Literary Links

Tash Aw in Conversation with Chia-Chia Lin

Chinese Malaysian novelist Tash Aw discusses his latest novel, We, the Survivors, and the relationship between literature and the immigrant experience. 

Of course there are always local details that make more sense to some. But when a very specific story of racism is committed to paper, it acquires a universality that speaks far beyond its boundaries.

Why Monster Stories Captivate Us

“Our brains are compelled by category violations.”

Every culture has “monstrous mash-ups,” or composite creatures, in their folklore and religion. Think of the Sphinx (half human, half lion), centaurs (half human, half horse), and mermaids (half woman, half fish). Such unexpected hybrids violate our “innate or . . . early developmental folk taxonomy of the world, according to psychologist Dan Sperber and anthropologist Pascal Boyer.” Such monstrous creatures “offer surrogate rehearsals for how the real community (‘us’) will resist actual enemies (‘them’).”

True crime always risks exploitation. But it can still make the world a better place

when we center the lives of the victims and their families rather than obsessing over the quirks of killers and accept the costs of being more sensitive to victims’ pain than we are thrilled by murderers’ transgressions, true-crime stories can make a small contribution to making the world a more just, more empathetic place.

‘Ulysses’ on Trial

In connection with the centennial anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union, novelist Michael Chabon discusses the significance of the trial that determined James Joyce’s Ulysses was not obscene. 

The 100 best books of the 21st century

Here’s a very humbling list of the best of world literature, both fiction and nonfiction, produced so far in the 21st century. I’ll never catch up.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Classics Club Spin #21

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin: Spin #21.

Here’s how it works:

I am to post a list of 20 titles of books as yet unread on my classics club list by next Monday, September 23rd. On that date the Classics Club will post a number. I then have until October 31st to read the book on my list with that number.

Here’s my list:

  1. Brookner, Anita. Hotel Du Lac  
  2. Jackson, Shirley. Just an Ordinary Day: Stories   
  3. Highsmith, Patricia. The Tremor of Forgery  
  4. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!  
  5. Styron, William. Darkness Visible  
  6. McEwan, Ian. Atonement  
  7. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman  
  8. Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird  
  9. Agee, James. A Death in the Family  
  10. Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle  
  11. Howard, Elizabeth Jane. The Long View  
  12. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time  
  13. Connell, Evan S. Mr. Bridge  
  14. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle
  15. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment  
  16. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories  
  17. Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs  
  18. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd  
  19. Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!  
  20. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire

And now, we wait.

Update

The lucky winner is #5. So I will be reading Darkness Visible by William Styron by October 31st.

Literary Links

A Different Look at YA Novels

Sonia Patel, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who has written three YA novels, argues that “YA fiction needs to expand its boundaries beyond safe, popular stories that only affirm and praise different cultures. It needs to push past the expectation that all diverse teens can conquer adversity in a tolerable way.”

5 YA BOOKS THAT TACKLE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES

In honor of his brother, who died a year ago, Lucas Maxwell decided to read five YA novels dealing with mental health and substance abuse in five weeks. Here he reports on the five books he read and what those books can teach us.

Where the Amateur Reader Ends, and the Professional Critic Begins

Tom Lutz reminds us that we all were amateur readers before we became critics of what we read.

‘Quichotte’ Is Salman Rushdie’s Latest. But the Act Is Getting Old.

Having never read anything by Salman Rushdie, I was drawn to this article in which Parul Sehgal argues Rushdie “is the author of nearly 20 books — six published in the last 11 years alone, but of diminishing quality. The novels are imaginative as ever, but they are also increasingly wobbly, bloated and mannered. He is a writer in free fall. What happened?”

TECHNOLOGY IS A CRIME WRITER’S BEST FRIEND

Here are two novels that I’ve read recently:

  1. The Escape Room by Megan Goldin, in which four coworkers become trapped in an elevator and must think about the consequences of their past actions
  2. The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware, in which a governess faces haunting occurrences in a smarthouse completely controlled by technology

This reading is the reason this article by thriller writer Catherine Ryan Howard caught my eye: “When I sit down at my desk to work on my novels, it’s in this particular corner—the mundane, everyday world of our online lives—that I like to play in.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin”

Commentary on one of my all-time favorite Big Books:

Cover: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin (2000) is a multilayered and deftly plotted work of autobiographical and historical fiction set in 20th-century Canada. In just the first few pages, layers of family history and mystery unfurl by way of a trifecta of memoir flashback, newspaper clippings and novel-within-a-novel narratives. It’s around Iris — our now-octogenarian protagonist and witty narrative anchor — that these myriad elements swirl and eddy, coming together to form a sprawling family saga peppered with death, deceit and disappointment.

. . .

whether you’re an Atwood novice or a superfan looking to revisit the prolific writer’s expansive back catalog, start with The Blind Assassin, which, nearly two decades out from publication, still speaks with a fresh voice about powerful men, politics and female victimization.

Lauren Cocking, WHY MARGARET ATWOOD’S ‘THE BLIND ASSASSIN’ IS WORTH REVISITING

Literary Links

WHEN MURDER COMES HOME

Psychologist J.L. Doucette also writes mystery novels. When a body was found buried in the back yard of a house formerly owned by her grandmother, Doucette began to “question my choice of genre as if by writing about murder I was somehow complicit in bringing violence into the world.”

The 50 Greatest Coming-of-Age Novels

The great power of fiction originates in the universality of the particular stories it tells. Since growing up is something we all must do sooner or later, coming-of-age novels are among the most prevalent and most affecting of all.

cover: Middlesex

Here Emily Temple offers her list. I agree with some of her choices: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Cider House Rules by John Irving. 

Cover: The Art of Fielding

But there are a lot more I would add: The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens, My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni.

How about you?

Are there other novels you’d add to this list?

Audiobooks or Reading? To Our Brains, It Doesn’t Matter

I hope we can finally put this tiresome argument to rest, thanks to these study results from the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

HOW READING ROBERT CORMIER’S DARK YA HELPED ME SORT THROUGH MY TEACHER’S DEATH

Fiction writer Brenna Ehrlich describes how the dark, brooding fiction of Robert Cormier helper her, as a teenager, get through the brutal murder of local teacher. 

The Goldfinch: can a film solve Donna Tartt’s most divisive book?

cover: The Goldfinch

While The Goldfinch was a bestseller and won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, it divided critics. One challenge to film-makers is its length (864 pages in the current paperback edition; well over 300,000 words). It was called “Dickensian” by some admiring reviewers, but the largest Dickens novels rely on highly elaborate plotting and a large cast of characters. The Goldfinch offers neither of these.

I loved Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, but a lot of people did not. The film version will be hitting theaters soon, and I’m eager to see it. But, as this article discusses, many are wondering whether this novel can be made into a satisfactory movie. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation: From “A Gentleman in Moscow” to “The Chatham School Affair”

Here’s my entry in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. Here’s how it works:

Books can be linked in obvious ways – for example, books by the same authors, from the same era or genre, or books with similar themes or settings. Or, you may choose to link them in more personal or esoteric ways: books you read on the same holiday, books given to you by a particular friend, books that remind you of a particular time in your life, or books you read for an online challenge.

The great thing about this meme is that each participant can make their own rules. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the ones next to them in the chain. . .

This month we begin with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, a book that I have not yet read (although it’s on my TBR list). Here’s the description from Goodreads:

He can’t leave his hotel. You won’t want to.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility–a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

1. Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz, the main character in Lady in the Lake by former journalist Laura Lippman, is also searching for a purpose in life. It’s 1966 in Baltimore, and after an 18-year marriage, Maddie has decided she wants something else from life rather than being just the wife of Milton Schwartz and the mother of Seth. She leaves her husband and son behind, gets her own apartment, and sets out to become a newspaper reporter.

2. Like Maddie in Lady in the Lake, Ingrid Coleman in Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller comes to realize in middle age that she lost her sense of individual purpose when, as a pregnant student, she chose to give up her education and writing ambitions to marry the professor with whom she was in love. One day she goes for a swim in the ocean and never returns.

3. Architect Bernadette Fox also feels she has to run away from her family to rediscover herself in Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Fortunately, her teenage daughter is clever enough to figure out where Bernadette is and to go after her.

4. The Whisper Man by Alex North also tells the story of a parent and child searching for a way to reconnect with each other. After the sudden death of his wife, Rebecca, Tom Kennedy moves into a house in a different town with his seven-year-old son, Jake. Tension mounts when a young boy is killed and Tom realizes he must establish an emotional bond with Jake in order to protect him.

5. & Sons by David Gilbert tells the tale of A.N. Dyer, an old man trying to connect with his sons. Like Tom Kennedy in The Whisper Man, Dyer is a writer, but unlike Kennedy he has never before cared about having a meaningful relationship with his sons.

6. In The Chatham School Affair by Thomas H. Cook, Henry Griswald, now an elderly man, seeks to understand his long-dead father by discovering the truth about a long-ago event from his own childhood. 

And there we have it, a journey of emotional discovery through six degrees of separation.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

5 “You Can’t Go Home Again” Novels

Recently my husband and I traveled back to our neighboring hometowns for a family funeral. We’d been back for visits periodically, of course, but we haven’t lived there for 50 years. 

Each time we visit, I feel a distinct sense of dislocation. The adage “you can’t go home again” is true for two reasons:

  1. Your hometown is not the same place as it once was.  
  2. You are no longer the same person you used to be.

Most “you can’t go home again” novels I can think of involve small towns. I grew up in a small town in New England. With only one elementary school in the town, I knew all the kids in the same grade with me, and I knew just about everybody, and all their siblings, in the entire school as well. Our parents all knew each other, and many of us had grandparents who knew each other. Some of the roads in the town were named after prominent multi-generational resident families, such as Lyons Road. Janie Lyons was a couple of years younger than me, and her mother and my mother had gone to school together.

All of this intergenerational overlapping within the same limited geographical boundaries makes privacy nearly impossible. Anybody who had a deep, dark secret in their past that they wanted to keep hidden would have to leave such a small town and start a new life somewhere else. This is probably why the protagonists of “you can’t go home again” novels come predominantly from small towns rather than from big cities. And it’s also probably why most such novels have at their heart some damning action or traumatic event from the past.

Here are five “you can’t go home again” novels that illustrate the Big Three of mystery/thriller tropes: secrets, lies, and betrayals.

fancy scroll

All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda

cover: All the Missing Girls

In this prototypical “you can’t go home again” novel, Nicolette Farrell returns to the home town she left 10 years ago to help care for her aging father who exhibits early signs of dementia. Now engaged and working in a city, she returns to the place where everyone knew her as Nic and remembers that she, her brother, and her hometown boyfriend were involved in the unexplained disappearance of her best friend back then. 

Soon after Nic returns, another girl vanishes under similar circumstances, and suddenly Nic and those around her are once again under suspicion. To understand what is happening now, Nic begins to try to understand what happened to her friend all those years ago. But does she really want to know the answers to all the questions that her previously unexamined memories turn up?

The Dry by Jane Harper

cover: The Dry

In Harper’s stunning debut novel, federal investigator Aaron Falk travels from Melbourne back to the small Australian farming community where he grew up to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend, Luke Hadler, and Luke’s wife and six-year-old son. The Hadlers were shot in their home, with only infant Charlotte left alive. The working theory is that Luke, under significant financial pressure, killed his wife and son before turning the gun on himself. 

But Aaron doesn’t believe Luke would have killed either his family or himself. Back in their teenage years, Aaron and Luke came under suspicion for murder, but the case was never solved. Now Aaron begins investigating the Hadlers’ murders, wondering if this case could be related to that earlier one. What he learns solves both cases and explains why Aaron’s father moved his teenage son to Melbourne, a lifestyle change that young Aaron hated and resented.

 Sharp Objects  by Gillian Flynn

cover: Sharp Objects

Before Gillian Flynn wrote Gone Girl, she wrote Sharp Objects, the story of troubled reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has just returned from a stay at a psychiatric hospital to her job at a city newspaper when two young girls are murdered in her small, rural home town. When her editor tells her to go visit her family and report on the crime, Camille tries to get out of the assignment, which will reunite her with the domineering, narcissistic mother who never loved her and the much younger half-sister whom Camille barely knows.

But keeping her job depends on her compliance, so Camille goes back to the poisonous environment she’s been trying all her life to escape. The assignment forces her to experience some of her childhood pain all over again but also suggests she may begin to find a pathway toward healing.

The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

cover: The Lying Game

This novel (my least favorite of Ruth Ware’s novels so far) illustrates a variation on “you can’t go home again” novels: the return not necessarily to home, but to a place where a significant childhood action or event occurred. The crucial location here is Salten, a girls’ boarding school in a small English village near the cliffs of the English Channel. Four girls—all misfits for various reasons—meet here as teenagers and form an exclusive clique. They alienate everyone else by their constant lying game, unending attempts to pass off outlandish claims as true. The main rule of the lying game is that they are never to lie to each other.

Seventeen years later three of these women, now in their 30s, receive a text message from the fourth, Kate: “I need you.” The three women, all living near London, drop their professional and family lives to run back to Salten, no questions asked, to help Kate. The novel then proceeds in two separate strands, one the present time and the other in the past, the year the girls spent at school together. Kate is still living in the home she shared with her father, the school’s art instructor, during that year, and much of the backstory focuses on how much idyllic time the four girls spent together in that house, a kind of surrogate home for the other three with unstable family lives, before their antisocial behavior got them all expelled.

As the complex mystery unfolds, the changed situations of the adult characters strain relationships formed around such a tenuous bond so long ago. As the women come to understand how both their schoolmates and the village residents viewed them back then, they discover that they truly can’t go home again.

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

cover: The Chalk Man

This novel illustrates another variation on the “you can’t go home again” formula: Sometimes you can’t go home again even if you never left in the first place. 

In 1986, 12-year-old Eddie and his friends rode bikes around their English village. To stave off boredom they developed their own secret code, chalk stick figures they used to send messages to each other that no one else could understand. This was great fun—until a mysterious chalk man message appeared and lead them to a dead body.

Thirty years later, Ed still lives in the same village. When he and a friend each receive a letter in the mail containing a chalk figure, they think it must be a prank. But when another death occurs, Ed realizes that to save himself, he’ll have to figure out what happened in the village all those years ago.


© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Feature image by Hermann Schmider from Pixabay

Literary Links

The Edgar Awards Revisited: The Suspect by L. R. Wright (Best Novel; 1986)

The Edgar Awards Revisited, a series in Criminal Element, looks back at award winners not only in their own right, as outstanding novels, but as representative of the their time.

In fact, looking back on 1986, The Suspect may have been the least progressive choice, thematically or structurally, for the Edgar that year, its whydunnit format notwithstanding. Simon Brett’s A Shock To The System features a similar format but, as the British precursor to Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, was perhaps considered as outre as its fellow nominee, Paul Auster’s metaphysical detective story, City Of Glass.

10 GREAT BOOKS THAT DEFY ALL GENRE LABELS

cover: The Warehouse

Rob Hart, author of the recently released novel The Warehouse, writes:

Recently I heard a pretty good explanation of the difference between a mystery and a thriller. A mystery is about what happened, and a thriller is about what’s going to happen.

But beyond that distinction, how do librarians and publishing professionals decide into which of many, many inter-related categories a given novel should be slotted? Readers of literary criticism know that the distinction between “literary fiction”—the high-brow, highfalutin stuff—and “mere genre fiction”—the low-brow, inferior stuff most of us love—is a perennial topic of discussion. But Hart here proclaims, “I really am a fan of mixing genres.” He offers a list of books that do just that: “I don’t know exactly what to call, other than very good books.”

On the Growing Influence of Barack Obama, Literary Tastemaker

While we may not be seeing an Obama book club any time soon, the former president provides a rare male voice in a largely female-dominated literary space helmed by the likes of Oprah [Winfrey] and Reese Witherspoon. Covering a wide range of genres, topics and authors, Obama’s recommendations certainly aren’t aimed specifically at male readers, but his voice has helped redefine a literary space often associated — however problematically — with a stereotypically “feminine” vision perhaps best embodied by Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine book club.

Says Kayla Kibbe, “Obama’s book recommendations read less like an endorsement from a former world leader than a conversation with a close friend who would gladly lend you their own paperback.”

Reading in a Boom Time of Biographical Fiction

Biographer, poet, critic, and novelist Jay Parini addresses the rise of historical fiction over “the last few decades.”

A student of mine recently said to me in frustration: “I just can’t get interested in ‘made-up’ lives.” And I must admit, my own tastes have shifted over the decades away from invented lives. I think I speak for many when I say that it’s biographical novels—which are centered on actual lives and circumstances—that have found a more secure place in my reading (and writing) life.

And here’s why:

Fiction offers the one and only way we have to get into the head of somebody not ourselves. If this person is someone of interest for one reason or another, there is all the more reason to want to know them and their world more deeply.

And there is a truthfulness in fiction that is simply unavailable to the academic biographer.

Recalling a Time When Books Could Give You Indigestion

cover: What We Talk About When We Talk About Books

Jennifer Szalai discusses What We Talk About When We Talk About Books by Leah Price, an English professor at Rutgers University. The book is not so much about literary history or literary criticism as about the book as physical object and the experience of reading.

The knot of ambivalence contained in this book is appropriate, considering that her subject — “the history and future of reading” — is too enormous and various to speak with a single voice. Recalling an injury that a number of years ago made it hard for Price to read, she says her story “has that most bookish of structures, a happy ending.” This is Price the Book Historian talking; Price the Literary Critic seems to have a different and darker take. Later, reflecting on the desire to see fiction as therapeutic, she wonders how we might prepare for “that most literary of endings, an unhappy one.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

How Kurt Vonnegut Predicted the Automation Crisis

Player Piano may have been written 67 years ago, but its prescience is uncanny — though not inexplicable. It is a product not only of Vonnegut’s extraordinary imagination, but his years of experience working directly with engineers, whose mentality the novel reflects in reaching its logical conclusion.

Getting To The Heart Of The Matter With ‘Heart of Darkness’

This post appears on the blog of Audible, the audiobook-selling arm of Amazon. College student and Audible intern Ama Hagan describes her reactions to Joseph Conrad’s controversial novella Heart of Darkness. This piece of classical literature still appears on the syllabi of many a college course, and I was interested in this perspective from a proud young woman of African heritage.

Authors Steve Cavanagh and Adrian McKinty: How growing up in Northern Ireland’s Troubles shaped them

Cover: Thirteen by Steve Cavanagh

This article caught my eye because I’ve just recently read both Cavanagh’s novel Thirteen and McKinty’s novel The Chain.

Cavanagh to McKinty about Cavanagh’s mother giving him the book Silence of the Lambs to read when he was 12:

We grew up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I was in Belfast, you were in Carrickfergus, and a book about cannibals and serial killers skinning innocent people was a bit of light relief from the reality of that low-level civil war. I wouldn’t give my daughter “Silence Of The Lambs,” and she’s twelve right now. We grew up in different times, and I think our generation is desensitized to violence.

Cover: The Chain, Adrian McKinty

McKinty on his youth in Northern Ireland:

A guy a few doors down from us was arrested for murdering three random Catholic men (so in effect he was a serial killer) and all this seemed completely normal to me. The domestic violence, the drunkenness, the chimney fires every night — all seemed just the way things were done. I don’t think my eyes were opened until I started reading a lot of science fiction and fantasy when I began to see that there were other possibilities of how to live and everything around me was just contingent. When I was about 11 or 12 I read Ursula Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” and I remember when I was done with that it occurred to me that everything the hardmen said was uneducated, quasi-fascist nonsense.

McKinty says that the authors who influenced him the most have been Stephen King, James Ellroy, Don Winslow, Raymond Chandler, and Jim Thompson. Cavanagh lists as his influences, in addition to Silence of the Lambs, the works of Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Connolly, and Patricia Highsmith.

Read the article to see which seven books each author would take with him if stranded on a deserted island.

THE ANATOMY OF THE BOOK

Boards, signatures, deckles, headbands: Learn all the esoteric terminology involved in book production.

The Hazards of Writing While Female

The nonprofit organization VIDA keeps a count of how many books written by women are reviewed in literary sections, and how many reviewers are female. Every year until 2017, its most recent survey, VIDA has found that male writers and male reviewers dominate books coverage, even though women make up the majority of authors and readers.

Here’s yet another reminder of the long-standing issue of how men and women are treated differently in the publishing world. As one of the authors quoted here says, “a male novelist is primarily a novelist. Nobody talks about his gender. But a woman novelist is primarily a woman.” 

Still, for as long as female authors’ bodies define their work, the seriousness gap will remain

FIRST NATIVE AMERICAN NOVELIST WAS A KILLER NEWSPAPER EDITOR

“The first Native American to write a novel in English lived a life chock-full of contradictions.”

This piece appears as a segment of Disruptive Literary Legends, an “OZY original series explores long-forgotten historical figures who changed the way we write, read and appreciate literature.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown