Last Week’s Links

‘The Girl on the Train’: Here’s What It’s Really About

I read Paula Hawkins’s novel The Girl on the Train eagerly because it was touted as a book for fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which I loved. But I was disappointed in Train, which I found nowhere near as suspenseful or as psychologically adept as Gone Girl. Nonetheless, I did intend to see the film of Girl on the Train; however, life intervened and I still haven’t seen it.

This article by Lisa Rosman is about the film, which Rosman calls “a wonderfully faithful adaptation” of the book. Here’s Rosman’s description of what the book/film is “really about”:

What fascinates me most about this “Girl on the Train” … is that it has the audacity to embrace unlikeable female protagonists who don’t even like themselves. What’s more, the film asks us to do the same. Rachel is a self-pitying, explosive drunk; Anna, an unrepentant Stepford mom; Megan, an unreflective viper whose self-esteem relies on male surrender. Yet because we are shown the fissures in their self-reflections and the strength lurking beneath their surfaces, we root for them while accepting their limitations.

I did not have this reaction to the book, which I found shallow and therefore not very engaging. Rosman also raises an issue that has gotten a lot of play recently, namely the question of whether we need to like characters in order to assess a book as “good.” I don’t need to like characters, but I do need to understand them in order to consider a book good.

At any rate, I still want to see this movie, even though I think I’ve missed its run in theaters. Perhaps I’ll find the film more compelling than the book.

What about you?
Have you read the book and/or seen the film? What was your reaction?

Undead on the brain: What we talk about when we talk about zombies

I’ve frequently written that I don’t read books about zombies, werewolves, or vampires. Even though I understand that such creatures often represent certain cultural issues, I just don’t like to read about them. To each his own, I guess.

Nonetheless, Seattle Times writer Brendan Kiley does a good job here of explaining what zombies are all about:

Spoiler alert: This article isn’t really about zombies, and neither is “The Walking Dead,” one of the most popular cable-TV series in U.S. history.

They’re both about people, our anxieties about catastrophe and what kinds of communities we might form if central authority collapses. No government, no Wall Street, no power grid — just you, the strangers you stumble across and a kaleidoscope of dangers roaming the landscape. As the show’s human characters bounce around the southern U.S., they run into a spectrum of mini-societies (dictatorships, democracies, theocracies, loosely organized bands of feral killers) and try to figure out what kind of world they want to live in.

JOYCE CAROL OATES ON GREAT EDITORS, BAD REVIEWS, AND… THE INTERNET

Catherine LaSota carries on an email interview with prolific author Joyce Carol Oates:

Oates’s latest book, Soul at the White Heat, is a collection of her essays on the writing life and her insightful reviews of the work of more than two dozen writers, including H.P. Lovecraft, Lorrie Moore, Paul Auster, and Zadie Smith. The title of the book is taken from its epigraph, an Emily Dickinson poem about the passions that burn brightly within us, and it serves as apt introduction to Oates’s close analysis of writing in the pages to follow. In her dissection of an author’s work, Oates searches for that which drives the artist to create. She is clearly engaged with the writing she consumes, making her essays hugely useful to writers and other students of literature.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

On Novels and Novelists

Joyce Carol Oates: ‘People think I write quickly, but I actually don’t’

Joyce Carol Oates, often described as “America’s foremost woman of letters,” recently talked with writer Hermione Hoby for The Guardian. At age 77, Oates has written more than 100 books and has been a Pulitzer finalist five times.

What Hoby calls “a pronounced gothic streak” runs through much of Oates’s fiction. Hoby explains why by quoting a passage from the afterword to Oates’s 1994 collection Haunted: Tales of the Grotesque:

“We should sense immediately, in the presence of the grotesque, that it is both ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ simultaneously, as states of mind are real enough – emotions, moods, shifting obsessions, beliefs – though immeasurable. The subjectivity that is the essence of the human is also the mystery that divides us irrevocably from one another.”

Hoby says that Blonde, Oates’s fictionalization of Marilyn Monroe’s interior life, is often regarded as her best novel. My book club back in St. Louis read it several years ago and loved it. We also read and loved her novel We Were the Mulvaneys, which remains one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

Michael Connelly Chooses ‘The Long Goodbye’ for WSJ Book Club

Prominent mystery writer Michael Connelly has chosen Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye for the Wall Street Journal Book Club. Connelly credits this book with launching his writing career. He was majoring in construction engineering in college when he saw Robert Altman’s 1973 film adaptation of the novel. He bought all of Chandler’s novels, read them back to back, then changed his major to journalism and creative writing.

Amazon Series: BOSCHAlthough Connelly has written some stand-alone novels, he is best known for his fictional detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch of the Los Angeles Police Department. The Bosch novels are the basis for Amazon’s series Bosch, starring Titus Welliver. The series’ second season will be released this year.

There’s a link in this article for joining the WSJ Book Club, but I think you have to be a subscriber of the paper to sign up.

Inside Lisa Genova’s medical best sellers

Lisa Genova was trained as a neuroscientist, but she has left that career behind to write full time. She self-published her first novel, Still Alice, and sold it out of her car trunk because she couldn’t land a literary agent or publisher. That book was eventually picked up by a major publisher, and Julianne Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal of the lead character in the film version.

Still Alice tells the story of a Harvard neuroscientist who develops early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. While most writing about Alzheimer’s features the point of view of care givers, Genova’s novel portrayed the experience of the patient. Genova has written three more books about neurological conditions: Love Anthony, about autism; Left Neglected, about traumatic brain injury; and Inside the O’Briens, about Huntington’s disease. Her next novel, she says, will be about ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

10 underrated novels from great authors

Sure, you’ve heard of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, but what about Pudd’nhead Wilson? Read about this less well known work of Mark Twain, along with underrated novels by the following writers as well:

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Cormac McCarthy
Haruki Murakami
Edgar Allan Poe
George Orwell
Stephen King
Graham Greene
James Salter
Richard Yates

J.K. Rowling reveals statue she marked after completing ’Harry Potter’

J.K. Rowling recently revealed on Twitter that she defaced a statue in her Balmoral hotel room after finishing the final volume in her Harry Potter series. See the evidence here.

A good sport about the whole thing, the Balmoral has renamed the room the J.K. Rowling Suite and protected the statue inside a glass case. This is certainly a case of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

Herman Wouk Says He’s A ‘Happy Gent’ At 100

Herman Wouk has written a lot of famous novels, including The Winds of War and The Caine Mutiny, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Now, at age 100, he’s issued a spiritual memoir, Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author.

It’s a memoir, he says, that “sums up what it means to be a writer.”

On Novels and Novelists

10 Famous Authors’ Favorite TV Shows

In an era when it’s impossible to open a web browser without stumbling across another “Is television the new novel?” piece, we couldn’t help but wonder, Carrie Bradshaw-style, just what our favorite writers watch in their spare time.

See what shows the following authors like:

  • Zadie Smith
  • S.E. Hinton
  • Lorrie Moore
  • Stephen King
  • Bret Easton Ellis
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Roxane Gay
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Joyce Carol Oates

And since not all of these writers are from the U.S., here’s an opportunity to learn about some television shows you may not know.

What Ray Bradbury’s FBI File Teaches Us About Science Fiction’s Latest Controversies

Separate FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] requests by the Daily Beast and MuckRock unearthed Bradbury’s files in 2012. Though they received some coverage at the time, Boing Boing, the Register, and MuckRock have discussed the documents this week, focusing to their charming anachronisms and other period peculiarities. Ultimately, however, those documents stand out most for what they reveal about the state of science fiction today.

Jacob Brogan here takes a quick look at what informants had to tell the FBI about Bradbury and his writings back in the 1950s and 1960s. Despite fears that science fiction might become “a lucrative field for the introduction of Communist ideologies,” Brogan asserts that Bradbury’s popular success was not driven by any ideology, “a communist one least of all.” Instead, Brogan writes, science fiction has always been about looking at what’s wrong with the world and imagining how to make it better.

“Science fiction’s latest controversies” referred to in the article’s title involve division in the ranks of science fiction writers and award judges, some of whom see “an elitist wave of liberal propaganda” overtaking the genre. This article includes lots of links to more material about these controversies on the web for those who wish to delve further into the issues.

But, Brogan reminds us, the FBI documents pertaining to Ray Bradbury are

important reminders that science fiction invites us to see and think in new ways. It’s not always ideologically inclined, but it has rarely strayed far from the political.

Ursula K. Le Guin on myths, Modernism and why “I’m a little bit suspicious of the MFA program”

Here Scott Timberg talks with Le Guin, a grand dame of both science fiction and fantasy, about her newly issued book on writing, Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. A significantly revised version of a work originally published in 1998, this book, Timberg says, “is not something any aspiring fiction writer should ignore.”

Steering the Craft originated in a workshop about the nuts and bolts of writing that Le Guin conducted for writers in the 1990s. She said that a lot of writers didn’t “have the vocabulary of the very elements of [their] work – which is how the English language is put together, and what constitutes a sentence and a non-sentence and so on.”

Read the rest of the interview—it’s short—to find out why she thinks writers should read the work of Virginia Woolf and why she is “a little bit suspicious of the MFA program” as a way for writers to practice their craft.

Why Knopf Editor in Chief Sonny Mehta Still Has the “Best Job in the World”

OK, Sonny Mehta is not a novelist, but as editor in chief of the Knopf publishing house, he’s deep into the world of books and writers.

In this short piece Dave Eggers profiles Mehta, for whom “the unique delight in discovering a great unpublished work hasn’t diminished.”

On Novels and Novelists

10 authors who excel on the internet

If you love literature, here’s your chance to connect with some of the most technologically savvy writers:

a few [writers] are using the etherland as a canvas for experimentation and play. They have moved their storytelling, wit and insight from page to pixel, winning fans and readers in the process.

  • Neil Gaiman
  • Paulo Coelho
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Teju Cole
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Salman Rushdie
  • Gary Shteyngart
  • Haruki Murakami
  • David Mitchell
  • Veronica Roth

What I particularly like about this list is that it proves that technology isn’t just for the young and the hip.

10 Best Dark Books

Here’s Publishers Weekly’s introduction to this article:

Amelia Gray’s wonderfully dark story collection Gutshot features a giant snake bisecting a town and a man, afraid of losing his beloved, soothed by her detached sensory perceptions. Gray, a master of haunting storytelling, picks 10 of her favorite books.

And here’s Gray’s introduction to her list:

Whether it’s borne out of some kind of bizarro escapism or the desire to see the dark mind confirmed and confined on the page, the urge to read and write dark fiction has been steady in my life. Here are ten books that have left their mark on my mind and my work.

I don’t like straight horror, but most of Gray’s choices here seem to pertain more to the dark depths of the human heart rather than to supernatural or unnatural machinations.

Read why she’s been influenced by the following books:

  1. Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates
  2. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
  3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  4. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  5. Life Is With People by Atticus Lish
  6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  7. Tampa by Alissa Nutting
  8. Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey
  9. The Wish Giver: Three Tales of Coven Tree by Bill Brittain
  10. Bird by Noy Holland

I do, however, disagree with one of her choices, Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. That’s the book that made me decide, many years ago, that I don’t have to finish reading every book that I start.

Kent Haruf’s Last Chapter

I have loved the work of Kent Haruf ever since I read his 1999 novel Plainsong, which became his most popular work. That novel dealt with life on the plains of Colorado, in the fictional town of Holt. Two subsequent novels continue the story.

Haruf died last November at age 71. He completed one last work before his death:

Normally, it took him six years or more to write a novel. But in a rush of creative energy, he wrote a chapter a day. Roughly 45 days later, he had finished a draft of his final novel, “Our Souls at Night.”

Also set in Holt, Colorado, but otherwise unrelated to the earlier novels, this novel focuses on finding love late in life. Its inspiration was Haruf’s relationship with his wife, Cathy.

Our Souls at Night will be released on May 28. I’ve already pre-ordered my copy.

Can’t wait for “True Detective 2″? Dive into Ross Macdonald’s California noir masterpieces

The legendary writer of psychoanalytic mysteries captured the culture of postwar California better than anyone

Noir-heads and private-eye fans have long known that the detective novels of Ross Macdonald hit a sweet spot between plot-driven pulp writing and character-driven literary fiction. Inspired by the work of Dashiell Hammett (especially “The Maltese Falcon”), taught about symbolism by W.H. Auden, hailed by Eudora Welty for “serious and complex” work, he wrote 18 novels driven by the gloomy, ambiguous detective Lew Archer.

Scott Timberg interviews Macdonald biographer Tom Nolan for online magazine Salon. Says Nolan:

He felt that the character of the detective was really not the most important character in the books. In fact, he started out thinking the perpetrator was of more interest than the detective — there was opportunity for tragedy, with the criminal — but in later years, he felt the victim was the most important or significant character.

Timberg also quotes Salon music and culture critic Greil Marcus, who has read all of Macdonald’s books:

“If you read Macdonald’s psychoanalytic mysteries in order, as the theme took on greater and greater power for him, the feeling that comes up builds book by book: that just as the reader is scared to reach the ending, so is Lew Archer, and so is Ross Macdonald.”

Top 10 (unconventional) ghosts in literature

Author Judith Claire Mitchell examines the function of ghosts in literature in this piece for The Guardian:

When Barry Hannah, the late novelist of the American south, taught fiction workshops, he would begin by writing those two words on the blackboard. All stories, he’d say, are ghost stories. Something haunts the work and the reader turns the pages to find out what it is. As a student of Hannah’s back in the day, I took these words to heart. Literary ghosts didn’t have to scare; what they had to do was haunt.

“In literature,” says the writer Tabitha King, “the ghost is almost always a metaphor for the past.” This is true for literal ghosts who manifest in graveyards, and it’s true for figurative ghosts who are no more substantive than insistent memory.

Here’s Mitchell’s list of “the phantoms that kept me turning pages, the ones I never forgot when I finished the book”:

  1. Michael Furey in James Joyce’s “The Dead”
  2. The highboy in Alison Lurie’s “The Highboy”
  3. Holiday in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones
  4. A missing child in Kevin Brockmeier’s The Truth About Celia
  5. Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca
  6. The parrot in Robert Olen Butler’s Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot
  7. Americans like me in Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior
  8. The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
  9. Beloved in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
  10. Any of the demons in Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons

On Novels and Novelists

Face it, book snobs, crime fiction is real literature – and Ian Rankin proves it

On the occasion of Ian Rankin’s becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Allan Massie discusses the author of the John Rebus novels and crime fiction in general. Massie bets that having been “received into Scotland’s intellectual elite or, if you prefer, Establishment,” won’t change Rankin.

Massie discusses the common criticism of mystery and crime novels, that they are mere genre fiction and therefore don’t deserve the same respect and attention as literary fiction. I’ve long disagreed with this view. Mystery and crime novels probe the most sensitive inner secrets of the human psyche, the places we try to hide from other people and, just as often, from ourselves.

Massie dismisses such differentiation between crime novels and literary fiction: “Many of the greatest novelists have crime at the centre of their work.” As examples he offers Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Balzac, and Dostoevsky.

Massie offers another advantage crime novels have over literary novels, one that I had not thought of:

Today, as Rankin recognised early, the crime novelist has one advantage denied to authors of the straight or literary novel. Unlike them, he can range over all levels of society, for crime breaches the barriers of class. These barriers mean that the modern literary novel is too often confined to the horizontal, because, to be realistic, it will tend to deal only with one layer of society, with people all leading much the same sort of life. But crime permeates society. It runs through it from top to bottom, and may make connections between them.

Perhaps I failed to notice this advantage because class distinctions are more a part of society in the United Kingdom (see Val McDermid’s A Place of Execution than in the United States.

But no matter where crime novels are set or where readers live, these novels reveal the dark truth beneath the surface of society and of individuals. For this reason, some of the most important literary work comes from writers of crime and mystery novels.

9 Ways Reading Joyce Carol Oates Will Make You Feel More Powerful

“Joyce Carol Oates doesn’t shy away from darkness.” Laura I. Miller’s opening to this piece from Bustle snuggles her material comfortably up next to the previous piece. “Her portrayals are so lovely, her prose so seemingly effortless, that her work’s murky, disturbing depths often creep in unnoticed.”

In this article Miller focuses on how Joyce Carol Oates’s power of exposing social injustice, particularly that involving women, “using story as a way to empower those overlooked by society.” See why Miller says that reading Oates’s work will make you feel empowered in these ways:

  1. You’ll Realize Just How Much You’re Capable Of.
  2. Any Preconceived Notions of Young, Petite Women Will Be Shattered.
  3. Details About the Characters All Around You Will Suddenly Appear.
  4. You’ll Appreciate the Complexity of Navigating Adolescent Womanhood.
  5. Other People’s Opinions Will Cease to Matter.
  6. You’ll Grow Fond of Your Deeply Introverted Tendencies.
  7. Your Vocabulary Will Increase Drastically.
  8. The Limitless Bounty of Story Will Open Its Doors to You.
  9. You’ll See Right Through Everyone Else’s BS.

I can’t help but mention here that I wish it were possible to see the content without all those annoying animated GIFs, which seem to be de rigeur at Bustle.

What Writers Can Gain From Seeing the World Through Different Eyes

Since one of my other blogs is Change of Perspective, there’s no way I could pass up a piece about literature with a title like this, in which author Tania James explains that “[t]he best prose comes from experimenting with new perspectives.”

In her recent novel The Tusk that Did the Damage, “James channels three starkly contrasting voices to explore the bleak sphere of South Indian elephant poaching.” She learned how to write disparate voices, including that of a traumatized bull elephant, by reading:

Peter Carey’s Booker-winning  The True History of the Kelly Gang—written as a single long letter composed by a 19th-century Australian outlaw—taught her about how to speak convincingly in an adopted tongue.

James says that Carey invents a language for notorious Australian outlaw Ned Kelly: “There’s something thrilling about watching a writer invent a new lexicon before your eyes.” I haven’t read Carey’s novel, but it sounds as if James is describing the same technique David Mitchell uses for the long pivotal section, set centuries in the future, of Cloud Atlas. Like James, I found that after a short initial period of adjustment, reading the newly invented language was invigorating. Perhaps the thrill comes just from knowing that you’re smart enough to have figured things out, but I suspect that some part of the thrill also comes from knowing that you are working along with the author to share the fictional experience.

I speak from a reader’s perspective. Read what James has to say about this kind of language use from a writer’s perspective. But whether you’re a reader or a writer (or perhaps both):

Adopting an unfamiliar perspective helps you observe the world in fresh, revealing ways—helps you see things you might never have glimpsed through your own eyes.

In His Words: Rafael Yglesias on What Fiction Does Best

Rafael Yglesias writes that it took 16 years and four revised drafts to produce his recently published novel The Wisdom of Perversity:

The revisions were made to clarify and refine my understanding of The Wisdom of Perversity’s delicate subject matter: the long-term effects of being sexually misused as a child — as I was when I was eight years old.

But, he continues, roughly forty percent of the manuscript remained unchanged through all those revisions. The unchanged portions are written from the point of view of three children==two eight-year-old boys and an eleven-year-old girl—who are seduced and bullied by a forty=year=old pedophile:

Those passages, written as if you are in the skin of the children, vividly depict that the predator’s technique is seductive and that the children-victims are initially turned on by their rapist’s insinuating touch. The point of the passage is that what makes the effects of molestation so long-lasting is the confusion it creates for the victims, that their first experience of sexual pleasure from another person happens without either their desire or understanding. The novel gives voice to a childhood trauma that is usually summarized in medical and legal jargon, well-intended language that unfortunately obscures what is most persistently destructive about the crime.

What Yglesias says about the purpose of those passages sounds much like Tania James’s notion of taking different perspectives in the piece above. The purpose of looking at something from another perspective is to try to understand someone else’s experience. His novel, Yglesias writes:

seeks to do what fiction does best: place the reader inside the consciousness of another, to live with three characters who have experienced what most people consider to be an unmentionable and unthinkable crime and who have struggled for decades to forget and regain control of their ability to feel pleasure.

He wrote the book to help both victims and the people who love them “better understand how to speak of the unmentionable, how to think about the unthinkable, and how to live in a present no longer haunted by the past.”

Stephen King to share writing tips in new short story collection

One of the best books about writing that I’ve ever read is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, published in 2000. Now, the U.K.’s Guardian reports, King will publish a new work in the fall, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, that will feature 20 short stories plus introductions for each that will provide “‘autobiographical comments on when, why and how he came to write it’, as well as “‘the origins and motivation of each story.’”

Gore Vidal’s bitter feuds

As a Gore Vidal novel written under the pseudonym Cameron Kay is republished, here are some of the writer’s memorably bitter feuds, including with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and William F Buckley

To call Gore Vidal, who died in 2012, a curmudgeon would be overly kind. Here you can read about the author’s colorful feuds, including that with the cult of Abraham Lincoln, about whom he once wrote, “Nothing that Shakespeare ever invented was to equal Lincoln’s invention of himself.”