Literary Links

How Kurt Vonnegut Predicted the Automation Crisis

Player Piano may have been written 67 years ago, but its prescience is uncanny — though not inexplicable. It is a product not only of Vonnegut’s extraordinary imagination, but his years of experience working directly with engineers, whose mentality the novel reflects in reaching its logical conclusion.

Getting To The Heart Of The Matter With ‘Heart of Darkness’

This post appears on the blog of Audible, the audiobook-selling arm of Amazon. College student and Audible intern Ama Hagan describes her reactions to Joseph Conrad’s controversial novella Heart of Darkness. This piece of classical literature still appears on the syllabi of many a college course, and I was interested in this perspective from a proud young woman of African heritage.

Authors Steve Cavanagh and Adrian McKinty: How growing up in Northern Ireland’s Troubles shaped them

Cover: Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh

This article caught my eye because I’ve just recently read both Cavanagh’s novel Thirteen and McKinty’s novel The Chain.

Cavanagh to McKinty about Cavanagh’s mother giving him the book Silence of the Lambs to read when he was 12:

We grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was in Belfast, you were in Carrickfergus, and a book about cannibals and serial killers skinning innocent people was a bit of light relief from the reality of that low-level civil war. I wouldn’t give my daughter “Silence Of The Lambs,” and she’s twelve right now. We grew up in different times, and I think our generation is desensitized to violence.

Cover: The Chain, Adrian McKinty

McKinty on his youth in Northern Ireland:

A guy a few doors down from us was arrested for murdering three random Catholic men (so in effect he was a serial killer) and all this seemed completely normal to me. The domestic violence, the drunkenness, the chimney fires every night — all seemed just the way things were done. I don’t think my eyes were opened until I started reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I began to see that there were other possibilities of how to live and everything around me was just contingent. When I was about 11 or 12 I read Ursula Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” and I remember when I was done with that it occurred to me that everything the hardmen said was uneducated, quasi-fascist nonsense.

McKinty says that the authors who influenced him the most have been Stephen King, James Ellroy, Don Winslow, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. Cavanagh lists as his influences, in addition to Silence of the Lambs, the works of Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Connolly, and Patricia Highsmith.

Read the article to see which seven books each author would take with him if stranded on a deserted island.

THE ANATOMY OF THE BOOK

Boards, signatures, deckles, headbands: Learn all the esoteric terminology involved in book production.

The Hazards of Writing While Female

The nonprofit organization VIDA keeps a count of how many books written by women are reviewed in literary sections, and how many reviewers are female. Every year until 2017, its most recent survey, VIDA has found that male writers and male reviewers dominate books coverage, even though women make up the majority of authors and readers.

Here’s yet another reminder of the long-standing issue of how men and women are treated differently in the publishing world. As one of the authors quoted here says, “a male novelist is primarily a novelist. Nobody talks about his gender. But a woman novelist is primarily a woman.” 

Still, for as long as female authors’ bodies define their work, the seriousness gap will remain

FIRST NATIVE AMERICAN NOVELIST WAS A KILLER NEWSPAPER EDITOR

“The first Native American to write a novel in English lived a life chock-full of contradictions.”

This piece appears as a segment of Disruptive Literary Legends, an “OZY original series explores long-forgotten historical figures who changed the way we write, read and appreciate literature.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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

I came across so many interesting articles this week that it’s hard to limit my list. Here are some of my favorites.

On the Centennial of Iris Murdoch’s Birth, Remembering a 20th-Century Giant

The intensity of Murdoch’s gaze, boring into you from the dust jackets of her many novels, seemed a promise of the books’ contents. For decades this remarkable writer delivered prickly, sophisticated and somewhat unearthly fiction about good and evil and sex and morality. She trailed a large, large muse. She deftly moved her ideas about, positioning them like the slabs used to build Stonehenge.

In this year, the centennial of Iris Murdoch’s birth and 20 years after her death at age 79, Dwight Garner laments that “her posthumous reputation is in semi-shambles.” To help restore her reputation to what he considers to be its rightful place—on “the list of the most elite writers in English of the second half of the 20th century”—he examines at length his favorite of her novels, The Sea, The Sea (1978), which won the Booker Prize. 

Adult Books for Fall 2019

This is the starting page for Publishers Weekly’s recommendations of fall releases in the following categories:

  • Art, Architecture & Photography  
  • Business & Economics  
  • Comics & Graphic Novels  
  • Cooking & Food  
  • Essays & Literary Criticism  
  • Literary Fiction  
  • History  
  • Lifestyle  
  • Memoirs & Biographies  
  • Mysteries & Thrillers  
  • Poetry  
  • Politics & Current Events  
  • Romance & Erotica  
  • SF, Fantasy & Horror  
  • Science

MAKE A DIFFERENCE: READ LOCAL AUTHORS

You shop local, you eat local—but are you reading local, too? If you’re not, you’re missing out. Local authors and the stories they tell can change your life—and your community. And all you have to do is read a book you love.

Six years ago we moved from St. Louis, Missouri, to Tacoma, Washington. During those six years, one of my reading goals has been to read books by local authors. Although I didn’t need this article to explain to me why reading local authors is a worthwhile undertaking, I did appreciate the tips on how to find their books.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Writing to Re-member

Just yesterday, I asked my students how many of them had watched at least one American movie or read one American book about the Vietnam War, and everyone raised their hand. When I asked how many had read one book or seen one movie by a Vietnamese person, nobody, or perhaps one or two, had. The legacies of colonialism and imperialism have created privileged sectors in the West that function as feedback loops. We often only read books or watch movies that reflect our values. In systems like Hollywood, the stories of poor people from other countries are not that interesting to the rest of the world and therefore don’t get told.

Half of women over 40 say older women in fiction are clichés, survey finds

A recent survey by Gransnet, the UK’s biggest social media site for older people, and publisher HQ (HarperCollins) found that 51% of women over 40 “feel older women in fiction books tend to fall into clichéd roles.” Here are some of the most interest findings from the survey:

  • 47% of women over 40 say there are not enough books about middle-aged or older women.
  • “when older characters do appear in fiction, half of women (50%) say they’ve seen them being portrayed as baffled by smartphones, computers or the internet – and think it’s insulting.”
  • 75% buy their books online.

As a result of the survey findings, Gransnet and HQ are launching a fiction writing competition for women writers over age 40. The article contains more information on both the survey and the writing competition. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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

Literary Links

These are some of the literature-related articles from around the web that caught my eye over the past week.

Quartzy    HALF OF ALL TRANSLATED BOOKS IN THE US COME FROM JUST NINE COUNTRIES

This one caught my eye because I’m trying to read more books translated from other languages this year. 

The good news: “In 2018, 632 never-before-translated books of fiction and poetry were published in the United States. It’s the fifth straight year the US has published more than 600 translations, quite the feat for a country that has long been accused of having an insular book culture.”

The bad news: “Of the nearly 5,800 books of fiction and poetry translated from 2008 to 2018, more than half were from just nine countries, seven of which are in Europe (the exceptions are Japan and China).”

These statistics are significant if one’s aim in reading more translated works is to learn about new cultures. European books, even though from other countries, are still western-civilization centric. Yes, they will teach us about other cultures, but not about the other cultures that are most different from out own, specifically eastern and African. This article points out that “only one book each was translated from Benin, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mali, and Myanmar.”

The New York Times   A Glimpse of Virginia Woolf’s Original Manuscript for ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

A look at how “the ‘big’ book she [Virginia Woolf] thought she should write was not really the book she wanted to write. The transition for her was understanding that a book about an outwardly ordinary woman on an ordinary day in London could be every bit as ‘big’ as the books about wars and revolutions.”

The Guardian   Nell Freudenberger: ‘Like many women I believed I didn’t have the right kind of brain for science’

The author of the recently released novel Lost and Wanted laments “the way girls and women are still so often held back from studying science.”

The New York Times    When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished

It was like a plot from one of her own novels: On the evening of Dec. 4, Agatha Christie, carrying nothing but an attaché case, kissed her daughter good night and sped away from the home in England that she shared with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie. (He was having an affair with a younger woman; the public did not know this, but his wife definitely did.) No one knew where Christie was for almost two weeks.

Literary Hub   What the 39,933 Items on Peter Matthiessen’s Computer Mean for the Art of Biography

Lance Richardson, currently working on a biography of writer Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014) discusses the challenges of what he calls “a bifurcated archive” comprising both physical items and digital files. The differences between these two types of materials “will have inevitable effects on the shape and form of tomorrow’s histories” and biographies.

The Seattle Times   ‘No-No Boy’ went from unknown book to classic thanks to UW Press and Asian American writers. Now, it’s at the center of a controversy

This is a local story for me, but it has wider interest because of its tie to copyright law and the David-and-Goliath issue of a small academic (University of Washington) press vs.the publishing giant Penguin Random House. The book in question also keeps alive the story of the internment of Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II. The author, John Okada, was “a Seattle native and University of Washington graduate who served in the U.S. Army during the war, even as his family was forced to relocate to an internment camp.”

The New York Times   Naomi Wolf’s Publisher Delays Release of Her Book

The recent controversy over “Outrages” highlights the perils that publishers face in a competitive market where juicy nonfiction books that feature explosive claims can command the highest sales but are sometimes not vigorously fact-checked or vetted in advance of publication.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Quotation: Susan Sontag Was a Monster

“She took things too seriously. She was difficult and unyielding. That’s why Susan Sontag’s work matters so much even now.”

This is how I see her monstrosity: residing not in whether she was or was not likeable, but in her relentlessness, and her refusal to pander. The word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin monere, to warn. We need monsters like Sontag because they aren’t afraid to speak a certain kind of truth: cutting through cant, received opinion, nationalist rote, the efforts of alt-Right bot farms. We need critics who insist on hierarchies of thought and output, instead of buying into marketing hype that makes everyone really, really good, critics who don’t lunge straight for content, for what a book is ‘about’ or what it ‘says’, but who stop to consider form, and style – which, as Sontag shows us, are inextricably bound up in content. We need critics to keep us on our toes, to question authority, sweeping claims, totalising world views. We need Sontag to help us think for ourselves, and be unafraid to speak our minds. And we need her for these things now, more than ever. Maintaining a lively critical capability isn’t just about snark. It’s how we’re going to make it out of these dark days of nationalism and populism with our democracy intact.

Susan Sontag was a monster by Lauren Elkin

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

Best Books of 2018

The Best Books of 2018

Amazon got us started off back in early November with its many best books lists. This page is the portal on which you’ll find links to lists of best books in many different categories.

Best Books of 2018

This is The Washington Post ’s portal into its lists of books in the following categories:

  • the top 10 outstanding books
  • The 10 best thrillers and mysteries of 2018
  • The 5 best romance novels of 2018
  • The 5 best science fiction and fantasy novels of 2018
  • 50 notable works of nonfiction in 2018
  • 50 notable works of fiction in 2018
  • The biggest book news of the year
  • The 10 best book adaptations to hit screens in 2018
  • The 10 best graphic novels of 2018
  • The best children’s books of 2018
  • The 5 best audiobooks of 2018
  • The 5 best poetry collections of 2018

PW’s Best Books 2018

This is the portal into Publishers Weekly’s list of the year’s best books in lots of categories.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People named Waterstones book of the year

NPR’s Book Concierge: Our Guide To 2018’s Great Reads

This page presents a whole lot of book covers with a sidebar in which you can choose to filter (e.g., “for art lovers,” “historical fiction”) what type of books you want to see. If you hover your mouse over a particular cover, a pop-up box will appear with a link to more information about the book.

If you find this approach overwhelming, as I did, you can check out BookBub’s report on the NPR choices here.

THE BEST AUDIOBOOKS OF 2018

From BookRiot, a list generated by its followers.

LIT HUB’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2018

59 BOOKS THAT YOU SHOULD PROBABLY READ SOME TIME IN 2019

The Best Books of 2018

After complaining of being woefully behind on her reading, The New Yorker staff writer Katy Walkman offers a list of nine best books of 2018:

To me, each of the titles below represents an energizing alternative to the ripped-apart illogic of our contemporary reality. Even the most disorienting novel is a reminder that you are more than a frayed nerve ending flailing across the Internet—that you, a somewhat coherent person, exist. Each one of these books does what Alexander Pope said wit can do: it “gives us back the image of our mind.”

21 Books Recommended by Librarians in 2018

Suggestions by librarians from all across the United States.

Goodreads Choice Awards 2018

What distinguishes these awards from most others is that they are voted on by readers, not critics. This is the portal into the listings of winners in several categories:

  • fiction
  • mystery & thriller
  • historical fiction
  • fantasy
  • best of the best
  • romance
  • science fiction
  • horror
  • humor
  • nonfiction
  • memoir & autobiography
  • history & biography
  • science & technology
  • food & cookbooks
  • graphic novels & comics
  • poetry
  • debut author
  • young adult fiction
  • young adult fantasy
  • middle grade & children’s
  • picture books

OUR FAVORITE CRIME BOOKS OF THE YEAR

The 62 Books That Won Our Hearts and Minds in 2018

From CrimeReads.

The Best Reviewed Books of 2018: Mystery, Crime, and Thriller

Literary Hub generated this list by aggregating data from the major reviews of this year’s crime and thriller releases.

The Most Inspiring Books of All Time, According to BookBub Readers

This isn’t your typical end-of-the-year best books list, but not including it here would seem like a sin. “There are times in life when we need a spark of inspiration, hope, or encouragement,” and these books provide just that, according to BookBub readers.

In Fiction, It Was the Year of the Woman

And here’s another not-so-straightforward list of some of the year’s best books, this one with a cultural emphasis:

there has been a grassroots pushback against hot-take nonfiction — one led, of course, by women. 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.

The 10 Best Books of 2018

Reinvented auto-fiction, gripping essays, and last stories from a renegade master.

30 OF THE BEST BOOK SUBSCRIPTION SERVICES IN 2018

here are 30 of the best book subscription services that are available as of the end of 2018.

After Reading Hundreds of Titles, These Are Our 15 Favorite Books of 2018

From the staff of O, the Oprah magazine:

Our favorite books draw on politics and the news, whether via wrongful incarceration, #MeToo, or the divide between generations. But they also totally captivate us with gorgeously-crafted sentences, their singular take on modern stories, and their insouciance.

Guardian best books of 2018: across fiction, politics, food and more

This list from the UK’s The Guardian naturally focuses on British literature. This link is the portal page for further listings in the following categories:

  • fiction
  • crime & thrillers
  • graphic novels
  • children & teenagers
  • science fiction & fantasy
  • poetry
  • showbusiness
  • memoir & biography
  • music
  • food & drink
  • sport
  • stocking fillers
  • politics
  • ideas & science
  • nature

Best Books of 2018

From Book Riot.

And finally … it seems only appropriate to end this list of best books of 2019 (although there will probably be one more such list) with a look forward to next year:

The Books We Can’t Wait To Read In 2019

A list by Olivia Ovenden for Esquire.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

What I’ve Been Reading on Writing About Literature

Since reading and writing about books is my primary activity, I’ve recently been reading some articles on reading and writing about books

(1) 38 Years on Books: The Essential Michiko Kakutani Reader

One of the biggest recent events among book people was the retirement of Michiko Kakutani, who had been the chief book critic of the New York Times for 38 years. She was a touchstone for both writers and readers. Her judgment could make or break a new book’s reputation, so authors lived in fear of her. Many readers would choose their reading material on the basis of her reviews, though some chose books because she recommended them and others chose book because she panned them.

I admit that I often found her reviews baffling. Nonetheless, she was a force in the book-reviewing world, so I’ve bookmarked this article and am slowly working my way through the samples. According to the article:

Together they represent a vigorously led life of the mind, a crash course in contemporary literature and a tour through the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium.

(2) What the Departure of the _Times_’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage

The compendium of examples above was put together by the New York Times, so I wanted to see what other reviewers and cultural critics had to say about Kakutani’s departure. In this piece Boris Kachka discusses Kakutani’s “growing estrangement from the job of country’s most powerful book critic.”

With Kakutani’s departure, Kachka declares:

an era really has ended. As chief book critic, Kakutani was inimitable and irreplaceable. (In fact, there are no plans to name a new “chief critic.”) She was the “voice of God,” as one writer put it to me.

But does the end of the Kakutani era at the New York Times have any significance for a personal book blogger like me? I’ve periodically looked at her writing, although I never wanted to emulate it because, as Kachka writes:

There wasn’t much personal presence on the page, either. You won’t find the word I in a Kakutani review, just an omniscient “reader.” … Even her overuse of specific ten-dollar words and her occasional parody reviews were exceptions that proved the rule: a limited quiver of quirks standing in for a colorful voice. “I used to call them her book reports,” says [Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. “They were quite formulaic and they weren’t always subtle…”

One quality I’ve been trying to develop is how, after a long academic career, to reinsert myself into my discussions of the books I read

But Kakutani had one quality that her colleagus praised: they regarded her as “a straight shooter with few axes to grind.” As such a large cog in the publishing machine, Kakutani would have had many opportunities to nurture personal grudges and to engage in their expression. That’s one advantage to being a lonely personal blogger: I can base my opinion of a book on how good I think it is rather than on whether I like the author or am likely to bump into the author at some social event.

According to Kachka, Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the Times, described Kakutani as “an intellectual who can synthesize many strands of both culture and politics in a way that I haven’t seen.” That’s another quality of her work that’s worth emulating, since literature is a cultural artifact that mirrors the culture from which it arises.

(3) The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again

John Maher reports for Publishers Weekly on the consolidation taking place at the New York Times books desk. These changes, which included the paper’s buy-out of long-term chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, constitute an effort to move, finally, out of the outdated print modality into a new print/online world:

Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’ weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.

After the reorganization, the Books staff did research into what kinds of book coverage readers wanted to see in the paper:

That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s _The Underground Railroad_—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?

I welcome this change from dictating what people should read to understanding what people actually do read.

(4) The case of Stephen Greenblatt

Discovering this article lifted a great weight off my shoulders. I grew up when New Criticism dominated literary studies. This approach to theory and criticism pounded all sense of personal involvement in reading out of us. From the description of Michiko Kakutani’s lack of any personal voice—and since she’s less than 10 years younger than me—I’m betting that she got her literary training under New Criticism as well. I’ve been working hard to insert myself back into my writing about literature.

In this article Bruce Bawer explains how Stephen Greenblatt was a frontrunner in the development of New Historicism, the critical darling that supplanted New Criticism. According to New Historicism, literature is

not the path to a transhistorical truth, whether psychoanalytic or deconstructive or purely formal, but the key to particular historically embedded social and psychological formulations… . Where traditional “close readings” [in the New Critical mode] tended to build toward an intensified sense of wondering admiration, linked to the celebration of genius, new historicist readings are more often skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical, and even adversarial.

New Historicism developed shortly after I left my graduate studies in English and American literature, so I missed it. I’m glad I finally found it, as it very well describes my belief that literary works are societal constructs that individual readers respond to on the basis of their unique combination of learning and life experience.

Now, I return to my own writing about literature with a clearer understanding of what I want to communicate.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

As Far As Your Brain Is Concerned, Audiobooks Are Not ‘Cheating’

I love audiobooks; they enable me to read while plodding along on the treadmill or doing chores around the house. I’ve always thought that listening to a book instead of reading it is not cheating as long as I listen to the unabridged version.

And now I feel validated:

This question — whether or not listening to an audiobook is “cheating” — is one University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham gets fairly often, especially ever since he published a book, in 2015, on the science of reading. (That one was about teaching children to read; he’s got another book out next spring about adults and reading.) He is very tired of this question, and so, recently, he wrote a blog post addressing it. (His opening line: “I’ve been asked this question a lot and I hate it.”) If, he argues, you take the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology — that is, the mental processes involved — there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. So, according to that understanding of the question: No, audiobooks are not cheating.

Criticism’s Sting: The Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Book Reviews

Book critic Jennifer Senior writes:

Now, as a person who writes reviews for a living, I am curious to know: How do professional authors handle unsparing criticism, written in just a few days or weeks, of something they’ve toiled over for years?

She put this question to her friend, Curtis Sittenfeld, “author of “Prep,” “American Wife” and most recently, “Eligible,” a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.” Read here how Sittenfeld feels about reviews of her books.

Supreme Court to Consider Legal Standard Drawn From ‘Of Mice and Men’

I’m always interested in ways in which literature crosses over into everyday life. Here’s one example:

In 2002, the Supreme Court barred the execution of the intellectually disabled. But it gave states a lot of leeway to decide just who was, in the language of the day, “mentally retarded.”

Texas took a creative approach, adopting what one judge there later called “the Lennie standard.” That sounds like a reference to an august precedent, but it is not. The Lennie in question is Lennie Small, the dim, hulking farmhand in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

The article ends with remarks by Thomas Steinbeck, son of author John Steinbeck.

Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience

If you don’t yet know Maria Popova’s astounding brainpickings, you’re in for a treat. Here she discusses “the significance of books and the role of reading in human life [that] comes from Neil Gaiman in a beautiful piece titled ‘Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.’”

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown