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

Monday Miscellany

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Harry Potter boxed setSure, Harry Potter destroyed the evil Lord Voldemort. But, aside from making lots of money for book publishers and film studio/theme-park conglomerates, what has the wizard done for us lately?

In fact, he has been helping to reduce prejudice.

That’s the conclusion of research just published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. It finds that, among young people, reading J.K. Rowling’s book series—and, crucially, identifying with the lead character—can reduce bias toward stigmatized minority groups.

We’ve seen a lot of studies about how reading fiction can increase self-understanding and empathy, but now there’s scientific evidence that it can also reduce prejudice.

Tom Jacobs does a good job here of explaining this research and comparing it with earlier research on whether reading literature can reduce racism.

The Scourge of “Relatability”

What do people mean when they say that they relate to a character in a literary work? Rebecca Mead tackles that question in The New Yorker:

Whence comes relatability? A hundred years ago, if someone said something was “relatable,” she meant that it could be told—the Shakespearean sense of “relate”—or that it could be connected to some other thing. As recently as a decade ago, even as “relatable” began to accrue its current meaning, the word remained uncommon. The contemporary meaning of “relatable”—to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected—first was popularized by the television industry.

With bold insight Mead differentiates between identification with a character—an active process in which the reader engages with the artistic work—and relating to a character—a response in which the “reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play.” Relatability is a mere self-reflection, while identification requires “the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy.”

Send Yourself Flying: 3 Books For An Out Of Body Experience

Characters don’t need to become better people by the final page of a book, but I do hope they change. I read to experience another world, and characters are often most tangible when they undergo transitions.

In some books, that change is an actual physical transformation. Characters stop being human, and become transfigured. If the writer is successful, they pull the audience into that metamorphosis. Here are three books about characters not bound by their bodies.

See what books Nick Ripatrazone recommends for a transformative experience.

Book Buzz: ‘Ulysses’ to become virtual reality game

James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the greatest books in literature, and it is also one of the hardest to read. Irish filmmaker Eoghan Kidney is crowdfunding a creative solution to this problem: A virtual reality video game that allows the reader to experience the book as the protagonist.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this. I really don’t.

10 of the Most Depressing Places in Literature

“here are a selection of other depressing places and the writers they inspired,” including Dickens’s London, Orhan Pamuk’s Turkey, and Truman Capote’s Holcomb, Kansas.

The Goldfinch: who should direct and star in the movie?

The excitement surrounding The Goldfinch seems to have no end in sight. When it’s not it being lauded with the Pulitzer prize, it’s crowds flocking to see the original artwork by which Donna Tartt’s novel was inspired, or articles praising the book as one of the best of the year. Now the inevitable movie version is on its way – it doesn’t even have a director, a screenwriter or a cast yet, but at this rate it’s becoming one of the most hyped movies-to-be of the year.

Check the comments section to see answers from U.K. readers to The Guardian’s questions.

Monday Miscellany

The discovery of Mars in literature

Across the ZodiacDavid Seed, author of Science Fiction: A Very Short Introduction, explains why the red planet has inspired so much speculative fiction.

Reasons to Re-Joyce

Is literary fiction really a dying breed? In The New York Times Darin Strauss argues that it is not:

So things might look pretty bad. But to me, the scurrilousness has the pasty complexion of po-faced error. The worry, the criticism, feels tacky and fatuous. Just this season I happened to read, back to back to back, new and oddly similar masterpieces. And I mean, legitimate masterpieces. I think the naysaying misses not only the fact that this has been a wildly good book year but also the emergence of a new trend. It’s less a school or a movement than a clutch of writers who share a really unlikely pedigree: “Ulysses.”

Read why he sees this new trend emerging in these novels: NW by Zadie Smith, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.

Why Women Writers Still Take Men’s Names

City of Dark Magic
City of Dark Magic

Ever since the Brontë sisters chose to publish their works under the name the Bell brothers in the nineteenth century, women authors have been adopting men’s—or at least gender-neutral—pen names.

Read about why Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey chose to use the name Magnus Flyte on their recently published fantasy novel City of Dark Magic.

Rick Riordan: ‘Myths are universal and are totally ingrained in our culture’

Rick Riordan has popularized mythic heroes in his Percy Jackson series, the Kane Chronicles, and the Heroes of Olympus series. In this interview the former high school classics teacher explains that he uses ancient myths but updates them by imagining how the story would work itself out in the modern world: “These myths are universal and are totally ingrained in our culture. We are still struggling with the same things, so they fit neatly into the modern world.”

21 Novels You Need to Read

AARP, the organization for people over age 50, asked novelist Jacqueline Mithchard to list a dozen novels that people should read by the time they’re 50. She replied that she couldn’t restrict her list to 12, since “stories are what help us best understand why we are how we are.”

Instead of a dozen, she here recomments 21: “after consulting people I admire and my own mental file, I included only novels that I believe you really ought to read.”

I was glad to see that my own favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird, tops Mitchard’s list. Read why she recommends it, along with these others:

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  2. True Grit by Charles Portis
  3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  4. Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor
  5. The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammet
  6. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
  7. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  8. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams
  9. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  11. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  12. The Magus by John Fowles
  13. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
  14. Different Seasons by Stephen King
  15. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  16. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  17. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
  18. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
  19. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
  20. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  21. Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White

I’ve only read 13. How about you?