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

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

Last Week’s Links

100 Books to Read Before You Die

When you find yourself not knowing what book to pick up next, here’s a list that contains “a mix of modern fiction, true stories, and timeless classics.”

The deep roots of writing

Was writing invented for accounting and administration or did it evolve from religious movements, sorcery and dreams?

Writers to Watch Fall 2018: Anticipated Debuts

This fall’s collection of promising debuts features problem children, supernatural freedom fighters, captive mermaids, mad scientists, righteous vigilantes, and, last but not least, a narrating dog.

I used to stay away from narrating dogs, but a recent reading of The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein may have changed my mind—or at least opened it a bit.

Attention, Please: Anne Tyler Has Something to Say

A look at the life of one of my favorite authors.

“Every time I begin a book I think this one is going to be completely different, and then it isn’t,” Tyler said. “I would like to have something new and different, but have never had the ambition to completely change myself. If I try to think of some common thread, I really think I’m deeply interested in endurance. I don’t think living is easy, even for those of us who aren’t scrounging. It’s hard to get through every day and say there’s a good reason to get up tomorrow. It just amazes me that people do it, and so cheerfully. The clearest way that you can show endurance is by sticking with a family. It’s easy to dump a friend, but you can’t so easily dump a brother. How did they stick together, and what goes on when they do? — all those things just fascinate me.”

STRONG WOMEN ARE TAKING OVER THE THRILLER

Novelist Cristina Alger offers a list of novels that present the kind of modern heroine she’s looking for:

I find the collective lack of strong, tough, reliable heroines depressing. Are unreliable women the only women we want to read about? And why do so many female authors choose to focus on them? I’m not asking for female protagonists to be perfect. But I would like to see more fictional women who have a true sense of agency, intelligence and guts—women with the same characteristics we’ve come to expect from the male heroes of traditional thrillers.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

John Irving, The Art of Fiction No. 93

I’m not a twentieth-century novelist, I’m not modern, and certainly not postmodern. I follow the form of the nineteenth-century novel; that was the century that produced the models of the form. I’m old-fashioned, a storyteller. I’m not an analyst and I’m not an intellectual.

WHICH BOOKS DO FAMOUS AUTHORS READ AND RECOMMEND MOST?

OR, HOW TO READ LIKE YOUR FAVORITE WRITERS

By examining 68 lists made by famous authors of books they love, Emily Temple has produced lists of the most recommended books and the most recommended authors.

SIX LATIN AMERICAN NOVELS THAT ARE PUSHING BOUNDARIES

Because it’s important to look at literature of other countries besides our own.

Today’s real Latin America is vibrant, raucous, infinitely complex and furiously engaged with the cultural and sociopolitical effects of globalization. In terms of literature, it’s an epicenter of innovation, where the gaze is reversed, boundaries explode and the possibilities of our collective past, present and future are boldly reimagined. Here are six contemporary Latin American novels — all of them slim, all of them brilliant, all of them blowing up boundaries of culture, gender, genre, aesthetics or reality.

The Sublime Horror of Choice

I don’t like horror novels, but if you do, this interview is for you.

Each recent book of Tremblay’s seems to me to take on a subgenre of the horror genre. He both explores it and puts pressure on it to see if he can make it do something new. Paul is anything but a complacent writer — rather than resting on his laurels, he offers work that is consistently new and unique.

Gillian Flynn Isn’t Going to Write the Kind of Women You Want

In a conversation with fellow novelist Megan Abbott, the Sharp Objects writer discusses the female rage that powered her 2006 debut novel—and has since taken over Hollywood.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Internet reading that caught my eye over the past week.

Megan Abbott’s Bloodthirsty Murderesses

The thriller writer probes the psychological underpinnings of female rage.

Because, Abbott says, “girls are darker than boys.”

New Black Gothic

Sheri-Marie Harrison, associate professor of English at the University of Missouri, explains what she calls the new black Gothic in the novels of Jesmyn Ward and in other popular formats such as television, music video, and film.

Ward’s award-winning novels are among a number of works, literary and otherwise, that rework Gothic traditions for the 21st century… Ward engages specifically the Southern Gothic tradition. In American literature, there is a long tradition of using Gothic tropes to reveal how ideologies of American exceptionalism rely on repressing the nation’s history of slavery, racism, and patriarchy. Such tropes are, as numerous critics have noted, central to the work of Toni Morrison.

The Women Who Write: Michelle Dean’s Sharp

A review of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean (Grove Atlantic).

This critical history is a rogues’ gallery of literary femaleness – even though most of the women in it rightly bristled at being defined as “woman writers.” Dean’s exemplars are, in chapter if not birth order, Dorothy Parker; Rebecca West; Hannah Arendt; Mary McCarthy; Susan Sontag; Pauline Kael; Joan Didion; Nora Ephron; Renata Adler; and Janet Malcolm. Most have at least a few things in common. While some doubled as novelists, all are distinguished for their non-fiction, with fully half reaching eminence via The New Yorker.

Amy Adams Explores Her Dark Side

An article about the amazing actor about to appear in the HBO production of Gillian Flynn’s novel Sharp Objects.

For the French Author Édouard Louis, His Books Are His Weapon

Édouard Louis uses literature as a weapon. “I write to shame the dominant class,” said the 25-year-old French writer in a recent interview.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

An Addict, a Confessed Killer and Now a Debut Author – The New York Times

COLDWATER, Mich. — One October night in 2004, Curtis Dawkins smoked crack, dressed up for Halloween in a gangster costume and terrorized a household, killing one man and taking another hostage in a rampage that drew 24 patrol officers and a six-member SWAT team. He is serving a life sentence without parole in Michigan.

On Tuesday, he will also be a published author when his debut story collection is released by Scribner, a literary imprint at one of the country’s top publishing houses.

Source: An Addict, a Confessed Killer and Now a Debut Author – The New York Times

Here’s a thought-provoking story about a convicted murderer who had an MFA before he began a life sentence in prison for murder. Now he’s about to have a book of stories published by a major publishing house. The stories are about life in prison, but not about his specific crime. Proceeds from the book will go into a fund for his children’s education.

Carrie Fisher, a Princess, a Rebel and a Brave Comic Voice – The New York Times

She entered popular culture as a princess in peril and endures as something much more complicated and interesting. Many things, really: a rebel commander; a witty internal critic of the celebrity machine; a teller of comic tales, true and embellished; an inspiring and cautionary avatar of excess and resilience; an emblem of the honesty we crave (and so rarely receive) from beloved purveyors of make-believe.

Source: Carrie Fisher, a Princess, a Rebel and a Brave Comic Voice – The New York Times

RIP Carrie Fisher

In Memoriam: 12 Authors We Lost Too Soon in 2016

In 2016, we said good-bye to many literary luminaries. These authors have inspired us, challenged us to think deeply, and opened windows into the lives and struggles of others. Here we remember some of the award winners, trailblazers, and creators of beloved classics whose works will stand the test of time.

Source: In Memoriam: 12 Authors We Lost Too Soon in 2016

I’ll post my own list of those whom the world of books lost in 2016 at the end of the year, but here’s a select list that includes seminal works of the 12 authors included.

Last Week’s Links

‘The Girl on the Train’: Here’s What It’s Really About

I read Paula Hawkins’s novel The Girl on the Train eagerly because it was touted as a book for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I loved. But I was disappointed in Train, which I found nowhere near as suspenseful or as psychologically adept as Gone Girl. Nonetheless, I did intend to see the film of Girl on the Train; however, life intervened and I still haven’t seen it.

This article by Lisa Rosman is about the film, which Rosman calls “a wonderfully faithful adaptation” of the book. Here’s Rosman’s description of what the book/film is “really about”:

What fascinates me most about this “Girl on the Train” … is that it has the audacity to embrace unlikeable female protagonists who don’t even like themselves. What’s more, the film asks us to do the same. Rachel is a self-pitying, explosive drunk; Anna, an unrepentant Stepford mom; Megan, an unreflective viper whose self-esteem relies on male surrender. Yet because we are shown the fissures in their self-reflections and the strength lurking beneath their surfaces, we root for them while accepting their limitations.

I did not have this reaction to the book, which I found shallow and therefore not very engaging. Rosman also raises an issue that has gotten a lot of play recently, namely the question of whether we need to like characters in order to assess a book as “good.” I don’t need to like characters, but I do need to understand them in order to consider a book good.

At any rate, I still want to see this movie, even though I think I’ve missed its run in theaters. Perhaps I’ll find the film more compelling than the book.

What about you?
Have you read the book and/or seen the film? What was your reaction?

Undead on the brain: What we talk about when we talk about zombies

I’ve frequently written that I don’t read books about zombies, werewolves, or vampires. Even though I understand that such creatures often represent certain cultural issues, I just don’t like to read about them. To each his own, I guess.

Nonetheless, Seattle Times writer Brendan Kiley does a good job here of explaining what zombies are all about:

Spoiler alert: This article isn’t really about zombies, and neither is “The Walking Dead,” one of the most popular cable-TV series in U.S. history.

They’re both about people, our anxieties about catastrophe and what kinds of communities we might form if central authority collapses. No government, no Wall Street, no power grid — just you, the strangers you stumble across and a kaleidoscope of dangers roaming the landscape. As the show’s human characters bounce around the southern U.S., they run into a spectrum of mini-societies (dictatorships, democracies, theocracies, loosely organized bands of feral killers) and try to figure out what kind of world they want to live in.

JOYCE CAROL OATES ON GREAT EDITORS, BAD REVIEWS, AND… THE INTERNET

Catherine LaSota carries on an email interview with prolific author Joyce Carol Oates:

Oates’s latest book, Soul at the White Heat, is a collection of her essays on the writing life and her insightful reviews of the work of more than two dozen writers, including H.P. Lovecraft, Lorrie Moore, Paul Auster, and Zadie Smith. The title of the book is taken from its epigraph, an Emily Dickinson poem about the passions that burn brightly within us, and it serves as apt introduction to Oates’s close analysis of writing in the pages to follow. In her dissection of an author’s work, Oates searches for that which drives the artist to create. She is clearly engaged with the writing she consumes, making her essays hugely useful to writers and other students of literature.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

How Stephen King Made Pop Culture Weird

If you’ve ever been to Austin, TX, you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Keep Austin Weird.” Even my new hometown of Tacoma, WA, likes to call itself weird, as does Portland, OR, in the photo above.

Lincoln Michel explains that these are not isolated occurrences:

If you haven’t heard, “weird” is back in style. From hit TV shows like Stranger Things and True Detective (season one only, please) to best-selling novels like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and George R.R. Martin’s weirder-than-the-show A Song of Ice and Fire, pop culture is getting increasingly strange. Odd beasts, dark tunnels, and writhing tentacles are cool again. And, in the wake of his 69th birthday, it seems time to celebrate the person who is the most responsible for weirding up pop culture: Stephen King.

He singles out King because “Plenty of authors write books that are equally dark, weird, and genre-bending, but few have King’s impact on pop culture.” This article caught my eye because one of my recent reads was King’s 11/22/63, a time-travel alternate-history romance (“genre-bending,” although “genre-blending” would be more accurate) that kept me spellbound.

A theory of creepiness

If you’ve been hanging out around Notes in the Margin for a while, you’ve heard me say that I don’t read books about zombies, vampires, or werewolves. Even though I know these unnatural beings can be potent metaphors for contemporary life, I just don’t like them.

But, until I came across this article, I had never examined my revulsion with these creatures until I came across this article, which made me realize I dislike zombies, vampires, and werewolves because of their creepiness:

creepiness – Unheimlichkeit, as Sigmund Freud called it – definitely stands apart from other kinds of fear. Human beings have been preoccupied with creepy beings such as monsters and demons since the beginning of recorded history, and probably long before. Even today in the developed world where science has banished the nightmarish beings that kept our ancestors awake at night, zombies, vampires and other menacing entities retain their grip on the human imagination in tales of horror, one of the most popular genres in film and TV.

In this article David Livingstone Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of New England and director of the Human Nature Project, examines psychological theories in looking to answer the question “Why the enduring fascination with creepiness?”

Bending Mind and Time: 6 of the Best Time Travel Books

11_22_63I’ve always been fascinated by the use of time travel as a literary device. Matt Staggs begins this brief article with a look at the new book Time Travel: A History by James Gleick, a scientist’s look at representations of time travel in popular culture and science. Staggs then discusses five of the best known novels featuring time travel:

  1. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)
  2. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
  3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
  4. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
  5. 11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)

He concludes:

In the absence of the real thing, novels function as time machines in their own right, allowing us to look at what was, and what may yet be, at a safe distance.

RELENTLESSLY RELEVANT: The Dangerous Legacy of Henry James

I’ve long thought that, with the possible exception of “The Turn of the Screw,” the works of Henry James shouldn’t be studied until graduate school. James’s insight into the human psyche is so subtly complex that only people with a lot of life experience can understand and appreciate it.

Paula Marantz Cohen, Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, uses the recent issuance of a stamp honoring Henry James by the U.S. Postal Service as a springboard for this article. Cohen sees James’s “dense and difficult” late writing — The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, all written between 1902 and 1904 — as a bridge from the Victorian era into modernity (the age of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) and then, further, into our age of postmodernism:

His superficial kinship was with European modernists like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Late James is often opaque, … and opaqueness was a hallmark of the modernist rejection of facile realism.

There is an indeterminacy with respect to truth that his later work supports in such an aggressive way that it becomes a worldview. Words, normally meant to communicate, are deployed more as obstacles to communication than as facilitators to it. The fragmented nature of his dialogue leaves meaning unresolved between characters (he describes them as continually “hanging fire”).

Cohen writes that James’s characters “were always trying to make the most out of situations and see the best in people through their imaginative flexibility — to salvage meaning to some positive, creative end.” However, she laments, in academia this process became subverted into giving truth “purely provisional meaning based on what the speaker wants to relay and the listener/reader wants to hear.” The result “betrays the ideals of [James’s] moral imagination. And yet his great later writing can be seen as its precursor.”

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown