Last Week’s Links

OCTAVIA BUTLER AND AMERICA AS ONLY BLACK WOMEN SEE IT

It is a rare writer who can use sci-fi not simply to chart an escape from reality, but as a pointed reflection of the most minute and magnified experiences that frame and determine the lives of those who live in black skin. Octavia E. Butler was one such writer. This year marks 20 years since the publication of one of her most inspired and radically profound novels, Parable of the Talents. This is a book which saw America through the “double consciousness” which W.E.B. Dubois asserted that only black people have cultivated, and which black women have sharpened to an extreme degree. An America that is bloody, unyielding, violent and tentatively united to mask a history never reckoned with.

Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

Julie Sedivy looks at the development of social intelligence over centuries by comparing medieval literature with novels of today. Medieval literature discusses what characters do with almost no consideration of how those characters felt about their actions or their motivations. Current literature (by which she means fiction—short stories or novels), in contrast, often focuses more on characters’ feelings than on their actions. This difference illustrates what Sedivy calls “Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities.”

Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.

Sedivy writes that in medieval literature people are “constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing,” but without the author drawing much attention to such processes. These early authors present characters’ mental states through direct speech or gestures. “The direct reporting of emotion was fairly common, but mostly kept short and simple (“He was afraid”).”

This approach to emotional representation began to change between 1500 and 1700, “when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy.” The soliloquies of Shakespearean characters such as Hamlet illustrate this change, which early literature specialist Elizabeth Hart attributes to the advent of print and the increase in literacy it prompted. The ability to reread and study printed passages prompted “a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.”

Among these new cognitive skills was “the ability to accurately grasp the thoughts and emotions of others, or mentalizing ability.” Mentalizing ability grew along with the emergence of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sedivy reviews psychological research into how reading current fiction enhances readers’ mentalizing ability. She concludes that literature that trusts readers’ ability to recognize clues and draw inferences about characters’ motivations most effectively nurtures and sharpens readers’ understanding of characters’ mental states. The benefits are most obvious when study participants read “ literary passages that described characters’ thoughts, desires, or beliefs.”

And this process of reading challenging literature to improve mentalizing ability is circular: Reading challenging literature sharpens one’s mentalizing ability, and that improved mentalizing ability makes one an increasingly skillful reader of literary characters’ inner lives.

When an author expresses deep confidence in a reader and creates a space in which the reader can, from the depths of her own social imagination, lower her consciousness into the body and experiences of another, the effect can be transformational.

THE BOOKISH LIFE: HOW TO READ AND WHY

This article by Joseph Epstein is a good follow-up to the article above. “By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place.”

Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.

After admitting that there exists no definitive list of the good, the beautiful, the important books, Epstein continues, with much humor, to expound on the joy he has found in the bookish life.

Hell at the bottom of the heart: Hell at the bottom of the heart

Tyler Sage on Ross Macdonald: the man who added psychological insight to the hard-boiled thriller

While for Raymond Chandler and other early noir writers “the detective story was a tool for laying bare the unspoken realities of American life, in which dreams of prosperity and freedom collided with corruption, abuse of power and modern social conditions,” Ross Macdonald turned such concerns inward: “his deepest obsession was with the horrors of family life and the way those horrors form us when we are young.”

Sage quotes from one of Macdonald’s notebooks: ““Hell lies at the bottom of the human heart, and you find it by expressing your personality.”

Sage here analyzes the 18 Lew Archer novels Macdonald wrote over 27 years, “a handful of which are as good as the genre has to offer.”

THE 10 BOOKS THAT DEFINED THE 1960s

Literary Hub is running a series called A Century of Reading comprising lists of books that defined each decade from the 1900s “to the (nearly complete) 2010s.” Series writer Emily Temple explains:

Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered.

Since I came of age in the 1960s, this one particularly caught my eye. I’d say Temple has nailed the decade pretty well with her 10 choices. And beneath the chosen books is a HUGE list of other relevant books from that time period. So many memories—and suggestions for further reading—and rereading.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Introduction to Reading Other Women

At a time when female “others”—black, brown, and yellow—together constitute the largest block of the world’s population, their persistent invisibility to Westerners not only means they are overlooked in the present moment, but that they are consistently erased from the historical record.

Rafia Zakaria reacts against “the challenges that arise from a Western literary canon that, despite decades of feminist intervention, remains largely male and white” with a look at key texts that have helped her in her “own self-fashioning as a lettered woman of color.” In her series Reading Other Women in Boston Review she undertakes “a journey into complexity, into the lives and literary worlds of those who are challenging their own marginalization through the power of the story.” While “little brown girls” must undertake such a reading journey out of necessity, Zakaria hopes that the “Western reader must choose to do it.”

WHO WATCHES THE WATCHERS? SPOILER ALERT: WE DO

On The Many Visions of Voyeurism in Crime Fiction

Claire Fuller, whose novels include Swimming Lessons, discusses the frequent presence of characters she calls watchers in crime fiction, “ staring via two-way mirrors, spying through surveillance cameras, peeping from behind trees, and peering through train and car windows” at other characters. But, she adds, we as readers are staring at the watchers just as those watchers are looking at other people. “Does that make us in some way complicit in the crimes committed between these pages?” Fuller asks.

be careful who you’re judging when you’re horrified by a fictional watcher or voyeur, and remember that readers—you included—could be considered guilty of the same crime.

The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature

These writers are embracing a more elastic literary form — the novel — and a number of recent works, often genre-bending as well as gender-bending, have won critical acclaim.

In The New York Times Peter Haldeman discusses recent works of literature that, “[I]n a field previously dominated by memoir and genre fiction (sci-fi, young adult), [includes] a number of first novels with more purely literary designs — including playing with genre — [that] are getting attention.” The works discussed here include the following:

  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
  • Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
  • Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  • Little Fish by Casey Plett
  • The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara

Read how these authors are bending and blending literary types and genres to create new forms to portray new narratives of being.

The Draw of the Gothic

Halloween was last week, but I’m still coming across interesting articles about all the usual trappings of that holiday. Here Sarah Perry explains why “[t]o understand the literary gothic—to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion—it is necessary to undertake a little time travel.” Perry explains how the term gothic, originally applied to architecture, came to be applied to literature that “repels and appeals in equally fervent measure.”

The Scene of the Crime: A Guide to 100 Years of Crime Fiction

I make no secret of the fact that I like mysteries, and I read a lot of them. So I enjoyed this journey down memory lane by John Wilson (who is just my age) of his own love of and history with reading mysteries. There’s a bit of a Christian-theology overtone in his account that I do not share, but he seems just as fascinated with the ways mysteries probe the human condition as I am.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Show Us Your Tsundoku!

Loosely translated as the practice of piling up books you might never read, the Japanese word tsundoku seems to be everywhere right now. In recent months, The New York Times, the BBC, Forbes, and plenty of others have reported on the phenomenon.

Here’s the feature’s subtitle: “We want to see your shameful stacks of unread books.”

Well, I, for one, see absolutely no shame in my collection, seen at the top of this post. I do have to admit, though, that this isn’t my entire collection of not-yet-read books. There’s no way I could fit all of them into one photograph.

How about you? Are you willing to share your tsundoku photos in the comments?

Learning another language should be compulsory in every school

Every time we travel to another country, I’m amazed at how fluent the local people are in languages other than their native language. Many people even speak two or more languages in addition to their language of origin. When I ask them at what age they started learning foreign languages, they often give an age between 8 and 12 years. And the reason they most often give is that they are required to choose another language in school.

We U.S. residents could learn a second language, too, if it were an academic requirement. In this article Daniel Everett, dean of arts and sciences, professor of global studies, and professor of sociology at Bentley University in Massachusetts, explains why he believes:

Now, after spending most of my adult life in higher education, researching languages, cultures and cognition, I have become more convinced than ever that nothing teaches us about the world and how to think more effectively better than learning new languages. That is why I advocate for fluency in foreign languages. But for this to happen, language-learning needs to make a comeback as a requirement of both primary and secondary education in the United States. Learning another language benefits each learner in at least three ways – pragmatically, neurologically and culturally.

He has some interesting reasons for urging us all to become polyglots.

Why can’t life begin after 40 for a writer?

Fiona Gartland, a journalist with The Irish Times for 13 years and newly published novelist, addresses the issue of ageism in publishing. Most publishers, she says, expect writers to have published a book by about the age of 40.

English author Joanna Walsh, who runs @Read_Women, has argued that ageism in publishing silences minorities and women in particular because women are more likely to be the ones who spend part of their lives caring for children, which makes finding time to write more difficult. She says “older women are already told every day in ways ranging from the subtle to the blatant, that they are irrelevant and should shut up”. Placing age barriers, for example for writing awards, is arbitrary and “a particularly cruel irony” for those unable to write in their youth, she says.

But “Not everyone finds a voice in their youth,” Gartland argues, and that “doesn’t mean what they have to say is any less valuable or any less worthy of hearing.”

Milkman is a bold choice but it’s unlikely to please booksellers

A consistent outsider in the bookies’ odds, Anna Burns’s Milkman is the sort of boldly experimental – and frankly brain-kneading – novel that is usually let in at longlist stage and gently dropped as the competition narrows. And for that reason alone it is a smartly provocative choice – one that has been waiting to be made as the publishing industry searches for the soul of its next generation.

Claire Armitstead writes in The Guardian that Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, winner of the Booker Prize, will challenge both bookstores and readers. Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the novel features an 18-year-old narrator with a “relentlessly internalised” narrative that portrays “a social dysfunction that is both gothic and comically Kafkaesque.”

Milkman, Armitstead writes, is a novel that speaks “to political anxieties over hard borders in Ireland and around the more recently troubled world.”

Good Minds Suggest: Kate Morton’s Novels With Memorable Houses

Kate Morton’s latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, involves an old house and a secret hidden away there for 150 years. “Goodreads asked Morton to recommend her favorite novels where a house is nearly a central character in the story.” (See 6 Illustrations of How Setting Works in Literature.)

The use of place as an integral part of a story can add psychological depth to a novel. See what five novels Morton includes on her list.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Gothic Book Tag

#CCgothicbooktag

Here’s another exercise for the Halloween season from the Classics Club: Gothic Book Tag. The assignment is to post answers to 13 questions.

(1) Which classic book has scared you the most?

This has to be Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” (continued in #2)

(2) Scariest moment in a book?

That moment in “The Pit and the Pendulum” when that slowly descending, polished-edged pendulum finally makes its initial blood-producing trail across my body …

(3) Classic villain that you love to hate?

Probably Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper in Rebecca (see #7)

(4) Creepiest setting in a book?

Manderley as described by the unnamed narrator in her dream near the end of the novel. The previously beautiful estate becomes, in her dream, a place of death and decay threatening to devour and consume her.

(5) Best scary cover ever?

I am always taken aback at avid discussions of book covers. I pay almost no attention to them. I guess that’s probably because I know from reading about a book whether I’m going to read it or not. If I am, then I take it off the shelf with almost no regard for the cover.

(6) Book you’re too scared to read?

I don’t think “too scared” is quite the right description, but there are two books that I refuse to read because I’m pretty sure some of the content will curdle my stomach:

The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

(7) Spookiest creature in a book?

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. I admit that this vision, for me, comes from the film rather than from the book itself. But that crazy-eyed Mrs. Danvers standing happily amidst the flames is the most haunting thing I’ve ever seen.

(8) Classic book that haunts you to this day?

“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s so haunting not because of its fantasy, but because of its reality: that’s how women really were treated at that time.

(9) Favourite cliffhanger or unexpected twist?

Nothing comes to mind here. I wonder if that’s because all good gothic literature makes us expect—or at least not be surprised by—any of the devious twists.

(10) Classic book you really, really disliked?

This has nothing to do with gothic literature or Halloween, but I have always disliked The Awakening by Kate Chopin. I’ve read it three times now, and, as much as I try to see it as a seminal feminist tract, all I ever see is a selfish woman who wants to avoid any responsibilities.

(11) Character death that disturbed/upset you the most?

I guess that would have to be poor Fortunato from Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Cask of Amontillado.” In this story the first-person narrator entices his neighbor Fortunato to his wine cellar with the promise of sampling a rare vintage of an exotic wine, Amontillado. The narrator gets Fortunato drunk as they navigate their way to the wine cellar, then chains him to the wall and taunts him while using a trowel to finish building a wall to entomb Fortunato forever.

What makes this story so disturbing is that the narrator is very vague about his motivation for walling up Fortunato; he refers only to numerous insults but gives no details. It’s hard to believe that even repeated insults call for such a gruesome death. And 50 years later the narrator is still bragging about what he did to Fortunato, who still hangs in chains under the narrator’s villa.

Talk about the punishment not fitting the crime…

(12) List your top 5 Gothic/scary/horror classic reads.

In no particular order:

  1. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
  2. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  3. “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” by Conrad Aiken
  4. “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
  5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

(13) Share your scariest/creepiest quote, poem or meme.

The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

—Edgar Allan Poe

Bonus

I did a  Halloween edition of Last Week’s Links . Here are some items I found afterwards.

Before Watching ‘The Haunting of Hill House,’ Read These 13 Haunted Books

Moral Questions Lurk Beneath a Ghost Story in ‘Melmoth’

Reviewer Parul Sehgal calls this newly released novel a “Gothic novel … to its core, from its filigreed sentences to its twisty, supernatural plot.”

AN EDUCATION IN HORROR: 7 Classics of Dread, Suspense, and the Uncanny

Horror gets to the heart of it (sometimes quite bloodily) and I wouldn’t trade its dark lessons learned for those of any other genre. In these days of national and international turmoil and too much terrible mortal trauma, horror seems more important than ever for punching through to the deep what’s and possible why’s of all these calamities.

10 Great Horror Books for Wimps

10 NOVELS THAT CAPTURE NORTHERN ENGLAND’S BROODING MENACE

From the flat-vowelled, low-pitched voices of the characters who tell the stories, to the turbulent windswept landscapes in which the mysteries play out, novels set in the north of England have an atmosphere of brooding menace all of their own.

The Scariest Movies of 2018

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Awards Introduction: 6 Literary Prizes and a Few Winning Books We Love

There are so many literary prizes that keeping them all straight becomes a problem. Who awards which ones, and what are the entry and judgment criteria? Here are descriptions of a few—Nobel Prize, National Book Award, Costa Award, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker, Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly known as the Orange Prize)—along with descriptions of some recent winners of each.

VAL MCDERMID DREAMS OF A LOST JOSEPHINE TEY MYSTERY

Val McDermid is one of my favorite contemporary mystery writers. Here McDermid explains why she, along with a lot of other writers of crime fiction, think so highly of novelist Josephine Tey, whom McDermid describes as “a bridge between the classic detective stories of the Golden Age and contemporary crime fiction.”

“Questions of identity permeate her novels,” writes McDermid. Also, “Tey opened up the possibility of unconventional secrets” such as homosexual desire, cross-dressing, and sexual perversion: “a dfferent set of psychological motivations” than had been seen in Golden Age detective fiction:

Without Tey cracking open the door, I don’t know how easy it would have been for writers such as Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell to have begun their own explorations of the darker side of human identity and sexuality. I know myself that reading Tey for the first time was like taking a lungful of pure air. I realised that crime fiction could be so much more than the bloodless entertainment I’d been enjoying up to that point. And her work helped me to understand that I could write books that dealt with serious aspects of human behaviour within the confines of genre fiction.

Science Says This Is the Simplest Way to Remember More of What You Read

Here’s yet another plug for the process of slow reading, which includes “giv[ing] yourself a little time to reflect on what you just read.” And such reflection need not involve a long, complicated process. The writer of this article includes a four-step summarization and reflection process and looks at some of the psychological evidence that supports its use.

Read on!

How Feminist Dystopian Fiction Is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety

“The Water Cure,” which comes out in the United States in January and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, joins a growing wave of female-centered dystopian fiction, futuristic works that raise uncomfortable questions about pervasive gender inequality, misogyny and violence against women, the erosion of reproductive rights and the extreme consequences of institutionalized sexism.

Alexandra Alter looks at the history of the dystopian fiction that women have been writing for decades and that continues into the political climate of the present.

YES, LITTLE WOMEN IS A FEMINIST NOVEL — AND HERE’S WHY

Kathleen Keenan writes:

I read Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer as a feminist commentary on the choices available to women at that time. To be taken seriously as a writer—something she desperately

wants—Jo is forced to face the sexist literary standards of her day. And as a character in a 19th-century novel, Jo is basically doomed to head to the altar, but Alcott makes her choice as subversive as she can.

She concludes:

Little Women argues that women’s lives are worthy of examination. Women’s stories deserve to be heard. Even when beloved female characters make disappointing choices, writing and sharing their stories is a feminist act.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links: Halloween Edition

It’s only the middle of the month, so you’ve got some time to get into the Halloween book/film mood. Here are some suggestions.

WOMEN, TRAUMA, AND HAUNTED HOUSES

Sarah Smeltzer writes:

The haunted house is a staple of the horror genre and it’s easy to see why. Your house should be familiar and it should behave predictably. When your safe, warm home turns out to be something else, it’s terrifying… . But what do women do in the haunted house? How does the haunted house function as the terrain on which women work out their fears and anxieties?

Smeltzer examines three classic haunted-house stories:

  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

She concludes that “the haunted house is a physical expression of anxiety and trauma that stems from violent misogyny.”

Furthermore, maybe the haunted house is the only way that women in the novels discussed above can process what has happened to them. There do not seem to be very many other options for their processing, after all. The women might not have the words or the protection of societal structures to articulate their fears and passions. Therefore, the entire house models itself after them, horrors and all. The physical space takes on their trauma and anxieties.

The article includes a link to a “list of classic haunted house novels” to allow readers to see if other examples follow a similar pattern.

HOW THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE HAS SHAPED OUR IDEAS OF HAUNTED HOUSES

Christine Ro presents:

just a few quotes from the novel that hint at why The Haunting of Hill House resonates when it comes to perceptions of haunted houses.

The most telling of these quotations, to me, is this one:

“In all our conscious minds, as we sit here talking, there is not one iota of belief in ghosts. Not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile. No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense. Not one of us thinks rationally that what ran through the garden last night was a ghost, and what knocked on the door was a ghost, and yet there was certainly something going on in Hill House last night, and the mind’s instinctive refuge—self-doubt—is eliminated. We cannot say, ‘It was my imagination,’ because three other people were there too.”

11 GREAT GOTHIC HORROR MOVIES FOR OCTOBER

This list is broken into categories:

  • Gothic movies based on books
  • Original gothic movies
  • Gothic TV

And there’s an added bonus: a list of several links to related articles about all things gothic

Five Ghost Stories That Go Boo-yond the Haunted House

Yes, haunted houses are a staple of Halloween lore, but here are some books that offer different versions of scary and spooky.

The best spine-tingling YA horror to read this Halloween

YA (young adult) novels are often short, so you probably have time to squeeze in at least one or two of these before October 31st.

10 Creepy New Books to Read This Halloween

we’ve rounded up a list of new books to read for Halloween, including an upcoming release from Stephen King. From spine-tingling horror to twisty psychological thrillers to historical novels full of mysterious creatures, these books are sure to get you in the spooky spirit.

16 BOOKS FOR FANS OF NETFLIX’S DARK TOURIST

In the show, New Zealand journalist David Farrier visits an array of peculiar or dangerous places around the world to see what he can learn. Most people who participate in “dark tourism” travel to places that have, historically, been connected to tragedy, death, or other dark topics.

DARK BOOKS AND DARK BEER FOR THE FALL SEASON

This article isn’t limited to Halloween; it’s appropriate for the fall season. Romeo Rosales is “excited for the fall beers that hit market shelves to welcome the change in weather and season.”

I am not claiming to know an actual science behind which dark beers should be paired with which dark read. You could pair your favorite dark beer with any dark book, but I have a few book and beer recommendations.

And if you’re not a beer drinker, presumably these books could also be read with wine, coffee, tea, or any other favorite beverage.

‘Textbook terror’: How The Haunting of Hill House rewrote horror’s rules

Here’s another article about Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Jackson was the first author to understand that “houses aren’t haunted – people are”, says Hill [writer Joe Hill, son of Stephen King]. “All the most terrible spectres are already there inside your head, just waiting for the cellar door of the subconscious to spring open so they can get out, sink their icy claws into you,” he says. “In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.”

You can also read what other horror writers have to say about Jackson’s novel.

As for the new Netflix adaptation, the description indicates that it makes many major changes in the source material. I plan to watch it at some point to see if it’s true to the novel’s spirit despite the changes.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Big Books I’ve Read or Reread Recently

It’s been a while since I wrote about my love for Big Books (tomes of 500 or more pages). Here are the five most recent ones I’ve read.


A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, 928 pages

This is the final entry in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge trilogy. (The first two are Pillars of the Earth, set in the 12th century, and World Without End, set in the 14th century.) This novel begins in the latter part of the 16th century, as young Princess Elizabeth is poised to become queen. One of Follett’s strengths is the creation of strong, well defined fictional characters, and he creates a cast of them here. In their interactions with a few historical personages of the era, these characters live through the religious battles and shifting loyalties of the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.

I found particularly fascinating Follett’s picture of how the young Queen Elizabeth, facing enmity from most of Europe, created a network of spies and secret agents. This novel covers about a half century but, as in the other two novels in this series, the story never seems to go on too long. Follett is a genius at keeping a large cast of characters interesting while moving through an extended narrative arc.


Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, 703 pages

What a gem of a novel! I discovered it through one of the newsletters of Kindle deals I receive daily.

Piercy uses 10 narrators—four men and six women—to cover the full breadth of World War II and its effects. The characters include soldiers, intelligence officers, code breakers, factory workers, French resistance fighters, and women entering jobs left vacant by the departure of the male work force. As she does in much of her work, Piercy here emphasizes the women characters, but her male characters are equally as individualized and important.

Like Ken Follett, Marge Piercy keeps a large cast of characters moving coherently over the wide sections of time and place necessary to encompass the vastness of an entire world at war. This is a novel that at some time in the future will appear on a list of Big Books that I’ve reread.


Penmarric by Susan Howatch, 704 pages

Penmarric is the only reread on this list. I think I originally read it about 35 years ago (it was first published in 1971), so I’d had enough time to forget the details and therefore relished the chance to reread it.

This is one of those big, sprawling family sagas that I enjoy so much when they’re well done. And this one is very well done. Like Marge Piercy and Ken Follett, Susan Howatch keeps a large cast of characters moving across an extended time span.

The novel covers the years 1890–1945 and three generations of the Castallack family. The story focuses on Penmarric, the huge ancestral home on the family estate of Penmar located in Cornwall (the same area where the current PBS drama Poldark is set). The house represents the family fortune and tradition, but it’s actually the Cornwall region that focuses the characters’ desires and keeps them grounded. It’s a big family, with big dreams and aspirations, and Howatch introduces us to these several characters as individuals forced to live out the consequences of a father’s decision and of the social conventions of an era.


The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, 624 pages

The introverted, learned, meticulous novelist Henry James meets the dashing fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. What’s not to like?

At the heart of the novel lies a philosophical conundrum. Holmes is in the midst of his hiatus after the incident at Reichenbach Falls, when he was supposedly killed by his archenemy, Moriarty. Holmes has faked his own death and disappeared because his powers of ratiocination have suggested to him that he is a fictional character. While Holmes ponders his own existence, James is left to think about how own question: If Holmes is fictional, what does that make the novelist himself?

Despite their existential crises, James and Holmes have work to do: They’ve come to America to solve the mystery of the 1885 death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams, scion of the family that produced two U.S. Presidents. Was Clover Adams’s death the suicide it appeared to be, or does it involve sinister forces and matters of national importance?


Dune by Frank Herbert, 535 pages

My husband, daughter, and sister-in-law all love this novel, but I had put off reading it for 50 years because I don’t like much science fiction. What convinced me to read it, finally, is not the realization that this novel has become a major icon of science fiction literature, but rather our retirement relocation to Tacoma, WA, home town of Frank Herbert. Herbert was influenced to write his masterpiece by the presence for nearly 100 years in Tacoma’s North End, very near to where we now live, of a copper smelting and refining plant. The final incarnation of the company that owned the plant was known as American Smelter and Refining Company (ASARCO). ASARCO closed the plant in 1985 because of a decline in the market for copper and the need for pollution control.

The company that was originally one of Tacoma’s biggest employers was also one of its biggest polluters. Its giant smokestack, built in 1917, dominated the area at 571 feet tall. The smokestack finally became a symbol of environmental pollution, and it was demolished in 1993. The area became a Superfund toxic cleanup site. The soil around where we leave is still being tested for contamination as older property is sold and new building projects started.

This local experience prompted Frank Herbert to write Dune, which many people consider the seminal work of ecological science fiction. I don’t love the book anywhere near as much as my family does, but I am glad I finally read it (if for no other reason than I can now include it in my list of Big Books read).


© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown