Literary Links

In the rush to harvest body parts, death investigations have been upended

Maybe I just read too many crime novels and watch too many cop shows. Or maybe I’m just gruesome by nature. Yet I often think of exactly this problem when I’m reading a novel or watching a show. A medical examiner needs time to conduct a full investigation (autopsy and lab tests) to determine manner of death (natural causes, accident, suicide, homicide), yet time is of the essence if the dead person is an organ, bone, and/or tissue donor. So who takes precedence, the medical examiner or the transplant team?

This article from the Los Angeles Times also has a local angle for me. If you click through to the article, you’ll see that the photo of a corpse at the top is from the Pierce County medical examiner’s office in Tacoma, Washington—my home town. The reason for this is probably that Melissa Baker, a former investigator in the Pierce County medical examiner’s office, filed a whistleblower complaint in 2015. She is quoted in this article:

“One of my biggest concerns … was the mere fact that someone could potentially get away with murder because evidence has been bungled, lost or not collected,” she said.

While most of this article focuses on Los Angeles County and California law, many of the issues it brings up are informative for anyone interested in what happens after someone dies. I found the graphic labeled “How much is a body worth?” particularly eye-opening.

ADAPTING ADULT BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS

Adapting books for young readers can mean a variety of different things. It can mean adding pictures, changing slurs to slightly less harsh words, or cutting out passages that may seem a little boring to young readers. There are many great books adapted for young readers that come out of this process, and it is a helpful way to introduce kids to new historical and contemporary figures that don’t have as many books for all reading levels as, for example, Abraham Lincoln.

Here’s an interesting article about adapting nonfiction texts for younger (say middle-grade) readers. Such adaptations can contribute to providing children with diverse life stories and new paths of encouragement—for example, Life in Motion, the memoir of pioneering dancer Misty Copeland. “Being able to choose a book with a picture or drawing on the front that looks like yourself is still a privilege, and should not be taken for granted.”

American Gothic: The Woman Who Escaped the Asylum

This excerpt from Nightmare Factories: The Asylum in the American Imagination by Troy Rondinone focuses on two images of Woman that pervaded the 19th century: the woman in white, the angel of the house; and the woman in black, representing woman’s roles as caretaker and moral guardian of society. “Both images are archetypes, two sides of a rubric of femininity that simultaneously empowered and smothered the 19th-century female.”

In “a culture that demanded that women know and accept their place . . . the asylum became a tool of discipline in the gothic world of sentimental fiction.”

What Greta Gerwig Saw in ‘Little Women’: ‘Those Are My Girls’

Cover: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will debut on Christmas Day 2019. In this article Amanda Hess writes that Gerwig’s treatment is “less an update than it is an excavation” of a novel that portrays the March sisters as “posed unnaturally in the conventional narratives of their time.” 

‘A Walk in the Woods’ vs. A Walk in the Woods: On Reading as a Substitute for Experience

Jacob Lambert learns a lesson:

Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Monsters, villains, and antiheroes are largely just like us”

Monsters, villains, and antiheroes are largely just like us—with one key difference. They have the power to fulfill self-interests because they live beyond the dictates of morality. They care little for how their actions affect others, so nothing is forbidden. For them, it’s not a matter of “Should I do this?” but “Can I do this?” And whether that means seeking vengeance or stealing the crown or setting fire to an entire city, these characters can and do act on their desires, regardless of the consequences. Their depravity—their freedom—allows us readers to explore the darker side of our own natures in a safe way. Because even though we might fantasize about eviscerating our enemies, we don’t actually want to.

Shelby Mahurin

Literary Links

Learning to Write Mysteries the Mystic River Way

Angie Kim’s recently published debut novel Miracle Creek is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Dennis Lehane’s 2001 book Mystic River is a novel I still remember well even after all these years. Coming across this article, in which Angie Kim explains teaching herself how to structure the novel she wanted to write by rereading Mystic River multiple times, felt like a reunion with two old friends.

Kim writes that she also studied novels by Kate Atkinson, Laura Lippman, Tana French, and Chris Bohjalian: “I loved how [these novels] used the mystery frame to immediately pull their readers into the narrative and propel them forward, but how they forced us to slow way down as we went deep into the psyche of the narrators.” She wanted to create in her novel the same degree of immersiveness she found in those models. Her success in doing so is what makes Miracle Creek such a powerful novel.

HOW TO DETERMINE THE READING LEVEL OF A BOOK

For parents wondering how to choose books appropriate for their children, Katherine Willoughby takes a look at “all of the various ways educators, librarians, and book publishers level and categorize books for young readers.”

WHY FICTION IS THE PERFECT TROJAN HORSE TO DISCUSS ETHICAL DILEMMAS

Kira Peikoff explains one of the benefits of reading fiction:

we need fictional outlets like television, movies, and books. Far from being superficial add-ons to life, they help us to live life. Storytelling is the oldest form of virtual reality. Through the safe haven of fiction, as we watch characters go through their own turmoil, we may encounter our own deepest fears and flaws, our highest hopes and strongest convictions. We may find inspiration, learn profound lessons, and gain the strength to overcome our own conflicts. In rare cases, we may even find ourselves rethinking our entire perspective.

‘All crime writers are asking is for a little respect’

Bert Wright, writing for The Irish Times, tackles the question of why crime fiction is so often spoken of as inferior to literary fiction. “All crime writers are asking is for a little respect but too often it is not forthcoming.”

“Whatever the truth of the matter, crime fiction is on an irresistible roll and no amount of splenetic wind-baggery can make the slightest dent in crime fiction’s hard-earned self-esteem.”

CAROLYN KEENE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE REAL NANCY DREW AUTHOR

You may have heard that Carolyn Keene was the original Nancy Drew author and that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams later wrote additional novels published under Keene’s name. But Annika Barranti Klein explains that the real story isn’t quite that simple. Read the complex story of who really wrote and published all the novels in this popular series.

 The Talented Patricia Highsmith’s Private Diaries Are Going Public

Now this news is worth waiting for: Liveright Publishing plans to publish hundreds of pages from Patricia Highsmith’s personal diaries as a single volume in 2021. This article describes Highsmith as:

a literary figure whose sharply observed psychological thrillers, including “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” became cultural touchstones. She was a secretive, often prickly woman who remained a cipher even to her friends and lovers, and a trailblazer who wrote one of the first mainstream novels depicting two women in love. But she could be blinded by her own bigotry and espoused racist and anti-Semitic views.

The diaries—“56 spiral-bound notebooks, totaling some 8,000 pages”—were discovered after Highsmith’s death in 1995, tucked behind sheets and towels in a linen closet of her house in Switzerland.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation: 1 Woman and 6 Others

It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.

This month we begin with a classic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

1. Another book with the name Alice in the title is Lisa Genova’s first novel, Still Alice. Previous fiction about Alzheimer’s disease had explored the condition from the perspective of relatives and/or caregivers, but in this 2007 novel Genova portrays the condition from the point of view of the patient.

2. A woman’s name also appears in the title of Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace. This novel is based on an 1843 case in which Grace Marks was convicted of murdering her employer and his housekeeper/mistress but had no memory of the event. The novel explores the experience of Doctor Simon Jordan, an emerging specialist in the growing field of mental illness, who tries to help Grace remember what happened.

3. Elizabeth Strout chose a woman’s name as the title of her novel Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Through a collection of several vignettes the novel portrays Olive, a retired school teacher, as others in her small town in Maine see her. Strout returns to her titular character in Olive, Again, published on October 15, 2019.

4. Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey sports a woman’s name in the title. Like Still Alice, this novel, winner of the 2014 Costa Book Award for First Novel, portrays a character suffering from dementia. That character, Maud, may forget why she came into the room, but she’s certain that her friend Elizabeth is missing. Could her scattered memories hold the answer to a 70-year-old unsolved mystery?

5. Elizabeth Is Missing is from my shelf of books to-be-read that present fictional portrayals of older women. Another book on that shelf, and one that also contains a woman’s name in the title, is Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon. As 84-year-old Florence lies on the floor waiting to be rescued after a fall, she thinks about her past life with her long-time friend Elsie. The dust jacket copy promises a tale of love and friendship couched within a mystery.

6. This chain ends with another novel from that same TBR shelf, What Rose Forgot by Nevada Barr. This novel apparently is an edgier thriller than the previous two. When Rose finds herself in an Alzheimer’s unit in a nursing home with no memory of how she got there, she executes a plan to find out who wants to put her away and why.

From a couple of Alices through Grace, Olive, Elizabeth, Elsie, and Rose, we’ve gone through a sequence of novels that all feature a woman’s name in the title. This was so much fun I hope I get to do it again some time.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

SOME OBSERVATIONS FROM LIBRARY TOURISM

Jen Sherman declares “public libraries should be a tourist destination the way museums are.” And she knows whereof she speaks:

I started doing a PhD about public libraries in 2012, and in the past eight years, I have visited 112 libraries in six different countries (primarily USA and Australia). I have been to libraries in the heart of bustling global cities, in quiet suburbia, in small country towns. I have seen some very old libraries, and some very new ones.

She’s seen some fascinating things in public libraries in recent years that you might be interested in reading about.

Have we gotten any happier over 200 years? Researchers analyzed millions of books to find out.

In this era of Big Data, there have been lots of ideas on how to apply computer analysis to literature. Here’s one:

Starting from the premise that what we write reveals a lot about our underlying feelings, they [researchers] analyzed millions of books published between 1820 and 2009 and used the words in them to measure changes in subjective well-being in four countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy. They chose that time period and those countries because we’ve got sufficiently rich data for them.

Read how researchers conducted this study and what they learned from it.

WHEN YOU HATE THE CLASSICS, BUT YOU’RE AN ENGLISH TEACHER

I initially thought this piece was probably written tongue in cheek, but apparently it’s not. Lily Dunn doesn’t like a lot of the classics of the English literature canon and feels that her students have the right not to like them, either. Here’s the conclusion of the article:

I happen to think there is value in learning how to interact with things you don’t like. In a world that seems full of baseless hate and judgment, teaching students how to engage with things they don’t agree with or just plain don’t like might be the greatest gift I can give them. I want my students to know that they can hate the Classics too, as long as they are willing to use their brains and to engage.

That’s great, but I would argue that this philosophy serves no purpose if students don’t actually READ THE BOOKS. As in book groups, I don’t mind if people don’t like the book, but they should have read it (or at least most of it) so that they can explain WHY they don’t like it. If they can’t point to specific passages and explain what they don’t like about them, I can’t learn anything from their criticism.

Dunn doesn’t specify in the article whether her classes read the books so they can discuss what they don’t like about them or whether she just thinks she shouldn’t have to teach any classic works she herself doesn’t like. I’d really like to know.

Spoiler alert: spoilers make you enjoy stories more

This article is from 2016. I’ve seen it (and other similar pieces) before, but I include it here because the question about knowing what happens recently came up in an online discussion about rereading books. There’s interesting information here both about how research on the questioned was designed and about what the results of such studies were.

AN IMITATION OF IMPERFECTION: A HISTORY OF DECKLE EDGES

Here’s a history of papermaking that explains why some books have ragged edges on their pages.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

My Longest Books (cont.)

Related Post:

fancy scroll

When I started collecting data for this project, I pulled down from my shelves every book that looked bigger than most of the others. In this age of Big Data, I just couldn’t quite discard all the remaining titles after I determined the 20 longest. Therefore, here’s the second installment of the biggest books I own, numbers 21-40, plus one more because of one that got overlooked (see below).

21. Henry James: A Life by Leon Edel

  • 740 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

22. Ulysses by James Joyce

  • 732 pages
  • paperback
  • unread

23. The First Tycoon by T.J. Stiles

  • 719 pages
  • paperback
  • unread

24. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

  • 709 pages
  • paperback
  • unread

25. The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion by Tracy Daugherty

  • 703 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

26. The Jameses: A Family Narrative by R.W.B. Lewis

  • 696 pages
  • paperback
  • read

27. An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

  • 692 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

28. The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

  • 683 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

29. Roughing It by Mark Twain

  • 673 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

30. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

  • 652 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

31. Personal History by Katharine Graham

  • 642 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

32. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling

  • 36 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

33. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

  • 624 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

34. Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt

  • 619 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

35. The Little Drummer Girl by John le Carré

  • 590 pages
  • (Kindle)
  • unread

36. Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

  • 580 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

37. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

  • 568 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

38. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

  • 562 pages
  • hardcover
  • unread

39. Dune by Frank Herbert

  • 562 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

40. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling

  • 435 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

Correction

Somehow, this book got overlooked:

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling

  • 870 pages
  • hardcover
  • read

At 870 pages, it should clock in at #12 overall.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

Why Some People Become Lifelong Readers

Joe Pinsker looks at the question of “why some people grow up to derive great pleasure from reading, while others don’t.” Here’s no surprise: “a chief factor seems to be the household one is born into, and the culture of reading that parents create within it.”

How Reese Witherspoon became the new high priestess of book clubs

“Since Reese’s Book Club launched in 2017 in partnership with the actress’s media company, Hello Sunshine, it has become an industry phenomenon with the power to catapult titles to the top of the bestseller lists.” According to the article, “Reese really picks the books.”

The Loser-Spy Novelist for Our Times

James Parker, a staff writer for The Atlantic, praises English novelist Mick Herron on the publication of his latest novel, Joe Country. “Mick Herron writes about the broken spies sworn to protect today’s broken England,” the article’s subtitle proclaims.

“Like John le Carré—with whom he has been much compared—Herron is obsessed with that area of human experience, that area of the human brain, where paranoia overlaps with an essential, feral vigilance.”

Read Editor Carmen Maria Machado’s Intro to The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

cover: he Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2019

Here’s another look at the age-old, ever-recurring question of the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction.

This omnivorous selection of stories chosen by series editor John Joseph Adams and World Fantasy Award finalist Machado is a display of the most boundary-pushing, genre-blurring, stylistically singular science fiction and fantasy stories published in the last year. By sending us to alternate universes and chronicling ordinary magic, introducing us to mythical beasts and talking animals, and engaging with a wide spectrum of emotion from tenderness to fear, each of these stories challenge the way we see our place in the cosmos.

Orphans and their quests

Harvard Ph.D. candidate Manvir Singh discusses what he calls the sympathetic plot, which pervades world literature and controls how we respond to stories. One common trope of the sympathetic plot is the story of orphans, “parentless protagonists [that] are everywhere.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books I Wish I Could Read for the First Time Again

Recently I came across the article 14 Books You Wish You Could Read for the First Time Again. Off the Shelf editors asked members of their Facebook group which books they wish they could read again for the first time and published some of the responses.

I agree with these titles from the article:

  • 11/22/63 by Stephen King  
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver  
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman  
  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman  
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Examining the Off the Shelf list made me consider exactly what qualities make me want to reread a book. Often it’s the enjoyment of seeing how a writer makes a particular story work—the mechanics of getting plot and character to mesh to produce a satisfying whole. Sometimes it’s the experience of spending time with characters who feel like real people, and other times it’s seeing how characters react to situations that we hope we’ll never have to face in real life. Usually it’s the emotional realization that, although we are all individuals, we all share a common humanity. 

Many times rereading a book is more pleasurable because I already know, in general terms, what’s going to happen and who I’m going to meet along the way. Yet there are still some books that I wish I could read again with fresh eyes.

For that reason, here, in no particular order, are a few books I would add to this list:

  • All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren  
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara  
  • “The Lottery” (short story) by Shirley Jackson 
  • Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell  
  • Disturbances in the Field by Lynne Sharon Schwartz  
  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra  
  • Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy  
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney  
  • Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson  
  • The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd  
  • We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates  
  • Mystic River by Dennis Lehane  
  • L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy 

How About You?

What makes you want to reread a book? And what books do you wish you could read for the first time again?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

6 Degrees of Separation: From Three to Eight

It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.

This month we begin with a book that everyone’s talking about – Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, which Goodreads describes as “the deepest nonfiction portrait of desire ever written.”

Since I’m not interested in the subject matter, I’m going to approach this month’s list by the numbers.

1. Another book with three in the title is The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. In this science fiction book the author uses a well-known problem in physics and mathematics as the basis for an explication of China’s Cultural Revolution.

2. Next comes The Fourth Steven by Margaret Moseley, a humorous though dark mystery. Book rep Honey Huckleberry has three friends named Steven, but when someone named Steven calls her and confesses to murder, she’s pretty sure the caller isn’t one of them. Then, when her three Stevens start dying, the fourth Steven becomes the prime suspect. Yes, like so much in life, it’s complicated.

3. The anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five is Kurt Vonnegut’s best known work.

4. In Six Years by Harlan Coben, college professor Jake Fisher attends the funeral of Todd, the man he watched marry Natalie, the love of Jake’s life, six years earlier. But the grieving widow Jake glimpses at the funeral is not Natalie. Jake’s world begins to unravel as he searches for the truth about his past and about the woman he loved.

5. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid tells the life story of an aging movie star who has a secret to reveal to the young writer she has chosen to do the work.

6. Robert Dugoni combines a thrilling spy story with a cerebral courtroom procedural in The Eighth Sister.

And just like that, we’ve gone from three women to eight.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

A Love Letter to the Girls Who Die First in Horror Films

When I recently read Riley Sager’s novel Final Girls, I didn’t realize that the final girl, the last girl left standing, is a standard trope of slasher movies. In this article Lindsay King-Miller talks about “a film’s Final Girl, a term coined by Carol Clover in her brilliant work of horror theory Men, Women, and Chainsaws.” But what she’s more interested in all the other girls who die first, before the Final Girl is left to face down the enemy.

There’s a morality play element to this, as countless film writers have explored: girls in horror movies are punished for doing things girls aren’t supposed to do, especially for having sex.

From the Battlefield to ‘Little Women’

Cover: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Jennifer Wilson describes how serving in military hospitals shaped the story Louisa May Alcott later wrote as Little Women. The basis for the article is the letters Alcott wrote home during her war experiences, published in 1863 as Hospital Sketches.

The Cult Books That Lost Their Cool

The definition of the term cult books that Hephzibah Anderson uses in this essay is pretty amorphous:

the cult classic inspires passionate devotion among its fans, who frequently weave their own myths around the texts. But another, underexamined, feature of the cult book is this: . . . it can sometimes age really badly.

You can pull together your own definition of the term from Anderson’s discussions of the following cult classics:

  • The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger, 1951  
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, 1957  
  • The Beach by Alex Garland, 1996  
  • Iron John by Robert Bly, 1990  
  • The Outsider by Colin Wilson, 1956  
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, 1952  
  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac, 1957  
  • The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, 1995  
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, 1970  
  • Little Red Book by Mao Zedong, 1964  
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, 1996

It’s a Fact: Mistakes Are Embarrassing the Publishing Industry

In the past year alone, errors in books by several high-profile authors — including Naomi Wolf, the former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, the historian Jared Diamond, the behavioral scientist and “happiness expert” Paul Dolan and the journalist Michael Wolff — have ignited a debate over whether publishers should take more responsibility for the accuracy of their books.

Writing in The New York Times, Alexandra Alter looks at the question of who should be responsible for fact checking: authors or publishers?

The Temporary Memory Lapse of Transient Global Amnesia

Amnesia is a standard trope of mysteries and psychological thrillers, which I read a lot of. This article describes a very real phenomenon, transient global amnesia:

Transient global amnesia, often called T.G.A. It is a temporary lapse in memory that can never be retrieved. “It’s as if the brain is on overload and takes a break to recharge,” Dr. [Carolyn] Brockington [a vascular neurologist] said in an interview. She likened it to rebooting a computer to eradicate an unexplainable glitch. Those with T.G.A. do not experience any alteration in consciousness or abnormal movements. Only the ability to lay down memories is affected. All other parts of the brain appear to be working normally.

T.G.A. is relatively rare, though it appears to occur more frequently in people over age 50 than in younger people, with men and women affected about equally. It leaves no lasting effects except for the lack of memories during its occurrence. It typically lasts for one to eight hours and usually clears up within a day. Its cause or causes have not been established, and there is no treatment. The condition occurs a second time in only 4% or 5% of patients.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown