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Monday Miscellany

In ‘Alphabet’ Mysteries, ‘S’ Is Really For Santa Barbara

Santa Barbara
Photo: Alex Proimos (proimos), Flickr

It’s good to catch up with one of my favorite mystery writers, Sue Grafton, creator of private investigator Kinsey Millhone (rhymes with brimstone):

The next book will be “W” Is for Wasted. Grafton promises “z” will be for “zero” — and after she finishes that one, she’s taking a nap.

See some gorgeous shots of Santa Barbara, CA, here. This is the real setting that inspires Kinsey’s fictional home of Santa Teresa. Read about how certain parts of town have influenced Grafton’s creativity.

12 Cats Who Are Serious About Reading

OK, pictures of cats are about the oldest and most obvious internet jokes. But these pictures are seriously cute. Bet you can’t NOT smile. Courtesy of BuzzFeed.

‘The Novelist’ makes a game out of the writer’s life

David L. Ulin, book critic for The Los Angeles Times, admits he’s not a gamer but acknowledges he is “interested in the narrative possibilities of role-playing games.” There are, Ulin writes, certain similarities between literature and these games, “beginning with immersion and the idea that every reader re-creates every book in his or her own image, just as a player determines, in a very real way, the outcome of a game.”

I’ve been thinking about this in regard to a new game, “The Novelist,” which is due to launch before summer ends. Designed by Kent Hudson, who spent a decade working on games such as BioShock 2, it’s an attempt to develop a different kind of game — quieter, more interior, with an outcome as ambiguous as a life. The protagonist, as GalleyCat reported Monday, is a novelist named Dan Kaplan, and players lurk like ghosts in the corners of a house he shares with his wife and young son, as he tries to balance the competing pressures of his world.

“There’s no winning or losing,” Hudson observed in an interview with the gamer’s guide Kotaku. “[M]y hope is that as you’re presented with the same fundamental question … over the course of the game, that you start to learn about your own values. And by the end … maybe your guy has written the greatest book ever but his wife left him and his kid is getting in trouble at school all the time. Well, I guess when push comes to shove, you’ve decided that career’s more important than family. Or vice versa.”

“Tampa” and filthy sex: The year’s raunchiest book has nothing on crime noir!

Novelist Megan Abbott considers the summer’s big scandal, Tampa, first novel of short-story writer Alissa Nutting:

Inspired by a real-life case, the story centers on Celeste Price, a serial predator of teenage boys who uses her job as a middle-school teacher to initiate an affair with a 14-year-old male student, with catastrophic results. Celeste’s first-person narration depicts with ceaseless energy her predations, and her remorseless, amoral response to the havoc that ensues.

Abbott finds Tampa‘s roots squarely “within the noir tradition in crime fiction”:

From the tabloid tales of James M. Cain through Jim Thompson’s deranged heroes all the way through to Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole series, noir is the terrain where compulsive behavior — characters who cannot stop themselves or restrain even their most taboo desires — is the subject, is in fact the expectation. Such behavior (or the longing that drives it) is the engine of the plot. It is a genre foremost focused on the elemental drives: desire, greed, hunger, rage, longing. Story then stems from the way these elementals can take over one’s life, becoming the drumbeat or the funeral beat to life. Characters are ruled by the circuit of wanting-needing-getting-wanting again. Addiction and compulsion don’t just call for action, they demand it. Often, there’s guilt over it, but sometimes, as in the darker corners of noir, the characters have surrendered to it or, like Jim Thompson’s center-less heroes, never fought it at all — they’ve embraced it. “Tampa” falls squarely in this latter tradition, with each sexual episode (this way, that way, on the desk, on the sink, in the car, alone or partnered, real and fantasy) emanating from the drive: I can’t stop myself. Why would I want to?

Abbott compares Tampa with Vicki Hendricks’ 1995 novel Miami Purity, describing how both portray gender reversals of classic noir texts. With further references to Nabokov’s Lolita and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Abbott examines how the authors portray emotional attachment—or the lack of–to create narrative distance that shapes our responses to these “transgressive female” characters.

America’s Nobel: The Neustadt International Prize for Literature

NORMAN, Oklahoma: The Neustadt International Prize for Literature may be the most prestigious literary award in the United States that you’ve never heard of. In certain circles it is sometimes referred to as “The American Nobel” not just because of its reputation for quality but also because the judges have on several occasions selected a winner who went on to bag the illustrious Swedish literary prize. This November, another writer will receive the accolade (plus the $50,000 and silver eagle feather that goes with it) and added to the list of potential, if not likely, Nobel-winners at a ceremony at the University of Oklahoma. Publishing Perspectives took the opportunity to talk about the prize’s 44 year history — and this year’s nominees — with Dr. Robert Con Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today, the journal that administers the prize.

I admit that I had never heard of this prize, which is “conferred solely on the basis of literary merit” as judged by an elite panel of judges who are all “acclaimed writers in own right.”

The short list for the 2013 prize has international scope:

Far and away the most famous nominee is Japan’s Haruki Murakami, who is up for his third nomination. Also nominated are: César Aira, the Argentine writer/translator; Mia Couto, a Mozambican poet and author; Duong Thu Huong, a Vietnamese novelist; Edward P. Jones, an American author; Ilya Kaminsky, a Ukrainian-born poet now resident in US; Chang-rae Lee, a South Korean-born author resident in US; Edouard Maunick, a Mauritian poet; and Ghassan Zaqtan, a Palestinian poet, novelist and editor. There are also numerous firsts among the nominees: never before have writers from Mauritius, Mozambique, Palestine, or Ukraine been nominated for the prize, meanwhile Jones is first male African-American writer to make the shortlist.

200 Years of Books Prove That City-Living Changes Our Psychology

UCLA researcher Patricia Greenfield has long suspected that the environment around us influences our psychology – not in the classic sense that our family life or peer groups sway our behavior, but in a much broader way. Human psychology adapts differently, she theorized, to rural settings than to urban ones.

Rural living, with its subsistence economies, simpler technologies, and close-knit communities, demands of people a greater sense of deference to authority and duty to each other. Urbanization, on the other hand, generally comes with greater wealth and education, and complex technology and commerce. Adapt to life in a city, and a different set of values becomes more important: for starters, personal choice, property accumulation, and materialism.

. . .
Greenfield’s theory borrows from psychology, sociology, and anthropology. But the evidence mostly comes from literature, a collection of 1,160,000 English-language popular and academic books published between 1800 and 2000. If American culture and psychology grew more individualistic as the country urbanized, wouldn’t that transformation be clear in the words from American books (and the concepts that lie behind them)?

The ability to formulate this type of hypothesis results from the digitization of many, many books that allows for computer analysis of language usage. See the graphs in this article for illustrations of how Greenfield performed her analysis.