Monday Miscellany

A New Book About To Kill a Mockingbird Author Harper Lee?

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdLast week saw the announcement of a new book about Harper Lee, The Mockingbird Next Door by Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills. USA Today explains how Mills obtained material about the notoriously reclusive and publicity-shy Lee:

Mills was able to penetrate Lee’s wariness by working slowly: In 2001, she went to Monroeville, Ala., to write a story about the author. Over the next several years, she gained the trust of both Harper — Nelle to her friends — and her sister, Alice, a formidable person in her own right — “Atticus in a skirt,” still practicing law into her 90s. In 2004, Mills, on leave from work, actually moved to Monroeville, to a house right next door to the sisters.

But the USA Today story also claims, “Mills wrote her story with the approval of both sisters,” an assertion that Harper Lee has vigorously denied:

According to a letter penned by none other than 88-year-old Nelle Harper Lee herself—who, mind you, hasn’t written a book since Mockingbird, doesn’t grant interviews, and generally stays out of the public eye—_The Mockingbird Next Door_ was executed without her cooperation or permission and based on false pretenses. Lee first issued a statement on the matter in 2011 when Penguin Press announced that it had acquired the book. Now, on the evening before its July 15 release, she’s reminding us that nothing has changed on her end.

This EW article reproduces Harper Lee’s letters of April 2011 and July 2014. The article also includes a statement from Penguin Press that it is “proud to publish The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee by Marja Mills” and a letter from Mills insisting “that Nelle Harper Lee and Alice F. Lee were aware I was writing this book.”

I bet we haven’t heard the last of this disagreement.

Books By Or About Unconventional Women

From novelist Jessica Levine:

The unconventional woman has, since the beginnings of the novel, been a favorite object of study. Take an intelligent woman with a mind critical enough to consider that the restrictions imposed upon the female sex are ridiculous and unfair, and tighten the noose around her neck with an economic downfall or a father’s choice of a repulsive suitor and voilà! – you have the stuff of tragedy – or comedy, depending on the author’s bent. The unconventional responses to a woman’s lot have included taking a lover, walking away from your children, and breaking a variety of other taboos. The following list includes mostly novels that inspired me while I wrote my novel, The Geometry of Love [She Writes Press, $16.95], as well as a volume of poetry and a couple of works of non-fiction.

A history-spanning list of 10 works that, much to my surprise, does not include The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

The 12 best destinations for bookworms

A useful list for you travel planning, from Kristina Fazzalaro:

The beauty of reading a good book is that it transports you to a whole different world – without ever costing you a penny (at least in travel expenses!). Whether James Joyce guides you through Dublin, or Hemingway fixes you a drink from his home in Key West, literature opens pathways to other dimensions that never require a passport. But sometimes the imagination needs a dose of reality to fully grasp the whole picture. Other times, an author’s words so imbue a reader’s mind, he or she cannot help but pack up bags to experience the same sights, sounds and smells that gave birth to a favorite novel. Poets, novelists, and playwrights give us a little bit of their world on every page – and now it’s our chance to take a bit more for ourselves. The best destinations for book lovers are enumerable: Every person has a favorite author, and every author has a different world view. But there are some spots around the globe that possess just a bit more of a literary spark than others. So pack your bags – and your favorite paperback – because we’re going on a trip perfect for any bookworm.

I’m guessing that she really means innumerable—-“incapable of being counted, countless”—instead of enumerable, which means “capable of being counted.”

Nonetheless, this international list includes suggestions for where to stay in each city.

Ireland a Literary Atlas: INFOGRAPHIC

Someday, I will return to Ireland. And when I do, I’ll take a printout of this infographic with me.

In the meantime, I offer you a couple of photos of the Dublin Writers Museum.

Dublin Writers Museum


Dublin Writers Museum


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“Mr. Mercedes” by Stephen King: The Power of Characters

Literature & Psychology

Cover: Mr. MercedesKing, Stephen. Mr. Mercedes
New York: Scribner, 2014
448 pages
ISBN–13: 978–1476754451

I don’t read a lot of Stephen King’s works because I don’t like horror. But I do love mysteries, so when I saw King’s latest book described as a “straight-up mystery,” I went for it.

Technically, Mr. Mercedes is not a mystery—in which the reader tries to decipher clues along with the detective and finds out the killer’s identity at the end—but a thriller—in which the reader knows the killer’s identity early on and watches the killer and the detective play cat and mouse throughout the story. But the book is a straight-up thriller, and it builds suspense by building engaging and credible characters.

King opens the book with a scene of hundreds of unemployed people lining up in the pre-dawn hours before the opening of a job fare. This introductory narration focuses on three people, a young man and the single mother with an infant whom he befriends. In this short introduction we become emotionally invested in these characters, so when the big silver Mercedes plows into the crowd, we want to know how and why. And we want to see this killer caught and punished.

The story then cuts to Bill Hodges, a police detective who had been unable to solve the case of the Mercedes killer before he retired. Now he spends his time drinking while watching afternoon talk shows on TV and playing with the service weapon of his late father, also a police officer. But when he receives a taunting letter from someone calling himself the Mercedes killer, Hodges finds renewed purpose. He begins to use his old investigative strategies to identify and catch this maniac on his own.

Next we meet Brady Hartsfield, the villain, and overhear his thoughts about why he killed all those people and why he wrote to Bill Hodges. We gradually learn more about him as we follow his twisted logic and see how he keeps his inner life under cover while moving through his everyday existence of holding down two jobs and caring for his alcoholic mother.

Both Hodges and Hartsfield could be only mildly interesting stereotypes. Hodges is the retired policeman, the adrenaline junkie, who’s having trouble adjusting to the dull life of retirement and who is haunted by his failure to solve one of the biggest cases of his career. Like many police officers, his job was his whole life. He has drifted away from his only family, a daughter, and feels lonely and worthless. And Hartsfield could be the typical psychopath of literature, with a now alcoholic mother who was widowed young and has lavished sexually inappropriate behavior on her son. He avoids personal relationships with coworkers and spends all of his free time in the computer center he has created in his basement.

But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and Stephen King is a master of detail. His development of both Hodges and Hartsfield is so specific and complex that we come to understand both of these characters as they play out their mutually driven scenario of action and counteraction.

And just as King uses minor characters in the opening scene to draw us into the world of the novel, he provides a few more along the way to advance the plot and to retain our sympathy. There’s 17-year-old Jerome Robinson, Hodges’s neighbor and only real friend, who provides both the computer savvy and the moral support Hodges needs in his investigation. There’s Janey Patterson, sister of the owner of the stolen Mercedes used in the job-fair killings, who also contributes to both Hodges’s investigation and his confidence. And finally there’s Janey’s cousin, Holly, who turns out to be much more resourceful than she originally seems.

Mr. Mercedes demonstrates the power of good character development in fiction. As crime novelist Karin Slaughter has said, “If you have great plot, but nobody cares about the characters, then nobody’s gonna read it.”

Related Post:

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Are You a Handwriter or a Typer? | boy with a hat

Handwriting is like making love; typing, like having sex. It’s essentially the same enjoyable activity, but the approach is slightly different.

via Are You a Handwriter or a Typer? | boy with a hat.

Random blog quotation.

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2013 Shirley Jackson Awards Winners

Locus Online News » 2013 Shirley Jackson Awards Winners.

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Nadine Gordimer, Novelist Who Took On Apartheid, Is Dead at 90 –

Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer whose literary ambitions led her into the heart of apartheid to create a body of fiction that brought her a Nobel Prize in 1991, died on Sunday in Johannesburg. She was 90.

via Nadine Gordimer, Novelist Who Took On Apartheid, Is Dead at 90 –

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Monday Miscellany

Could reading dark literature harm your teenage children?

kid with booksThis isn’t a new question, but this answer is fairly well balanced, with discussion from scientists for both sides of the issue.

Judy Blume: ’I thought, this is America: we don’t ban books. But then we did’

A delightful interview with Judy Blume, who has her own ideas about why her books are so often challenged:

Blume’s theory is that children read over what they aren’t yet ready to understand. Sometimes, she says, “kids will actually go to Mom or Dad and say ‘What does this mean?’, which is the perfect time to talk to them about it. But that’s when sometimes parents get hysterical. Really. It’s like, ‘Argh, I don’t want to talk to you about this, let’s get rid of this book, I don’t ever want to talk to you about this, I don’t ever want you to go through puberty.’”

Amazon, a Friendly Giant as Long as It’s Fed

From household names to deeply obscure scribblers, authors are inflamed this summer, perhaps more deeply divided than at any point in nearly a half-century. Back then, it was the question of being a hawk or dove on Vietnam. Now it is not a war but an Internet retailer and its unparalleled grip on the cultural machinery that is provoking fierce controversy.

If you’re wondering about the details of this controversy between authors and Amazon, here’s a refresher course.

The Best Books of 2014 So Far

A list of 36 titles put together by Brenna Clarke Gray at Book Riot.

But the article asks readers to add their favorites in the comments, so be sure to look there.

Are modern detectives the new priests?

I like mysteries because the best ones explore the depths of the human psyche without being too preachy.

In this article Giles Fraser looks at the functions of mystery writing with specific reference to HBO’s recent hit show True Detective:

The modern secular imagination prides itself on having got beyond the childish ways of historical theology. But our continued obsession with detective fiction suggests something remarkably adjacent to traditional theological concerns, and its lonely, world-weary hard-drinking advocates – think Luther – have become the priests and theologians of our day. Yes, there are obviously religious detectives – the BBC’s Father Brown, Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael character – but they can be seen as seeking (unconvincingly, perhaps) to reclaim something of this new priestly ministry for more traditional ideological purposes.

Sci-Fi’s Best ‘Alien’ Narrators Who Restore Our Humanity

Matt Haig is the author of the novel The Humans, in which an alien inhabits the body of a human mathematician to destroy his ground-breaking theory. But the alien soon becomes fascinated by the everyday lives of humans.

Here Haig writes:

The best science fiction writers use the genre not to escape human life, but to explore it. Sometimes the most illuminating way to examine ourselves is to look at us from a different perspective: an alien narrator, for instance, or a human narrator placed in an inhuman environment, where humans are scarce, dwindling or totally non-existent. Here are my favorite books that get close to us, by losing us.

See his list of four novels that best use the literary device of an alien narrator to explore the nature of human existence.

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The Texas Observer Short Story Contest 2014 | The Texas Observer Memberships and Contributions

The Texas Observer Short Story Contest 2014 

The Texas Observer has announced its short story contest. Entrants need not live in Texas (although stories with a Texas setting or theme are encouraged). The winner will receive $1,000 and publication in the magazine. This year’s judge is author Elizabeth McCracken.

Click the link above for more information on how to enter.

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Monday Miscellany

Vroom, Vroom, Hmmmm: Motorcycles As Literary Metaphor

Cover: Zen and Art of Motorcycle MaiantenanceConfession time: I’ve only made it half way through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. I keep the book on my shelf because I fully intend, someday, to finish it off.

And so this report intrigued me:

In literature, motorcycles — and the people who ride them — often represent an outlaw spirit, danger and sex. For motorcyclist Allie MacKenzie, that’s a no-brainer. “Who in their right mind can pass up a bad boy on a bike?” MacKenzie rides a Harley Sportster Forty-Eight. At Bartel’s, she picks a passage from the book Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley: “I was panting, and he was cursing. It was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to me. If he would have asked me to, I would have jumped on the back of his bike and ridden to the ends of the Earth with him.”

When should a student’s writing raise red flags?

Anyone who has ever taught English or writing at just about any level has wrestled with this question.

[Julie Schumacher] took up her nonfiction pen to write an Opinionator piece for The New York Times about her own experience (in 2008) with a student who had been writing disturbing poems (about killing people) and frightening a teaching assistant and classmates. Schumacher, the TA’s supervisor, had been called upon by university administrators to intervene, and ask the question: “Do you plan to harm yourself or anyone else?”

10 Most Reclusive Literary Geniuses in History

The world’s greatest writers use their literary genius to illustrate and comment on the human condition. And yet, those who could be considered to have the best understanding of human feelings often choose to hide themselves away from the public eye. The stereotype of the reclusive author is not always true, but for these literary greats, a life of solitude had more appeal than the draws of fame and awards.

Stephen King, Donna Tartt among signers of anti-Amazon letter

And the battle rages on:

Stephen King, Nora Roberts and Donna Tartt are among the hundreds of authors who have added their names to an online letter criticizing for restricting access to works published by Hachette Book Group.

World Book Night Suspends Operations

After a three year effort, World Book Night officials said this morning they are suspending its operations. In a statement, executive director Carl Lennertz cited lack of outside funding as the main reason for ending the book-giving project.

World Book Night is a project that aims to get books into the hands of people who might not otherwise be inclined to read. Seeing it go down saddens me.

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Must We Like Fictional Characters?

Literature & Psychology

During a recent book group discussion of John Updike’s novel Rabbit, Run, someone said, “I don’t particularly like any of the characters in this book.” I had to admit that I agreed with this assessment, but that truth doesn’t affect my appreciation of the book.

This seemingly casual reference to not liking fictional characters isn’t unusual in book discussions. Last year (2013) saw a protracted kerfuffle in the literary community about likeability when a Publishers Weekly interviewer told Claire Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the narrator of Messud’s recent novel The Woman Upstairs], would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.” Messud replied:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t “is this a potential friend for me?” but “is this character alive?” Nora’s outlook isn’t “unbearably grim” at all. Nora is telling her story in the immediate wake of an enormous betrayal by a friend she has loved dearly. She is deeply upset and angry. But most of the novel is describing a time in which she felt hope, beauty, elation, joy, wonder, anticipation—these are things these friends gave to her, and this is why they mattered so much. Her rage corresponds to the immensity of what she has lost. It doesn’t matter, in a way, whether all those emotions were the result of real interactions or of fantasy, she experienced them fully. And in losing them, has lost happiness.

In response, The New Yorker “surveyed a group of novelists—Donald Antrim, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Rivka Galchen, and Tessa Hadley” in what it called A Forum on “Likeability”. Here are excerpts from their answers, but you should read the whole piece:

  • Donald Antrim: “ I have no problem with liking a character. But if that’s the reason I’m reading, I’ll put the book down.”
  • Margaret Atwood: “This does still come up. It is indeed a ridiculous question. The qualities we appreciate in a character are not the same as those we would look for in a college roommate.”
  • Rivka Galchen: Galchen describes her own quest to find books with “female narrators or characters that were … difficult and entrancing… . I think Claire Messud was talking about something substantive and more mysterious than it might first seem; … “The Woman Upstairs” has, as a central project, an investigation into this dim territory.”
  • Jonathan Franzen: “I hate the concept of likeability—it gave us two terms of George Bush, whom a plurality of voters wanted to have a beer with, and Facebook.”
  • Tessa Hadley: “What’s disappointing isn’t the reader having that reaction, as if the book were real life. Rather, it’s the timidity of readers’ judgements sometimes—their wanting characters to be “nice,” their punitive reaction if the character is headlong, or extravagant, or selfish—particularly if it’s a female character, and a female reader.” But, Hadley admits, this “likeability” thing isn’t altogether under readers’ control.”

The consensus of The New Yorker panelists is that likeability isn’t necessary in a fictional character.

I agree with the panelists. I don’t need to like fictional characters, but, for fiction to be good, I do need to understand them. My understanding requires authors to provide adequate character development. The human psyche is deliciously messy, and good character development therefore must be complete enough to probe the complex, often ambivalent depths of a character’s full repertoire of motivations. Getting to know characters in this way is, after all, why we read fiction.

I also hear people speak of “caring about”—or not—characters, which is not the same as liking them. If understanding characters is an intellectual function—understanding with the head—caring about characters adds the element of empathy—understanding with the heart.

In Updike’s Rabbit, Run, none of the characters is particularly likable. There’s the main character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, whose reaction to every obligation of adulthood is to run. There’s Harry’s wife, Janice, whose main resource for mothering is a bottle of liquor. There’s Rev. Eccles, who tries to pretend that his meddling is motivated by care and concern. And there’s Janice’s parents, who raised their daughter to believe her primary purpose in life is to snag a husband. Yet it’s hard not to empathize with all of them. The best part of Harry’s life is behind him, in his high school basketball career; he has no job opportunities and nothing to aspire to. Janice, with a two-year-old and a ripening pregnancy, faces choosing between single parenthood and a loveless marriage. Rev. Eccles wears the collar but doesn’t really believe what he preaches. And Janice’s parents so the only thing they can do: take in their daughter and grandson, rail against the philandering husband, and finally offer him a job at the family’s car dealership.

Rabbit, Run presents a complicated world in which complex characters try to live out the lives that that world makes available to them. I may not like those characters, but I do understand them. And that’s reason enough to appreciate Updike’s achievement.

For more on the topic of character likeability, see Jennifer Weiner’s piece “I Like Likable Characters” in Slate. She finally comes down on the side of “a library filled with the likable and the loathsome, with froth and fun and hate and spite, with books to suit every hour and every mood,” but along the way she includes links to several additional points of view on fictional characterization.

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Monday Miscellany

Because I am currently in the process of leaving my heart in San Francisco, this week’s Monday Miscellany is short.

10 of the Best Independent Bookstores Across the U.S.

Barnes & Noble will always be there with a stack of bestsellers, and Half Price Books is likely to have the novel you’re looking for in a pinch. But for travelers, little will beat the act of stepping inside a small, local bookstore, being greeted by the owner and guided through the collection by an employee who actually loves literature as much as you do. Maybe it’s their independent spirit (reading, after all, is a form of freedom), or maybe it’s that they’re connected with local authors, but the independent bookstore manages to live on in an era of Kindles and chain resellers. So, if you’re like us, and agree that a good trip deserves a good book, then just for you, here are 10 of our editors’ favorite independently owned bookstores throughout the United States.

Are you lucky enough to have one of these stores nearby?

  • The Booksmith, San Francisco, CA
  • Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, WA
  • Harvard Book Store, Cambridge, MA
  • Kramerbooks & Afterwords Café & Grill, Washington, D.C.
  • Mercer Street Books & Records, New York
  • Powell’s, Portland, OR
  • Skylight Books, Los Angeles, CA
  • Square Books, Oxford, MS
  • Strand Book Store, New York
  • Women & Children First, Chicago, IL

Cheyenne literary club vibrant after 112 years

Then there is the Young Men’s Literary Club of Cheyenne, still going after an incredible 112 years.
Established in 1902, the capital city’s organization is something of a relic and only one of a handful of literary clubs from that era that survive today.
It is an elite men-only organization with 30 active members who must be invited to join.

The rules of the club state that its purpose is “to provide benefits from the training of the mind in literary pursuits and the advantage to be gained by the interchange of ideas and discussion of topics of public interest.”

But isn’t it too bad that no one has realized, during those 112 years, that women read and discuss literature, too? See how the exclusive members reacted to a couple of different attempts to incorporate women into the group.

Shel Silverstein’s Unlikely Rise to Kid Lit Superstardom

Shel Silverstein—the late cartoonist, singer, songwriter, playwright, and mega-selling author of such classics as The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends—didn’t like children’s literature. Spoon-feeding kids sugar-sweet stories just wasn’t his style. Fortunately for generations of young readers, someone convinced him to do something about it—namely, break the mold himself. Using edgy humor, clever rhymes, and tripped-out drawings, Silverstein achieved the impossible. He bridged the worlds of adult and children’s art, while becoming wildly popular in the process.

More of the usual good stuff from Metal Floss.

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