Thanks to Goodreads for the following statistics:

I read 16,335 pages across 48 books.

SHORTEST BOOK: 135 pages. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

LONGEST BOOK: 894 pages. Dune by Frank Herbert

AVERAGE LENGTH: 340 pages

MY AVERAGE RATING FOR 2017: really liked it: 4.0 stars

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

In Memoriam: Literary Folks We Lost in 2017

This is always my least favorite post of the year.

Here’s a list of people the literary world lost in 2017, including, where available, a link to an obituary and the date of death.

John Berger, 1/2

Nat Hentoff, 1/7

Clare Hollingworth, 1/10

William Peter Blatty, 1/12

William A. Hilliard, 1/16

Peter Abrahams, 1/18

Byron Dobell, 1/21

Emma Tennant, 1/21

Buchi Emecheta, 1/25

Harry Mathews, 1/25

Bharati Mukherjee, 1/28

Barbara Harlow, 1/28

Howard Frank Mosher, 1/29

William Melvin Kelley, 2/1

Thomas Lux, 2/5

Barbara Gelb, 2/9

Dick Bruna, 2/16

Nancy Willard, 2/19

Frank Delaney, 2/21

Gary Cartwright, 2/22

Edith Shiffert, 3/1

Robert James Waller, 3/10

Amy Krouse Rosenthal, 3/13

George Braziller, 3/16

Derek Walcott, 3/17

Jimmy Breslin, 3/19

Robert Silvers, 3/20

Colin Dexter, 3/21

Joanne Kyger, 3/22

David Storey, 3/26

William McPherson, 3/28

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 4/1

Glenn O’Brien, 4/7

Patricia McKissack, 4/7

Robert M. Pirsig, 4/24

Anne R. Dick, 4/28

Jean Fritz, 5/14

Neil Gordon, 5/19

Denys Johnson-Davies, 5/22

Denis Johnson, 5/24

Ann Birstein, 5/24

Frank Deford, 5/28

Charles Simmons, 6/1

Juan Goytisolo, 6/4

Helen Dunmore, 6/5

Margaux Fragoso, 6/23

Michael Bond, 6/27

Heathcote Williams, 7/1

Spencer Johnson, 7/3

Kenneth Silverman, 7/7

Clancy Sigal, 7/16

Sam Shepard, 7/27

Judith Jones, 8/2

Janusz Glowacki, 8/19

Brian Aldiss, 8/19

Susan Vreeland, 8/23

Howard Kaminsky, 8/26

Bernard Pomerance, 8/26

Rachel Kranz, 8/28

Elaine Ford, 8/27

Louise Hay, 8/30

Katherine M. Bonniwell, 8/31

John Ashbery, 9/3

Kate Millett, 9/6

Jerry Pournelle, 9/8

J.P. Donleavy, 9/11

Myrna Lamb, 9/15

Lillian Ross, 9/20

Kit Reed, 9/24

Si Newhouse, 10/1

Richard Wilbur, 10/14

Donald Bain, 10/14

Fay Chiang, 10/20

Gilbert Rogin, 11/4

Nancy Friday, 11/5

Pat Hutchins, 11/8

Jeremy Hutchinson, 11/13

Les Whitten, 12/2

William Gass, 12/6

Kathleen Karr, 12/6

Bette Howland, 12/13

Clifford Irving, 12/19

Sue Grafton, 12/28

Some Best Books Lists for 2017

Announcing the Winners of the 2017 Goodreads Choice Awards

The Best Books of 2017

From Amazon

The Best Books of 2017

From Esquire.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

The Recipients of the 2017 National Book Awards in All Four Categories

The winners of the 2017 National Book Awards in all four categories, as well as the presenters and the lifetime achievement award.

Source: The Recipients of the 2017 National Book Awards in All Four Categories

Seven Finalists for 2017 BookLife Prize Announced

Seven books—six novels and a memoir—were named finalists for the 2017 BookLife Prize. Each book was selected by an award-winning or bestselling author who served as a guest judge in one of seven genres.

Source: Seven Finalists for 2017 BookLife Prize Announced

Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to British author Kazuo Ishiguro – UPI.com

Source: Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to British author Kazuo Ishiguro – UPI.com

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

Review: “Y Is for Yesterday”

Grafton, Sue. Y is for Yesterday
Random House Audio, © 2017
(print edition also © 2017)

Recommended

I’m always eager to read the newest installment of Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series. However, this time my pleasure in digging into it was bittersweet. Y is, after all, the penultimate letter of the alphabet.

This time Kinsey is hired to look into a murder that occurred 10 years earlier. In 1979 four high school boys from an elite private school sexually assaulted a 14-year-old girl and filmed the attack. Soon afterwards the tape vanished, and a female classmate, suspected of the theft, was killed. One boy agreed to a plea deal that got him and two of the other boys convicted and sent to prison, but the fourth boy, the ringleader, escaped and hasn’t been heard from since.

The present time of the novel is 1989, and one of the men, Fritz McCabe, has been released from prison. Although he’s now in his late 20s, he shows little remorse and in fact still acts like a moody, angry, angst-ridden teenager. He’s back living with his parents, who want to control his every movement, when a copy of the tape mysteriously arrives at the house along with a ransom demand. The McCabes hire Kinsey to find out who’s trying to blackmail them.

Kinsey’s investigation turns up secrets that get darker the deeper she digs. Most of those secrets revolve around the feeling of entitlement assumed by the children of families with wealth, status, and power. To complicate matters further, Kinsey soon suspects that a serial killer from a recent case may be in town seeking revenge against her. She continues to rely on friends such as her landlord, retired baker Henry, now 89 years old, to comfort her through the dark times.

There were moments when I thought this book could have been trimmed and tightened up. There’s a long description of Kinsey crawling under a building that particularly befuddled me. This scene includes a lot of detail about how she moved around down in that tight crawl space. I tried to follow all her movements, I really did, but I couldn’t at all visualize what was happening. Of course I knew what that scene was building toward, but the scene should have been significantly compacted to build suspense commensurate with the potential peril of the situation. Also, there were several times when key points about the old murder case were repeated—so much so that I began to wonder whether Grafton had forgotten she had already given us that particular tidbit of information.

Nonetheless, I look forward to next year’s publication of the last book in the alphabet series. I hope Grafton will wrap up the story of Kinsey and friends in a way that is true to their characters. I read a couple of interviews with Sue Grafton at the time of the publication of Y, and she indicated that she is not averse to the notion of perhaps writing some one-off novels about Kinsey after Z. Maybe we Kinsey Millhone fans won’t have to go into mourning after all.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

What I’ve Been Reading on Writing About Literature

Since reading and writing about books is my primary activity, I’ve recently been reading some articles on reading and writing about books

(1) 38 Years on Books: The Essential Michiko Kakutani Reader

One of the biggest recent events among book people was the retirement of Michiko Kakutani, who had been the chief book critic of the New York Times for 38 years. She was a touchstone for both writers and readers. Her judgment could make or break a new book’s reputation, so authors lived in fear of her. Many readers would choose their reading material on the basis of her reviews, though some chose books because she recommended them and others chose book because she panned them.

I admit that I often found her reviews baffling. Nonetheless, she was a force in the book-reviewing world, so I’ve bookmarked this article and am slowly working my way through the samples. According to the article:

Together they represent a vigorously led life of the mind, a crash course in contemporary literature and a tour through the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium.

(2) What the Departure of the _Times_’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage

The compendium of examples above was put together by the New York Times, so I wanted to see what other reviewers and cultural critics had to say about Kakutani’s departure. In this piece Boris Kachka discusses Kakutani’s “growing estrangement from the job of country’s most powerful book critic.”

With Kakutani’s departure, Kachka declares:

an era really has ended. As chief book critic, Kakutani was inimitable and irreplaceable. (In fact, there are no plans to name a new “chief critic.”) She was the “voice of God,” as one writer put it to me.

But does the end of the Kakutani era at the New York Times have any significance for a personal book blogger like me? I’ve periodically looked at her writing, although I never wanted to emulate it because, as Kachka writes:

There wasn’t much personal presence on the page, either. You won’t find the word I in a Kakutani review, just an omniscient “reader.” … Even her overuse of specific ten-dollar words and her occasional parody reviews were exceptions that proved the rule: a limited quiver of quirks standing in for a colorful voice. “I used to call them her book reports,” says [Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. “They were quite formulaic and they weren’t always subtle…”

One quality I’ve been trying to develop is how, after a long academic career, to reinsert myself into my discussions of the books I read

But Kakutani had one quality that her colleagus praised: they regarded her as “a straight shooter with few axes to grind.” As such a large cog in the publishing machine, Kakutani would have had many opportunities to nurture personal grudges and to engage in their expression. That’s one advantage to being a lonely personal blogger: I can base my opinion of a book on how good I think it is rather than on whether I like the author or am likely to bump into the author at some social event.

According to Kachka, Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the Times, described Kakutani as “an intellectual who can synthesize many strands of both culture and politics in a way that I haven’t seen.” That’s another quality of her work that’s worth emulating, since literature is a cultural artifact that mirrors the culture from which it arises.

(3) The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again

John Maher reports for Publishers Weekly on the consolidation taking place at the New York Times books desk. These changes, which included the paper’s buy-out of long-term chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, constitute an effort to move, finally, out of the outdated print modality into a new print/online world:

Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’ weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.

After the reorganization, the Books staff did research into what kinds of book coverage readers wanted to see in the paper:

That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s _The Underground Railroad_—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?

I welcome this change from dictating what people should read to understanding what people actually do read.

(4) The case of Stephen Greenblatt

Discovering this article lifted a great weight off my shoulders. I grew up when New Criticism dominated literary studies. This approach to theory and criticism pounded all sense of personal involvement in reading out of us. From the description of Michiko Kakutani’s lack of any personal voice—and since she’s less than 10 years younger than me—I’m betting that she got her literary training under New Criticism as well. I’ve been working hard to insert myself back into my writing about literature.

In this article Bruce Bawer explains how Stephen Greenblatt was a frontrunner in the development of New Historicism, the critical darling that supplanted New Criticism. According to New Historicism, literature is

not the path to a transhistorical truth, whether psychoanalytic or deconstructive or purely formal, but the key to particular historically embedded social and psychological formulations… . Where traditional “close readings” [in the New Critical mode] tended to build toward an intensified sense of wondering admiration, linked to the celebration of genius, new historicist readings are more often skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical, and even adversarial.

New Historicism developed shortly after I left my graduate studies in English and American literature, so I missed it. I’m glad I finally found it, as it very well describes my belief that literary works are societal constructs that individual readers respond to on the basis of their unique combination of learning and life experience.

Now, I return to my own writing about literature with a clearer understanding of what I want to communicate.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

The 2017 National Book Award Longlists

Source: The 2017 National Book Award Longlists

This list from Publishers Weekly includes links to its reviews of many of the nominated works.