5 Nonfiction Big Books I Loved

Related Posts:

scroll divider

Since I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction, it’s not surprising that all of my earlier Big Books lists have included only novels. However, in looking over my reading lists of the past several years, I discovered five nonfiction works that qualify as Big Books.

I thought I’d find more, but many of the potential candidates I looked at checked in at around 450 pages. I even found one of 497 pages that I was tempted to include, but I finally decided that, since “500 pages or more” is my working definition of the term Big Book, I should stick to that definition here as well.

Truman by David McCullough
Hardcover, 1116 pages

trumanHow could I not love a man who taught himself Latin while driving a horse-drawn plow back and forth across the fields of his family’s farm?

The best writers of creative nonfiction use novelistic techniques to develop characters, create settings, interject background material, and pace action in service to telling a compelling story. David McCullough is one of those writers. I’ve loved every one of his books that I’ve read, but he is at his outstanding best in this biography of the simple man from Missouri who lead the United States through one of its most crucial periods. Here’s how Goodreads describes the subject of this biography:

The last president to serve as a living link between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, Truman’s story spans the raw world of the Missouri frontier, World War I, the powerful Pendergast machine of Kansas City, the legendary Whistle-Stop Campaign of 1948, and the decisions to drop the atomic bomb, confront Stalin at Potsdam, send troops to Korea, and fire General MacArthur.

Truman is both an outstanding historical document and a literary masterpiece.

Lindbergh by A. Scott Berg
Hardcover, 640 pages

lindberghLike McCullough, Berg tells a masterful story of his subject’s life.

However, Charles Lindbergh isn’t as easy a subject to portray as Harry Truman. The same qualities that made Lindbergh a brilliant, dedicated, and persevering achiever also made him difficult to live with. For example, when he tried to play with his children, he developed games with such arduous and fussy rules that they were not games at all, but rather overwhelming tasks that the children dreaded and resented.

Nonetheless, Berg compellingly portrays what Goodreads calls “the life of one of the nation’s most legendary, controversial, and enigmatic figures.”

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Paperback, 500 pages

unbrokenHere’s yet another brilliant biography compellingly told. Laura Hillenbrand, whose earlier book Seabiscuit does not quite qualify as a Big Book, recounts the life of Louis Zamperini.

As a boy, Zamperini was a delinquent whose activities included breaking into houses, getting into fights, and running away from home to ride the freight rails. As a teenager, he channeled his rebellion into running and became successful enough to participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he placed eighth in the 5000 m race.

When World War II arrived, Zamperini went off to fight. In 1943 he was the bombardier on a plane that crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He managed to survive in thousands of miles of open ocean by clinging to a tiny life raft. Later he bacame a prisoner of war, where he inspired his fellow prisoners with his refusal to give in to the brutal conditions and torture imposed by their captors.

Zamperini died in 2014 at the age of 97.

Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon – and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller
Hardcover, 584 pages

girls like usI grew up with the music of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Although—or perhaps because—I never knew much about their lives, I was drawn to Weller’s book.

Here’s Goodreads’ description of the book’s content:

Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct. Carole King is the product of outer-borough, middle-class New York City; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of the Manhattan intellectual upper crust. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, a great swath of American girls who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic sixties generation – female version – but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way, far from cliche. The history of the women of that generation has never been written – until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.

This eminently readable book helped me understand that pivotol decade, the 1960s, much better than I had while living through it.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Paperback, 592 pages

feminine mystiquePublished in 1963, this ground-breaking work described “the problem that has no name.” Without knowing exactly what to call it, Friedan had discovered that smothered feeling women felt because of unquestioned social beliefs that urged them to be content with home and family, and of institutions of higher learning that minimized their intellectual potential by turning homemaking into a glorified academic discipline.


Writing in a time when the average woman first married in her teens and 60 percent of women students dropped out of college to marry, Betty Friedan captured the frustrations and thwarted ambitions of a generation and showed women how they could reclaim their lives.

Source: Goodreads

I read this book back in college in the late 1960s, but I appreciated it much more when I reread it just a few years ago.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

I’m trying out something different this week. I have three blogs:

Because of these wide-ranging interests, I often end up with lots of open browser tabs containing quite a variety of materials.

Since sorting all these materials out for the individual blogs can be quite time-consuming, I’m going to try to streamline my blogging process by putting together a weekly list of all the interesting articles I come across and publishing the same post to all three of the blogs. Feel free to click on whichever links interest you and to ignore the rest.

Note: In compiling this initial list, I discovered that I’ve actually been holding many of these tabs open for two weeks. Therefore, this entry is longer than future ones will probably be.

scroll divider

Taking On the Ph.D. Later in Life

While the overall age of Ph.D. candidates has dropped in the last decade, about 14 percent of all doctoral recipients are over age 40, according to the National Science Foundation. Relatively few students work on Ph.D.s [in their 60s], but educators are seeing increasing enrollment in doctoral programs by students in their 40s and 50s. Many candidates hope doctorates will help them advance careers in business, government and nonprofit organizations; some … are headed for academic research or teaching positions.

This article caught my eye because I started working on a doctorate at age 57 and finally received my degree on my 63rd birthday. About 30 years earlier I had completed the course work but not the dissertation for a doctorate in English and American literature. My main motivation for returning to school was to fulfill a life-long dream of earning a Ph.D., but I also benefitted from being able to focus my studies on the particular area I was interested in (life stories).

You Can Go Home Again: The Transformative Joy Of Rereading

girl readingReturning to a book you’ve read multiple times can feel like drinks with an old friend. There’s a welcome familiarity — but also sometimes a slight suspicion that time has changed you both, and thus the relationship. But books don’t change, people do. And that’s what makes the act of rereading so rich and transformative.

Juan Vidal explains why he rereads three books every year: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, and Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar.

Michael Kinsley’s ‘Old Age: A Beginner’s Guide’

Longevity breeds literature. As people (including writers) live longer thanks to medical advances, we can expect many more books contemplating the vicissitudes of aging, illness and dying. These topics, previously thought uncommercial, not to mention unsexy, have been eloquently explored recently by Diana Athill (“Somewhere Towards the End”), Roger Angell (“This Old Man”) and Christopher Hitchens (“Mortality”), among others. Now that the baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, “enter life’s last chapter,” Michael Kinsley writes, “there is going to be a tsunami of books about health issues by every boomer journalist who has any, which ultimately will be all of them.” Hoping to scoop the others, he has written “Old Age,” a short, witty “beginner’s guide,” with an appropriate blend of sincerity and opportunism.


Literature of the American South comprises more than just Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the works of William Faulkner. Here Emily Gatlin provides a class list of the full range of works that illustrate the Southern literary experience.

‘Literature about medicine may be all that can save us’

A new generation of doctor writers is investigating the mysteries of the medical profession, exploring the vital intersection between science and art

In telling the stories of illness, we need to tell the stories of the lives within which illness is embedded. Neither humanism nor medicine can explain much without the other, and so many people ricochet between two ways of describing their very being. This is in part because medicine has become so much harder to understand, with its designer molecules, bewildering toxins and digital cameras inserted into parts of ourselves we have never seen, nor wanted to see.

Telling the stories of illness has given rise to a movement known as “narrative medicine,” or, more broadly, “medical humanities.” We are seeing more and more memoirs by patients about their experiences of illness and by doctors about their attempts to understand their patients’ stories. Many of the books by physicians include their authors’ own experiences of being ill.

Books by physicians concerned about understanding patients’ stories of illness discussed here include the following:

Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
What Doctors Feel by Danielle Ofri
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis

The Best Music for Staying Productive at Work, Backed by Science

I always used to want complete quiet when reading or concentrating, but when I went back to school I discovered that certain types of music could help me focus. This article summarizes the research demonstrating how music can increase concentration and discusses which types of music work best for this purpose.

The best part of this article is the links to examples of music for focus in these categories: classical, electronic, video game soundtracks, ambient noise, and “everything else.”

Neuroscientists create ‘atlas’ showing how words are organised in the brain

Scientists have created an “atlas of the brain” that reveals how the meanings of words are arranged across different regions of the organ.

Described as a “tour de force” by one researcher who was not involved in the study, the atlas demonstrates how modern imaging can transform our knowledge of how the brain performs some of its most important tasks. With further advances, the technology could have a profound impact on medicine and other fields.

Thinking Beyond Money in Retirement

After a career of working, scrimping and saving, many retirees are well prepared financially to stop earning a living. But how do you find meaning, identity and purpose in the remaining years of your life?


This excerpt from Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik discusses the female detectives, real and literary, who preceded Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.

© 2016 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.

Monday Miscellany


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

Here’s some reading to start off your week.

Five Smarter Ways to Nurture Reading

Girl ReadingSari Harrar has suggestions, based on recent research, for helping children learn to read and to enjoy reading. This one is my favorite:

Link the story to their lives. Pause when you read and ask kids how the story connects to their own experiences. “Where have you seen a train (or a sunset, a forest, or any important element that connects to their own lives) before?”. Research shows that making connections like these builds bigger vocabularies.

10 books you absolutely must read

I love this clever list. It’s not a list of specific book titles, but rather categories of books. Here are a couple of examples:

  • The one that a friend recommends even though it’s in a genre you’ve never read
  • The Young Adult novel that one of your kids loved

The Top 10 Essays Since 1950

Robert Atwan, the founder of The Best American Essays series, has built this list for Publishers Weekly. To choose only 10 essays from a 50+ span of years seems not only ambitious but also, in some ways, arrogant. Indeed, Atwan explains that he had to eliminate whole swaths of work: “all the great examples of New Journalism” and everything written by a non-American author. And, he emphasizes, this is a list of individual essays, not of essayists.

Here’s how he defines what he did include:

To my mind, the best essays are deeply personal (that doesn’t necessarily mean autobiographical) and deeply engaged with issues and ideas. And the best essays show that the name of the genre is also a verb, so they demonstrate a mind in process–reflecting, trying-out, essaying.

Atwan explains why he has chosen each essay on the list. In a nice touch, the list includes links if online versions of the essays are available.

Literary classics go to the movies

The coming weeks and months will see a spate of films based on books that were required reading for many a high school and college student.

An independent version of Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” arrived in select theaters over the weekend. Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” hits theaters Nov. 16, and Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables” comes out Dec. 14.

The second in a series of films based on Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” will be released Friday, also in limited release. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” the first in a trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book “The Hobbit,” comes out Dec. 14. The cinematic version of the acclaimed novel “Life of Pi” is due Nov. 21.

Book lovers always want to find out if the movie will be better than—or even as good as—the book. This article ends with a helpful summary of these novels. If you plan to read the book before seeing the film, note that many of these works are very long, so budget time accordingly.

A book lover to the very end

Cover: The End of Your LIfe Book Club
The End of Your Life Book Club

After Will Schwalbe’s 73-year-old mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, he began accompanying her to many of her chemotherapy treatments and doctor’s appointments. Both book lovers—Schwalbe is the former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books—they often passed the time by reading, talking about reading or both.

Their informal waiting-room book club endured for the remaining two years of her life, and led to this tender tribute to Schwalbe’s mother and also to the universal power of books to unite and heal. In it, he chronicles the many books that he and his mother, Mary Anne, read together, and how those books shaped their final years together.

Amy Scribner interviews Schwalbe for BookPage.

Featured Review: “Eat, Pray, Love”

Eat, Pray, LoveFeatured Review: Eat, Pray, Love

Happy birthday, Elizabeth Gilbert.


Monday Miscellany

Why fiction is good for you

The Storytelling Animal
The Storytelling Animal

Jonathan Gottschall is getting a lot of  mileage from the recent publication of his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. In this piece he addresses the issue of whether fiction in all its forms—TV shows and commercials, religious beliefs, and social commentary as well as novels, drama and poetry—benefits or harms society. He draws on new research findings to conclude:

But perhaps the most impressive finding is just how fiction shapes us: mainly for the better, not for the worse. Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction’s happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is. But believing that lie has important effects for society — and it may even help explain why humans tell stories in the first place.

The research he cites suggests that fiction has the power to influence the thinking of individuals and of whole societies. “Beyond the local battles of the culture wars, virtually all storytelling, regardless of genre, increases society’s fund of empathy and reinforces an ethic of decency that is deeper than politics.” Recent research findings suggest “that entering fiction’s simulated social worlds enhances our ability to connect with actual human beings.” Furthermore, Gottschall says, generally in fiction “goodness is endorsed and rewarded and badness is condemned and punished.”

Questions about the effects of fiction lead up to what Gottschall calls one big question: “Why are humans storytelling animals at all?” The reason may be that “Traditional tales, from hero epics to sacred myths, perform the essential work of defining group identity and reinforcing cultural values.” He concludes:

Fiction is often treated like a mere frill in human life, if not something worse. But the emerging science of story suggests that fiction is good for more than kicks. By enhancing empathy, fiction reduces social friction. At the same time, story exerts a kind of magnetic force, drawing us together around common values. In other words, most fiction, even the trashy stuff, appears to be in the public interest after all.

Fiction Isn’t Good for You

In answer to Gottschall, Will Wilkinson declares himself skeptical of the assertion that fiction is morally uplifting:

I don’t mind if fiction is instructive or edifying. It’s hard to see how time spent inhabiting fictional worlds and fictional minds can fail to expand our powers of sympathetic imagination. I don’t mind if fiction does that, nor do I mind if there’s some profit in it for readers/viewers and their social relations. But if a story is entertaining or stimulating or gripping or beautiful, that’s good enough.

I had intended to summarize Wilkinson’s refutation of Gottschall’s position, but I had difficulty following the logic of the argument here. I don’t want to misrepresent Wilkinson, so I’ll leave you to work your own way through his reasoning.

Let me just offer Wilkinson’s conclusion:

The “stories are good for you” argument, in addition to wrongly suggesting that stories ought to be good for you, promotes complacency about the cognitive dangers of naive narrative. Writing about politics every day has made me painfully aware of just how pathetically idiotic the “good-and-smart vs. stupid-or-evil” stories inside of which even some of our smartest commentators seem to be helplessly trapped. Better stories would certainly help. (There’s probably no non-narrative mode of thinking available to us.) But stories as such don’t look so great once we begin to see moral progress — Careful! History has not a plot — as a process of replacing bad stories with slightly less bad ones.

[How-to] The 4 Commandments of Reading for Self-Education

On the Bucket List Society’s blog Erik says that, now that he’s out of college, his aim in reading “is wisdom– knowing how best to act in any situation.” Nonfiction comprises most of the reading he undertakes for this purpose, and he has developed 4 directives that help him get the most from that reading:

  1. A book is only as good as what you remember from it
  2. Actually reading is more important than reading fast
  3. Don’t be afraid to burn books
  4. Read books to become better at non-books

He explains each of these commandments in more detail, but the one I found most interesting is #1. In order to remember more of what he reads, Erik advocates marking books up: using the highlighting function on his Kindle and writing in the margins of paper books. But in addition—and here’s the really intersting part—he keeps what he calls a commonplacedoc:

What’s a commonplace doc?  A commonplace book is something I heard of when I first start getting into reading.  Apparently, in the renaissance and enlightenment, a learned man would carry with him a small notebook for recording thoughts, quotes, passages, and small practical notes like transactions or to-do lists.  This struck me as really pretty extraordinary.  In one little book, you might have inspiration and wisdom from dozens of sources– all the things you found most meaningful and useful to you.  Being able to review those with regularity would be a privilege!

I keep the 21st century equivalent of a commonplace book– a Google doc of quotes from a variety of books and other sources.  Every time I finish a book, I open it up and type out what I want to take with me from that book.

But what’s even more useful is every six months, I take the document, format it for a small paperback book, and print it for ten bucks on Lulu.com, a website that does one-off book publishing.

Now I keep a database file with notes on what I read, and I also keep an Excel spreadsheet of particularly important quotations, which sounds similar to his commonplacedoc. But it never occurred to me to have a book of those passages printed commercially. Take a look at the photo and see if you might want to take a page out of his book.

My Life With Bob: Keeping Track of Reading Habits With a ‘Book of Books’

Erik has his commonplace book, and Pamela Paul has her book of books, described in this essay. She began recording her list of books to help her remember the important details of the books she read (Erik’s commandment #1 above). Over the years BoB, the book of books, turned into a record of where she had been when reading particular books and how some books related to others on her list. BoB became so important to her that:

Were my house to burst suddenly into flames, I would bypass the laptop and photo albums and even, God forgive me, my children’s artwork in order to rescue Bob, the record of every book I’ve read or didn’t finish reading since the summer of 1988.

See the photo of page 1 of BoB at the beginning of Paul’s essay.

Could a book writing competition ever be a reality TV show? Here’s a pitch:

On Entertainment Weekly Stephan Lee offers a modest proposal for a reality show about writing a book:

The prospect of a writing show is sometimes talked about but rarely taken seriously, because writing a book is hard, solitary work, and it would seem nothing could be more boring than watching someone do it. Even shows about writing music and writing movies, which have way more visual and cross-promotional potential than a show about writing books, have fizzled. As someone who loves writers as much as the fiction they create, I’d add a show about up-and-coming authors to my DVR if it’s done in a fun way. Here’s a ridiculously detailed pitch — half joking, half serious — for a fiction-writing competition I’d totally watch. Proposed title: Great American Author. Though a network would probably change it to The Next Best-Seller.

Yet despite the inherent difficulty, Lee has the whole scenario mapped out in detail. Enjoy.


2011: The Literary Year in Review

It’s New Year’s Eve, a good time to look back on what’s happened in the literary world this year.

Here are two more “best books” lists I think I’ve missed, NPR’s choices of The Best Music Books of 2011 and 2011’s Best American Poetry.

Britain’s The Telegraph provides comprehensive coverage in The Literary Year 2011. If you weren’t able to keep up with all the controversy over literary awards this year, you can beef up your knowledge here. This article also summarizes major publications in various fields (such as memoir, biography, politics, and sports) and concludes: “If it was a listless year for fiction, the non-fiction market fared little better.” PBS Newshour offers Conversation: The Year in Fiction, a discussion with Washington Post book critic Ron Charles.

Book lovers are also word lovers. Merriam-Webster, the dictionary people, offer 2011: The Year in Words, a compendium of “Defining Moments: In politics, culture, sports and more, these words spiked in lookups because of events in the news.”

The Christian Science Monitor challenges your knowledge of the year’s highly touted publications with 2011 fiction quiz: Can you recognize the opening line? [Warning: Each individual item is on a separate page, so click at your own risk.]

I’ll be creating my own list of best books read in 2011 and posting it separately. If you have a similar list of your own, you can include a link to it in the comments section.

Finally, if you’d rather focus on the year ahead than on the year past, Christian Science Monitor contributor Rachel Meier has this list of 6 books you should resolve to read in 2012 (one recommendation per page, annoyingly).

PW Best Books 2011: The Top 10

Yep, it’s that time again already: Time for the “best books of the year” lists. Here’s the first one I’ve seen, Publishers Weekly‘s list of the 10 best books of the year, both fiction and nonfiction considered together.

And I’m sure that more lists won’t be far behind.

Monday Miscellany

Book lovers rake in the reading as publishers release fall titles

It’s time to trade in the beach reads for the usually longer and more serious fall reads. The Sacramento Bee‘s Allen Pierleoni lists upcoming new titles, some by big-name authors (think Joan Didion, Lee Child, Stephen King, Alice Hoffman, and Sue Grafton ) in both fiction and nonfiction.

Perfectly Flawed: In defense of unlikable characters

Lionel Shriver, author of, among other novels, We Need to Talk about Kevin, discusses the flawed main characters that she has often been reprimanded for creating. Shriver distinguishes her characters from both villains and anti-heroes: “flawed main characters, neither villains nor anti-heroes, [are main characters] whom the author has deliberately, even perversely contrived as hard to like.”

Most famously in my own work, Eva Khatchadourian, the narrator of We Need to Talk About Kevin, is hard to like: a woman whose world travels make her feel superior to her American compatriots, who experiences pregnancy as an infestation and, worst of all, who fails to love her own son.

Shriver argues that a character’s likeability comprises two components, moral approval and affection, and “Readers often get approval and affection confused.” She asks, ” do we always want to read about characters who conform to current political conventions—who don’t smoke, never say anything bigoted, and always recycle their yogurt pots?” Such “nice” characters would be easy for the writer to recreate, she says, but would we truly want to read about only these paragons?

Goodness is not only boring but downright annoying. In fiction and reality both, multilingual, loftily-educated ponces on missions to save the rainforest are probably pains in the bum. Thus, however readily I might construct exemplars who pick up litter and volunteer at soup kitchens, this cheap courting of your approval might well backfire. Despite my heavy-handed stacking of the moral deck, you wouldn’t like them. Nick Hornby made exactly this point in his delightful novel How To Be Good, in which the main character’s determination to be virtuous—he gives away the family assets and invites homeless people to live in the house—is delectably repellent.

Creating only nice characters is not an accurate representation of life:

Because in real life, people are not always perfectly charming. I try to duplicate in fiction the complex, contradictory, and infuriating people I meet on the other side of my study door. When fiction works, readers can develop the same nuanced, conflicted relationships to characters that they have to their own friends and family. I’m less concerned that you love my characters than that you recognise them. Human beings have rough edges. Authors who write exclusively about ethical, admirable, likeable characters are not writing about real people.

Her flawed main characters are interesting, Shriver says, and

readers want to be engaged even more than they want to be seduced. When purely affectionate and approving, a reader’s relationship to a character is flat. When positive feelings mix with censure and consternation, the relationship is dynamic. In fact, authorial elicitation of the reader’s frantic if impotent warning, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” is a powerful literary tool, for dismay generates energy and intensifies engagement. In Kevin, I made Eva’s husband Franklin deliberately exasperating—see-no-evil, he refuses to recognize his son’s growing malice—because this “What a dupe! Wake up, buddy!” reaction is involving and oddly enjoyable.

My own view is that liking or disliking a literary character is not the point; understanding the character is what’s important. When writers do their jobs well (as Shriver does in We Need to Talk about Kevin), we understand who the characters are and why they do what they do. At their root, all good stories require conflict, and conflict arises from characters who are less than perfect. Or, as Shriver puts it, “Good stories require mistakes.”

Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions 

Sandra Gilbert (both individually and with her collaborator Susan Gubar) has played a long and distinguished part in the rethinking of the teaching of English literature. The title of the first major Gilbert and Gubar collaboration, The Madwoman in the Attic, has become shorthand to indicate all those questions that once were not asked about fiction. Since that book’s publication in 1979, all kinds of silences have been broken as women have become central figures both as subjects and as critics in the academic study of literature.

Mary Evans discusses Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions:

Rereading Women is a collection of previously published essays dating from 1977 to 2008, with new material limited to an introductory essay that describes how Gilbert began her collaboration with Gubar and became a professional academic. It is written within the standard assumptions of second-wave feminism in which, to paraphrase, the people who lived in darkness (particularly the darkness of the US in the 1950s) saw a great light in the early 1970s.

Evans discusses Gilbert’s work in its relation to university curriculums, to what is chosen for study and how it is studied.

this collection has one very considerable merit: it situates the reader at the centre of the reading of literature. The work that Gilbert did, both in the classroom and the study, was essentially democratic: she wanted the people she was teaching to engage with literature and through it find not the voices of authoritative “great traditions”, but their own voices.

When she, and Gubar, introduced the idea of the woman locked away in an attic by people for whom her existence was inconvenient, they introduced an idea into the curriculum that encouraged the recognition of other forms and occasions of silencing.