On Novels and Novelists

Face it, book snobs, crime fiction is real literature – and Ian Rankin proves it

On the occasion of Ian Rankin’s becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Allan Massie discusses the author of the John Rebus novels and crime fiction in general. Massie bets that having been “received into Scotland’s intellectual elite or, if you prefer, Establishment,” won’t change Rankin.

Massie discusses the common criticism of mystery and crime novels, that they are mere genre fiction and therefore don’t deserve the same respect and attention as literary fiction. I’ve long disagreed with this view. Mystery and crime novels probe the most sensitive inner secrets of the human psyche, the places we try to hide from other people and, just as often, from ourselves.

Massie dismisses such differentiation between crime novels and literary fiction: “Many of the greatest novelists have crime at the centre of their work.” As examples he offers Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Balzac, and Dostoevsky.

Massie offers another advantage crime novels have over literary novels, one that I had not thought of:

Today, as Rankin recognised early, the crime novelist has one advantage denied to authors of the straight or literary novel. Unlike them, he can range over all levels of society, for crime breaches the barriers of class. These barriers mean that the modern literary novel is too often confined to the horizontal, because, to be realistic, it will tend to deal only with one layer of society, with people all leading much the same sort of life. But crime permeates society. It runs through it from top to bottom, and may make connections between them.

Perhaps I failed to notice this advantage because class distinctions are more a part of society in the United Kingdom (see Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution than in the United States.

But no matter where crime novels are set or where readers live, these novels reveal the dark truth beneath the surface of society and of individuals. For this reason, some of the most important literary work comes from writers of crime and mystery novels.

9 Ways Reading Joyce Carol Oates Will Make You Feel More Powerful

“Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t shy away from darkness.” Laura I. Miller’s opening to this piece from Bustle snuggles her material comfortably up next to the previous piece. “Her portrayals are so lovely, her prose so seemingly effortless, that her work’s murky, disturbing depths often creep in unnoticed.”

In this article Miller focuses on how Joyce Carol Oates’s power of exposing social injustice, particularly that involving women, “using story as a way to empower those overlooked by society.” See why Miller says that reading Oates’s work will make you feel empowered in these ways:

  1. You’ll Realize Just How Much You’re Capable Of.
  2. Any Preconceived Notions of Young, Petite Women Will Be Shattered.
  3. Details About the Characters All Around You Will Suddenly Appear.
  4. You’ll Appreciate the Complexity of Navigating Adolescent Womanhood.
  5. Other People’s Opinions Will Cease to Matter.
  6. You’ll Grow Fond of Your Deeply Introverted Tendencies.
  7. Your Vocabulary Will Increase Drastically.
  8. The Limitless Bounty of Story Will Open Its Doors to You.
  9. You’ll See Right Through Everyone Else’s BS.

I can’t help but mention here that I wish it were possible to see the content without all those annoying animated GIFs, which seem to be de rigeur at Bustle.

What Writers Can Gain From Seeing the World Through Different Eyes

Since one of my other blogs is Change of Perspective, there’s no way I could pass up a piece about literature with a title like this, in which author Tania James explains that “[t]he best prose comes from experimenting with new perspectives.”

In her recent novel The Tusk that Did the Damage, “James channels three starkly contrasting voices to explore the bleak sphere of South Indian elephant poaching.” She learned how to write disparate voices, including that of a traumatized bull elephant, by reading:

Peter Carey’s Booker-winning  The True History of the Kelly Gang—written as a single long letter composed by a 19th-century Australian outlaw—taught her about how to speak convincingly in an adopted tongue.

James says that Carey invents a language for notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly: “There’s something thrilling about watching a writer invent a new lexicon before your eyes.” I haven’t read Carey’s novel, but it sounds as if James is describing the same technique David Mitchell uses for the long pivotal section, set centuries in the future, of Cloud Atlas. Like James, I found that after a short initial period of adjustment, reading the newly invented language was invigorating. Perhaps the thrill comes just from knowing that you’re smart enough to have figured things out, but I suspect that some part of the thrill also comes from knowing that you are working along with the author to share the fictional experience.

I speak from a reader’s perspective. Read what James has to say about this kind of language use from a writer’s perspective. But whether you’re a reader or a writer (or perhaps both):

Adopting an unfamiliar perspective helps you observe the world in fresh, revealing ways—helps you see things you might never have glimpsed through your own eyes.

In His Words: Rafael Yglesias on What Fiction Does Best

Rafael Yglesias writes that it took 16 years and four revised drafts to produce his recently published novel The Wisdom of Perversity:

The revisions were made to clarify and refine my understanding of The Wisdom of Perversity’s delicate subject matter: the long-term effects of being sexually misused as a child — as I was when I was eight years old.

But, he continues, roughly forty percent of the manuscript remained unchanged through all those revisions. The unchanged portions are written from the point of view of three children==two eight-year-old boys and an eleven-year-old girl—who are seduced and bullied by a forty=year=old pedophile:

Those passages, written as if you are in the skin of the children, vividly depict that the predator’s technique is seductive and that the children-victims are initially turned on by their rapist’s insinuating touch. The point of the passage is that what makes the effects of molestation so long-lasting is the confusion it creates for the victims, that their first experience of sexual pleasure from another person happens without either their desire or understanding. The novel gives voice to a childhood trauma that is usually summarized in medical and legal jargon, well-intended language that unfortunately obscures what is most persistently destructive about the crime.

What Yglesias says about the purpose of those passages sounds much like Tania James’s notion of taking different perspectives in the piece above. The purpose of looking at something from another perspective is to try to understand someone else’s experience. His novel, Yglesias writes:

seeks to do what fiction does best: place the reader inside the consciousness of another, to live with three characters who have experienced what most people consider to be an unmentionable and unthinkable crime and who have struggled for decades to forget and regain control of their ability to feel pleasure.

He wrote the book to help both victims and the people who love them “better understand how to speak of the unmentionable, how to think about the unthinkable, and how to live in a present no longer haunted by the past.”

Stephen King to share writing tips in new short story collection

One of the best books about writing that I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, published in 2000. Now, the U.K.’s Guardian reports, King will publish a new work in the fall, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, that will feature 20 short stories plus introductions for each that will provide “‘autobiographical comments on when, why and how he came to write it’, as well as “‘the origins and motivation of each story.’”

Gore Vidal’s bitter feuds

As a Gore Vidal novel written under the pseudonym Cameron Kay is republished, here are some of the writer’s memorably bitter feuds, including with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and William F Buckley

To call Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, a curmudgeon would be overly kind. Here you can read about the author’s colorful feuds, including that with the cult of Abraham Lincoln, about whom he once wrote, “Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln’s invention of himself.”

Review: “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Original publication date: 1919
Rpt. New York: Random House, 1947

Sherwood Anderson’s masterpiece, Winesburg, Ohio, is a collection of 23 interrelated sketches—Anderson calls them “tales”—that portray life in a Midwestern town in the early years of the twentieth century. The unifying thread throughout is the coming-of-age story of George Willard, an 18-year-old news reporter who dreams of leaving the confines of his home town and making his way in the larger world as a writer.

The book is significant historically for its use of common speech to portray its characters, the common people of Winesburg Stylistically, Anderson influenced Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.

The book is also significant historically for its place in the development of American realism and naturalism. Realism, which developed in France in the second half of the nineteenth century, emphasized the influence of social environment on characters. As realism developed, it shifted into naturalism, with an emphasis on impersonal social, economic, and biological forces on individuals. With its focus on the psychological and biological impulses of its characters, Anderson’s book illustrates the beginning of this shift. Here, for example, is the narrator’s description of Kate Swift in “The Teacher”:

Day by day as she worked in the schoolroom or walked in the streets, grief, hope, and desire fought within her. Behind a cold exterior the most extraordinary events transpired in her mind. (p. 191)

Most of the tales recount characters who have internal hungers and desires—ranging from pedophilia and God’s approval to fame, wealth, and human companionship—that they struggle to submerge in the belief that no one else harbors such secrets. For example, inn “Queer” Elmer Cowley, unable to make friends after moving to Winesburg, feels that he’s always strange or abnormal, somehow different from other people:

George Willard, he felt, belonged to the town, typified the town, represented in his person the spirit of thee town. Elmer Cowley could not have believed that George Willard had also his days of unhappiness, that vague hungers and secret unnamable desires visited also his mind. (p. 234)

Anderson’s use of such subject matter is more subdued than other authors of the same time period such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris.

Winesburg, Ohio opens with “The Book of the Grotesque,” which defines the term grotesque. In the beginning, when the world was young, there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. “Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts” (p. 4). All these truths were beautiful. Then people came along and snatched up the truths. “It was the truths that made the people grotesques… . The moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (p. 5).

In this tale an old writer contemplates “something inside him [that] was altogether young” (p. 2). “He imagined the young indescribable thing within himself was driving a long procession of figures before his eyes… . They were all grotesques” (p. 3). The old writer wrote a book about the grotesques but never published it. “It was the young thing inside him that saved the old man” (p. 5).

“Sophistication,” the second-to-last story in the collection, describes George Willard’s coming of age in similar terms:

In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers, and the older, the more sophisticated thing had possession of George Willard. (p. 294)

Earlier, in “The Teacher,” Kate Swift, who had once been George Willard’s teacher, tries to explain to George “the difficulties he would have to face as a writer”:

“If you are to become a writer you’ll have to stop fooling with words … You must not become a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about, not what they say” (p. 192)

Like the old writer whose tale opens the book, George must grow up while at the same time keeping the young thing inside him alive. To become a writer, he must learn to look beneath the surface of what people say to understand their inner thoughts and desires.

The tales throughout this book tell stories of human desires thwarted and human connections unrealized. The last thing that George Willard must learn as he leaves Winesburg to embark on his life as a writer is how to exist in such a world. In “Sophistication” George meets up with Helen White, a young woman he feels attracted to:

George Willard sat beside Helen White and felt very keenly his own insignificance in the scheme of existence… . the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt. (pp. 295–296)

© 2015 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Joan Didion Documentary by Griffin Dunne and Susanne Rostock — Kickstarter

We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live is the first and only documentary being made about Joan Didion. While her writing is fierce and exposed, Joan herself is an incredibly private person. We have the privilege to know Joan as a subject and also as a member of our family. Our director, Griffin Dunne, has known Joan his entire life. Joining Griffin as co-director is award-winning filmmaker, Susanne Rostock.

We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live traces the arc of Joan’s life through her own writings, and in her own voice. Our film will tell Joan’s story through passages she has chosen and will read aloud from her work, as her friends, family, colleagues and critics share their accounts of her remarkable life and writing.

via The Joan Didion Documentary by Griffin Dunne and Susanne Rostock — Kickstarter.

Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”

The Classics ClubGothic literature features characteristics such as magic, mystery, chivalry, horror, clanking chains, ghosts, and dark castles to create a spooky atmosphere rife with foreboding and possibility. Over time Gothic emphasis changed from reliance on these external trappings for their own sake to a focus on the inner workings of the human psyche that the Gothic atmosphere represents. Shirley Jackson’s deliciously creepy 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle demonstrates the power of the Gothic in the hands of a master craftsman.

Brief History of Gothic Literature

The first Gothic novel was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), set in a medieval castle featuring dark stairways, mysterious rooms, trap doors, and underground passages. Between 1789 and 1797 Anne Radcliffe wrote five romances, the most famous being The Mysteries of Udolpho, that helped make the form popular. Radcliffe emphasized setting and story over character.

As the Gothic novel spread across Europe, it became the backdrop against which authors examined the relationship between humans and the supernatural, with Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) perhaps the best known example. Gothicism also influenced other literary forms, particularly poetry of the romantic period in works by Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, and Keats. In the United States Charles Brockden Brown took up the form of the Gothic novel with Wieland (1798) and five subsequent romances.

Early Gothic novels focused on creating a spooky setting appropriate for a story of suspense, dread, foreboding, and, finally, terror. As Gothicism developed, it incorporated elements of the psychological that allowed a focus on character as well as on setting, as evident in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe. Still later works such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) employ literary devices that developed from the Gothic novel.

The British Library is currently presenting an exhibition entitled Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination:

Beginning with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, Gothic literature challenged the moral certainties of the 18th century. By exploring the dark romance of the medieval past with its castles and abbeys, its wild landscapes and fascination with the supernatural, Gothic writers placed imagination firmly at the heart of their work – and our culture.

In a magazine article about the exhibition:

Lead curator of the exhibition, Tim Pye, says: “Gothic is one the most popular and influential modes of literature and I’m delighted that Terror and Wonder is celebrating its rich 250 year history. The exhibition features an amazingly wide range of material, from stunningly beautiful medieval artefacts to vinyl records from the early Goth music scene, so there is truly something for everyone”.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the CastleJackson, Shirley. We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Penguin Books, 1962

Mary Katherine, known as Merricat, Blackwood is the first-person narrator of the story. In the opening paragraph she tells us that she is 18 years old and that she lives with her sister Constance: “I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead” (p. 1).

This final sentence of the opening paragraph signals the story’s Gothic emphasis. Although Richard Plantagenet could be any one of several English noblemen, context suggests that Merricat is referring to England’s King Richard III (1452–1485), who is famously believed to have ordered the murder of his two young nephews in the Tower of London. The themes of murder and a family power struggle emerge from this reference. These themes and Merricat’s admitted fondness for a deadly mushroom sharpen our expectations and foreshadow the rest of the story.

Gradually the backstory emerges: Six years earlier the rest of the Blackwood family had died of arsenic poisoning during a family dinner. The dead included Mr. and Mrs. Blackwood (Constance and Merricat’s parents), the girls’ 10-year-old younger brother, and their aunt, whose husband, Uncle Julian, their father’s brother, became very ill but recovered. Uncle Julian was damaged both physically and mentally by his brush with death. Now wheelchair-bound, he lives with Merricat and Constance and is completely dependent on Constance, who takes care of him while her sister largely watches.

Merricat was not at the dinner table that fateful night because she was being punished by having to spend the night in her room without any dinner. That dinner included berries, on which the diners sprinkled sugar that had been laced with arsenic. Suspicion fell on Constance, who did not eat berries and therefore didn’t get sick. She was tried and acquitted of the murders.

This brief outline of the backstory illustrates Jackson’s use of Gothic elements. In addition to the emphasis on death and the sense of foreboding and further impending doom, there are also Gothic overtones in the characterization of Merricat. She goes into the village twice a week for supplies, mostly food and library books, because Constance is agoraphobic. But Merricat must make a game of the trip, with rules about where she should walk and how she should act: “I forced my hands to be still and made a rule for myself: Whenever I saw a tiny scrap of paper I was to remember to be kinder to Uncle Julian” (p. 16). In addition to all her rules for herself, Merricat also buries things around the family property for good luck and even tacks a book up on a tree as a protective talisman. Such actions are examples of magical thinking, the belief that thinking is the same as doing. Magical thinking is normal in young children, who believe that their thoughts and desires cause events that happen around them. But the persistence of magical thinking in the 18-year-old Merricat suggests a deranged mind, another common Gothic element.

Merricat also continues the belief, apparently learned from her parents, that the Blackwoods are better than the villagers and should maintain their distance to avoid contamination from the less worthy:

All of the village was of a piece, a time, and a style; it was as though the people needed the ugliness of the village, and fed on it… . whatever planned to be colorful lost its heart quickly in the village. The blight on the village never came from the Blackwoods; the villages belonged here and the village was the only proper place for them. (p. 8)

Mr. Blackwood put up a fence all around the property and fastened it with a padlock. Merricat makes a ritual out of unlocking and relocating the gate when she leaves the house and when she returns from the village. The Blackwoods’ geographical isolation reflects their feelings of superiority and their fear of the masses:

I always stood perfectly straight and stiff when the children came close, because I was afraid of them. I was afraid that they might touch me and the mothers would come at me like a flock of taloned hawks; that was always the picture I had in my mind—birds descending, striking, gashing with razor claws. (p. 10)

Merricat’s narration of her family’s isolation from the villages bleeds into another Gothic element of the story, its setting. The isolation of the large Blackwood house, fenced off from the everyday world and fortified by Merricat’s magic, fits right into the Gothic picture. Jackson also uses setting to call up another work of late Gothic literature:

The Rochester house was the loveliest in town and had once had a walnut-panelled library and a second-floor ballroom and a profusion of roses along the veranda; our mother had been born there and by rights it should have belonged to Constance. (p. 4)

The Rochester house alludes to Mr. Rochester’s huge house, with his deranged wife hidden upstairs, in Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre.

Gothic features continue as the plot of We Have Always Lived in the Castle unfolds. The precipitating crisis of the book occurs when Constance and Merricat’s cousin, Charles Blackwood, their father’s brother’s son, arrives to disturb the status quo of their existence. As the only remaining male heir, he intends to take over the family mansion and the family fortune. Merricat ratchets up her magic to protect her existence. When a fire breaks out at the house, the volunteer firefighters arrive to try to put it out. That is, after all, their job, even if they don’t like the Blackwoods, the fire chief insists. A truly macabre scene, suggestive of a Satanic ritual, develops as the townspeople implore the firefighters to let the house burn, then set to smashing and looting whatever the flames don’t destroy.

The fire obliterates the top floor of the house. Afterwards, Constance and Merricat continue to live in the small kitchen area while vines overgrow the top. Whereas Merricat had earlier spoken of their home as the house, now she describes it this way: “Our house was a castle, turreted and open to the sky” (p. 177). Finally, the story comes full circle as the house turns into the isolated, creepy castle characteristic of Gothic literature and all the foreboding of impending doom foreshadowed at the beginning comes to fruition.

 

© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown

Addendum

See also Happy 250th, Ann Radcliffe:

It’s 250 years since the publication of The Castle of Otranto, an anniversary prompting both a British Library exhibition (Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination) and a linked BBC Gothic season. It is Horace Walpole’s only novel that you see on entering the exhibition, and with which Andrew Graham-Dixon’s BBC4 series, The Art of Gothic: Britain’s Midnight Hour (which ends on3 November), began.

Another 250th anniversary, of Ann Radcliffe’s birth, goes unmentioned, an omission reflecting her curious marginalisation in both celebrations – “the great enchantress”, as Thomas De Quincey called her, does figure, but mainly as the hapless novelist (vapid and trashy, you infer) sent up in Northanger Abbey. For the British Library display, the problem looks to be the absence of a visual legacy, of Radcliffe manuscripts and film adaptations; for Graham-Dixon, it may be the absence of a penis. His blokeish version of early literary gothic consists of chaps like Walpole, William Bedford, Thomas Chatterton, Blake and De Quincey, with the equally colourful Mary Shelley as token woman, and their manly wrestlings with political and industrial revolution, masculine identity and urbanisation in turn influence the Victorians.

Monday Miscellany

INFOGRAPHIC: How Long Does It Take to Read Popular Books?

infographicFor visually oriented readers:

Ever wondered how long it takes to read The Great Gatsby (2.62 hours) compared to Atlas Shrugged (31.22 hours)? If so, you’ll like this infographic by Personal Creations.

William Golding Flies classic holds true 60 years on

It’s 60 years this month since the publication of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. To mark the anniversary his family are giving his literary archive on loan to the University of Exeter – including the very different original version of his famous tale of boys fending for themselves on a tropical island.

The BBC looks back at the significance of Lord of the Flies, originally published in September 1954 after rejections from 10 publishers and one literary agent. Golding’s daughter says that her father’s original title for the novel was “Strangers from Within.” An editor at Faber, the house that agreed to publish the novel, had Golding remove much material explicitly about the atomic war the children had survived. The editor also cut material about Simon to make him less a religious figure than in Golding’s manuscript.

Ms Carver [Golding’s daughter] believes the book has remained in demand for six decades for two main reasons.

”Firstly of course it’s so well written. But also it deals with moral questions which were current after World War Two and which I’m afraid are still relevant today.

Century-old Provo literary club holds its final meeting

A sad story about the demise of the Utah Sorosis women’s group:

The literary group, whose unusual name means aggregation, has been meeting since 1897, a year before the Provo Tabernacle (soon to be City Center Temple) was finished. After 117 years this was the farewell meeting of Utah Sorosis. The nearly 20 women who RSVP’d to Van Orman for the weekday luncheon at Provo’s La Jolla Groves did so with “sadness in your voices,” said Van Orman, age 65.

Group members who attended the luncheon that marked the group’s final meeting ranged in age from 60 to more than 90. Several of them said that they couldn’t get younger women to join to keep the group going.

The “serious intent” of the 18 charter members in 1897, all wives of university professors, was to work toward the highest development of its members through study and work.

Perhaps the group is a victim of changing times, now that women no longer need to join a special group in order to study and work.

9 Marquez e-books coming out in English

The Associated Press (AP) is reporting that Penguin Random House imprints Vintage Books and Vintage Espanol have announced the ebook publication on October 15 of English translations of several of Marquez’s works:

Besides “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the releases include the novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” and the memoir “Living to Tell the Tale.” Marquez’s classic novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is published in the U.S. by HarperCollins and remains unavailable as an English-language e-book.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982, died in April at age 87.

Monday Miscellany

SEPTEMBER 2014’S BEST BOOKS: 12 FICTION MUST-READS FOR YOUR IMAGINATION TO RUN WILD THIS FALL

Cover: The Bone ClocksIt’s fall—the start of a new school year and the time for a new reading list. Morgan Ribera’s got you covered with a list of a dozen books to be published during September that will keep you reading at least until winter break.

My own copy of one of the books on her list, The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell, just arrived yesterday. I’m also looking forward to another of her recommendations, The Secret Place by Tana French.

Celebrity writers pack the shelves as shops predict an autumn bonanza

The Guardian offers the U.K. outlook on this fall’s bonanza of novel publications.

A back-to-school reading list of classic literature

I expected a simple list of books from the folks at Oxford University Press, publisher of the Oxford World’s Classic series.

But they surprised me by using an “If you liked …, you might like …” Format. See what works of classic literature they recommend if you liked these books:

  • Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

N.Y.C. Chancellor Pushes for Schools to Reinstate Independent-Reading Time

Education Week, the go-to source for information about teaching, reports that “Carmen Fariña, the new schools chancellor in New York City, is bringing the specifics of classroom reading instruction back into the public eye.”

At issue is the inclusion of independent reading, also known as sustained silent reading (SSR), in the school day. Writer Liana Heitin here reports that there has been little research into and little media attention on the question of whether SSR is effective in improving reading achievement since a 2000 report by a national panel. This article includes a short history of the issue and links to other online resources.

The Inspiring Stories Behind 15 Classic Novels

According to Jack London, “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” London himself took the inspiration for The Call of the Wild (1903) from his time spent living in Canada and Alaska during the Klondike Gold Rush when high-quality sled dogs – like those that feature in the book – were in impossibly high demand. The stories and inspirations behind fifteen more of literature’s most memorable titles are explained here:

An interesting list, ranging from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Daphne Du Maurier’s The Birds.

46 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read In A Day

The end of the year is approaching. If you’re worried about meeting your GoodReads challenge, BuzzFeed has a list of books that weigh in at around 200 or fewer pages each that will allow you to pad your stats.

Cut it out, Ian McEwan: there are plenty of great long novels

Author Ian McEwan caused some consternation with a recent statement that “”very few really long novels earn their length.” In The Guardian Alison Flood points out:

It’s the Americans McEwan appears mainly to be blaming for this – our friends on the other side of the Atlantic “still pursue the notion of a great American novel and it has to be a real brick of an object”, he says …

Flood disagrees with McEwan and offers her list of “novels that might weigh as much as a brick, but to which I’d never take a blue pencil”:

  • The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber. 864 page
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. 656 pages
  • A Dance with Dragons by George RR Martin. 1016 pages
  • The Stand by Stephen King. 1,200 pages
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 992 pages
  • The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. 608 pages

Here are some I’d add to her list:

  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. 514 pages (paperback)
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl. 514 pages
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot. 794 pages (paperback)
  • Ulysses by James Joyce. 732 pages (paperback)
  • The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. 568 pages
  • The Brothers K by David James Duncan. 645 pages (paperback)
  • Underworld by Don DeLillo. 827 pages

I don’t mind a long book just because it’s long, but I do get annoyed by a book that’s longer than it needs to be. Moo by Jane Smiley is my illustration of this category. The hardcover weighted in at only 414 pages, but it should have been cut by about one-third.

Monday Miscellany

Required Reading: 10 Books We Read For Class That Will Change Your Life

Cover: Civilization and Its DiscontentsAs summer winds down, many students turn with desperation to those lists of required summer reading that they put aside a couple of months ago. But not all assigned reading is dull and unfulfilling, the editors at Huffington Post say:

Sometimes reading books we’re assigned to read, rather than those we would pick up on our own, can be a blessing rather than a curse. It can lead us to unexpected treasures, introduce us to unfamiliar and unexpected points of view, and challenge us in surprising ways.

There are some pretty good books on this list. Look especially at what Maddie Crum has to say about Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud.

More Than a Century Later, Sophia Tolstoy Has Her Say

In her long and often turbulent marriage to Leo Tolstoy, Sophia Andreevna Tolstoy put up with a lot, but “The Kreutzer Sonata” qualified as special punishment. Published in 1889, the story presented Tolstoy’s increasingly radical views on sexual relations and marriage through a frenzied monologue delivered by a narrator who, in a fit of jealousy and disgust, murdered his wife.

According to William Grimes, Sophia wrote in her diary:

“I, too, know in my heart that this story is directed against me, and that it has done me a great wrong, humiliated me in the eyes of the world and destroyed the last vestiges of love between us.”

Sophia wrote two novellas, “Whose Fault?” and “Song Without Words,” that set forth her views on a woman’s experience of love. Those stories lay lost in the archives of the Tolstoy Museum until their recent discovery and publication in Russia.

Grimes writes that “Michael R. Katz, a retired professor of Russian and Eastern European studies at Middlebury College, has translated both stories into English.” Those stories will be included in a volume titled The Kreutzer Sonata Variations that will be published tomorrow by Yale University Press. Grimes calls this book a significant part of “a flurry of recent work appraising Tolstoy’s wife as a figure in her own right.”

In this article Grimes describes the discovery of these works by Tolstoy’s wife and their historical and literary significance.

Alan Gibbons: why YA fiction is crucial for shaping our attitudes to subcultures

Author Alan Gibbons was inspired to write his book Hate after the murder of teenager Sophie Lancaster. Here, Alan shares why he thinks YA books are important for improving our understanding of other people’s identities

Gibbons provides a good look at how reading can help adolescents in discovering and accepting their own identity.

Samuel Beckett’s articulation of unceasing inner speech

undoubtedly the most ubiquitous sound in Beckett’s work is that of the mysterious voices buzzing, murmuring or whispering within the heads of his characters. To borrow from the narrating figure in The Unnamable (1953), the narrative core of Beckett’s dark universes seems to be “all a matter of voices; no other metaphor is appropriate”. The question is: to what extent are voices in Beckett’s fiction just metaphorical presences?

Contrary to all those jokes about people who hear voices, cognitive science has taught us that we all hear inner voices. Young children talk out loud to themselves as they’re playing and as they’re performing actions they’re working to learn, such as tying their shoelaces, in a process called “private speech” or “private talk.” As they grow older they stop speaking out loud, but all of us talk silently and frequently to ourselves.

Here postdoctoral research fellow Marco Bernini points out:

If inner speech is the raw material for hallucinatory phenomena, it is also at the centre of our imaginary engine – supporting our simple need for, as the homonymous text by Beckett portrays, an intimate Company (1980) in the inaccessible dark of our subjectivity.

In the works of Beckett we find yet another example of how literature imitates life.

10 Great Books by Irish Women

Here’s a historical list that includes books published between 1929 and 2010.

Monday Miscellany

Reading Literature on Screen: A Price for Convenience?

Woman with KindleI love my Kindle because it allows me to carry a lot of books around without having to carry a lot of books around. And having recently downsized to a retirement home game me another reason: I no longer have room for enough bookcases to hold every book I read.

But the jury is still out on whether there are any disadvantages to using an e-reader rather than reading a printed book. Here’s a report on new research that found differences in comprehension between readers who read a story in a paperback book vs. Readers who read the same story on an Amazon Kindle DX:

the Kindle readers scored significantly lower on questions about when events in the story occurred. They also performed almost twice as poorly when asked to arrange 14 plot points in the correct sequence.

The number of study participants was small (50), but the results suggest the need for more research.

Top 10 Books About Reading & Writing For Book Lovers

Here’s a good starter list of books about books.

If you have other similar books that you like, mention them in the comments.

10 Creepiest Books

And because we all love lists, here’s another one.

Stephanie Feldman is the author of The Angel of Losses, a novel that, according to Publishers Weekly, “features a wonderfully spooky atmosphere.” Check out her list of scary books:

Here are some books that are smart and scary—just frightening enough for catharsis, and just exotic enough in their trappings that you’ll probably still be able to sleep at night.

I had heard of many of these, but a few are new to me.

And if you’re looking for a REALLY SCARY BOOK, I recommend I Am the Cheese, a short gem by Robert Cormier.

10 Psychological Thrillers That Will Absolutely Terrify You

And here’s a similar list, this one from K.A. Harrington, author of the thriller Forget Me. Harrington writes, “I have always loved psychological thrillers – the plot twists, the stunning character reveals, the eerie settings.”

I’ve read all the books on Harrington’s list except one, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I’ve always resisted that one as too gory for me. But I second her recommendation of the other nine.

Wilder memoir to give gritty view of prairie life

“Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography” – Wilder’s unedited draft that was written for an adult audience and eventually served as the foundation for the popular series – is slated to be released by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press nationwide this fall. The not-safe-for-children tales include stark scenes of domestic abuse, love triangles gone awry and a man who lit himself on fire while drunk off whiskey.

Lois Lowry says ‘The Giver’s’ movie cast elevated her original novel

now that the film version of her beloved book is (finally) arriving in theaters on Friday, Lowry says she would like to go back and make just one small revision.

“The movie made much more complex the character of the Chief Elder,” the head of the society, Lowry says. “And then once they cast Meryl Streep — who never would have taken the role the way I wrote it in the book — the quality of her acting, just the turn of her eyes or the way her mouth curves, it was astounding to watch her. Now I wish I could go back and write the book the way she performed it.”

I haven’t yet decided whether I want to see this movie, although Meryl Streep, and what Lowry says about her here, is a big draw.

Monday Miscellany

THE STARS OF THESE YOUNG ADULT BOOKS SWEAR, STRUGGLE, AND GENERALLY ACT LIKE REAL TEENS

Cover: AspenIn the new novel Aspen by Rebekah Crane, the teenage title character is an awkward, artsy kid who gets into a car accident that kills the most popular girl at school. The book traces the bizarre fallout in her Boulder, Colorado, community, as well as Aspen’s relationship with her stoner mom. But unlike the typical after school-special YA fare, the drug part of the tale isn’t entirely cautionary.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the lack of diversity in books for children and young adults. Here’s a look at publisher In This Together Media of Denver, whose mission is “offering more diverse, realistic, unwhitewashed representations of kids, especially girls, in YA and middle-grade literature.”

8 Actors Who Brought Our Favorite Book Characters to Life

The following list is composed of male characters in literature that have been brought to the screen by some of the greatest actors of all time. While this list represents a group of wildly different men — good guys and bad guys, heroes and antiheroes — all of these compelling characters address complicated issues regarding masculinity while taking on the delicate task of transferring a character from the page to celluloid.

See if you agree with the following choices:

  1. Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon
  2. Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
  3. Tyler Durden, Fight Club
  4. Stanley Kowalski, A Streetcar Named Desire
  5. Randle “Mac” McMurphy, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
  6. Rhett Butler, Gone With the Wind
  7. Sherlock Holmes
  8. Tom Joad, Grapes of Wrath

22 Strong Female Characters In Literature We All Wanted To Be

The editors at BuzzFeed choose the first strong female characters they related to as illustrating Nora Ephron’s directive “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

How Tom Robbins’ childhood turned him into a storyteller

Tom Robbins, the hyperimaginative author of “Another Roadside Attraction,” “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” and “Still Life with Woodpecker,” discusses his new memoir, “Tibetan Peach Pie.”

Robbins discusses life’s epiphanies and the influence of his southern childhood.

Journeys into the autistic mind

We’ve hit a turning point in our understanding of autism, but I think it comes from literature, not science. Not to downplay the science: The newest studies on amino acid deficiencies, faulty neurotransmitters, and disruptions in the cortex may shine light on the whys of the disorder. But to find out the whats — what it’s like to be autistic, from the inside — there’s now a critical mass of books written by those on the spectrum. They are extraordinary, moving, and jeweled with epiphanies.

In The Boston Globe, Katharine Whittemore discusses these books:

  • The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida, translated into English by K.A. Yoshida
  • Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with Autism by Temple Grandin
  • Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by Augusten Burroughs
  • Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism by Ron Suskind
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  • The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
  • Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel Tammet

Monday Miscellany

Death of Maya Angelou

The biggest story of the literary world this past week has been the death of Maya Angelou at age 86.

The coverage has been extensive, but here are a few stories I’ve chosen as providing a good overview of her influence and significance:

Maya Angelou: The essential reading list

From USA Today

13 of Maya Angelou’s best quotes

Also from USA Today. Scroll down below the timeline of her life and achievements.

A Farewell to Maya Angelou

Video from The New York Times. (Apologies for the unavoidable opening advertisement.)


Goodbye, Steinbeck; All Hail, Shelley

In the other big literary story of the past week, British minister of education Michael Gove has suggested the elimination of several works by U.S. authors from the reading list for British students.

10 authors who are brilliant at Twitter

Hannah Jane Parkinson thinks you should follow these writers on Twitter.

When literature goes to war: How Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer and “Catch–22″ changed the novel forever

An excerpt from The Novel: A Biography by Michael Schmidt:

How the great American novels of the 20th century captured the horror, humor and devastating cost of modern warfare

Have Literary Prizes Lost Their Meaning? (Have They Ever Had Any?)

Cultural prizes notoriously reward the wrong works for the wrong reasons: On the long list of worthies deprived of the Nobel for literature are Tolstoy, Proust, and Joyce.