Last Week’s Links

The History and Future of the Western in 10 Books

Part immigrant story, part adventure tale, and part allegory of truth and justice—the Western has been entertaining American readers for nearly two hundred years. Maybe we’re drawn to the setting: a frontier where mountains claw at the sunset and calamity is just around the corner. Or maybe it’s the almost mythical characters who find themselves thrust into the middle of nail-biting dramas. It could simply be the charming horses.

So many of America’s myths about itself—many of them historically inaccurate, misogynistic, or both—are reflected in the genre that literary writers have been turning their attentions to in recent years. To help make sense of these contemporary efforts, consider this crash course on the origin and future of the Western genre.

How “Little Women” Got Big

Focusing on a new book, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of ‘Little Women’ and Why It Still Matters (Norton), by Anne Boyd Rioux, an English professor at the University of New Orleans, Joan Acocella offers an exploration of the continuing influence of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women.

Some people complain that university syllabuses don’t accord “Little Women” the status of “Huckleberry Finn,” which they see as its male counterpart. But no piece of literature is the counterpart of “Little Women.” The book is not so much a novel, in the Henry James sense of the term, as a sort of wad of themes and scenes and cultural wishes. It is more like the Mahabharata or the Old Testament than it is like a novel. And that makes it an extraordinary novel.

The Lie of Little Women

Sophie Gilbert offers a different interpretation of Little Women from the one above:

Her [Louisa May Alcott’s] ambivalence emboldened her to unsettle conventions as she explored women’s place in the home and in the world—wrestling with the claims of realism and sentimentality, the appeal of tradition and reform, the pull of nostalgia and ambition. Her restless spirit is contagious. The more Alcott’s admirers seek to update her novel, drawing on her life as context, the more they expose what her classic actually contains.

The Power of Immigrant Stories

Vanessa Hua, author of A River os Stars, “reflects on how untold stories lead to the loss of humanity.”

“So many people in this country think that there’s only a handful of legitimate stories that make you American, but we all belong,” Michelle Obama has said. “We need to know everybody’s stories, so we don’t forget their humanity. And if we share these stories, we can be more inclusive and empathetic and forgiving.”

How Two Thieves Stole Thousands of Prints From University Libraries

A fascinating look at how Robert Kindred, an antique print dealer, and his partner Richard Green spent the summer of 1980 visiting college libraries and stealing nineteenth-century scientific illustrations from rare books and journals.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Why Doctors Should Read Fiction

Students in medical school and nursing traditionally study ethics through the use of case studies, short synopses of situations the students may face later in their careers. This article describes a recent paper from the journal Literature and Medicine that suggests replacing case studies with short stories that present ethical situations in more narrative depth.

Why Little Women Endures

A look at the recent book Meg, Jo, Both, Amy by Anne Boyd Rioux, which argues that Little Women, often called a book full of sweetness, is also an angry book “in a specifically feminist way”:

Alcott uses the structures that hem women in—marriage, home, religion—both to attract and repel her readers.

100 Best Thrillers of All Time

The title is self-evident. The list breaks its contents down into several categories: psychological thrillers, crime/mystery thrillers, sci fi/fantasy thrillers, horror thrillers, legal thrillers, domestic thrillers, medical thrillers, and the catch-all atypical thrillers.

Pat Barker Sees the Women of Troy

As women across the globe come forward with stories of harassment, abuse, and oppression, novelist Pat Barker is giving voice to fictional women in a classic piece of literature. In The Silence of Girls, out in September from Doubleday, she tells the story of The Iliad from a female perspective.

One of the transformative powers of fiction is that it can present a familiar story from a different, never before heard, perspective. Here’s how novelist Pat Barker lets one woman speak about that ultimate example of patriarchy, war.

The Lazy Trope of the Unethical Female Journalist

As Stephen Marche wrote in 2014 for Esquire, the reality of journalists is that they’re “one of the less glamorous species of humanity,” and the most reliable trait of the truly gifted ones is that they’re perpetually on the phone—which is presumably why the entertainment industry has long preferred an alternate depiction of journalists, particularly when it comes to women. On television and in film, the fictional lady reporter tends to look less like Haberman [of the Showtime documentary miniseries The Fourth Estate] and more like Camille Preaker, portrayed in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects by Amy Adams.

Sophie Gilbert, staff writer for The Atlantic, points out that this portrayal of female journalists is devastating in light of the many women who have entered the profession. Furthermore, the picture of female journalists who will sleep with any source just to get a story makes any news story by a woman suspect in popular opinion, a particularly alarming occurrence in the current climate of “fake news.”

Gilbert urges readers to watch The Fourth Estate to see “visibly tired, multitasking women working relentlessly because they know the stories they’re reporting are stories that need telling.”

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

The theory of mind myth

Theory of mind is the psychological term for our belief that other people have emotions, beliefs, intentions, logic, and knowledge that may differ from our own.

That we have a folk psychology theory of other minds isn’t surprising. By nature, we are character analysts, behavioural policemen, admirers and haters. We embrace like minds, and go to war against contrarians. Mind-reading is our social glue, guiding virtually all of our daily interpersonal interactions. When trying to decide whether or not a potential gun owner is prone to violence, a mental patient is suicidal, or a presidential candidate is truthful, we are at the mercy of our thoughts about others.

But, argues neurologist Robert Burton, former associate director of the department of neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center at Mount Zion, “Even experts can’t predict violence or suicide. Surely we’re kidding ourselves that we can see inside the minds of others.”

Here’s where psychological thrillers or literature in general comes in.

Conjuring a different view of the world is a rare talent requiring an extraordinary leap of imagination: Hamlet, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina are artistic one-offs based not on deep understanding, but yarns we spin about each other’s intentions and motivations. We make up stories about our spouses, our kids, our leaders, and our enemies. Inspiring narratives get us through dark nights and tough times, but we’ll always make better predictions guided by the impersonal analysis of big data than by the erroneous belief that we can read another’s mind.

Sensitivity Readers! What Are They Good For? (A Lot.)

For the uninitiated, sensitivity readers are people from marginalized backgrounds who vet manuscripts to ensure that their representation of underrepresented groups is both accurate and respectful. Unfortunately, these readers, who should be universally celebrated and appreciated, have instead been at the heart of a heated argument …

Does Literature Help Us Live?

Tim Parks, at great length, considers the question of whether literature revolves around this premise:

Generalization is treacherous, but let’s posit that at the center of most modern storytelling, in particular most literary storytelling, lies the struggling self, or selves, individuals seeking some kind of definition or stability in a world that appears hostile to such aspirations: life is precarious, tumultuous, fickle, and the self seeks in vain, or manages only with great effort, to put together a personal narrative that is, even briefly, satisfying.

At Edinburgh Fringe, a Spotlight on Mental Health

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the biggest arts festival in the world, a sprawl of multidisciplinary entertainment that transforms Scotland’s capital for several weeks every August.

Over the past several years “mental health has emerged as a prominent topic at the Fringe.” But:

The dark paradox is that for all the opportunities the Fringe provides to stage works about mental health, it is taxing for the mental health of its performers. The hours are long and the costs are high.

Meet a new kind of book, designed for the age of Peak TV

Constance Grady describes her encounter with Bookburners:

Bookburners was one of the first works published by Serial Box, a service that aims to become the HBO of serialized fiction; I was reading a novel/TV show hybrid, a book that was designed to read like a season of television. Its very existence displayed a major reversal of how we’ve traditionally thought about these two media: TV once aspired to be called “novelistic,” but now, in an age in which TV is increasingly described as “better than books,” here was a book built to act like a TV show.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

THE BEST BOOK DATABASE YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF

Abby Hargreaves talks about Novelist, a database that librarians use to recommend books to patrons. This database, which may be available to you through your local library’s web site, is especially good for finding recommendations on what to read next if you liked a particular book and would like to read more similar to it.

While NoveList only organizes fiction, there’s a companion database called NoveList Plus that includes nonfiction, too.

The Thing About Families and Thriller Writing

Because I love thrillers, I read a lot of descriptions of books in that genre. Here, thriller novelist David Bell explains why some many of those descriptions contain two elements: families and secrets.

It’s true that we thriller writers often exaggerate the problems and secrets that families deal with. Most families don’t experience murder, kidnapping, extortion, disappearance. (Some do, of course.) But so many times those wild, exaggerated crimes that occur in a thriller start with something small. Something ordinary. A secret kept. A promise broken. The smallest splash becomes a tidal wave.

And he offers a possible explanation of why readers love thrillers so much: “When they see the disasters that happen to fictional characters on a page, they feel relieved.” No matter how messed up our own family members might be, most of them are nowhere near as bad as the characters that inhabit the latest  best seller.

Look, Read, Listen—What’s the Difference?

I’ve always insisted that listening to an audiobook “counts” as having read the book as long as you listen to the unabridged version. But in this piece author Betsy Robinson argues differently: “ audiobooks and books are as different as movies and books.”

A former playwright now turned novelist, Robinson believes that audio productions minimize “the value of the direct relationship between books and readers.” I agree with her analysis of the reading process, called reader-response theory or transactional reading, and I therefore agree with her in the case of people who fall asleep while listening or are “missing whole paragraphs when one of the kids spills his Cheerios.” Since I no longer have a child whose eating requires monitoring, I’m seldom distracted in that way. But if I do miss a chunk of the recording, I back track until I get back to something I remember, then relisten.

And for that reason, I will continue to include unabridged audiobooks in my yearly count of books read.

We Should All Be Reading Ancient Poetry Right Now

Here’s something we classics major have always known:

There is nothing like ancient poetry for making you reassess your priorities. Homer, Virgil, and Ovid can make you feel small and insignificant, but those feelings tend to pass and are worth enduring for the clarity they bring to the bigger picture. If you only let them in, the poets of ancient Greece and Rome can bring the kind of life you are living and person you want to be into sharper focus. They are surprisingly adept at cutting through the noise of modern life.

Books: Loeb Classical Library
Loeb Classical Library

How Does a Novelist Write About a School Shooting?

Cover: Empire FallsOne of the most memorable novels I’ve ever read is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The novel contains a school shooting, which most people assume was based on the 1999 high school shooting in Littleton, CO. Russo explains that he finished the book’s manuscript before the Colorado shooting and that, in fact, the fictional incident was based on a shooting in Paducah, KY, that occurred in 1997.

But, Russo continues, which event formed the basis for the novel’s plot is not important. Once such an event has occurred, it’s nearly impossible for writers NOT to incorporate it into their work:

as I wrote and revised the novel, . . [e]ach day became an exercise in magical thinking: If I could face the worst of my fears on the page, maybe I’d be spared in real life. I didn’t want to write the story, but how could I not?

Because, Russo writes:

And yet it’s novels we turn to for a deeper understanding of life than we get from politicians and others with ideological axes to grind, which is why some other novelist (probably thinking, How can I not?) is no doubt at work on a book that centers on a school shooting. Every day she sets about her horrifying task, trying to imagine, What if one of the dead kids in Parkland was mine? Could I go on? What would my mission in life become after life as I knew it ceased to exist? Questions like these drive novelists, not because we have answers, but because we don’t. All we have is moral imagination, which, over time, can help heal wounds but also has a nasty habit of opening them, as my novel did and continues to do.

That novelist currently writing is in an even more anxiety-ridden spot that he was because “such tragedies have become commonplace.” And also because:

As a nation, we have not decided that our children are more important than our guns, and any new novel on the subject will have to address that tectonic shift. We’ve changed. Our nation has changed.

Writing about all this, as Russo does here, is an act of tremendous bravery for which he deserves our gratitude.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Hunter S. Thompson and the Sanity of Writers

A short appreciation of writer Hunter S. Thompson, who often claimed to have done much of his writing “half out of his skull,” under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

This link is worth clicking just to see the illustrations.

THE GENERATION THAT GREW UP ON STEPHEN KING IS TAKING HIM BACK

Stephen KingRandall Colburn celebrates the fact that directors who grew up as fans of Stephen King’s work are now bringing his work to both the big and the little screen. Colburn says of this renaissance:

Credit its origins with the commercial success of CBS’s Under the Dome, the critical acclaim of Hulu’s 11/22/63, or the clear homage emanating from Netflix’s Stranger Things, but it was last year’s seismic It that truly catapulted King back onto the A-list. In its first weekend, Andy Muschietti’s adaptation had the best September opening of all-time, the best opening ever for a Stephen King adaptation, and the best opening for any R-rated horror movie.

Colburn says that earlier film adaptations of King’s works placed more importance on those works’ covers—the King name—than their contents. But the current renaissance aims at the truth of King’s world:

But ask any Constant Reader [King’s term his for diehard fans] and they’ll tell you the same thing: They don’t just read King to get scared. They read him for the characters, the settings, the story.

One of the products of this King renaissance is Hulu’s series Castle Rock, based on the King universe. Colburn mentions the series, and you can read a more focused review of it here.

A Crime Writer’s Guide to Writing About Death and Murder

As the article title suggests, novelist Owen Hill’s piece is directed toward crime writers. But I often find articles directed toward writers useful for readers as well, since the advice given to writers can help readers understand what effects authors are aiming for and what techniques they’re using to create those effects.

For example, Hill writes:

What’s your approach? I think it’s best to start with an understanding of the reader’s expectations. Mysteries aren’t poetry or experimental prose. They are audience oriented. Who are you trying to reach? Is the body in the next room discovered off stage, or described in great detail? Is the narrator at the scene? Do you jump right in, like Chester Himes’s Real Cool Killers, (“The little knifeman slashed his throat and severed his red tie neatly just below the knot”)? Or do you use some version of the “body in the library” cliché? Do you want to subvert the rules of the genre, or go with the flow?

After all, “The mystery novel is perhaps the only place where we can have fun with violent death.”

How Finland Rebranded Itself as a Literary Country

Before 2007, Finland’s global notoriety came from Nokia phones. But when Apple’s iPhone rang Nokia’s death knell, “the Finns set out as a nation to find the ‘next Nokia.’”

They found their next branded product in literary fiction:

“Finnish literature had matured to a point where it could reach international readers,” said Tiia Strandén, director of FILI, the Finnish Literature Exchange, a not-for-profit organization that has promoted Finnish writing abroad for more than forty years. Strandén credited Oksanen for opening foreign publishers’ eyes to what Finnish literature could do.

The Book That Terrified Neil Gaiman. And Carmen Maria Machado. And Dan Simmons.

We asked 13 authors to recommend the most frightening books they’ve ever read. Here’s what they chose.

I’ve read several of the books listed here, but a few I had never even heard of.

Are you brave enough to add some of these titles to your reading list?

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

I’ve come across lots of interesting stuff lately.

When a Stranger Decides to Destroy Your Life

I’m including this article on all my blogs this week because it’s important that everyone with any online presence, no matter how small, read it.

50 MUST-READ CONTEMPORARY ESSAY COLLECTIONS

From Book Riot’s Liberty Hardy:

To prove that there are a zillion amazing essay collections out there, I compiled 50 great contemporary essay collections, just from the last 18 months alone. Ranging in topics from food, nature, politics, sex, celebrity, and more, there is something here for everyone!

LIGHTHEARTED BOOKS TO READ WHEN LIFE IS HARD

Sometimes a book like this is exactly what we need. From Book Riot’s Heather Bottoms:

When I’m feeling worn down, reading is a much-needed escape and comfort, but I need a book that is less emotionally taxing. I don’t want to be blindsided by a heart-wrenching death, intense family trauma, or weighty subject matter. What I need is a palate cleanser, lighthearted books to help me decompress a bit and provide a happy diversion. Here are some of my favorites. These lighthearted books are charming, soothing, funny, warm-hearted, and just the break you need when life is hard.

The Best Movies of 2018 (So Far)

Esquire offers its top–20 list of this year’s movies, some of which are based on books. I have seen exactly zero of these and hadn’t even heard of many on the list.

What about you? How many of these have you seen? Are they as good as presented here?

SALMAN RUSHDIE: MY NEW BOOK KNEW TRUMP WOULD WIN — EVEN THOUGH I DIDN’T

OZY interviews Salman Rushdie.

DONALD TRUMP DOESN’T APPEAR IN YOUR NEWEST NOVEL, THE GOLDEN HOUSE … BUT YOU’VE SAID HE WAS PART OF THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE CHARACTER OF THE JOKER.

Rushdie: It tries to do that risky thing of writing about the exact moment the book is written in. There isn’t anybody called Donald Trump in the book. But it occurred to me that in a deck of playing cards, there are only two cards that behave badly: One of them is the trump and the other is the joker. I thought, if I can’t have the Trump, I’ll have the Joker. He becomes my stand-in for Trump.

Famous writers and their vices: why we can’t get enough of them

Whether it’s Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, we relish writers stepping into their pages

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Spin #18

The Classics Spin #18

I love these Classics Spins because they get me reading the books on my list when I might otherwise avoid them.

Here’s how it works: I list 20 books here that I have yet to read from my original list of 50+ classics. On Wednesday, August 1, the Classics Club will announce a number, and I have to read whatever book on my list has that number.

So here’s my list:

  1. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology (1915)
  2. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  3. Wilson, Sloan. The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
  4. Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men
  5. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  6. James, Henry. What Maisie Knew
  7. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice
  8. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  9. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
  10. Lewis, Sinclair. Babbit
  11. Styron, William. Darkness Visible (1990)
  12. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  13. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  14. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
  15. Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls
  16. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  17. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  18. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
  19. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
  20. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway

 

Update

And the winning number is . . . 9! So I get to read The Magnificent Ambersons this month.

And here’s something weird: Right after I posted my list of 20, I thought, “I hope The Magnificent Ambersons number comes up.” And it did! What are the chances of that happening? (Yes, I know it’s one in 20, but I like to think of it as a wonderful synchronicity, a reward from the universe allowing me to do what I wanted to do anyway.)

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Missing Malcolm X Writings, Long a Mystery, Are Sold – The New York Times

The title page for an unpublished manuscript related to Malcolm X’s autobiography, one of several long-rumored fragments that were sold on Thursday.CreditJeenah Moon for The New York Times By Jennifer Schuessler July 26, 2018 16 For a quarter century, they have been the stuff of myth among scholars: three missing chapters from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” reputedly cut from the manuscript after his assassination in 1965 because they were deemed too incendiary.

Source: Missing Malcolm X Writings, Long a Mystery, Are Sold – The New York Times