In her introduction to this list, Laura Maylene Walter, author of the novel Body of Stars, calls herself “a skeptic who doesn’t read horoscopes in my daily life.” But, she continues, “hand me a work of fiction about astrology or psychics, and I’m captivated.”
Many of the books on this list examine issues surrounding the topics of fate, free will, the future, and alternate life possibilities.
Jamie Canaves recently realized that she’d been “rushing through books as fast as I could to get to the next one on my can’t-wait-to-read-it TBR, and also trying to break the previous year’s number of how many books I had read.” And I had the same realization when I read this description.
She had this realization during 2020 and decided to change her reading life at the beginning of 2021 by asking herself three questions: “Why are you doing this? What is the point? Is it adding to the enjoyment of your reading life?” And, she reports, her reading life has greatly improved this year: “I guess I just needed to get myself back to reading for enjoyment and not some weird imaginary sport.”
Dismayed that reading had nearly disappeared from her busy life, freelance writer and editor Rachel Charlene Lewis developed a new habit: She now sets her alarm so that she can read in bed—even before brushing her teeth or making that first cup of coffee—for an hour in the morning.
Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, profiles Zora Neale Hurston for Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities: “As a budding anthropologist, the storyteller began to find her way.”
This article is adapted from King’s book Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century.
Books that talked about racism and racial justice — or told the stories of people of color or the LGBTQ community — were among the most challenged as inappropriate for students in 2020, according to a survey by the American Library Association.
The article concludes with the list of the 10 most challenged books of 2020.
Imagine a phone call featuring an electronic voice telling you that your child has been kidnapped and you need to pull together some huge sum of money to get the child back unharmed. I used to think that would be one of the most horrifying calls parents could ever receive.
But I was wrong, as I learned when I read The Chain by Adrian McKinty. In that novel the call that Rachel Klein receives doesn’t simply demand money. In order to get her daughter Kylie back, Rachel most pay a ransom AND kidnap another child to take Kylie’s place. Rachel must become a monster who inflicts pain on another family in order to save her own. Watching Rachel’s transformation into that monster was a painful experience, yet I had no doubt that, in the same situation, I would do exactly the same thing.
McKinty, Adrian. The Chain
Hachette Audio, 2019
Kidnapping is a standard trope of the thriller genre, but McKinty’s addition of the chain aspect, forcing a basically good person to do something unquestionably bad, is a brilliant psychological plot twist. I could imagine a writer thinking “Having your child kidnapped is an awful experience, but what would make that experience even worse?” Having the insight to imagine that scenario in a novel is the mark of a good writer.
But wait, there’s more. How would the protagonist who transformed herself into the monster who could plan and carry out the kidnapping of another child react to what she had done? I’m pretty sure that if I had managed to get my own child back safely, I’d probably keep my head down and hope that I never got caught.
But Rachel Klein is stronger than I. She decides that the people behind the chain must be stopped so that never again will anybody have to go through what she has experienced.
The second section of The Chain details Rachel’s investigation and pursuit of the behind-the-scenes culprits. This second section is not nearly as good as the first part. The villains are so over-the-top that they quickly become comic caricatures, and the plot soon ratchets up into high melodrama.
Yet, despite these shortcomings, I give McKinty credit for the effort of examining fully the character of Rachel Klein. The Chain would have been a good enough thriller with only the story of how Rachel saves Kylie, but the effort of the second part, the effort to go deeper into Rachel’s motivation and characterization, raises my overall evaluation of the novel.
It’s the psychological aspects of literature that have always most fascinated me. I don’t just want to see what people do in certain situations; I want to understand why they choose to do what they do instead of doing something else. For me, characterization is always more important than plot, although characterization and plot are inextricably intertwined.
No matter what twisted situations they may find themselves in, people do what they do because of who they are.
Because of this interest in why people do what they do, learning about psychology has, over the years, helped me to understand and fully appreciate how fiction portrays the workings of the human mind and heart. To illustrate what I mean, here are five articles I’ve come across recently that fascinated and informed me.
The April 4, 2021, issue of The New Yorker features “ a selection of pieces on the mysteries and intricacies of psychoanalysis.” This is the portal page for the collection, where you’ll find links to the following stories:
“The Impossible Profession,” published in 1980, in which Janet Malcolm profiles an engaging psychoanalyst practicing in Manhattan and examines the history of the profession.
“God Knows Where I Am,” in which Rachel Aviv writes about what happens when patients with mental illness reject their diagnoses and treatments.
“Anatomy of Melancholy,” in which Andrew Solomon offers a moving account of his lifelong struggle with depression.
“Brain Gain,” in which Margaret Talbot explores the curious world of neuroenhancing drugs.
Although psychoanalysis, the approach to understanding the mind spearheaded by Sigmund Freud, is no longer the force in psychology that it once was, it still permeates the language and sets the stage for other psychological approaches.
This profile of novelist Paula McLain explains how all her works of fiction have been “the bridge out of a childhood spent in foster care.”
McLain’s recently published novel, When the Stars Go Dark, features a protagonist, a female detective, who grew up in foster care and is still running away from some demons of her past. In the article McLain says this novel is “more intimate and tells the truth more than my memoir,” Like Family (2003).
I haven’t read this novel yet, but I look forward to reading it. Although a work of fiction must stand on its own merits, knowing McLain’s relationship to this material will enhance my understanding of and reaction to the themes in When the Stars Go Dark.
Five Books offers lists of the best books on many subjects chosen by experts on each topic.
We turned to some of the most eminent psychologists working today for their book recommendations. Psychology may not have all the answers, but it can help you have a better understanding of yourself and others; what motivates thoughts, feelings, and actions.
This is the portal to the site’s lists on several branches of psychology. You’ll find links to topics such as the following:
“The psychologist taught us that what we remember is not fixed, but her work testifying for defendants like Harvey Weinstein collides with our traumatized moment.”
For much of the twentieth century, scientists believed that memories were recorded in our brains like films on tape that could be rewound and played back. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, is responsible for the current concept that memories are reconstructed, not replayed:
“Our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality,” she has written. “It is not fixed and immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an amoeba-like creature.”
According to this article, “In the past forty-five years, she has testified or consulted in more than three hundred cases, on behalf of people wrongly accused of robbery and murder, as well as for high-profile defendants like Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, and the Duke lacrosse players accused of rape, in 2006.”
“Loftus’s career has been defined by her recognition that the language we use to describe an event will change the way we remember it.” Despite the reputation Loftus has developed by testifying for the defense of witnesses such as Harvey Weinstein, her work has revolutionized the way we now think about memory. And since memory is the basis for our creation of our sense of self, knowledge of her work can help us understand human identity, motivation, and behavior.
“Power posing, grit and other trendy concepts are scientifically unproven but have become enormously popular by offering simple solutions to deeply rooted social problems.”
Journalist Jesse Singal takes on concepts such as power posing and grit that populate the world of TED Talks and corporate training seminars. Such ideas, which originate in the field of social psychology, are usually ill defined and unproven, he argues. They often offer “what are, in effect, quick fixes for complex and enduring societal problems like inequality and bias.”
his article is adapted from Singal’s recently published book The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills.
The problem with such concepts that capture public attention is that they often offer a single, simple answer to societal, cultural, and historic issues that, beneath the surface, are much more complex and multifactorial than they may appear on the surface.
A novel written by a good storyteller can often present a much fuller picture of such complex issues. For example, Liz Moore’s novel Long Bright River offers a picture of an urban area blighted by long-term job loss, poverty, drug addiction, and crime.
Gal Beckerman, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, talks with Lynn Novick and Ken Burns about their three-part series on Hemingway currently airing on PBS. The documentary filmmakers were drawn to Hemingway because of his complex status as both an influence on generations of writers and an example of toxic masculinity.
“It’s easier to find meaning in fiction than in the senseless mass killings of our reality, which seem to render the critical perspective pointless, even silly, at times.”
Maya Phillips, a critic for the New York Times, writes that she finds comfort in critiquing artistic presentations: “Even in the bleakest stories, there’s order and logic, perhaps even justice, if not in the realm of the story itself then at least in the artist’s imagination.” But with the recent spate of mass shootings, “it has felt pointless, even silly, to analyze fictional stories when real people are dying.”
“My critical faculty fails me now, as I contemplate the real world,” Phillips writes.
“Melissa Febos was struggling to write a book about surviving American girlhood. Mystery fiction presented a solution.”
Melissa Febos details the problem she had while writing her recently published essay collection, Girlhood:
The premise of my book, which detailed the devastating and ordinary harms done to girls in this country and aspired to answer them with strategies of undoing that harm, had become an unsolvable mystery. I knew who the perpetrator was, but not how to stop or outpace him.
To solve her problem and power through the writing of her book, she read through lots of mysteries. She provides the list here: Febos’s Mysteries for Feminists with High Standards. “These books . . . gave me the same pleasure that Nancy Drew had, but with the added satisfactions of good writing, queer and Black characters, and layers of smartly delivered cultural critique.”
On Wednesday [April 7, 2021], the Women’s Prize Trust reaffirmed its choice to longlist the novel “Detransition, Baby” by author Torrey Peters, who is trans, for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction, a day after the Wild Woman Writing Club published an open letter denouncing the nomination.
The opening paragraph of this article, quoted above, contains a link to the letter of denunciation. Read more about the controversy here. There’s also a link to a review of Detransition, Baby in the Los Angeles Times.
“For As Long As There Have Been Printed Books, There Has Been Marginalia”
Ah, the history of marginalia, or “things in the margin.”
“Annotation was both ubiquitous and habitual by the 1500s, not long after the invention of the printing press and growth of print culture,” write Remi H. Kalir and Antero Garcia in this excerpt from their new book, Annotation.
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 start with the 2020 Booker Prize winner, Shuggie Bain by the Scottish-American writer Douglas Stuart. The novel was also a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and the Kirkus Prize for Fiction.
Goodreads describes Shuggie Bain as “an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction.” The novel features the story of Hugh “Shuggie” Bain as he navigates his childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland, in the 1980s. Shuggie’s father is a philandering taxi driver; his mother, Agnes, keeps up her dignity by maintaining a well-put-together exterior to cover up a turbulent internal struggle fueled by alcohol. Various readers describe the novel as gritty, bleak, depressing, and totally worthy of its Booker Prize. They also warn that the book is written in the dialect of Glasgow, which can make it difficult reading for people unfamiliar with the language.
I had the novel queued up on my Kindle but have decided to put it aside—at least for now—after taking a look at the difficult-to-read language.
1. I recently read The Long Drop by Scottish writer Denise Mina, also set in Glasgow. This historical novel tells a story of a night of pub-crawling that contributed to the conviction of Peter Manuel, a notorious serial killer who was tried, convicted, and hanged in 1958. The long drop of the novel’s title is a method of hanging that aims to prevent the act from becoming a gruesome spectacle:
The long drop method snaps the neck between the second and third vertebrae. Done properly, death is instantaneous. It is a careful calculation of weight, height and muscle tone.
2. Philip Ashley, the narrator of My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier, remembers when hanging was purposefully made a gruesome public spectacle, as he tells us at the opening of the novel: “They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days. Not anymore, though.” The memory of seeing, at age 7, the corpse of a convicted man left hanging as a warning to all about how a life of crime ends, comes up repeatedly throughout the novel as Philip ponders whether Rachel, the widow of Philip’s beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose, had a hand in his death.
3.Daphne du Maurier also wrote The House on the Strand. Written and set in the late 1960s, the novel features Dick Young, who accepts the offer of a vacation at the ancestral home in Cornwall of Magnus Lane, his long-time chum. There’s only one stipulation with the offer: Dick must test an experimental drug that Magnus has been developing. The drug transports Dick back to the fourteenth century, where he observes the daily lives of the people living in the area. It isn’t long before Dick is irresistibly drawn to this alternate life, which he finds much more fascinating than his own.
4.Micaiah Johnson’s recently published debut novel, The Space Between Worlds, also features a character drawn to experience alternate lives. In a future in which travel is possible between variant versions of the same world in the multiverse, Cara searches for a place she can call home, a place where she feels she belongs.
5. In American literature, the prototype of the protagonist looking for a place to call home is the young misfit in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. His efforts take him on a raft down the Mississippi River before he decides that he’ll “light out for the territories” to get away from all the forces trying to civilize him.
6.This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger is often compared to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it also features children fleeing an oppressive situation in a canoe headed for the Mississippi River. This 2019 novel has been on my TBR shelf since it came out, and I continue to come across glowing recommendations for it.
So this journey through 6 Degrees of Separation has brought me to a resolution: I’m going to pick up This Tender Land instead of Shuggie Bain as my next read.
Here’s a fascinating article in which André Aciman talks about what he calls the irrealis mood. He defines this mood as follows:
“a category of verbal moods that indicate that certain events have not happened, may never happen, or should or must or are indeed desired to happen, but for which there is no indication that they will ever happen”—that is, “the might-be and the might-have-been.” It is a mood sometimes called fantasizing, or nostalgia, but it is really more multifaceted, informing our experience of art, desire, and even our own mortality.
“If there’s one lesson we keep having to learn in the United States, it’s that ignorance breeds hate and hate breeds violence.”
The Los Angeles Times offers a list of “more than 40 books on the experience of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in this country, including poetry, essays, memoirs, histories and some of the best fiction of the last couple of decades. Suggestions come from Times staff; novelists including Viet Thanh Nguyen, Charles Yu and Steph Cha; poet Victoria Chang; and a group of scholars from Asian American Studies departments in California and beyond.”
“In her poems and ‘The Cancer Journals,’ Lorde fought to name her experience.”
Emily Bernard’s portrait of Audre Lorde focuses on “Two recent publications, The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay, and a new edition of The Cancer Journals, with a foreword by Tracy K. Smith, [that] capture the complexity of Lorde’s singular perspective.”
Lorde treated her body—the range of her corporeal needs, fears, and desires—as a resource of political and creative information, a platform from which she communicated her worldview. She was unique in her determination to speak and write without shame, but at the same time wholly representative, embodying the complexities of a contemporary radical Black feminist identity. Her life emblematized the concept of intersectionality, a term coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw to describe the ways in which distinct social identities, such as race and gender, are mutually constitutive. Lorde devoted her career to building bridges across social divides as well as nurturing the distinct voices of Black feminist writers who responded to the raw physicality of her imagery and her now famous rallying cries, such as, “Your silence will not protect you.”
“Part of the magic of poetry is that, when you write the words, you’re a writer,” Pollack continues. “And once you put them down, they’re not really yours anymore. The reader has to do the other half of the work.”
“Anti-Asian violence and discrimination has increased precipitously, but it has a long history in the United States”
Jae-Yeon Yoo and Stefani Kuo offer a reading list to help readers in the U.S. better understand racism against Asian Americans:
We’ve compiled this list as a way to better understand the deep roots of Asian American discrimination in the U.S. We hope we can help amplify the urgent need to acknowledge anti-Asian racism and the complexity of Asian American identity today. Staying silent exacerbates the portrayal of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” ignoring the violent and potentially fatal consequences of anti-Asian racism.
“Readers love fictional characters almost as if they were real people. Literary scholars are just starting to take them more seriously.”
Evan Kindley writes, “How to transition from a naive identification with characters to a critical analysis of texts is supposed to be one of the fundamental lessons that literary studies imparts.” Despite more than a century of critical literary thinking that taught fictional characters are nothing more than an abstraction in the mind of the reader, “literary characters are finally getting scholarly attention again.” Here Kindley reviews three volumes of literary criticism that focus on characters.
“The parasites, hybrids, and vampires of her science fiction make the price of persisting viscerally real.”
Julian Lucas writes:
Butler’s great subject was intimate power, of the kind that transforms relationships into fulcrums of collective destiny. She explored the ways that bodies could be made instruments of alien intentions, a motif that recurs throughout her fiction in ever more fantastic guises: mind control, gene modification, body-snatching, motherhood. Her protagonists often begin as fugitives or captives, but emerge as prodigies of survival, improvising their way through unprecedented situations only to find that adaptation exacts hidden costs.
“For those who find their dreams in books, there’s a group of readers who are hungrily consuming a particular style of narrative to escape from the past year’s reality: “cozy” mysteries,” writes Tamara Lush for the Associated Press.
Kelly Jensen writes, “let’s take a look at various literary devices and tools used by authors to write. Many of these tools are valuable for readers to think about because they offer insight into what it is that makes a book memorable or effective.”
On Monday I saw an announcement in our local paper that two branches of the Tacoma Public Library would be opening for timed-entry, in-person browsing beginning the next day. One of those two is a local library for us, so this was a not-to-be-missed opportunity.
A quick click to the library web site revealed that there will be four different times each day: noon, 1:00, 5:00, and 6:00, each lasting for 45 minutes. By the time I got there, the first two time periods for Tuesday were already filled, so I signed us up for 5:00.
Yesterday, I was twitching with excitement by the time we got to the library. When they opened the door and I walked through, my eyes filled with tears. I immediately went for the new fiction section, where only a few books remained (and none of those were titles that I at all recognized). This was somewhat disappointing, but, hey, we were AT THE LIBRARY!
I had forgotten how small this library branch is, but, hey, we were AT THE LIBRARY! So I soldiered on. In the children’s section I found The Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell, a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while. And in the large print section stood a copy of Something in the Water by Catherine Steadman.
I hadn’t planned to spend the rest of my reading time this month with these two books, but, hey, they are actual library books checked out AT THE LIBRARY. So there we are. This whole experience didn’t require anywhere near 45 minutes.
Yesterday was a beautiful spring day here in the Pacific Northwest, so we got to see the trees in flower in the parking lot.
Back in the car, my husband announced that he wanted to stop at Oddfellas, one of our favorite local eateries for dinner on the way home. When I asked if he wanted to order online for pickup, he said no, that he wanted to go inside and sit down to eat—and drink, of course, because Oddfellas offers a large selection of draught beers.
Restaurants in our area are now allowed to open at 25% capacity. Odfellas is small. When we got there, the only other diners were a couple of women eating and chatting at a table along the back wall and a solitary man sitting at the bar. We took a booth well removed from them. While we were there, two or three other couples arrived. There was enough room for all of us to be more than appropriately socially distanced.
But, as much as I enjoyed my pizza, I also felt ambivalent. My husband and I both had our second dose of COVID vaccine more than two weeks ago, but I fear that if people start to mingle in public again too soon, there may be another upsurge in COVID-19 infections.
So we won’t be eating out routinely now, and we’re certainly not going to Disneyland any time soon. But for a couple of hours yesterday evening, I felt almost like a normal person again.
Jane Austen’s books were all written in the Hampshire house, which is now a time capsule of her life there.
The tour is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. EST on Friday, March 26, and costs $14 per person. Half of the profits will go to the museum, which is currently raising money to restore the 70-year-old roof. If you’re interested in attending, you can book a ticket here.
The National Endowment for the Humanities will receive $135 million in supplemental funding as part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan just approved by President Biden. The funding will be used to assist institutions impacted by the pandemic.