Literary Links

These are some of the literature-related articles from around the web that caught my eye over the past week.

Quartzy    HALF OF ALL TRANSLATED BOOKS IN THE US COME FROM JUST NINE COUNTRIES

This one caught my eye because I’m trying to read more books translated from other languages this year. 

The good news: “In 2018, 632 never-before-translated books of fiction and poetry were published in the United States. It’s the fifth straight year the US has published more than 600 translations, quite the feat for a country that has long been accused of having an insular book culture.”

The bad news: “Of the nearly 5,800 books of fiction and poetry translated from 2008 to 2018, more than half were from just nine countries, seven of which are in Europe (the exceptions are Japan and China).”

These statistics are significant if one’s aim in reading more translated works is to learn about new cultures. European books, even though from other countries, are still western-civilization centric. Yes, they will teach us about other cultures, but not about the other cultures that are most different from out own, specifically eastern and African. This article points out that “only one book each was translated from Benin, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mali, and Myanmar.”

The New York Times   A Glimpse of Virginia Woolf’s Original Manuscript for ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

A look at how “the ‘big’ book she [Virginia Woolf] thought she should write was not really the book she wanted to write. The transition for her was understanding that a book about an outwardly ordinary woman on an ordinary day in London could be every bit as ‘big’ as the books about wars and revolutions.”

The Guardian   Nell Freudenberger: ‘Like many women I believed I didn’t have the right kind of brain for science’

The author of the recently released novel Lost and Wanted laments “the way girls and women are still so often held back from studying science.”

The New York Times    When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished

It was like a plot from one of her own novels: On the evening of Dec. 4, Agatha Christie, carrying nothing but an attaché case, kissed her daughter good night and sped away from the home in England that she shared with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie. (He was having an affair with a younger woman; the public did not know this, but his wife definitely did.) No one knew where Christie was for almost two weeks.

Literary Hub   What the 39,933 Items on Peter Matthiessen’s Computer Mean for the Art of Biography

Lance Richardson, currently working on a biography of writer Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014) discusses the challenges of what he calls “a bifurcated archive” comprising both physical items and digital files. The differences between these two types of materials “will have inevitable effects on the shape and form of tomorrow’s histories” and biographies.

The Seattle Times   ‘No-No Boy’ went from unknown book to classic thanks to UW Press and Asian American writers. Now, it’s at the center of a controversy

This is a local story for me, but it has wider interest because of its tie to copyright law and the David-and-Goliath issue of a small academic (University of Washington) press vs.the publishing giant Penguin Random House. The book in question also keeps alive the story of the internment of Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II. The author, John Okada, was “a Seattle native and University of Washington graduate who served in the U.S. Army during the war, even as his family was forced to relocate to an internment camp.”

The New York Times   Naomi Wolf’s Publisher Delays Release of Her Book

The recent controversy over “Outrages” highlights the perils that publishers face in a competitive market where juicy nonfiction books that feature explosive claims can command the highest sales but are sometimes not vigorously fact-checked or vetted in advance of publication.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

Here are some of the articles about the world of literature that caught my eye recently.

The New York Review of Books  “Truth, Beauty, and Oliver Sacks”

Simon Callow reviews Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales by Oliver Sacks, the second posthumous collection of Sacks’s essays, most of which were published in The New York Review.

the editors have fashioned the book in such a way that we are left with an image of the author that is extraordinarily touching—not lacking in his habitual energy and driven curiosity, but somehow vulnerable, even fragile.

brainpickings   “The Healing Power of Gardens: Oliver Sacks on the Psychological and Physiological Consolations of Nature”

Maria Popova discuses Oliver Sacks’s book Everything in Its Place: First Loves and Last Tales.

Esquire   Anthony Bourdain Remembered Is a Stunning Tribute to the Late Chef”

A look at the book, put together by CNN, that “includes photos and messages from Barack Obama, Eric Ripert, Jill Filipovic, Ken Burns, Questlove, José Andrés and others who worked with Bourdain.”

The Guardian   “The Heartland review – fascinating study of schizophrenia”

“Award-winning writer and former mental-health nurse Nathan Filer redefines our understanding of the illness.” A review of The Heartland: Finding and Losing Schizophrenia by Nathan Filer.

The Amazon Book Review   “Talking with Neil Gaiman about ‘Good Omens’”

Neil Gaiman talks about adapting Good Omens, the novel he co-authored with Terry Pratchett, 30 years ago. (Pratchett died in 2015.) The 6-episode adaptation is currently available on Amazon Prime Video.

Esquire    “Central Park Five Prosecutor Linda Fairstein Has Responded to When They See Us Backlash”

Should now-successful-crime-novelist Linda Fairstein be held responsible for the later-reversed conviction of the Central Park Five?

CityLab    “Writers Are More Prolific When They Cluster”

Despite the stereotype of authors toiling away in lonely solitude, a new study finds that British and Irish writers clustered in 18th- and 19th-century London and were more productive as a result. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books to Read for World Refugee Awareness Month | Bookish

June is World Refugee Awareness Month. To bring insight into the diverse experiences of refugees, we’ve rounded up some of the best books by and about refugees. Whether you’re interested in reading a memoir, a reported work of nonfiction, a novel, or sharing a story with a young reader, there’s a book here for everyone. Read on, and enjoy some deep conversations inspired by these thought-provoking books.

Source: Books to Read for World Refugee Awareness Month | Bookish

Bookish and Proud: A Literary Pride Month Flag

The editors at Bookish have created a literary flag in honor of Pride Month.

Check out the article to see a larger version of the flag and the list of nearly 350 book covers used to create it: “Each book used in this collage is either written by an author or features a character who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.”

6 Degrees of Separation: From “Murmur” to “Eat, Pray, Love”

Here’s my second entry in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. Here’s how it works:

Books can be linked in obvious ways – for example, books by the same authors, from the same era or genre, or books with similar themes or settings. Or, you may choose to link them in more personal or esoteric ways: books you read on the same holiday, books given to you by a particular friend, books that remind you of a particular time in your life, or books you read for an online challenge.

The great thing about this meme is that each participant can make their own rules. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the ones next to them in the chain. . .

This month we begin with the winner of the 2019 Wellcome Prize, Murmur by Will Eaves.

I have not yet read this book, but I find the description from Amazon fascinating:

In Murmur, a hallucinatory masterwork, Will Eaves invites us into the brilliant mind of Alec Pryor, a character inspired by Alan Turing. Turing, father of artificial intelligence and pioneer of radical new techniques to break the Nazi Enigma cipher during World War II, was later persecuted by the British state for “gross indecency with another male” and forced to undergo chemical castration. Set during the devastating period before Turing’s suicide, Murmur evokes an extraordinary life, the beauty and sorrows of love, and the nature of consciousness.

1. After this description of Murmur, a description of a novel due to hit shelves on June 4 struck me: Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson, which will also explore the nature of consciousness:

From the author of Snow Crash comes a futuristic take on Paradise Lost. In a parallel universe, Dodge is pronounced brain-dead, catapulting his consciousness into the cloud where the “eternal afterlife” is not the utopia it might first seem. 

2. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch also looks at the possibility of parallel universes, although alternative universes might be a more apt phrase, since every choice we make takes us down one path to the exclusion of all other possible paths and their possible worlds.

3. Since different choices could theoretically produce different worlds, one of the classic conundrums of time travel literature is the question of how changing something in the past will affect (or effect; both words are accurate here) the present. In Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, Jake Epping is tasked by his dying friend with traveling back in time to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. On one of his returns from the past, Jake arrives in a present so frighteningly different from the one he knows that all he can do is scramble back through the time portal as fast as possible to get back to the past and try to fix things.

4. November Road by Lou Berney takes place in late November 1963. Frank Guidry is livin’ the good life as a mid-level functionary of the most powerful crime boss in New Orleans. When President Kennedy is assassinated, Frank remembers that he delivered a get-away car to Dallas just a few days earlier. When a couple of Frank’s associates turn up dead, Frank realizes that whoever’s behind the Kennedy assassination is tying up loose ends—and that he himself is just another loose end. Without even returning home he hits the road to try to outrun the hit man he knows will soon be on his tail.

The obvious connection between November Road and King’s 11/22/63 is the Kennedy assassination. But another similarity between the two is the love story that develops in each and the decision by both male protagonists to sacrifice self-interest and do what’s best in the overall scheme of things.

5. Frank Guidry takes off on a desperate run to save his life. Another character who takes off on an even wilder dash to stay alive is Jason Bourne, the title character of The Bourne Identity, the first—and best—entry in Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne series. While scrambling to stay alive, the character known as Jason Bourne searches not only for the people who created his fake persona but also for his true identity. And yes, he’s also working to figure out how to do what’s right within the overall scheme of things.

6. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert is the nonfiction story of a woman whose soul-searching takes her to several places around the globe on her quest for self-discovery.

So there we have it: another journey of discovery through the overall scheme of the literary world. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Read in May

May proved to be a success. I hit my unofficial monthly quota of books completed (5), including one for my classics club list. Better yet, three of the five reads get the recommended rating.


Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

cover: Sometimes I Lie

text © 2017  
Macmillan Audio, 2018  
Narrated by: Stephanie Racine

Here’s how the book begins:

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:

I’m in a coma.

My husband doesn’t love me anymore.

Sometimes I lie.

When Amber wakes up, she slowly realizes that she’s in a hospital. Connected to a ventilator by a tube down her throat, she is unable to speak. She’s also apparently unable to move any part of her body and therefore cannot communicate that she’s aware of what’s going on around her.

She also has no memory of whatever happened to put her in this hospital bed, though she has a vague feeling that her husband, Paul, tried to kill her. As Paul and Amber’s sister, Claire, discuss Amber’s situation and what’s happening now, Amber tries to piece things together. There’s something about a car accident, which would explain her current condition, but she just can’t remember. . . .

The story is divided into sections called now—Amber’s attempts to figure things out—then—the story of what happened in the days leadings up to now—and before—entries from a child’s diary ages 10-12 or so). The narrative moves frequently between the various sections. Although the sections are clearly labeled, I had trouble keeping track of just what happened when.

I listened to the audiobook of this one and therefore don’t have a printed edition to consult. I found the book to be way too long, especially the first half or so, when I kept thinking, “Come ON, let’s just get into the story.” I listen to a lot of audiobooks, so I don’t think it was the audio format that caused me to react that way. I’m pretty sure I would have had the same reaction if I had been reading either a printed or ebook version. And the final payoff didn’t seem worth the long build-up.

Overall, I’d rate this novel as mediocre. The plot had potential, but the pacing was off. The book felt more interested in technical bravado than in suspenseful storytelling.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

cover: Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Little, Brown and Company, 2012  
ISBN 978-0-316-20426-2 

Recommended

I cannot believe this entertaining novel sat on my shelf for more than five years before I finally got around to reading it, prompted by seeing the movie trailer. 

Intellectually curious and precociously bright, 15-year-old Bee Branch is heartbroken when her mother, Bernadette Fox, disappears just days before the family plans to leave on a trip to Antarctica. Granted, Bernadette has always been outspoken—sometimes outspokenly cruel—about life in Seattle, but, throughout Bee’s life, that’s just the way her mother has always been. 

When Bernadette vanishes, Bee does what she’s always done when faced with a problem to solve: She conducts research and writes a report. Most of the book comprises the documents of the report interlaced with Bee’s commentary. I enjoyed the use of multiple methods of communication (e.g., emails, school memos, magazine article, work reports, letters) collected into narrative sequence. Those documents allow Semple to create well developed characters and to fill in the narrative with information that first-person narrator Bee could not otherwise have known. 

The novel’s social satire is humorous but never angry. (Well, Bernadette is sometimes angry, but the book is not.) Lately on Facebook and Instagram I’ve seen a lot of requests for a light, humorous book, and now I have one to recommend. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Eighth Sister by Robert Dugoni

cover: The Eighth Sister

Brilliance Audio, 2019  
Narrator: Edoardo Ballerini  

Recommended

If Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity) and Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent) collaborated on a book, they’d probably end up with something like The Eighth Sister.

Charles Jenkins, the protagonist of Dugoni’s recent novel, age 64, is married to a much younger woman. The couple has a nine-year-old son and another baby on the way. Forty years ago Charlie worked for the CIA. Now he owns a security firm on the verge of bankruptcy. When Charlie’s CIA boss from his last posting shows up and proposes that Charlie undertake an undercover mission to Russia, Charlie reluctantly agrees. After all, he needs the money.

In Part One of The Eighth Sister Dugoni writes an espionage thriller every bit as exciting as Ludlum’s tale of Jason Bourne’s undercover pursuit of the truth about his spy identity. But Dugoni introduces us to Charlie Jenkins and his family before Jenkins sets out for Russia. Although this first part is heavy on plot, as are most spy novels, we’ve also become invested in Charlie Jenkins the character enough to root for him to outrun capture and certain death at the hands of the FSB, the current incarnation of the former KGB.

In Part Two Dugoni gives us a courtroom drama, with accompanying background, as compelling as Rusty Sabich’s investigation in Presumed Innocent. Like Turow, Dugoni has practiced law for many years, so the legal aspects of the novel ring true. Also like Turow, Dugoni is an excellent writer interested in exploring characters as much as in formulating racy plots. The result is an outstanding novel that engages our sense of justice and fairness as much as it precipitates an adrenaline rush.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Sourcebooks, 2018  
ISBN 978-1-4926-5796-5  
(Originally published in the U.K. as The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle)  

Recommended

At 11:00 pm Evelyn Hardcastle will die—every night until Aiden Bishop can identify the killer and break the cycle. And every time Bishop fails, he wakes up the next morning in the body of a different guest. I loved everything about this mind-bending, genre-blending novel. I came for the puzzle but stayed for the psychology.

The novel combines elements of three genres.

1. The Gothic Thriller

The setting throughout the novel is a decaying mansion reminiscent of the dwelling in “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe. 

I reach the edge of the forest, the trees giving way to the grounds of a sprawling Georgian manor house, its redbrick facade entombed in ivy. As far as I can tell, it’s abandoned. The long gravel driveway leading to the front door is covered in weeds, and the rectangular lawns either side of it are marshland, their flowers left to wither in the verge. . . . I have the sense of having stumbled upon something sleeping, that uncertain light [in a second-floor window] the heartbeat of a creature vast and dangerous and still. (p. 5)

This is Blackheath, “a depressing ruin waiting on the mercy of a wrecking ball” (p. 30). The decaying structure contains hidden rooms and passages that allow the guests to sneak around and spy on each other. Bishop sometimes finds esoteric clues to what’s happening, including books with certain words circled or underlines and notes left by others (or by himself in one of his other bodies). A sense of menace, foreboding, doom, and gloom hangs over Blackheath and its guests.

(For more information on Gothic literature, see Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”)

2. Mystery

Murder is the primary component of mystery, and The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle offers not one, but several murders—or one murder repeated several times. The novel follows the formula of the country-house mystery form perfected by Agatha Christie, which itself is a particular form of the locked-room mystery. The country-house mystery is also called a closed-circle mystery, since none of the characters can leave and no new characters can arrive; the villain must therefore be one of the assembled guests. 

3. Science Fiction

When I read that the narrator of the novel can jump from one character to another, I immediately thought of the old TV series Quantum Leap, starring Scott Bakula. Sure enough, Turton mentions in “A Conversation with the Author” at the end of the book that this show was one of the sources for his conception of the story. This feature places the novel squarely within the science fiction genre.

One reason why I like mysteries so much is that I enjoy literary puzzles. So when this novel’s narrator is charged with solving the puzzle of Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder, I eagerly accepted the challenge along with him. I began taking copious notes and keeping track of each undertaking and its results. 

But soon thematic content began to overshadow the mere mechanics of puzzle solving. The narrator’s concern over his own identity begins early, almost as soon as he awakens in the forest in the opening scene with no notion of how or why he’s there. Soon afterwards he meets Evelyn Hardcastle for the first time:

“I’m a coward, Miss Hardcastle,” I sigh. “Forty years of memories wiped away and that’s what I find lurking beneath it all. That’s what remains of me.”

 . . .

“Well, so what if you are?” she asks. “There are worse things to be. At least you’re not mean-spirited or cruel. And now you get to choose, don’t you? Instead of assembling yourself in the dark like the rest of us—so that you wake up one day with no idea of how you became this person—you can look at the world, at the people around you, and choose the parts of your character you want. You can say, ‘I’ll have that man’s honesty, that woman’s optimist, as if you’re shopping for a suit on Savile Row. . . . You don’t like the man you were Very well. Be somebody else. There’s nothing stopping you, not anymore. As I said, I envy you. The rest of us are stuck with our mistakes.” (p. 40)

In fact, we and the narrator don’t learn that his own name is Aiden Bishop until page 109. The question of identity continues to haunt Aiden Bishop right up until the novel’s end, when all is finally revealed to him.

When Bishop figures out the truth about Evelyn’s murder, that realization is minor compared to what he learns about himself. I didn’t work out the solution to the puzzle because Bishop has information that the reader doesn’t have when he explains who kills Evelyn and why, but by that point in the story the question of identity has become much more important than the puzzle. And it’s the universal human search for identity that makes this novel much more than merely a clever puzzle.

But there is an answer to the puzzle of why the U.K. and U.S. editions have different titles. According to posts by Stuart Turton on Goodreads, the U.K. title was changed for the U.S. edition because of the similarity with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill

cover: The Iceman Cometh

text © 1946  
rpt. Vintage Books, 1999  
ISBN 0-375-70917-7

I read this for my classics club spin. My review is here.

CC Spin: Review, “The Iceman Cometh” by Eugene O’Neill

Eugene O’Neill (1888-1953)

O’Neill, nevertheless, remains all but unique in his persistent and increasingly more nearly exclusive attempt to deal with modern life in such a way as to achieve the effect of classic tragedy. . . . Certainly no other significant playwright has so persisted in the conviction that, if a drama is to achieve great excellence, it must deal with man’s relation to God—or, if one prefers, with his relation to forces outside himself (p. 1249).*

Born in a hotel on Broadway in New York City on October 16, 1888, Eugene O’Neill was the son of James O’Neill, a popular actor of romantic melodrama. Eugene spent much of his youth on tour with his father or in different boarding schools. 

After a year at Princeton (from which he was suspended for a prank) he worked at clerical and journalism jobs, then signed on as a sailor on voyages to Australia, South Africa, South America, and Central America. After his return to the U.S., he came down with tuberculosis in 1912. Five months in a sanitarium followed by a further year of convalescence provided him the opportunity to read widely.

In 1914 O’Neill attended a class in play writing at Harvard taught by the famous Professor George Pierce Baker. In the summer of 1915 O’Neill fell in with a group of vacationers from Greenwich Village summering in Provincetown, Massachusetts. This was the beginning of his experiences with improvised theatrical productions, which lasted until 1924. The members of this little theater group were widely interested in art, literature, and politics, including theories of nihilism, Marxism, and Freudianism, as approaches to social revolution.

Throughout his career O’Neill continued to explore dramatically “the eternally tragic predicament of man struggling for some understanding and some justification of himself in a universe always mysterious and often seemingly inimical” (p. 1244).* 

O’Neill suffered from several health problems, including alcoholism and depression, for most of his life. He died in Boston on November 27, 1953, at age 65.

“The playwright of today,” O’Neill once wrote to George Jean Nathan, “must dig at the roots of the sickness of today as he feels it—the death of the old God and the failure of science and materialism to give any satisfactory new one for the surviving primitive, religious instinct to find a meaning for life in, and to comfort its fears of death with” (p. 1246).*

Four of O’Neill’s plays won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama:

  • Beyond the Horizon (1920)  
  • Anna Christie (1922)  
  • Strange Interlude (1928)  
  • Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956; awarded posthumously)

He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1936.

*Reference

Literary History of the United States, 4th ed., revised (New York: Macmillan, 1974).


The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill

cover: The Iceman Cometh

text © 1946  
rpt. Vintage Books, 1999  ISBN 0-375-70917-7

The Iceman Cometh was completed in 1939 but wasn’t published and produced until 1946.

The play is set in the summer of 1912, in Harry Hope’s rooming house and bar in downtown New York. The bar features “[t]wo windows, so glazed with grime one cannot see through them” (p. 3). The walls and ceiling used to be white but are “now so splotched, peeled, stained and dusty that their color can best be described as dirty” (p. 3). A group of washed-up has-beens in various stages of drunkenness occupy this sad, dingy place as Act One begins: a former circus man, a former police lieutenant, a Harvard Law School graduate, a former Boer fighter, a former Captain of British Infantry, a former Boer War correspondent, a former editor of Anarchist periodicals, a former Anarchist, a bartender, and a couple of prostitutes, all residents of Harry’s rooming house. 

In these assembled characters it’s easy to see the causes and events of the time that O’Neill was interested in exploring. All of them have outlived their former occupations and now share a denunciation of life, represented by their extreme states of drunken stupor. Larry, the former anarchist, sums up the situation of all of them in a speech near the beginning of Act One:

To hell with the truth! As the history of the world proves, the truth has no bearing on anything. It’s irrelevant and immaterial, as the lawyers say. The lie of a pipe dream is what gives life to the whole misbegotten mad lot of us, drunk or sober. . . . What’s before me is the comforting fact that death is a fine long sleep, and I’m damned tired, and it can’t come too soon for me” (p. 9).

The play’s main character is Theodore Hickman, known as Hickey, a transient hardware salesman whose impending arrival for Harry’s annual birthday party the others eagerly await. Hickey exhibits “a salesman’s winning smile of self-confident affability and hearty good fellowship. . . . He has the salesman’s mannerisms of speech, an easy flow of glib, persuasive convincingness” (p. 59). When he finally arrives near the end of Act One, he tells the others he has come to “save you from pipe dreams. I know now, from my experience, they’re the things that really poison and ruin a guy’s life and keep him from finding any peace. . . .  Just stop lying about yourself and kidding yourself about tomorrows” (p. 63).

Act Two presents Harry’s birthday party. The characters express their dismay with Hickey for telling them that they all need to stop drinking and face reality by acknowledging their pipe dreams and admitting that they’ll never fulfill those dreams.

Act Three opens as the tomorrow Hickey has warned his companions about. The characters all spruce themselves up and swear off the booze so that they can go out and face the world, looking to get their old jobs back or find something else meaningful to do. But Hickey reminds them, “as I’ve told you over and over, it’s exactly those damned tomorrow dreams which keep you from making peace with yourself. So you’ve got to kill them like I did mine” (p. 142). After they’ve all left, Rocky, the bartender, predicts that everyone will come back. Hickey retorts, “Of course . . . By tonight they’ll all be here again. You dumbbell, that’s the whole point” (p. 147). 

As Act Four opens, we see the characters once again sprawled around the bar. Each one is now even more embittered than before. Hickey tells them how he has dealt with the human condition they all face. In this bleak ending, with their hopes and pipe dreams finally and completely dashed, the characters accept life’s hopelessness and again drink themselves into oblivion in Harry Hope’s bar.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Quotation: Elena Ferrante: Storytelling as Power

There is one form of power that has fascinated me ever since I was a girl, even though it has been widely colonized by men: the power of storytelling. Telling stories really is a kind of power, and not an insignificant one. Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power.

Elena Ferrante: A Power of Our Own

15 Novels: Learning History through Reading Fiction

Novels Mentioned

  1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, translated by Berliani M. Nugrahani
  2. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  3. My Brilliant Friend (and 3 companion novels) by by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
  4. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu
  5. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  8. Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
  9. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  10. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
  11. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 
  12. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein
  13. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
  14. Transcription by Kate Atkinson
  15. A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

About a year ago, when I was setting up my reading plan for the upcoming year, I came across one challenge that included this entry: “Read a book to learn something.”

My immediate reaction to this directive was, “Every book I read, I read to learn something.” Nevertheless, within the context of that particular reading challenge I interpreted this entry as a directive to read a nonfiction book.

But every time I finish a novel I remember anew that I do learn something from every book I read, not just from nonfiction. I’ve learned a lot from novels explicitly categorized as historical fiction, but I’ve also learned from novels in various genres such as science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers.

Here are 15 novels that have contributed to my general knowledge of several topics.

Many novels have served as fictional introductions to other cultures. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, translated by Berliani M. Nugrahani, taught me about  the ethnic, religious, and political turmoil in present-day Afghanistan. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman introduced me to what life was like for lighthouse keepers on isolated islands along the coast of Australia in the years after the first world war. I learned what life was like for working-class people in Naples, Italy, after World War II from My Brilliant Friend and its three companion novels by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein. And I got a first-hand picture of life during China’s Cultural Revolution from The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu.

I’ve learned from novels more about war than I ever wanted to know. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier made me understand how the Civil War devastated both the land and the people who lived on it. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows both made me realize the magical power books can have for people experiencing horrors such as World War II. Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy made me marvel at how resilient and brave people can be in the face of those same horrors. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars taught me how unfair and long-lived political and ethnic suspicion and hatred can be. From A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra I learned the basis for the Russian war with Chechnya.

Spies are a big part of war, and I’ve learned just about everything I know about espionage from novels. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein taught me about courage and the power of friendship in the face of unspeakable fear. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn showed me bravery under threat of death in the first world war, as did Transcription by Kate Atkinson in the second. From A Column of Fire by Ken Follett I learned about the origin of spying during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

But I don’t just learn historical facts by reading fiction. I learn about human nature, about human desires and aspirations, about the desire to love and be loved, the search for one’s identity, and the courage to act in extraordinary circumstances. And also, yes, about the dark parts of the human heart and our capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others throughout time.

I’ve had a lot of formal schooling. But much of what I know about life I learned from reading fiction.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Quotation: Susan Sontag Was a Monster

“She took things too seriously. She was difficult and unyielding. That’s why Susan Sontag’s work matters so much even now.”

This is how I see her monstrosity: residing not in whether she was or was not likeable, but in her relentlessness, and her refusal to pander. The word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin monere, to warn. We need monsters like Sontag because they aren’t afraid to speak a certain kind of truth: cutting through cant, received opinion, nationalist rote, the efforts of alt-Right bot farms. We need critics who insist on hierarchies of thought and output, instead of buying into marketing hype that makes everyone really, really good, critics who don’t lunge straight for content, for what a book is ‘about’ or what it ‘says’, but who stop to consider form, and style – which, as Sontag shows us, are inextricably bound up in content. We need critics to keep us on our toes, to question authority, sweeping claims, totalising world views. We need Sontag to help us think for ourselves, and be unafraid to speak our minds. And we need her for these things now, more than ever. Maintaining a lively critical capability isn’t just about snark. It’s how we’re going to make it out of these dark days of nationalism and populism with our democracy intact.

Susan Sontag was a monster by Lauren Elkin