It’s time for another Classics Club Spin: Spin #21.
Here’s how it works:
I am to post a list of 20 titles of books as yet unread on my classics club list by next Monday, September 23rd. On that date the Classics Club will post a number. I then have until October 31st to read the book on my list with that number.
Here’s my list:
Brookner, Anita. Hotel Du Lac
Jackson, Shirley. Just an Ordinary Day: Stories
Highsmith, Patricia. The Tremor of Forgery
Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
Styron, William. Darkness Visible
McEwan, Ian. Atonement
Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird
Agee, James. A Death in the Family
Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle
Howard, Elizabeth Jane. The Long View
Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time
Connell, Evan S. Mr. Bridge
James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs
Sonia Patel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who has written three YA novels, argues that “YA fiction needs to expand its boundaries beyond safe, popular stories that only affirm and praise different cultures. It needs to push past the expectation that all diverse teens can conquer adversity in a tolerable way.”
In honor of his brother, who died a year ago, Lucas Maxwell decided to read five YA novels dealing with mental health and substance abuse in five weeks. Here he reports on the five books he read and what those books can teach us.
Having never read anything by Salman Rushdie, I was drawn to this article in which Parul Sehgal argues Rushdie “is the author of nearly 20 books — six published in the last 11 years alone, but of diminishing quality. The novels are imaginative as ever, but they are also increasingly wobbly, bloated and mannered. He is a writer in free fall. What happened?”
The Escape Room by Megan Goldin, in which four coworkers become trapped in an elevator and must think about the consequences of their past actions
The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware, in which a governess faces haunting occurrences in a smarthouse completely controlled by technology
This reading is the reason this article by thriller writer Catherine Ryan Howard caught my eye: “When I sit down at my desk to work on my novels, it’s in this particular corner—the mundane, everyday world of our online lives—that I like to play in.”
Commentary on one of my all-time favorite Big Books:
The Blind Assassin (2000) is a multilayered and deftly plotted work of autobiographical and historical fiction set in 20th-century Canada. In just the first few pages, layers of family history and mystery unfurl by way of a trifecta of memoir flashback, newspaper clippings and novel-within-a-novel narratives. It’s around Iris — our now-octogenarian protagonist and witty narrative anchor — that these myriad elements swirl and eddy, coming together to form a sprawling family saga peppered with death, deceit and disappointment.
. . .
whether you’re an Atwood novice or a superfan looking to revisit the prolific writer’s expansive back catalog, start with The Blind Assassin, which, nearly two decades out from publication, still speaks with a fresh voice about powerful men, politics and female victimization.
Psychologist J.L. Doucette also writes mystery novels. When a body was found buried in the back yard of a house formerly owned by her grandmother, Doucette began to “question my choice of genre as if by writing about murder I was somehow complicit in bringing violence into the world.”
The great power of fiction originates in the universality of the particular stories it tells. Since growing up is something we all must do sooner or later, coming-of-age novels are among the most prevalent and most affecting of all.
Here Emily Temple offers her list. I agree with some of her choices: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Cider House Rules by John Irving.
But there are a lot more I would add: The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni.
While The Goldfinch was a bestseller and won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, it divided critics. One challenge to film-makers is its length (864 pages in the current paperback edition; well over 300,000 words). It was called “Dickensian” by some admiring reviewers, but the largest Dickens novels rely on highly elaborate plotting and a large cast of characters. The Goldfinch offers neither of these.
I loved Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, but a lot of people did not. The film version will be hitting theaters soon, and I’m eager to see it. But, as this article discusses, many are wondering whether this novel can be made into a satisfactory movie.
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 A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, a book that I have not yet read (although it’s on my TBR list). Here’s the description from Goodreads:
He can’t leave his hotel. You won’t want to.
From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility–a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.
In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.
1. Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz, the main character in Lady in the Lake by former journalist Laura Lippman, is also searching for a purpose in life. It’s 1966 in Baltimore, and after an 18-year marriage, Maddie has decided she wants something else from life rather than being just the wife of Milton Schwartz and the mother of Seth. She leaves her husband and son behind, gets her own apartment, and sets out to become a newspaper reporter.
2. Like Maddie in Lady in the Lake, Ingrid Coleman in Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller comes to realize in middle age that she lost her sense of individual purpose when, as a pregnant student, she chose to give up her education and writing ambitions to marry the professor with whom she was in love. One day she goes for a swim in the ocean and never returns.
3. Architect Bernadette Fox also feels she has to run away from her family to rediscover herself in Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Fortunately, her teenage daughter is clever enough to figure out where Bernadette is and to go after her.
4.The Whisper Man by Alex North also tells the story of a parent and child searching for a way to reconnect with each other. After the sudden death of his wife, Rebecca, Tom Kennedy moves into a house in a different town with his seven-year-old son, Jake. Tension mounts when a young boy is killed and Tom realizes he must establish an emotional bond with Jake in order to protect him.
5.& Sons by David Gilbert tells the tale of A.N. Dyer, an old man trying to connect with his sons. Like Tom Kennedy in The Whisper Man, Dyer is a writer, but unlike Kennedy he has never before cared about having a meaningful relationship with his sons.
6. In The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook, Henry Griswald, now an elderly man, seeks to understand his long-dead father by discovering the truth about a long-ago event from his own childhood.
And there we have it, a journey of emotional discovery through six degrees of separation.
The Edgar Awards Revisited, a series in Criminal Element, looks back at award winners not only in their own right, as outstanding novels, but as representative of the their time.
In fact, looking back on 1986, The Suspect may have been the least progressive choice, thematically or structurally, for the Edgar that year, its whydunnit format notwithstanding. Simon Brett’s A Shock To The System features a similar format but, as the British precursor to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, was perhaps considered as outre as its fellow nominee, Paul Auster’s metaphysical detective story, City Of Glass.
Rob Hart, author of the recently released novel The Warehouse, writes:
Recently I heard a pretty good explanation of the difference between a mystery and a thriller. A mystery is about what happened, and a thriller is about what’s going to happen.
But beyond that distinction, how do librarians and publishing professionals decide into which of many, many inter-related categories a given novel should be slotted? Readers of literary criticism know that the distinction between “literary fiction”—the high-brow, highfalutin stuff—and “mere genre fiction”—the low-brow, inferior stuff most of us love—is a perennial topic of discussion. But Hart here proclaims, “I really am a fan of mixing genres.” He offers a list of books that do just that: “I don’t know exactly what to call, other than very good books.”
While we may not be seeing an Obama book club any time soon, the former president provides a rare male voice in a largely female-dominated literary space helmed by the likes of Oprah [Winfrey] and Reese Witherspoon. Covering a wide range of genres, topics and authors, Obama’s recommendations certainly aren’t aimed specifically at male readers, but his voice has helped redefine a literary space often associated — however problematically — with a stereotypically “feminine” vision perhaps best embodied by Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club.
Says Kayla Kibbe, “Obama’s book recommendations read less like an endorsement from a former world leader than a conversation with a close friend who would gladly lend you their own paperback.”
Biographer, poet, critic, and novelist Jay Parini addresses the rise of historical fiction over “the last few decades.”
A student of mine recently said to me in frustration: “I just can’t get interested in ‘made-up’ lives.” And I must admit, my own tastes have shifted over the decades away from invented lives. I think I speak for many when I say that it’s biographical novels—which are centered on actual lives and circumstances—that have found a more secure place in my reading (and writing) life.
And here’s why:
Fiction offers the one and only way we have to get into the head of somebody not ourselves. If this person is someone of interest for one reason or another, there is all the more reason to want to know them and their world more deeply.
And there is a truthfulness in fiction that is simply unavailable to the academic biographer.
Jennifer Szalai discusses What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price, an English professor at Rutgers University. The book is not so much about literary history or literary criticism as about the book as physical object and the experience of reading.
The knot of ambivalence contained in this book is appropriate, considering that her subject — “the history and future of reading” — is too enormous and various to speak with a single voice. Recalling an injury that a number of years ago made it hard for Price to read, she says her story “has that most bookish of structures, a happy ending.” This is Price the Book Historian talking; Price the Literary Critic seems to have a different and darker take. Later, reflecting on the desire to see fiction as therapeutic, she wonders how we might prepare for “that most literary of endings, an unhappy one.”
Player Piano may have been written 67 years ago, but its prescience is uncanny — though not inexplicable. It is a product not only of Vonnegut’s extraordinary imagination, but his years of experience working directly with engineers, whose mentality the novel reflects in reaching its logical conclusion.
This post appears on the blog of Audible, the audiobook-selling arm of Amazon. College student and Audible intern Ama Hagan describes her reactions to Joseph Conrad’s controversial novella Heart of Darkness. This piece of classical literature still appears on the syllabi of many a college course, and I was interested in this perspective from a proud young woman of African heritage.
This article caught my eye because I’ve just recently read both Cavanagh’s novel Thirteen and McKinty’s novel TheChain.
Cavanagh to McKinty about Cavanagh’s mother giving him the book Silence of the Lambs to read when he was 12:
We grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was in Belfast, you were in Carrickfergus, and a book about cannibals and serial killers skinning innocent people was a bit of light relief from the reality of that low-level civil war. I wouldn’t give my daughter “Silence Of The Lambs,” and she’s twelve right now. We grew up in different times, and I think our generation is desensitized to violence.
McKinty on his youth in Northern Ireland:
A guy a few doors down from us was arrested for murdering three random Catholic men (so in effect he was a serial killer) and all this seemed completely normal to me. The domestic violence, the drunkenness, the chimney fires every night — all seemed just the way things were done. I don’t think my eyes were opened until I started reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I began to see that there were other possibilities of how to live and everything around me was just contingent. When I was about 11 or 12 I read Ursula Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” and I remember when I was done with that it occurred to me that everything the hardmen said was uneducated, quasi-fascist nonsense.
McKinty says that the authors who influenced him the most have been Stephen King, James Ellroy, Don Winslow, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. Cavanagh lists as his influences, in addition to Silence of the Lambs, the works of Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Connolly, and Patricia Highsmith.
Read the article to see which seven books each author would take with him if stranded on a deserted island.
The nonprofit organization VIDA keeps a count of how many books written by women are reviewed in literary sections, and how many reviewers are female. Every year until 2017, its most recent survey, VIDA has found that male writers and male reviewers dominate books coverage, even though women make up the majority of authors and readers.
Here’s yet another reminder of the long-standing issue of how men and women are treated differently in the publishing world. As one of the authors quoted here says, “a male novelist is primarily a novelist. Nobody talks about his gender. But a woman novelist is primarily a woman.”
Still, for as long as female authors’ bodies define their work, the seriousness gap will remain
Detective novels are, for me, a sort of literary comfort food; a respite from real life — in which problems aren’t always neatly wrapped up — and a chance to walk in the sensibly shod footsteps of a crime-solver . . . , analyzing clues and side-eyeing witnesses and, ultimately, making the world a tiny bit better. I also love stand-alone literary thrillers . . . that provide an intense reading experience; wrapping things up less tidily, leaving a tingle of unease in their wake. And the best of true-crime books, not hastily written potboilers but thoughtful examinations of why and how a person steps into darkness, thrill me and haunt me, letting me slip into a mind and spend uneasy time there.
—Moira Macdonald, arts critic for The Seattle Times, on the introduction of The Plot Thickens, the newspaper’s new column on crime books
If you find it hard to keep up with all the cool kids who use Goodreads to track their reading, this article will put you in the know about some of the more esoteric aspects. The main subject here is how to create a DNF (did not finish) shelf that won’t include the books placed there in your number of books read statistics. But there are a few other nifty nuggets of knowledge here as well, along with links to several other articles explaining how to use Goodreads. An avid reader’s bonanza!
When We Need Diverse Books was founded by a team of writers, illustrators, and publishing professionals, it was meant to shake up the publishing industry from the inside. Led by the original Executive Committee — Ellen Oh, Lamar Giles, Marieke Nijkamp, Miranda Paul, Aisha Saeed, Karen Sandler, and Ilene Wong — and supported by the original PR team — Stacey Lee and SE Sinkhorn — We Need Diverse Books was created to fight for more diversity in children’s and young adult book publishing at every level, among authors, editors, marketers, agents, publishers, and more. First and foremost, they wanted authors from marginalized communities to be given opportunities to have their voices heard in the overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, cisgender industry. And the results have been clear.
Fifteen publishing professionals discuss “why they believe We Need Diverse Books has changed publishing forever, and what they hope for the future.”
Emily Lordi discusses how much Toni Morrison was influenced by contemporary musicians:
Her work resonates with the music of those soul artists alongside whom she honed her craft: the grand ambition of Isaac Hayes, the moral clarity of Curtis Mayfield, and the erotic truth-telling of Aretha Franklin. But the soul artist who is most closely aligned with Morrison is Nina Simone. “She saved our lives,” Morrison said of the singer, after Simone’s death, in 2003. Simone meant so much to her, and to other black women, I think, in part because of how she turned social exclusion into superlative beauty and style. It was this recuperative alchemy that defined soul, as a music and an ethos. And, if Simone was soul’s “High Priestess,” Morrison was one of its literary architects.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, writing in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, addresses the current literary fascination with witches:
There has been a perennial literary fascination with witches; they are, as Marion Gibson, professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at Exeter University says, “a shorthand symbol for persecution and resistance – misogyny and feminism in particular”. In a #MeToo world, where Donald Trump – a fan of the term “witch-hunt” – is US president, it is really no surprise that female writers are examining the role of the witch in new ways.
Cosslett explains that women of her generation, who came of age in the 1990s with TV programs such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are now producing literature and films that grapple with perennial questions of power and agency. She also looks a bit at the history of witches in literature, from novels such as Jane Eyre to John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick.
In my effort to read more science fiction, I often come across references to Samuel R. Delany’s seminal novel Dhalgren. Here novelist Jordy Rosenberg discusses how Delany’s fiction “reflects and explores the social truths of our world.” He includes a list of works to start with for readers looking to introduce themselves to Delany’s body of work.
When I was younger, I felt that I had to finish every book I started. But some time around my 40th birthday I realized that I had probably completed about half my life and no longer had the luxury of time to waste on books I wasn’t enjoying or learning from. I was therefore glad to come across this article by Sarah Shaffi, who writes:
It’s taken me decades to get to the point where I can start a book, realise I’m not liking it, and then just stop reading it. The first time I put DNF – Did Not Finish in book geek parlance – on my book spreadsheet (what? I read a lot for work and a spreadsheet is a good way to keep track), I felt relieved, freed, and a little rebellious.
Life is too short, and there are too many books to carry on reading one you’re not enjoying. Think of it less as quitting one book, and more as making room in your life for another that you could potentially love.
And while I completely agree with her here, I also think there’s a certain etiquette for discussing books that you DNF. First, when you discuss the book, you don’t have the right to simply declare it a “bad” or “badly written” book or a book that you simply “didn’t like.” You DO have the right to say that you didn’t finish it and then explain why it didn’t work for you or what, specifically, you didn’t like about it. The keywords here are specifically and why.
Second, if you belong to a book club and for some reason can’t finish the book by the meeting time, please resist the urge to say, “Don’t talk about the ending. I haven’t finished it yet.” Sure, life happens, and sometimes you won’t be able to finish on time. But the ending is a major aspect of any book, particularly novels, and often a meaningful discussion requires analysis of the ending.
There’s still a bit of summer left, and if you’re still looking for that perfect “beach read,” Alison Fields has suggestions. After pondering the various definitions of that term, she settles on this one: “Books about beaches, seas, sand, and coastal destinations to accompany the end of the summer season and the first stirrings of the fall.
We learn a lot about life from literature, including how to process various kinds of traumas. But I was surprised to find this article by Kate McQuade, who has for more than 10 years taught a high school class on trauma literature.
By now I’ve accumulated a lot of answers, particularly for those skeptical that young people should be exposed to literature about war, genocide, and violence. I tell them that learning about trauma is not the same thing as experiencing trauma; I tell them that even though the literature we cover is difficult intellectually and emotionally, my course is less about mourning traumatic events than exploring what it means to depict them in art; and I tell them that shielding teenagers from the world’s historical truths not only fails to protect them, but does them a disservice as young people about to inherit that world.
And here’s why, McQuade says, she teaches such a course:
Most people think trauma literature is about trauma. In fact, trauma literature is at least as much about the problematics of storytelling as it is about actual traumatic events. It’s about the difficulty of representing the truth of an experience so horribly extraordinary that it cannot be contained within the human mind, let alone within the borders of a page. It’s about, in the words of trauma scholar Dori Laub, the simultaneous “imperative to tell” and “impossibility of telling.”
Read about seven of the literary works she uses to demonstrate the paradox “of how to represent the unrepresentable.”
Why should I be reading when there are children and adults in “detention centers” with horrific conditions? Why should I be flipping through pages when people are being murdered for being themselves? How can I justify a few hours of contentment with a book when the so-called leader of my country is, at a minimum, a blatant racist?
(If you doubt the accuracy of the assertions in these questions, Harreaves provides links to supporting material in the article.)
“The thing is, resistance fatigue is a real thing,” she writes. “If reading is how you recharge, it is well within the realm of morals to read.”