poetry before she passed away at 75 in 1937. “Ethan Frome,” “The House of Mirth” and “Twilight Sleep” were some of her more popular novels. Honestly, I most want to read her autobiography “A Backward Glance.” I can’t imagine what it must have been like to grow up in old New York within a prominent family, and I imagine her life was anything but ordinary.

Edith is often known for addressing ethical issues in her writing. I read “The Age of Innocence” after my art history professor told us she’d be showing the movie in class. This may sound odd, but I absolutely loathe going to see a movie if I know I’d like to read the book. This was definitely the case here, and I’m so glad this was the book that introduced me to Edith.

“The Age of Innocence”  tells us how the upper class of old New York might have responded had a “scandalous” 30-year-old woman entered into their presence. Newland Archer is practically set to marry May Welland, a virtuous and beautiful young woman. But Newland doubts his decision after meeting her cousin Ellen Olenska. Ellen scoffs at New York’s snobby nature, and her experiences, including a possible separation from a Polish count, intrigue Newland. As his attraction for her grows, he tries to speed up the wedding with May. He even convinced Ellen to avoid officially divorcing the count, as divorce was essentially social suicide for her and her family at the time.

Finally, Newland and May do get married, though just before that Newland and Ellen confess their love to one another. The story goes on from there, with several twists and turns and not exactly the happy ending I was hoping for, but it was incredibly romantic. In fact, writing this makes me want to read it all over again. (The movie was pretty good too, but please, please read the book first!)

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, this novel won the Pulitzer Prize — the first one ever given to a woman! And it’s been applauded for its portrayal of New York’s inner immorality, thinly cloaked in social expectations and “purity.” Wharton actually considered it to be less critical than her novel “The House of Mirth,” which was her first work of fiction.

“The House of Mirth” is often associated with Naturalism, which suggests that human character is directly related to the environment of that human, along with social expectations and heredity. The book is written as a “novel of manners,” which is actually a genre of its own. It uses details to portray the values and customs of a developed society. Just writing that makes me want to read more of this genre.

Any suggestions?

This post is especially dear to me, as Connie is a local writer — and an amazing one at that. She wrote for the Plain Dealer for 18 years. She just left the paper in 2011, saying:

“In recent weeks, it has become painfully clear that my independence, professionally and personally, is possible only if I’m no longer writing for the newspaper that covers my husband’s senate race on a daily basis. It’s time for me to move on.”

She’s married to U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, who is seeking reelection this year. She’s still writing for both Parade Magazine and will continue her columns with the Creators Syndicate.

She’s really been a great advocate for women, and her columns have always paid special attention to economic and social injustice. I recently heard her speak at the League of Women Voters luncheon, which honored female journalists.

Her speech was incredibly inspiring. One of her anecdotes particular resonated with me. She spoke of a female colleague who held a position at the paper that was equivalent with several other men on staff. Connie noticed her standing in the newsroom one day, watching the men having a meeting. She looked discouraged, and when Connie asked her why, she said she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t been invited to meet as well. Connie asked her a question that I think many women should ask themselves:

“I’m wondering why you’re waiting for an invitation.”

It’s a sad but true reality that at times, we’re just going to have to force our way in.

Anyway, if you’re interested, I encourage you to read a column she wrote around the time Caroline Kennedy released hours an interview her mother, Jackie, had given years ago. Connie encourages readers to avoid the critics who take bits and pieces of the interview out of context. For instance, Jackie says she doesn’t think women should be involved with politics. Females (and some males) reacted with understandable fury at the conclusion she had come to, but they ignored what lead to it.

Jackie was talking about her inability to shake things off. Unlike her husband, when the media or a colleague would “be unfair,” she had trouble letting it go. She admired JFK for his ability to move forward after conflict.

“He always treated it so objectively, as if they were people on a chess board — which is right. I mean, how could you if you — if he’d gotten so mad at all these people, then you may need to work with them again later. So, it’s the only way to be effective.”

First and foremost, I am not at all offended by her ability to acknowledge this about herself and about women. Of course, not all women have difficulty looking at situations without emotion, without examining the past. But I know that I often can’t do that. And to be honest, some things just shouldn’t be overlooked.

“Surely, we disagree today with her conclusions, but her broader point — that women tend to take personally the attacks on those we love — still resonates,” Connie writes.

Definitely.

My favorite part of this particular column is a line at the beginning, which is sort of a “tough love” comment for those of us who can relate.

“We have such demanding expectations of the women we will never be.”

She also wrote a wonderful story about John Glenn when he turned 90. And of course, she acknowledges the woman who has been with Mr. Glenn for 66 years.

“Annie is as engaging as she is generous, full of opinions earned by living life at full throttle, even when she was scared to death. And that is a crucial truth about Annie Glenn. Americans rightly “ooh” and “ahh” over John Glenn’s courage in space, but let us never forget the hero of a wife who gave her public blessing, and then privately prayed until his safe return.”

My favorite reporters are always those who not only focus and talk with the main person in the story, but who also talk with the people standing behind him or her. Their opinions are often far more insightful, far more indicative of the subject.

Please go read a few of her columns. You won’t regret it.

From when I first read “The Color Purple” in AP English to when I made the trip to Cleveland’s PlayhouseSquare for the musical, I’ve loved Alice Walker. Her commitment to telling the truth, even when it isn’t pretty, has always seemed honorable to me. Her books both anger and ignite me.

First, some background. She was the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She won it for “The Color Purple,” which also happened to win a National Book Award. She was born in 1944 to a poor family, though they still made sure to instill in her a commitment to academia.

The biography I’m reading says when she was very young, her brother shot her in the eye with a BB gun, leaving a scar on her face and a scar on her confidence. She retreated into the comforting world of books and art. She was an excellent student in high school, graduating as valedictorian and going on to college first at Spelman then at Sarah Lawrence. She published her first book while at Sarah Lawrence — a collection of poems titled “Once.”

Walker’s commitment to the Civil Rights movement deepened after school. She married a civil rights lawyer, Melvyn Rosenman Leventhal. The 60s and the 70s were an exciting time for her I imagine. “The Third Life of Grange Copeland,” which I’m reading now in one of my classes, was her first novel. It was published in 1970. “The Color Purple,” which came out in 1982, was her third.

She’s gone on to write many essays and novels, and she now lives in Northern California.

A side note — Walker helped to bring the work of Hurston (see here) to the public eye.

I’ll mostly address Walker’s debut novel, as I’m sure most have read or at least heard about “The Color Purple.” If not, I suggest you do.

“The Third Life of Grange Copeland” is an incredibly frustrating novel about what happened when African Americans, after being released from slavery, were still forced to wear the “Jim Crow mask.” It addresses the oppression created from sharecropping.

Sharecropping came about during Reconstruction. The system allowed African Americans to plant, grow and harvest their crop. White landowners gave them land in exchange for a share of the crop produced on that land. But as they planted the crop and waited for it to grow, they had to buy food and clothes on credit from white store owners. When the crop was ready to be harvested and sold, they had to give the white owners money, not only for the expected share, but for the “credit” they had taken out for the food and clothes. White land/store owners would often say they owed them more than they actually did. And because of the “Jim Crow mask,” which required African Americans to be subdued and passive in the presence of whites, they couldn’t put up a fight. It sent them in to a cycle of debt and eventual poverty.

The two main characters in the book are products of sharecropping. Grange Copeland is the father of Brownfield. He is a sharecropper, and at the beginning of the book, it’s easy to see how incredibly frustrated he is with the hand he’s been dealt. He takes it out on his family — especially his wife, accusing her of cheating and subsequently beating her. Eventually, she transforms into the person he accuses her of being, and Brownfield observes with confusion and anger.

Brownfield’s mother eventually poisons herself and her baby that she had with another man. Brownfield’s father runs off, leaving him with the opportunity to run away as well. He does, but he doesn’t get very far. His life takes an interesting turn when he meets Josie, who owns a lounge with her daughter Lorene. He starts sleeping with both of them until he meets Mem, Josie’s neice. She’s educated and introverted, representing a different kind of woman from Josie and Lorene. He falls in love with her, marrying her and moving away.

In an effort to give Mem what she deserves, Brownfield begins sharecropping as well. The reader begins to see the deterioration of our protagonist at this point. He slowly but surely turns into his father, taking out all of his frustration on Mem and her innocence.

I’ll stop there, as I’m not much beyond that, and I think it’s worth reading if you’re even slightly interested in this time period.

I am, and I’ve really enjoyed taking a class where the professor picks the less obvious choice for reading. Alice Walker has really given me a better understanding of the patriarchal black culture that existed and the struggles black women went through long after slavery was abolished.

Alexandra Fuller grew up in Africa.

She moved to Rhodesia (an unrecognized state from 1965 to 1979 that is now Zimbabwe) from England when she was quite young. Her family lived throughout Africa during her childhood. Fuller has said her mother was quite a powerful woman. She was convinced that one of her children would become a writer, so she would often read the complete works of Shakespeare to her sister while she was still in the womb.

But it was Alexandra who would become the writer. Her first novel, “Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight,” was a New York Times Bestseller and a finalist for the Guardian First Book Prize. It tells the story of Alexandra’s childhood in Africa. She has since written three more non-fiction books, as well as done some writing for National Geographic, The New Yorker, Vogue and Granta Magazine. She’s had quite a varied career.

I don’t want to give anything away about Alexandra’s first book. (I’m reading it right now.) But I absolutely love it so far. She writes with such humor — even when in incredibly difficult circumstances. Her mother had a very serious drinking problem, yet you can still tell how Alexandra was able to look past it at times and appreciate her uniqueness. In the passage below, she’s referring to her mother’s posture one evening as she sits on the veranda, drinking whisky and listening to her old Scottish records.

“The cross-leggedness is a hangover from the brief period in Mum’s life when she took up yoga from a book. Which was better than the brief period in her life in which she explored the possibility of converting to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And better than the time she bought a book on belly-dancing at a rummage sale and tried out her techniques on every bar north of the Limpopo River and south of the equator.”

I had to laugh, especially at that last line. And you can tell that the writer laughed too, even in the most difficult moments, but you can also tell how closely she observed her mother at a young age. I think that’s certainly an indication of admiration, and I find their relationship to be an amazing example of how a mother and a daughter deal with obstacles in life and in their relationship.

But apparently, Alexandra’s mother wasn’t fond of the way she was portrayed in the book. She told the author that she felt she had no idea who she was or what kind of impact she had on her life. From that point on, Alexandra began recording their conversations — eventually turning them in to her most recent book, “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness.” This book is based almost entirely on her mother and how she dealt with the death of three of her children.

I think my favorite thing about Alexandra’s writing are her descriptions. She wrote a story in National Geographic about the Zambian people and their relationship to wildlife. Read it here. It’s essentially a diary of her experience as she travels around the area. She talks with a chief committed to conservation, a man who eats elephant soup, a former poacher and a woman who protects the area from poachers. It’s simply a profile of the land and its people, but I love the way she describes Sunday Finkansa, the former poacher.

“He knows it [the land] the way the rest of us know our way to the bathroom at night,” she writes. “He is 44 years old, with a face like granite — as if you might reach below it and find some direct connection to the earth—and a short, square body hardened by deadly exercise.”

Her writing, as you may have noticed, has quite a bit to do with nature and the places she’s lived. She seems to love writing about animals and about the people who love animals. But like most of the writers I tend to be drawn to, she’s a reporter first, and that makes her incredibly observant.

I plan to read her most recent book in the near future.

OK — this very well could be one of my favorite posts. There’s also a good chance I will write about Didion again on this blog. She’s certainly one of my favorite female writers.

She was born in Sacramento, California. She’s always described herself as a “bookish” child who kept mostly to herself. (We’re kindred spirits!) She really didn’t consider herself much of a writer until after she got published. She went to the University of California, Berkeley, and in her final year, she won a Vogue essay contest. Her prize? A job at the magazine. (Jealousy courses through me.) She wrote her first novel, “Run River,” in 1963.

She continued to write after marrying fellow writer John Gregory Dunne in 1964. The two moved to California, where Didion wrote many of her very famous essays. She established herself as a “new journalist” during this time. (New Journalism allows the reporter to immerse him or herself in the story, providing for a more subjective view of a topic.)

But perhaps what draws me to Didion most is her resilience and her ability to use writing as a way to figure out how she really feels about something. In 2003, her adopted daughter became very ill. Following a visit to the hospital, her husband died of a heart attack. “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005), which was a National Book Award winner, covers Didion’s emotional response to experiencing a very sudden loss. Shortly after she finished it, her daughter passed away as well. Her book “Blue Nights” (2011) is a very personal account of how she dealt with the death of her daughter. It is her latest work.

In the interest of full disclosure, I just learned of Didion last year. I spent my summer up in Chautauqua, New York, where I worked as a reporter. A fellow reporter introduced me to Didion; she knew I’d quickly become a fan. She was so right.

I read “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which includes a collection of essays. I’ll focus on these for this particular post. (I’m also reading “The Last Thing He Wanted,” with plans to read “Blue Nights” right after. I like to mix it up.)

“Slouching” has been praised for its incredible examination of California in the 1960s. In the title essay, she writes of the hippy culture of Haight-Ashbury, a district of San Francisco. It takes its title from the last line of a Yates poem.

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The essay is a bit dark. Along with several other stories of drugs and creative expression, Didion observes a preschool-aged child being given LSD from her parents. Mentioning anecdotes like these is her way of making sure the reader understands how gritty and potentially damaging this time period was for this particular area. You certainly leave the essay understanding how committed this group of people was to challenging the social and political norms.

I also want to touch on two of her person essays, titled “Goodbye to All That” and “On Keeping a Notebook.”

In “Goodbye to All That,” Didion writes of her decision to live in and leave New York City. It’s incredibly honest, telling of her sudden disenchantment with being there and meeting people. In fact, she starts to believe she can’t possibly do the latter.

“Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before, and I could no longer listen. I could no longer sit in little bars near Grand Central and listen to someone complaining of his wife’s inability to cope with the help while he missed another train to Connecticut. I no longer had any interest in hearing about the advances other people had received from their publishers, about plays which were having second-act trouble in Philadelphia, or about people I would like very much if only I would come out and meet them. I had already met them, always.”

I think despite never having lived in New York City, I can very much relate to feeling this. Many other college students probably can too. If you go out, you meet the same people, always.

“On Keeping a Notebook” is my favorite of her personal essays. She considers why people keep notebooks and journals, what makes them important, what they say about the particular person writing in them. The following passage helped me to understand why I’ve kept a journal at certain points in my life.

“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were”

I’ll leave you with that.

Until next time.

Want more? Read this.

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