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

8 Tips For Overcoming ’Reader’s Block’

I can’t remember ever encountering reader’s block. My own problem is usually the opposite: other life duties that prevent me from spending as much time as I’d like to spend reading.

Nevertheless, Emily Petsko asserts:

“Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable …

Of the eight approaches she offers to overcoming reader’s block, I especially endorse #5. In fact, I think the liberating discovery—which hit me at about age 40—that I don’t have to finish every book I start is probably the reason why I’ve never felt reader’s block. If a book isn’t doing something for me, I simply put it aside and pick up something else.

Which is another reason for keeping one’s bookshelves well stocked with unread books …

Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work … better? Why we need difficult books

This year’s Booker-winner Milkman has been criticised for being challenging. But are we confusing readability with literary value?

Sam Leith argues that “ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed.” The criterion by which a novel should be judged is “how successfully it answers whatever challenge it sets itself.”

Leith quotes novelist Nicola Barker on why some novels are difficult: “Life is hard and paradoxical. It isn’t always easy. Nor should all fiction be.” Fiction becomes difficult when it attempts to engage with a world that isn’t always straightforward, coherent, or manageable. The metaphor Leith uses to convey the benefits of tackling a difficult book is that of a challenging mountain hike: The hike is difficult, but the amazing view at the top is worth the effort.

The article ends with a list of “ten difficult books worth reading” compiled by Lara Feigel.

Criminal profiling doesn’t work. TV shows should maybe stop celebrating it

I admit to watching avidly every episode of Criminal Minds, even though one of the team’s solemn pronouncement of “We’re ready to give the profile” almost always makes me laugh. Dylan Matthews wonders why popular culture continues to feature criminal profilers when “ It’s a real, honest-to-God bummer, but criminal profiling doesn’t appear to work. At all.” He cites research that concluded that experts “do only slightly better than random people at predicting traits of offenders” and that “profiling is a ‘pseudoscientific technique,’ of limited if any value to investigators.”

And, Matthews continues, all this emphasis on psychological profilers may be detracting from efforts in areas that psychology could effectively help with, most notably predicting future events:

The social consequences of being able to forecast the future better are immense. “If we could improve the judgement of government officials facing high-stakes decisions — reducing their susceptibility to various biases, or developing better methods of aggregating expertise — this could have positive knock-on effects across a huge range of domains,” Jess Whittlestone notes. “For example, it could just as well improve our ability to avert threats like a nuclear crisis, as help us allocate scarce resources towards the most effective interventions in education and healthcare.”

Future Fiction

Sarah LaBrie arrives at a definition of future fiction by examining several contemporary novels:

  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Here’s how LaBrie describes her notion of future fiction:

If My Year of Rest and Relaxation serves to capture a moment in history, novels like The Mars Room and The Overstory might be examples of a kind of future fiction, one that teaches readers to think of themselves as elements of larger systems. They might help set the foundation for a literary fiction that regains its place in a political conversation from which it has long been dismissed. If Powers’s and Kushner’s novels do nothing else, they show us that fiction, more powerfully than any other technology, provides a map for navigating the world even at its most confusing and unbearable.

I’m guessing that LaBrie would say these novels fit Sam Leith’s description (above) of difficult books.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

THE SIMPLE JOY OF REREADING TO BREAK A READING SLUMP

Julia Rittenberg has a confession to make:

I used to have a great deal of anxiety around keeping up with others’ reading paces. Social media heightened my awareness of reading habits, and worries that my own were woefully behind. I would be unable to choose a new book to read, so my anxiety would continue to build. Consequently, I would stop reading altogether (outside of schoolwork) for months at a time.

A result of her reading slump was that she continued to document on social media books she wanted to read instead of reading more books.

When her TBR stacks of books “deemed Culturally Important [began] to feel a bit like homework,” she rediscovered her reading mojo by rereading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. This book reminded her why she likes reading so much and helped her overcome her reading slump. Now, instead of avoiding books she doesn’t especially want to read, she has a stack of books she’s itching to read, all because she reread an old favorite that continues to inspire her.

Like most readers, I’ve often felt that I’ll never be able to keep up with all the new, interesting, publicly touted books that seem to come out almost daily. But my reading slumps are usually triggered more by simple time constraints than by an inability to find a book that grabs me. (See my tsundoku .) However, I have, more than once, chosen to get back into reading by rereading an old favorite book that reminds me how powerful reading can be.

How about you?

What methods do you use to help dig your way out of an occasional reading slump”

READING WHILE CHRONICALLY ILL OR, THE BOOKS WILL WAIT

Abby Hargreaves’s reading slump was quite different from Julia Rittenberg’s. After two family deaths prevented her from reading for pleasure, she discovered that she had a chronic disease that drained both her time and her energy.

Reading while chronically ill (and, in those first several months, still actively grieving the loss of my only sibling and grandmother) was near impossible. Though I craved the escape of a good book, I just couldn’t manage it. There was the holding of the book, which took physical effort, and paying attention to the plot, which required mental strength. Since I lacked both of these things, reading anything substantial was pretty out of the question.

And from this experience she learned a valuable lesson:

Reading can be a wonderful escape, but it need not add extra pressure to our lives. You can’t read on empty—be kind to yourself. Be well, when you can. And read when you’re ready. The books will wait.

And the comments on this article suggest that Hargreaves’s message resonates with others.

20 DEBUT WORKS OF FICTION BY WOMEN OVER 40

It’s not unusual to come across lists of young writers, particularly young women writers. While these lists showcase young people’s achievements, where are the opportunities for older people, particularly older women who may have had to postpone undertaking a writing career while focusing on the more traditional expectations for women: caring for a home and children?

But, according to Jenny Bhatt:

there are also many successful examples to serve as role models and provide ongoing inspiration for older writers—or aspiring writers of any age.

Below is a list of women writers who debuted works of fiction at or after the age of 40 and went on to achieve even more success. While not exhaustive, it shows clearly that women writers are not past their prime after a certain age. In fact, many are not even “late-bloomers”—they have simply deferred publishing due to family or career commitments. But the most striking aspect that unites all of these works is how each incorporates the collected, distilled wisdom, a lifetime of reading, and the sheer radicalism that could not have been possible for a younger writer.

Enjoy Bhatt’s list, which includes the following authors:

  • Penelope Fitzgerald, age 60
  • Mary Wesley, 71
  • Harriet Doerr, 74

50 MUST-READ BOOKS WITH UNRELIABLE NARRATORS

Oh, I do love me an unreliable narrator: Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Here’s a treasure trove of books with unreliable narrators, including many of which I’ve read and a whole bunch of new ones for me to add to my reading list.

How about you?

Do you enjoy reading a story told by an unreliable narrator? Which of the books listed here have you read? What other unreliable-narrator books do you recomment?

THE APPEAL OF THE TIME-TRAVEL ROMANCE

I find the trope of time travel fascinating; see, for example, 13 + 1 Books That Feature Time Travel.

in this article Alyssa Fikse examines time travel as a recurring trope in romance:

In particular, time travel and other time-related complications pop up again and again. Whether they’re communicating via time bending mailbox (The Lake House), kept apart by centuries as a plastic centurion (Doctor Who), or powered by genetic anomalies both charming (About Time) and devastating (The Time Traveler’s Wife), this obstacle has long been a popular stalwart in the romantic canon.

Specifically, she asks, “What keeps us climbing back into time machines or touching ancient stones in search of romance?” She concludes that the time-travel romance remains such a robust subgenre because it shows us that love can truly conquer all:

Can your wife find you despite being separated by centuries and continents? No? Well, we have this particular fantasy for that.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Introduction to Reading Other Women

At a time when female “others”—black, brown, and yellow—together constitute the largest block of the world’s population, their persistent invisibility to Westerners not only means they are overlooked in the present moment, but that they are consistently erased from the historical record.

Rafia Zakaria reacts against “the challenges that arise from a Western literary canon that, despite decades of feminist intervention, remains largely male and white” with a look at key texts that have helped her in her “own self-fashioning as a lettered woman of color.” In her series Reading Other Women in Boston Review she undertakes “a journey into complexity, into the lives and literary worlds of those who are challenging their own marginalization through the power of the story.” While “little brown girls” must undertake such a reading journey out of necessity, Zakaria hopes that the “Western reader must choose to do it.”

WHO WATCHES THE WATCHERS? SPOILER ALERT: WE DO

On The Many Visions of Voyeurism in Crime Fiction

Claire Fuller, whose novels include Swimming Lessons, discusses the frequent presence of characters she calls watchers in crime fiction, “ staring via two-way mirrors, spying through surveillance cameras, peeping from behind trees, and peering through train and car windows” at other characters. But, she adds, we as readers are staring at the watchers just as those watchers are looking at other people. “Does that make us in some way complicit in the crimes committed between these pages?” Fuller asks.

be careful who you’re judging when you’re horrified by a fictional watcher or voyeur, and remember that readers—you included—could be considered guilty of the same crime.

The Coming of Age of Transgender Literature

These writers are embracing a more elastic literary form — the novel — and a number of recent works, often genre-bending as well as gender-bending, have won critical acclaim.

In The New York Times Peter Haldeman discusses recent works of literature that, “[I]n a field previously dominated by memoir and genre fiction (sci-fi, young adult), [includes] a number of first novels with more purely literary designs — including playing with genre — [that] are getting attention.” The works discussed here include the following:

  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
  • Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
  • Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom
  • An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
  • Little Fish by Casey Plett
  • The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara

Read how these authors are bending and blending literary types and genres to create new forms to portray new narratives of being.

The Draw of the Gothic

Halloween was last week, but I’m still coming across interesting articles about all the usual trappings of that holiday. Here Sarah Perry explains why “[t]o understand the literary gothic—to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion—it is necessary to undertake a little time travel.” Perry explains how the term gothic, originally applied to architecture, came to be applied to literature that “repels and appeals in equally fervent measure.”

The Scene of the Crime: A Guide to 100 Years of Crime Fiction

I make no secret of the fact that I like mysteries, and I read a lot of them. So I enjoyed this journey down memory lane by John Wilson (who is just my age) of his own love of and history with reading mysteries. There’s a bit of a Christian-theology overtone in his account that I do not share, but he seems just as fascinated with the ways mysteries probe the human condition as I am.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links: Halloween Edition

It’s only the middle of the month, so you’ve got some time to get into the Halloween book/film mood. Here are some suggestions.

WOMEN, TRAUMA, AND HAUNTED HOUSES

Sarah Smeltzer writes:

The haunted house is a staple of the horror genre and it’s easy to see why. Your house should be familiar and it should behave predictably. When your safe, warm home turns out to be something else, it’s terrifying… . But what do women do in the haunted house? How does the haunted house function as the terrain on which women work out their fears and anxieties?

Smeltzer examines three classic haunted-house stories:

  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

She concludes that “the haunted house is a physical expression of anxiety and trauma that stems from violent misogyny.”

Furthermore, maybe the haunted house is the only way that women in the novels discussed above can process what has happened to them. There do not seem to be very many other options for their processing, after all. The women might not have the words or the protection of societal structures to articulate their fears and passions. Therefore, the entire house models itself after them, horrors and all. The physical space takes on their trauma and anxieties.

The article includes a link to a “list of classic haunted house novels” to allow readers to see if other examples follow a similar pattern.

HOW THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE HAS SHAPED OUR IDEAS OF HAUNTED HOUSES

Christine Ro presents:

just a few quotes from the novel that hint at why The Haunting of Hill House resonates when it comes to perceptions of haunted houses.

The most telling of these quotations, to me, is this one:

“In all our conscious minds, as we sit here talking, there is not one iota of belief in ghosts. Not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile. No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense. Not one of us thinks rationally that what ran through the garden last night was a ghost, and what knocked on the door was a ghost, and yet there was certainly something going on in Hill House last night, and the mind’s instinctive refuge—self-doubt—is eliminated. We cannot say, ‘It was my imagination,’ because three other people were there too.”

11 GREAT GOTHIC HORROR MOVIES FOR OCTOBER

This list is broken into categories:

  • Gothic movies based on books
  • Original gothic movies
  • Gothic TV

And there’s an added bonus: a list of several links to related articles about all things gothic

Five Ghost Stories That Go Boo-yond the Haunted House

Yes, haunted houses are a staple of Halloween lore, but here are some books that offer different versions of scary and spooky.

The best spine-tingling YA horror to read this Halloween

YA (young adult) novels are often short, so you probably have time to squeeze in at least one or two of these before October 31st.

10 Creepy New Books to Read This Halloween

we’ve rounded up a list of new books to read for Halloween, including an upcoming release from Stephen King. From spine-tingling horror to twisty psychological thrillers to historical novels full of mysterious creatures, these books are sure to get you in the spooky spirit.

16 BOOKS FOR FANS OF NETFLIX’S DARK TOURIST

In the show, New Zealand journalist David Farrier visits an array of peculiar or dangerous places around the world to see what he can learn. Most people who participate in “dark tourism” travel to places that have, historically, been connected to tragedy, death, or other dark topics.

DARK BOOKS AND DARK BEER FOR THE FALL SEASON

This article isn’t limited to Halloween; it’s appropriate for the fall season. Romeo Rosales is “excited for the fall beers that hit market shelves to welcome the change in weather and season.”

I am not claiming to know an actual science behind which dark beers should be paired with which dark read. You could pair your favorite dark beer with any dark book, but I have a few book and beer recommendations.

And if you’re not a beer drinker, presumably these books could also be read with wine, coffee, tea, or any other favorite beverage.

‘Textbook terror’: How The Haunting of Hill House rewrote horror’s rules

Here’s another article about Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Jackson was the first author to understand that “houses aren’t haunted – people are”, says Hill [writer Joe Hill, son of Stephen King]. “All the most terrible spectres are already there inside your head, just waiting for the cellar door of the subconscious to spring open so they can get out, sink their icy claws into you,” he says. “In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.”

You can also read what other horror writers have to say about Jackson’s novel.

As for the new Netflix adaptation, the description indicates that it makes many major changes in the source material. I plan to watch it at some point to see if it’s true to the novel’s spirit despite the changes.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown