Literary Links

These are some of the literature-related articles from around the web that caught my eye over the past week.

Quartzy    HALF OF ALL TRANSLATED BOOKS IN THE US COME FROM JUST NINE COUNTRIES

This one caught my eye because I’m trying to read more books translated from other languages this year. 

The good news: “In 2018, 632 never-before-translated books of fiction and poetry were published in the United States. It’s the fifth straight year the US has published more than 600 translations, quite the feat for a country that has long been accused of having an insular book culture.”

The bad news: “Of the nearly 5,800 books of fiction and poetry translated from 2008 to 2018, more than half were from just nine countries, seven of which are in Europe (the exceptions are Japan and China).”

These statistics are significant if one’s aim in reading more translated works is to learn about new cultures. European books, even though from other countries, are still western-civilization centric. Yes, they will teach us about other cultures, but not about the other cultures that are most different from out own, specifically eastern and African. This article points out that “only one book each was translated from Benin, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mali, and Myanmar.”

The New York Times   A Glimpse of Virginia Woolf’s Original Manuscript for ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

A look at how “the ‘big’ book she [Virginia Woolf] thought she should write was not really the book she wanted to write. The transition for her was understanding that a book about an outwardly ordinary woman on an ordinary day in London could be every bit as ‘big’ as the books about wars and revolutions.”

The Guardian   Nell Freudenberger: ‘Like many women I believed I didn’t have the right kind of brain for science’

The author of the recently released novel Lost and Wanted laments “the way girls and women are still so often held back from studying science.”

The New York Times    When the World’s Most Famous Mystery Writer Vanished

It was like a plot from one of her own novels: On the evening of Dec. 4, Agatha Christie, carrying nothing but an attaché case, kissed her daughter good night and sped away from the home in England that she shared with her husband, Col. Archibald Christie. (He was having an affair with a younger woman; the public did not know this, but his wife definitely did.) No one knew where Christie was for almost two weeks.

Literary Hub   What the 39,933 Items on Peter Matthiessen’s Computer Mean for the Art of Biography

Lance Richardson, currently working on a biography of writer Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014) discusses the challenges of what he calls “a bifurcated archive” comprising both physical items and digital files. The differences between these two types of materials “will have inevitable effects on the shape and form of tomorrow’s histories” and biographies.

The Seattle Times   ‘No-No Boy’ went from unknown book to classic thanks to UW Press and Asian American writers. Now, it’s at the center of a controversy

This is a local story for me, but it has wider interest because of its tie to copyright law and the David-and-Goliath issue of a small academic (University of Washington) press vs.the publishing giant Penguin Random House. The book in question also keeps alive the story of the internment of Japanese U.S. citizens during World War II. The author, John Okada, was “a Seattle native and University of Washington graduate who served in the U.S. Army during the war, even as his family was forced to relocate to an internment camp.”

The New York Times   Naomi Wolf’s Publisher Delays Release of Her Book

The recent controversy over “Outrages” highlights the perils that publishers face in a competitive market where juicy nonfiction books that feature explosive claims can command the highest sales but are sometimes not vigorously fact-checked or vetted in advance of publication.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Novels and Novelists

How the Modern Detective Novel Was Born

Cover: The Golden Age of MurderHere Martin Edwards, author of the new book The Golden Age of Murder: The Mystery of the Writers Who Invented the Modern Detective Story, gives a concise history of the development of the modern detective novel. Authors he discusses include the following: Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, E.C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Freeman Wills Crofts, G.D.H. Cole, Henry Wade, Ed McBain, Anthony Berkeley, Patricia Highsith, Margaret Millar, Ruth Rendell, Sophie Hannah, Dorothy L. Sayers, and J.K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith).

Edwards places the detective novel within the changing social, historical, and cultural characteristics of its development and argues:

Golden Age novels reflected the times during which they were written. Inevitably, many of the attitudes on display are different from those of the twenty-first century. But for too long, even the best of these books have suffered unfairly from critical prejudice. Hugely enjoyable in their own right, they give a fascinating insight into a vanished world. What is more, they set the pattern for crime fiction for decades to come. The time is ripe to rediscover the Golden Age of Murder.

When Did Books Get So Freaking Enormous? The Year of the Very Long Novel

In an article from last month Boris Kachka admits “it’s tempting to proclaim this the era of the Very Long Novel (VLN).” The classic example of the recent VLN era is David Foster Wallace’s 1,079-page opus Infinite Jest, published in 1996. As more recent examples of such tomes he cites Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Another illustration of this trend is the current emphasis on series works such as the Harry Potter collection and Game of Thrones.

Yet long books are really nothing new, Kachka points out (think Eliot’s Middlemarch and Tolstoy’s The Brothers Karamazov). Here’s one possible explanation for the current crop of VLNs:

“People seem to be seeking wholly immersive experiences,” says Knopf publicity director Paul Bogaards. “They’re binge-watching, they’re cooking from scratch, going on ecotours. And there’s no more immersive experience than reading a good long book.”

Another possible explanation is the concept of “_World-building_, a term once exclusive to physicists and game designers, [that] is now on the tip of every book publicist’s tongue.” Bigger books create bigger worlds. Both individual VLNs and series VLNs parallel the growing obsession with binge-watching multiple episodes of television series and online-created content.

This whole discussion reminds me of a scene from the film Amadeus, about the life of Mozart. When someone criticizes the composer for using too many notes, he asks, “Exactly which notes would you have me leave out?”

I don’t mind long books. In fact, I read eagerly through The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, enthralled until the very last word. What I don’t like is a long book that’s longer than it needs to be. I thought Moo, Jane Smiley’s satirical take on the small world of land-grant academia, should have been cut by about one-third.

What about you? Do you like to read long books? Are there any VLNs that you’ve particularly liked or hated? Let us know in the comments section.

Can Reading Make You Happier?

Novelist Ceridwen Dovey describes personal experience with bibliotherapy, or reading by prescription. Initially skeptical, Dovey discovered:

The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.

Along the way Dovey provides a short history of bibliotherapy:

The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading… . Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.

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And here are a couple of lists of reading recommendations, if either of these topics grabs you.

10 Books to Read If You’re Not Traveling This Summer

Writer Emma Straub’s most recent novel, The Vacationers, is set in Mallorca. Because a “good book is the cheapest form of transportation there is,” Straub here recommends some books you can read if you’re not traveling this summer—or even if you are.

10. In the Woods by Tana French

9. The Fun of It, Stories from the Talk of the Town edited by Lillian Ross

8. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

7. Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford

6. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos

5. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

4. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright

3. Arcadia by Lauren Groff

2. The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

1. Bad Marie by Marcy Dermansky

About Straub’s 10th pick, In the Woods by Tana French: This is the first book in what is known as French’s Dublin Murder Series. I did not particularly like it and almost didn’t read the subsequent novels. But a good review for the second book in the series made me give it a try, and I’ve read the rest and like them all. These books are related in that each one focuses on a different character of a Dublin murder squad, but each book is self-contained and can be read on its own.

10 Best Noir Novels

I like noir novels as much as the next reader, so I was surprised that I had never even heard of any of these books. Read why Ken Bruen, whose own most recent noir novel is _Green Hell-, singles out these titles:

10. Dark Passage by David Goodis

9. Sing a Song of Homicide by James R. Langham

8. Cold Caller by Jason Starr

7. The Lucky Stiff by Craig Rice

6. A Swollen Red Sun by Matthew McBride

5. The Shark-Infested Custard by Charles Willeford

4. He Died with His Eyes Open by Derek Raymond

3. The Fever Kill by Tom Piccirilli

2. The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi

1. Killing Suki Flood by Rob Leininger

Too Many Open Browser Tabs

Whenever I find an interesting article, I leave it open on my browser because I just know it will form the basis of a spectacular blog post. I’ve always done this, but in the past I would finally just close everything and start over again because the web is, after all, an infinite source of riches. But since I challenged myself to write a blog post a day in 2015, I’ve been less eager to close all those tabs down. What if I face a day when I can’t think of anything to write about?

My browser has now become so bloated that I have to do something to make my system work faster. Instead of just closing all those tabs, I’m resorting to a collection of the very best ones here. Because I have lots of wide-ranging interests, this is quite an eclectic collection. But every one of these articles is worth attention. I guarantee it.

The Moral Bucket List

New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks writes here about some special people:

ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.

Brooks distinguishes between two types of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues:

The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

He goes on to say that a while back he set out “to discover how those deeply good people got that way.” In the rest of the article he describes what he found out.

It’s a good article, and I encourage you to read it. But I’ve left this browser tab open for a while now because this article reminded me of a former friend of mine. She could, at times, act caring and loving, but I always detected the tiniest disconnection between her inner workings and her outer behavior. For example, one day after she had spent a long time describing how each of her three children had recently hurt her feelings, she paused for a second while looking at me, then asked, “How’s your daughter?” During that second I could see the gears working inside her head: “I’ve talked about my kids, so I should now ask about hers.” I knew she wasn’t truly interested, so I said, “She’s fine” and left it at that. She visible exhaled with relief.

This women always blamed other people for any problem in her own life. Everything was always the other person’s fault. She even developed a convoluted philosophy of life—it involved a person’s True Center of Pure Being (her caps)—that allowed her to avoid having to take responsibility for her own actions. When one of her children made her feel down on herself, she would explode and scream at me, trying to make me feel just as bad about myself as she felt about herself. When I told her, several times, how hurtful her behavior was to me, she said that I should understand that she was under a lot of pressure. “I’m not what I do,” she said.

This woman is the opposite of the people David Brooks describes. One can’t simply invoke one’s True Center of Pure Being. She is what she does. We all define ourselves by what we do and say. And this is why she’s a former friend, not a current one.

Sex, Dementia and a Husband on Trial at Age 78

This article brings up one of those issues that’s so complex and deeply personal that I have trouble figuring out what I think about it. In Iowa, Henry Rayhons, age 78, has been arrested for having sex with his 78-year-old wife, who had severe dementia, in a nursing home. The couple was married in 2007 after each had been widowed.

The top-level issue is whether Mrs. Rayhons was capable of giving consent for sex. But the lower-level issue is the question of who gets to decide whether Mrs. Rayhons was capable of giving consent: her husband, nursing home administrators, her doctor, her children?

This case suggests that someone must take the initiative in setting guidelines:

Sex is one of the most ambiguous areas in the scientific understanding of Alzheimer’s. While there are established methods of measuring memory, reasoning and the ability to dress, bathe and balance checkbooks, no widely used method exists for assessing the ability to consent to intimate relations.

Furthermore, dementia symptoms fluctuate. What may be appropriate on one day may not be appropriate on another day. Even more confusing, what may be appropriate in the morning may not be appropriate in the afternoon of the same day.

I’m glad I’m not sitting on the jury for this case.

Parsing Ronald Reagan’s Words for Early Signs of Alzheimer’s

Lawrence K. Altman, M.D., reports:

Now a clever new analysis has found that during his two terms in office, subtle changes in Mr. Reagan’s speaking patterns linked to the onset of dementia were apparent years before doctors diagnosed his Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.

The findings of the study by Arizona State University researchers were published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Altman points out that these findings “do not prove that Mr. Reagan exhibited signs of dementia that would have adversely affected his judgment and ability to make decisions in office.”

But the findings do suggest that alteration in speech may one day be used to predict the development of Alzheimer’s and other neurological conditions long before clinical symptoms appear. Earlier detection could lead to earlier treatment, which in turn could help reduce or at least slow damage to the brain.

This research used the same computer algorithm that other researchers have used to analyze changes in writing by novelists, which I have written about here:

Canadian researchers have reported that analyses of syntax in novels by Iris Murdoch and Agatha Christie indicated early signs of dementia (Ms. Murdoch died of Alzheimer’s; Ms. Christie is suspected to have had it.) The same analysis applied to the healthy P. D. James, who died at 94 last year, did not find signs of dementia.

Scientists not involved in this study caution that much more research is necessary before analyses such as this can confidently be used in examining for Alzheimer’s disease.