On Novels and Novelists

The ghostwriter, the secret plot and a ‘grave-robbing’ Stieg Larsson sequel

You may remember that Swedish author Stieg Larsson dropped dead shortly after delivering the manuscript of the third novel in what has come to be called his Millennium trilogy. His long-time live-in companion, Eva Gabrielsson, said that his laptop contained a nearly completed manuscript of a fourth book in the series. She and Larsson’s family fought in the courts over possession of the laptop and its contents, but because Gabrielsson and Larsson were never married, his family got the prize.

Now comes word that the official launch of the fourth book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, will take place on August 27. (The Swedish title of the novel translates as That Which Doesn’t Kill Us.) The book has been written by Swedish author David Lagercrantz. Gabrielsson isn’t happy about the takeover of Larsson’s work:

“This is just business, because you know the publisher has been in financial crisis for a couple of years,” she says. “It’s all a question of money.”

Swedish publisher Norstedts is going to great lengths to keep the contents of the book a secret. Lagercrantz and the many translators all worked on laptop computers not connected to the internet, and the publisher is not issuing any advance copies. Critics and ordinary readers alike will have to wait until the official release date to find our what’s new in the life of Lisbeth Salander.

Every Grateful Dead Song Annotated in Hypertext: Web Project Reveals the Deep Literary Foundations of the Dead’s Lyrics

The online annotated Grateful Dead also includes “Thematic Essays,” a bibliography and “bibliography of songbooks,” films and videos, and discographies for the band and each core member. There may be no more exhaustive a reference for the band’s output contained all in one place, though readers of this post may know of comparable guides in the vast sea of Grateful Dead commentary and compendiums online, in print, and on tape… . the proliferating, serious study of their songcraft and lyrical genius shows us that they will, indeed, survive.

11 Science Fiction Books That Are Regularly Taught in College Classes

“College professors often reach for classic science fiction when they’re planning classes on literature, society or philosophy.”

The texts students are likely to find listed on their course syllabi include the following:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  3. Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
  4. Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  6. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  7. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  8. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  9. Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
  10. 1984 by George Orwell
  11. Neuromancer by William Gibson

I read Brave New World and 1984 in college and Frankenstein in graduate school. A few others I’ve read on my own: Slaughterhouse Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Neuromancer.

How many of these books have you read, either for a course or on your own?

Children’s classic ‘Watership Down’ is based on real science

Richard Adams’s famous novel Watership Down came along well after I was an adult, and I have yet to read it, although it’s on my Classics Club reading list. But I found it interesting that Richard Adams did not make everything up.

Rather, Adams based his novel on research done in Wales by Ronald Lockley in the 1950s. Concerned about the spread of a rabbit disease called myxomatosis, the British Nature Conservancy sponsored research into the life of rabbits. Lockley watched and recorded the behavior of rabbits living in a warren behind a glass window. Lockley published his findings first in a scientific journal, the Journal of Animal Ecology, in 1961. He then expanded the work into a book, The Private Life of the Rabbit, published in 1964.

Adams based much of his rabbit society on Lockley’s book, although the novel includes some anthropomorphization not supported by Lockley’s study. But Adams consulted Lockley, and the two became friends.

Doyenne or Jezebel, Ireland’s Edna O’Brien Is a Master

Lucy Scholes describes Irish author Edna O’Brien as “an astute chronicler of female interiority.” O’Brien’s first novel, The Country Girls, was first published in 1960. But the focus of this article is O’Brien’s recently published The Love Object, a collection of 31 short stories that span her career.

According to Scholes, many of the female characters in these stories “are alienated due to a deep sense of unfulfillment, sacrificed to marriage or motherhood.” And “Many of the stories hinge on similar moments of realization that silently shake the very foundations of their subjects’ worlds.” Overall:

One of the wonderful things about The Love Object is how one can trace the developments in O’Brien’s career through its pages, watching the subtle shift between these earlier narratives of female experience and her later work that addresses the broader issues of Irish history and politics.

I keep discovering new authors whose works I’d like to read. So many books, so little time…

More on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Reactions to Harper Lee’s recently published aren’t going away any time soon. Here are some more that I’ve collected. Again, this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but here I’ve included only those pieces that add something new to the discussion rather than just echoing what has already been said.

I offer very short summaries of these articles here. I encourage you to follow the links and read the entire articles for a thought-provoking look at how Go Set a Watchman has entered our national consciousness.

Data Miners Dig for Answers About Harper Lee, Truman Capote and ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdIn 2013 Jan Rybicki and Maciej Eder released software capable of comparing word patterns across different books. Rubicki and Eder, both affiliated with universities in Krakow, Poland, have used their software in search of the persistent rumor that Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Harper Lee, wrote at least parts of her famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

By comparing Mockingbird with two of Capote’s works, In Cold Blood and The Grass Harp, the researchers have concluded that in the scene in which Scout and Jem are attacked on their way home from a school performance, the writing style has more in common with Capote’s than with Lee’s:

The researchers aren’t declaring that Mr. Capote wrote the passage but say that at this fraught moment in the narrative, Ms. Lee may have been subliminally using words as Mr. Capote did—or she may have been pulled off her typical authorial voice for some other reason.

Further, in an examination of Go Set a Watchman, “the scholars similarly did not find any parallels between writing by Ms. Lee and Mr. Capote, nor any signs of a strong editor.”

This is an informative article for anyone interested in data mining in the emerging field of digital humanities.

Harper Lee and the hero’s journey

Cover: The Hero with a Thousand FacesCharles Kinnaird poses the interesting theory that the differing portrayals of Atticus Finch in Mockingbird and Watchman illustrate Harper Lee’s life considered in light of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey as presented in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

I would submit that Harper Lee made that hero’s journey, and while her initial return home is reflected in Go Set a Watchman, her transformative work is seen in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Although Watchman has been published much later than Mockingbird, it was apparently written first, then heavily edited into Mockingbird. Therefore, Kinnaird is correct in looking at the novels in this order.

An Evening with the Real Scout Finch

Sarah Galo reports on a reading by Mary Badham, who played Scout in the famous 1962 film version of Mockingbird, of Watchman. Badham told the audience that she thinks Mockingbird came at a perfect time for our country and Watchman has done the same, in light of recent events:

she emphasized the importance of reading both of Harper Lee’s books in light of the “major things” that have come up in the past few weeks. “It all comes down to education. I tell the schools all the time, and I make the kids say it and then scream it: The root of all evil is ignorance.”

How Go Set a Watchman Solves the Mystery of Harper Lee

Boris Kachka writes for Vulture that Watchman is

a crucial biographical document. For every question it raises about its profoundly famous and private 89-year-old author, it also answers a mystery or two about Lee’s life and motivations.

Like other writers who look for the progression from Watchman to Mockingbird, he sees the recent publication as a measure of how Lee’s views about her hometown of Monroeville, AL, changed as she spent her early adult years in New York working at becoming a writer.

Harper Lee’s lingering Civil War ghosts: “Go Set a Watchman” is “a very accurate perspective of what’s going on here in the South”

In an interview with Salon, African American literature professor Angela Shaw-Thorburg of South Carolina State University talks about what Atticus Finch now represents.

About Mockingbird Shaw-Thorburg says:

when I read the novel, and think of it from my students’ perspective, I realize there’s not a lot of space given to black voice in that novel. It’s supposed to be a novel about race, about civil rights, but it’s a conversation between white people… . I’ve never seen it as a big statement about the humanity of black people, and how we need to fight for justice for black people. It’s about supporting the status quo.

And about the portrayal of Atticus Finch in Watchman she says:

It’s almost schizophrenic: On one hand we have an Atticus who says he’s all for justice, on the other hand he goes to Citizens Council meetings. I think this is a very accurate perspective of what’s going on here in the South. It’s part of our DNA. We have racism, but we get really upset if people are rude and crude. The two novels together are an accurate view of where we are as Southerners.

This article includes a link to Angela Shaw-Thornburg’s own review of Watchman in Southern Literary Review.

Atticus Finch Confronted What the South Couldn’t

In this piece in Time magazine Ralph Eubanks addresses the issue of the differences between the two versions of Atticus Finch:

The reason the Atticus of Mockingbird is iconic and the one in Watchman feels alien is because as Lee reworked Watchman into Mockingbird, she tapped into a key component of Southern culture: the need for folk heroes and mythic figures. It is through the folklore of the South that the region places a mirror up to its virtues and failures.

He continues:

Like any Southern liberal of his generation, Atticus does not challenge the foundation of Jim Crow privilege, even though he is actively defending a black client and trying to show his fellow white citizens to learn how to walk in another man’s shoes. He knows that he cannot convince a jury to treat Tom Robinson as an equal. So, Atticus Finch was a man of his time rather than a man before his time.

And finally: “In Watchman, Atticus becomes part of the forces in the South that Lee wrote Mockingbird to counteract.”

Eubanks believes that Watchman should not have been published now but should have been left “to be discovered and studied by scholars as an artifact after Lee’s death.”

America, Meet the Real Atticus Finch

Michael Bourne is a staff writer at The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. Calling Mockingbird “a white liberal fairy tale for the Civil Rights Era,” he goes on to say, “Were it not so clumsily constructed, Go Set a Watchman would be the great undiscovered masterwork of 20th-century Southern literature.”

Bourne has a lot more to say. But what I take issue with—as I said in my review of Watchman—is the notion that the two different Atticus Finches are real people whose contradictory portrayals must be explained to restore sense and balance to our universe.

The two men are literary characters. Each one exists only in his own book, not in both. We may discuss what the two different representations of Atticus Finch say about Harper Lee’s vision, about the times in which she wrote or in which Mockingbird is set, or about what Watchman has to say about current American society. But neither novel’s portrayal of Atticus Finch is better or more realistic or more accurate than the other. We each may, for whatever reasons, prefer one Atticus over the other, but that preference says more about us than it does about Atticus, that imagined fictional character.

Near the end of Watchman Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, asks her:

“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.

I will continue to love the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. Watchman has not introduced me to the “real” Atticus; it has introduced me to another, different Atticus. Compare the books, but don’t treat them as dueling biographies about the same historical person. Atticus Finch is a literary character, not a flesh-and-blood person.

Review: “Go Set a Watchman”

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman
New York: HarperCollins, 2015
ISBN 978–0–06–240985–0

You won’t envision Gregory Peck when you read what Atticus Finch has to say to his daughter late in this novel:

“You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you?” (p. 242)

“Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?” (p. 245)

“Honey, you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people… . They’ve made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they’re far from it yet.” (pp. 246–247)

The hard work of reconciling this picture of Atticus Finch with the Atticus Finch that Peck portrays in the film of To Kill a Mockingbird raises an essential question about this newly released novel by Harper Lee: Is it possible to review Go Set a Watchman without reference to To Kill a Mockingbird?

Probably not, but let’s give it a try.

In Watchman, 26-year-old Jean Louise Finch returns to Maycomb, Alabama, from New York City, where she has been living for five years. She comes home for two weeks every year to see her father, Atticus Finch, whom she adores, and her on-again-off-again boyfriend Henry Clinton, whom she has known since childhood. She usually travels by plane, but this year she takes the train. The view as she approaches her destination allows her to reconnect with the place where she grew up: “She wondered why she had never thought her country beautiful” (p. 6).

Jean Louise rolls her eyes over the Southern propriety of her Aunt Alexandra, Atticus’s sister, who never passes up an opportunity to explain that Jean Louise should stay home in Maycomb, get married and have children, and take care of her aging father. But she loses patience when her aunt invites some of the young women she grew up with over for coffee. After living in New York, Jean Louise cannot tolerate the narrow-mindedness of women who define themselves only in terms of their husbands and their children.

This scene crystallizes Jean Louise’s internal conflict: She loves and respects her father, but she no longer shares the beliefs and values that underlie the Southern way of life that he and Maycomb epitomize. Atticus, now 72, has always been her moral beacon. but she is shocked and disgusted when she sneaks into the courthouse and witnesses a political meeting at which both Atticus and Henry denounce Negroes and Jews. Jean Louise sneaks back out of the courthouse repulsed and sickened by the revelations of her father’s hypocrisy.

This pivotal scene of the coming-of-age story occurs very late in the novel. But it’s not just the novel’s pacing that’s off. The text doesn’t adequately prepare us for the depth of Jean Louise’s revulsion. We know that she has always loved and deeply respected her father for the values he taught her. So why is she so astonished now? How is it possible that she didn’t know her father held these views? She discusses her concerns with both her father and her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, afterwards, but this backward attempt at explaining what should have come before her moment of realization falls flat. And the explanation is given in terms of political theorizing that doesn’t adequately address the emotional nature of her reaction.

The writing in Watchman is adequate though uninspired. There are several flashbacks to Jean Louise’s childhood that are more interesting than the present time of the book but that also do not cohere thematically with the novel as a whole. The late climax and quick resolution that doesn’t effectively resolve matters leave the reader jarringly unsatisfied.

scroll divider

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThat’s my review of Watchman without reference to Mockingbird. But it leaves out one question that cannot be ignored: How do we reconcile the Atticus Finch of Watchman with the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird?

Not to be flip, but there’s only one possible answer: We don’t. These novels are two separate works. Even if we accept that Watchman is an early draft of what later became Mockingbird, each novel should be read and evaluated separately, in its own right. Comparing them might say something about Harper Lee or about the two different time periods presented in the books, but the publication of Watchman does not change To Kill a Mockingbird at all.

Compendium on “Go Set a Watchman”

I have finished reading Harper Lee’s newly released novel Go Set a Watchman and am collecting my thoughts. I read it slowly, taking copious notes. Probably like most people, I tried to read it in two mutually exclusive ways simultaneously: both with and without To Kill a Mockingbird as a touchstone. Figuring out how to evaluate it most fairly is indeed a conundrum.

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

While still working on my own discussion of the book, I offer you a compendium of articles that I began assembling a day or two before the publication date of Watchman, July 14. I have not read most of these pieces because I want to come to my own conclusions first.

I’m sure that there are spoilers galore in many of these articles, so I leave it up to you to decide whether to tackle these pieces before you read the novel for yourself or to wait until later.

I don’t claim that this list is exhaustive. I’m sure there are many other articles out there, but these are the ones that I’ve come across.

Early Reviews Hype ‘Watchman’ Interest

Publishers Weekly comments on early reviews of Go Set a Watchman, including those in the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian. Includes links.

‘Watchman’ Anticipation, in Photos

From Publishers Weekly:

From midnight release parties, to film screenings, to daylong read-a-thons, check out our photos of how bookstores around the country rang in the on-sale date of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the biggest publishing event of the year.

While Some Are Shocked by ‘Go Set a Watchman,’ Others Find Nuance in a Bigoted Atticus Finch

The revelation will probably alter readers’ views of “Mockingbird,” a beloved book that has sold more than 40 million copies globally and has become a staple of high school curriculums. It could also reshape Ms. Lee’s legacy, which until now has hinged entirely on the outsize success of her only novel, published 55 years ago.

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee: EW Review

Entertainment Weekly gives the novel a grade of D+. And most of the commenters seem to agree.

A New Account of ‘Watchman’s’ Origin and Hints of a Third Book

Tonja B. Carter, Harper Lee’s attorney, is changing her story.

Harper Lee may have written a third novel, lawyer suggests

More as the plot continues to thicken:

Harper Lee’s lawyer Tonja Carter, the woman at the centre of the mysteries surrounding Go Set a Watchman’s publication this week, has broken her silence. In a lengthy piece in the Wall Street Journal, she intimates that there may be a third novel by Lee residing in a safe-deposit box in her home town of Monroeville, Alabama.

The lawyer, the lock box and the lost novel: Harper Lee book mystery widens

Harper Lee’s lawyer, who negotiated the deal over this week’s controversial launch of Go Set a Watchman, was allegedly far more intricately involved in searching for the manuscript years ago than previously disclosed, the Guardian has been told.

The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

The story of how Therese von Hohoff Torrey — known professionally as Tay Hohoff — guided Harper Lee through a two-year revision process that eventually turned Lee’s original manuscript into To Kill a Mockingbird.

As ‘Watchman’ Hits Stands, Authors Reflect on ’To Kill a Mockingbird’

Several writers reflect for Publishers Weekly on how To Kill a Mockingbird “affected everything from their ideas about race and humanity to their choice of profession.”

The Suspicious Story Behind Harper Lee’s ’Go Set a Watchman’

From the New Republic:

This piece is the first in a three-part series we’ll be publishing this week on Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman.

Why I’ll Wait to Read GO SET A WATCHMAN

This post is part of our Harper Lee Reading Day: a celebration of one of the most surprising literary events of our lifetime, the publication of her new book, Go Set a Watchman.

On this page you’ll find a link to other entries in this series on Bookriot.

In this piece Jessica Tripler describes her hesitancy to jump into the new book because “I personally question whether Lee is capable of consenting to or understanding what is going on.”

What Critics Are Saying About Go Set a Watchman

This article itself is a compendium, with excerpts from major reactions to the novel from sources including the New York Times, The Guardian, and NPR.

6 Fascinating Facts About the Life & Literature of Harper Lee

From biography.com

Teachers’ New Homework: a ‘Watchman’ Plan

From the Wall Street Journal, a consideration of how teachers must revamp their lesson plans about To Kill a Mockingbird in light of Go Set a Watchman.

How Should Schools Deal With the New ‘Atticus Finch’?

From the New York Times, a good companion piece to the Wall Street Journal article:

Fans of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a book widely read by students in the United States — are reeling from the revelations that a beloved character, Atticus Finch, is portrayed as a racist in Lee’s recently released second novel, “Go Set a Watchman.”

For many teachers, this presents a conundrum in how the fictional character is taught in classrooms. How will the new book affect or change the way “To Kill a Mockingbird” is taught in middle and high school English classes?

This is the introductory page that links to discussions written by several people.

‘My Atticus’

Megan Garber for The Atlantic:

Go Set a Watchman is a threat not just to readers’ heroic idea of Atticus Finch, but also to the many, many children who have been named in his honor.

Could Harper Lee have written four books?

In an op-ed this week in The Wall Street Journal, Lee’s attorney, Tonja Carter, hinted at a third, as-yet-unpublished novel. And a friend of the author, who is also a professor of history at Auburn University in Alabama, spoke to CNN about a possible fourth book.

This possible fourth book is supposedly a nonfiction study of Rev. Willie Maxwell, who was suspected in the deaths of various relatives.

Mockingbirds, watchmen, and novelists: on Harper Lee and novel-writing

Amy Weldon, a native of Alabama, a fiction writer, and a professor of English at Luther College in Iowa, discusses the writing process by looking at Watchman as an early draft of Mockingbird.

Now We Can Finally Say Goodbye to the White Savior Myth of Atticus

An opinion piece by Osamudia R. James, professor of law at the University of Miami, where she writes and teaches about education, race and the law, and identity.

The literary crimes of Go Set a Watchman

This [Atticus Finch] is a perfectly acceptable hero, living and breathing in the kind of fictional world that many people, including myself, prefer. The problem is that Lee can’t have it both ways. Mockingbird is on a different literary plane than Watchman, and the two can only meet awkwardly, which is precisely what HarperCollins has demonstrated by grafting Watchman onto Mockingbird. They cannot work together in any meaningful sense; one cannot cast a new light on the other, except in the way an apple sheds light on an orange by being, well, different.

On Novels and Novelists

John Fowles, The Art of Fiction No. 109

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of The Paris Review. James R. Baker interviews John Fowles, author of, among others, The Collector (1963) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969).

Fowles says that he was heavily influenced by the existentialists. When the interview asks if he read Jung, Fowles replies:

For me Jung has always been the most fruitful psychologist, that is, most fertile in his effects on any subsequent fiction. I suspect a straight analyst, more or less in Freud’s footsteps, would suit me better medically, if I ever needed such attention—which perhaps I do … like every other novelist!

The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers alternate endings and is considered a touchstone in novelistic approaches to narrative form. When asked about this, Fowles replies:

In a sense the young novelist finds himself in a gymnasium, with apparatus for set exercises, and wants to try his hand at some or all of them. I think it is only when he at last has mastered that side of it, that the real work, and the freedom we all fundamentally covet, become possible. Certainly I hope that in that way The French Lieutenant’s Woman marks a real change and a new openness—what the Russians now call glasnost, transparency.

There’s lots more in this long interview for you to enjoy.

AS Byatt: the artist who helps me write

In this fascinating article writer A. S. Byatt talks about how the abstract paintings of Patrick Heron influence her work:

I love Heron’s paintings because they are the opposite of stories. Writing moves on the whole from beginning to end, however much experimental writers may try to break this temporal lock. Words follow one another and there is an end. Painting is space, and writing is time, and Heron’s abstraction is at one end of that spectrum. You can close a book. There is no reason ever to stop looking at a painting… . I have come to think of my writing as a moving screen of images which I use to see what is unbalanced, what needs elaborating, what is overdone. I need to know something about the whole form of a novel – changing as I work.

Time to read a good long book

Writing in The Irish Times Eileen Battersby encourages us to indulge ourselves this summer by reading a good long book. No audiobooks or ebooks for her: “All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.”

Here are her suggestions:

  • Independence Day by Richard Ford
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
  • The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar
  • Exodus by Leon Uris
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • The Alexandra Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Middlemarch: A Study of a Provincial Life by George Eliot
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Truth Clothed in Fiction

I loved David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, although I suspected that there were lots of layers of meaning that I wasn’t even beginning to scratch as I watched the interlaced stories unfold. In this piece Freddie Pinheiro discusses that novel in relation to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which David Mitchell has acknowledged as the primary inspiration for his book:

The level of metafiction Mitchell achieves through his characters’ skepticism points to Calvino’s influence, namely, in the idea of authorial immanence. By pointing to his own stories’ artificiality through his characters, Mitchell creates another character: the authorial Mitchell, distinct from the actual David Mitchell. The authorial Mitchell appears in the story as the creator of myths, the one Frobisher accuses of fabricating “The Pacific Journal.” Indeed, each of Atlas’ stories fits too snugly into its genre; whether travelogue or action-packed detective novel, the stories seem specific types generated by a “realm of forms.” In this way they emulate the motif of clouds, randomly generated, almost indistinguishable, yet unique formations.

Top 10 gleeful adulterers in literature

As relief from all the other dense material here, Eliza Kennedy presents some lighter-hearted fare:

As well as the characters whose cheating brings on their doom, there is another set of literary sinners whose forbidden erotic adventures bring them much happiness. From Zeus to Rabbit Angstrom, these are the ones I love best

See what she has to say about these lusty characters:

  • Abraham in the Bible
  • Zeus in pretty much every Greek myth
  • Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno
  • Nicholas and Alison in “The Miller’s Tale” by Chaucer
  • Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Molly Bloom in Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Ada Vinelander in Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

All-TIME 100 Novels

Way back in January 2010 Time magazine drew up a list of “the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923—the beginning of TIME”: All-TIME 100 Novels:

The parameters: English language novels published anywhere in the world since 1923, the year that TIME Magazine began, which, before you ask, means that Ulysses (1922) doesn’t make the cut.

Richard Lacayo and Lev Grossman used this approach in drawing up the list:

Grossman and I [Lacayo] each began by drawing up inventories of our nominees. Once we traded notes, it turned out that more than 80 of our separately chosen titles matched. (Even some of the less well-known ones, like At-Swim Two Birds.) We decided then that we would more or less divide the remaining slots between us. That would allow each of us to include books that the other might not have chosen. Or might not even have read. (Ubik? What’s an Ubik?) And that would extend the list into places where mere agreement wouldn’t take it.

They end by acknowledging that there are many titles not included “that we’re still anguishing over.”

I never did anything with this list when it first came out, but I come across references to it often enough that I thought it time to do the math.

This is the key to my list:

Books I’ve read: 45

Books that are on my classics reading list: 3

A – B

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow

I read this in college in a course on the contemporary novel.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren

This is one of my all-time favorite books. I read it as either a junior or senior high school. It was the book that made me realize how all the pieces of a well-crafted novel fall together.

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

I read this in graduate school.

Animal Farm by George Orwell

Like just about every other American kid, I read this in high school.

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

I read this when my daughter was young. It’s more of her generation than mine, but I wanted to be able to talk about it with her.

The Assistant by Bernard Malamud

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I read this with a book group when the paperback edition came out.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I can’t believe I still haven’t gotten to this one.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

I’ve read this one twice: It’s that good. (The first time was for a book group; the second time was on my own.)

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

I read this one for my in-person classics book group.

C – D

Call It Sleep by Henry Roth

Catch–22 by Joseph Heller

I read this on my own early in my college years.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

I’ve read this several times, most recently about a year ago for my in-person classics book group.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

One of my book groups read this not long after it came out.

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

This one’s on my personal to-be-read list.

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

The Day of the Locust by Nathaneal West

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I can’t remember if we read this in high school or if I just think we did because I’ve heard of it so much.

A Death in the Family by James Agee

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

Deliverance by James Dickey

I read this one after seeing the movie.

Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone

F – G

Falconer by John Cheever

The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles

I read this one on my own soon after college.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

I read this in college.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I read this in college, again in graduate school, and again a few years ago before the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio was released.

H – I

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

The Heart is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I read this one several years ago in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of American literature.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Herzog by Saul Bellow

I read this one in a course on contemporary literature in college.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

I read this after seeing the PBS version starring Derek Jacobi.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

I read this in a college course.

L – N

Light in August by William Faulkner

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I’ve read this twice, once in a college course and again later on my own.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

We also read this one in high school.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkein

I devoured this one on my own soon after graduating from college.

Loving by Henry Green

Although I haven’t read this, it looks like one I would enjoy.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

I read this one in college in a course on the history of the novel. I reread it on my own many years later.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Money by Martin Amis

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This one is on my TBR list.

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs

Native Son by Richard Wright

I read this in an introductory literature course in college.

Neuromancer by William Gibson

I read this one quite a few years ago when I decided that I should become at least a little familiar with current science fiction. I was delightfully surprised by how much I enjoyed it as a modern quest story.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I read this one not long after it came out.

1984 by George Orwell

Again, this is one that I read, probably along with every other American kid, in high school.

O – R

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I read this one on my own when I was filling in the gaps in my reading of American classics.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

I read this one on my own while in college during the 1960s.

The Painted Bird Jerzy Kosiński

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

I read this one while on a Nabokov reading kick between my junior and senior years of college.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

I read this one in college.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Another one that I read while in college in the 1960s.

Possession by A.S. Byatt

I’ve read this one twice, on my own both times.

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

I’ve read this one at least three times, the latest time within the last year or so for my in-person classics book group.

Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

This one I read soon after publication. A friend gave me a hardcover copy for Christmas.

The Recognitions by William Gaddis

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett

This one is waiting on my TBR shelf.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

I read this one recently for the online Classics Club.

S – T

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Here’s yet another classic that I read on my own during college in the 1960s.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

I also read this one during my mid-life attempt to introduce myself to contemporary science fiction. I liked this one, but I liked The Diamond AGe even more.

The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

I read this once in college and once again much later.

The Sportswriter by Richard Ford

This is one I read not long after it came out.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carré

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I read this several years ago for a book group.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

One of my book groups read this quite a few years ago.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I don’t remember when I first read this, but I’ve reread it many times over.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I read this in a college course.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

U – W

Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry

Watchmen by Alan Moore,

White Noise by Don DeLillo

I haven’t yet read this one, but it’s on my TBR shelf.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jeanne Rhys

This is the August selection for my in-person classics book group, so I’m counting it as read because I’ll be reading it in the next couple of week.

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And what have I learned from doing this assessment?

First, I’ve read fewer than half (45) of these “all-time best” novels. Even if I read and add to the total the titles on my classics club reading list, I’ll still be under half (48).

Second, of the listed novels that I have read, I read most of them in my high school, college, and early adult years. Maybe I had better radar then for good books. But I suspect that the real reason is that many newer books haven’t yet had time to prove themselves as classic novels and therefore are not included in this list. (One notable exception to this speculation is Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.)

Third, however I look at the situation, one thing is clear: I have A LOT more reading to do.

As the Release Date of Harper Lee’s New Novel Approaches

As the July 14th publication date of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, approaches, she is much in the news. Here are a couple of representative articles.

Harper Lee Receives Copy of ‘Go Set a Watchman’ as Release Nears

Alexandra Alter and Serge F. Kovaleski report in the New York Times on an “intimate lunch” held on June 30 at which Harper Lee received the first copies off the presses of her new novel, Go Set a Watchman. The reporters did not attend the lunch but were briefed by Lee Sentell, the director of the Alabama Tourism Department, who was present.

There has been lots of controversy since the discovery of the lost manuscript about whether Harper Lee, who is 89 and nearly blind and deaf, was capable of agreeing to its publication. Sentell told reporters that when Lee was asked if she had ever expected this novel to be published, she replied, “Of course I did, don’t be silly.”

If you haven’t followed the story of doubts about how the manuscript was discovered and set for publication, this article contains links to the _Times_’s previous coverage.

Looking for traces of ‘Mockingbird’ in Harper Lee’s hometown

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdJay Reeves writes for the Associated Press about crucial spots in Harper Lee’s home town of Monroeville, AL, that contributed to the setting in Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To see some of the sites, click through the slide show near the top of the page.

On Novels and Novelists

7 Book Franchises We Really Need To Say Goodbye To

Claire Fallon writes in the Huffington Post:

Let’s be honest: Too many series and franchises are reworked and rebooted until there’s simply no life left in them. As much as fans may clamor to spend more money on another Dune book, for example, they’re more likely than not going to be disappointed by the lackluster result, which only serves to taint the otherwise acclaimed series. We need to learn to say goodbye before we’re entirely ready, instead of waiting until a brand has fully worn out its welcome.

Here are the seven series she lists:

  1. The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  2. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  3. The James Bond series by Ian Fleming
  4. The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
  5. The Millennium trilogy by Stieg Larsson
  6. Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
  7. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

A quick reading of the comments suggests that many people misunderstood the point of this article. Several commenters list books and series that they say are awful. Some of the authors mentioned are Tom Clancy, Robert B. Parker, and Lee Child.

But I don’t think Fallon is writing about books that shouldn’t have been written in the first place. I think she’s concerned about books and series that have become so beloved by readers that it’s painful to watch someone else—some lesser writer—keep on writing inferior additions to the set. At least that’s how I feel about franchises such as Harry Potter, the Millennium trilogy, Little House, and Hitchhiker’s Guide.

How about you?

The Wachowskis’ Sense8 Is the Philip K. Dick Adaptation We Always Wanted

Here’s another long read, and I have to admit that much of it is way over my head for now. Bram E. Gieben looks at the Netflix Original series Sense8 in relation to the work of author Philip K. Dick and series creators the Wachowskis and J. Michael Straczynski:

The ‘mind-melds’ (lets just call them that) which the characters experience begin to fracture their reality. This is in itself a Phildickian trope, but this ‘reality breakdown’—often the principle focus of a PKD novel—is not a key focus here. Rather, the series is full of scenes where characters listen to each other, and share their stories. This is the way in which the show deals with empathy—and yet, this is where Sense8 is at its most Phildickian. This also accounts for the erratic pacing. The Wachowskis have chosen to show empathy at work, rather than just divesting the story of these ‘emotional’ tropes, and focusing on the game of cat-and-mouse the protagonists are forced to play with a shadowy, quasi-governmental agency (as they would in most flawed Dick movie adaptations, from Total Recall to Minority Report).

I include this piece because it prompted me to add Sense8 to my Netflix list. The next long weekend that comes up I hope to spend watching several episodes of the series to see if I can make sense of them.

Care to join me?

13 Children’s Book Authors Who Would Have Written Beautiful Fiction For Adults Too

Riffing on Judy Blume’s new novel for adults, In the Unlikely Event, Katherine Brooks lists 13 authors she thinks would have written good fiction for adults:

After all, according to a 2012 study conducted by Bowker Market Research, 55 percent of the people buying fiction geared toward young adults are, actually, just adults. And they’re, actually, reading the books for themselves.

See why Brooks wishes these 13 authors had written fiction for adults:

  1. Beverly Cleary
  2. Walter Dean Myers
  3. Zilpha Keatley Snyder
  4. Katherine Paterson
  5. Mary Pope Osborne
  6. Gail Carson Levine
  7. Maurice Sendak
  8. Madeleine L’Engle
  9. Ellen Raskin
  10. Chris Van Allsburg
  11. and 12. Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
  12. Lois Lowry

Brooks also lists as runners-up S. E. Hinton and E. L. Konigsburg.

How To Read A Bad Book By A Great Author

“What do we make of a bad book, written late-career, by an acclaimed author?” asks Colton Valentine, who moves on to discuss Milan Kundera’s recent novel, The Festival of Insignificance. According to Valentine, critics almost universally have described this novel as “out-of-touch, sexist, and, worst of all, banal.”

But, Valentine argues, late-career novels such as this must be approached not in isolation, but in the context of everything the author has written before. In particular, Valentine makes sense of Festival of Insignificance by comparing it with what Kundera had to say in his best known novel, 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

And this is the approach we should take to the upcoming publication of Harper Lee’s second novel:

In a few weeks, Harper Lee will release Go Set a Watchman, a book that will inevitably fail to live up to its predecessor but that need not be written off. Broadening our mindset – fitting the novel into a larger textual legacy – may not redeem it. But that mindset can, at least, provide a stimulating exercise, a more productive and respectful way to think about the late works of the greats.

On Novels and Novelists

What’s Changed, and What Hasn’t, in the Town That Inspired “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdIn a long piece for Smithsonian Magazine, Paul Theroux describes a visit to Monroeville, AL, home of author Harper Lee and inspiration for the fictional Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird:

Monroeville is like many towns of its size in Alabama—indeed the Deep South: a town square of decaying elegance, most of the downtown shops and businesses closed or faltering, the main industries shut down. I was to discover that To Kill A Mockingbird is a minor aspect of Monroeville, a place of hospitable and hard-working people, but a dying town, with a population of 6,300 (and declining), undercut by NAFTA, overlooked by Washington, dumped by manufacturers like Vanity Fair Mills (employing at its peak 2,500 people, many of them women) and Georgia Pacific, which shut down its plywood plant when demand for lumber declined. The usual Deep South challenges in education and housing apply here, and almost a third of Monroe County (29 percent) lives in poverty.

Theroux’s piece anticipates the July 14th publication of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, in which a grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returns home and reminisces about the trial of Tom Robinson that occurred 20 years earlier (the trial depicted in Mockingbird.) Ever since the announcement of the discovery and publication of this manuscript, Harper Lee’s only other novel, there has been speculation about whether this novel will be as good as her first.

There’s also been speculation about whether the second novel, set 20 years after the first, will portray a Maycomb essentially different. Or will it provide the same Southern vision?

And that’s the odd thing about a great deal of a certain sort of Deep South fiction—its grotesquerie and gothic, its high color and fantastication, the emphasis on freakishness. Look no further than Faulkner or Erskine Caldwell, but there’s plenty in Harper Lee too, in Mockingbird, the Boo Radley factor, the Misses Tutti and Frutti, and the racist Mrs. Dubose, who is a morphine addict: “Her face was the color of a dirty pillowcase and the corners of her mouth glistened with wet which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin.” This sort of prose acts as a kind of indirection, dramatizing weirdness as a way of distracting the reader from day to day indignities.

In a bit more than a week we’ll find out if Go Set a Watchman, written long ago but published only now, is an anachronism in an age when “few Southern writers concern themselves with the new realities” of poverty, education, and race relations in the American South.

What novelist Kent Haruf taught me about writing and life

Cover: PlainsongMichael Rosenwald, a reporter for the Washington Post, talks about what novelist Kent Haruf meant to him. Rosenwald enrolled in Haruf’s beginning fiction class at Southern Illinois University in 1993, six years before the publication of Plainsong, Haruf’s break-out novel.

Storytelling, I’d learn, is about what happens next, and this story, about what happened after I met Kent, proves that what he taught me about stories is true: They have the power to exalt and transform. In this story, a little-known writer — gentle, fatherly, good — shapes a young man’s life, becomes renowned and never changes.

Although Haruf wrote fiction and Rosenwald concentrated on nonfiction, the two remained close:

After the success of “Plainsong,” Kent moved back to Colorado to write full time. I’d call him now and then. We began ­e-mailing, teasing each other about football, sharing news of what we’d read lately. And I began to see him more and more in my life. He was in the stories I pursued about ordinary people, in the strands of dialogue I’d hear and jot down, in the kindness I’d extend to students asking for advice. “Find your Kent,” I’d tell them.

Such a moving tribute to Haruf, who died last November. May we all find our own Kent.

10 influential pulp novels that are criminally good

Pulp fiction is called that because it first appeared in the early 20th century in fiction magazines published on cheap paper made from wood pulp. Read why Molly Lynch recommends these pulp fiction novels:

  1. Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Philip Jose Farmer
  2. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp
  3. Judgment Night by C. L. Moore
  4. John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  5. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
  6. Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair
  7. Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
  9. No Good From a Corpse by Leigh Brackett
  10. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

JK Rowling reveals why the Dursleys dislike Harry Potter so much

Harry Potter boxed setJ.K. Rowling may have finished the Harry Potter series, but she apparently can’t quite let it go. In a piece for her web site Pottermore, she explains the back story of the Dursleys’ dislike of their nephew Harry and the reason why Aunt Petunia does not offer Harry any work of kindness in the final novel of the series.

Here Alison Flood fills in the history of Harry’s relationship with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, for those of us who have forgotten some of the details.

Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought – The New York Times

On the eve of the most anticipated publishing event in years — the release of Harper Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman” — there is yet another strange twist to the tale of how the book made its way to publication, a development that further clouds the story of serendipitous discovery that generated both excitement and skepticism in February.

Source: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought – The New York Times