All the buzz this week has been related to the U.S. inauguration.
The day after Donald Trump is inaugurated president, the signature fashion statement of women marching in protest will be this: a handmade pink “pussy hat” with cat ears tipped directly at Trump and the word he uttered unforgettably on a hot mike. Call it an effort to grab it back.
Both playful and polemic, the cheeky pink hats will appear by the thousands at the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., and at similar demonstrations in cities across America on Saturday.
New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani reports on an interview with President Obama, who said that “reading gave him the ability to occasionally ‘slow down and get perspective’ and ‘the ability to get in somebody else’s shoes.’” Kakutani points out that Obama found helpful presidential biographies and the writings of Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. But she reports that novels were also important; examples include Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, the novels of Marilynne Robinson, and the science fiction apocalyptic novel The Three-Body Problem by Chinese writer Liu Cixin.
Off the Shelf elaborates on the previous story with a list of 12 books recommended by President Obama.
And here is the definitive list, according to Entertainment Weekly.
This article in the Boston Globe discusses protests around the U.S. by writers who oppose the policies of President-Elect Donald Trump. Here’s what one protest organizer has to say about these planned events:
“I think when you are engaging in the diversity of human experiences, you cannot help but have a broader empathy for people who struggle,” says [Daniel Evans] Pritchard, a poet and translator who is editor and publisher of the journal the Critical Flame. “Writers are engaged in that every day, through language. And that’s important because language is the medium we use to construct our laws and our politics.”
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
A wonderful story about Donald Vass, who cares for damanged books for the King County Public Library system near Seattle, WA. At age 57, Voss is approaching retirement age, but there’s no one to take his place.
There was a lot of discussion on my Facebook feed about how bad the first episode of the new season of BBC’s drama Sherlock was. I don’t watch the show, so I can’t comment. Here, dedicated Holmes fan Brittany Cavallaro discusses how the making of a series from a canon of self-contained stories affects the way the persona of Sherlock Holmes is presented.
Josephine Livingstone uses that first of the season’s Sherlock episode as a springboard to a larger discussion of the role of detective fiction in society:
Murder mystery detectives usually live on the outskirts of society, or they pass unnoticed (Miss Marple, Father Brown) under the noses of authority. But that very outsider status depends on a stability at the middle of society. That stability is now wobbling. For as long as Sherlock can winkingly engage with its own tradition without becoming an absurd relic of a time of lost safety, it will succeed in helping its viewers escape their lives. But if it continues to overreach, to act out its plots on the global stage, the show will fall apart.
Christian Lorentzen looks at fiction as it represents the cultural times of various American presidents.
What will we mean when someday we refer to Obama Lit? I think we’ll be discussing novels about authenticity, or about “problems of authenticity.” What does that mean? After the Bush years, sheer knowingness and artifice that called attention to itself had come to seem flimsy foundations for the novel. Authenticity succeeded storytelling abundance as the prime value of fiction, which meant that artifice now required plausible deniability. The new problems for the novelist became, therefore, how to be authentic (or how to create an authentic character) and how to achieve “authenticity effects” (or how to make artifice seem as true or truer than the real).
According to Lorentzen, four types of books have sprung from “four strategies of approaching the problem of authenticity”:
- autofiction, “narratives that appear to do away with much of fiction’s familiar scaffolding”
- fables of meritocracy, “often satiric”
- historical novels set in the near past
- narratives that “have placed the experience of trauma — rape, pedophilia, homophobic abuse, incarceration, the horrors of war — at their center”
This is a long read, but it’s well worth the time and effort required for the analysis of several recent novels within this framework.
In honor of Meryl Streep’s anti-Trump speech, here’s a look at her best book-based movies:
- Kramer vs. Kramer
- The French Lieutenant’s Woman
- Sophie’s Choice
- Out of Africa
- Postcards from the Edge
- The Bridges of Madison County
- The Devil Wears Prada
- Julie and Julia
I’ve seen eight of these films.
What About You?
How many of these have you seen?
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Videogame heroes take up a larger amount of people’s imaginations today than they ever have before. In the cultural economy they are as big a force as the heroes in books and movies. But as relatively new as videogame heroes are, some still question their ability to impact us on the level of more traditional art.
Jon Irwin argues that the hero’s story in a video game is not static, locked in, as it is when we read a book or watch film. Rather, when we take on the hero’s persona while playing a video game, the hero’s story plays out according to the decisions we make along the way. He backs up his point with references to scientific studies.
There’s an interesting point to contemplate here: in a video game we don’t merely observe a character, we become the character. How does this changed perspective affect the way we understand the significance of the hero’s story?
What I am going to tell you is the correct way to read
I’m always a little suspicious of any title telling you what you must or should do. Nonetheless, Naina does have some good advice for anyone whose New Year resolution is to start a reading program.
However, most of you reading this blog will already be avid readers, with your own ways of approaching reading. I’m curious to hear:
What is your reaction to Naina’s directives? Do you use any of these approaches, and do they work for you? Let us know in the comments.
As yet another snowstorm blankets the Northeast, settle in for a reading adventure with one of these “novels that explore winter in all of its forms, from the tragic to the comic, and from the terrifying to the transcendental.”
In the San Francisco Chronicle John McMurtrie bids a fond farewell to President Obama, who “has been an exemplary ambassador for literature, a leader who has championed reading as a way to open our eyes to the world, to nurture understanding, to see ourselves in others.”
McMurtrie also takes a look at our next President-Elect Trump, who “claims he doesn’t have the time to read.” McMurtrie ends with a call to action for writers and other artists:
there is no reason that these coming years cannot be a time in which writers, and all artists, create meaningful works, works that celebrate the true wealth of the world in all its diversity of peoples and cultures and experiences, works that question and provoke.
Medical schools and hospitals are beginning to include the reading of literature in their training programs for physicians. Here Dhruv Khullar, M.D., explains why:
Therein lies the significance of learning through art: It is subtle and indirect, yet it ingrains insights deep within your consciousness. You feel and know even before you can think or speak.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
How many of these have you heard of or seen? I’ve heard of nine but have only seen five.
There’s no doubt than annotating books makes us active readers. Here’s how Anthony DeFeo writes his notes in the margin:
As I read, I keep a pen in hand. Whenever something comes along that intrigues me — if a reaction pops into my head, or I have a prediction, or I want to make a note of something useful for future reference as a writer — I jot it down between the margins.
Fiction teaches us to think creatively about difference. Anthropological studies, psychoanalysis, sociology – all offer theoretical descriptions for what a novel teaches by example and by identification. “The imitation of an action”, is what Aristotle called tragedy. It would be difficult for one to think up a more groundbreaking mode of understanding the mind and the heart. Guilt, jealousy, despair, violence, anxiety, irrationality, the fear of death – nothing that is human is foreign to literature.
I rejoined Book of the Month last summer when I discovered how much it has changed since I last joined back in the early 1970s.
Since I rely a lot on the New York Times Book Review, this article caught my eye. Here are the two tidbits I found most informative:
- “The Book Review at The Times reviews about 1% of the books that come out in any given year.”
- The best book reviews are emotional.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
Here are some of the articles from around the web that I’ve been looking at recently.
Some suggestions for how to make your personal data”more difficult for attackers to obtain.”
Fascinating discoveries from excavation of the Curtain Theatre, a site for performances of Shakespeare’s works that precedes the more famous Globe Theatre.
Now that it has become more important than ever for us to learn about people from other cultures, here are some book recommendations for doing just that.
All thrillers or mysteries of a sort, these are books by authors who have been bestsellers in their own countries and whose works you won’t want to miss.
As a follow-up to the previous entry, here is one of the best explanations I’ve seen in a long time about why we read:
So reading is not merely a diversion or distraction from present pain; it is also an enlarging of our universe, our sympathies, wisdom and experience. The act of entering into the consciousness of another being, another sex, or sexual preference, social group, political outlook or religious persuasion, allows a respite from private and parochial preoccupations. That widening of our concerns may entail entering another location, or period in history – or an arena of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Education, as people are never tired of repeating, is a process of leading out, which suggests another benefit: that in being led by reading into previously unknown territory, we learn.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
I read Paula Hawkins’s novel The Girl on the Train eagerly because it was touted as a book for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I loved. But I was disappointed in Train, which I found nowhere near as suspenseful or as psychologically adept as Gone Girl. Nonetheless, I did intend to see the film of Girl on the Train; however, life intervened and I still haven’t seen it.
This article by Lisa Rosman is about the film, which Rosman calls “a wonderfully faithful adaptation” of the book. Here’s Rosman’s description of what the book/film is “really about”:
What fascinates me most about this “Girl on the Train” … is that it has the audacity to embrace unlikeable female protagonists who don’t even like themselves. What’s more, the film asks us to do the same. Rachel is a self-pitying, explosive drunk; Anna, an unrepentant Stepford mom; Megan, an unreflective viper whose self-esteem relies on male surrender. Yet because we are shown the fissures in their self-reflections and the strength lurking beneath their surfaces, we root for them while accepting their limitations.
I did not have this reaction to the book, which I found shallow and therefore not very engaging. Rosman also raises an issue that has gotten a lot of play recently, namely the question of whether we need to like characters in order to assess a book as “good.” I don’t need to like characters, but I do need to understand them in order to consider a book good.
At any rate, I still want to see this movie, even though I think I’ve missed its run in theaters. Perhaps I’ll find the film more compelling than the book.
What about you?
Have you read the book and/or seen the film? What was your reaction?
I’ve frequently written that I don’t read books about zombies, werewolves, or vampires. Even though I understand that such creatures often represent certain cultural issues, I just don’t like to read about them. To each his own, I guess.
Nonetheless, Seattle Times writer Brendan Kiley does a good job here of explaining what zombies are all about:
Spoiler alert: This article isn’t really about zombies, and neither is “The Walking Dead,” one of the most popular cable-TV series in U.S. history.
They’re both about people, our anxieties about catastrophe and what kinds of communities we might form if central authority collapses. No government, no Wall Street, no power grid — just you, the strangers you stumble across and a kaleidoscope of dangers roaming the landscape. As the show’s human characters bounce around the southern U.S., they run into a spectrum of mini-societies (dictatorships, democracies, theocracies, loosely organized bands of feral killers) and try to figure out what kind of world they want to live in.
Catherine LaSota carries on an email interview with prolific author Joyce Carol Oates:
Oates’s latest book, Soul at the White Heat, is a collection of her essays on the writing life and her insightful reviews of the work of more than two dozen writers, including H.P. Lovecraft, Lorrie Moore, Paul Auster, and Zadie Smith. The title of the book is taken from its epigraph, an Emily Dickinson poem about the passions that burn brightly within us, and it serves as apt introduction to Oates’s close analysis of writing in the pages to follow. In her dissection of an author’s work, Oates searches for that which drives the artist to create. She is clearly engaged with the writing she consumes, making her essays hugely useful to writers and other students of literature.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
If you’ve ever been to Austin, TX, you’ve seen the bumper stickers: “Keep Austin Weird.” Even my new hometown of Tacoma, WA, likes to call itself weird, as does Portland, OR, in the photo above.
Lincoln Michel explains that these are not isolated occurrences:
If you haven’t heard, “weird” is back in style. From hit TV shows like Stranger Things and True Detective (season one only, please) to best-selling novels like Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and George R.R. Martin’s weirder-than-the-show A Song of Ice and Fire, pop culture is getting increasingly strange. Odd beasts, dark tunnels, and writhing tentacles are cool again. And, in the wake of his 69th birthday, it seems time to celebrate the person who is the most responsible for weirding up pop culture: Stephen King.
He singles out King because “Plenty of authors write books that are equally dark, weird, and genre-bending, but few have King’s impact on pop culture.” This article caught my eye because one of my recent reads was King’s 11/22/63, a time-travel alternate-history romance (“genre-bending,” although “genre-blending” would be more accurate) that kept me spellbound.
If you’ve been hanging out around Notes in the Margin for a while, you’ve heard me say that I don’t read books about zombies, vampires, or werewolves. Even though I know these unnatural beings can be potent metaphors for contemporary life, I just don’t like them.
But, until I came across this article, I had never examined my revulsion with these creatures until I came across this article, which made me realize I dislike zombies, vampires, and werewolves because of their creepiness:
creepiness – Unheimlichkeit, as Sigmund Freud called it – definitely stands apart from other kinds of fear. Human beings have been preoccupied with creepy beings such as monsters and demons since the beginning of recorded history, and probably long before. Even today in the developed world where science has banished the nightmarish beings that kept our ancestors awake at night, zombies, vampires and other menacing entities retain their grip on the human imagination in tales of horror, one of the most popular genres in film and TV.
In this article David Livingstone Smith, professor of philosophy at the University of New England and director of the Human Nature Project, examines psychological theories in looking to answer the question “Why the enduring fascination with creepiness?”
I’ve always been fascinated by the use of time travel as a literary device. Matt Staggs begins this brief article with a look at the new book Time Travel: A History by James Gleick, a scientist’s look at representations of time travel in popular culture and science. Staggs then discusses five of the best known novels featuring time travel:
- The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)
- Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
- Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)
- 11/22/63 by Stephen King (2011)
In the absence of the real thing, novels function as time machines in their own right, allowing us to look at what was, and what may yet be, at a safe distance.
I’ve long thought that, with the possible exception of “The Turn of the Screw,” the works of Henry James shouldn’t be studied until graduate school. James’s insight into the human psyche is so subtly complex that only people with a lot of life experience can understand and appreciate it.
Paula Marantz Cohen, Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University, uses the recent issuance of a stamp honoring Henry James by the U.S. Postal Service as a springboard for this article. Cohen sees James’s “dense and difficult” late writing — The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove, and The Golden Bowl, all written between 1902 and 1904 — as a bridge from the Victorian era into modernity (the age of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) and then, further, into our age of postmodernism:
His superficial kinship was with European modernists like James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf. Late James is often opaque, … and opaqueness was a hallmark of the modernist rejection of facile realism.
There is an indeterminacy with respect to truth that his later work supports in such an aggressive way that it becomes a worldview. Words, normally meant to communicate, are deployed more as obstacles to communication than as facilitators to it. The fragmented nature of his dialogue leaves meaning unresolved between characters (he describes them as continually “hanging fire”).
Cohen writes that James’s characters “were always trying to make the most out of situations and see the best in people through their imaginative flexibility — to salvage meaning to some positive, creative end.” However, she laments, in academia this process became subverted into giving truth “purely provisional meaning based on what the speaker wants to relay and the listener/reader wants to hear.” The result “betrays the ideals of [James’s] moral imagination. And yet his great later writing can be seen as its precursor.”
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
These are the most interesting of the articles I spent time with last week.
In this interview fiction writer Christine Sneed, whose latest work is the story collection The Virginity of Famous Men, discusses why fame and our human flaws are good subjects for fiction. She also weighs in on the question of how reading literature makes us better people:
“I really do think that reading literature, literary fiction, and poetry especially, will make you a better person. One thing literature does is offer you access to points of view and consciousness different from your own.”
September is National Translation Month. In honor of this event, Scott Esposito suggests 10 Big Books in translation.
Robert Fulford gives some examples from published articles and interviews of people explaining how particular books influenced them. But the most interesting aspect of this article is his opening vignette about Kafka, which I had not heard before:
One day in 1904 the young Franz Kafka wrote a letter to a friend defining the books that are worth reading. “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound us,” he wrote. “If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write?
“We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
Open Culture recommends a free online course from The University of Warwick, offered through FutureLearn, that presents “the work of famous writers like Austen, Shakespeare and Wordsworth – exploring how they can impact mental health and why works of writing are so often turned to in times of crisis.” In addition, throughout the six-week course doctors add a medical perspective on several mental health conditions.
You can read the course description here, then follow the links to learn more about the course and to enroll.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown
Alan Moore’s novel Jerusalem weighs in at more than 1,200 pages. Joshua Zajdman has been carrying it around for a while, and people’s questions and comments about its size have triggered him to reflect:
why are “big books” perceived so differently? How long have “big books” been such a phenomenon? Is it just length that makes them seem like more of a commitment? Are they of greater intellectual heft, or conversely, perceived as books in need of a good editor simply because of their size? I started to do some research, dip into some other “big books” and discovered a kind of continuum for the “big literary book.” It’s less a question of “Does size matter?” and more a consideration of “Why?” Either way, it’s a question that’s been on the mind of readers for much longer than we may realize.
Of course this article caught my eye, since I’ve written a bit recently on big books.
“now is the perfect time to pick up Jerusalem or any of these big books. Fall is beginning in earnest, election cycles are winding down, winter is coming. It’s time to make the commitment and see how a great and ambitious novel can be wired. I dare you to make the time and devote the energy to the broad swath of humanity and narrative that only an ambitious and very long novel can tackle. What’s stopping you?”
Heather Havrilesky examines Ruth Franklin’s recent biography of Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life:
In the novels and many of the stories she wrote in the middle of the 20th century, the polite banter of seemingly innocent common folk develops into outright mockery, subterfuge, or even violence. When confronted by an unexpectedly hostile world, Jackson’s female protagonists experience a climactic rush of bafflement and betrayal that inevitably spills over into a more private realm of second-guessing, self-doubt, and paranoia. Jackson relished untangling the process by which women lose themselves.
Novelist Lionel Shriver, perhaps best known for We Need to Talk About Kevin, recently caused quite a brouhaha at the Brisbane Writers Festival with a keynote address that raised the issue of cultural appropriation. If you haven’t followed this story, you can get caught up with the links provided in this Time summary. Then read Nate Hopper’s interview with Shriver about her intentions in her speech and her reactions to the critics.
Megan Abbott’s thrillers are explorations, she says, of “women, power and aggression.” Her latest, “You Will Know Me,” is set in the cutthroat world of girls’ gymnastics and was published this summer, just before the Olympics. A Times review in July said Ms. Abbott had resumed “her customary role of black cat, opaque and unblinking, filling her readers with queasy suspicion at every turn.” She recently completed a cross-country promotional tour for the book, and now Ms. Abbott is back in Forest Hills, Queens, where she lives. During her Sunday writing stints, the author, 45, takes a break from the shadowy side of human nature to step into the light of a neighborhood she loves.
© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown