Recent articles on novels and novelists
Antonia Malchik writes of the role of setting in Karin Salvalaggio’s mystery novels:
The northwest Montana brought to life in Karin Salvalaggio’s mystery novels has a great deal in common with Hansel and Gretel’s unkind world. Silent, pine-filled mountains offer a hefty dose of frisson, and remind us that in the best mysteries the role of place as character is essential but subtle. From the national parks that form the setting for every one of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon mysteries to the idyllic Three Pines village full of discomfiting undertones in Louise Penny’s acclaimed Inspector Gamache series, literary mystery novels in particular rely on place to create atmosphere and challenge their protagonists.
Writer Annette Gendler takes issue with Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s project, which he calls an autobiographical novel. He calls the work autobiographical because he uses the real names of people in his life and writes about actual events that have happened to them. But he also calls it a novel, which suggests that what he’s writing may—or may not—be fictional. Gendler objects to this blurring of the line between fiction and truth, between fiction and memoir:
His novel is about him, his wife, his kids, his friends, and other relatives: real people using real names. He’s telling stories not only about himself that might be true or not, but he’s doing the same with the people in his life. None of these real people has any recourse over what’s being said about them because, after all, it’s a novel. A novelist is not going to be raked over the coals — like James Frey was — for inventing or embellishing facts.
In a good companion piece to Gendler’s, novelist Rufi Thorpe insists that all writers, including novelists, steal details from their lives:
I had always wondered, as a student of literature, why so many authors made a point of how completely non-autobiographical their work was. I had thought it was because they were proud of their imaginations. But the older I get, the more I suspect it was to ward off the hurt feelings of every person they had ever known.
I do not write plots that are autobiographical, or even biographical of the people I have known. But I do steal details. I steal them obsessively. In fact, it is possible that my entire career writing fiction is in fact a fanatical love affair with detail. I steal houses, bowls on counters, perfumes and scents, phrases, anecdotes, realizations, jokes, car accidents, dogs, meals, clothes, plants. It is a metaphysical form of kleptomania.
On the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the work’s significance:
What appeared at the time to be unprecedented about the novel seems more mundane to us today, whereas what then came across as mundane now seems unprecedented. Joyce’s novel remains vital, in contrast to almost all other novels published in 1916, because he forcefully strived toward an idiosyncratic form of expression, a language intrinsic to the story he wanted to tell, about the young protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his formative years in Dublin, in which uniqueness was the very point and the question of what constitutes the individual was the issue posed.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
- 10 Big Books I Have Read & Loved
- 6 Big Books I Keep Meaning to Reread
- 6 Big Books on My Reading List
- 2 Big Books That Disappointed Me
Since I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction, it’s not surprising that all of my earlier Big Books lists have included only novels. However, in looking over my reading lists of the past several years, I discovered five nonfiction works that qualify as Big Books.
I thought I’d find more, but many of the potential candidates I looked at checked in at around 450 pages. I even found one of 497 pages that I was tempted to include, but I finally decided that, since “500 pages or more” is my working definition of the term Big Book, I should stick to that definition here as well.
Truman by David McCullough
Hardcover, 1116 pages
How could I not love a man who taught himself Latin while driving a horse-drawn plow back and forth across the fields of his family’s farm?
The best writers of creative nonfiction use novelistic techniques to develop characters, create settings, interject background material, and pace action in service to telling a compelling story. David McCullough is one of those writers. I’ve loved every one of his books that I’ve read, but he is at his outstanding best in this biography of the simple man from Missouri who lead the United States through one of its most crucial periods. Here’s how Goodreads describes the subject of this biography:
The last president to serve as a living link between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, Truman’s story spans the raw world of the Missouri frontier, World War I, the powerful Pendergast machine of Kansas City, the legendary Whistle-Stop Campaign of 1948, and the decisions to drop the atomic bomb, confront Stalin at Potsdam, send troops to Korea, and fire General MacArthur.
Truman is both an outstanding historical document and a literary masterpiece.
Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg
Hardcover, 640 pages
Like McCullough, Berg tells a masterful story of his subject’s life.
However, Charles Lindbergh isn’t as easy a subject to portray as Harry Truman. The same qualities that made Lindbergh a brilliant, dedicated, and persevering achiever also made him difficult to live with. For example, when he tried to play with his children, he developed games with such arduous and fussy rules that they were not games at all, but rather overwhelming tasks that the children dreaded and resented.
Nonetheless, Berg compellingly portrays what Goodreads calls “the life of one of the nation’s most legendary, controversial, and enigmatic figures.”
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Paperback, 500 pages
Here’s yet another brilliant biography compellingly told. Laura Hillenbrand, whose earlier book Seabiscuit does not quite qualify as a Big Book, recounts the life of Louis Zamperini.
As a boy, Zamperini was a delinquent whose activities included breaking into houses, getting into fights, and running away from home to ride the freight rails. As a teenager, he channeled his rebellion into running and became successful enough to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he placed eighth in the 5000 m race.
When World War II arrived, Zamperini went off to fight. In 1943 he was the bombardier on a plane that crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He managed to survive in thousands of miles of open ocean by clinging to a tiny life raft. Later he bacame a prisoner of war, where he inspired his fellow prisoners with his refusal to give in to the brutal conditions and torture imposed by their captors.
Zamperini died in 2014 at the age of 97.
Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller
Hardcover, 584 pages
I grew up with the music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Although—or perhaps because—I never knew much about their lives, I was drawn to Weller’s book.
Here’s Goodreads’ description of the book’s content:
Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct. Carole King is the product of outer-borough, middle-class New York City; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of the Manhattan intellectual upper crust. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, a great swath of American girls who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic sixties generation – female version – but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way, far from cliche. The history of the women of that generation has never been written – until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.
This eminently readable book helped me understand that pivotol decade, the 1960s, much better than I had while living through it.
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Paperback, 592 pages
Published in 1963, this ground-breaking work described “the problem that has no name.” Without knowing exactly what to call it, Friedan had discovered that smothered feeling women felt because of unquestioned social beliefs that urged them to be content with home and family, and of institutions of higher learning that minimized their intellectual potential by turning homemaking into a glorified academic discipline.
Writing in a time when the average woman first married in her teens and 60 percent of women students dropped out of college to marry, Betty Friedan captured the frustrations and thwarted ambitions of a generation and showed women how they could reclaim their lives.
I read this book back in college in the late 1960s, but I appreciated it much more when I reread it just a few years ago.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
Recent articles on books, authors, and all things literary
This article drew my attention because of my interest in memoir. One perennial question about memoirs is how much of the content is true, and the related question, when, if ever, it’s permissible to make up things in memoir. But here Becca Rothfeld asks how much autobiographical material novelists can or should incorporate into their fiction:
Linda Rosenkrantz’s “novel” Talk (1968), a compilation of transcribed conversations between three denizens of the New York art world that was recently reissued by New York Review Books.
Emily Temple writes:
it’s amazing to me how rare it still is to find complex female friendships in literature for adults (YA has it a little more locked), and even the whiff of a good one can send me straight to the bookstore. In case you’ve been having the same feeling, here are 25 books that investigate female friendship in one form or another.
According to Alain de Botton:
A novel is a machine for simulating experience, a ‘life simulator’ and – like its flight equivalent – it allows us safely to experience what it might – in real life – take us years and great danger to go through. Unaided, we are puny in our powers of empathy and comprehension, isolated from the inner lives of others, limited in our experiences, short of time, and able to encounter only a tiny portion of the world first hand. Fiction extends our range – it takes us inside the intimate consciousness of strangers, it lets us sit in on experiences that would be terrifying or reckless in reality; it lends us more lives than we have been given.
Read why he believes we should spend more time reading what he terms Classical novels than we spend reading Romantic novels, which he says construct “a devilish template of expectations of what relationships are supposed to be like – in the light of which our own love lives often look grievously and deeply unsatisfying.”
Here’s more on the question of truth, memoir, and fiction:
both the memoirist and the novelist are inevitably inspired by the people they have met, and will make use of them to suit their purposes. This may not strictly be plagiarism, but it is similar territory. “Writing is an act of thievery,” admits Khalid Hosseini, author of the autobiographical novel The Kite Runner. “You adapt experiences and anecdotes for your own purposes.”
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
In an article for the U.K. publication Telegraph, Hanya Yanagihara discusses her life and the books that have influenced her:
My first book, The People in the Trees, took 18 years to write, largely because there were years when I wrote nothing. But A Little Life took just 18 months: I was very disciplined. When you’re in the zone of the book you want to stay there – it’s simply about finding time.
Writing can be lonely but it’s a wonderful kind of aloneness. I often reach a point where the world I am creating seems more vivid than the world I occupy.
I’m a big fan of mystery and crime novels, so I couldn’t pass up a list by the godfather of crime writing himself:
Each month, I’ll be recommending five works of mystery/crime/suspense fiction, new or old, with no agenda other than to share a distillation of more than a half-century of avid reading in this most distinguished literary category.
This is Penzler’s list from March. If you click his linked name at the top of the page, you’ll be taken to a page with a link to his April list.
Each time a new book gets snatched up for a lot of money, its author winds up getting a lot of attention. This year’s spokesmodel is Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, whose debut novel The Nest was won by Ecco in a hot auction; Sweeney walked away with seven figures. Since her story is about a family inheritance, it’s kind of wonderful that she now has a nest egg of her own.
Sweeney, 55, recently earned an MFA from Bennington College. Although she now lives in Los Angeles with her family, she spent 27 years in New York City, the setting of her novel. She majored in journalism in college, then took a job in corporate communications.
Among other revelations in this interview, you’ll find out which fiction authors have most influenced her.
In 2014, Phil Klay published Redeployment, his collection of short stories set in and about the war in Iraq. Each of the twelve short stories looks at the war from a different perspective. Together they make up one of the most powerful literary collections coming out of the recent wars. Redeployment received the National Book Award for fiction in 2014, making it the first short story collection to receive the award since 1996. We spoke with Klay about what he was trying to explore and how his work contributed to the larger cultural conversation about the war and—more importantly—human nature.
Klay studied history, English, and creative writing at Dartmouth College before joining the Marine Corps, where he served as a public affairs officer. He points out, “I think sometimes when a vet writes a novel about war there is a tendency to read it autobiographically, but I didn’t do anything that any of the characters in the book do.”
About the theme of the book, he says:
I was interested in the way people choose to define themselves, the way they choose to fit into broader cultural narratives, and also the slippage between broader cultural narratives and lived experience—how that can either help people find a sense of meaning and purpose and community, or it can cut people off.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
The Nebula Awards — voted on by members of the Science Fiction Writers of America to recognize excellence in science fiction and fantasy — were given out in Chicago yesterday, and every prose award went to a woman (the film award went to the writers of feminist action film Mad Max: Fury Road).
Emotion is essential to learning, Dr. Immordino-Yang said, and should not be underestimated or misunderstood as a trend, or as merely the “E” in “SEL,” or social-emotional learning. Emotion is where learning begins, or, as is often the case, where it ends. Put simply, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about,” she said.
The agony of death is more than just physical – it is an existential wound that gnaws away until there is slow, and frequently unwilling, acceptance of the inevitability of one’s mortality. I sometimes see a similar pain in my baby girl’s eyes as she makes another arduous journey – learning how to be alive. Frequently, as she cries when she is hungry, or cries when she is overfed, or cries as she tries to have a bowel movement, or just cries, it seems as if she is yearning to go back to the simple comforts of her mother’s womb.
Haider Javed Warraich, M.D., a fellow in cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, is the author of the book Modern Death – How Medicine Changed the End of Life, to be published in February 2017.
The sensitivity to both authentic storytelling and being vulnerable on the page in the interest of relating to your reader will naturally bring you to the issue of what right you have to include another person’s story.
Books are, have always been, a shared vernacular between us. It’s in the pattern of our interactions; each conversation, after a few minutes of personal prologue (“How’s your son?” he’ll ask, to which I’ll answer, “Fine.” Or: “Adrift.” Or: “Let’s talk about something else”), and then he’s telling me what he’s been reading, mysteries usually, high-end crime, Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri, neither of whose work I know.
The significant role that these school years have on shaping personalities is something I’ve been thinking about as our kids get older, but really came to a head when the kids and I listened to an interview of one of our favorite kids’ book authors recently. We are all big fans of Andrew Clements, who is well known for writing “school stories” such as Frindle and Lunch Money. In explaining the reason that he writes those kinds of stories, he said that it was because everyone’s life is a school story. Everyone has their own stories from school and their own ideas on how these interactions helped shape them as a person. That stuck in my head and when I also ran across a blog post written by Emily McDowell (a favorite illustrator and designer of mine) discussing how school interactions contribute to “limiting beliefs” we have about ourselves, I really started to think about how to approach the concept with my own kids.
From Jane E. Brody, long-time health writer for the New York Times:
A recently published book, “70 Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade,” inspired me to take a closer look at how I’m doing as I approach 75 and how I might make the most of the years to come. It would be a good idea for women in my age cohort to do likewise. With a quarter of American women age 65 expected to live into their 90s, there could be quite a few years to think about.
About the book 70 Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade, Brody writes:
What are the most important issues facing these women as they age, and how might society help ease their way into the future? Leading topics the women chose to explore included work and retirement, ageism, coping with functional changes, caretaking, living arrangements, social connections, grandparenting and adjusting to loss and death.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest book, Eligible, is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice.
While social rules have changed dramatically in the 200 years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s themes of love, wealth and class are still relevant. Women today can secure financial independence and enjoy intimate relationships without a marriage certificate. Yet societal pressures to marry and bear children persist. And so does the allure of “a single man in possession of a good fortune.”
Book clubs have a reputation as something women do together, but this article focuses on an all-male group in Marin County, CA:
The Man Book Club is going into its ninth year. It has 16 members, a number of whom are lawyers and engineers in their mid–50s. Each month, the host must prepare a meal appropriate to the book under discussion.
There’s also information on other all-male book groups around the country.
Our perspective is how we perceive people, situations, ideas, etc. It’s informed by our personal experience, which makes it as unique as anything could be. Perspective shapes our life by affecting our choices. But the minute our minds become steeped in worry, perspective goes out of the window. We forget about our triumphs. We stop being optimistic as fear takes the wheel.
Sarah Newman explains how fear can cause us to lose sight of all the wisdom we’ve accrued over our lives.
Coming of age is such a common topic for fiction that this type of novel has its own name: Bildungsroman. These novels focus on the psychological growth of the main character from youth into adulthood.
Here novelist Meg Rosoff discusses these coming-of-age novels:
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Henry IV Part I by Shakespeare
- Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
- All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
A recent research study from the University of British Columbia found that:
Older women are nearly 25 percent more likely than men to be over-prescribed or inappropriately prescribed drugs, with a new study pointing to social dynamics as the explanation for the discrepancy.
This is a common question among avid readers: Should authors’ prejudices affect our reactions to their books?
In this article Imogen Russell Williams asks:
The unsavoury attitudes found in novels from writers such as GK Chesterton and Susan Coolidge have ruined some of the fiction I loved most as a child. But where do you draw the line when you return to tainted classics?
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
In recognition of the legacy of Shirley Jackson’s writing, and with permission of the author’s estate, The Shirley Jackson Awards, Inc. has been established for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
Jake Epping is a 35-year-old high school English teacher in the small town of Lisbon Falls, Maine. To earn some extra money, he also teaches English to adult GED students. The only other activity in his life is moping around and lamenting the recent divorce from his short-term alcoholic wife. At least he doesn’t have to track her down and go drag her home from some bar any more.
So when Al Templeton, owner of the local diner, asks Jake if he’s willing to take on a secret mission, Jake’s interest is piqued. Al confides to Jake that, at the rear of the diner, there’s a portal that leads to a day in 1958. Al himself has gone through the portal and back several times, so he knows that the passage through always leads to the same day. Also, no matter how long he has stayed in the past, when he returns he has always been gone from the present (2011) for exactly two minutes.
Al believes that the greatest disaster of modern history was the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. When he discovered the time portal, he decided to go back in time and prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from shooting JFK. Al has spent years researching Oswald’s life and movements, but now he’s dying of lung cancer and can’t finish the job. Would Jake be willing to see the mission through?
After a few trial runs into the past and back, Jake agrees. Armed with Al’s notebook of information on Oswald, he goes back to 1958 with the plan of ending up in Dallas on 11/22/63. He drives through the land of Long Ago and settles down in a small town in Texas to make his preparations. There he becomes George Amberson, who begins substitute teaching at the local high school, falls in love with the new school librarian, and finds a life much more satisfying than the one Jake Epping left behind in Lisbon Falls.
Will George/Jake be able to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK? And, if he succeeds, how will subsequent history unfold?
Stephen King excels at using details to create interesting characters and to build narrative worlds. 11/22/63 presents him at his storytelling best.
The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati
It took me a while to figure out the provenance of this book.
First, Sara Donati is a pen name for Rosina Lippi, a former university professor. She writes historical fiction as Sara Donati. Under her own name she writes contemporary novels and academic work.
Second, the blurb on the inside fold of the dust jacket says “The Gilded Hour follows the story of the descendants of the characters from the Wilderness series.” I, apparently erroneously, took this to mean that this novel is the next installment of that series. According to Lippi’s web site, the Wilderness series comprises “six historical novels that follow the fortunes of the Bonner family in the vast forests in upstate New York, from about 1792–1825.” However, The Gilded Hour, also about the Bonner family, jumps forward to after the Civil War. It is the first book in a new series that will follow the Bonner granddaughters into the twentieth century.
For more information, see these sources:
In New York City in 1883, two female physicians, Anna Savard and her cousin Sophie Savard, graduates of the Woman’s Medical School, care for the city’s poor and immigrant inhabitants. They must contend not only with society’s expectations for women, which still looked down upon women in professions previously reserved for men, but also with Anthony Comstock, self-proclaimed upholder of Victorian morality and creator of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The 1873 Comstock Law, passed by the U.S. Congress, made illegal the production and distribution of any printed material explaining abortion or birth control. For more information about Anthony Comstock, see THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A TRUE AMERICAN MORAL HYSTERIC.
I was drawn to this novel because I wrote my dissertation on the life stories of five nineteenth-century U.S. women physicians. The first woman to receive a medical degree in the U.S. was Elizabeth Blackwell, in 1849. Women of that era knew that they had to be self-confident, assertive, and thick-skinned to succeed, but they also knew that they could not overtly flout society’s expectations about the proper behavior of women. Most early women physicians therefore worked to expand the role of women to include health care rather than to denounce social expectations altogether.
And this is where I become uncomfortable with Sara Donati’s portrayal of Dr. Anna Savard, who quickly becomes the central focus of the novel when her cousin Sophie departs for Switzerland. Anna is self-confident, assertive, and thick-skinned, but too aggressively so. She is always eager for an argument. A more realistic portrayal of a female physician of the time would have been someone who was less confrontational and more willing to work around challenges instead of charging straight into the middle of them.
There is also a lot more sex in this book than necessary. Of course sex is an apt area for characterization, but the encounters in this novel are as explicit as those in a typical romance novel. Anna and her love interest, detective Jack Mezzanotte, also engage in a lot more subtle sexual communication in public than would have been natural at this time period. For example, Jack often unbuttons Anna’s cuff and rubs his finger along her wrist and down into her palm. It’s hard to imagine much of this actually going on in public among polite nineteenth-century society.
Despite these criticisms, I found much to like in The Gilded Hour. At 732 pages, it’s a Big Book that exhibits many of the positive characteristics its size permits. There’s a large cast of characters who have the room to reveal themselves amply. Donati/Lippi’s eye for detail creates a fascinating picture of New York City in 1883 and reveals that the author has done an enormous amount of research. And, as some readers lamented on Goodreads, even at 732 pages, this novel leaves several storylines unresolved. But that’s all right, since The Gilded Hour is the first novel in a new series.
No! I Don’t Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside
About three months before her sixtieth birthday, Marie Sharp decides to keep a diary to record her passage into old age. She begins with comments on the usual complaints of this age: aching knees, bunions, HRT (that’s hormone replacement therapy for the uninitiated), and receding gums. However, she gradually begins to appreciate some of life’s larger aspects: love, death, and personal relationships.
There’s a lot of humor in this book, but it’s humor based on stereotypes. Even when Marie Sharp turns those stereotypes on their heads, she does so in a completely expected way. For example, the woman who can’t imagine why grandmothers go so ga-ga over their grandchildren goes completely ga-ga over her own grandson.
There’s nothing new in this novel. I’m 67, and while I was sometimes amused by this book, I certainly didn’t learn anything from it.
Year-to-date total of books read: 13
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown