Literary Links

GOODREADS HACKS: GET A DNF SHELF, MARK REREADS, AND MORE

If you find it hard to keep up with all the cool kids who use Goodreads to track their reading, this article will put you in the know about some of the more esoteric aspects. The main subject here is how to create a DNF (did not finish) shelf that won’t include the books placed there in your number of books read statistics. But there are a few other nifty nuggets of knowledge here as well, along with links to several other articles explaining how to use Goodreads. An avid reader’s bonanza!

How We Need Diverse Books Changed The Literary World, According To 15 Publishing Pros

When We Need Diverse Books was founded by a team of writers, illustrators, and publishing professionals, it was meant to shake up the publishing industry from the inside. Led by the original Executive Committee — Ellen Oh, Lamar Giles, Marieke Nijkamp, Miranda Paul, Aisha Saeed, Karen Sandler, and Ilene Wong — and supported by the original PR team — Stacey Lee and SE Sinkhorn — We Need Diverse Books was created to fight for more diversity in children’s and young adult book publishing at every level, among authors, editors, marketers, agents, publishers, and more. First and foremost, they wanted authors from marginalized communities to be given opportunities to have their voices heard in the overwhelmingly white, heterosexual, cisgender industry. And the results have been clear.

Fifteen publishing professionals discuss “why they believe We Need Diverse Books has changed publishing forever, and what they hope for the future.”

Toni Morrison and Nina Simone, United in Soul

Emily Lordi discusses how much Toni Morrison was influenced by contemporary musicians:

Her work resonates with the music of those soul artists alongside whom she honed her craft: the grand ambition of Isaac Hayes, the moral clarity of Curtis Mayfield, and the erotic truth-telling of Aretha Franklin. But the soul artist who is most closely aligned with Morrison is Nina Simone. “She saved our lives,” Morrison said of the singer, after Simone’s death, in 2003. Simone meant so much to her, and to other black women, I think, in part because of how she turned social exclusion into superlative beauty and style. It was this recuperative alchemy that defined soul, as a music and an ethos. And, if Simone was soul’s “High Priestess,” Morrison was one of its literary architects.

From Baba Yaga to Hermione Granger: why we’re spellbound by ‘witcherature’

Vengeful, seductive, feminist, misogynist … witches have appeared in many forms in literature. Now a new generation of novelists are falling under their spell.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, writing in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, addresses the current literary fascination with witches:

There has been a perennial literary fascination with witches; they are, as Marion Gibson, professor of Renaissance and magical literatures at Exeter University says, “a shorthand symbol for persecution and resistance – misogyny and feminism in particular”. In a #MeToo world, where Donald Trump – a fan of the term “witch-hunt” – is US president, it is really no surprise that female writers are examining the role of the witch in new ways.

Cosslett explains that women of her generation, who came of age in the 1990s with TV programs such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are now producing literature and films that grapple with perennial questions of power and agency. She also looks a bit at the history of witches in literature, from novels such as Jane Eyre to John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick.

In Praise of Samuel R. Delany

In my effort to read more science fiction, I often come across references to Samuel R. Delany’s seminal novel Dhalgren. Here novelist Jordy Rosenberg discusses how Delany’s fiction “reflects and explores the social truths of our world.” He includes a list of works to start with for readers looking to introduce themselves to Delany’s body of work.

How Tana French Inhabits the Minds of Her Detectives

The crime-fiction writer on unreliable narrators, real-world sources, and the breakdown of genre boundaries in her work.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

Richard Russo: On the Moral Power of Regret

One of the most memorable novels I’ve ever read is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls (2001). When I came across this essay by Russo, I knew I had to stop and take the time to settle in with it. I hope you learn from it as much as I did.

The Con Man Who Became a True-Crime Writer

Rachel Monroe writes in The Atlantic about Matthew Cox, a former con man who has tried to re-create himself as a true-crime writer of the stories of his fellow inmates. By doing this Cox apparently hopes to rewrite his own narrative arc as the guy who want to prison and learned how to make something of himself. Monroe’s story of Cox’s story is fascinating.

ON THE LONGEVITY OF ADRIENNE RICH

Holly Genovese wonders why Adrienne Rich “has stayed relevant when other writers of the ’70s feminist movements have not.”

But I think, if I could guess, that Rich’s continuous appeal over the last 50 years is more about her absolute certainty that politics and art were intrinsically linked, that art was meaningless without political consciousness, that nothing could exist within a vacuum, and that choosing not to take a stand was in fact choosing the side of the oppressor.

And Rich continues to be relevant because “In the last few years, since the election of Donald Trump, it has become impossible not to be political. To be apolitical is to support the growth of fascism, white nationalism, and the downfall of the republic.”

As always, the personal is political.

THE GREATEST MORAL COMPROMISES IN CRIME FICTION

Here’s the descriptive subtitle of this article: “Celebrating the literature of slippery relationships, villainous allies, and morally dubious life decisions.”

We’re told that conflict is the essential ingredient of all storytelling, and that directive applies most literally to crime fiction, in which one character wants something that another character doesn’t want to grant or allow. The thief wants to steal something that someone else possesses. The stalker wants a relationship with someone who doesn’t want to reciprocate. Sometimes the only solution is for both sides to compromise.

Or, as novelist Carl Vonderau explains:

I find the most interesting crime fiction to be stories wherein the protagonist must make a deal with a morally ambiguous and seemingly villainous character. And that villainous ally? They usually have their own strange moral code and want something in return. At least one of them usually ends up changed for the worse, and it would be apt to recall that a good compromise makes both sides unhappy.

Here he discusses nine novels, including The Godfather and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, that illustrate such uneasy alliances.

Revisiting Harold Robbins, the Forgotten “Dirty Old Man of American Letters”

This article reminded me of the piece about Judith Krantz that I mentioned last week.

As writers of decidedly popular fiction, both Krantz and Robbins epitomized the culture they lived in and wrote for.

He crafted racy novels — sweeping literary cinemas bursting with beautiful, arrogant characters, rags-to-riches plots laced with betrayal, murder and passion — that readers gobbled up like printed popcorn, buying more than 750 million copies. “Mad Men is a very Harold Robbins kind of story,” says his biographer, Andrew Wilson. “It’s perhaps presented in a different way, but it’s that milieu, that narrative arc of secrets, the corrupting nature of power and wealth, sex, all of the elements. One could argue that these kinds of series would not have been conceived without Harold Robbins’ influence on popular culture.”

The Sandman, Catch-22, Cloud Atlas … is there such thing as an ‘unfilmable’ book?

What exactly is an “unfilmable” book? 

And now that Netflix is throwing time and money at several potential adaptations, “So has TV ended the age of the unfilmable book?”  

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

Lots of interesting literary-related articles this week.

Crime writers react with fury to claim their books hinder rape trials

The Staunch prize was founded in 2018 to honor a thriller ““in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” This article reports on the many writers, including Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah, who refute the accusation that their books influence the outcome of trials involving violence against women.

ON ‘THE GIRLS’ IN THE TITLE

The Staunch prize was founded as an antidote to what many cultural and literary critics decry as the trend of “girl books,” typified by works such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Such books, the criticism goes, treat women as objects and glorify acts of violence against women such as stalking, gaslighting, sexual harassment, and rape. Novelist Nina Laurin, who has used the word girl and the related words sister and wife, in her book titles asks, “why do these concepts continue to capture the imagination all these years after this titling trend began?” She argues that< while such words call up certain stereotypes:

In the “girl” books, however, the female characters are also ruthless killers, kick-ass vigilantes, and skilled manipulators. The wives spy, snoop, and poison, and the mothers don’t always know best.

A TV Critic Who Has Seen the Small Screen Become Huge

Jennifer Szalai discusses the book I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by TV critic Emily Nussbaum. Szalai says that Nussbaum unashamedly “treats television as art in its own right” rather than approaching it as a lesser art form.

Judith Krantz Was the Most Important Writer of the 20th Century

Kelly Faircloth praises Judith Krantz, who died last month, as someone who “wrote highly popular commercial fiction that encapsulates her era, the late 1970s to the mid-1990s.”

Krantz’s books are often dismissed as trash, but as any archeologist will tell you, there are few resources so valuable for reconstructing a historical era as a nicely overflowing dump. 

7 Books about What Happens when Your Identity Falls Apart

Abigail N. Rosewood, author of If I had Two Lives, has spent much of her life moving around, not living in any one place for longer than five years. This transitory life has given her many different layers of identity that she sometimes has trouble stitching together. Here she offers a list of “seven works of art that investigate powerful psychic ruptures.” 

They are not easy books and they shouldn’t be. Like most great works of literature, they ask difficult questions⎯How does a psychic split happen? Can a person survive it? How many masks can one wear before getting crushed beneath their weight? Is coherency an illusion?

A Universe of One’s Own

Nicole Rudick looks at the stories collected in the Library of America’s recently issued volume The Future Is Female!: 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Lisa Yaszek. 

It encompasses the genre’s pulp years (1926–1940) and the so-called Golden Age (approximately 1940–1960), and ends just before the emergence of feminist SF in the 1970s. The anthology dispels the commonly held belief that women didn’t participate much in science fiction before the Seventies and argues that a category of fiction often thought to be socially retrograde, technologically fetishistic, and poorly written is in fact rich in style and humanity. 

Literary Links

Here are some of the articles that got me thinking over the past week.

On Impact

Stephen King experienced (celebrated doesn’t seem like the appropriate word) an anniversary last week: 20 years since the automobile accident that nearly killed him. He wrote this article for The New Yorker a year after the accident.

The Weird, Twisted Science of Blake Crouch’s Sci-Fi Thrillers

Cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

I loved Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and have just read (though not yet reviewed) his newly released novel, Recursion, which this interview calls “another particle collider of narrative ambition.” In the interview for Goodread Crouch discusses “the new book, the nature of memory, and the cosmic implications of déjà vu.”

How Has the Internet Changed Book Culture?

On June 12 the Center for Publishing at NYU’s School of Professional Studies in conjunction with Publishers Weekly hosted a PubTechConnect event entitled  “Book Lovers on the Internet: Connecting with Readers in Digital Ways.” 

The group discussed a wide range of internet-focused book-related topics, including whether the internet has changed literary culture for the better or worse, how to effectively use social media to talk about (or promote) books online, how book criticism has changed in the digital era, and which authors were best at using social media as part of their work or brand.

“If there was one major takeaway from the evening, it was that all of the panelists believed that the internet has served to expand literary culture and its reach.”

“Never let anyone tell you there are no words”

We all process grief in different ways. For Jayson Greene, who lost his two-year-old daughter due to a freak accident, it was to take pen to paper. The result is Once More We Saw Stars, a memoir so moving and powerful, it “[restores Greta] ever-so-briefly to the world.” Here, Greene argues that there are words to express unimaginable loss, and how healing it can be to use them. 

Comfort by Ann Hood is another memoir written under similar circumstances.

A DISCUSSION ON WOMEN IN CRIME FICTION

Two veteran women crime writers, Rene Denfeld and Gilly Macmillan, “discuss the wave of new women crime writers—and if being a woman has changed how they write about violence and crime.”

Denfeld says, “Writing about violence can be a way for us to explore what it means, where violence comes from, and what we can do to prevent it.”

Both writers emphasize the need for fully developed characters on both sides of the violence equation, both the victims and the perpetrators. Since women have historically suffered the effects of violence, the current push of crime fiction written by women aims to demonstrate resilience rather than simply victimization. 

Macmillan says, “Crime fiction can delve deep into current societal issues and does it best when those issues strike a universal chord, giving us an opportunity to connect with readers in a very visceral way.”

Jennifer Weiner was right about sexism, media and women writers: “We were told we were lying”

Author Jennifer Weiner has “spent nearly a decade challenging the elitism and sexism of book publishing and criticism. Her new novel, “Mrs. Everybody” is a culmination of Weiner’s work as both a storyteller and a truth-teller, a sweeping multigenerational family saga against a backdrop of 70 years of women’s history.”

In this interview in Salon she discusses her new novel, Mrs. Everything, a multigenerational novel about women and families, and the inequality between men and women in the publishing industry.  

Here are some of Weiner’s major points:

  • “women’s stories can be big stories, even though we are not taught to think of them that way.”
  • “We read men in school and we were taught that that was Literature, with a capital L. We read books by men. Men did not grow up reading books by women in school and believing that that was literature.”
  • “I wanted readers [of Weiner’s latest novel, Mrs. Everything] to think about the importance of naming things. How once you’ve got a term for something or a word for something or a language for something, that’s when you can start to solve it. That’s when you can start to fix it.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Read in May

May proved to be a success. I hit my unofficial monthly quota of books completed (5), including one for my classics club list. Better yet, three of the five reads get the recommended rating.


Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney

cover: Sometimes I Lie

text © 2017  
Macmillan Audio, 2018  
Narrated by: Stephanie Racine

Here’s how the book begins:

My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:

I’m in a coma.

My husband doesn’t love me anymore.

Sometimes I lie.

When Amber wakes up, she slowly realizes that she’s in a hospital. Connected to a ventilator by a tube down her throat, she is unable to speak. She’s also apparently unable to move any part of her body and therefore cannot communicate that she’s aware of what’s going on around her.

She also has no memory of whatever happened to put her in this hospital bed, though she has a vague feeling that her husband, Paul, tried to kill her. As Paul and Amber’s sister, Claire, discuss Amber’s situation and what’s happening now, Amber tries to piece things together. There’s something about a car accident, which would explain her current condition, but she just can’t remember. . . .

The story is divided into sections called now—Amber’s attempts to figure things out—then—the story of what happened in the days leadings up to now—and before—entries from a child’s diary ages 10-12 or so). The narrative moves frequently between the various sections. Although the sections are clearly labeled, I had trouble keeping track of just what happened when.

I listened to the audiobook of this one and therefore don’t have a printed edition to consult. I found the book to be way too long, especially the first half or so, when I kept thinking, “Come ON, let’s just get into the story.” I listen to a lot of audiobooks, so I don’t think it was the audio format that caused me to react that way. I’m pretty sure I would have had the same reaction if I had been reading either a printed or ebook version. And the final payoff didn’t seem worth the long build-up.

Overall, I’d rate this novel as mediocre. The plot had potential, but the pacing was off. The book felt more interested in technical bravado than in suspenseful storytelling.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

cover: Where'd You Go, Bernadette

Little, Brown and Company, 2012  
ISBN 978-0-316-20426-2 

Recommended

I cannot believe this entertaining novel sat on my shelf for more than five years before I finally got around to reading it, prompted by seeing the movie trailer. 

Intellectually curious and precociously bright, 15-year-old Bee Branch is heartbroken when her mother, Bernadette Fox, disappears just days before the family plans to leave on a trip to Antarctica. Granted, Bernadette has always been outspoken—sometimes outspokenly cruel—about life in Seattle, but, throughout Bee’s life, that’s just the way her mother has always been. 

When Bernadette vanishes, Bee does what she’s always done when faced with a problem to solve: She conducts research and writes a report. Most of the book comprises the documents of the report interlaced with Bee’s commentary. I enjoyed the use of multiple methods of communication (e.g., emails, school memos, magazine article, work reports, letters) collected into narrative sequence. Those documents allow Semple to create well developed characters and to fill in the narrative with information that first-person narrator Bee could not otherwise have known. 

The novel’s social satire is humorous but never angry. (Well, Bernadette is sometimes angry, but the book is not.) Lately on Facebook and Instagram I’ve seen a lot of requests for a light, humorous book, and now I have one to recommend. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Eighth Sister by Robert Dugoni

cover: The Eighth Sister

Brilliance Audio, 2019  
Narrator: Edoardo Ballerini  

Recommended

If Robert Ludlum (The Bourne Identity) and Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent) collaborated on a book, they’d probably end up with something like The Eighth Sister.

Charles Jenkins, the protagonist of Dugoni’s recent novel, age 64, is married to a much younger woman. The couple has a nine-year-old son and another baby on the way. Forty years ago Charlie worked for the CIA. Now he owns a security firm on the verge of bankruptcy. When Charlie’s CIA boss from his last posting shows up and proposes that Charlie undertake an undercover mission to Russia, Charlie reluctantly agrees. After all, he needs the money.

In Part One of The Eighth Sister Dugoni writes an espionage thriller every bit as exciting as Ludlum’s tale of Jason Bourne’s undercover pursuit of the truth about his spy identity. But Dugoni introduces us to Charlie Jenkins and his family before Jenkins sets out for Russia. Although this first part is heavy on plot, as are most spy novels, we’ve also become invested in Charlie Jenkins the character enough to root for him to outrun capture and certain death at the hands of the FSB, the current incarnation of the former KGB.

In Part Two Dugoni gives us a courtroom drama, with accompanying background, as compelling as Rusty Sabich’s investigation in Presumed Innocent. Like Turow, Dugoni has practiced law for many years, so the legal aspects of the novel ring true. Also like Turow, Dugoni is an excellent writer interested in exploring characters as much as in formulating racy plots. The result is an outstanding novel that engages our sense of justice and fairness as much as it precipitates an adrenaline rush.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Sourcebooks, 2018  
ISBN 978-1-4926-5796-5  
(Originally published in the U.K. as The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle)  

Recommended

At 11:00 pm Evelyn Hardcastle will die—every night until Aiden Bishop can identify the killer and break the cycle. And every time Bishop fails, he wakes up the next morning in the body of a different guest. I loved everything about this mind-bending, genre-blending novel. I came for the puzzle but stayed for the psychology.

The novel combines elements of three genres.

1. The Gothic Thriller

The setting throughout the novel is a decaying mansion reminiscent of the dwelling in “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe. 

I reach the edge of the forest, the trees giving way to the grounds of a sprawling Georgian manor house, its redbrick facade entombed in ivy. As far as I can tell, it’s abandoned. The long gravel driveway leading to the front door is covered in weeds, and the rectangular lawns either side of it are marshland, their flowers left to wither in the verge. . . . I have the sense of having stumbled upon something sleeping, that uncertain light [in a second-floor window] the heartbeat of a creature vast and dangerous and still. (p. 5)

This is Blackheath, “a depressing ruin waiting on the mercy of a wrecking ball” (p. 30). The decaying structure contains hidden rooms and passages that allow the guests to sneak around and spy on each other. Bishop sometimes finds esoteric clues to what’s happening, including books with certain words circled or underlines and notes left by others (or by himself in one of his other bodies). A sense of menace, foreboding, doom, and gloom hangs over Blackheath and its guests.

(For more information on Gothic literature, see Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”)

2. Mystery

Murder is the primary component of mystery, and The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle offers not one, but several murders—or one murder repeated several times. The novel follows the formula of the country-house mystery form perfected by Agatha Christie, which itself is a particular form of the locked-room mystery. The country-house mystery is also called a closed-circle mystery, since none of the characters can leave and no new characters can arrive; the villain must therefore be one of the assembled guests. 

3. Science Fiction

When I read that the narrator of the novel can jump from one character to another, I immediately thought of the old TV series Quantum Leap, starring Scott Bakula. Sure enough, Turton mentions in “A Conversation with the Author” at the end of the book that this show was one of the sources for his conception of the story. This feature places the novel squarely within the science fiction genre.

One reason why I like mysteries so much is that I enjoy literary puzzles. So when this novel’s narrator is charged with solving the puzzle of Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder, I eagerly accepted the challenge along with him. I began taking copious notes and keeping track of each undertaking and its results. 

But soon thematic content began to overshadow the mere mechanics of puzzle solving. The narrator’s concern over his own identity begins early, almost as soon as he awakens in the forest in the opening scene with no notion of how or why he’s there. Soon afterwards he meets Evelyn Hardcastle for the first time:

“I’m a coward, Miss Hardcastle,” I sigh. “Forty years of memories wiped away and that’s what I find lurking beneath it all. That’s what remains of me.”

 . . .

“Well, so what if you are?” she asks. “There are worse things to be. At least you’re not mean-spirited or cruel. And now you get to choose, don’t you? Instead of assembling yourself in the dark like the rest of us—so that you wake up one day with no idea of how you became this person—you can look at the world, at the people around you, and choose the parts of your character you want. You can say, ‘I’ll have that man’s honesty, that woman’s optimist, as if you’re shopping for a suit on Savile Row. . . . You don’t like the man you were Very well. Be somebody else. There’s nothing stopping you, not anymore. As I said, I envy you. The rest of us are stuck with our mistakes.” (p. 40)

In fact, we and the narrator don’t learn that his own name is Aiden Bishop until page 109. The question of identity continues to haunt Aiden Bishop right up until the novel’s end, when all is finally revealed to him.

When Bishop figures out the truth about Evelyn’s murder, that realization is minor compared to what he learns about himself. I didn’t work out the solution to the puzzle because Bishop has information that the reader doesn’t have when he explains who kills Evelyn and why, but by that point in the story the question of identity has become much more important than the puzzle. And it’s the universal human search for identity that makes this novel much more than merely a clever puzzle.

But there is an answer to the puzzle of why the U.K. and U.S. editions have different titles. According to posts by Stuart Turton on Goodreads, the U.K. title was changed for the U.S. edition because of the similarity with The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill

cover: The Iceman Cometh

text © 1946  
rpt. Vintage Books, 1999  
ISBN 0-375-70917-7

I read this for my classics club spin. My review is here.

15 Novels: Learning History through Reading Fiction

Novels Mentioned

  1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, translated by Berliani M. Nugrahani
  2. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  3. My Brilliant Friend (and 3 companion novels) by by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein
  4. The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu
  5. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  7. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  8. Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy
  9. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  10. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
  11. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra 
  12. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein
  13. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
  14. Transcription by Kate Atkinson
  15. A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

About a year ago, when I was setting up my reading plan for the upcoming year, I came across one challenge that included this entry: “Read a book to learn something.”

My immediate reaction to this directive was, “Every book I read, I read to learn something.” Nevertheless, within the context of that particular reading challenge I interpreted this entry as a directive to read a nonfiction book.

But every time I finish a novel I remember anew that I do learn something from every book I read, not just from nonfiction. I’ve learned a lot from novels explicitly categorized as historical fiction, but I’ve also learned from novels in various genres such as science fiction, mysteries, and thrillers.

Here are 15 novels that have contributed to my general knowledge of several topics.

Many novels have served as fictional introductions to other cultures. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, translated by Berliani M. Nugrahani, taught me about  the ethnic, religious, and political turmoil in present-day Afghanistan. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman introduced me to what life was like for lighthouse keepers on isolated islands along the coast of Australia in the years after the first world war. I learned what life was like for working-class people in Naples, Italy, after World War II from My Brilliant Friend and its three companion novels by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein. And I got a first-hand picture of life during China’s Cultural Revolution from The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu.

I’ve learned from novels more about war than I ever wanted to know. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier made me understand how the Civil War devastated both the land and the people who lived on it. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows both made me realize the magical power books can have for people experiencing horrors such as World War II. Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy made me marvel at how resilient and brave people can be in the face of those same horrors. Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars taught me how unfair and long-lived political and ethnic suspicion and hatred can be. From A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra I learned the basis for the Russian war with Chechnya.

Spies are a big part of war, and I’ve learned just about everything I know about espionage from novels. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth E. Wein taught me about courage and the power of friendship in the face of unspeakable fear. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn showed me bravery under threat of death in the first world war, as did Transcription by Kate Atkinson in the second. From A Column of Fire by Ken Follett I learned about the origin of spying during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

But I don’t just learn historical facts by reading fiction. I learn about human nature, about human desires and aspirations, about the desire to love and be loved, the search for one’s identity, and the courage to act in extraordinary circumstances. And also, yes, about the dark parts of the human heart and our capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others throughout time.

I’ve had a lot of formal schooling. But much of what I know about life I learned from reading fiction.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Close Reading: A Pivotal Scene in “The Silent Patient”

When I posted about The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, I wondered how many people actually engage with the text of mysteries or thrillers instead of just skimming to find out how the story ends. Michaelides leads the reader along so scintillatingly that a large part of the pleasure of reading this novel lies in recognizing the significance of its stylistic details.

A good example of how this process works occurs early in the novel, when first-person narrator Theo Faber joins his wife, Kathy, an actress, at a bar: “I went to meet Kathy at the National Theatre café on the South Bank, where the performers would often congregate after rehearsal” (p. 45). Kathy is telling “a couple of fellow actresses” the story of how she and Theo met. “It was a story she enjoyed telling,” says Theo.

Kathy begins her story of the night she was at a bar with a guy she wasn’t really interested in “‘when suddenly it happened—Mr. Right walked in.’ Kathy looked at me and smiled and rolled her eyes. ‘With his girlfriend’” (p. 46). 

“This part of the story needed careful handling to retain her audience’s sympathy,” Theo tells us.

Notice what is actually going on here. Kathy, an actress, is performing for her acting friends. This is a well rehearsed story that she enjoys telling with melodramatic effect.

Theo’s narrative of Kathy’s performance continues: “No, but . . . darling . . . seriously, it was love at first sight. Wasn’t it?” Kathy asks, turning to Theo.

“This was my cue,” Theo says. “I nodded and kissed her cheek. ‘Of course it was. True love.’”

Once again, notice what is actually going on here. Kathy is performing, but so is Theo. They have obviously told this story together several times. The statement “This was my cue” lets us know that he is in on the performance. 

So Theo, like Kathy, is a performer. Maybe the entire narrative he’s telling in this book is a performance, too.

Theo’s story of coming upon Kathy telling her friends how they met ends, but he continues with his own memory of what happened later that night. Theo tells us that he and Kathy went back to his apartment and made love all night:

I remember so much white everywhere: white sunlight creeping around the edges of the curtains, white walls, white bedsheets; the whites of her eyes, her teeth, her skin I’d never known that skin could be so luminous, so translucent: ivory white with occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface, like threads of color in white marble. She was a statue; a Geek goddess come to life in my hands.   (p. 48)

It’s a dreamily descriptive passage. And it echoes something Theo has earlier described for us, the self-portrait she labeled Alcestis that Alicia painted in her studio while at home, under house arrest, awaiting trial. Here’s Theo’s description of the painting:

The painting is a self-portrait, depicting Alicia in her studio at home in the days after the murder, standing before an easel and a canvas, holding a paintbrush. She is naked. Her body is rendered in unsparing detail: strands of long red hair falling across bony shoulders, blue veins visible beneath translucent skin. . . . She is captured in the act of painting—yet the canvas is blank, as is her expression.   (p. 9)

The whiteness of this mostly blank canvas mirrors the “so much white everywhere” of his description of making love with Kathy. Kathy’s skin is luminous, while the skin of Alicia’s self-portrain is translucent. Kathy’s skin reveals “occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface,” while the painting portrays “blue veins visible beneath translucent skin.” 

By means of these descriptive echoes, Michaelides demonstrates that, from very early on in the narrative, Kathy and Alicia are associated in Theo’s mind. The two women are similar in another was as well: Kathy is an actress, and Alicia gives herself the name of a character in an ancient Greek play

The metaphors of drama and acting run throughout the novel. Such thematic and verbal repetitions reinforce and drive the meaning of Theo’s narrative.

As the tension builds and the novel nears its end, Theo’s narrative becomes surrealistically chaotic, with no clear timeline and no smooth transitions from one place to another or from one grouping of characters to another. Chapters tumble one after the other toward the inevitable ending. But like the earlier examples, such stylistic significance is easy to miss if one is skimming rather than reading closely.

For Further Reading

For another example of close textual reading see A CLOSE READING OF THE BEST OPENING PARAGRAPH OF ALL TIME.

© 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.

For more on this novel, see Close Reading: A Pivotal Scene in The Silent Patient.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Here’s a short entry for this busy holiday week.

In Fiction, It Was the Year of the Woman

An interesting look at the bulk of novels published this year:

They didn’t launch any franchises — no “girl”-titled blockbusters and probably no future Jennifer Lawrence vehicles — but collectively, they dominated a shrunken literary ecosystem. Each week it seemed that a promising new novel emerged that reimagined fiction — for politics’ sake, for literature’s sake, for the sake of expanding whatever the hell fiction might become in an age when Twain’s old maxim about the truth being stranger is tragically truer than ever. Not every one of these novels will become a “relevant classic,” but this year they spread their roots so far and deep that they essentially choked off the usual white, male suspects.

And I particularly like the writer’s conclusion: “ This golden age of women’s fiction is the resistance that we didn’t know was coming to save us.”

The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?

Rebecca Makkai, author of the novel The Great Believers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, addresses the questions “Is it really okay to talk about art right now? To leave the real and broken world behind and talk about fictional ones?”

I also like her conclusion:

Art is a radical act. Joy is a radical act.

This is how we keep fighting. This is how we survive.

ON JUNK SCIENCE, POP FORENSICS AND CRIME FICTION

Andrew Case writes that, while journalists and lawyers have for years been exposing the unreliability of analyses of spatter patterns, shell casings, shoe prints, and tire marks, “nowhere is discredited science more alive than in crime fiction.” Since I read a lot of crime novels, I was interested in his analysis.

Case notes that in 2009 a panel from the National Academy of Science concluded that “No forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.” Case argues:

Junk science doesn’t just lead to wrongful convictions—it contributes to the already-enormous racial disparity in wrongful convictions in this country. Skepticism towards pattern evidence is not just for scientists and lawyers, but for anyone interested in reducing racism in our criminal justice system.

In the world of crime fiction, Case argues, a plot based on such methods of analysis

can descend into bad storytelling. Our age is complex. Solutions are rare. And stories that reflect that complexity will seem more true. Crime may be down, but most crimes still don’t get solved—the clearance rate for major index crimes for the NYPD last quarter was only 33%. Stories that reflect this reality are in turn more compelling.

He advocates instead for stories “ filled with surprises and twists grounded in human psychology, not whether a fingerprint or a bullet magically solved a crime.”

Goodreads Choice Awards: An annual reminder that critics and readers don’t often agree

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles discusses the seemingly eternal conflict between high-brow and low-brow taste in literature.

After serving as a judge on several literary contests — from the National Book Critics Circle to the Pulitzer — I’ve come to believe that the best measure of the legitimacy of a book prize is the vibrancy of the discussion it inspires. The terms “best,” “favorite,” “acclaimed” and “popular” are slippery, but they aren’t useless. If awards don’t tell us anything definitive about the books themselves, they certainly indicate something illuminating about the era. Notice, for instance, that 17 of this year’s 21 Goodreads Choice Awards were won by women. (Ian McEwan famously observed, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”)

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Five Writing Tips from Tana French

I usually stay away from tips aimed specifically at writers, but I found some of French’s tips here useful for readers as well as writers, especially what she has to say about characters:

There’s no such thing as ‘men’ or ‘women.’ There’s only the individual character you’re writing… . If you’re thinking of ‘men’ or ‘women’ as a monolithic group defined primarily by their sex, then you’re not thinking of them as individuals; so your character isn’t going to come out as an individual, but as a collection of stereotypes.

30 BOOKISH POSITIVE LIFE QUOTES SHORT ENOUGH TO WRITE ON YOUR MIRROR

If you need some inspirational life advice, here’s a collection by writers of all kinds and time periods, from Lewis Carroll to science fiction writer John Scalzi.

Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship

The last good literary hoax story I remember surrounded James Frey’s supposed memoir, A Million Little Pieces, that turned out to be mostly fictionalized. That was back in 2006, “and the publicity turned Frey’s name into a synonym for memoir fraud,” writes Louis Menand. In this article Menand examines the history of literary authorial fraud and how it fits into the current world of performance identity and the clamor for authorial authenticity.

I have forgotten how to read

For a long time Michael Harris convinced himself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate him from our new media climate – that he could keep on reading in the old way because his mind was formed in pre-internet days. He was wrong.

Harris, an author himself, explains that “when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served.”

And that’s not all. The way he reads now has influenced the way he writes:

Meanwhile, I admit it: The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader. I am giving what I get.

So he aims to get back in touch with the way he used to read:

Books have always been time machines, in a sense. Today, their time-machine powers are even more obvious – and even more inspiring. They can transport us to a pre-internet frame of mind. Those solitary journeys are all the more rich for their sudden strangeness.

8 Old-Lady Novels That Prove Life Doesn’t End at 80

Novelist Heidi Sopinka writes, “older women in literature … arguably represent one of the most underwritten aspects of female experience. Even when they do manage to get into a book, they almost exclusively face sexism for being ‘unlikeable.’”

When “the image of a 92-year-old woman, vital, working, came into [her] head,” Sopinka wrote her début novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, around that character. While working on the novel, she “began seeking out an old-lady canon”:

It wasn’t female aging that fascinated me as much as I wanted to swing into the viewpoint of a woman who had lived a long complicated life, deeply occupied by her work. I began to think of my book as a coming-of-death novel… .

Weirdly, the closer I delved into the closed-in days of looming death, the more I learned about living. Still, there is such a fear of female power in our culture that older women are ignored or infantilized, as though they are somehow less complex than us even though they are us, plus time.

Here she offers a list of eight books that are “unafraid to take on the full measure of a woman’s life”:

  • The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
  • The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
  • Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
  • Stet by Diana Athill
  • Destruction of the Father by Louise Bourgeois
  • Writings by Agnes Martin

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown