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, 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.


Monday Miscellany

Vashon Great Books club one of oldest in U.S.

The Seattle Times spotlights 92-year-old Grace Crecelius:

For 61 years, Grace Crecelius has cracked the books. Not just any books, mind you, but the works of Plato, Descartes and Kant, Shakespeare, Marx and Freud.

At 92, Crecelius is the oldest member of what may be one of the longest-running book clubs around — the Vashon Island Great Books Foundation discussion group.

The Great Books Foundation was founded in 1947 by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins. Its purpose is to help readers of all ages become more reflective and responsible thinkers by engaging with great works of literature. Since its beginning the Foundation has expanded its materials to serve students of all ages (K-12, college, and adults). While its original offerings focused on great works of thinkers such as Plato and Socrates, current materials include newer literary works such as contemporary novels and even science fiction. Its aim is to “make the reading and discussion of literature a lifelong source of enjoyment, personal growth, and social engagement.”

On the Great Books web site you can search for a group in your area. If there isn’t one, you can also find out how to start a group. The Foundation also offers instruction in how to practice civil discourse in discussion of the ideas presented in literature.

P.D. James writes Jane Austen sequel

P.D. James could hold back no longer.

The 91-year-old detective novelist said Wednesday she was glad to finally complete a long-desired project – a sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley” will be published by Faber & Faber in Britain in early November and by Alfred A. Knopf in the United states on Dec. 6.

Ms. Readers’ 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time: The Top 10 and the Complete List!

Scholar, activist, provocateur, teacher, community-builder, inspiration: No one word can span the career of bell hooks or capture how much we love her work. According to Ms. readers’ selections of the best feminist non-fiction of all time, she’s your favorite writer, with three books in our top ten–including number one–and a total of seven books throughout the list. To judge by the final picks, issues of work, sex and intersectionality ranked highest among our reader’s feminist concerns.

And here are the top 10:

10. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women
by Jessica Valenti
Seal Press, 2009
Jessica Valenti combats a nation’s virginity complex, arguing that myths about “purity” are damaging to both girls and women. She points the way forward toward a world where women are perceived as more than vessels of chastity. 

9. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
by bell hooks
South End Press, 1985
Cementing her place as one of the most influential feminist theorists, hooks’ Feminist Theory explores Kimberle Crenshaw’s conversation-changing idea of intersectionality: the way racism, classism and sexism work together to foster oppression.

8. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism
by bell hooks
South End Press, 1999
Named after the famous speech by Sojourner Truth, this must-read by bell hooks discusses black women’s struggle with U.S. racism and sexism since the time of slavery and doesn’t shirk from how white middle- and upper-class feminists have at times failed poor and non-white women. 

7. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
by Ariel Levy
Free Press, 2005
What do phenomena such as Girls Gone Wild say about feminism? This book looks at the ways women today make sex objects of themselves, and she’s not impressed. She chews out false “empowerment” based on self-objectification and offers feminist alternatives. 

6. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
by Susan Faludi
Crown, 1991
This landmark book sounded the alarm about a pervasive backlash against feminism. She painstakingly refutes each insidious anti-feminist argument–for instance, that feminism is responsible for a supposed epidemic of unhappiness in women. What’s really wrong, she says, is that equality hasn’t been achieved; in fact, the struggle has only just begun. 

5. Nickel and Dimed
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 2001
Long-time Ms. columnist Barbara Ehrenreich posed undercover as a low-income worker to gain material for this empathetic portrait of how the bottom half lives. She reveals that simply making ends meet is a silent struggle for many Americans, especially for women with families to support.

4. A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf
Harcourt Brace, 1929
This classic from the 1920s makes a devastatingly eloquent argument with a simple takeaway: For a women artist to thrive, she must have space in which to work and some money for her efforts. 

3. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
by Audre Lorde
Crossing Press, 1984
This master work by Audre Lorde, a Caribbean American lesbian feminist writer, collects her prose from the late 70s and early 80s. Many of these pieces made feminist history, including her candid dialogue with Adrienne Rich about race and feminism, her oft-quoted critique of academia “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and her Open Letter to Mary Daly. 

2. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence
by Inga Muscio
Seal Press 2002
Inga Muscio’s 2002 feminist manifesto radicalized a new generation. She argues for the reclaiming of the tarnished word cunt, and discusses her personal experiences with self-protection, sex work, abortion and solidarity.

1. Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics
by bell hooks
South End Press, 2000
Fittingly, in Ms. readers’ favorite feminist book of all time, bell hooks argues that feminism is for everybody, regardless of race, gender or creed. She urges all to live a feminism that finds commonality across differences and makes room for impassioned debate. 

Movies Totally Different From The Books They Were Based On

You know how readers almost always say that they liked a book better than its movie version? Well, in another one of those lists that they love so much, The Huffington Post presents “movies that feature totally different endings, story lines, and main characters than the original book. Here are a few of our favorite examples. Be warned, spoilers ahead!”

From Chick Lit to Victim Books: Problems with the Woman’s Book Club

Luanne Bradley asks, “What came first, the depressing women’s book clubs or the morbid books?”

The inevitable prerequisite [of book group selections] is the agreed-upon selections must be meaty enough to spark evocative feedback for eloquent sharing round the coffee table. As a result, our picks are highly wrought works of historic, political or cultural significance perpetually mired in sadness. Or, as a fellow member recently commiserated, “Can’t we move on from the holocaust and women in pain?”

I do admit that my own book group has read so many holocaust books that we’ve decided on a moratorium for that subject matter. And a few years ago we read so many books about men who treated women badly that we called ourselves, for a time, the SOB book group.

But back to Bradley’s article:

“As someone who has written about ‘women in pain,’ women dealing with the death of a child, for example, I think that the premise of your question is problematic,” novelist Ayelet Waldman tells me. “All interesting stories are about someone in crisis – in ‘pain’ if you will. Who wants to read about happy people doing happy things? Story is conflict, conflict is story. The Corrections was about people in crisis. Does that fall into your category of ‘victim-literature?’ If it doesn’t, then I think you should take a good look at the question you’re asking, and consider whether it isn’t inherently sexist.”

One suggestion Bradley has for finding other types of books to read is not to “rely solely on the New York Times lists and peruse book stores for the employee recommendations. Oftentimes, you will find sparkling little stories that didn’t cut the mustard with the corporate giant, but are worthwhile nonetheless.”

And my personal assignment from my book group is to find a good mystery that we can all cozy up to this fall.

Why teens should read adult fiction

We’ve seen the discussion before about whether YA (young adult) literature is too dark for adolescents. In this article Brian McGreevy dismisses this subject:

My concern is not this debate — in fact, I consider it to be moot. The YA category is a marketing distinction, not a moral one, however much parents would like it to be a synonym for “safe.”

Instead, he argues that when adolescents reach the point when they’re interested in reading adult fiction, they should be allowed to do so. He calls this point “the V.C. Andrews Curve, after the author of ‘Flowers in the Attic.’”  At this point, “not only will your kids survive an exposure to violence and sexuality in books, but it is crucial to their moral development”:

Of course adolescents have an irresistible attraction to adult themes; perverse and puritanical an instinct as there is in this culture to prolong childhood, there is a far stronger counter-instinct in children to analyze, simulate, and as soon as humanly possible participate in the challenges of adulthood.

Furthermore, he argues that books provide a kind of experience that neither films nor video games can provide:

What neither films nor video games are cut out for is developing the critical faculties that reading does. Higher-order mental processes are not even strictly required to enjoy a movie, whereas books, by nature, are undemocratic. A combination of education and innate sensitivity is required to enjoy them, and the reward is the closest possible experience to entering another human being’s consciousness and revising the parameters of your own. It’s harder because it should be.

I’ve often thought that preventing children who are growing into young adults from reading about the truths of human existence is both a disservice to and a devaluation of them. Young adults know and understand more than we give them credit for. And, while parents’ desire to protect their children from adult knowledge may have good intentions, preventing young adults from learning about adult life leaves them unprepared for a world that they will eventually grow into, whether we like it or not. We need to trust our children:

They’re equipped with a strength and ingenuity they’re not often enough credited with. Life’s genesis and termination — and every gradation of human experience in between — is their birthright. They are entitled to learn about it at exactly the rate it is appropriate to their individual moral development to do so. And as long as you love them enough, they’ll end up basically OK.


Best nonfiction books of 2008

Best nonfiction books of 2008 |

The Christian Science Monitor offers its gift-giving guide to nonfiction.