My Reading Plan for 2019

I’m going to be a bit less formal in my reading plan for 2019 than I was last year.

First, because I read so many books last year, I’m boldly going to increase my annual Goodreads challenge to 50 books for 2019.

Second, I’m going to avoid any other particular reading challenges and instead just encourage myself to read in the following categories:

    • translations
    • science fiction
    • speculative fiction
    • memoir
    • biography
    • general nonfiction
    • plays
    • poetry
    • books by local authors
    • books by people of color or about other cultures

Third, I’m going to make the effort to cross off at least four titles from my original Classics Club list.

What about you?

Do you devise a reading plan at the beginning of a new year, or do you prefer to choose books as you go along?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Did I Fulfill My Reading Plan for 2018?

Back in January I put together My Reading Plan for 2018. My follow-through has been mixed: I overly fulfilled some intentions but failed woefully in others.

Reading Challenges

Goodreads Challenge

I crushed my Goodreads challenge to read 45 books by knocking off 63.

Here, according to Goodreads, are my additional statistics for 2018:

  • I read 22,380 pages across 63 books.
  • The longest book I read was A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, at 927 pages.
  • The average length of my books was 355 pages.
  • My average rating was 3.7.
  • The most popular book I read was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, which was read by a total of 659,539 people.
  • The least popular book I read was Cash McCall (1955) by Cameron Hawley, which was read by a grand total of 51 people (and I’m surprised the number is that high).
  • Of all the books I read, the one with the highest overall rating on Goodreads is The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, with a rating of 4.56—which doesn’t surprise me at all. It was THAT good.

Finally, a number of the books I read every year are unabridged audiobooks. I’m not sure whether their page equivalents are included in Goodread’s algorithm for total pages read or not.

Off the Shelf’s 18 Reading Resolutions for 2018

(1) Read more books by women

Although this intention leads off this challenge, I didn’t much worry about it or even track the titles I read that fulfill it because I always read a lot of books by women—not by conscious intention, but because many women write in the fictional genres that I primarily read, mysteries and psychological thrillers.

(2) Read more diverse books

  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I need to do much better on this one in the future.

(3) Read a book more than 500 pages

I am not afraid of Big Books.

  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, 927 pages
  • Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy, 703 pages
  • Penmarric by Susan Howatch, 704 pages
  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons, 624 pages
  • Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, 647 pages

(4) Read a book written by someone under the age of 35

  • My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
  • The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

(5) Read a book written by someone over the age of 65

  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

(6) Read a collection of short stories

None

(7) Read more nonfiction

I find it hard to believe, but I read only one work of nonfiction this year: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann.

(8) Read a novel based on a real person

  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett, based on the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth and some of her supporters

(9) Read a collection of poetry

  • Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

(10) Read a book about an unfamiliar culture

  • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

(11) Read a book from a genre you might not normally read

  • Madam, Will You Talk? by Mary Stewart (romantic suspense)
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (science fiction)
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North (fantasy, or at least some variety of speculative fiction)
  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (ditto)

(12) Read a book by a local author

  • The Twilight Wife by A.J. Banner
  • Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
  • The Writer by D.W. Ulsterman
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

(13) Read a book about mental health

  • Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
  • Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay

(14) Read a “guilty pleasure” book

  • My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
  • Penmarric by Susan Howatch

(15) Read a book with an LGBTQ theme

  • Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy

(16) Read a book to learn something new

Most people would assume that this category refers exclusively to nonfiction. But I gained a lot of factual knowledge from fiction this year:

  • A Column of Fire by Ken Follett taught me about the Elizabethan era, particularly about the origin of espionage and the political machinations involved in acquiring and maintaining power.
  • The epic Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy taught me about World War II, especially the French Resistance.
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra taught me about the Russian invasion of Chechnya, about which I had known almost nothing.

(17) Read an inspirational memoir

Alas, I didn’t read any new memoirs this year, although reading Dorothy Allison’s autobiographical novel Bastard Out of Carolina felt like reading a memoir.

(18) Read a book you’ve had on your shelf for years but haven’t gotten to yet

  • Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
  • Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

Personal Reading Goals

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

translations

  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, trans. by Ann Goldstein
  • The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante, trans. by Ann Goldstein

science fiction

  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

biography

None

fantasy

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (at least it’s speculative fiction)
  • The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August by Claire North (ditto)
  • The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons (ditto)
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (talking dogs are fantasy, right?)

plays

None

poetry

  • Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

The Classics Club

I had planned to tick off six items this year, but I only managed three:

  • I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
  • The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington
  • Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters

 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Here’s a short entry for this busy holiday week.

In Fiction, It Was the Year of the Woman

An interesting look at the bulk of novels published this year:

They didn’t launch any franchises — no “girl”-titled blockbusters and probably no future Jennifer Lawrence vehicles — but collectively, they dominated a shrunken literary ecosystem. Each week it seemed that a promising new novel emerged that reimagined fiction — for politics’ sake, for literature’s sake, for the sake of expanding whatever the hell fiction might become in an age when Twain’s old maxim about the truth being stranger is tragically truer than ever. Not every one of these novels will become a “relevant classic,” but this year they spread their roots so far and deep that they essentially choked off the usual white, male suspects.

And I particularly like the writer’s conclusion: “ This golden age of women’s fiction is the resistance that we didn’t know was coming to save us.”

The World’s on Fire. Can We Still Talk About Books?

Rebecca Makkai, author of the novel The Great Believers, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, addresses the questions “Is it really okay to talk about art right now? To leave the real and broken world behind and talk about fictional ones?”

I also like her conclusion:

Art is a radical act. Joy is a radical act.

This is how we keep fighting. This is how we survive.

ON JUNK SCIENCE, POP FORENSICS AND CRIME FICTION

Andrew Case writes that, while journalists and lawyers have for years been exposing the unreliability of analyses of spatter patterns, shell casings, shoe prints, and tire marks, “nowhere is discredited science more alive than in crime fiction.” Since I read a lot of crime novels, I was interested in his analysis.

Case notes that in 2009 a panel from the National Academy of Science concluded that “No forensic method has been rigorously shown to have the capacity to consistently, and with a high degree of certainty, demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.” Case argues:

Junk science doesn’t just lead to wrongful convictions—it contributes to the already-enormous racial disparity in wrongful convictions in this country. Skepticism towards pattern evidence is not just for scientists and lawyers, but for anyone interested in reducing racism in our criminal justice system.

In the world of crime fiction, Case argues, a plot based on such methods of analysis

can descend into bad storytelling. Our age is complex. Solutions are rare. And stories that reflect that complexity will seem more true. Crime may be down, but most crimes still don’t get solved—the clearance rate for major index crimes for the NYPD last quarter was only 33%. Stories that reflect this reality are in turn more compelling.

He advocates instead for stories “ filled with surprises and twists grounded in human psychology, not whether a fingerprint or a bullet magically solved a crime.”

Goodreads Choice Awards: An annual reminder that critics and readers don’t often agree

Washington Post book critic Ron Charles discusses the seemingly eternal conflict between high-brow and low-brow taste in literature.

After serving as a judge on several literary contests — from the National Book Critics Circle to the Pulitzer — I’ve come to believe that the best measure of the legitimacy of a book prize is the vibrancy of the discussion it inspires. The terms “best,” “favorite,” “acclaimed” and “popular” are slippery, but they aren’t useless. If awards don’t tell us anything definitive about the books themselves, they certainly indicate something illuminating about the era. Notice, for instance, that 17 of this year’s 21 Goodreads Choice Awards were won by women. (Ian McEwan famously observed, “When women stop reading, the novel will be dead.”)

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Best Books of 2018

The Best Books of 2018

Amazon got us started off back in early November with its many best books lists. This page is the portal on which you’ll find links to lists of best books in many different categories.

Best Books of 2018

This is The Washington Post ’s portal into its lists of books in the following categories:

  • the top 10 outstanding books
  • The 10 best thrillers and mysteries of 2018
  • The 5 best romance novels of 2018
  • The 5 best science fiction and fantasy novels of 2018
  • 50 notable works of nonfiction in 2018
  • 50 notable works of fiction in 2018
  • The biggest book news of the year
  • The 10 best book adaptations to hit screens in 2018
  • The 10 best graphic novels of 2018
  • The best children’s books of 2018
  • The 5 best audiobooks of 2018
  • The 5 best poetry collections of 2018

PW’s Best Books 2018

This is the portal into Publishers Weekly’s list of the year’s best books in lots of categories.

Sally Rooney’s Normal People named Waterstones book of the year

NPR’s Book Concierge: Our Guide To 2018’s Great Reads

This page presents a whole lot of book covers with a sidebar in which you can choose to filter (e.g., “for art lovers,” “historical fiction”) what type of books you want to see. If you hover your mouse over a particular cover, a pop-up box will appear with a link to more information about the book.

If you find this approach overwhelming, as I did, you can check out BookBub’s report on the NPR choices here.

THE BEST AUDIOBOOKS OF 2018

From BookRiot, a list generated by its followers.

LIT HUB’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2018

59 BOOKS THAT YOU SHOULD PROBABLY READ SOME TIME IN 2019

The Best Books of 2018

After complaining of being woefully behind on her reading, The New Yorker staff writer Katy Walkman offers a list of nine best books of 2018:

To me, each of the titles below represents an energizing alternative to the ripped-apart illogic of our contemporary reality. Even the most disorienting novel is a reminder that you are more than a frayed nerve ending flailing across the Internet—that you, a somewhat coherent person, exist. Each one of these books does what Alexander Pope said wit can do: it “gives us back the image of our mind.”

21 Books Recommended by Librarians in 2018

Suggestions by librarians from all across the United States.

Goodreads Choice Awards 2018

What distinguishes these awards from most others is that they are voted on by readers, not critics. This is the portal into the listings of winners in several categories:

  • fiction
  • mystery & thriller
  • historical fiction
  • fantasy
  • best of the best
  • romance
  • science fiction
  • horror
  • humor
  • nonfiction
  • memoir & autobiography
  • history & biography
  • science & technology
  • food & cookbooks
  • graphic novels & comics
  • poetry
  • debut author
  • young adult fiction
  • young adult fantasy
  • middle grade & children’s
  • picture books

OUR FAVORITE CRIME BOOKS OF THE YEAR

The 62 Books That Won Our Hearts and Minds in 2018

From CrimeReads.

The Best Reviewed Books of 2018: Mystery, Crime, and Thriller

Literary Hub generated this list by aggregating data from the major reviews of this year’s crime and thriller releases.

The Most Inspiring Books of All Time, According to BookBub Readers

This isn’t your typical end-of-the-year best books list, but not including it here would seem like a sin. “There are times in life when we need a spark of inspiration, hope, or encouragement,” and these books provide just that, according to BookBub readers.

In Fiction, It Was the Year of the Woman

And here’s another not-so-straightforward list of some of the year’s best books, this one with a cultural emphasis:

there has been a grassroots pushback against hot-take nonfiction — one led, of course, by women. They didn’t launch any franchises — no “girl”-titled blockbusters and probably no future Jennifer Lawrence vehicles — but collectively, they dominated a shrunken literary ecosystem.

The 10 Best Books of 2018

Reinvented auto-fiction, gripping essays, and last stories from a renegade master.

30 OF THE BEST BOOK SUBSCRIPTION SERVICES IN 2018

here are 30 of the best book subscription services that are available as of the end of 2018.

After Reading Hundreds of Titles, These Are Our 15 Favorite Books of 2018

From the staff of O, the Oprah magazine:

Our favorite books draw on politics and the news, whether via wrongful incarceration, #MeToo, or the divide between generations. But they also totally captivate us with gorgeously-crafted sentences, their singular take on modern stories, and their insouciance.

Guardian best books of 2018: across fiction, politics, food and more

This list from the UK’s The Guardian naturally focuses on British literature. This link is the portal page for further listings in the following categories:

  • fiction
  • crime & thrillers
  • graphic novels
  • children & teenagers
  • science fiction & fantasy
  • poetry
  • showbusiness
  • memoir & biography
  • music
  • food & drink
  • sport
  • stocking fillers
  • politics
  • ideas & science
  • nature

Best Books of 2018

From Book Riot.

And finally … it seems only appropriate to end this list of best books of 2019 (although there will probably be one more such list) with a look forward to next year:

The Books We Can’t Wait To Read In 2019

A list by Olivia Ovenden for Esquire.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books You Can Read in One Day or Less

How are you doing on your reading challenges or goals now that the end of 2018 is quickly approaching? If you still have spots to tick off on your challenge or need to pad your statistics, here are some books that can be read in one day or less.

And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Survival Lessons by Alice Hoffman

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Black Olives by Martha Tod Dudman

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Prozac Diary by Lauren Slater

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

The Pigman by Paul Zindel

Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim

Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson

Glaciers by Alexis Smith

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates

Tinkers by Paul Harding

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Frank by Jon Ronson

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Anatomy of an Illness by Norman Cousins

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson

I Don’t Know by Leah Hager Cohen

We the Animals by Justin Torres

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty

Lying by Lauren Slater

Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Seven Years (Bibliomysteries Book 6) by Peter Robinson (and other entries in the Bibliomysteries series)

Idaho Winter by Tony Burgess

On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World by Elizabeth Kadetsky

Elevation by Stephen King

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

Rules for Aging: A Wry and Witty Guide to Life by Roger Rosenblatt

And here are some other lists of books you can read in a day or less:

17 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read in a Sitting
18 (More) Amazing Novels You Can Read in a Day
Concise But Powerful: 12 Novellas and Short Novels to Read Now

5 Books You Can Read in One Sitting

9 Classic Novellas By Women You Can Read in a Day

8 Great Crime Novels You Can Read in a Day

10 Books That Are Small But Mighty

The books on this list range from 96 to 208 pages.

50 SHORT NONFICTION BOOKS YOU CAN READ IN A DAY (OR TWO)

The books listed here are divided into categories:

  • books under 100 pages
  • books under 200 pages
  • books under 300 pages

And each book description specifies its number of pages, so you’ll have no trouble finding titles to fit your available time.

HOW TO MEET YOUR READING GOALS BY YEAR’S END

Some general strategies as well as specific book suggestions for meeting your reading goals.

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Five Writing Tips from Tana French

I usually stay away from tips aimed specifically at writers, but I found some of French’s tips here useful for readers as well as writers, especially what she has to say about characters:

There’s no such thing as ‘men’ or ‘women.’ There’s only the individual character you’re writing… . If you’re thinking of ‘men’ or ‘women’ as a monolithic group defined primarily by their sex, then you’re not thinking of them as individuals; so your character isn’t going to come out as an individual, but as a collection of stereotypes.

30 BOOKISH POSITIVE LIFE QUOTES SHORT ENOUGH TO WRITE ON YOUR MIRROR

If you need some inspirational life advice, here’s a collection by writers of all kinds and time periods, from Lewis Carroll to science fiction writer John Scalzi.

Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship

The last good literary hoax story I remember surrounded James Frey’s supposed memoir, A Million Little Pieces, that turned out to be mostly fictionalized. That was back in 2006, “and the publicity turned Frey’s name into a synonym for memoir fraud,” writes Louis Menand. In this article Menand examines the history of literary authorial fraud and how it fits into the current world of performance identity and the clamor for authorial authenticity.

I have forgotten how to read

For a long time Michael Harris convinced himself that a childhood spent immersed in old-fashioned books would insulate him from our new media climate – that he could keep on reading in the old way because his mind was formed in pre-internet days. He was wrong.

Harris, an author himself, explains that “when we read in the disjointed, goal-oriented way that online life encourages – we stop exercising our attention. We stop reading with a sense of faith that some larger purpose may be served.”

And that’s not all. The way he reads now has influenced the way he writes:

Meanwhile, I admit it: The words I write now filter through a new set of criteria. Do they grab; do they anger? Can this be read without care? Are the sentences brief enough? And the thoughts? It’s tempting to let myself become so cynical a writer because I’m already such a cynical reader. I am giving what I get.

So he aims to get back in touch with the way he used to read:

Books have always been time machines, in a sense. Today, their time-machine powers are even more obvious – and even more inspiring. They can transport us to a pre-internet frame of mind. Those solitary journeys are all the more rich for their sudden strangeness.

8 Old-Lady Novels That Prove Life Doesn’t End at 80

Novelist Heidi Sopinka writes, “older women in literature … arguably represent one of the most underwritten aspects of female experience. Even when they do manage to get into a book, they almost exclusively face sexism for being ‘unlikeable.’”

When “the image of a 92-year-old woman, vital, working, came into [her] head,” Sopinka wrote her début novel, The Dictionary of Animal Languages, around that character. While working on the novel, she “began seeking out an old-lady canon”:

It wasn’t female aging that fascinated me as much as I wanted to swing into the viewpoint of a woman who had lived a long complicated life, deeply occupied by her work. I began to think of my book as a coming-of-death novel… .

Weirdly, the closer I delved into the closed-in days of looming death, the more I learned about living. Still, there is such a fear of female power in our culture that older women are ignored or infantilized, as though they are somehow less complex than us even though they are us, plus time.

Here she offers a list of eight books that are “unafraid to take on the full measure of a woman’s life”:

  • The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence
  • The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  • The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien
  • Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
  • Stet by Diana Athill
  • Destruction of the Father by Louise Bourgeois
  • Writings by Agnes Martin

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

8 Tips For Overcoming ’Reader’s Block’

I can’t remember ever encountering reader’s block. My own problem is usually the opposite: other life duties that prevent me from spending as much time as I’d like to spend reading.

Nevertheless, Emily Petsko asserts:

“Reader’s block” is a well-documented problem, and even avid readers occasionally suffer from it. The good news is that it’s not incurable …

Of the eight approaches she offers to overcoming reader’s block, I especially endorse #5. In fact, I think the liberating discovery—which hit me at about age 40—that I don’t have to finish every book I start is probably the reason why I’ve never felt reader’s block. If a book isn’t doing something for me, I simply put it aside and pick up something else.

Which is another reason for keeping one’s bookshelves well stocked with unread books …

Pretentious, impenetrable, hard work … better? Why we need difficult books

This year’s Booker-winner Milkman has been criticised for being challenging. But are we confusing readability with literary value?

Sam Leith argues that “ease of consumption isn’t the main criterion by which literary value should be assessed.” The criterion by which a novel should be judged is “how successfully it answers whatever challenge it sets itself.”

Leith quotes novelist Nicola Barker on why some novels are difficult: “Life is hard and paradoxical. It isn’t always easy. Nor should all fiction be.” Fiction becomes difficult when it attempts to engage with a world that isn’t always straightforward, coherent, or manageable. The metaphor Leith uses to convey the benefits of tackling a difficult book is that of a challenging mountain hike: The hike is difficult, but the amazing view at the top is worth the effort.

The article ends with a list of “ten difficult books worth reading” compiled by Lara Feigel.

Criminal profiling doesn’t work. TV shows should maybe stop celebrating it

I admit to watching avidly every episode of Criminal Minds, even though one of the team’s solemn pronouncement of “We’re ready to give the profile” almost always makes me laugh. Dylan Matthews wonders why popular culture continues to feature criminal profilers when “ It’s a real, honest-to-God bummer, but criminal profiling doesn’t appear to work. At all.” He cites research that concluded that experts “do only slightly better than random people at predicting traits of offenders” and that “profiling is a ‘pseudoscientific technique,’ of limited if any value to investigators.”

And, Matthews continues, all this emphasis on psychological profilers may be detracting from efforts in areas that psychology could effectively help with, most notably predicting future events:

The social consequences of being able to forecast the future better are immense. “If we could improve the judgement of government officials facing high-stakes decisions — reducing their susceptibility to various biases, or developing better methods of aggregating expertise — this could have positive knock-on effects across a huge range of domains,” Jess Whittlestone notes. “For example, it could just as well improve our ability to avert threats like a nuclear crisis, as help us allocate scarce resources towards the most effective interventions in education and healthcare.”

Future Fiction

Sarah LaBrie arrives at a definition of future fiction by examining several contemporary novels:

  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers
  • Parable of the Talents and Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Here’s how LaBrie describes her notion of future fiction:

If My Year of Rest and Relaxation serves to capture a moment in history, novels like The Mars Room and The Overstory might be examples of a kind of future fiction, one that teaches readers to think of themselves as elements of larger systems. They might help set the foundation for a literary fiction that regains its place in a political conversation from which it has long been dismissed. If Powers’s and Kushner’s novels do nothing else, they show us that fiction, more powerfully than any other technology, provides a map for navigating the world even at its most confusing and unbearable.

I’m guessing that LaBrie would say these novels fit Sam Leith’s description (above) of difficult books.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

THE SIMPLE JOY OF REREADING TO BREAK A READING SLUMP

Julia Rittenberg has a confession to make:

I used to have a great deal of anxiety around keeping up with others’ reading paces. Social media heightened my awareness of reading habits, and worries that my own were woefully behind. I would be unable to choose a new book to read, so my anxiety would continue to build. Consequently, I would stop reading altogether (outside of schoolwork) for months at a time.

A result of her reading slump was that she continued to document on social media books she wanted to read instead of reading more books.

When her TBR stacks of books “deemed Culturally Important [began] to feel a bit like homework,” she rediscovered her reading mojo by rereading Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. This book reminded her why she likes reading so much and helped her overcome her reading slump. Now, instead of avoiding books she doesn’t especially want to read, she has a stack of books she’s itching to read, all because she reread an old favorite that continues to inspire her.

Like most readers, I’ve often felt that I’ll never be able to keep up with all the new, interesting, publicly touted books that seem to come out almost daily. But my reading slumps are usually triggered more by simple time constraints than by an inability to find a book that grabs me. (See my tsundoku .) However, I have, more than once, chosen to get back into reading by rereading an old favorite book that reminds me how powerful reading can be.

How about you?

What methods do you use to help dig your way out of an occasional reading slump”

READING WHILE CHRONICALLY ILL OR, THE BOOKS WILL WAIT

Abby Hargreaves’s reading slump was quite different from Julia Rittenberg’s. After two family deaths prevented her from reading for pleasure, she discovered that she had a chronic disease that drained both her time and her energy.

Reading while chronically ill (and, in those first several months, still actively grieving the loss of my only sibling and grandmother) was near impossible. Though I craved the escape of a good book, I just couldn’t manage it. There was the holding of the book, which took physical effort, and paying attention to the plot, which required mental strength. Since I lacked both of these things, reading anything substantial was pretty out of the question.

And from this experience she learned a valuable lesson:

Reading can be a wonderful escape, but it need not add extra pressure to our lives. You can’t read on empty—be kind to yourself. Be well, when you can. And read when you’re ready. The books will wait.

And the comments on this article suggest that Hargreaves’s message resonates with others.

20 DEBUT WORKS OF FICTION BY WOMEN OVER 40

It’s not unusual to come across lists of young writers, particularly young women writers. While these lists showcase young people’s achievements, where are the opportunities for older people, particularly older women who may have had to postpone undertaking a writing career while focusing on the more traditional expectations for women: caring for a home and children?

But, according to Jenny Bhatt:

there are also many successful examples to serve as role models and provide ongoing inspiration for older writers—or aspiring writers of any age.

Below is a list of women writers who debuted works of fiction at or after the age of 40 and went on to achieve even more success. While not exhaustive, it shows clearly that women writers are not past their prime after a certain age. In fact, many are not even “late-bloomers”—they have simply deferred publishing due to family or career commitments. But the most striking aspect that unites all of these works is how each incorporates the collected, distilled wisdom, a lifetime of reading, and the sheer radicalism that could not have been possible for a younger writer.

Enjoy Bhatt’s list, which includes the following authors:

  • Penelope Fitzgerald, age 60
  • Mary Wesley, 71
  • Harriet Doerr, 74

50 MUST-READ BOOKS WITH UNRELIABLE NARRATORS

Oh, I do love me an unreliable narrator: Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

Here’s a treasure trove of books with unreliable narrators, including many of which I’ve read and a whole bunch of new ones for me to add to my reading list.

How about you?

Do you enjoy reading a story told by an unreliable narrator? Which of the books listed here have you read? What other unreliable-narrator books do you recomment?

THE APPEAL OF THE TIME-TRAVEL ROMANCE

I find the trope of time travel fascinating; see, for example, 13 + 1 Books That Feature Time Travel.

in this article Alyssa Fikse examines time travel as a recurring trope in romance:

In particular, time travel and other time-related complications pop up again and again. Whether they’re communicating via time bending mailbox (The Lake House), kept apart by centuries as a plastic centurion (Doctor Who), or powered by genetic anomalies both charming (About Time) and devastating (The Time Traveler’s Wife), this obstacle has long been a popular stalwart in the romantic canon.

Specifically, she asks, “What keeps us climbing back into time machines or touching ancient stones in search of romance?” She concludes that the time-travel romance remains such a robust subgenre because it shows us that love can truly conquer all:

Can your wife find you despite being separated by centuries and continents? No? Well, we have this particular fantasy for that.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

OCTAVIA BUTLER AND AMERICA AS ONLY BLACK WOMEN SEE IT

It is a rare writer who can use sci-fi not simply to chart an escape from reality, but as a pointed reflection of the most minute and magnified experiences that frame and determine the lives of those who live in black skin. Octavia E. Butler was one such writer. This year marks 20 years since the publication of one of her most inspired and radically profound novels, Parable of the Talents. This is a book which saw America through the “double consciousness” which W.E.B. Dubois asserted that only black people have cultivated, and which black women have sharpened to an extreme degree. An America that is bloody, unyielding, violent and tentatively united to mask a history never reckoned with.

Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

Julie Sedivy looks at the development of social intelligence over centuries by comparing medieval literature with novels of today. Medieval literature discusses what characters do with almost no consideration of how those characters felt about their actions or their motivations. Current literature (by which she means fiction—short stories or novels), in contrast, often focuses more on characters’ feelings than on their actions. This difference illustrates what Sedivy calls “Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities.”

Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.

Sedivy writes that in medieval literature people are “constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing,” but without the author drawing much attention to such processes. These early authors present characters’ mental states through direct speech or gestures. “The direct reporting of emotion was fairly common, but mostly kept short and simple (“He was afraid”).”

This approach to emotional representation began to change between 1500 and 1700, “when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy.” The soliloquies of Shakespearean characters such as Hamlet illustrate this change, which early literature specialist Elizabeth Hart attributes to the advent of print and the increase in literacy it prompted. The ability to reread and study printed passages prompted “a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.”

Among these new cognitive skills was “the ability to accurately grasp the thoughts and emotions of others, or mentalizing ability.” Mentalizing ability grew along with the emergence of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sedivy reviews psychological research into how reading current fiction enhances readers’ mentalizing ability. She concludes that literature that trusts readers’ ability to recognize clues and draw inferences about characters’ motivations most effectively nurtures and sharpens readers’ understanding of characters’ mental states. The benefits are most obvious when study participants read “ literary passages that described characters’ thoughts, desires, or beliefs.”

And this process of reading challenging literature to improve mentalizing ability is circular: Reading challenging literature sharpens one’s mentalizing ability, and that improved mentalizing ability makes one an increasingly skillful reader of literary characters’ inner lives.

When an author expresses deep confidence in a reader and creates a space in which the reader can, from the depths of her own social imagination, lower her consciousness into the body and experiences of another, the effect can be transformational.

THE BOOKISH LIFE: HOW TO READ AND WHY

This article by Joseph Epstein is a good follow-up to the article above. “By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place.”

Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.

After admitting that there exists no definitive list of the good, the beautiful, the important books, Epstein continues, with much humor, to expound on the joy he has found in the bookish life.

Hell at the bottom of the heart: Hell at the bottom of the heart

Tyler Sage on Ross Macdonald: the man who added psychological insight to the hard-boiled thriller

While for Raymond Chandler and other early noir writers “the detective story was a tool for laying bare the unspoken realities of American life, in which dreams of prosperity and freedom collided with corruption, abuse of power and modern social conditions,” Ross Macdonald turned such concerns inward: “his deepest obsession was with the horrors of family life and the way those horrors form us when we are young.”

Sage quotes from one of Macdonald’s notebooks: ““Hell lies at the bottom of the human heart, and you find it by expressing your personality.”

Sage here analyzes the 18 Lew Archer novels Macdonald wrote over 27 years, “a handful of which are as good as the genre has to offer.”

THE 10 BOOKS THAT DEFINED THE 1960s

Literary Hub is running a series called A Century of Reading comprising lists of books that defined each decade from the 1900s “to the (nearly complete) 2010s.” Series writer Emily Temple explains:

Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered.

Since I came of age in the 1960s, this one particularly caught my eye. I’d say Temple has nailed the decade pretty well with her 10 choices. And beneath the chosen books is a HUGE list of other relevant books from that time period. So many memories—and suggestions for further reading—and rereading.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Show Us Your Tsundoku!

Loosely translated as the practice of piling up books you might never read, the Japanese word tsundoku seems to be everywhere right now. In recent months, The New York Times, the BBC, Forbes, and plenty of others have reported on the phenomenon.

Here’s the feature’s subtitle: “We want to see your shameful stacks of unread books.”

Well, I, for one, see absolutely no shame in my collection, seen at the top of this post. I do have to admit, though, that this isn’t my entire collection of not-yet-read books. There’s no way I could fit all of them into one photograph.

How about you? Are you willing to share your tsundoku photos in the comments?

Learning another language should be compulsory in every school

Every time we travel to another country, I’m amazed at how fluent the local people are in languages other than their native language. Many people even speak two or more languages in addition to their language of origin. When I ask them at what age they started learning foreign languages, they often give an age between 8 and 12 years. And the reason they most often give is that they are required to choose another language in school.

We U.S. residents could learn a second language, too, if it were an academic requirement. In this article Daniel Everett, dean of arts and sciences, professor of global studies, and professor of sociology at Bentley University in Massachusetts, explains why he believes:

Now, after spending most of my adult life in higher education, researching languages, cultures and cognition, I have become more convinced than ever that nothing teaches us about the world and how to think more effectively better than learning new languages. That is why I advocate for fluency in foreign languages. But for this to happen, language-learning needs to make a comeback as a requirement of both primary and secondary education in the United States. Learning another language benefits each learner in at least three ways – pragmatically, neurologically and culturally.

He has some interesting reasons for urging us all to become polyglots.

Why can’t life begin after 40 for a writer?

Fiona Gartland, a journalist with The Irish Times for 13 years and newly published novelist, addresses the issue of ageism in publishing. Most publishers, she says, expect writers to have published a book by about the age of 40.

English author Joanna Walsh, who runs @Read_Women, has argued that ageism in publishing silences minorities and women in particular because women are more likely to be the ones who spend part of their lives caring for children, which makes finding time to write more difficult. She says “older women are already told every day in ways ranging from the subtle to the blatant, that they are irrelevant and should shut up”. Placing age barriers, for example for writing awards, is arbitrary and “a particularly cruel irony” for those unable to write in their youth, she says.

But “Not everyone finds a voice in their youth,” Gartland argues, and that “doesn’t mean what they have to say is any less valuable or any less worthy of hearing.”

Milkman is a bold choice but it’s unlikely to please booksellers

A consistent outsider in the bookies’ odds, Anna Burns’s Milkman is the sort of boldly experimental – and frankly brain-kneading – novel that is usually let in at longlist stage and gently dropped as the competition narrows. And for that reason alone it is a smartly provocative choice – one that has been waiting to be made as the publishing industry searches for the soul of its next generation.

Claire Armitstead writes in The Guardian that Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, winner of the Booker Prize, will challenge both bookstores and readers. Set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the novel features an 18-year-old narrator with a “relentlessly internalised” narrative that portrays “a social dysfunction that is both gothic and comically Kafkaesque.”

Milkman, Armitstead writes, is a novel that speaks “to political anxieties over hard borders in Ireland and around the more recently troubled world.”

Good Minds Suggest: Kate Morton’s Novels With Memorable Houses

Kate Morton’s latest novel, The Clockmaker’s Daughter, involves an old house and a secret hidden away there for 150 years. “Goodreads asked Morton to recommend her favorite novels where a house is nearly a central character in the story.” (See 6 Illustrations of How Setting Works in Literature.)

The use of place as an integral part of a story can add psychological depth to a novel. See what five novels Morton includes on her list.

 

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown