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Sympathy for the De Vil: Reading Beyond Likability

“As a writer and enthusiastic consumer of unlikable characters, I’m often puzzled by viewers or readers who criticize a story for having these types of characters,” writes novelist and English teacher John Copenhaver. This is a topic that just won’t go away.

I Don’t Read to Like

Writer Amy Reading—what a great last name for a reader who is also a writer!—puts a bit of a different spin on the work like to describe her reading selections:

Part of the problem is in the word “like,” that little heart we tap ten thousand times a day. I like lots of things, so many things, but I am not guided by what I like. I regularly read books that I know I’ll dislike, not to hate-read, but because I’m just plain curious—because there is something in there I need that is not pleasure.

She poses an interesting hypothesis on the question of what she likes to read: “Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between readers and Readers. Between people who read books, just as easy as that, and people who use books to build their entire selves.”

Edith Wharton’s Bewitching, Long-Lost Ghost Stories

“A reissued collection, long out of print, revives the author’s masterly stories of horror and unease.”

Anna Russell looks at Edith Wharton’s ghost stories in celebration of this month’s reissue by NYRB Classics of the collection of Wharton’s ghost stories, entitled Ghosts, originally published in 1937.

What Wharton put out is a bewitching, and frequently terrifying, collection of tales which more often than not fulfill her criterion for a successful ghost story: “If it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.”

7 Postmodern Murder Mysteries

Elisa Shoenberger writes:

I definitely agree with the type of book Shoenberger describes, although I wish she hadn’t labeled these books as postmodern,I have two main literary loves: murder mysteries and books that push the boundaries of storytelling. So naturally, I’ve been excited to find murder mysteries that push the genre in new and exciting ways. I like books that play with the narrative structure to tell a compelling and haunting story of murder most foul.

I definitely agree with the type of book Shoenberger describes, although I wish she hadn’t labeled these books as postmodern, which is a huge and complex term. Can’t we just call them something like genre-bending, genre-blending, or even experimental?

The Double Bookkeeper

“A new biography of Patricia Highsmith and a new edition of her journals give us a personal history of twentieth-century sexual control, of lives lived not in the closet but in the cellar.”

Frances Wilson explains that during much of her life Patricia Highsmith kept two separate journals: one that looked forward, “mapping out her literary terrain and recording aphorisms, plots, and germs for her fiction,” and the second that was “a confessional diary in which Highsmith looked backward, digging down to ‘the bottom of myself’ as though performing her own open-heart surgery. Here the unconscious brain found its way into consciousness.”

These two different kinds of journals have been selected and juxtaposed in the book Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks, 1941–1995, edited by Anna von Planta. 

The other book about Highsmith that Wilson discusses in this article is Devils, Lusts and Strange Desires: The Life of Patricia Highsmith by Richard Bradford. Wilson says that Bradford hates Highsmith: “Bradford hates Highsmith for not hating the same things he hates (psychopathic killers, snails, Freud, ménages à trois), and for not loving the same things he loves, like happy heterosexuals.”

Wilson says that she read Bradford’s biography of Highsmith before reading von Planta’s book compiled from Highsmith’s journals. “Now that I’ve absorbed von Planta’s selection, Highsmith seems vastly more courageous and complex than Bradford allows. An entirely different person, in fact.” 

The Strange History of the Worst Sentence in English Literature

Everything you wanted to know—and probably way more than you ever wanted to know—about the notorious sentence “It was a dark and stormy night.”

The Miracle of Stephen Crane

“Born after the Civil War, he turned himself into its most powerful witness—and modernized the American novel.”

Adam Gopnik discusses Paul Auster’s Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane. “Crane counts,” Gropnik writes:

Everything that appeared innovative in writing which came out a generation later is present in his “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (1893) and “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895). The tone of taciturn minimalism that Hemingway seemed to discover only after the Great War—with its roots in newspaper reporting, its deliberate amputation of overt editorializing, its belief that sensual detail is itself sufficient to make all the moral points worth making—is fully achieved in Crane’s work. So is the embrace of an unembarrassed sexual realism in “Maggie,” which preceded Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie” by almost a decade.

Why Mystery Fiction Is So Engaging

Building off the popularity of Hulu’s hit mystery series Only Murders in the Building, Julia Métraux explains the attraction of mystery.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the Father of ‘Flow,’ Dies at 87

I’ve written about the psychological concept of flow here and here.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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