Last Week’s Links

As Far As Your Brain Is Concerned, Audiobooks Are Not ‘Cheating’

I love audiobooks; they enable me to read while plodding along on the treadmill or doing chores around the house. I’ve always thought that listening to a book instead of reading it is not cheating as long as I listen to the unabridged version.

And now I feel validated:

This question — whether or not listening to an audiobook is “cheating” — is one University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham gets fairly often, especially ever since he published a book, in 2015, on the science of reading. (That one was about teaching children to read; he’s got another book out next spring about adults and reading.) He is very tired of this question, and so, recently, he wrote a blog post addressing it. (His opening line: “I’ve been asked this question a lot and I hate it.”) If, he argues, you take the question from the perspective of cognitive psychology — that is, the mental processes involved — there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. So, according to that understanding of the question: No, audiobooks are not cheating.

Criticism’s Sting: The Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Book Reviews

Book critic Jennifer Senior writes:

Now, as a person who writes reviews for a living, I am curious to know: How do professional authors handle unsparing criticism, written in just a few days or weeks, of something they’ve toiled over for years?

She put this question to her friend, Curtis Sittenfeld, “author of “Prep,” “American Wife” and most recently, “Eligible,” a modern retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.” Read here how Sittenfeld feels about reviews of her books.

Supreme Court to Consider Legal Standard Drawn From ‘Of Mice and Men’

I’m always interested in ways in which literature crosses over into everyday life. Here’s one example:

In 2002, the Supreme Court barred the execution of the intellectually disabled. But it gave states a lot of leeway to decide just who was, in the language of the day, “mentally retarded.”

Texas took a creative approach, adopting what one judge there later called “the Lennie standard.” That sounds like a reference to an august precedent, but it is not. The Lennie in question is Lennie Small, the dim, hulking farmhand in John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

The article ends with remarks by Thomas Steinbeck, son of author John Steinbeck.

Neil Gaiman on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience

If you don’t yet know Maria Popova’s astounding brainpickings, you’re in for a treat. Here she discusses “the significance of books and the role of reading in human life [that] comes from Neil Gaiman in a beautiful piece titled ‘Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.’”

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

These are articles from around the web that caught my eye over the last week.

IS FICTION AN ADDICTION?

woman readingWho among us who love reading fiction have not asked ourselves these questions:

At some point we must ask ourselves if fiction is junk food for our souls. Too much of my lifetime has been consumed in make-believe. My friends talk about what they do, I talked about books, movies and television shows. I even prefer hanging out with other addicts, by being in four book clubs. When I die, and my life flashes in front of my eyes, a huge chunk of what I see will be me staring at a book, television, or movie screen. Is that good or bad? I don’t know. Is it an addiction? I think it is.

James Wallace Harris arrives at what is possible a rationalized conclusion, but one most of us probably understand and even agree with:

I believe fiction is a negative addiction when we use it as a substitute for living, but a positive addition when its a communication tool for comprehending each other.

51 Of The Most Powerful Pieces Of Advice From Books

It’s hard to go wrong with a good long list of advice from books. Dig in!

Why Book Clubs Matter in the Age of Tablets

Back in the good old days, before the demise of Borders, I belonged to two book clubs at my local Borders stores. But my first book club was held at the local public library.

This article examines the question of how important book clubs are now that many people download ebooks instead of purchasing hardcover books.

According to Ann Berlin of the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, which hosts quarterly parties for its approximately 60 external book clubs, “a lot of [book club members] are regular customers, and they’re ordering backlist.” She added, “What’s important to us is our relationship with our customers. We give people what they want, when they want it.”

Caleb Carr’s New Thriller Takes On Fancy Forensics. Michael Connelly Reviews

I loved Caleb Carr’s novel The Alienist when I read it many years ago. And one of my favorite current authors is mystery writer Michael Connelly. So this review by Connelly of Carr’s new book, Surrender, New York, in the New York Times was right up my alley.

Carr is best known for “The Alienist,” a beautifully wrought novel set more than a century ago at the dawn of behavioral profiling and other detective sciences. In “Surrender, New York,” he has written an addictive contemporary crime procedural stuffed with observations on the manipulations of science and the particular societal ills of the moment. Call it mystery with multiple messages.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

Thriving at Age 70 and Beyond

From Jane E. Brody, long-time health writer for the New York Times:

A recently published book, “70 Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade,” inspired me to take a closer look at how I’m doing as I approach 75 and how I might make the most of the years to come. It would be a good idea for women in my age cohort to do likewise. With a quarter of American women age 65 expected to live into their 90s, there could be quite a few years to think about.

About the book 70 Candles! Women Thriving in Their 8th Decade, Brody writes:

What are the most important issues facing these women as they age, and how might society help ease their way into the future? Leading topics the women chose to explore included work and retirement, ageism, coping with functional changes, caretaking, living arrangements, social connections, grandparenting and adjusting to loss and death.

Curtis Sittenfeld: Pride and Prejudice Then & Now

Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest book, Eligible, is a modern retelling of Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice.

While social rules have changed dramatically in the 200 years since the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s themes of love, wealth and class are still relevant. Women today can secure financial independence and enjoy intimate relationships without a marriage certificate. Yet societal pressures to marry and bear children persist. And so does the allure of “a single man in possession of a good fortune.”

Men Have Book Clubs, Too

Book clubs have a reputation as something women do together, but this article focuses on an all-male group in Marin County, CA:

The Man Book Club is going into its ninth year. It has 16 members, a number of whom are lawyers and engineers in their mid–50s. Each month, the host must prepare a meal appropriate to the book under discussion.

There’s also information on other all-male book groups around the country.

What You Really Lose When You Lose Perspective

Our perspective is how we perceive people, situations, ideas, etc. It’s informed by our personal experience, which makes it as unique as anything could be. Perspective shapes our life by affecting our choices. But the minute our minds become steeped in worry, perspective goes out of the window. We forget about our triumphs. We stop being optimistic as fear takes the wheel.

Sarah Newman explains how fear can cause us to lose sight of all the wisdom we’ve accrued over our lives.

Meg Rosoff on Coming of Age

Coming of age is such a common topic for fiction that this type of novel has its own name: Bildungsroman. These novels focus on the psychological growth of the main character from youth into adulthood.

Here novelist Meg Rosoff discusses these coming-of-age novels:

  • A Separate Peace by John Knowles
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Henry IV Part I by Shakespeare
  • Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  • All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
Older women more likely to be overprescribed inappropriate drugs: Study

A recent research study from the University of British Columbia found that:

Older women are nearly 25 percent more likely than men to be over-prescribed or inappropriately prescribed drugs, with a new study pointing to social dynamics as the explanation for the discrepancy.

When authors’ prejudices ruin their books

This is a common question among avid readers: Should authors’ prejudices affect our reactions to their books?

In this article Imogen Russell Williams asks:

The unsavoury attitudes found in novels from writers such as GK Chesterton and Susan Coolidge have ruined some of the fiction I loved most as a child. But where do you draw the line when you return to tainted classics?

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Reading

ON FINDING YOURSELF IN THE WORK OF JHUMPA LAHIRI

Nandini Balial riffs on reading In Other Words, the latest book by another Bengali woman, Jhumpa Lahiri. This is a beautiful musing on how language and literature have helped shape Aalial’s life and sense of identity as a writer.

Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?

Critic David Denby created quite a stir with this claim:

When they become twelve or thirteen, kids often stop reading seriously. The boys veer off into sports or computer games, the girls into friendship in all its wrenching mysteries and satisfactions of favor and exclusion. Much of their social life, for boys as well as girls, is now conducted on smartphones, where teen-agers don’t have to confront one another. The terror of eye contact! Sherry Turkle, in her recent book “Reclaiming Conversation,” has written about the loss of self that this avoidance creates and also of the peculiar boredom paradoxically produced by the act of constantly fleeing boredom.

He ends the piece with a plea for high school English teachers to take risks to “make books important to kids—and forge the necessary link to pleasure and need” so that the kids will turn off the smartphone screens, at least for a while.

David Denby is Wrong

Heather Wheat, a high school teacher of AP English in Denver, has an answer for Denby:

You are right in that “The good [teachers] are not sheepish or silent in defense of literature and history and the rest.” So I’m going to tell you that you’re wrong. Teens read seriously. They read for purpose. They read for ideas. They read for knowledge. But most importantly, THEY READ.

She wonders how much time Denby has spent actually talking to teenagers. Many of her students live in poverty, she says; nonetheless, “they see the truth of the humanity in books, the reflection of the odds stacked against them in their own lives, and they see life represented realistically.” Also, she insists, “a great many of my kids read for pleasure outside of school.”

The irony of your essay is that the “Golden Age of Teen Reading” is actually now. There are more authors working to write books targeted to young audiences, to get them reading, to get them set on the path to lifetime literacy. The bonus of this path to lifetime literacy is it opens the door to increased intellectual curiosity.

9 Books to Read by Age 30

Ben Thomas offers quite an eclectic list of books to read “if you want to be a good writer. Or just an interesting person.”

See why he recommends these:

Ray Bradbury – Zen in the Art of Writing
Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises
Tim Ferriss – The 4-Hour Work Week
Herman Melville – Moby-Dick
Sun-Tzu – The Art of War
Frank Herbert – Dune
Bhante Henepola Gunaratana – Mindfulness in Plain English
Herman Hesse – Steppenwolf
Neil Gaiman – The Sandman

Mental Flexibility Improved By Reading Literature With One Important Quality

According to new research published in the journal Cortex, writing that challenges readers to think more deeply could boost mental flexibility:

People who read poetry and other texts that required them to re-evaluate the meaning showed fascinating changes to patterns of activation in the brain.

And greater mental flexibility can, in turn, help such readers to adapt their thoughts and behaviors to changing life situations.

How to Tackle Your TBR Pile

Because I need all the help I can get:

My TBR fiction shelf
My TBR fiction shelf

With the help of readers’ suggestions, Bookish has put together a list of eight ways to help deal with that TBR (to-be-read) collection:

  1. Keep your TBR together
  2. Organize by length
  3. Organize by genre
  4. Return to sender
  5. Start a book club
  6. Read-a-thon
  7. Give yourself a challenge
  8. Make time for reading

Fortunately, #8 includes a link to some suggestions on making more time for reading.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Finished in March

Because I had jury duty for the entire month of March, I did not get as much reading done as I would have liked. I usually finish one book before starting another, but I decided to set aside the book I was reading, on which I wanted to take notes, for one that I could more easily pick up and put back down as necessary. As a result, I finished out March with two Big Books each half finished.

Here are the three—all rather short—that I did finish reading in March.

Where Are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark

where are the childrenLong before Mary Higgins Clark took over as the reigning queen of romantic suspense, she concentrated on the suspense part. From childhood she had loved suspense stories, first books featuring girl detectives like Judy Bolton and Nancy Drew, and later books by authors including Agatha Christie, Josephine Tey, Ngaio Marsh, and Daphne du Maurier. Clark’s first published book was a collection of stories. Her second book, published in 1975, was Where Are the Children?, her first novel.

Years ago Nancy Harmon had suffered through the disappearance and deaths of her two young children in California. Her husband also died of an apparent suicide. Nancy was charged with the murders of her children but was freed on a technicality. She dyed her hair, changed her name, and traveled to Cape Cod, where she remarried and had two children.

On the seventh anniversary of the disappearance of her first two children, the nightmare begins all over again when
Nancy discovers that her two preschoolers have disappeared from the back yard. As the search for the children begins, spearheaded by a retired detective turned writer, Nancy’s past gradually comes to light. She must endure the scrutiny of a small community naturally suspicious of outsiders along with the anguish over the fate of her children. Will the children be found, or will Nancy once again be haunted by, and accused of, a mother’s worst nightmare?

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Recommended

bell jarSylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel was first published in England in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Plath died by suicide a month after that publication. The novel was first published under Plath’s own name in 1967. Through the influence of her husband, poet Ted Hughes, and her mother, the book was not published in the United States until 1971.

Set in 1953, “summer the Rosenbergs were executed,” the novel tells the story of Esther Greenwood as she begins a prestigious summer internship at a woman’s magazine in New York City. Greenwood, from the suburbs around Boston, has attended a nearby woman’s college on a scholarship awarded because of her outstanding writing ability. Unable to find any joy or meaning in the life she encounters in the city and in the gender identity society expects of her, Greenwood becomes increasingly depressed and unable to sleep. At the end of the internship she returns home, but her mental health declines rapidly and she receives treatment from a number of doctors and institutions.

This novel, which provides insight into the gender expectations and the mental health attitudes of the 1950’s, was the March selection of my in-person classics book club.

Of the Farm by John Updike
Recommended

of the farmPublished in 1965, this short novel provides an image of American life at that time. Joey Robinson, age 35 and a resident of New York City, brings his second wife, Peggy, and his 11-year-old stepson, Richard, to visit his mother on the rural Pennsylvania farm where Joey spent his adolescence. The farm belongs to Joey’s mother; his father, recently dead, was never happy here. His mother is aging and can no longer care for the farm on her own.

Over the three days of their visit, Joey is haunted by memories not only of his parents and life on the farm, but also of his first wife, Joan, whose large portrait has been moved from the living room to a small upstairs bedroom, and thoughts of his three children, who now live in Canada with their mother and stepfather.

With heavy-handed symbolism, the farm becomes the Garden of Eden: Peggy unexpectedly begins menstruating, to intensify the fertility/Garden of Eden motif, and Joey frequently thinks of her body as a field to plow. On Sunday they all attend the local church, where the minister preaches a sermon expounding on the biblical description of the Garden of Eden:

What do these assertions tell us abut men and women today? First, is not Woman’s problem that she was taken out of Man, and is therefore a subspecies, less than equal to Man, a part of the world? … Second, she was made after Man. Think of God as a workman who learns as he goes. Man is the rougher and stronger artifact; Woman the finer and more efficient. (p. 112)

Over the course of the visit, the child, Richard, becomes a mediator between the three adults as they debate the choices they have made and the ways in which they define their lives.

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Year-to-date total of books read: 10

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Big Books on My Reading List

Related Posts:

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Like most of you, I have big, ambitious plans for my future reading. Here are the Big Books that currently reside on my TBR shelves.


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
paperback, 1392 pages

war and peace

 

Isn’t this book on just about everybody’s lifetime reading list? It seems to be one of the titles that separates the true book lovers from the wanna-bes.

 

 

 


Ulysses by James Joyce
paperback, 732 pages

ulysses

The comments from War and Peace also apply here.

This is the cover of the copy I bought for myself in Dublin, in the hopes that having a real Irish copy would make me more likely to actually read the book. Someday I hope to return to Dublin and walk Leopold Bloom’s journey around the city.

 

 


The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
hardcover edition, 567 pages

golden notebook

 

This book has been on my TBR shelf for so long that I no longer remember where I picked it up. But it’s a classic work of feminism, and I’m determined to get through it.

 

 


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
hardcover, 562 pages

freedom

After reading Franzen’s The Corrections, one of the 6 Big Books I Keep Meaning to Reread, I eagerly bought the hardcover of this novel soon after it came out.

Alas, life intervened, and I still haven’t read it. But I’m going to. I’m definitely going to. Some time soon.

 

 


Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
hardcover, 1168 pages

atlas shrugged

I hear so much about Ayn Rand that I think I should read at least one of her works. A lot of people I know read either this book or The Fountainhead in college, but I guess I didn’t take the right course.

This is another one that’s been on my shelf for so long that I can’t remember where or when I bought it. I plan to take it with me on my next long, leisurely vacation.

 


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
paperback, 636 pages

kavalier and clay

 

I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t yet read anything by Michael Chabon. This is a shortcoming that I plan to correct someday soon with this Big Book.

 

 

 


Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which ones do you especially recommend? Or do you have other Big Books to recommend?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

On Reading

Sorry, Science Says Speed Reading Doesn’t Work

A report, recently published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, on a comprehensive review of the science behind speed reading:

The team behind the research looked at decades of studies focused on all manner of techniques and apps that promise to help you devour words at an incredible clip. Sadly, what they found is that what looks too good to be true almost certainly is.

11 Reasons Every Woman Should Join a Book Club

I don’t think the value of belonging to a book club should be limited to women. However, there are quite a few truths buried in this light-hearted piece. And I met some of my closest friends in book groups.

Emma Watson’s Feminist Book Club on Goodreads!

In honor of Women’s History Month, I offer you this chance to join an online book group, started by Emma Watson (you know, Hermione Granger):

The plan is to select and read a book every month, then discuss the work during the month’s last week (to give everyone time to read it!). I will post some questions/quotes to get things started, but I would love for this to grow into an open discussion with and between you all. Whenever possible I hope to have the author, or another prominent voice on the subject, join the conversation.

How Rereading The Great Gatsby Will Turn You Into a Superfan

According to Roy Peter Clark:

revision is not reserved for authors and editors. It is also a power that belongs to all readers, especially ones who undertake multiple readings of a text over time.

To illustrate, he discusses his own experience of reading The Great Gatsby seven times. For good measure, he talks about how to read like a writer:

This is what X-ray reading does for the writer. It reveals the strategies beneath the surface of the text that create meaning. That meaning can endure for decades and even centuries, or it can be enriched – seen with a stabbing clarity – through the re-visions of a devoted reader.

Inspiring the Artist in Everyone: Writers and Artists Share Handwritten Lists of Their Favorite Influential Books

Some of the hand-written lists are impossible to read here, but if you click on any image, you’ll be taken to another page containing the titles.

Taking Literature to the Streets

Advertising to encourage reading:

Reading, one of the world’s most enduring pastimes, hasn’t historically needed clever ads or flashy marketing campaigns to convince people of its worth. But Coffee Sleeves Conversation, as the Coffee House Press project became known, is one of a number of growing efforts around the world to advertise literature as a whole—by taking the message that reading can be accessible, enjoyable, and life-improving to unexpected places, from vending machines and subway cars to fast-food chains.

Books That I Finished in February

In an effort to reach my reading goal of 40 books this year, I’m going to start keeping track here of the books I finish each month. Although I keep this information in a database program, it will be easier for me to see if I make each month’s quota.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Recommended

lucy bartonMany years later, first-person narrator Lucy Barton recalls the time her mother visited her in the hospital. Lucy spent nine weeks hospitalized after an appendectomy because of a fever the doctor couldn’t figure out and couldn’t eliminate. Up until that time Lucy had had little contact with her mother since leaving home as a young woman.

Her mother stays for five days, during which the two women gossip about the lives of several people in Lucy’s small, rural hometown. These stories provide a round-about way of discussing what life is all about and how people treat each other. Lucy never does confront her mother with the question she most needs an answer to—why her mother allowed some unspecified “thing” (suggestions of physical and/or sexual abuse)—happen. Yet before her mother unceremoniously leaves to return home, Lucy has come to terms with the insatiable desire for a mother’s love and the fragile nature of memory.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Highly Recommended

house-of-mirthThis was the February selection of my in-person classics book club. Published in 1905, it was Wharton’s first novel. It portrays New York high-society life at the turn of the twentieth century.

The novel tells the story of beautiful Lily Bart. At age 29, 11 years after she made her debut into society, Lily is well past the time when she should have found a suitable, meaning rich, husband. Born into society but forced to its margins by her father’s financial ruin, Lily must find a husband to provide the dresses, jewels, houses, prestige, and power she needs to maintain her place in society.

A life outside of the social circuit is something Lily cannot even consider. As her finances dwindle, so do her opportunities and her reputation. This novel deftly portrays the lives of people for whom appearance is everything, and the fate of people, like Lily, who are unable to play the game successfully.

Writing Down Your Soul by Janet Connor

writing-down-your-soulAnyone interested in journal writing will appreciate Janet Connor’s story of how, at the darkest point of her life, she discovered a way to tap into her own inner strength through writing.

Although her practice involves writing in a journal, she insists that it differs from standard journal writing because of these four characteristics: intention, purpose, process, and commitment. Connor mines the scientific literature of mind-body medicine to explain how writing that combines these four elements can put us in touch with our own inner wisdom by shifting our consciousness and realigning the brain’s neural pathways. She then lays out a four-step approach for accessing that wisdom.

I felt that the book contained much repetition and padding. Nonetheless, it does offer detailed instructions—even though perhaps, in places, too detailed—for anyone interested in giving Connor’s system a try.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Highly Recommended

a little lifeThis big-hearted book contains so much humanity that I’m going to be thinking about it for a while before attempting to write a review. It’s one of the most affecting books I’ve ever read. As much as I love literature, I can’t remember the last time a book actually brought me to tears.

If you’re going to read only one novel this year, make it this one. It’s long at 800+ pages, but spend the time to read it slowly and savor it.

Slow Reading by John Miedema

slow readingMiedema put this book together 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.”

Miedema is discussing the reading of fiction here. 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).

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Year-to date total of books read: 7

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Big Books I Keep Meaning to Reread

Related Post:

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While scanning my bookshelves for Big Books I have read, I also found six that I have already read but want to read again.

You’d think that once through a Big Book would be enough, but in fact Big Books contain so much that they almost always withstand a second—or even a third or fourth—reading. In fact, rereading a Big Book often produces even more enjoyment than a first reading because you don’t have to hurry through to find out what happens. Instead, you can take time to savor the writing and appreciate the author’s technique.

Here, then, in no particular order, are six Big Books that I will definitely reread.

Middlemarch by George Eliot
paperback, 848 pages

middlemarchSerialized in 1871 and 1872 and published in a single volume in 1872, Middlemarch by George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans) portrays life in an English provincial town of the 1830s. The main character is Dorothea Brooke, an intellectual and idealistic woman who scholars say resembles the author in many ways. Brooke enters a disastrous marriage with a man she mistakes for her soul mate. In a parallel subplot, an idealistic young doctor, Tertius Lydgate, falls in love with a beautiful but superficial and vain woman, and these two also live an unpleasant married life.

In this Big Book Eliot populates the town with characters of all social classes, including laborers and shopkeepers, members of the rising middle class, and people of the landed gentry. Goodreads describes this novel as “pivotal in the shaping of twentieth-century literary realism.”

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
hardcover, 568 pages

correctionsThis Big Book by Jonathan Franzen won the 2001 National Book Award for fiction. The novel stands squarely in the canon of dysfunctional-family literature with its portrayal of the Lambert clan of St. Jude, a fictional midwestern city. Albert, the patriarch, has ruled the family with inflexible rules and plenty of rage for nearly 50 years. It’s no wonder that the three grown Lambert children have set out on their own mixed-up lives far from St. Jude.

As the novel begins, Albert has recently received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. His long-suffering and perpetually unhappy wife, Enid, has set her heart on having the entire family reunite for one last Christmas dinner at the family home. We get to know each of the Lambert offspring as they work their ways around making it back home for that final confrontation with the past. Despite the subject matter, Franzen manages to keep the narrative from becoming a slogging Big Drag with astute psychological characterization and just the right touch of irony and humor.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
hardcover, 691 pages

fingerpostSet in England in 1663, An Instance of the Fingerpost tells the story of the murder of an Oxford don through the narratives of four different witnesses. The complex situation involves history, science, and cryptography in an effort to arrive at the truth of what happened. One of my book groups back in St. Louis read this not long after its publication in 1997, and everyone loved it.

This Big Book was my introduction to the realization that there are as many sides to any story as there are participants. With its multiple narrators, it well illustrates the truth that some books are meant to be read more than once. Almost everyone in my book group said that, as soon as they finished reading it, they wanted to go back and read it all over again to appreciate how all the pieces of the story puzzle fit together. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t yet given this novel the rereading it so richly deserves. I should bump it up near the top of my reading list.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
paperback, 887

bleak houseThis novel, considered by many to be Dickens’ masterpiece, was first published in a single volume in 1853. It mixes satire, romance, and mystery in telling the story of Esther Summerson, a ward of John Jarndyce, as a seemingly never-ending lawsuit grinds its way through the huge, inefficient bureaucracy of the English legal process.

Really, this Big Book is a much better read than this description makes it sound.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
paperback, 546

poisonwood bibleIn 1959 Baptist preacher Nathan Price packs up his family, a wife and four daughters, and takes them from their home in Georgia to the Belgian Congo to spread The Word. Woefully inappropriately prepared, the family arrives in the midst of political upheaval. Price’s fire-and-brimstone form of Christianity along with his ignorance and arrogance soon alienate the local inhabitants even further. The first half of the novel deals with the family’s experiences in the Congo, while the latter half follows the family members’ lives for 30 years after they leave.

The most striking aspect of this Big Book is Kingsolver’s ability to create distinctive voices for each of the characters as they take turns narrating the story. This is the benchmark against which I evaluate all other novels that employ multiple narrators, an approach to fiction writing that is quickly becoming the norm.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
paperback, 529 pages

middlesexIt takes a Big Book to tell a family’s history. Middlesex tells the story of three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family as they leave a tiny village near Mount Olympus and travel to Detroit, where they live through Prohibition and then the 1967 race riots before moving to suburban Grosse Pointe.

Throughout the story, the novel focuses on Calliope Stephanides as she searches for the reasons why she’s not like other girls. Gradually Callie becomes Cal while remaining a fascinating narrator whom the reader follows with delight.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

10 Big Books I Have Read & Loved

Not too long ago, in the book section at Target, I overheard a woman say to her companion, “I stay away from big books.” They walked away, so I didn’t get to hear any more of the conversation, but it made me think about big books.

I can imagine many reasons someone might offer for staying away from big books:

  • Big books intimidate me.
  • Big books contain too much stuff for me to keep straight in my head.
  • Big books are too heavy to carry around.
  • Reading a big book requires a long time commitment.
  • I prefer shorter books that I can read quickly.
  • Big books deal with too many big ideas. I just want an entertaining story.

For my money, a book should be as long as it needs to be to tell its story. And a long story can be just as entertaining as a short one. In fact—and I know many readers who would agree with me here—if a story is well told, I sometimes want it not to end; occasionally I purposely wait to finish a book because I don’t want to leave those characters and their world quite yet.

Here, in no particular order, are some Big Books that I have read and loved. For the sake of definition, I use the term Big Book to refer to one of 500 or more pages.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
paperback, 515 pages

cloud atlasIn this brilliant novel David Mitchell uses intertwined stories to demonstrate how individual people and their fates are connected across space and time. The literary genres featured here include autobiography, philosophical inquiry, mystery, and speculative fiction in a narrative framework that circles back on itself to create the paradox of discrete moments within the vast expanse of human experience.

This big novel is challenging but not daunting. It well rewards the time spent on a slow and careful reading. This was my introduction to David Mitchell’s work, and I am slowly working my way through the rest of his work.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
hardcover, 773 pages

the goldfinchThirteen-year-old Theo Decker is devastated by the death of his mother. Having been abandoned earlier by his father, he is taken in by the wealthy family of a former schoolmate before his father claims him and moves him from New York City to Las Vegas in pursuit of his own agenda.

Theo spends his adolescence and young adulthood in search of love, family, and a sense of identity. Intrigue in the world of art and antiques keeps the plot moving. With an ever-growing cast of compelling characters, Theo’s coming-of-age travels take him between New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam in a journey during which he must learn what things are worth keeping and what ones he must let go of.

This big book caused a big critical controversy over the question, “Is it art?” I’m not going to contribute to that debate, with its unsavory suggestion that any work of literature that is popular cannot also be artistic or literary. All I can tell you is that, for me, this was a real page-turner.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
hardcover, 514 pagesclamity physics

Marisha Pessl’s dazzling debut sparked raves from critics and heralded the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of Special Topics in Calamity Physics is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge, but she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway School, she finds some–a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel–with visual aids drawn by the author–that has won over readers of all ages.

Goodreads

If you like literary puzzles, you’ll love this big novel that requires readers to tolerate ambiguity and hold several possibilities in abeyance until the pieces all, finally, fall into place.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
paperback, 601 pages

east of eden

Set in the farmland of the Salinas Valley in California, this novel retells the stories of Adam and Eve and of the rivalry between Cain and Abel through the intertwined generations of the Trask and Hamilton families.

Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

Goodreads

And there’s no question over this big novel, as there is about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, of whether it’s art. It most definitely is—an artful and rewarding reading experience.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
paperback, 503 pages

secret historyAs a classics major myself, I was easily drawn into Donna Tartt’s first novel about an inner circle of “five students, worldly and self-assured, selected by a charismatic classics professor to participate in the search for truth and beauty. Together they study the mysteries of ancient Greek culture and spend long weekends at an old country house, reading, boating, basking in an Indian summer that stretches late into autumn.”

Many years later one of these students, Richard Papen, pens this confession of how willing he was to be drawn into this inner circle and of how far these young men went to experience what they considered the fullness of intellectual and emotional life.

This is a big novel full of big ideas:

Hugely ambitious and compulsively readable, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of Dionysian abandon, of innocence corrupted by self-love and moral arrogance; and, finally, it is a story of guilt and responsibility.

Goodreads

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
hardcover, 544 pages

life after lifeOn a snowy, cold night in 1910 Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. She arrives too soon and dies before drawing her first breath. On the same night Ursula Todd is born, takes a big breath, and lets out a loud cry, the beginning of but one of the many lives Ursula Todd is destined to live.

Throughout the novel Ursula Todd is reborn many times and dies many times, at different points in her life span. She seems to learn a little bit from each life that her unconscious mind carries into subsequent lives—because she is destined to live her life over and over again until she gets it right. The fate of modern civilization depends on her ability to get it right, finally.

This big book was a big hit: It was a winner in the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
paperback, 555 pages

possession

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

Goodreads

This is another book you’ll love if you like literary puzzles. I liked this big novel so much that I’ve read it twice.

Underworld by Don DeLillo
hardcover, 827 pages

underworld

This book is so complex that I’m going to rely on Goodreads to describe it:

While Eisenstein documented the forces of totalitarianism and Stalinism upon the faces of the Russian peoples, DeLillo offers a stunning, at times overwhelming, document of the twin forces of the cold war and American culture, compelling that “swerve from evenness” in which he finds events and people both wondrous and horrifying. Underworld opens with a breathlessly graceful prologue set during the final game of the Giants-Dodgers pennant race in 1951. Written in what DeLillo calls “super-omniscience” the sentences sweep from young Cotter Martin as he jumps the gate to the press box, soars over the radio waves, runs out to the diamond, slides in on a fast ball, pops into the stands where J. Edgar Hoover is sitting with a drunken Jackie Gleason and a splenetic Frank Sinatra, and learns of the Soviet Union’s second detonation of a nuclear bomb. It’s an absolutely thrilling literary moment. When Bobby Thomson hits Branca’s pitch into the outstretched hand of Cotter–the “shot heard around the world”–and Jackie Gleason pukes on Sinatra’s shoes, the events of the next few decades are set in motion, all threaded together by the baseball as it passes from hand to hand.

Goodreads

Yet despite its complexity, the story keeps moving through all 827 pages. Similar to David Mitchell, DeLillo uses intertwined stories to create the sense of connected experience over 50 years of American life.

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
paperback, 897 pages

i know this muchThis book narrates the story of identical twins Thomas and Dominick Birdsey. The novel opens when the two are adults. Thomas has schizophrenia, and Dominick is his caregiver. It’s a complex story that jumps between the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1980s to examine family relationships, the interconnections between generations, love, and responsibility (both personal and civic). Despite the presence of several storylines in different eras playing out throughout, the novel is easy to follow.

This big novel that deals with big truths has a big, loyal following. I know three people who name I Know This Much is True as the favorite book they’ve ever read. Many others say this is the novel that has stuck with them the most of all the books they’ve ever read.

If you haven’t read it yet, I—and a lot of other people—recommend that you give it a try. Chances are that you won’t be able to put it down until you’ve finished page 897.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
paperback, 973 pages

pillars of earthSet in twelfth-century England, this is the story of the building of a great Gothic cathedral. Several characters people the story: Tom Builder, who dreams of working on such a structure; Philip, prior of the fictional Kingsbridge who must fight the sin of pride in his own desire to build the world’s biggest church; Jack, Tom’s son, a master stone artist; and Aliena, a noblewoman who fights patriarchal prejudice to build a business.

But perhaps the two dominant characters of the novel are the cathedral itself and the historical age in which it is built. The cathedral becomes the focal point for pride, arrogance, and greed among the Church and the nobility, and for a source of sustenance among the peasant workers. In an age when geopolitical boundaries did not exist, power belonged to whichever nobleman could muster the biggest army. Peasants were at the mercy of the nobility, and peasants lived or died according to noble whim. The Church and the nobility jockeyed for power over the masses whose labor they both exploited.

Ken Follett had written a number of thrillers before he turned to this big story, his pet project. He spent years on the research necessary to write the book. In a foreword he says that many readers tell him Pillars of the Earth is their favorite of his novels. “It’s mine, too,” he says.

What about you?

Do you avoid big books, or do you embrace them? Are there any big books that you have read and loved?

Let us know in the comments.