Quotation: Elena Ferrante: Storytelling as Power

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

Elena Ferrante: A Power of Our Own

Quotation: Susan Sontag Was a Monster

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

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

Susan Sontag was a monster by Lauren Elkin

6 Degrees of Separation: From “The Dry” to “Oliver Twist”

While exploring other book blogs after I came home from my vacation, I discovered the 6 DEGREES OF SEPARATION MEME.

I was immediately drawn to it because I like the way it makes me think about how the books I read may be related. Here, from the meme description page, is how it works:

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


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

If this kind of exercise appeals to you, too, you can find out all about how to participate by checking out Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme page at her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best.  

This month’s exercise begins with Jane Harper’s debut best-seller, The Dry. I was impressed enough with The Dry that I immediately bought Harper’s second novel, and second in the Aaron Falk series, Force of Nature.

1. Having become a fan of Harper’s writing, I bought her next book, The Lost Man (a standalone novel) while we were traveling in Australia.

2. I also bought another book in Australia, by another Australian author: What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. In this novel, Alice wakes up after a head injury with no memory of the most recent 10 years of her life. 

3. Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney features a lead character, Amber Reynolds, who also wakes up in a hospital after a head injury with little memory of what happened to her. Amber warns us right up front: “Sometimes I lie.”

4. But not all unreliable narrators are downright liars. Some are just naive, like Philip in Daphne du Maurier’s novel My Cousin Rachel. Philip was raised from young childhood by his much older cousin, Ambrose, who designates Philip as his heir.

5. Another orphaned child raised by a relative is Pip in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. 

6. Of course, it’s impossible to discuss Dickens and orphans without mentioning one of his best known works, Oliver Twist.     

Isn’t that a long and twisty path, from Australia all the way back to England, the country that sent its prisoners to colonize the land down under?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Worst Fears Realized: Results of “Thirteen Reasons Why”

I take no pleasure in reporting this.

Cover: Thirteen Reasons Why

Back in 2017 I read Jay Asher’s book Thirteen Reasons Why in preparation for the Netflix series. I wrote about the mixed messages I found in the book, which disturbed me so much that I refused to watch the Netflix production, in Thoughts on “Thirteen Reasons Why.” 

Now The New York Times reports that:

a new study finds that suicide rates spiked in the month after the release of the series among boys aged 10 to 17. That month, April 2017, had the highest overall suicide rate for this age group in the past five years, the study found; the rate subsequently dropped back into line with recent trends, but remained elevated for the year.

Suicide rates for girls aged 10 to 17 — the demographic expected to identify most strongly with the show’s protagonist — did not increase significantly.

In Month After ‘13 Reasons Why’ Debut on Netflix, Study Finds Teen Suicide Grew 

The NY Times article contains a link to the study abstract as posted by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Thirteen Reasons Why is the story of 13 tape recordings left by a young woman who committed suicide after being bullied and shamed at school, which is why the newspaper article identifies girls as “the demographic expected to identify most strongly with the show’s protagonist.” 

However, I was most concerned with the way the book presents the effects that the recordings had on the young man who had tried to talk with the girl. My heart sank when I read this in the article abstract: “Contrary to expectations, these associations [of increased monthly suicide rates] were restricted to boys.”

This study reminds us that words have power, whether they appear in print form in books or in dramatic form in television shows or movies. 

Update

5/6/2019

I’m now seeing more discussion of the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why prompted by the study discussed in The New York Times.

Stephen Marche in The New Yorker article “Netflix and Suicide: The Disturbing Example of ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’” reports that, before Netflix aired the series, many experts warned “that a wide array of studies has linked portrayals of suicide in the media to increases in the suicide rate.” And, Marche continues, “Netflix responded to the controversy surrounding the release of the show with bromides.”

And there’s more:

Our understanding of the interaction between pop culture and real-world consequences is fraught with lazy assumptions and fearmongering, and the best research is never utterly conclusive, but suicide is mostly an exception to this state of confusion. Suicide contagion has been observed for centuries.

And this:

Those who predicted the association between the show’s release and a rise in the suicide rate have met the fate of so much expert opinion in the twenty-first century: their predictions were ignored or cast into doubt by financially interested parties; the research, which came too late to matter, gave evidence that the predictions were true; and there were no consequences.

Constance Grady for Vox approaches the question of how difficult it is to prove whether the TV series is responsible for the death of teenagers:

So when I talked to academics about the study, all of them said that they continue to be wary of shows like 13 Reasons Why — but they also said the study is nowhere near proof that 13 Reasons Why is actually responsible for the death of teenagers. And in part that’s because, regardless of whether such a relationship might exist, it’s nearly impossible to prove.

Grady consulted with other experts and researchers. Her article also includes a list of online resources for learning more about how to help someone you think might be suicidal.

CNN reported on the recent study’s findings here.

Finally, you can read the report released by the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded and conducted the study, here.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Read in April

What? I read only three books this month? I can’t even begin to figure out how I read so little. The Three-Body Problem is quite long, but still . . .


What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Pan Macmillan, 2009, rpt.2018

Cover: What Alice Forgot
What Alice Forgot

Recommended

When we had to come home early from our world cruise, we flew out of Perth, Australia. With about seven hours to kill at the Perth airport, I spent some time browsing a bookstore near the food court. I wanted to pick up another book by an Australian author. Since I had read and enjoyed Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in preparation for the HBO series, I was drawn to the shelves of her books. I decided on What Alice Forgot to see how Moriarty presents the well-worn thriller trope of memory loss.

Alice Love takes a nasty fall at the gym and wakes up to discover that she has no memory of the last 10 years of her life. She doesn’t know her three children, the oldest of whom is nine, at all, and she can’t understand how she and Nick, the love of her life, could be in the midst of a nasty divorce.

This could be a gloomy situation, but Moriarty instead treats it with light-heartedness and humor. It’s hard not to at least giggle while watching Alice confabulate her way through getting to know her children, who delight in asking questions they know she can’t answer: “Who’s my best friend?”; “What foods do I refuse to eat?”; “What’s my favorite color?” And Alice’s quasi-grandmother is a hoot as she blogs about Alice’s condition while carrying on a running commentary about the eccentric fellow residents of her retirement community.

And yet, underneath the humor, lies Alice’s serious question: How could she and Nick, who had been so much in love, now be so bitterly estranged? Moriarty answers this question in the book’s epilogue, a third-person narration of what happens to the Love family. I would have preferred an ending that involved more showing than telling, but I did appreciate an ending that not only completes the story line but also presents some grappling with serious issues.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

Kindle ed.:

Head of Zeus, 2015

Recommended

I’d read so many recommendations for this book that I had to read it. Also, it fit into two categories of my reading plan for 2019: science fiction and translated works.

Cover: The Three-Body Problem
The Three-Body Problem

My science-oriented husband informed me that the three-body problem is an actual thing—a challenging question that mathematicians and physicists work hard at explaining. But I purposely did not look up anything about the three-body problem because, for me, a prime criterion for evaluating science fiction is how well it presents its world to the general public. If a work of science fiction requires specialized, advanced knowledge, it’s not for me.

A good portion of the novel isn’t science fiction at all, but rather an introduction to many of the characters through their experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution. When the three-body problem does finally appear, it does so as a video game played by one of the characters in a virtual reality simulation. The reader learns about the three-body problem along with this character as he becomes more and more involved in playing the game. 

And from there the truly science fiction aspect of the novel develops as the player of the video game learns how the game fits in with the government’s secret search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The Three-Body Problem won a lot of awards:

  • Hugo Award for Best Novel (2015)
  • Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel (2014)
  • Locus Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2015)
  • John W. Campbell Memorial Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction Novel (2015)
  • Prometheus Award Nominee for Best Novel (2015)

This is a long book (400 pages), and it is the first volume in a trilogy. I plan to read the other two novels eventually. After all, who could resist finding out how the search for other intelligent life in the universe ends?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides

Celadon Books, 2019
ISBN 978-1-250-30169-7

Highly Recommended

Here’s the book description from Goodreads:

ALICIA
Alicia Berenson writes a diary as a release, an outlet – and to prove to her beloved husband that everything is fine. She can’t bear the thought of worrying Gabriel, or causing him pain.

Until, late one evening, Alicia shoots Gabriel five times and then never speaks another word.

THEO
Forensic psychotherapist Theo Faber is convinced he can successfully treat Alicia, where all others have failed. Obsessed with investigating her crime, his discoveries suggest Alicia’s silence goes far deeper than he first thought.

And if she speaks, would he want to hear the truth?

Cover: The Silent Patient
The Silent Patient

I always post my completion of a book on Goodreads to keep track of how many books I read each year. When I filled in my evaluation of The Silent Patient and looked at some of the other posts about it, I was reminded once again of how many readers of mysteries and thrillers seem to base their reviews solely on how early or late in the book they “figured it out”—it being the identity of the story’s villain and/or the plot twist. If they figured it out early, this is a bad book. If they were kept in suspense until the end, this is a good book.

I wonder if many of those readers are skimming, eager to get to the last page and discover the ending as quickly as possible, without reading slowly and carefully enough to appreciate the author’s skill (or, sometimes, lack of skill). For me, the point of a mystery or thriller isn’t just to find out who and/or why done it. I enjoy watching how the writer pulls the reader along and skillfully shapes the reader’s reaction to the narrative, salting both valid clues and red herrings throughout the story. 

My copy of The Silent Patient is full of sticky notes marking my reading process. This novel is one of the most skillfully done thrillers I’ve read in a long time. I look forward to Alex Michaelides’s next book.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Classics Club Spin #20

It’s time for another CC Spin, The Classics Club Spin #20. Yes, this is the event that made me decide it was time to redo my entire Classics Club list. This spin is based on that new list.

Here’s the procedure: By Monday, April 22nd, I am to create a list of 20 books from my Classics Club list and post it here. On Monday the CC bloggers will choose and post the lucky number. I must then read the book with that number from my spin list by May 31st.

Check back here next week for the announcement of which book I’ll be reading.

  1. Brookner, Anita. Hotel Du Lac
  2. Jackson, Shirley. Just an Ordinary Day: Stories
  3. Highsmith, Patricia. The Tremor of Forgery
  4. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
  5. Styron, William. Darkness Visible
  6. McEwan, Ian. Atonement
  7. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
  8. Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird
  9. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
  10. Sarton, May. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing
  11. Howard, Elizabeth Jane. The Long View
  12. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time
  13. Connell, Evan S. Mr. Bridge
  14. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  15. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
  16. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories
  17. Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs
  18. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
  19. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
  20. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

 

Update: The Lucky Number Is . . .

Number 19!

So I will be reading The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill. I never think to grab a play to read (probably because there are very few plays on my shelves), so this is a good thing.

Look for my review some time before May 31st.

New Classics Club List

A recent call for a Classics Club Spin reminded me that I need to re-examine my Classics Club commitment. When I originally signed up for the Classics Club back in March 2014, I put together a list of just over 50 books that I pledged to read by March 1, 2019.

Well, that date has come and gone, and I’ve read fewer than half of those books. Even when I made an effort to go back and look at that list to choose the book I’d read next, I usually couldn’t find something that appealed to me. These are the books from that original list that I managed to read over the last five years:

1. Adams, Richard. Watership Down
2. Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
3. Brink, Carol Ryrie. Caddie Woodlawn
4. Burns, Olive. Cold Sassy Tree
5. Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
6. Joyce, James. Dubliners
7. Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon
8. Masters, Edgar Lee. Spoon River Anthology
9. Miller, Walter M., Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz
10. Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables
11. Morley, Christopher. Parnassus on Wheels
12. Pym, Barbara. Excellent Women
13. Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea
14. Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle
15. Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row
16. Steinbeck, John. Tortilla Flat
17. Tarkington, Booth. The Magnificent Ambersons
18. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five
19. Williams, Tennessee. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
20. Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road

I’ve simply run out of entries on that list that appeal to me any more.

Consequently, I’ve decided to scratch the original list and start over again. During the past few years I’ve filled my Kindle with about 1,300 books, most of which I chose because they sounded interesting when they came up on my daily emails of bargain offerings. When I took a look at those ebooks, I discovered many of them are literary classics.

Here, then, is my brand new Classics Club list. It includes mostly new titles, though I’ve also included a few from the original list that I still want to read.

My New clasics club list

Start date: May 1, 2019
Completion date: May 1, 2024

1. Agee, James. A Death in the Family
2. Auchincloss, Louis. Last of the Old Guard
3. Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice
4. Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine
5. Borges, Jorge Luis. Labyrinths
6. Bradbury, Ray. Dandelion Wine
7. Brookner, Anita. Hotel Du Lac
8. Caspary, Vera. Bedilia
9. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!
10. Christie, Agatha. Crooked House
11. Connell, Evan S. Mr. Bridge
12. Connell, Evan S. Mrs. Bridge
13. Didion, Joan. Play It As It Lays
14. Dos Passos, John. Manhattan Transfer
15. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment
16. Eliot, George. Middlemarch
17. Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!
18. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman
19. Greene, Graham. Brighton Rock
20. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd
21. Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls
22. Highsmith, Patricia. The Tremor of Forgery
23. Howard, Elizabeth Jane. The Long View
24. Jackson, Shirley. Just an Ordinary Day: Stories
25. James, Henry. The Ambassadors
26. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
27. Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs
28. Kosinski, Jerzy. The Painted Bird
29. Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook
30. Lowry, Malcolm. Under the Volcano
31. March, William. The Bad Seed
32. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. One Hundred Years of Solitude
33. Matheson, Richard. I Am Legend
34. McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses
35. McEwan, Ian. Atonement
36. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire
37. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pnin
38. Oates, Joyce Carol. With Shuddering Fall
39. O’Neill, Eugene. The Iceman Cometh
40. Piercy, Marge. He, She and It
41. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time
42. Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time, vol. 1
43. Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird
44. Sarton, May. As We Are Now
45. Sarton, May. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing
46. Stegner, Wallace. The Spectator Bird
47. Styron, William. Darkness Visible
48. Styron, William. Lie Down in Darkness
49. Tevis, Walter. The Man Who Fell to Earth
50. Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle
51. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories
52. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway
53. Wyndham, John. The Day of the Triffids

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

A Sea Change: Coming Home Early

We were scheduled to return home from our world cruise on May 11, but during late March, while we were visiting Australia, I began to feel what I thought was the start of a sinus infection. The ship’s doctor said, “No, I think you have something wrong in your tooth.” He sent me to a dentist in Albany, Western Australia, who really tried to help me but finally admitted that my situation, an abscessed tooth, was more than she could deal with. “You need to see a specialist,” she told me. 

The doctor and the dentist each prescribed a different antibiotic, and the two medications soon reduced the infection enough that I was no longer in pain. But the dentist emphasized that there was no way to tell when the infection would flare up again. At that time we were about to embark on a 7-day at-sea cruise across the Indian Ocean toward Africa, during which I would have been unable to get off the ship. We therefore had to make a decision quickly, and we chose to come home to see a specialist. 

We left the ship in Perth, Australia, and, after two horrendously long flights, arrived home on Friday evening, March 29th. We had gotten no sleep overnight and therefore slept most of Saturday morning. When I called the dentist’s office on Saturday afternoon to see about getting an appointment, I was surprised to get a recording informing me that the office closes at noon on Saturdays; it never occurred to me that a dentist’s office wouldn’t be open all day Saturday.

Yesterday (Monday) morning I got in to see the dentist, and that tooth has now been gone for a little over 24 hours. (Recovery will involve a lot of time sitting around reading.) We had been scheduled for a 3-day, 2-night wildlife excursion in South Africa, which I’m sad about missing. An African safari is still on my bucket list, so that will have to be the basis for a future journey. 

If I had to have some medical condition, an abscessed tooth was probably a relatively good thing to have. Last year we had 7 or 8 broken legs on the world cruise. I’m glad I didn’t have to negotiate the long flights home while in a wheelchair.

Life lesson learned: Always purchase trip insurance.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

My Reading Plan for 2019

I’m going to be a bit less formal in my reading plan for 2019 than I was last year.

First, because I read so many books last year, I’m boldly going to increase my annual Goodreads challenge to 50 books for 2019.

Second, I’m going to avoid any other particular reading challenges and instead just encourage myself to read in the following categories:

    • translations
    • science fiction
    • speculative fiction
    • memoir
    • biography
    • general nonfiction
    • plays
    • poetry
    • books by local authors
    • books by people of color or about other cultures

Third, I’m going to make the effort to cross off at least four titles from my original Classics Club list.

What about you?

Do you devise a reading plan at the beginning of a new year, or do you prefer to choose books as you go along?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Best Books I Read in 2018

As with all my annual reading lists, this one comprises books I read in 2018, regardless of when they were published.

In past years I’ve limited my list to 15 books, broken down into the best (10) and honorable mention (5). This year I found it particularly hard to distinguish between those two divisions. I was tempted to present just a single list of 15 items, but, because of that hobgoblin of little minds—consistency—I did subdivide it. However, I won’t mind if you think of this presentation as a single list of 15 items.

Listed alphabetically by author’s last name:

The Best

  • Connelly,Michael. Dark Sacred Night
  • Ferrante, Elena. My Brilliant Friend
  • Galbraith,Robert. Lethal White
  • Grann, David. Killers of the Flower Moon
  • Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven
  • Marra, Anthony. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
  • Ng, Celeste. Little Fires Everywhere
  • Piercy, Marge. Gone to Soldiers
  • Stein, Garth. The Art of Racing in the Rain
  • Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give

Honorable Mention

  • Benjamin,Chloe. The immortalists
  • Follett, Ken. A Column of Fire
  • Ford, Jamie. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
  • French, Tana. The Witch Elm
  • Harper, Jane. Force of Nature

How about you?

Did you read any of the same books I did in 2018? If yes, what did you think of them?

And what’s on your list of the best books you read in 2018?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown