Sheri-Marie Harrison, associate professor of English at the University of Missouri, explains what she calls the new black Gothic in the novels of Jesmyn Ward and in other popular formats such as television, music video, and film.
Ward’s award-winning novels are among a number of works, literary and otherwise, that rework Gothic traditions for the 21st century… Ward engages specifically the Southern Gothic tradition. In American literature, there is a long tradition of using Gothic tropes to reveal how ideologies of American exceptionalism rely on repressing the nation’s history of slavery, racism, and patriarchy. Such tropes are, as numerous critics have noted, central to the work of Toni Morrison.
A review of Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion by Michelle Dean (Grove Atlantic).
This critical history is a rogues’ gallery of literary femaleness – even though most of the women in it rightly bristled at being defined as “woman writers.” Dean’s exemplars are, in chapter if not birth order, Dorothy Parker; Rebecca West; Hannah Arendt; Mary McCarthy; Susan Sontag; Pauline Kael; Joan Didion; Nora Ephron; Renata Adler; and Janet Malcolm. Most have at least a few things in common. While some doubled as novelists, all are distinguished for their non-fiction, with fully half reaching eminence via The New Yorker.
Koestler, Arthur. Darkness at Noon Translated by Daphne Hardy Original publication date: 1940 Rpt. New York: Bantam Books, 1966 ISBN 0–553–26595–4
Originally written in German and translated into English by Koestler’s companion Daphne Hardy, Darkness at Noon was first published in 1940. Set in an unnamed country, the book is an allegory for the USSR’s 1938 purges during which Stalin worked to cement his position as dictator by eliminating potential rivals.
In an opening note Koestler wrote:
The characters in this book are fictitious. The historical circumstances which determined their actions are real. The life of the man N. S. Rubashov is a synthesis of the lives of a number of men who were victims of the so-called Moscow Trials. Several of them were personally known to the author. This book is dedicated to their memory.
The main character, Nicholas Salmanovitch Rubashov, is imprisoned and tried for treason against the government that he helped to create. As he contemplates his life, Rubashov realizes the Party, which has been in power for 20 years, is no closer than it originally was to accomplishing its goal of creating a socialist utopia. He remembers, with some shame and guilt, his own earlier actions of betrayal that promoted the Party’s purposes.
As he is interrogated, Rubashov initially refuses to admit to the trumped-up charges. Afterwards, the two interrogators, Gletkin and Ivanov, discuss Rubashov’s fate. Ivanov, the more intellectual of the two, is basically humane and disturbed by the suffering he causes. Ivanov represents the original Party supporters. Gletkin represents the younger generation of the Party elite moving to take over from the older generation. He favors more ruthless means of torture such as sleep deprivation and doesn’t care how he gets the confession he needs to establish his own position.
Eventually Rubashov admits to the false charges. The novel ends with his execution.
I reread “All the King’s Men” recently, in the wake of the Ohio and Florida primaries. It remains a salty, living thing. There’s no need for literary or political pundits to bring in the defibrillators. It is also eerily prescient, in its portrait of the rise of a demagogue, about some of the dark uses to which language has been put in this year’s election.
Dwight Garner takes a look at All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, one of my favorite novels of all time. Garner has interesting observations on how a novel written 70 years ago has something to say about the current political climate in the U.S.
Usually I would put writing tips from a big-time author under the heading “on writing” rather than “on novels and novelists.” But I’m including these tips from one of my favorite mystery writers, James Lee Burke, here because he has written them out as an essay rather than a list of bullet points.
I’m going to summarize them as a list here, but I encourage you to click on the link above and read the essay as he wrote it.
“If [a person] writes for the love of his art and the world and humanity, money and success will find him down the line.”
“The best teachers are the books and poems and plays of good writers. For me, that was Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.”
“I recommend that a beginning writer find a group, either at a community college or university or city library or church, it doesn’t matter, so he can share his work with others.”
“The great dialog of the world is all around us, if we’ll only listen. In similar fashion, the great stories are in situations we see everyday.”
“If you keep a manuscript at home, its failure is guaranteed.”
“You write about what you know. You also write about injustice and you write to make the world a better place.”
“I believe talent comes from outside oneself. I also believe it’s a votive gift… . I believe humility in a writer is a necessity rather than a virtue.”
“A great artist finds his voice and then uses it in ways others do not.”
“If I have learned any wisdom as a writer, it is to say thank you to the people who have helped me on the way.”
As Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude turns 50, Paul Elie interviews the author’s agent for Vanity Fair. The author died in April 2014, but “interest in Gabo and his great novel is surging.” Elie describes Solitude as “everybody’s favorite work of world literature and the novel that, more than any other since World War II, has inspired novelists of our time—from Toni Morrison to Salman Rushdie to Junot Díaz.”
This article is the story of how Carmen Balcells, who had just sold the English-language rights to García Márquez’s work to U.S. publisher Harper & Row, became the author’s “representative in all the world” for the next 120 years. It’s also the story of how, over 18 months, Garcia Márquez worked obsessively on the manuscript of what would become his signature work.
“Magic realism” became the term for García Márquez’s violation of natural laws through art. And yet the magic of the novel, first and last, is in the power with which it makes the Buendías and their neighbors present to the reader. Reading it, you feel: They are alive; this happened.
Read the story of “ the first book to unify the Spanish-language literary culture, long divided between Spain and Latin America, city and village, colonizers and colonized.”
As I’ve written before, Emma is my favorite of Jane Austen’s novel. In this article John Mullan explains how that novel, written in 1814, “was to change the shape of what is possible in fiction”:
it was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf. Woolf wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, “She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust”. In Emma, she is.
This novel presents a new kind of storytelling, a new relationship between author, character, and reader: “Emma is not telling her own story. We both share her judgments and watch her making them.” Only in the early 20th century did critics begin consistently using a name for this new technique, free indirect style or free indirect discourse:
It describes the way in which a writer imbues a third-person narration with the habits of thought or expression of a fictional character. Before Austen, novelists chose between first-person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game). Austen miraculously combined the internal and the external.
Now I realize why, when I finished reading Emma for the first time, I turned back to the first page and started all over again. This is the kind of authorial technique that rewards a rereading—or several.
I don’t read much poetry, and that’s a shame. If you, like me, could benefit from some poetic recommendations, here’s a list of favorite poems from several writers, including Julian Barnes, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alan Cumming, and Junot Díaz.
This post was my introduction to AbbieLu’s site Cafe Book Bean. In this post she defines what a saga is, then lists some of her favorite ones:
Gone with the Wind
Far and Away
East of Eden
The Thorn Birds
This post made me want to turn to my TBR shelves and grab a huge book to sink into. (Alas, I’ll have to wait until after January 1st to so indulge myself.) Overall, I love AbbieLu’s enthusiasm about books.
On The Invisible Event, an unnamed Invisible Blogger writes about classic crime fiction.
This post particularly attracted me because one of the many books on my TBR shelves is Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. That book, and hence this blog post as well, are good fits for my interest in Literature & Psychology.
I loved finding this blog post by Marilyn Armstrong because it, too, relates to Literature & Psychology. Like Marilyn, I find the concept of time travel fascinating, and I did not know about the book she discusses here, Robert A. Heinlein’s All You Zombies.
In a recent talk at Bowdoin College in Maine, award-winning author Lois Lowry discussed how her books in many ways reflect her own life:
In a winding narrative of her life story, Lowry intertwined personal anecdotes, beginning with her childhood, with their parallels in the subject matter of her subsequent novels. She told of her first novel, “Autumn Street,” which was inspired by her life as a child in Pennsylvania.
Reporter Surya Milner reports that it became clear from students’ remarks that one of the features of Lowry’s work that they most appreciate is “a style that, at times, integrates harsh or uncomfortable realities with the familiar comfort of childhood.”
Lowry said that her own experience taught her “how profoundly affecting a book can be for a kid at a particular time in his or her life.”
In 1950 John Steinbeck and his friend, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, along with a crew of four sailed a wooden boat, the Western Flyer, down the coast from California to Mexico. They spend six weeks collecting marine specimens. Steinbeck wrote a book, The Log From the Sea of Cortex, published in 1951, about their experiences. The trip also provided the outline of the character Doc in Cannery Row.
John Gregg, a geologist and businessman from California, bought the boat for $1 million this year and is having it restored at a boatyard in Port Townsend, WA. Restoration of the badly damaged boat as a science education vessel will require an additional $2 million.
The restoration is a labor of love for Gregg:
When he was 11 and growing up in southern Georgia, a bookmobile carrying a copy of the book came to his neighborhood. That one book, Mr. Gregg said in an interview on the Flyer’s deck — the air full of the scent of pine tar, gulls cawing on the waterfront — turned him into a scientist and a lover of boats at the same time.
Plans call for the boat to be sea-ready by 2018. In the meantime, juniors and seniors from Port Townsend High School are studying Steinbeck’s books about boats and fishing: Cannery Row, The Log From the Sea of Cortez, and The Pearl. The literary unit will also include visits to the boatyard to study the boat and its history.
The Santa Barbara Independent celebrates one of the city’s most famous residents:
On the eve of what would have been his 100th birthday, the great detective novelist Ross Macdonald is poised to enter into his greatest period of renown since the 1970s, when his books were international best-sellers and he was on the cover of Newsweek magazine.
Ross Macdonald, pseudonym for Kenneth Millar, was one of the most influential writers in the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction. Born in 1915, Millar was raised mainly in rural Canada. He first came to Santa Barbara, CA, in 1946 and settled permanently there in the 1950s.
This long article analyzes the work of Macdonald, which has influenced many other writers, including Sue Grafton, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, Richard North Patterson, and Jonathan Kellerman.
Fortunately, Macdonald’s singular voice as a writer has not been silenced. His effortlessly flowing prose, his intuitive feel for the human condition, and his enduring integrity ensure that his work will continue to be read by people who care about what the detective novel can accomplish. The combined publication of the 1950s crime novels, the Archer short stories, and the Welty-Macdonald letters constitute a treasure trove for readers, those new to Macdonald and those returning to his works, those interested in detective fiction and those simply interested in great prose.
Here’s an outstanding piece of creative nonfiction about William Peter Blatty, author of the 1971 bestseller The Exorcist, made into a blockbuster movie that remains on most lists of quintessential horror movies.
I remember hearing back when the book came out that it was based on an actual exorcism performed by a Catholic priest in Georgetown in Washington, D.C. But for me, like most other people caught up in the book/movie mania, the supernatural aspects of the story supplanted any religious meaning or significance. This article documents Blatty’s deep Catholic faith, burnished during his attendance at the Jesuit institution Georgetown University in the late 1940s.
In this piece Eddie Dean looks at Blatty’s life story, including his time at Georgetown and later as a Hollywood writer. But all of that is background for Blatty’s latest book, Finding Peter: A True Story of the Hand of Providence and Evidence of Life After Death, released earlier this year by “the conservative publisher Regnery.” In a book that Dean describes as “part memoir and part argument,” Blatty, now 87, describes reassuring and welcome messages that he and his wife periodically receive from their son, Peter, who died in 2006 at age 19. As Blatty explains:
“For so many people of faith,” he says, “our belief in life after death is often a very intense hope—more than a full knowledge of fact—and this book gives them some tangible evidence. My task was to prove to readers that they could trust my word that these things happened. If I wanted to make stuff up, it’d be light years more dramatic than most of the things I’ve experienced.”
This is a great story that demonstrates, Dean says, “Much of what you thought you knew about The Exorcist is wrong.”
Writer Graydon Royce reports on an interview with novelist John Irving, 73, for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The discussion centers on Irving’s latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries:
It is a book about the strength of memory, the mystery of faith, the weariness of age and the caprice of fate. He has spliced together two stories: the present-day trip of writer Juan Diego to the Philippines to carry out a favor to a lost friend, and Juan Diego’s dreams and memories of his childhood, living on the dumps of Oaxaca, Mexico, with a cast of characters that includes his sister, Lupe, who reads minds.
Although this story is different from his others, Royce says, it deals with the same themes that Irving has presented during his more than 40-year career. According to Royce, Irving “sees himself as a 19th-century novelist, dedicated to plot, characters, narrative. He has griped for many years about modern writers who consciously construct wordplays that can be understood only by other writers.”
Here’s my favorite Irving quotation from this article:
“The most autobiographical element in any of my novels is psychological. I do not write about what’s happened to me. I write about what I’m afraid of.”
Beverly Cleary grew up in an old farmhouse about 50 miles southwest of Portland, OR. She translated her knowledge of Portland into fictional settings in her books about Ramona Quimby, Beezus, and Henry Huggins.
Here’s a list of real places from the books that you can visit the next time you find yourself in Portland.
Just in time for Halloween (or shortly thereafter), here are several new ghost stories:
It has been supplanted in recent years by vampires, witches and other monsters, but now the good old-fashioned ghost story is back with a bang, with everyone from debut novelists to established literary stars such as David Mitchell and Gillian Flynn hoping to raise the hairs on readers’ necks this Halloween.
Read here about the following upcoming publications:
The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
Slade House by David Mitchell
Little Sister Death by William Gay
Rawblood by Catriona Ward
The Watchers by Neil Spring
The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley
The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse
“A good ghost story asks the reader to examine the horror within – but it’s in a safe and contained way,” says Catriona Ward. See what the other authors mentioned here have to say about why they have written a ghost story and why they think readers enjoy ghost stories.
Ed Vulliamy profiles Irish author Edna O’Brien. Now 84, O’Brien has not always been appreciated in her native land. Her “first and great novel,” The Country Girls was hailed in London, where it won the Kingsley Amis award, but banned in Ireland. This difference in the reception of her book, Villiamy writes, “etched the course of O’Brien’s life.”
Vulliamy explains how O’Brien’s relationship to Ireland while living and writing abroad played out. He places her squarely within the context of other Irish writers:
The extent of the Irish domination of literature in English during the 20th century – per capita – is staggering. From a country of its size, consider: Yeats, Joyce, Shaw, Stoker, Wilde, Beckett, Synge, O’Casey, Butler, Flann O’Brien, Heaney, Trevor – and it continues in Mahon, Banville, McGahern and Tóibín.
In a long article for the New York Times, Rachel Kushner visits Jonathan Franzen in Santa Cruz, CA. Having just finished reading Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, Kushner wanders through a conversation with Franzen about the background of the novel.
Read here how Kushner and Franzen meandered through topics that include Catholicism, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Flannery O’Connor, East Germany, Edward Snowden, capitalism, and the death of Franzen’s cousin—“how this cousin made sense of his difficult life.”
I haven’t read Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, but I loved the movie. (I saw it in 3-D, which I highly recommend.) I knew the general story of how the work had come into being: how Weir did massive amounts of research, published it serially online, then crowdsourced some of the science concepts to make the science part of science fiction incredibly accurate.
Here writer Sara Vilkomerson explains how the main character, botanist Mark Watney, came into existence:
He’s a lovable character who’s part Han Solo, part MacGyver…and one big part Andy Weir. “My theory is that every protagonist is someone the author wants to be or who the author wants to screw,” says Weir, 42. “Just so we’re clear, Mark Watney is who I want to be. He has all the qualities I like about myself magnified without any of the qualities I dislike.”
This article appeared in Entertainment Weekly in November 2014, just as production on the film version of The Martian was commencing.
Batya Ungar-Sargon, who has a Ph.D. in the eighteenth century novel, asks, “Readers of romance fiction enjoy tales of alpha males and forced seduction. Could they still be considered feminists?”
In 2013, Americans spent $1.08 billion dollars on romance novels, which represented a whopping 13 per cent of the adult-fiction revenue – double what literary fiction brought in the same year. And unlike many other forms of entertainment, romance sales were undisturbed by the economic downturn of 2008, a year in which reportedly one in five Americans read a romance novel.
With the eyes of a literary historian and critic, Ungar-Sargon examines romance novels from their early origin in the development of the novel as a distinct literary form through Fifty Shades of Grey and other contemporary manifestations. Why do romance novels continue to outsell every other sliver of the publishing pie in an age when “no means no” and men are encouraged to share housework and child-rearing duties?
Pamela, Or Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson, published in 1740 is widely considered one of the first novels; it’s also a romance, complete with a young heroine readers root for, an alpha male for her (and the reader) to fall in love with, and a happy ending. In historical contexts in which women were disenfranchised socially, legally, and financially, the domain of love was the only context in which they could be desired, worshipped, and adored: “Unlike other genres, which treat women as accessories or plot devices to motivate a male hero, here women are the plot.”
This genre continues to thrive because, as one woman who reads 150 romance novels a year explains, the main drawing points of the novels are:
the tension, the drama, and most importantly, the ending. Other genres have tension and drama, but only romance guarantees the H E A [Happily Ever After ending] – an implicit promise that the payoff will be worth it, that the pain will transform into pleasure.
My summary here doesn’t do justice to the depth of Ungar-Sargon’s article. Read her analysis of how contemporary romance novels have come to represent women’s acknowledgement of their own sexuality and their negotiations around the imprecise concept of sexual consent.
BuzzFeed crowdsourced this list of favorite underrated books. The list features authors from
Jules Verne and Louisa May Alcott up to current publications.
Although I had read a few of these and had heard of several more, I still found several books to add to my gargantuan reading list.
And the inclusion of one book that I stopped reading more quickly than usual and another one (Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah) that I and almost everyone else in my book group did not like reminded me that personal taste is indeed very personal.
How many of these books have you read? Which ones will you add to your own TBR (to be read) list? Which of them did you like or dislike? And what other titles would you add to the list?
Female thrill-killers are rare in crime fiction. Why is it hard to imagine a woman who murders for pleasure not revenge?
Most crime fiction featuring women presents them as private investigator, police officer, lawyer, or victim. Here Melanie McGrath, author of both nonfiction and crime fiction, examines why most crime novelists avoid woman characters who kill for pleasure:
They’re a rare breed in crime fiction, yet readers seem fascinated by their fictive potential. Most often they’re seen as purely literary creations, the inventions of a writer’s dark mind. Readers want to see women thrill-killers in fiction without necessarily believing they exist in real life. In many reader’s minds, they inhabit the same category as vampires or superheroes.
Women who commit violence in crime fiction usually do so for revenge or to rid themselves of an abusive partner.
McGrath considers biological, psychological, and neuroscience approaches to explaining why, in both crime fiction and real life, men commit more violence than women.
Like most storytelling, crime fiction cleaves more readily to myth than to reality. Plus it’s a conservative genre (though its creators might not be), concerned with restoring order and equilibrium. Even at its more experimental limits, it tends to play with stereotypes, not discard them.
Yet, says McGrath, for decades novelists have been creating evil and selfish women characters like Amy Dunne in Gillian Flynn’s enormously popular book Gone Girl:
Amy Dunne has helped spawn a new sub-genre of crime bitch-lit. Women (and men) have shown themselves to be eager consumers of the kind of unprincipled, amoral, selfish anti-heroines typified by Flynn’s creation, and it’s surely only a matter of time before male writers feel confident enough to follow suit.
Joan Silverman interviews Sven Birketts, director of the Bennington Writing Seminars in Vermont:
Birkerts, who’s best known for “The Gutenberg Elegies,” his 1994 lament about the future of reading in an electronic age, has spent the last two decades thinking and writing about how technology affects us. Though he’s no Luddite, he worries about what we gain, and lose, as technology increasingly dominates modern life.
A group of feminists in Cheltenham has been sneaking into stores and leaving “gender-busting” bookmarks inside children’s books that are specifically for boys or girls. The bookmarks are hand-made, with slogans including: “Celebrate her brain, not her beauty”; “Boys don’t have to be gruff, tough or rough”; and “Let girls and boys be kids”.