On Novels and Novelists

10 authors who excel on the internet

If you love literature, here’s your chance to connect with some of the most technologically savvy writers:

a few [writers] are using the etherland as a canvas for experimentation and play. They have moved their storytelling, wit and insight from page to pixel, winning fans and readers in the process.

  • Neil Gaiman
  • Paulo Coelho
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Teju Cole
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Gary Shteyngart
  • Haruki Murakami
  • David Mitchell
  • Veronica Roth

What I particularly like about this list is that it proves that technology isn’t just for the young and the hip.

10 Best Dark Books

Here’s Publishers Weekly’s introduction to this article:

Amelia Gray’s wonderfully dark story collection Gutshot features a giant snake bisecting a town and a man, afraid of losing his beloved, soothed by her detached sensory perceptions. Gray, a master of haunting storytelling, picks 10 of her favorite books.

And here’s Gray’s introduction to her list:

Whether it’s borne out of some kind of bizarro escapism or the desire to see the dark mind confirmed and confined on the page, the urge to read and write dark fiction has been steady in my life. Here are ten books that have left their mark on my mind and my work.

I don’t like straight horror, but most of Gray’s choices here seem to pertain more to the dark depths of the human heart rather than to supernatural or unnatural machinations.

Read why she’s been influenced by the following books:

  1. Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates
  2. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  5. Life Is With People by Atticus Lish
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  7. Tampa by Alissa Nutting
  8. Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
  9. The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain
  10. Bird by Noy Holland

I do, however, disagree with one of her choices, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. That’s the book that made me decide, many years ago, that I don’t have to finish reading every book that I start.

Kent Haruf’s Last Chapter

I have loved the work of Kent Haruf ever since I read his 1999 novel Plainsong, which became his most popular work. That novel dealt with life on the plains of Colorado, in the fictional town of Holt. Two subsequent novels continue the story.

Haruf died last November at age 71. He completed one last work before his death:

Normally, it took him six years or more to write a novel. But in a rush of creative energy, he wrote a chapter a day. Roughly 45 days later, he had finished a draft of his final novel, “Our Souls at Night.”

Also set in Holt, Colorado, but otherwise unrelated to the earlier novels, this novel focuses on finding love late in life. Its inspiration was Haruf’s relationship with his wife, Cathy.

Our Souls at Night will be released on May 28. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.

Can’t wait for “True Detective 2″? Dive into Ross Macdonald’s California noir masterpieces

The legendary writer of psychoanalytic mysteries captured the culture of postwar California better than anyone

Noir-heads and private-eye fans have long known that the detective novels of Ross Macdonald hit a sweet spot between plot-driven pulp writing and character-driven literary fiction. Inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammett (especially “The Maltese Falcon”), taught about symbolism by W.H. Auden, hailed by Eudora Welty for “serious and complex” work, he wrote 18 novels driven by the gloomy, ambiguous detective Lew Archer.

Scott Timberg interviews Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan for online magazine Salon. Says Nolan:

He felt that the character of the detective was really not the most important character in the books. In fact, he started out thinking the perpetrator was of more interest than the detective — there was opportunity for tragedy, with the criminal — but in later years, he felt the victim was the most important or significant character.

Timberg also quotes Salon music and culture critic Greil Marcus, who has read all of Macdonald’s books:

“If you read Macdonald’s psychoanalytic mysteries in order, as the theme took on greater and greater power for him, the feeling that comes up builds book by book: that just as the reader is scared to reach the ending, so is Lew Archer, and so is Ross Macdonald.”

Top 10 (unconventional) ghosts in literature

Author Judith Claire Mitchell examines the function of ghosts in literature in this piece for The Guardian:

When Barry Hannah, the late novelist of the American south, taught fiction workshops, he would begin by writing those two words on the blackboard. All stories, he’d say, are ghost stories. Something haunts the work and the reader turns the pages to find out what it is. As a student of Hannah’s back in the day, I took these words to heart. Literary ghosts didn’t have to scare; what they had to do was haunt.

“In literature,” says the writer Tabitha King, “the ghost is almost always a metaphor for the past.” This is true for literal ghosts who manifest in graveyards, and it’s true for figurative ghosts who are no more substantive than insistent memory.

Here’s Mitchell’s list of “the phantoms that kept me turning pages, the ones I never forgot when I finished the book”:

  1. Michael Furey in James Joyce’s “The Dead”
  2. The highboy in Alison Lurie’s “The Highboy”
  3. Holiday in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
  4. A missing child in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia
  5. Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
  6. The parrot in Robert Olen Butler’s Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot
  7. Americans like me in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior
  8. The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
  9. Beloved in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
  10. Any of the demons in Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons

On Reading

35 books everyone should read at least once in their lifetime

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdThis article arose from a question posed on Reddit: “What is a book that everyone needs to read at least once in their life?”

Of the top 35 books listed here from the Reddit responses, I have read the following:

  1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  2. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
  3. Bartleby The Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street by Herman Melville
  4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  5. How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (hey, it was a requirement of my psych 101 course in college)
  6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  7. The Stranger by Albert Camus
  8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  9. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
    Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  10. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  11. Animal Farm by George Orwell
  12. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
    Catch–22 by Joseph Heller
  13. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  14. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  15. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  16. 1984 by George Orwell

That’s fewer than half. How depressing.

In my defense, though, I do have several of the others on my personal to-be-read list:

  • Watership Down by Richard Adams
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Dune by Frank Herbert (I have resisted this one for years but have finally decided I should give it a try)
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (can’t believe I haven’t read this yet)

So many books, so little time…

Romanticizing the Reader

Writer Diane Ackerman looks at the relationship between writers and their readers:

Nearly every author I know imagines one or more readers while writing a book. It’s a bloom of creative telepathy. The reader is a part of yourself, held at a distance, and becomes an important sounding board for the tone and language of the pages, an intimate ally.

And how do readers react when meeting authors, for example at a book signing? “Having read your books, readers know you far better than you know them — except that authors aren’t always their books.” She continues, “And just as the author romanticizes the reader, so does the reader romanticize the author.”

In the end, both the writer and the reader—and the interaction between the two—are necessary for a book to be successful:

As an author and reader, I like the idea of reading as an indelible spice that transforms a book while the book transforms you.

Literary Idol: Amelia Gray on Shirley Jackson

In conjunction with the recent Los Angeles Festival of Books, the Los Angeles Times asked five participants to comment on the writers who had influenced them. Here author Amelia Gray pays tribute to Shirley Jackson:

The loners in her books appealed to me, the fragile and friendless women in worlds built to appear ordinary that always revealed a more sinister nature.

This article contains links to lots of related coverage of the Festival of Books.

The eeriness of the English countryside

Writers and artists have long been fascinated by the idea of an English eerie – ‘the skull beneath the skin of the countryside’. But for a new generation this has nothing to do with hokey supernaturalism – it’s a cultural and political response to contemporary crises and fears

Robert Macfarlane has written a fascinating look at how the English landscape continues to be used artistically to represent the eerie:

that form of fear that is felt first as unease, then as dread, and which is incited by glimpses and tremors rather than outright attack. Horror specialises in confrontation and aggression; the eerie in intimation and aggregation. Its physical consequences tend to be gradual and compound: swarming in the stomach’s pit, the tell-tale prickle of the skin. I find the eerie far more alarming than the horrific…

He finds evidence of this eerie use of landscape in many artistic areas:

In music, literature, art, music, film and photography, as well as in new and hybrid forms and media, the English eerie is on the rise. A loose but substantial body of work is emerging that explores the English landscape in terms of its anomalies rather than its continuities, that is sceptical of comfortable notions of “dwelling” and “belonging”, and of the packagings of the past as “heritage”, and that locates itself within a spectred rather than a sceptred isle.

Although some of his references may be lost on those unfamiliar with both the English countryside and English history, his explanations make his meaning clear. He cites examples of such eerie works across literature, film, and art. Many of the current works call up earlier art and artists, from the 19th century forward. Many of these earlier works employed ghosts and corpses as symbolic of the decay underlying the seemingly tranquil pastoral landscape.

But engaging with the eerie emphatically doesn’t mean believing in ghosts. Few of the practitioners named here would endorse earth mysteries or ectoplasm. What is under way, across a broad spectrum of culture, is an attempt to account for the turbulence of England in the era of late capitalism. The supernatural and paranormal have always been means of figuring powers that cannot otherwise find visible expression. Contemporary anxieties and dissents are here being reassembled and re-presented as spectres, shadows or monsters…

As a Daughter Becomes a Teenager, a Mother Becomes a Vampire Novelist

Heather K. Gerken, the J. Skelly Wright professor of law at Yale Law School, has written eight novels, and is working on the ninth, that only one person will read:

My daughter is growing up, which means I’m losing her. Anna is 12, all eyes, cheekbones and imagination. Every now and then I catch a glimpse of the glorious 17-year-old just around the corner, and it makes my heart ache with the anticipation of loss.

Gerken started writing the books for her daughter because

I hope to encase Anna in the only form of armor that I trust — stories. I have written Anna as a heroine in the hope that she will feel the tug of her own heroism inside her.

Even though Anna hasn’t yet grown up, she’s now writing her own story, which Gerken takes as a good sign.

Her Stinging Critiques Propel Young Adult Best Sellers

You may have never heard of Julie Strauss-Gabel, but you’ve almost certainly heard of one example of her work, the novel The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Strauss-Gabel is publisher of Dutton Children’s Books.

Amidst all the chest-thumping about the decline of the publishing industry, children’s books have been the bright exception: “In 2014, revenue from young adult and children’s books rose by 21 percent over the previous year, while adult fiction and nonfiction fell by 1.4 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers.”

Strauss-Gable has contributed significantly to the rise of YA (young adult) literature:

Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s unconventional taste and eye for idiosyncratic literary voices have helped her identify and build up some of young adult fiction’s biggest breakout stars.

Many adults now buy and read YA literature:

Adults aged 18 to 44 made up 65 percent of young adult book buyers in 2014, according to a recent Nielsen Books & Consumer survey, and men accounted for 44 percent of young adult book buyers in 2014, up from 31 percent in 2012. And 65 percent of adults buying young adult books reported that they were purchasing the books for themselves rather than for children.

On Reading

Reading With Imagination

Novelist Lily Tuck calls fiction a creative act, “an act of the author’s imagination and likewise, ideally, it should be read with imagination.”

Here’s how she hopes people will read her work:

In my own writing, I have been accused of (or is it praised for?) being a minimalist, which I suppose means that I don’t write a whole lot. This is true. For the most part, I avoid adjectives and I definitely avoid adverbs, which also means that I tend not to describe much. I rarely describe what my characters look like or what they wear or how they do their hair. My hope is that this will either not be important or if it is important it will somehow surface within the text. But better yet, by avoiding descriptions and explanations, I allow the reader the freedom to picture for themselves what my characters, their clothes and haircuts look like and thus participate in the text. In other words, I hope my readers will read my work with imagination.

Reading in this way—active reading—allows readers to participate with authors in the creation of the meaning of the text.

And isn’t it just this creation of meaning that allows us to derive such pleasure and knowledge from reading fiction?

Encouraging Teenagers to Read, by Choosing Books From the Non-Y.A. Shelves

Jessica Lahey offers advice, from experts and from her own experience, for getting teens back into the habit of reading for pleasure. One tactic that she found successful was “ to ‘seed”’ my older son’s room with a wide range of books for him to find on his own time and on his own terms.”

Here are some other approaches to try:

  • Make reading for pleasure a priority at home.
  • Don’t offer rewards for reading.
  • Give children the power of choice over the books they read for pleasure.
  • Ditch the rules! “Children need to be able to abandon books they don’t like, peek at the endings, and read books they love over and over again.”
  • Think outside the Y.A. section of the bookstore.

She suggests providing sports books for children interested in sports or nature books for kids who like animals.

The article concludes with a link to the Dartmouth Bookstore’s “Adult Picks for Teens” recommendations. And that page in turn contains a link to the School Library Journal’s “Best Adult Books 4 Teens.”

Envisioning a Colorado Haven for Readers, Nestled Amid Mountains of Books

This is a double-pronged love story: of two people who met at a bookstore and got married, and of the couple’s love for books and nature.

Jeff Lee and Ann Martin both worked at The Tattered Cover, a bookstore in Denver, where they fell in love. They met in 1986 and married in 1991. On a trip to the London Book Fair they spent some time at “St. Deiniol’s, a castlelike residential library in the Welsh countryside founded in 1889 by a former prime minister, William Ewart Gladstone. He was a lifelong book lover who centered his collection on Victorian history and theology.” (St. Deiniol’s has since changed its name to Gladstone Library.) Enchanted by the place, Lee and Martin envisioned a similar project in Colorado.

The result is the Rocky Mountain Land Library, still under development in South Park, CO:

The project is striking in its ambition: a sprawling research institution situated on a ranch at 10,000 feet above sea level, outfitted with 32,000 volumes, many of them about the Rocky Mountain region, plus artists’ studios, dormitories and a dining hall — a place for academics, birders, hikers and others to study and savor the West.

Lee and Martin found an abandoned ranch, Buffalo Peaks, about a two-hour drive outside of Denver. The City of Aurora leased them the ranch at “a deep discount.” The couple has already amassed a “collection of 32,000 books, centering the collection on Western land, history, industry, writers and peoples.”

The project has received a grant from the South Park National Heritage Area, but so far Lee and Martin have raised only about $120,000 additional of the estimated $5 million renovation cost. They continue to work toward the realization of their dream: “a rural, live-in library where visitors will be able to connect with two increasingly endangered elements — the printed word and untamed nature.”

How To Become a Better Reader in 10 Steps

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, recently finished another book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. While working on the new book, this devoted reader adopted some new habits to allow her to get more reading done. She offers these 10 steps that worked for her and that might work for others as well.

  1. Quit reading. She doesn’t mean quit totally, of course, but she learned not to spend time continuing to read a book in which she had lost interest.
  2. Skim. Again, this doesn’t apply to everything. She advises skimming materials that don’t need to be read carefully to leave more time for “high-value reading.”
  3. Set aside time to read demanding books. She created the habit of scheduling “study reading” each weekend for getting through challenging books.
  4. Always have plenty of reading material on hand.
  5. Keep a reading list, and keep it handy.
  6. Try audio-books.
  7. Don’t fight reading inclinations. Read what you feel like reading, not what you think you should read.
  8. Read Slightly Foxed, a magazine containing short essays about people’s favorite books from the past.
  9. Start or join a book group.
  10. Join my monthly book club.

More on #10 (Rubin’s monthly book club):

I have a monthly “book group,” where I recommend one great book about habits or happiness, and one great work of children’s literature, and one eccentric pick (a book that I love but may not appeal to everyone).

The article ends with a link where, if you’re so inclined, you can sign up for this group.

The Life-Changing Magic of Downsizing Your Book Collection

This is Part 1 of Jenn Northington’s discussion on BookRiot of applying the principles of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up to her overwhelming book collection:

So while I’m not an actual hoarder who will die buried under stacks of mildewed paperbacks, I do have a space and attention-span problem. Which is why I’m spending this weekend picking up every book I own, and sorting them by the KonMarie Method: “Does this spark joy?”

Far more interesting, though, is After the Pull: The Lifechanging Magic of Downsizing Your Book Collection, Part 2, in which Northington describes the process by which she reduced her book collection by roughly half:

And at the end of the day, after I washed off all the dust and had tidied the giveaway stacks and gotten over the sheer shock of reducing my book collection by more than half, I felt good. Now I can actually see what I have, and don’t have to take half of the books off a shelf to see what else is hiding behind them. Now I can see the ones I had promised to read, or been dying to read, or had been sent a personalized recommendation for. And as hard as it is to give up some of them, it is equally fun to imagine who might discover them next. When you know you’re sending them to a good home, it’s easier to wave goodbye.

On Reading

I Read Only Books by Women For a Year: Here’s What Happened

A constant topic of literary criticism (in both senses of criticism) is that the Western canon is populated by an over-abundance of dead White guys and that we don’t read or even hear about enough authors from the margins of society (e.g., women, people—especially women—of color, LGBT people, non-Western people). Here Dallas Taylor talks about his year (from November 2013 to the end of 2014) of reading books only by women (with a couple of exceptions for which you can check his footnote): “for a solid year I read almost exclusively women, from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Taylor says he undertook this project as a writer, because he was working on a novel with three female characters and he wanted to make them as realistic as possible. Yet his year of reading women authors affected him most as a reader and as, well, a human being:

So, how did it change me as a reader? It’s subtle, but it’s there. I find myself more attuned to characters now, whether they feel like real people or just vessels caught in a narrative tide. I’m more interested in narratives whose conflicts don’t revolve around violence. I’m less willing to suspend disbelief for the rule of cool. To some extent this is just a natural extension of my evolution as a reader and writer, but I can definitely feel the influence of my year of reading women.

And while Taylor is quick to say that you don’t have to change your reading habits if you don’t want to, he advises you to examine your motivations if the thought of reading only women authors for a while makes you angry. He hits the nail on the head when he says that what makes us the angriest is probably the very thing we fear most.

But if you do decide to devote some time to reading books by women, he’s got you covered with quite a substantial list of recommendations.

Male Science-Fiction Authors Discuss The Women Writers Who Influenced Them

“The most important political problem in the modern world is the position of women. I think all of the other oppressions, whether it be homophobia, whether it be racism, or what have you, are all modeled on the oppression of women.”

That’s acclaimed author Samuel R. Delany, speaking about the role women have played in the genres of science-fiction and fantasy

Rafi Schwartz introduces a video created by HeForShe, a project of the United Nations’ UN Women division, which focuses on engaging men and boys around issues of gender inequality. Schwartz writes:

With its frequent bent toward the aspirational— by describing worlds that should be rather than the one that is (in this case, the one that is inherently biased against women)–the genres of science-fiction and fantasy make a natural home for authors whose voices might otherwise be marginalized.

He concludes that highlighting the foundational roles of women in science fiction and fantasy can provide a beginning toward addressing issues of gender equality that continue to affect society.

What Not to Worry About in Teaching Young Children to Read

We’ve all heard about the importance of reading to young children, but are there other approaches we should be taking to raise eager readers? Here Jessica Lahey talks with Daniel T. Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, about his new book Raising Kids Who Read.

Here are some of Willingham’s key points:

  • For young children, learning speech sounds is more important than learning to recognize letters. Books that use a lot of alliteration and rhyme, such as Dr. Suess and Mother Goose, are good for this.
  • Starting to read at early doesn’t give a child a later advantage in reading comprehension.
  • As children grow, make sure they know that leisure reading is different from reading for school.
  • Most important, parents should model good reading habits for their children.

At the end of the article is a link to a free excerpt of Dr. Willingham’s book.

War of words sidelines Seattle’s ‘City of Literature’ bid

What a sad story this is. The city of Seattle, WA, had applied for designation as a City of Literature. “The UNESCO City of Literature program is an international designation awarded to cities that show a fervent interest in literature, publishing and other forms of written expression.”

Seattle writer Ryan Boudinot has lead the effort as executive director of the nonprofit organization Seattle City of Literature. But Boudinot recently published an opinion piece titled Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One. In that piece he made several controversial remarks:

  • “Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t.”
  • “If you didn’t decide to take writing seriously by the time you were a teenager, you’re probably not going to make it.”
  • “If you complain about not having time to write, please do us both a favor and drop out.”

But the remark that got Boudinot into the most trouble was this one:

“For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.”

Attacking graduate writing programs is one of those topics among writers and critics that just won’t go away. Boudinot should have expected the ****storm that has descended upon him because of his remarks.

But the saddest result is that the rest of the Seattle City of Literature board has resigned, leaving the city’s application for City of Literature designation hanging. If you’re dying to know how this whole situation worked itself out, follow the links in this article.

The Perils of Re-Reading

Whenever I get to feeling a bit down on humanity, I reread Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and get my faith in my fellow man restored.

In this article on BookRiot, Susie Rodarme explains that she used to reread her favorite books a lot, until a few years ago when she started to notice flaws on rereading her favorite series, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Then the same thing happened with Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.

Here’s what she’s learned from all this:

I’m happy to report that my re-read of All the Pretty Horses went swimmingly, while a re-read of Prodigal Summer left me a bit wanting. What I’ve learned is that re-reading comes with responsibility if you want to continue enjoying your favorite books. You can overdo it. You can see them in a less flattering light.

I guess I probably don’t reread as much as Rodarme does. The only book I’ve read lots and lots of times is the aforementioned Mockingbird. Recently I joined The Classics Club  not only to fill in the gaps in my lifelong reading list, but also to reread some of the books from my earlier years, such as “Anne of Green Gables”. For me, the key to enjoying a reread is to allow enough time between reads that I remember the general outlines of the story but not the details of how it was written. In this way I get to experience the local pleasures of how the book is written while at the same time noticing new clues that contribute to the overall story.

What about you? Do you reread books, or does rereading spoil them for you?

Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Franzen, Marilynne Robinson, Richard Ford, Anne Tyler

Man in Hole: Turning novels’ plots into data points

Dan Piepenbring reports for The Paris Review on an example of digital humanities, or the application of big-data crunching to literary analysis:

Motherboard has a new article about Matthew Jockers, a University of Nebraska English professor who’s been studying what he calls “the relationship between sentiment and plot shape in fiction.” Jockers has crunched hard data from thousands of novels in the hope of answering two key questions: Are there any archetypal plot shapes? And if so, how many?

The answers, his data suggest, are “yes” and “about six,” respectively.

Piepenbring emphasizes that the definition of plot Jockers uses is different from the one readers usually think of:

a book’s plot isn’t necessarily about conflict and resolution, but emotions, which “serve as proxies for the narrative movement,” as Jockers writes.

This conception of plot allows Jockers to use sentiment analysis, which looks at specific words as “sentiment markers,” or words that indicate either positive or negative sentiment. Piepenbring gives examples from Jockers’s lists of both positive and negative words and includes a couple of the charts produced by the research. In the end, Piepenbring concludes that such research

suggests that plot is at once more subtle and more obvious than we’d expect—less a product of preconceived conflict and more indebted to a writer’s style and characters. Never has the question “What happens in it?” been more vexed.

The 21st Century’s 12 greatest novels

I have to say that this title seems presumptuous to me. We’ve only completed 14 years of this century, and already we’re choosing its best novels? Let’s append so far to this analysis.

BBC Culture contributor Jane Ciabattari polled several dozen book critics, including The New York Times Book Review’s Parul Sehgal, Time magazine’s book editor Lev Grossman, Newsday book editor Tom Beer, Bookslut founder Jessa Crispin, C Max Magee, founder of The Millions, Booklist’s Donna Seaman, Kirkus Reviews’ Laurie Muchnick and many more. We asked each to name the best novels published in English since 1 January 2000. The critics named 156 novels in all, and based on the votes these are the top 12.

Read what the critics have to say about these novels:

  1. Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007).
  2. Edward P Jones, The Known World (2003).
  3. Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (2009).
  4. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004).
  5. Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections (2001).
  6. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000).
  7. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010).
  8. Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012).
  9. Ian McEwan, Atonement (2001).
  10. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).
  11. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000).
  12. Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (2002).

I’ve read half of these, although I have three more on my TBR (to be read) shelf.

Harper and Alice Lee, a story of two sisters

The recent announcement that the first novel Harper Lee wrote, the precursor to To Kill a Mockingbird, will be published this summer produced lots of coverage. Among the news reports about how the manuscript was discovered and whether Harper Lee is competent to agree to its publication emerged this story of sisters Harper Lee and Alice Lee, the author’s attorney and protector.

Philip Sherwell writes in the U.K.’s Telegraph that the controversy over the newly discovered novel has “ thrown a spotlight on the remarkable bond between the two sisters, neither of whom married or had any known romantic interests; one who could not wait to leave Alabama, the other who never left.” According to Sherwell, Mary Murphy, who made a documentary film and wrote a book about the Lee sisters, says “there was a strong maternal feel to Alice’s protective approach to Nelle, 15 years her junior.”

The teenaged Alice helped care for her baby sister. Alice then went off to study law and became one of the first women to graduate from law school in the Deep South. Alice Lee joined her father’s law firm, Barnett, Bugg and Lee. As a young woman, Harper Lee left Monroeville, Alabama, for New York City to pursue a career as a writer. But Harper returned to Monroeville regularly over the years. When in town, she stayed with Alice in the family house. Harper returned to Monroeville permanently after a stroke in 2007.

Alice Lee continued to practice law until age 100. She died last November at age 103.

Margaret Atwood visits West Point for a frank conversation on gender, politics and oppression

Salon’s Laura Miller describes a recent trip with Margaret Atwood:

The entire first-year class of cadets at West Point had read her 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” for a literature course. The 75-year-old author agreed to speak to the assembled plebes (as first-year students at the military academy are called) after lunching with them on mac-and-cheese under the gothic arches of the campus’ vast, Hogwartsian mess hall.

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a not—too-distant, theocratic dystopian future in which years of environmental pollution has made most women infertile. The novel’s main character, known as Offred (for “of Fred,” the man whose household she belongs to) is a handmaid, one of the few remaining fertile women. Her job is to provide Fred with a child through a ritualized act of surrogate copulation. “In this future, women must wear color-coded, body-concealing robes and are not allowed to hold jobs outside the home, to own property, to live on their own or even to read.”

Miller explains how the first-year cadets had come to read The Handmaid’s Tale:

Lt. Col. Naomi Mercer, the assistant professor and course director responsible for assigning “The Handmaid’s Tale” (which was paired with the Ursula K. LeGuin story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”), talked about her choice. Mercer, an Iraq War veteran, is also the author of a forthcoming book on feminist science fiction from the 1980s, “Toward Utopia.” “The Army has real gender issues, still,” she said. Reading a book like “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “at least creates a vocabulary to talk about those issues. It was very prescient.”

“Perhaps most striking, given Mercer’s hopes for a new vocabulary, was that all of the questioners were male, and none of them asked about the status of women in Gilead,” the setting of the novel, Miller notes. However, as Miller and Atwood waited for their departure car, one young man approached Atwood to sign his book. And he also had a question: “He couldn’t help but notice that some of the worst treatment the novel’s female characters receive comes at the hands of other women.”

“That’s true,” Atwood said. “That’s how these things work. All dictatorships try to control women, although sometimes in different ways. And one of the ways they control any group is to create a hierarchy where some members of the group have power over the others. You get those people to control their own group for you.”

A Conversation with Jonathan Franzen

When novelist Jonathan Franzen visited Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, Susan Lerner, an MFA candidate, interviewed him for the university’s journal Booth.

Please read the entire article. Here are some highlights from Franzen’s replies to Lerner’s questions:

On the difference between fiction and personal essay:

I think fiction is the genre better suited to exploration. Essay is reporting, in a sense. There are artistic, tonal, and structural challenges in doing an essay but I don’t feel as if, in an autobiographical essay, I’m necessarily exploring. I’m trying to take what I already know and make it interesting, palatable, not icky, and possibly instructive.

On memoir:

There are only two things that can make memoir really good. One of them is great material that is true, stuff that does not require embellishment or invention. Stuff that is just strong and a great story in itself. If you’ve got that, why not write a memoir? There’s value added simply because it’s a memoir. There’s value added in terms of reader impact because the reader knows these amazing things really happened to you. The other thing is if you’ve got a great voice, if you’ve got a great tone going, then even if the story is not there, the combination of the value added from its being nonfiction and the pleasure of the tone or voice can add up to something, …

On whether adults should be embarrassed to read YA (young adult) literature:

Most of what people read, if you go to the bookshelf in the airport convenience store and look at what’s there, even if it doesn’t have a YA on the spine, is YA in its moral simplicity. People don’t want moral complexity.

In literature, new attention to old age, dying

“In the past four months, three Pulitzer Prize-winning authors have released novels that walk their characters right up to the valley of the shadow of death,” writes Mary Carole McCauley in The Baltimore Sun. She looks at how authors portray old age and death in the following novels:

  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford
  • A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

McCauley looks at the history of how death has been presented in fiction since the 1960s. Anthony Wexler, who recently earned his doctorate from the Johns Hopkins University with a dissertation on late life in literature, says:

humanities professors didn’t begin treating late life as worthy of scholarly inquiry until a 1975 conference on the topic at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University. But momentum didn’t begin building until 1992, when the term Vollendungsroman was coined to refer to literature about the completion or winding down of life.

McCauley attributes that shift in attention to the baby boomers and to medical advances that now keep people alive longer. Wexler adds that aging studies now incorporate literature by novelists such as Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson, and the British novelists Margaret Drabble, Doris Lessing, and Kingsley Amis. “Watching authors fight that battle through the stories they write, only to emerge victorious on the other side is one of the great gifts provided by late-life novels.”

Reading Recommendations

You’ll find a lot of recommended reading on last month’s “Best Books of 2014” round-ups, but if you’re looking for more theme-related material, here are a few lists:

Religious Reading

From the New York Times:

We took the opportunity to ask a few writers to recommend novels with religious themes, preferably lesser known. (If you don’t already know you should read Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” well, you should.)

Middle Eastern Fiction

Reviews of four books, also from the New York Times.

11 True Crime Books You Should Read If You’re Obsessed With ’Serial’

These titles are brought to you by Business Insider.

The Best Books I Read in 2014

I read 43 books this year, for a grand total of 12,695 pages. The longest was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which weighs in at 771 pages.

Here, listed alphabetically by author, are the 10 best:

Atkinson, Kate. Life After Life
Fergus, Jim. One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
French, Tana. Faithful Place
Galbraith, Robert. The Cuckoo’s Calling
Galbraith, Robert. The Silkworm
Jackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Joyce, James. Dubliners
O’Nan, Stewart. The Circus Fire: A True Story of an American Tragedy
Tartt, Donna. The Goldfinch
Yates, Richard. Revolutionary Road

After compiling this list, I realize that only one, The Circus Fire, is nonfiction. Although I always read more fiction than nonfiction, I don’t think recall any recent year in which nonfiction was so sparsely represented.

*Pseudonym of J.K. Rowling

How about you? What were the 10 best books you read in 2014?

Best Books 2014

There Are Way Too Many ‘Best Of 2014′ Lists

If you despair over working your way through all these lists, just take a look at Hayley Munguia’s distillation:

I set about compiling lists of the best books, movies and TV shows of 2014 in prominent national publications.1 My colleague Andrew Flowers helped me run the numbers to see how much critics agreed. Here are the top 20 most frequently cited titles in each category2:

Here you’ll find all the information you need in digestible form.

2014’s Best Books on Psychology, Philosophy, and How to Live Meaningfully

The incredible Maria Popova (how does she find so much time to read?) of Brain Pickings offers her selections:

How to be alone, wake up from illusion, master the art of asking, fathom your place in the universe, and more.

The opening paragraph contains links to her lists in other categories as well.

What’s the Best Book, New or Old, You Read This Year?

In this special year-end edition of Bookends, all 15 columnists share their favorite reading experience of 2014.

Schwarzman, Piketty, Kerry, Gorman Pick Best Books of ’14

Here’s something a bit different:

responses to the annual Bloomberg News survey, which asked CEOs, investors, current and former policy makers, economists and academics to name their favorite reads in 2014.

Our favorite books of the year

_ The A.V. Club_ invited our regular books writers to pick their favorite titles released in 2014. Since very few of our contributors read the same list of books each year, a ballot system doesn’t work as well. Here is a list of our 2014 book recommendations, from reviewed favorites to unsung gems.

The 100 best books of 2014: The Star’s staff and reviewers recommend their favorites of the year

From the Kansas City Star.

Stuart Kelly: Diversity rules in non-fiction

NON-FICTION is at its finest when it shows how diverse it can be. Stuart Kelly picks out some of this year’s books that stayed truest to that principle.

Because there aren’t enough lists devoted exclusively to nonfiction.

11 best mysteries and crime novels of 2014

From Adam Woog of The Seattle Times, because I’m a big mystery fan.

Best books of 2014: The Seattle Times lists its top 35 titles

Includes lists of both fiction and nonfiction.

The best psychology books of 2014

From The Guardian.

The best nature books of 2014

From GrrlScientist, via The Guardian.

Six Books We Missed This Year

From The Atlantic:

In the holiday spirit, now is a moment to mention an array of 2014 books across the non-fiction and fiction spectrum I wish we hadn’t missed—and to ask their authors to pay it forward, and single out a few books themselves. What recent work has caught their expert eye? What book, however old, helped them write the one they’ve been busy promoting?

The Best Books of 2014

From Mother Jones:

In what’s become an annual tradition, we invited Mother Jones staffers to write up their favorite books published this year, the ones they’d recommend to friends and relations, and so here they are.

There are also links here for “Best Food Books of 2014” and “The 10 Best Albums of 2014.”

Sometimes You Can’t Pick Just 10: Maureen Corrigan’s Favorite Books Of 2014

From the book critic for NPR (National Public Radio)

Their Shelf Life Will Continue

At year’s end, The New York Times’s three daily book critics explain what goes into making our year-end lists. It’s an explanation liable to make heads spin, but it’s born of necessity. We can’t make trustworthy “10 best” lists because none of us reads everything, even though each of us reads quite a lot. So each critic’s list includes only books that the critic reviewed during 2014.

I know we’ve heard a lot from the New York Times, but their explanation of how they compile their best books lists seems relevant.

And how could we not feature the personal favorites of Michiko Kakutani?

The publisher’s year: hits and misses of 2014

Which books took off and which failed to sell? Publishers choose their books of the year, and the ones that slipped through the net

From Britain’s The Guardian.

2014 in Review: David L. Ulin looks at the year in books

From the book critic of the Los Angeles Times.

The best popular medicine books of 2014

From GrrlScientist, for The Guardian:

Today’s list of “best of” are my choices of books published in 2014 that focus on the topics of human biology, psychology and medicine. This genre always produces a large and (mostly) excellent collection of books, so it was difficult to limit my choices to just “a dozen or so” titles that I think you will enjoy.

At the end of this list you’ll also find links to her other lists: Best Birds Books, Best Nature Books, Best Popular Science Books (Biological sciences) and Best Popular Science Books (Physical sciences).

Favorite Books of 2014

From James Wood, for The New Yorker.

Books: Jay Strafford’s favorite books of 2014

Both fiction and nonfiction recommendations from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The 22 Most Exciting Literary Debuts Of 2014

These are the voices in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that kept our eyes glued to the page.

From Arianna Rebolini, for BuzzFeed

The Year in Books: Asian America’s Must-Reads of 2014

Need new book ideas now that your Asian-American Literature class is over? Check out some of the books published by Asian-American authors in 2014. From food to family, comedy to color, these books will be next on your must-read list.

By FRANCES KAI-HWA WANG.

The 28 Best Books By Women In 2014

Compiled by Daniel Dalton for BuzzFeed:

Poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that killed it this year. Ranked in no particular order.

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And finally, because 2014 is now so passe:

12 of the Most Anticipated Books of 2015, aka the Titles We Can’t Get Our Hands On Soon Enough

13 of the Most Anticipated YA Novels of 2015, aka What You Need to Be Reading From January Through March

Best Books 2014

Jonathan Yardley’s favorite books

This is not a “best books of the year” list:

As longtime Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley retires this week, he lists some of the books he’s cherished most during his 33-year tenure with Book World. Some of the titles here he reviewed for The Post, and others he read for the first time over those years.

Yardley chooses his favorites of both fiction and nonfiction.

Sound Off: What book influenced you the most?

This also is not a best books of the year list:

The holiday season is when many books are given as gifts. We asked member of the Times-Union/Jacksonville.com Email Interactive Group which book, besides the Bible or other essential religious work, has had the most influence on them and why?

Our picks for the best books of 2014

From the book reviewers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The best crime and thrillers of 2014

From the U. K.’s The Guardian:

Louise Welsh’s dystopian tale of plague in London and Tom Rob Smith’s Swedish family chiller are among the highlights in this year’s roundup

Best fiction of 2014

From The Boston Globe. There’s also a link to the newspaper’s complete list of the year’s “top picks for children, teens, and adults, for fans of fiction and nonfiction, lovers of sports and thrillers, devotees of poetry and all things New England.”

The Best Fiction for Christmas: Literary novels of 2014

John Boland on a dozen literary novels that made this year special

The best biographies of 2014

The Guardian strikes again.