On Novels and Novelists

Think “The Exorcist” Was Just a Horror Movie? The Author Says You’re Wrong.

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.”

The Next Joan Didion?

Ruth Galm, author of the novel Into the Valley, has been compared to Joan Didion, whose early pieces contain “an almost uncanny sense of place that she brings alive” in writing.

In this informative she reveals much about her writing experience and interests. Read, among other facts, why and how the following writers have influenced her work:

  • William Faulkner
  • Jean Rhys
  • Joan Didion

John Irving wrestles with memory in ’Avenue of Mysteries’

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.”

Visit Ramona Quimby’s Portland

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.

On Novels and Novelists

Out with vampires, in with haunted houses: the ghost story is back

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.

Edna O’Brien: from Ireland’s cultural outcast to literary darling

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.

Jonathan Franzen’s Crackling Genius

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.”

Truman Capote’s Brooklyn: Never-Before-Seen Pictures of Truman Capote, Taken by David Attie

Eli Attie, son of photographer David Attie, describes how he found previously unknown photos his father had taken of Truman Capote in Brooklyn, NY.

Eli Attie wrote the afterword for _ Brooklyn: A Personal Memoir_ by Truman Capote, with the lost photographs of David Attie, to be published on November 3, 2015.

Andy Weir on his strange journey from self-publishing to Hollywood

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.

On Reading

She swoons to conquer

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.

27 Seriously Underrated Books Every Book Lover Should Read

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?

Murder she wrought

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.

Gone Girl: cover
“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn

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.

Author Q & A: Sven Birkerts on writing as meditation and the ‘infiltration’ of technology

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.

Feminists sneaking into bookshops to leave ‘gender-busting’ bookmarks inside children’s books

From the U.K.:

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”.

On Novels and Novelists

Sci-fi legend Neal Stephenson says it’s getting harder and harder to predict the future

Neal Stephenson is one of the biggest names in science fiction writing. Here, Drake Baer admits that he was “stoked” to talk to Stephenson and ask him, “What do you think is going to happen to human society in the near future?”

It’s a good question, given that many observers have pointed out that the future Stephenson described in Snow Crash (1992), Reamde (2011), and other novels has already begun to materialize.

Good science fiction “supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place,” Stephenson wrote. “A good [science-fiction] universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers … such icons serve as hieroglyphs — simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.”

Yet, despite his visionary abilities, Stephenson insists that he’s not concerned with predicting the future in his books. The point, he tells Baer, “is simply to tell good stories.”

Margaret Atwood, Digital Deep-Diver, Writes ‘The Heart Goes Last’

Margaret Atwood is another writer of science fiction whose futuristic work often feels prophetic. Her recently released novel The Heart Goes Last grew out of her interest in new forms of digital narrative. She began the project three years ago as an online serial for Byliner, but it soon grew into a novel.

Initially, Ms. Atwood planned to publish a single e-book with Byliner. But she got absorbed in the story and was intrigued by the process of shaping a narrative in full view of the public, building in cliffhangers and plot twists to keep readers coming back. She described it as a high-tech version of 19th-century serialized works like Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers.”

As Atwood got increasingly more involved in the narrative, she and her publisher, Nan Talese, agreed that she should stop publishing serially online and hold the evolving novel for later print publication. The online publication experiment ended in May 2013 after four episodes.

She occasionally bristles when her books are billed as science fiction. Instead, she describes her futuristic stories as works of “speculative fiction,” and argues that her plots depict plausible scenarios rather than fantasy tales.

Guardian Live: Richard Flanagan on love, life and writing

Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan’s career has produced six novels, five nonfiction works, and two films. Here he tells _The Guardian_’s Marta Bausells what he’s learned over those years:

  • Story is everything
  • All the great love stories are death stories
  • Research is overrated
  • The chaos as at the heart of things
  • You shouldn’t look for morality in literature
  • A novel without structure is a jellyfish pretending to be a shark
  • The moment you know everything about a character, you’ve created a caricature

The reading list of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Over on For Reading Addicts, Kath reveals F. Scott Fitzgerald’s recommended reading list. He reportedly dictated this list to a nurse while he was recovering from alcoholism in 1936.

You’ll have to click on the link to read the list. It’s fairly long. While I’ve read about three of the titles and have heard of a few more, there a a lot of books here I’ve never even heard of.

How about you? What do you think of Fitzgerald’s suggestions? How many of the books on his list have you read?

Hemingway in Cuba

Now that relations between the U.S. and Cuba have been restored, Robert Manning, executive editor of The Atlantic, looks back on an interview with Hemingway published in 1965.

By the time I got the opportunity to meet him, he was savoring the highest moment of his fame – he had just won the Nobel Prize for Literature – but he was moving into the twilight of his life. He was fifty-five but looked older, and was trying to mend a ruptured kidney, a cracked skull, two compressed and one cracked vertebra, and bad burns suffered in the crash of his airplane in the Uganda bush the previous winter. Those injuries, added to half a dozen head wounds, more than 200 shrapnel scars, a shot-off kneecap, wounds in the feet, hands, and groin, had slowed him down.

Brew yourself a big cup of coffee or tea—or, if you’d rather invoke the spirit of Hemingway, pour yourself a good stiff drink—and curl up with this piece of literary history.

On Novels and Novelists

10 Famous Authors’ Favorite TV Shows

In an era when it’s impossible to open a web browser without stumbling across another “Is television the new novel?” piece, we couldn’t help but wonder, Carrie Bradshaw-style, just what our favorite writers watch in their spare time.

See what shows the following authors like:

  • Zadie Smith
  • S.E. Hinton
  • Lorrie Moore
  • Stephen King
  • Bret Easton Ellis
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Roxane Gay
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Joyce Carol Oates

And since not all of these writers are from the U.S., here’s an opportunity to learn about some television shows you may not know.

What Ray Bradbury’s FBI File Teaches Us About Science Fiction’s Latest Controversies

Separate FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests by the Daily Beast and MuckRock unearthed Bradbury’s files in 2012. Though they received some coverage at the time, Boing Boing, the Register, and MuckRock have discussed the documents this week, focusing to their charming anachronisms and other period peculiarities. Ultimately, however, those documents stand out most for what they reveal about the state of science fiction today.

Jacob Brogan here takes a quick look at what informants had to tell the FBI about Bradbury and his writings back in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite fears that science fiction might become “a lucrative field for the introduction of Communist ideologies,” Brogan asserts that Bradbury’s popular success was not driven by any ideology, “a communist one least of all.” Instead, Brogan writes, science fiction has always been about looking at what’s wrong with the world and imagining how to make it better.

“Science fiction’s latest controversies” referred to in the article’s title involve division in the ranks of science fiction writers and award judges, some of whom see “an elitist wave of liberal propaganda” overtaking the genre. This article includes lots of links to more material about these controversies on the web for those who wish to delve further into the issues.

But, Brogan reminds us, the FBI documents pertaining to Ray Bradbury are

important reminders that science fiction invites us to see and think in new ways. It’s not always ideologically inclined, but it has rarely strayed far from the political.

Ursula K. Le Guin on myths, Modernism and why “I’m a little bit suspicious of the MFA program”

Here Scott Timberg talks with Le Guin, a grand dame of both science fiction and fantasy, about her newly issued book on writing, Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. A significantly revised version of a work originally published in 1998, this book, Timberg says, “is not something any aspiring fiction writer should ignore.”

Steering the Craft originated in a workshop about the nuts and bolts of writing that Le Guin conducted for writers in the 1990s. She said that a lot of writers didn’t “have the vocabulary of the very elements of [their] work – which is how the English language is put together, and what constitutes a sentence and a non-sentence and so on.”

Read the rest of the interview—it’s short—to find out why she thinks writers should read the work of Virginia Woolf and why she is “a little bit suspicious of the MFA program” as a way for writers to practice their craft.

Why Knopf Editor in Chief Sonny Mehta Still Has the “Best Job in the World”

OK, Sonny Mehta is not a novelist, but as editor in chief of the Knopf publishing house, he’s deep into the world of books and writers.

In this short piece Dave Eggers profiles Mehta, for whom “the unique delight in discovering a great unpublished work hasn’t diminished.”

4 More Literary Lists, and Where I Stand on Each

One of the activities that my daily blogging challenge is cutting heavily into is reading. Since I’m not currently adding many new titles to my lifetime reading list, I’m turning to some other lists for a bit of consolation.

I think that for next year I’ll have to define for myself a serious reading challenge.

14 Women Writers Who Dominate The Universe Of Sci-Fi

I decided to start with Maddie Crum’s list of women science fiction authors for Huffington Post because I anticipated that I’d have my worst score here. I don’t read much science fiction. My reading in this genre is limited to the best known classics.

This is a list of authors rather than of specific books. I include in my tally the number of writers whose books I’ve read at least one of.

How many I’ve read: 4 of 14, or 28%

The percentage looks so much better than the actual number.

NPR’s Top 100 Science-Fiction & Fantasy Books

I don’t read much fantasy, either, but I hoped I might do better with this list because it includes some classics of literature.

How many I’ve read: 28, or 28%, which the web site tells me is in the top 37% of people who have participated.

At least I’m consistent.

The 100 best novels written in English: the full list

After two years of careful consideration, Robert McCrum has reached a verdict on his selection of the 100 greatest novels written in English.

Keep in mind that this list is from a newspaper in the United Kingdom.

If you want to know how McCrum made his choices, there’s a link to his discussion at the top of the page.

But I’m putting off the inevitable:

How many I’ve read: 48, or 48%

Darn. I was hoping for at least 50%. In my defense, I have enough of the ones I haven’t read on my list of classics TBR, so I at least give myself a pat on the back for knowing where my deficiencies lie.

BBC Believes You Only Read 6 of These Books…

I remember seeing something like this list by the BBC several years ago. Here’s List Challenges’s explanation:

Interestingly, the BBC never actually made this declaration. The list was created by an unknown individual and spread around the internet as a meme called The BBC Book List Challenge. It was probably loosely based on another list of books that was the result of a survey carried out in 2003 by the BBC in which three quarters of a million people voted to find the nation’s best-loved novels of all time.

The explanation ends with a link to BBC’s The Big Read – Best Loved Novels of All Time.

How many I’ve read: 58, or 58%, in the top 7%

Well, that’s more like it. Actually, I’ve read 58.3 of these works, since I read the first volume of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And a number of the books on this list that I haven’t yet read are on my list of classics TBR.

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How about you? How many of the books on these lists have you read?

More on Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”

Cover: Go Set a Watchman
Cover: Go Set a Watchman

Reactions to Harper Lee’s recently published aren’t going away any time soon. Here are some more that I’ve collected. Again, this list isn’t meant to be exhaustive, but here I’ve included only those pieces that add something new to the discussion rather than just echoing what has already been said.

I offer very short summaries of these articles here. I encourage you to follow the links and read the entire articles for a thought-provoking look at how Go Set a Watchman has entered our national consciousness.

Data Miners Dig for Answers About Harper Lee, Truman Capote and ‘Go Set a Watchman’

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdIn 2013 Jan Rybicki and Maciej Eder released software capable of comparing word patterns across different books. Rubicki and Eder, both affiliated with universities in Krakow, Poland, have used their software in search of the persistent rumor that Truman Capote, a childhood friend of Harper Lee, wrote at least parts of her famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

By comparing Mockingbird with two of Capote’s works, In Cold Blood and The Grass Harp, the researchers have concluded that in the scene in which Scout and Jem are attacked on their way home from a school performance, the writing style has more in common with Capote’s than with Lee’s:

The researchers aren’t declaring that Mr. Capote wrote the passage but say that at this fraught moment in the narrative, Ms. Lee may have been subliminally using words as Mr. Capote did—or she may have been pulled off her typical authorial voice for some other reason.

Further, in an examination of Go Set a Watchman, “the scholars similarly did not find any parallels between writing by Ms. Lee and Mr. Capote, nor any signs of a strong editor.”

This is an informative article for anyone interested in data mining in the emerging field of digital humanities.

Harper Lee and the hero’s journey

Cover: The Hero with a Thousand FacesCharles Kinnaird poses the interesting theory that the differing portrayals of Atticus Finch in Mockingbird and Watchman illustrate Harper Lee’s life considered in light of Joseph Campbell’s theory of the hero’s journey as presented in The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

I would submit that Harper Lee made that hero’s journey, and while her initial return home is reflected in Go Set a Watchman, her transformative work is seen in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Although Watchman has been published much later than Mockingbird, it was apparently written first, then heavily edited into Mockingbird. Therefore, Kinnaird is correct in looking at the novels in this order.

An Evening with the Real Scout Finch

Sarah Galo reports on a reading by Mary Badham, who played Scout in the famous 1962 film version of Mockingbird, of Watchman. Badham told the audience that she thinks Mockingbird came at a perfect time for our country and Watchman has done the same, in light of recent events:

she emphasized the importance of reading both of Harper Lee’s books in light of the “major things” that have come up in the past few weeks. “It all comes down to education. I tell the schools all the time, and I make the kids say it and then scream it: The root of all evil is ignorance.”

How Go Set a Watchman Solves the Mystery of Harper Lee

Boris Kachka writes for Vulture that Watchman is

a crucial biographical document. For every question it raises about its profoundly famous and private 89-year-old author, it also answers a mystery or two about Lee’s life and motivations.

Like other writers who look for the progression from Watchman to Mockingbird, he sees the recent publication as a measure of how Lee’s views about her hometown of Monroeville, AL, changed as she spent her early adult years in New York working at becoming a writer.

Harper Lee’s lingering Civil War ghosts: “Go Set a Watchman” is “a very accurate perspective of what’s going on here in the South”

In an interview with Salon, African American literature professor Angela Shaw-Thorburg of South Carolina State University talks about what Atticus Finch now represents.

About Mockingbird Shaw-Thorburg says:

when I read the novel, and think of it from my students’ perspective, I realize there’s not a lot of space given to black voice in that novel. It’s supposed to be a novel about race, about civil rights, but it’s a conversation between white people… . I’ve never seen it as a big statement about the humanity of black people, and how we need to fight for justice for black people. It’s about supporting the status quo.

And about the portrayal of Atticus Finch in Watchman she says:

It’s almost schizophrenic: On one hand we have an Atticus who says he’s all for justice, on the other hand he goes to Citizens Council meetings. I think this is a very accurate perspective of what’s going on here in the South. It’s part of our DNA. We have racism, but we get really upset if people are rude and crude. The two novels together are an accurate view of where we are as Southerners.

This article includes a link to Angela Shaw-Thornburg’s own review of Watchman in Southern Literary Review.

Atticus Finch Confronted What the South Couldn’t

In this piece in Time magazine Ralph Eubanks addresses the issue of the differences between the two versions of Atticus Finch:

The reason the Atticus of Mockingbird is iconic and the one in Watchman feels alien is because as Lee reworked Watchman into Mockingbird, she tapped into a key component of Southern culture: the need for folk heroes and mythic figures. It is through the folklore of the South that the region places a mirror up to its virtues and failures.

He continues:

Like any Southern liberal of his generation, Atticus does not challenge the foundation of Jim Crow privilege, even though he is actively defending a black client and trying to show his fellow white citizens to learn how to walk in another man’s shoes. He knows that he cannot convince a jury to treat Tom Robinson as an equal. So, Atticus Finch was a man of his time rather than a man before his time.

And finally: “In Watchman, Atticus becomes part of the forces in the South that Lee wrote Mockingbird to counteract.”

Eubanks believes that Watchman should not have been published now but should have been left “to be discovered and studied by scholars as an artifact after Lee’s death.”

America, Meet the Real Atticus Finch

Michael Bourne is a staff writer at The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. Calling Mockingbird “a white liberal fairy tale for the Civil Rights Era,” he goes on to say, “Were it not so clumsily constructed, Go Set a Watchman would be the great undiscovered masterwork of 20th-century Southern literature.”

Bourne has a lot more to say. But what I take issue with—as I said in my review of Watchman—is the notion that the two different Atticus Finches are real people whose contradictory portrayals must be explained to restore sense and balance to our universe.

The two men are literary characters. Each one exists only in his own book, not in both. We may discuss what the two different representations of Atticus Finch say about Harper Lee’s vision, about the times in which she wrote or in which Mockingbird is set, or about what Watchman has to say about current American society. But neither novel’s portrayal of Atticus Finch is better or more realistic or more accurate than the other. We each may, for whatever reasons, prefer one Atticus over the other, but that preference says more about us than it does about Atticus, that imagined fictional character.

Near the end of Watchman Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, asks her:

“Jean Louise, have you ever met your father?” her uncle asks, and she realizes she never has, not really. Neither have we, though we have been living with Atticus Finch for more than half a century. It is high time we got to know him. The question is whether we will still love him once we have.

I will continue to love the Atticus Finch of Mockingbird. Watchman has not introduced me to the “real” Atticus; it has introduced me to another, different Atticus. Compare the books, but don’t treat them as dueling biographies about the same historical person. Atticus Finch is a literary character, not a flesh-and-blood person.

On Novels and Novelists

What’s Changed, and What Hasn’t, in the Town That Inspired “To Kill a Mockingbird”

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdIn a long piece for Smithsonian Magazine, Paul Theroux describes a visit to Monroeville, AL, home of author Harper Lee and inspiration for the fictional Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird:

Monroeville is like many towns of its size in Alabama—indeed the Deep South: a town square of decaying elegance, most of the downtown shops and businesses closed or faltering, the main industries shut down. I was to discover that To Kill A Mockingbird is a minor aspect of Monroeville, a place of hospitable and hard-working people, but a dying town, with a population of 6,300 (and declining), undercut by NAFTA, overlooked by Washington, dumped by manufacturers like Vanity Fair Mills (employing at its peak 2,500 people, many of them women) and Georgia Pacific, which shut down its plywood plant when demand for lumber declined. The usual Deep South challenges in education and housing apply here, and almost a third of Monroe County (29 percent) lives in poverty.

Theroux’s piece anticipates the July 14th publication of Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, in which a grown-up Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returns home and reminisces about the trial of Tom Robinson that occurred 20 years earlier (the trial depicted in Mockingbird.) Ever since the announcement of the discovery and publication of this manuscript, Harper Lee’s only other novel, there has been speculation about whether this novel will be as good as her first.

There’s also been speculation about whether the second novel, set 20 years after the first, will portray a Maycomb essentially different. Or will it provide the same Southern vision?

And that’s the odd thing about a great deal of a certain sort of Deep South fiction—its grotesquerie and gothic, its high color and fantastication, the emphasis on freakishness. Look no further than Faulkner or Erskine Caldwell, but there’s plenty in Harper Lee too, in Mockingbird, the Boo Radley factor, the Misses Tutti and Frutti, and the racist Mrs. Dubose, who is a morphine addict: “Her face was the color of a dirty pillowcase and the corners of her mouth glistened with wet which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin.” This sort of prose acts as a kind of indirection, dramatizing weirdness as a way of distracting the reader from day to day indignities.

In a bit more than a week we’ll find out if Go Set a Watchman, written long ago but published only now, is an anachronism in an age when “few Southern writers concern themselves with the new realities” of poverty, education, and race relations in the American South.

What novelist Kent Haruf taught me about writing and life

Cover: PlainsongMichael Rosenwald, a reporter for the Washington Post, talks about what novelist Kent Haruf meant to him. Rosenwald enrolled in Haruf’s beginning fiction class at Southern Illinois University in 1993, six years before the publication of Plainsong, Haruf’s break-out novel.

Storytelling, I’d learn, is about what happens next, and this story, about what happened after I met Kent, proves that what he taught me about stories is true: They have the power to exalt and transform. In this story, a little-known writer — gentle, fatherly, good — shapes a young man’s life, becomes renowned and never changes.

Although Haruf wrote fiction and Rosenwald concentrated on nonfiction, the two remained close:

After the success of “Plainsong,” Kent moved back to Colorado to write full time. I’d call him now and then. We began ­e-mailing, teasing each other about football, sharing news of what we’d read lately. And I began to see him more and more in my life. He was in the stories I pursued about ordinary people, in the strands of dialogue I’d hear and jot down, in the kindness I’d extend to students asking for advice. “Find your Kent,” I’d tell them.

Such a moving tribute to Haruf, who died last November. May we all find our own Kent.

10 influential pulp novels that are criminally good

Pulp fiction is called that because it first appeared in the early 20th century in fiction magazines published on cheap paper made from wood pulp. Read why Molly Lynch recommends these pulp fiction novels:

  1. Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life by Philip Jose Farmer
  2. Lest Darkness Fall by L. Sprague de Camp
  3. Judgment Night by C. L. Moore
  4. John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  5. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
  6. Sign of the Labrys by Margaret St. Clair
  7. Tunnel in the Sky by Robert A. Heinlein
  8. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
  9. No Good From a Corpse by Leigh Brackett
  10. Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

JK Rowling reveals why the Dursleys dislike Harry Potter so much

Harry Potter boxed setJ.K. Rowling may have finished the Harry Potter series, but she apparently can’t quite let it go. In a piece for her web site Pottermore, she explains the back story of the Dursleys’ dislike of their nephew Harry and the reason why Aunt Petunia does not offer Harry any work of kindness in the final novel of the series.

Here Alison Flood fills in the history of Harry’s relationship with his aunt, uncle, and cousin, for those of us who have forgotten some of the details.

Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought – The New York Times

On the eve of the most anticipated publishing event in years — the release of Harper Lee’s novel “Go Set a Watchman” — there is yet another strange twist to the tale of how the book made its way to publication, a development that further clouds the story of serendipitous discovery that generated both excitement and skepticism in February.

Source: Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’ May Have Been Found Earlier Than Thought – The New York Times

On Novels and Novelists

How the Modern Detective Novel Was Born

Cover: The Golden Age of MurderHere Martin Edwards, author of the new book The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, gives a concise history of the development of the modern detective novel. Authors he discusses include the following: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, G.D.H. Cole, Henry Wade, Ed McBain, Anthony Berkeley, Patricia Highsith, Margaret Millar, Ruth Rendell, Sophie Hannah, Dorothy L. Sayers, and J.K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith).

Edwards places the detective novel within the changing social, historical, and cultural characteristics of its development and argues:

Golden Age novels reflected the times during which they were written. Inevitably, many of the attitudes on display are different from those of the twenty-first century. But for too long, even the best of these books have suffered unfairly from critical prejudice. Hugely enjoyable in their own right, they give a fascinating insight into a vanished world. What is more, they set the pattern for crime fiction for decades to come. The time is ripe to rediscover the Golden Age of Murder.

When Did Books Get So Freaking Enormous? The Year of the Very Long Novel

In an article from last month Boris Kachka admits “it’s tempting to proclaim this the era of the Very Long Novel (VLN).” The classic example of the recent VLN era is David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page opus Infinite Jest, published in 1996. As more recent examples of such tomes he cites Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Another illustration of this trend is the current emphasis on series works such as the Harry Potter collection and Game of Thrones.

Yet long books are really nothing new, Kachka points out (think Eliot’s Middlemarch and Tolstoy’s The Brothers Karamazov). Here’s one possible explanation for the current crop of VLNs:

“People seem to be seeking wholly immersive experiences,” says Knopf publicity director Paul Bogaards. “They’re binge-watching, they’re cooking from scratch, going on ecotours. And there’s no more immersive experience than reading a good long book.”

Another possible explanation is the concept of “_World-building_, a term once exclusive to physicists and game designers, [that] is now on the tip of every book publicist’s tongue.” Bigger books create bigger worlds. Both individual VLNs and series VLNs parallel the growing obsession with binge-watching multiple episodes of television series and online-created content.

This whole discussion reminds me of a scene from the film Amadeus, about the life of Mozart. When someone criticizes the composer for using too many notes, he asks, “Exactly which notes would you have me leave out?”

I don’t mind long books. In fact, I read eagerly through The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, enthralled until the very last word. What I don’t like is a long book that’s longer than it needs to be. I thought Moo, Jane Smiley’s satirical take on the small world of land-grant academia, should have been cut by about one-third.

What about you? Do you like to read long books? Are there any VLNs that you’ve particularly liked or hated? Let us know in the comments section.

Can Reading Make You Happier?

Novelist Ceridwen Dovey describes personal experience with bibliotherapy, or reading by prescription. Initially skeptical, Dovey discovered:

The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.

Along the way Dovey provides a short history of bibliotherapy:

The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading… . Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.

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And here are a couple of lists of reading recommendations, if either of these topics grabs you.

10 Books to Read If You’re Not Traveling This Summer

Writer Emma Straub’s most recent novel, The Vacationers, is set in Mallorca. Because a “good book is the cheapest form of transportation there is,” Straub here recommends some books you can read if you’re not traveling this summer—or even if you are.

10. In the Woods by Tana French

9. The Fun of It, Stories from the Talk of the Town edited by Lillian Ross

8. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

7. Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

6. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

5. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

4. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

3. Arcadia by Lauren Groff

2. The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

1. Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

About Straub’s 10th pick, In the Woods by Tana French: This is the first book in what is known as French’s Dublin Murder Series. I did not particularly like it and almost didn’t read the subsequent novels. But a good review for the second book in the series made me give it a try, and I’ve read the rest and like them all. These books are related in that each one focuses on a different character of a Dublin murder squad, but each book is self-contained and can be read on its own.

10 Best Noir Novels

I like noir novels as much as the next reader, so I was surprised that I had never even heard of any of these books. Read why Ken Bruen, whose own most recent noir novel is _Green Hell-, singles out these titles:

10. Dark Passage by David Goodis

9. Sing a Song of Homicide by James R. Langham

8. Cold Caller by Jason Starr

7. The Lucky Stiff by Craig Rice

6. A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride

5. The Shark-Infested Custard by Charles Willeford

4. He Died with His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

3. The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli

2. The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi

1. Killing Suki Flood by Rob Leininger