Gabriel García Márquez, Conjurer of Literary Magic, Dies at 87

April 17th, 2014

Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian novelist whose “One Hundred Years of Solitude” established him as a giant of 20th-century literature, died on Thursday at his home in Mexico City. He was 87.

via GabrielGarcíaMárquez,ConjurerofLiteraryMagic,Diesat87-NYTimes.com.

Details on the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winners

April 15th, 2014

Details on the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winners – KansasCity.com.

Donna Tartt has won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel The Goldfinch.

Read about all the Pulitzer winners here.

Monday Miscellany

April 14th, 2014

Top 10 books about missing persons

Gone Girl: cover

“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

Top-notch mystery writer Laura Lippman discusses “the 10 best books about mysterious disappearances”:

And while most missing person stories centre on those left behind, the “disappeared” have their stories to tell as well. These are often crime stories, and always love stories.

In fact, the most satisfying ones are those in which a bereft loved one becomes determined to track down the missing person, at any cost.

Not surprisingly, at the top of her list is Gillian Flynn’s recent run-away best seller, Gone Girl. See what other books made the list.

Bookstores in Seattle Soar, and Embrace an Old Nemesis: Amazon.com

SEATTLE — A love of books and bookstores runs deep in the sinews of this city, where gray skies and drizzle can drive a person to drink, or read, or both. A long-running annual survey ranks Seattle the country’s second-most literate big city, behind Washington, D.C., as measured by things like the number of bookstores, library resources, newspaper circulation and education.

Amazon.com Inc. also calls Seattle home. And in recent years, as many small independent bookstores here and around the nation struggled or closed their doors, owners often placed blame for their plight on the giant online retailer’s success in delivering best sellers at discount prices, e-readers and other commodities of the digital marketplace.

The New York Times reports on the irony that “local bookstore owners have seen a surprising new side of the company they loved to hate: Many Amazon employees, it turns out, are readers who are not shopping at the company store.”

Books that inspired punk

Punk began in the mid-1970s as a total rebellion against rock music of the time. Rock had become overdone, with long complicated guitar solos that were accompanied by full orchestrations; the rock stars were flying in private jets with the Queen; and fans had to pay a fortune to squint at the act from the back of a stadium. Punk aimed to bring the music back to the people. To play punk all you needed was to, as Sid Vicious said, “just pick a chord, go twang, and you’ve got music.”

Unfortunately, that lack of emphasis on expertise has caused many to regard punk as not the most intelligent of genres-yet that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Aside from the advanced political attitudes that punk came to represent, the genre is bursting with literary influence.

Read how writers as diverse as George Orwell and William S. Burroughs have influenced punk rock.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the literary spouse

The 75th anniversary of the publication of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on Monday April 14 is a reminder of the potentially key role of literary spouses. Steinbeck didn’t like his own ideas for the title, so when his wife Carol proposed a phrase from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” he adopted it at once.

This set us thinking about the impact of other partners on the history of literature. As the following examples show, though usually either dismissed as humble help­meets or complained about as posthumous image-protectors, they can sometimes decisively shape a book or career.

4 Anti-Heroines in Literature Who Are Inspiring, Admirable and Tough as Nails

There’s nothing unexpected in Alexandra Israel’s list:

  • Tess from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles 
  • Penelope from Homer’s Odyssey
  • Anna Karenina from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina
  • Jane Eyre from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

More interesting is the concept of anti-heroine she discusses:

By definition, an anti-heroine is “a female protagonist, as in a novel or play, whose attitudes and behaviors are not typical of a conventional heroine.” Flavorwire had a more up-to-date definition, inspired by author Leslie Jamison: “Fairy tales introduce us to certain standard breeds of heroine: beautiful innocents, homely martyrs, and plucky tomboys. These heroines aren’t those ones… they make it hard to look away.” This definition is true; anti-heroines are sometimes what keep us going in long novels.

Be sure to click through to the Flavorwire piece Israel references to see more of Leslie Jamison’s definition and her longer list of literary anti-heroines.

And what other female fictional characters would make your list?

Mary Cheever, a Central Figure in a Literary Family, Dies at 95 – NYTimes.com

April 10th, 2014

Mary Cheever, a Central Figure in a Literary Family, Dies at 95 – NYTimes.com

Mary Cheever, a central figure in a family of prominent American writers whose most notable member was her husband, John, with whom she had a relationship as complex as those he wrote about in his prizewinning short stories and novels, died on Monday at the home they had shared in Ossining, N.Y. She was 95.

 

Monday Miscellany

April 7th, 2014

Because I am in Nashville cheering on the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s pursuit of yet another national championship, this week’s entry is an abbreviated one.

A Brief Interview With Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue is the author of eight novels and four short story collections, in addition to a number of dramatic productions. Her 2010 novel Room was nominated for the Man Booker Prize. Her latest book, Frog Music [Little, Brown, $27.00], publishes on April 2.

Read why Emma Donoghue includes “a bitch character in every book.”

Senior English Major Wins the 2014 Rose Prize for Literary Criticism

I was intrigued by the description of English major Katie McLaughlin’s winning paper:

When senior English major Katie McLaughlin decided to write her capstone paper on collaborative Internet fiction, there was no official name for what she was writing about. So she made one up. She dubbed websites where people write, edit and read stories together “narrative communities,” and these narrative communities are what inspired her capstone paper, “‘Everybody Writes’: Re-imagining Reader, Writer, and Text in the Online Community.”

Classic dystopian novels forecast a bleak future — soon

New reprints of classic dystopian novels show that a bleak view of our future has enduring appeal. Seattle Public Library librarian David Wright rounds up titles by George Turner, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Russell Hoban and John Wyndham.

Here’s the book on Wright’s list that most piques my interest:

Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (Gollancz, $17.95) is easily one of the most ingenious novels ever written. Set during a distant Dark Age long after our current civilization has given itself to the fire, the entire narrative is rendered in a hyper-phonetic, punning version of devolved English. We riddle along with Walker as he grapples with obscure legends of our own bad times, including that particularly seductive myth: the myth of progress. Readers who get the hang of Riddleyspeak (it’s easier than it looks) are in for a profound, transformative journey into the human heart, where fires of creation and destruction are kindled.

Cover: Cloud AtlasThis sounds like “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,” the central portion that functions as the turning point in David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. Set in the future, this section features language like this:

Adam, my bro, an’ Pa’n’me was trekking’ back from Honokaa Market on miry roads with a busted cart axle in draggly clothesies. Evenin’ catched us up early, so we tented on the southly bank o’ Sloosha’s Crossin’, ‘cos Waipio River was furyin’ with days o’ hard rain an’ swollen by a spring tide. Sloosha’s was friendsome ground tho’ marshy, no un lived in the Waipio Valley ‘cept for a mil’yun birds, that’s why we din’t camo our tent or pull cart or nothin’. [David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas (New York, Random House, 2004, rpt. 2012), p. 239]

Although this language looks strange, I soon found that, as Wright says of Riddleyspeak, it’s easier to decipher than it looks.

 

Do Books with Anthropomorphic Animals Hinder Children’s Learning about Nature?

April 3rd, 2014

Literature & Psychology

 

There’s been a lot in the news lately about a study suggesting that children do not gain accurate knowledge of the natural world by reading stories with human-like animals.

Dr. Patricia A. Ganea, of the psychology department at the University of Toronto, and colleagues examined how books that present animals with human characteristics (that is, animals that talk and think like humans) affect children’s learning about the natural world. Here’s the abstract of the research report published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology:

Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children’s knowledge about animals

Many books for young children present animals in fantastical and unrealistic ways, as wearing clothes, talking and engaging in human-like activities. This research examined whether anthropomorphism in children’s books affects children’s learning and conceptions of animals, by specifically assessing the impact of depictions (a bird wearing clothes and reading a book) and language (bird described as talking and as having human intentions). In Study 1, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children saw picture books featuring realistic drawings of a novel animal. Half of the children also heard factual, realistic language, while the other half heard anthropomorphized language. In Study 2, we replicated the first study using anthropomorphic illustrations of real animals. The results show that the language used to describe animals in books has an effect on children’s tendency to attribute human-like traits to animals, and that anthropomorphic storybooks affect younger children’s learning of novel facts about animals. These results indicate that anthropomorphized animals in books may not only lead to less learning but also influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals.

A release from the University of Toronto added:

“Books that portray animals realistically lead to more learning and more accurate biological understanding,” says lead author Patricia Ganea, Assistant Professor with the University of Toronto’s Department of Applied Psychology and Human Development. “We were surprised to find that even the older children in our study were sensitive to the anthropocentric portrayals of animals in the books and attributed more human characteristics to animals after being exposed to fantastical books than after being exposed to realistic books.”

Publication of this research has sparked some heated negative responses. In The Telegraph (a newspaper from the U. K.), mother Becky Pugh wrote “Don’t tell me talking animals like Peppa Pig are bad for my kids“:

Indeed, most of our furry humanoid favourites have wisdom to impart – even if their portrayal of the natural world isn’t always accurate. Rupert Bear encourages an adventurous spirit. Winnie the Pooh represents thoughtfulness, humility and companionship. Babar champions deference and respect for your elders. Paddington endorses courage and independence.

Katy Waldman, an assistant editor at Slate, entitled her article “Researchers Want Children’s Books to Stop Anthropomorphizing Animals. That’s a Terrible Idea.” Waldman insists:

Scaffolding familiar traits onto alien subjects is a powerful way to promote learning, one that children do naturally from the age of 12 to 24 months. And imaginative play—the type where you pretend a badger gets jealous of her baby sister—has cognitive benefits: “If you want your children to be intelligent,” Albert Einstein once said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Just as important, anthropomorphizing is a type of metaphor-making that allows kids to both identify with the characters they’re reading about (so that they more readily apply the text’s lessons to their own life, as in an Aesop’s fable) and practice acknowledging outside perspectives. Reading literature fosters empathy, found two separate studies, one at the New School and one in the Netherlands, and it does so by awakening people to the echoes of themselves in others.

Ganea addressed all the negative publicity in an interview with Cathy Newman for National Geographic:

Your work seems to have struck a negative nerve. “Stop reading Jungle Book and Winnie The Pooh as it ‘humanises animals’, parents told,” was one headline I saw in the London Daily Express. There were others.

People have gone crazy out there. They think we are saying, don’t read books that interweave fantasy with reality. That’s not the message from this. It’s if you want your children to learn more facts about animals, it would be better to use books that are more realistic. Of course parents should read a variety of books to their children. Fantasy is important for their imagination and their cognitive development.

Ganea said that she enjoyed Winnie the Pooh with her own children. “But we also read expository books about animals.”

Other people have been more receptive to Ganea’s message. In the Canadian paper The Globe and Mail, parent Tralee Pearce wrote, “Why you may want to stop reading bedtime stories with cartoony, human-like animals.” She acknowledged that she “may consider adding in a hard-core nature book or two” to her children’s reading list:

This might be even more crucial to consider, as another study found that the use of the outdoors and animals in children’s literature has been on the decline since the 1970s; as more kids are raised in urban landscapes, their books come to reflect that reality.

Maybe this is all a (sad) reflection of our general disengagement with the natural world – and a reminder to parents and educators to sneak in some information about real animals into story time at home and school.

And on the Scientific American blog “The Thoughtful Animal,” developmental psychologist Dr. Jason G. Goldman titled his post “When Animals Act Like People in Stories, Kids Can’t Learn.” Goldman wrote:

The problem is actually more pervasive than it sounds: human adults, at least in the US, are also highly likely to imbue non-human animals with human-like emotions and motivations. It’s a tricky line to navigate. Research is increasingly revealing the fundamental similarities between our species and the rest of the animal kingdom, but there are also aspects of human culture that are, indeed, unique to our species. Is it reasonable to suggest that an animal can feel something complex like pride or embarrassment? We are poised to attribute a similarly complex emotion, guilt, to dogs, but a deeper look reveals that while dogs indeed have a “guilty look,” they probably do not actually realize that they’ve transgressed. If children are routinely exposed to these sorts of anthropomorphic representations of animals, it is no wonder that they grow up to become adults who look at non-human animals as if they are people wearing animal suits.

He added that this research “presents an opportunity for parents and teachers to carefully select books that do accurately reflect the natural world, both visually and linguistically.” And he concluded that books representing the worlds of both fantasy and reality can co-exist. “Maybe let’s just keep them on different shelves?”

Monday Miscellany

March 31st, 2014

The Conclusion of Women’s History Month

woman readingAs Women’s History month ends, here are two commemorative lists:

14 Totally Badass Female Authors

Though many truly badass women authors are alive and working today, their stories aren’t yet finished. So as Women’s History Month draws to a close, we wanted to look back on some of the incredible literary women from history and remember how both their work and their lives broke new ground.

Read why Huffington Post thinks these female authors were totally badass:

  1. Louisa May Alcott
  2. Mary McCarthy
  3. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
  4. Nellie Bly
  5. Edith Wharton
  6. Zora Neale Hurston
  7. Edna St. Vincent Millay
  8. George Eliot
  9. Mary Wollstonecraft
  10. Carson McCullers
  11. George Sand
  12. Hannah Arendt
  13. Harriet Ann Jacobs
  14. Katherine Anne Porter

The 10 Best Thrillers and Crime Writing By Women

Though James Patterson might be the one getting 17-book deals for millions, some of the best writers of crime, thrillers, and mysteries have been women. Here are some of the best examples of these genres from the past century that will keep you reading past your bedtime (and possibly unable to sleep forever).

Among the authors Jessica Grose recommends here are Agatha Christie, Ann Rule, Edna Buchanan, and Patricia Highsmith.

Addition:

Australia’s literary cranky ladies

 

Really? You’re Not in a Book Club?

“WHAT’S your book group reading?” I say to a friend encountered on the street. Not: “Are you in a book group?” I have no idea whether Clara is in a book group. We’ve never talked about it. All the same, I just know. Why? Because it’s a safe assumption to make these days.

By some estimates, five million Americans gather every few weeks in someone’s living room or in a bar or bookstore or local library to discuss the finer points of “Middlemarch” or “The Brothers Karamazov.” (A perfect number is hard to pin down because some people belong to two or three clubs, and of course, there’s no central registry of members.) Among them is Clara, whose book group even has a name: the Oracles. They’re reading “The Flamethrowers,” by Rachel Kushner.

James Atlas learns why book groups aren’t just a fixture of New York City.

Top Literary Cities in the U.S.

What determines a city as ‘literary?’ It’s not enough to have a large library, unique bookstores, or be the birthplace of a famous writer. Nor is it enough to be one of the top literate cities in the United States  Most literary cities have a strong writing program at one of their numerous colleges and universities, as well as bookstores and institutions hosting event after event. If anything, a literary city is a blend of the historical, cultural, and modern parts of literature, encouraging and inspiring future generations to appreciate and take part in the literary world.

See what cities (other than New York City) Gabriella Tutino has chosen for this article in Highbrow Magazine.

On Literary Cravings and Aftertastes

In this unusual take on literary criticism, Allison K. Gibson describes her literary cravings during pregnancy:

While I was pregnant, I learned to follow my instincts — my hunger — to lead me to stories that would nourish me. And, as I learned from that first 3 a.m. craving for “The Night of the Curlews,” certain stories are meant to be savored so that the words continue to nourish long after the last sentence has been swallowed. The best stories leave an aftertaste.

10 Famous Writers Who Hated Writing

Writers are terrible procrastinators, and I’m pretty sure that’s because writing, although it can be exhilarating, is also just plain hard. Here author Bill Cotter, who has his own love-hate relationship with his profession, offers some (comforting?) remarks from writers including Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, and Virginia Woolf.

Monday Miscellany

March 24th, 2014

Harlan Coben: By the Book

This week’s New York Times‘s Sunday Book Review includes an interview with one of my favorite thriller authors, Harlan Coben.

Related Posts:

From Distant Admirers to Library Lovers–and beyond

Kid readingThe Pew Research Center continues its study of how the public perceives and uses libraries:

This report describes nine groups of Americans that reflect different patterns of public library engagement. Respondents were sorted into groups based on a cluster analysis of factors such as: the importance of public libraries in their lives; how they use libraries; and how they view the role of libraries in communities. . . .

The typology examines four broad levels of library engagement. These levels are further broken into a total of nine individual groups:

High engagement

  • Library Lovers
  • Information Omnivores

Medium engagement

  • Solid Center
  • Print Traditionalists

Low engagement

  • Not for Me
  • Young and Restless
  • Rooted and Roadblocked

Non-engagement (have never personally used a public library):

  • Distant Admirers
  • Off the Grid

The descriptions of the various groups and their attitudes toward libraries are informative.

9 Terribly Dysfunctional Marriages in Literature

Lists like this always amuse me. Sometimes I agree with them, sometimes I don’t, and other times I haven’t read many of the books included.

But I’ve read most of these books and so pretty much agree with this list:

  1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  2. The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
  3. Frenzy by David Grossman
  4. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  5. Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen
  6. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  7. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  8. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  9. “Temporary Matters,” the opening story in The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Dark Quotient: On Victoria Redel and Destructive Characters

the Manhattan-based author Victoria Redel actually seems to enjoy answering questions about her work, which often takes the form of fiction addressing an intense — even boundary-violating — bond between a parent and child. But don’t ask her about her personal life.

Following the 2001 release of her novel Loverboy, about a mother so enmeshed with her young son that she decides to asphyxiate him in a car rather than let him go to school, Redel has found herself explaining to readers that her creation of unlikable, even destructive characters is neither a window — nor an invitation — into her psyche.

A good article for readers who always wonder how much a writer’s works reflect the author’s own mind and soul.

JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf: bring on the monsters

This week, HarperCollins announced that a long-awaited JRR Tolkien translation of Beowulf is to be published in May, along with his commentaries on the Old English epic and a story it inspired him to write, “Sellic Spell”. It is just the latest of a string of posthumous publications from the Oxford professor and The Hobbit author, who died in 1973. Edited by his son Christopher, now 89, it will doubtless be seen by some as an act of barrel-scraping. But Tolkien’s expertise on Beowulf and his own literary powers give us every reason to take it seriously.

 

Monday Miscellany: Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

March 17th, 2014

Happy St. Patrick’s Day from Ireland!

For only my second trip abroad EVER, I am in Ireland for 10 days. This is definitely the trip of a lifetime for someone with O’Dea relatives on one side of the family and Conklin folks on the other.

More literary content next week. For now, I’m off in search of some green beer.

“Breaking Bad” and the Willful Suspension of Disbelief

March 15th, 2014

Literature & Psychology

We know that time travel is impossible. Yet when we pick up Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, we don’t stop reading when we see characters moving through time. No, we accept that the story the author wants to tell requires time travel, and we allow it to exist in the world of the story.

Contemporary cognitive scientists and cultural anthropologists tell us that our brain is wired to accept and understand stories because storytelling is the primary method by which a society communicates its history, beliefs, and values. (See, for example, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall.) But poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge recognized our proclivity for making allowances in the world of stories back in 1817. He coined a term for the phenomenon: the willing suspension of disbelief, or just suspension of disbelief.

A recent experience taught me just how powerful our willing suspension of disbelief can be. I had never watched the popular television series Breaking Bad but had heard from several people how good it was. So, around the time other people were discussing the show’s finale, I spent about a week on a marathon viewing of the complete series. At the root of the series is this question: How could a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher turn into a meth-cooking drug lord? The key to our believing this seemingly far-fetched scenario lies in the context. We all know that teachers earn a pittance and frequently have to take on a second job to supplement their income. So in the initial episode of Breaking Bad, we’re not surprised to see Walt moonlighting at a car wash and to hear Walt’s wife explain about the credit card they can’t use because it’s maxed out. Still, though, a lot of teachers in that situation don’t turn to crime to solve their financial problems.

But then Walt discovers that he’s dying of lung cancer. Of course the first thing he worries about is that his death will leave his family with no money. Then he faces pressure from the family to undertake an expensive experimental treatment that could prolong his life but is not covered by insurance. Add to these circumstances the facts that his teenaged son, a couple of years away from college, has cerebral palsy and that his wife is pregnant with a second child, and suddenly we begin to empathize with Walt. In this context Walt’s decision to turn his only real skill, a keen knowledge of chemistry, into a way out of his financial predicament seems perfectly reasonable. In fact, not only do we condone Walt’s plan, but we even begin to root for his success—at least at first.

Eventually events spiral out of control, and Walt’s character changes drastically during the many turns of events necessary to sustain the continuance of the series over several seasons. But after Walt’s initial decision, each plot turn follows logically from what has come before. It was only that first willing suspension of disbelief that the writers had to work at. I think that my marathon viewing made me more aware of exactly how the show’s creators manufactured that willing suspension of disbelief than I would have been if I’d watched the early episodes unfold one week at a time. That skillfully contrived early situation sucked me into the story and made me accept Walter White’s transformation from high school teacher to ruthless criminal. It’s all in the context.