Last Week’s Links

THE BEST BOOK DATABASE YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF

Abby Hargreaves talks about Novelist, a database that librarians use to recommend books to patrons. This database, which may be available to you through your local library’s web site, is especially good for finding recommendations on what to read next if you liked a particular book and would like to read more similar to it.

While NoveList only organizes fiction, there’s a companion database called NoveList Plus that includes nonfiction, too.

The Thing About Families and Thriller Writing

Because I love thrillers, I read a lot of descriptions of books in that genre. Here, thriller novelist David Bell explains why some many of those descriptions contain two elements: families and secrets.

It’s true that we thriller writers often exaggerate the problems and secrets that families deal with. Most families don’t experience murder, kidnapping, extortion, disappearance. (Some do, of course.) But so many times those wild, exaggerated crimes that occur in a thriller start with something small. Something ordinary. A secret kept. A promise broken. The smallest splash becomes a tidal wave.

And he offers a possible explanation of why readers love thrillers so much: “When they see the disasters that happen to fictional characters on a page, they feel relieved.” No matter how messed up our own family members might be, most of them are nowhere near as bad as the characters that inhabit the latest  best seller.

Look, Read, Listen—What’s the Difference?

I’ve always insisted that listening to an audiobook “counts” as having read the book as long as you listen to the unabridged version. But in this piece author Betsy Robinson argues differently: “ audiobooks and books are as different as movies and books.”

A former playwright now turned novelist, Robinson believes that audio productions minimize “the value of the direct relationship between books and readers.” I agree with her analysis of the reading process, called reader-response theory or transactional reading, and I therefore agree with her in the case of people who fall asleep while listening or are “missing whole paragraphs when one of the kids spills his Cheerios.” Since I no longer have a child whose eating requires monitoring, I’m seldom distracted in that way. But if I do miss a chunk of the recording, I back track until I get back to something I remember, then relisten.

And for that reason, I will continue to include unabridged audiobooks in my yearly count of books read.

We Should All Be Reading Ancient Poetry Right Now

Here’s something we classics major have always known:

There is nothing like ancient poetry for making you reassess your priorities. Homer, Virgil, and Ovid can make you feel small and insignificant, but those feelings tend to pass and are worth enduring for the clarity they bring to the bigger picture. If you only let them in, the poets of ancient Greece and Rome can bring the kind of life you are living and person you want to be into sharper focus. They are surprisingly adept at cutting through the noise of modern life.

Books: Loeb Classical Library
Loeb Classical Library

How Does a Novelist Write About a School Shooting?

Cover: Empire FallsOne of the most memorable novels I’ve ever read is Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. The novel contains a school shooting, which most people assume was based on the 1999 high school shooting in Littleton, CO. Russo explains that he finished the book’s manuscript before the Colorado shooting and that, in fact, the fictional incident was based on a shooting in Paducah, KY, that occurred in 1997.

But, Russo continues, which event formed the basis for the novel’s plot is not important. Once such an event has occurred, it’s nearly impossible for writers NOT to incorporate it into their work:

as I wrote and revised the novel, . . [e]ach day became an exercise in magical thinking: If I could face the worst of my fears on the page, maybe I’d be spared in real life. I didn’t want to write the story, but how could I not?

Because, Russo writes:

And yet it’s novels we turn to for a deeper understanding of life than we get from politicians and others with ideological axes to grind, which is why some other novelist (probably thinking, How can I not?) is no doubt at work on a book that centers on a school shooting. Every day she sets about her horrifying task, trying to imagine, What if one of the dead kids in Parkland was mine? Could I go on? What would my mission in life become after life as I knew it ceased to exist? Questions like these drive novelists, not because we have answers, but because we don’t. All we have is moral imagination, which, over time, can help heal wounds but also has a nasty habit of opening them, as my novel did and continues to do.

That novelist currently writing is in an even more anxiety-ridden spot that he was because “such tragedies have become commonplace.” And also because:

As a nation, we have not decided that our children are more important than our guns, and any new novel on the subject will have to address that tectonic shift. We’ve changed. Our nation has changed.

Writing about all this, as Russo does here, is an act of tremendous bravery for which he deserves our gratitude.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

What I’ve been reading around the web recently.

Can Reading Make You Happier?

Claude Monet, painted by Renoir (1872)
Claude Monet, painted by Renoir (1872)

An interesting history of bibliotherapy, or the use of reading to help “people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence.”

For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain.

A Summer Reading List of Contemporary Books by Women

If reading more books by women is one of your 2018 reading challenges, this list is meant for you. It contains both fiction and nonfiction titles.

The Odd Literary Paraphernalia of the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection

A lock of Walt Whitman’s hair, Jack Kerouac’s boots, and Virginia Woolf’s cane are just a few of the items available to inspect at the eclectic Berg Collection—if you have an appointment.

In Order to Understand Sociopaths, I Got Inside One’s Head

Carola Lovering’s potent debut novel, Tell Me Lies, tells the story of the complicated relationship between college freshman Lucy Albright and charming sociopath Stephen DeMarco. While alternating Stephen and Lucy’s points of view, Lovering depicts how Lucy’s depression drives her codependency. Stephen’s sections show his remorseless Machiavellian sensibilities: unable to genuinely feel affection, he studies people in order to learn how to act normal and get what he wants. Lovering discusses the capability of inhabiting another person’s mind in fiction.

Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview

The Millions shares news about new books being released in the second half of 2018, July-December.

We’ve got new novels by Kate Atkinson, Dale Peck, Pat Barker, Haruki Murakami, Bernice McFadden, and Barbara Kingsolver. We’ve got a stunning array of debut novels, including one by our very own editor, Lydia Kiesling—not to mention R.O. Kwon, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Crystal Hana Kim, Lucy Tan, Vanessa Hua, Wayétu Moore, and Olivia Laing. We’ve got long-awaited memoirs by Kiese Laymon and Nicole Chung. Works of nonfiction by Michiko Kakutani and Jonathan Franzen. The year has been bad, but the books will be good.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

These are the stories from the internet that piqued my interest over the last week.

Why We Don’t Read, Revisited

Caleb Crain, in a follow-up to a decade-old report on Americans’ reading habits, reports that the time Americans spend reading continues to decline. “Television, rather than the Internet, likely remains the primary force distracting Americans from books.”

And, he points out, “The nation, after all, is now led by a man who doesn’t read.”

The Fairytale Language of the Brothers Grimm

How the Brothers Grimm went hunting for fairytales and accidentally changed the course of historical linguistics and kickstarted a new field of scholarship in folklore.

Truth, Lies, and Literature

Salman Rushdie ponders the role of truth in our disputatious time of unsupported pronouncements and declarations of fake news. How can literature help support current notions of what’s real and what isn’t?

when we read a book we like, or even love, we find ourselves in agreement with its portrait of human life. Yes, we say, this is how we are, this is what we do to one another, this is true. That, perhaps, is where literature can help most. We can make people agree, in this time of radical disagreement, on the truths of the great constant, which is human nature. Let’s start from there.

Our Fiction Addiction: Why Humans Need Stories

A report on scholars “who are asking what exactly makes a good story, and the evolutionary reasons that certain narratives – from Homer’s Odyssey to Harry Potter – have such popular appeal.”

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

My Reading Plan for 2018

I’ve spent the first three days of the new year putting together my reading plan for the next 12 months.

Reading Challenges

I usually only do the Goodreads challenge of reading a certain number of books during the year. After meeting the goal of 40 books for the last several years, I’m increasing my magic number to 45 for 2018.

And this year I’ve also decided to do Off the Shelf’s 18 Reading Resolutions for 2018. I chose this one because 18 seems like a manageable number. Here are the categories:

1. Read more books by women
2. Read more diverse books
3. Read a book more than 500 pages
4. Read a book written by someone under the age of 35
5. Read a book written by someone over the age of 65
6. Read a collection of short stories
7. Read more nonfiction
8. Read a novel based on a real person
9. Read a collection of poetry
10. Read a book about an unfamiliar culture
11. Read a book from a genre you might not normally read
12. Read a book by a local author
13. Read a book about mental health
14. Read a “guilty pleasure” book
15. Read a book with a LGBTQ theme
16. Read a book to learn something new
17. Read an inspirational memoir
18. Read a book you’ve had on your shelf for years but haven’t gotten to yet

Personal Reading Goals

In an effort to read outside of my usual comfort zone (primarily psychological novels), I’ll try to read some of these types of books in 2018:

  • translations
  • science fiction
  • biography
  • fantasy
  • plays
  • poetry

I also need to catch up on the Classics Club list that I drew up some time ago. I haven’t made a dent in it in a LONG time. In fact, a look at my original list reveals that I’ve only read 11 of the 58 titles on that list.

Therefore, in 2018 I plan to cross at least six items off that list.

How About You?

Do you set annual reading goals, or do you prefer to pick up the books that call to you during the year? There’s something to be said for either approach.

If you’d like to give the reading-challenge approach a try, Google “2018 reading challenges” and you’ll find a LONG list. And if you’d like to set up your 2018 reading plan by constructing your own challenge, here’s a good place to start:

50 DIY READING CHALLENGES TO MAKE 2018 THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR READING LIFE

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

My Top 5 Novels of All Time

Every December 31st I sit down with the list of books I read that year and choose the best ones. I usually end up with 10 bests plus 5 honorable mentions. I include this many because I’m fortunate enough to be in the time of life when I can choose to read whatever I want, so I usually like every book I read. Sometimes whittling the list down is hard work.

Recently I saw a meme in an online book group: What are your top 5 novels of all time?

If choosing 10 or even 15 from a year of reading is hard, how difficult could it be to pick my top five books of all time? I decided to give this challenge a try.

To my surprise, the top four came quite easily. Although I’ve read a lot of books in my time, these four novels have stuck with me because they hit that sweet spot of my encountering them at a time when I needed what they have to offer.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdI remember this book being on the reading curriculum in eighth grade. I did the math, and 1960 was the year I finished eighth grade, so my memory may be correct. However, it’s possible that my memory is distorted. I distinctly remember feeling outraged when, three or four years after I was in eighth grade, the mother of a then eighth grader filed a complaint over having her daughter read a book about rape. Maybe I did read it in eighth grade, or maybe it didn’t land on the curriculum until later and I read it on my own.

Whichever is the case, this is the book that has stuck with me the longest and that I have reread the most often. Whenever I get to feeling down on my fellow man, I reread this book to restore my faith in humanity. (In fact, I’m due for another reread soon.)

Yet, as much as I’d like to think that I love this book for its themes of justice and human compassion, I’m pretty sure the novel stuck with me because my father died in 1960, two months before I turned 12, after a long and painful separation from my mother and me. The portrayal of Atticus Finch, the wise and caring father, probably impressed me just as much as the story of Atticus Finch, the brave lawyer who defended Tom Robinson. If it’s true that we can live vicariously through literature (and I believe it is), then this book probably comforted me through my fatherless adolescence.

2. All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

Again, I’m not sure when I first read this remarkable novel. My memory places it in eighth or ninth grade.

This is the novel with which I discovered how powerful a fine work of fiction can be. For the first time, all the pieces of the literary criticism puzzle fell into place: the use of the first-person narrator, the metaphor of the narrator’s last name (Burden), the powerful (for both the narrator and the reader) epiphany, the quality of the prose.

I don’t remember why I first read this book. It’s possible that it was on a reading list for school (in which case, I would probably have come across it in ninth grade). I can’t imagine how else I would have found it. Nobody in my household was a reader, and we didn’t have many books around. But no matter how I came upon it, I always think of this novel as my initiation into adult reading. I have reread it a couple of times in my adulthood, and it holds up very well.

3. Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

This story features a group of people who have known each other since their college days, when they used to get together and discuss philosophical ideas. In the book’s present time, these people are entering middle age.

I read this book when I was about the age of those characters and was beginning to realize that life is much more complicated than school prepares us for. In late adolescence and early adulthood, when we are beginning to be able to reason abstractly, we tend to think in dichotomies: it’s right to do this and wrong to do that, you either believe what I believe or you’re on the other side.

But life is very seldom so simple. Approaching middle age, I had had enough life experience to realize that what sounds convincing in theory often isn’t directly applicable in reality, that actual situations are usually not black or white but one of many—way more than 50—shades of gray between the two extremes. Like the characters in this novel, I had to learn by experience how to navigate life’s big events such as love, marriage, parenthood, death, and grief.

4. A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara

This recent novel is a lot like To Kill a Mockingbird in the sense that it’s one of the most moving, poignant books I’ve ever read.

This big novel covers the lives of four men who met as college roommates. The story opens just after they have graduated from college in Massachusetts and have all moved to New York City to undertake their careers as an actor, a lawyer, an architect, and an artist. In 814 pages, the book unfolds their intertwined lives in magnificent detail.

The story of how four people come together to form a surrogate family moved me because, like all four of them, I grew up in a dysfunctional, non-nurturing household and went off to college to start a new life.. One of the four characters, who becomes the focal point of the book, suffered a horrific childhood that he’s unwilling to talk about. The other three all intuit that he needs their protection and support, and the novel probes both the high and low points of their shifting constellation of interpersonal relationships. As someone who has been fortunate enough to meet a crucial person whom I needed at each significant point in my life, I found this novel both poignant and ultimately uplifting.

Although these four books came easily, number five was a tough decision. Only one more spot on the list remained, yet several books came to mind:

  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

When I looked at the first four, I realized that they give a chronology of my life, from childhood to early adulthood to middle age and then to older age. This suggested that the last spot on the list should also go to a book about my current point on life’s continuum, older adulthood. The Blind Assassin, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, and Our Souls at Night all fit that category. On the other hand, Plainsong is about the most effectively written novel I’ve read.

But after a lot of dithering I have decided to go with the following choice:

5. The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett

When I was 57, I felt driven to go back to school because of a nagging feeling that there was more I needed to learn through formal schooling, not just life experience. I started a doctoral program in psychology during which several pieces fell together seemingly by magic. I wrote my dissertation on life stories and received my doctorate on my 63rd birthday.

One of those pieces that fell magically into place was this novel. Set in 1962, it’s the story of a young, white southern woman who dares to write down the life stories of the African American women who work as maids in her community. This book strongly asserts the belief that everyone has a life story and that everyone’s life story deserves to be heard.

In my late-life doctoral study I realized that it’s especially important for us to seek out and learn from the life stories of marginalized people and of people different from ourselves if society is to evolve and persevere. For that reason, this novel won the final spot on my list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time.

How about you?

What titles are on your list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Why I’m Content to Read 40 Books Rather Than 100 a Year

Whenever I come across someone’s claim to have read 80, 90, or even 100 or more books in a year, I have to wonder how much they comprehended, appreciated, and now remember of those books. With so much current emphasis on productivity and life hacks, it’s easy to get caught up in the notion that more is better when it comes to reading. I prefer to slow down when I read, to take enough time to appreciate the author’s style and subtlety and craft instead of getting to the last page so I can pick up another book.

Although I believe that I get more out of a novel when I read slowly enough to savor it, I wondered if other people have the same experience. So I did a little research.

Although I’m talking mainly about reading fiction here, there’s also some discussion of reading nonfiction and the differences between reading fiction and reading nonfiction.

John Miedema put together his book Slow Reading from research for a graduate course in library and information science. He defines slow reading as a voluntary practice done to increase enjoyment and comprehension of a text, a process that some people describe as “getting lost in a book.”

This book is about reading fiction. Here are a few quotations:

  • “A fictional work provides a sand box for imagining other identities and choices”(p. 56).
  • “Children can use fiction as a testing ground for their future selves. Is there any reason to stop this process when we reach adulthood? It is sad and a bit creepy to watch those adults who cease to imagine. It is as if their inner landscape is withering” (p. 57).
  • ”Slow readers have a particular capacity to open up to new ideas, and allow the sense of self to be transformed” (p. 62).

In 3 Key Advantages of “Slow Reading” That Turbocharge Your Learning Gregg Williams, a marriage and family therapist, acknowledges that productivity drives a lot of what we do—we want to get more done, and we therefore have to work faster to become more productive. This drive is most apparent in our desire to consume as much information as possible. We read quickly so we can move on to the next book or article. According to Williams, fast reading may work in some circumstances, but real comprehension demands slow reading.

Williams describes his own experience with realizing how fast reading in fact slowed him down. It takes him a while to get around to the meat of his argument, but he ends up pointing out three advantages of taking time to read a text slowly:

  1. Slow-reading uncovers “hidden” gems.
  2. Stories lead to deeper truths.
  3. Slow-reading adds to your web of knowledge.

He explains that “slow reading is also a very good idea whenever you are reading to understand any body of knowledge (for example, textbooks and popular nonfiction).” When you’re trying to learn something, slow reading saves you time in the long run because you can follow the logical flow of facts and associations.

In many cases fast reading may serve your purpose better than slow reading, Williams concludes. “The good news is that you can decide to switch between the two.”

Slow reading is related to what some others call active reading. Actively reading fiction requires slowing the reading process way down. In The medium is not the message Leah Price, who teaches English at Harvard, looks at the slow reading movement. Most proponents of this movement, she notes, are literary critics, who “care as much about form as about content.” She notes:

Ever since modern literatures were first taught at university a couple of centuries ago, their average professor has read at the same pace as her seven-year-old.

Reading slowly allows us to savor the words, to see and appreciate how the author has used techniques such as imagery and sentence structure to construct a story that resonates on several levels. When we read literature simply for its narrative sequence—first this happened, then that happened, and then the next thing happened—we miss all the artistic effort that the best writers put into crafting their tales. (For ideas on how to do such close reading, see How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster, Harper/Collins, 2003).

Tim Parks, novelist and Associate Professor of Literature and Translation at IULM University in Milan, laments how much his students seem to miss when reading literature in A Weapon for Readers. He writes that we approach literature with too much reverence and therefore treat it uncritically:

If a piece of writing manifests the stigmata of literature—symbols, metaphors, unreliable narrators, multiple points of view, structural ambiguities—we afford it unlimited credit. With occasional exceptions, the only “criticism” brought to such writing is the kind that seeks to elaborate its brilliance, its cleverness, its creativity.

This reverence toward the written word, he says, came of age in the second half of the twentieth century and “is reflected in the treatment of the book itself. The spine must not be bent back and broken, the pages must not be marked with dog ears, there must be no underlining, no writing in the margins.”

Parks particularly noticed this attitude toward the sanctity of the written word when working with students studying translation:

I would give them the same text in English and Italian and ask them to tell me which was the original text. Or I would give them a text without saying whether it was a translation or not and ask them to comment on it. Again and again, the authority conveyed by the printed word and an aura of literariness, or the excitement of dramatic action, or the persuasive drift of an argument, would prevent them from noticing the most obvious absurdities.

Be sure to look at his examples of such absurdities, which make his point readily evident.

In wondering how to help his students become better readers,

I began to think about the way I read myself, about the activity of reading, what you put into it rather than what was simply on the page. Try this experiment, I eventually told them: from now on always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive.

The result? “[I]t was remarkable how many students improved their performance with this simple stratagem”:

There is something predatory, cruel even, about a pen suspended over a text. Like a hawk over a field, it is on the lookout for something vulnerable. Then it is a pleasure to swoop and skewer the victim with the nib’s sharp point. The mere fact of holding the hand poised for action changes our attitude to the text. We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue. Students would report that their reading slowed down when they had a pen in their hand, but at the same time the text became more dense, more interesting, if only because a certain pleasure could now be taken in their own response to the writing when they didn’t feel it was up to scratch, or worthy only of being scratched.

This transformation from “passive consumers of a monologue” into “active participants in a dialogue” describes the interaction between a reader and a literary text that is the basis of reader-response criticism. In The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (1978), Louise M. Rosenblatt calls this interaction “the reader’s contribution in the two-way, ‘transactional’ relationship with the text” (p. ix). In Rosenblatt’s terminology, the text is the written work and the poem is the meaning that the reader creates in interaction with the written words.

Arming ourselves with a pen and approaching a work of literature as our partner in an active exchange will allow us to focus on reading fiction as both an artistic and a pleasurable experience—also as a necessary experience, according to Parks:

For the mindless, passive acceptance of other people’s representations of the world can only enchain us and hamper our personal growth, hamper the possibility of positive action. Sometimes it seems the whole of society languishes in the stupor of the fictions it has swallowed.

I read a lot of articles and web sites about reading, and I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the quotation—usually encased in a text box with a fancy frame—“No two readers ever read the same book.” This is a succinct statement of the hypothesis of reader-response criticism: Readers create their individual sense of meaning because they bring to the reading process their unique consciousness and set of personal experiences. I find that in order to produce this transactional process between the book and me, I have to slow down and take time to savor the reading process. And that’s why I read 40 books a year, not 100.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Why I Don’t Need to Like Fictional Characters

At a book group gathering a few months back a man opened the discussion with the comment, “I didn’t like this book because I just couldn’t like any of the characters.” I don’t even remember what that month’s book was because my mind took off with that comment. That was certainly not the first time I’d heard it in a book group. And if you frequent any book sites on the internet, you’ll find some variation of it all over the place.

I’ve never understood this comment. Before I heard it for the first time, the consideration of whether I liked or disliked a literary character had never even crossed my mind. To like a book, I don’t need to like its characters. But I do need to understand them.

Since the issue of the likability of fictional characters comes up periodically in book-discussion circles, among both readers and writers, let’s take a look of what some people have had to say about it. Then I’ll give you my take on this topic.

Back in 2010 Laura Miller, in a discussion of Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, wrote in Salon:

All of this raises a question I’ve been wanting to ask since we started, concerning an observation people often make about Franzen’s (and many other authors’) characters, which is that they are “unlikable.” I confess, I’ve grown to hate such remarks. It makes me feel like we’re all back in grammar school, talking about which kids are “nice” and which kids are “mean.” It’s a willfully naive and blinkered way to approach a work of literature.

Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs, said in a 2013 interview with Publishers Weekly:

As a writer, I subscribe to Chekhov’s world view: “It’s not my job to tell you that horse thieves are bad people. It’s my job to tell you what this horse thief is like.”

She says that reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground in high school taught her that fiction can express negative emotions, can say “unsayable things.” But at that time all the books she loved that did this were by and about men: “it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman.”

And when the interviewer asked Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora [the main character in The Woman Upstairs], would you?” Messud answered, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” Then she added, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”

In response, author Jennifer Weiner amped up the discussion in I Like Likable Characters for Slate when she chose to focus on the dichotomy between “chick lit”—relatable women characters written by women writers for women readers—and “literary novels” (Weiner’s term). She suggests Messud is something of a snob in her insistence that she writes books on the serious side of the popular/literary dichotomy. Weiner takes this distinction seriously:

I’ve been lucky. No one’s ever pressured me to make my characters more likable—and, because I’m not writing literary fiction, I never felt any internal pressure to make them less likable in order to be taken more seriously.

And she has a solution for the whole issue:

Imagine a library filled with the likable and the loathsome, with froth and fun and hate and spite, with books to suit every hour and every mood. What’s not to like about that?

Kelly Braffet, author of Save Yourself and other novels, brings a refreshing sense of insight to the issue in Quit talking about likable characters!. She says she learned in high school that she doesn’t like everyone she meets and that she doesn’t expect everyone to like her. She also admits that even people she likes can become annoying, but “even then, an annoying person can still say interesting things. Their very annoyingness can be interesting.”

Braffet defines unlikable characters this way:

Unlikable characters, to me, are those who do the wrong thing because it’s easier or more fun; or, maybe even to a greater extent, those who have no idea what the right thing is, and have never really stopped to think about it.

Novelist Edan Lepucki, author of California, writes in I Just Didn’t Like Her: Notes on Likeability in Fiction, “As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting.” Also:

what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it’s particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it’s strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above.

Koa Beck took to the pages of The Atlantic in Female Characters Don’t Have to Be Likable (December 2015) to celebrate that year’s crop of “novels, written by women, that feature ill-natured, brilliantly flawed female protagonists in the vein of Amy Dunne from 2012’s Gone Girl. And the reaction from readers and critics suggested that this unlikability was hardly a turnoff.”

In these books—a list that includes Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train—says Beck:

These ladies scheme, swear, rage, transgress, deviate from convention—and best of all, they seldom genuinely apologize for it. It’s the literary equivalent of the feminist catchphrase originated by Amy Poehler: “I don’t fucking care if you like it.” More than being “unlikable,” these female characters directly challenge the institutions and practices frequently used to measure a woman’s value: marriage, motherhood, divorce, and career. They defy likability in their outlandish occupation of the roles to which women are customarily relegated—mother, wife, daughter—resisting sexist mythologies and social pressures. Perhaps most refreshingly, these novels aren’t so much heralding a new age of female-centric literature as they’re building on a much older English-language tradition of works about complex women.

Discussion

Perhaps the tendency to designate characters as either likable or unlikable has come from our human tendency to dichotomize, to see things and people in terms of either/or. We want them to be either good or bad, likable or unlikable, not a messy mixture of both good and bad traits. We categorize people this way because it’s easy. Once we decide which side of an “either/or” mind-set individuals fall on, we no longer have to make the effort to get to know them better.

But the beauty of reading fiction is that it can help us overcome this tendency to categorize people by introducing us to complex characters who, like us, are partly likable and partly unlikable. In fiction we get to meet way more people than we meet in real life. In fiction, we become acquainted with all kinds of people, many of whom we probably wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life. We get to know these characters and then walk away from them after we reach the bottom of the final page. One of the reasons why I read fiction is to learn about human nature. By getting to know other people, both real and fictional, I learn more about myself.

In fiction, we can safely associate with people we don’t necessarily like. Reading fiction allows us to experience people and situations we’d never encounter in our everyday lives. This is why I don’t need to like fictional characters.

But I do need to understand them. I judge a novel by the strength of its characterization, by how well the author has developed complex, believable characters from whose choices, decisions, and actions I can learn. When I read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, I didn’t think about how unlikable the main character, Nora, is. I thought about how her life has made her desperate for human relationship, for friendship. Yes, I cringed at some of the things she did and the thoughts she expressed, but I understood her thoughts and actions. The Woman Upstairs is a good novel not because I like Nora, but because I understand how, in the context of her life, she does what she does.

And characters like Nora, who share the deliciously messy stew of both good and bad tendencies and emotions that comprise the human psyche, are not only the best teachers of human nature. They are also the most interesting characters to read about. The unreliable narrators, the ordinary people forced to confront extraordinary circumstances—these are the characters who keep me turning the pages.

Maybe this is why I like mysteries so much, because they probe the darker recesses of the human psyche. A good mystery makes us understand—certainly not like or even condone, but understand—why people do what they do. Often mysteries take us inside the heads of both a criminal and an investigator. Even if we’re able to figure out whodunit before the end, watching the investigation is as satisfying as watching the crime.

I’ve learned that, when I start a new novel, I should be careful not to pass judgment on the characters too early. I need to give the author time to turn each character in the light of experience so that I can see the reflections off all the character’s facets. If the author is very good at the writing craft, I may be meeting some new fictional characters who have something to teach me. In that case, the question of whether I like or dislike the characters evaporates.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 Irresistible Introductions in Fiction

Tips for Writers and Readers

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Read that sentence, one of the most famous first sentences in literature, aloud. Notice its cadence. The rhythm lulls you toward sleepiness—appropriate for a dream. And the rest of the book hinges on that final word, again. “Why again?” we wonder. “What happened during the other time or times at Manderley?” “Is Manderley only a dream now, and, if so, why?”

A good introduction piques readers’ interest and compels them to keep reading.

Charles Dickens was a master of grand openings:

A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …

David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.

A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Most readers say that they evaluate whether to read a book by looking at the first sentence. Writers have maybe five seconds to capture potential readers’ attention. If the opening sentence doesn’t somehow do that, readers will put that book back on the shelf and pick up another one.

Good introductions grab readers immediately by involving them in the story. Effective introductions make readers ask questions and keep turning the pages to find out the answers. There is no formula for an irresistible introduction, but readers know one when they encounter it.

Here are five more examples of introductions that grabbed me and refused to let me go.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Like the opening of Rebecca, the soothing poetic meter of the first part of this introduction draws readers in and underscores the harmony of Emma Woodhouse’s life. However, the second part suggests that changes are coming. I need to keep reading to see what will happen to distress or vex Emma.

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly

Everybody lies.

Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.

A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this.

In my heart I know that even the most honest person will lie under certain circumstances. But this opening turns upside down my expectation that justice involves a trial in which witnesses vow to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I must see how how everyone in this case is going to lie and how a trial in which everybody lies will turn out.

Mind Prey by John Sandford

The storm blew up late in the afternoon, tight, gray clouds hustling over the lake like dirty, balled-up sweat socks spilling from a basket.

Here weather imagery sets the mood: threatening weather suggests ominous happenings coming up. And when the conditions smell like “dirty, balled-up sweat socks,” I know that nothing good can possibly happen.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I EXIST! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.

A first-person narrator who observes her own conception can only take me to dizzying places. I want to continue reading to see what else she has in store for me.

The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton

What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts. I don’t know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that’s one of the mysteries I haven’t solved yet.

Not only do I want to learn about “the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts,” but I want to hear the story of how the narrator discovers this truth that he or she finally knows. Maybe what I learn here will teach me about human nature, or “exactly how or why [the kernel of meanness] gets inside us.”

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Reading Challenges for 2017

I’ve set out my own reading plan for 2017, but if you’d prefer a challenge with specific category descriptions to guide you, here are several. Many of these challenges offer discussion groups either on their own web sites or through Facebook pages, so you’ll be getting a book group as well as book recommendations.

Here are several challenges to get you started in your search for the right one for you. If you don’t find anything appealing here, do a web search for “reading challenge 2017.” You’ll find lots of entries, some for specific interests (e.g., Christian reading challenge, European reading challenge).

BOOK RIOT’S 2017 READ HARDER CHALLENGE

For this well-known challenge “there are 24 tasks, averaging to two per month over the course of the next 12 months. You may count one book for multiple tasks, or read one book per task.” The purpose is to achieve “a perspective shift – but one for which you’ll only be accountable to yourself.” You can download a printable PDF of the challenge tasks.

The 2017 Reading Challenge

From Modern Mrs. Darcy, who describes this as a “choose-your-own-adventure reading challenge.” She offers two focused challenges, “reading for fun” and “reading for growth.”

Take the 2017 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge

POPSUGAR offers “40 book prompts to help diversify and expand your reading in the new year, PLUS an “advanced” section with 12 books for hardcore readers who complete the challenge before the year is over.” The challenge consists of “a variety of ideas to mix up your reading choices, not specific book titles.” Examples of categories are “a book set in the wilderness” and “a novel set during wartime.”

There’s a printable list you can download and use to check off categories as you complete them.

2017 Reading Challenge

This challenge from Better World Books aims to get you “to try different kinds of books.” There’s a PDF checklist to download to keep track of your progress. And the Better World Books blog will be posting recommended books for each challenge category throughout the year, just in case you have trouble coming up with titles on your own.

Retellings Reading Challenge 2017

This challenge from the U.K. asks you to read retellings of stories such as classics, children’s classics, fairy tales, myths, legends, folk tales, well known people’s lives.

Reading Challenge

This Pinterest board links to many reading challenges from several years.

The WeAreTeachers 2017 Reading Challenge

This challenge asks you “to read at least one book from one of these categories every month.” There’s no indication that you must be a teacher to participate.

The 2017 reading challenge

This challenge, from Justina Wooten of Anythink Wright Farms of the Rangeview Library District in Colorado, might suit you if the 40+-category challenges are too much to take on. This one lists a different category of book for each month in 2017.

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

When picking up my next book, it’s always hard for me to resist reaching for another juicy novel. Even though I often buy nonfiction books that I want to read, I usually give in to the urge to read more fiction. And even though I concentrate on fiction, I read mostly traditional novels. I’d like to reacquaint myself with other forms of fiction as well.

In an effort to be a more well-rounded reader—and to cull my TBR shelves—in 2017, I’m laying out a plan to get myself to broaden my reading by choosing books in four categories. I’m also assigning each category a month when I’ll dedicate my reading to it. Here are the categories and the books in the category that I already own.

(1) Memoirs (January)

  • H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
  • When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
  • Heart Earth by Ivan Doig
  • Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
  • The Journal Keeper by Phyllis Theroux

(2) Short Stories (March)

  • Dear Life by Alice Munro
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders
  • Thirteen Ways of Looking: A Novella and Three Stories by Colum McCann
  • The Stories of Jane Gardam by Jane Gardam
  • The Collected Short Stories of Conrad Aiken

(3) General Nonfiction (July)

  • Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
  • Wired to Connect by Amy Banks with Leigh Ann Hirschman
  • Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By by Timothy D. Wilson
  • On Friendship by Alexander Nehamas
  • The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

(4) Essays (October)

  • In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing ed. by Olivia Dresher
  • Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas by Adam Kirsch
  • The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

I’m not promising to read all the books in each category during that month, but I’m going to try to choose most of the month’s reading from the list.

This will be a real experiment for me, as I’ve never set up a year-long reading plan before.

How About You?

How do you choose the next book to read? Do you have some kind of plan, either formal or informal, or do you go with whatever book seems to be calling to you?

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown