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Summer reading has a fraught history. But if there was ever a time to delight in escapism, it’s now

Wisdom from Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post:

The shame of summer reading is almost as old as summer reading itself. It took humanity 200,000 years to produce movable type, widespread literacy and enough leisure time to enjoy a book. But as soon as people discovered the pleasures of a diverting novel, some starchy scold swooped in to make them feel bad.

Charles notes that the term beach reads was still toxic in highbrow circles at the end of the 20th century and that our personal beach-reading “remains fraught with anxiety about what those choices might suggest about ourselves.” 

But I like his conclusion: “If there were ever a summer to stop apologizing, to stop pretending and to stop worrying about what we should read, it’s this summer.”

Literature Is Built on a Foundation of Horror

“Why all great writing, no matter the genre, is steeped in horror.”

I often say that I don’t like horror fiction; in particular, I don’t read fiction involving werewolves, zombies, or vampires.

But novelist Marc E. Fitch argues that all fiction is a form of horror:

Literary fiction, in its attempt to confront reality, is built on a foundation of insanity, meaninglessness, brutality and death. Authors of genre fiction are essentially writing in the basement of that haunted house. They are not the worse for it; they are engaged with the same horrors as writers included in the literary canon and sometimes transcend the genre, creating work that is both horrifying and deeply meaningful. There are no hard boundaries in classifying literature, or course, and people should read widely. But just because it isn’t labeled a horror novel, doesn’t mean it isn’t a novel of horrors.

Questioning the Very Form of the Book

Karla Kelsey discusses The Saddest Thing Is ThatI Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, edited by Lucy Ives. “Madeline Gins uses the form to dislodge our notion of individual subjectivity, the narrator commonly known as ‘I.’”

Kelsey describes Gins as a writer who explored “the wherefores and why’s of experimental writing — of its capacity to say and do what other forms of writing or art-making cannot.”

Rufi Thorpe on the Narrative Role of the Bystander

“Writing Ordinary People Who Witness the Extraordinary”

Rufi Thorpe, author of the recently published novel The Knockout Queen, praises books that she calls “The Gospel of Joe Schmo”: “An ordinary person tells the story of their friend, someone extraordinary, who touched their life and changed them forever.”

Such novels, Thorpe writes, “are all told in first person from the point of view of an almost peripheral character.” Such novels include Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, All the King’s Men, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Genre Labels: What Makes a Book More Thriller Than Sci-Fi?

Publishers and marketing directors love genre labels, writes S.L. Huang. Here she describes how some science fiction books end up getting classified as thrillers:

So although there are certainly scifi thrillers that straddle genres and hit it out of the park on both the futuristic elements and the fast-paced thrilling tension, here are some ways that, in my observation, a book that could easily be called science fiction instead gets sucked more into the tense and mainstream maw of the thriller category.

I found this article particularly fascinating because, although Huang doesn’t mention these titles specifically, I’ve enjoyed recent novels, including Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, that are thrillers with science-fiction elements.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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‘Killing People in Fiction Was Fun’: Mysteries That Have Stood the Test of Time

Like many of us, Sarah Weinman initially thought that the coronavirus lockdown would allow her to read, read, read. And also like many of us, she soon discovered that “Focus has evaporated. The cognitive load of living through the coronavirus has gone straight for my literary jugular.”

Her antidote for this condition has been a return to “much-loved classic crime fiction.” With the help of audiobooks, Weinman has enjoyed books by Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith, and Margaret Millar.

The Erosion of Deep Literacy

Here’s an article you might want to bookmark for reading after we emerge from the current coronavirus lockdown. The article deals with how modern technology is causing us to lose the ability for “deep literacy” or “deep reading”:

In her 2018 book, Reader, Come Home, [Maryanne] Wolf uses cognitive neuroscience and developmental psycholinguistics to study the reading brain and literacy development, and in doing so, helps identify what is being lost. According to Wolf, we are losing what she calls “deep literacy” or “deep reading.” This does not include decoding written symbols, writing one’s name, or making lists. Deep literacy is what happens when a reader engages with an extended piece of writing in such a way as to anticipate an author’s direction and meaning, and engages what one already knows in a dialectical process with the text. The result, with any luck, is a fusion of writer and reader, with the potential to bear original insight

The loss of this ability may be crucial for future human development because “Deep reading has in large part informed our development as humans, in ways both physiological and cultural.”

With its emphasis on brain evolution, this article goes well beyond the common laments on how technology is making us stupid.

This is a long and complex piece, the kind of thing that I’m having difficulty focusing on enough to comprehend and to, well, think deeply about. So I have put it away to look at again in the future. 

Not everyone hates being stuck at home. Some people are thriving

Molly Creeden writes in the Los Angeles Times, “the unusual circumstances of being cloistered at home have proved a welcome change of pace, if not wholly enjoyable. And while no one is happy about the reasons we find ourselves in this abbreviated style of living, those well-suited to it are thriving.”

Read some of the explanations by people who appreciate the changes the current situation has brought to their lives and who hope to carry over some of those changes when the isolation restrictions ease.

Top 10 Scottish crime novels

Craig Robertson writes, “I’m not a big fan of tartan noir as a label for Scottish crime fiction. It works as an advertising slogan but doesn’t capture what the broad church of Scottish crime fiction is all about. There are so many fine novels within the canon that are either not tartan – with the archaic and cliched connotations that word can offer – or aren’t noir.” 

Here he offers a list of novels that “fit into a tradition of Scottish crime novels driven by issues of duality, redemption, the nature of good and evil, and a dark, dark, humour” by authors including William McIlvanney, Denise Mina, Ian Rankin, and Val McDermid.

Lionel Shriver Is Looking for Trouble

Ariel Levy writes in The New Yorker about author Lionel Shriver, “Shriver has often been convinced that we are freaking out about the wrong things—focussing on climate change, for instance, instead of contemplating the population explosion that fuels it. The coronavirus, she believes, will ultimately prove less destructive than the international fiscal contraction that it has provoked.”

Shriver’s breakout novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, featured a mother facing the fact that her son had committed mass murder at school. Levy writes, “her novels tend to explore almost perversely unappealing issues.”

7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

Ellen Gutoskey offers “seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.”

My own favorite is this one:

7. “You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read.” Theodore Roosevelt

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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The Economics of Coronavirus: A Reading List

I’ve been thinking a lot about what the world will look like once the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but my speculations are mostly social and political. I know absolutely nothing about economics beyond balancing my checkbook, which is why I took particular notice of this article from Five Books.

As we deal with the economic fallout of coronavirus, what lessons can economic theory and economic history teach us as we navigate the months ahead? Ricardo Reis, professor of economics at the London School of Economics—and consultant to both the Bank of England and the Federal Reserve—recommends four books and one article to help us think through the economic challenges posed by Covid-19.

The Essential Stephen King

“If you’ve never read his books, here’s where to start.”

Because I abhor horror, I avoided Stephen King’s books for a long time. I did once decide (in my early 30s) that I should probably give him a try and read The Tommyknockers, an experience that validated my assessment.

However, both Stephen King and I have changed in the intervening years. I still avoid straight horror, but I have enjoyed several of King’s not-so-horror works, e.g. Hearts in Atlantis, Bag of Bones, Misery, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Mr. Mercedes, and 11/22/63.

If you’ve never read Stephen King’s works or have read only a few, here’s a list of suggestions to get you started in the following categories:

  • “I Want to Read a King Classic”
  • “I Want to Drive Into the Skid”
  • “I’m a Scaredy-Cat, OK?”
  • “Actually, I’m Not a Scaredy-Cat, OK?”
  • “I Have Time to Begin an Epic Journey”
  • “I Want Pure Suspense”
  • “I’m Looking For a Big Fat Read”
  • “I Want a Great Crime Novel”
  • “I Want a Deep Cut”

I especially appreciated the entry under “I’m a Scaredy-Cat, OK?”:

It’s fine to not like scary things! That doesn’t mean you can’t read some Stephen King. Though he’s most famous for his horror novels and stories, at this point he has written a significant amount outside of the genre. Early in his career — less than a decade after the publication of his debut novel “Carrie” — King released “Different Seasons,” a collection of four novellas. Three of them have nothing to do with the supernatural. Two of them were adapted into top-tier King movies: “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” became, well, you know, and “The Body” was filmed as “Stand By Me.” Both are set in Maine in the early 1960s, and both give a sense of how lovingly King can draw his characters

In addition to his skill at characterization, King is also a master of description. If you’re an aspiring writer looking to write great description, check out King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

 On Isolation and Literature

“Isolation is one of the fundamental themes of literature, the kiln of experience whereby a human is able to discover certain aspects of character, personality, and existence through journeying to the center of their being (though results are certainly varied),” writes Ed Simon in this survey.

the isolation of crafting literature, even if done in a crowded room, is such that any writer (and reader) must be by definition solitary, even while entire swaths of existence are contained inside one human skull. . . . Beyond the relatively prosaic fact that there have been reclusive writers and secluded characters, isolation is also the fundamental medium of both reading and writing. . . 

Covering works by early religious writers through authors such as Thoreau and Emily Dickinson to Virginia Woolf, Thomas Pynchon, and J.D. Salinger, Simon writes, “Isolation is not a medium for literature, nor is it a method of creating literature; it is the very substance of literature itself.” He associates this principle with the rise of the novel as a literary form that allows readers to live temporarily within interior space, the worlds a particular text creates within their heads.

The Coronavirus Is Rewriting Our Imaginations

Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson writes:

In mid-March, in a prior age, I spent a week rafting down the Grand Canyon. When I left for the trip, the United States was still beginning to grapple with the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Italy was suffering; the N.B.A. had just suspended its season; Tom Hanks had been reported ill. When I hiked back up, on March 19th, it was into a different world. I’ve spent my life writing science-fiction novels that try to convey some of the strangeness of the future. But I was still shocked by how much had changed, and how quickly.

“The virus is rewriting our imaginations,” he writes, because it has awakened our realization of the significance of our place in history. “We realize that what we do now, well or badly, will be remembered later on. This sense of enacting history matters.”

The Haunting of Shirley Jackson

“Since novels like [The Haunting of] Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle and short stories like “The Lottery” made Jackson one of America’s most famous horror authors, critics and Hollywood have tried to get to the heart of what makes Jackson’s work so enduringly scary,” writes Emily Alford. 

Alford examines both the works themselves and film adaptations to arrive at her answer: “her work’s simplest theme: madness is born of too much time alone.”

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Source: The Amazon Book Review

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The Curious Creation of Anna Kavan

Although I’ve heard of Anna Kavan—mostly through occasional references to her works—I know nothing about her. But I’ll have to change that, after reading this profile in the New Yorker. She examined the nature of identity, both in her writing and in her personal life.

Not long after being discharged from a Swiss sanitarium, in 1938, the English writer Helen Edmonds, who was born Helen Woods and had published six novels as Helen Ferguson, replaced her long brown locks with a neat blond bob and started calling herself Anna Kavan. The name was borrowed from the protagonist of her most autobiographical novels, “Let Me Alone” (1930) and “A Stranger Still” (1935), and chosen, at least in part, because it echoed the name of the writer who inspired the shifts in literary approach that accompanied her change of identity: Franz Kafka. It was in this new guise—born-again avant-gardist—and under this new name that she became known to the Home Office (as a registered heroin addict); to her most important publisher, Peter Owen; and to a small but avid readership.

How to Start a Love Affair with Audiobooks

I have carried on a 30+-year love affair with audiobooks, but I know many people who still either don’t like listening or insist that listening isn’t the same as reading. Here author Victoria Helen Stone explains how, after a rocky start, she came to appreciate audiobooks after learning how to listen to podcasts.

Fragmented Narratives Are Broken, Independent, and Honest

Sinéad Gleeson, author of the essay collection Constellations, discusses the nature of this collection, a series of essays that each stands on its own but that also work together to create a whole:

You can pick up an essay collection, read one, and then ditch the whole thing. It can be read in any order, anti-chronologically, and still fit together. The book’s title—Constellations—happened for a couple of reasons. I began thinking of objects that are whole but comprised of several distinct things. Each essay is a unit. They are autonomous entities in their own right, but are part of a larger framework. A constellation seemed like an obvious choice—especially because I loved astronomy as a kid, and spent a lot of timing seeking out Orion, Cassiopeia, The Big Dipper.

How to Help Librarians and Archivists From Your Living Room

If you’re looking for something constructive to occupy all this time you’re spending at home, Atlas Obscura has some suggestions:

IF TIME AT HOME HAS you missing life in the stacks or sifting through old papers in search of pieces of the past, fear not: You can do the same thing online. Slews of institutions are in the market for armchair archivists—volunteers who can generate knowledge by clicking through digitized resources, deciphering handwriting, tagging photos, and more.

What Our Contagion Fables Are Really About

“In the literature of pestilence, the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human.”

the existence of books, no matter how grim the tale, is itself a sign, evidence that humanity endures, in the very contagion of reading. Reading may be an infection, the mind of the writer seeping, unstoppable, into the mind of the reader. And yet it is also—in its bidden intimacy, an intimacy in all other ways banned in times of plague—an antidote, proven, unfailing, and exquisite.

Jill Lepore burrows into plague literature over the centuries.

Returning Once More to a “Little House in the Big Woods”

Soon after I read about a librarian who had settled her fourth-grade son on the couch with a copy of Little House in the Big Woods, I came across this article in which Rebecca Mead hails the book as “a manual for self-sufficient social isolation.”


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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More Arts-Related Pandemic News

More Book-Related Pandemic News

Luckily, books still exist, and can be their own vehicle for connection. And what better reading material for right now than books where the characters are, in some way, alone? None of these are dystopian (at least not in the traditional sense), but are instead characterized by protagonists with complex interior lives who are either isolated (in some way that’s not about a contagion) or fiercely independent, or both.

Feeling overwhelmed? How art can help in an emergency by Olivia Laing

During this febrile period, I’ve found myself longing for a different kind of timeframe, in which it would be possible both to feel and to think, to process the intense impact of the news and perhaps even to imagine other ways of being. The stopped time of a painting, say, or the dilations of the novel, in which it is possible to see patterns and consequences that are otherwise invisible. Art has begun to feel not like a respite or an escape, but a formidable tool for gaining perspective on what are increasingly troubled times.

America Infected: The Social (Distance) Catastrophe

In the Paris Review, J. Hoberman looks at cinematic representations of plagues, including The Plague by Albert Camus and Contagion by Steven Soderbergh.

Pandemics from Homer to Stephen King: what we can learn from literary history

From Homer’s Iliad and Boccaccio’s Decameron to Stephen King’s The Stand and Ling Ma’s Severance, stories about pandemics have – over the history of Western literature such as it is – offered much in the way of catharsis, ways of processing strong emotion, and political commentary on how human beings respond to public health crises.

So We’re Working From Home. Can the Internet Handle It?

I live in the greater metropolitan Seattle area, which was the first site of infection of COVID-19 in the United States. This was therefore one of the first areas to cancel in-person classes and move to online education and to encourage remote working for non-essential employees. 

With all these additional people online during the day, I’ve noticed a significant increase in the length of time web pages take to load. Of course things were worse back in the first days of modems and dial-up internet, but still . . . . The New York Times reports on this issue with a more national focus.

IT’S THE RIGHT TIME TO READ CRIME NOVELS

Molly Odintz, senior editor for CrimeReads, explains why she’s taking refuge in reading Scandinavian thrillers:

Not because thrillers are low-brow. They take immense thought to create. But they don’t—and this is key—take commensurate mental energy to consume. They are the kindest art form, because they do the work for the consumer, allowing us a break from fretting about our very real woes so that we can worry, safely, for the fates of fictional characters instead.

20 MUST-READ FEEL-GOOD FANTASIES

If fantasy is more your choice for light reading, Nicole Hill has you covered with this list.

The Best of Speculative Fiction

More suggestions, these from Ken Liu, winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards.

How you can support bookstores during the coronavirus pandemic

Jonny Diamond reports on how to support local bookstores, which are suffering from lack of sales while people aren’t going out shopping. (See my article Life in an Independent Bookstore Near Seattle.)

The World of Books Braces for a Newly Ominous Future

“Publishers, bookstores and authors are struggling to confront and limit the financial fallout from the unfolding coronavirus crisis.”

15 Books and Authors Hurt by the Coronavirus

Novelists Ignite A Mighty Blaze in Response to Extinguished Book Tours

two novelists, Caroline Leavitt and Jenna Blum, are promoting their colleagues with an ambitious initiative called A Mighty Blaze. Anyone can participate in the conversations on A Mighty Blaze on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram about new releases, but for authors wanting their books to be signal boosted on these platforms, there are a few requirements: the book has to be traditionally published for adult readers, and the author’s book tour has to have been canceled.

Without Places to Gather, Debut Novelists Reimagine Book Promotion

Canada’s book publishers scramble to cope with the impact of coronavirus

As New York’s Indie Bookstores Close Their Doors, They Search for Community Online

Sales Skyrocket at Libro.fm and Bookshop.org

“As a result of the new coronavirus crisis, sales at downloadable audiobookstore Libro.fm and online Bookshop.org have soared. Both digital stores collaborate with independent booksellers and return a share of the sales back to them.”

Tolstoy Together

“Read and discuss War and Peace with Yiyun Li and A Public Space. Starting March 18, join us for a free virtual book club—a moment each day when we can gather together as a community. #TolstoyTogether.”

How To Take Your Book Club Online While Practicing Social Distancing

11 authors, from Laila Lalami to Jonathan Lethem, on the books they might finally read in quarantine

8 Books to Crack Open While Society Closes Down Because of Coronavirus

This list is from Teen Vogue, but the books are decidedly grown-up (for example, Steinbeck’s East of Eden).

Penguin Random House Open License Online Story Time and Classroom Read-Aloud Videos and Live Events

In order to encourage reading and classroom read-aloud experiences, and to support schools and public libraries forced to close by the escalating COVID-19 outbreak, Penguin Random House is permitting teachers, librarians and booksellers to create and share story time and read-aloud videos and live events, according to the following guidelines:

Since such presentations normally violate copyright law, Ron Charles of the Washington Post calls this “a generous offer.” If you plan to take advantage of the offer, be sure to read all the guidelines, including the one about later removing the presentation from the social platform’s archives.

Art Galleries Respond to Virus Outbreak With Online Viewing Rooms

Prolonged travel restrictions and venue closings leave some people craving artistic and cultural stimulation. Many organizations are satisfying those desires.

12 World-Class Museums You Can Visit Online

This article is from 2016, but the links still work.

No travel required: 10 iconic museums you can tour online

Met Museum Prepares for $100 Million Loss and Closure Till July

“The Met’s executives say the coronavirus outbreak makes painful layoffs likely for every cultural institution.”

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra will live stream performances in lieu of cancelled concerts

Met to launch “Nightly Met Opera Streams,” a free series of encore Live in HD presentations streamed on the company website during the coronavirus closure

Hollywood production has shut down. Why thousands of workers are feeling the pain

As film crews have quickly shut down in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, a domino effect has befallen Hollywood’s working class. A range of people from actors to lighting directors, drivers and grips to administrators, painters, hair stylists and caterers, now suddenly find themselves out of work.

What to Stream: Classics for Comfort

From film critic Richard Brody:

I’m picking up on a search for substance, for movies that have the settled and solid quality of classics (despite the narrow assumptions on which such classicism is based)—movies serious enough for the mood, compelling enough to provide ready distraction, and confident enough to look beyond the troubles that they evoke. Here are some of the movies that I’ve been grateful to watch in the past few stressful days.

What to Watch, Listen to, and Read While Coronavirus Self-Quarantining

“Here are some suggestions from New Yorker writers and artists to ease the stress of isolation.”

Recommendations for TV, movies, podcasts, books, and streaming content to keep yourself occupied.

The Fever Room: Epidemics and Social Distancing in “Bleak House” and “Jane Eyre”

A look at how quarantine helped prevent disease in these 19th century novels, when there were no other options for handling epidemics.

The first lines of 10 classic novels, rewritten for social distancing

Because sometimes all you can do is laugh. Example:

Pride and Prejudice

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be hoarding toilet paper.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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“What Do I Know To Be True?”: Emma Copley Eisenberg on Truth in Nonfiction, Writing Trauma, and The Dead Girl Newsroom

Jacqueline Alnes talks with Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of true-crime book The Third Rainbow Girl, “about what it means to seek truth in nonfiction, and how writing the personal can allow for more complicated realities to emerge; how undermining conventions of genre can impact the way a book is both marketed and read; and what it means to find clarity — or at least community — while writing into murky, and often traumatizing subject matter.”

Questions of “the boundaries between subject and writer, research and lived experience, and how we classify it all” are significant in journalism and in nonfiction writing. In the book, Alnes writes, “Eisenberg undermines many features of the subgenre by centering place as a major subject.” According to Alnes, Eisenberg inserts herself into the narrative as someone who cares about the region where the crime occurred and can therefore discuss some of the expectations and stereotypes of the people who live there.  “In prose that brims with empathy, and through research that illuminates narratives that have long been hidden by problematic representation, Eisenberg exposes the kinds of fictions we tell ourselves often enough that we believe them to be true.”

I called out American Dirt’s racism. I won’t be silenced.

Myriam Gurba was among the first to call out the novel American Dirt, published in January 2020, as “a novel filled with stereotypes of Mexicans.” She is one of the founding members of Dignidad Literaria, a group that arose out of the American Dirt controversy to demand more representation of people of color in publishing. 

Here she explains, “As I’ve learned again and again, if you speak out against racism, there are risks you must take on.”

The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation

“Reflections on my father’s novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, in the age of American Dirt”

Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron, writes, “With the possible exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my father was the first novelist in modern history to be accused of cultural appropriation.”

And, she continues, “That experience, and what he made of it, reflects complicated truths about mid-century American culture, and maybe offers some guidance for our own contentious times.”

These Powerful Women Are Changing The Literary Landscape

Despite the publishing industry’s continuing dominancy by white men, Kristin Iversen finds some reasons for hope:

While it’s still hard to say what will or won’t be a best-seller, there are a couple of things that are promising when it comes to publishing’s future: One is that most of the last decade’s best-selling books were written by women, and another is that the majority of the people reading multiple books each year are also women. And so it follows that if there’s one prevailing theme in the literary world right now, it’s that the industry’s most influential members — from behind-the-scenes publicity powerhouses to the biggest authors to prominent critics to podcast hosts to, you know, supermodels — are overwhelmingly women.

Read here about the women Iversen sees as the sources of these hopes.

From ‘The Outsider’ to ‘It,’ the joys — and challenges — of adapting Stephen King

Travis M. Andrews discusses the recent HBO adaptation of King’s The Outsider by focusing on “one of the primary challenges in adapting King’s work: taking something so interior (in this case, doubt) and making it visual.”

Joanna Trollope on families, fiction and feminism: ‘Society still expects women to do all the caring’

Joanna “Trollope is the queen of contemporary women’s fiction and seems to be wired to the anxieties of a devoted, predominantly female, readership. The complexities of life and love cascade through novels that have confronted lust, adoption, divorce, infidelity and the changing nature of the modern family.” 

In this piece for the Guardian Claire Armitstead weaves together a short biography, references to Trollope’s novels, and an interview with the author. 

Here’s my favorite quotation from Trollope: fiction “can be a physical confessional: when you’re within the covers of a book, you can admit to all kinds of things that you can’t otherwise. It’s also where you learn about the rest of human life and where you get your most profound experience of life – except from actually living it.”


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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American Dirt Starts An Important Conversation But Not The One Author Intended

I avoided the recent brouhaha over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt while it was developing, but most of the dust seems to have settled now. If you looking for a summary of the situation, this article provides a good overview. It also contains a lot of links, so you can go as far down the internet rabbit hole as you like.

What You Miss When You Snub “Chick Lit”

Mandy Shunnarah of Off the Beaten Shelf compares the novels The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, marketed as literary fiction, and Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner, whose works are usually described as chick lit.

Here’s the thing, though: I thought The Female Persuasion was good, but I think Mrs. Everything is truly excellent. It’s about as perfect of a novel as I’ve read.

Shunnarah wonders how many other great novels she’s missed because of the way a “publisher has historically pigeonholed” the books’ (usually female) author.

Bingeing on Cop Propaganda

Nick Martin, writing in The New Republic, argues that:

beyond the familiar tropes, every episode of Law & Order: SVU or NCIS mindlessly consumed after work or on a weekend afternoon is also a vehicle for a particular understanding of law enforcement: a police-know-best mind-set that takes all of the mess and violence of our criminal legal system and packages it for tidy consumption. Given the ubiquity of these shows, it’s jarring to consider the scale of it.

His conclusion:

it’s clear the market and appetite for these shows means something and that the model works for a reason. So the next time you’re hit with the “Are you still watching?” message after the fourth straight episode of white victimhood and cop ass-kicking, it might be worth thinking about why shows like this have become a kind of comfort food.

JOANNA RUSS, THE SCIENCE-FICTION WRITER WHO SAID NO

The New Yorker profiles science fiction writer Joanna Russ, who died in 2011:

she was brilliant in a way that couldn’t be denied, even by those who hated her. Her writing was at once arch and serious; she issued her judgments with supreme confidence, even when they were issued against herself. She was here to imagine, to invent wildly, and to undo the process, as one of her heroines puts it, of “learning to despise one’s self.” But she was going to have a lot of fun doing it. And, if you were doing anything else, you were not really, to her mind, writing science fiction.

Five Fun Forensic Facts 4 Fiction!

Forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek and her husband, writer T.J. Mitchell, have written the nonfiction book Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner and often blog about forensics as presented on television. Here they present “the 5 most common forensics errors that crime writers make.” 

These five points will change the way you watch TV crime shows and read crime fiction.

10 Dual Timeline Novels with Plots You’ll Be Desperate to Unravel

I love novels with unusual narrative structures.

That’s probably why I’ve read six of the 10 novels that Sarah Walsh presents here, “books that traipse between different timelines—the nonsequential events of the past and present forming one intriguing narrative spread throughout time.”

When well done—and the six I’ve read of the 10 mentioned here are all very well done—novels with more than one time line can be enormously satisfying to read.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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The Million Basic Plots

Novelist and screenwriter Ned Beauman laments the existence of the website TV Tropes, which breaks down the plots of all forms of popular-culture storytelling into such minute parts as to prevent him from coming up with any original plot elements.

I don’t write fiction but I love reading it, and I read a lot of it. The fact that “there’s nothing new under the sun” has never bothered me as a reader. What I look for when reading is how an author puts together various story elements to create an original work of art.

Reading will supposedly make you a better person. That’s not the real reason to pick up a book.

About all those reported studies claiming that reading makes us more empathetic and compassionate, Mark Athitakis, in The Washington Post, says, “Ugh.” He bases this opinion on his own experience with an emotional rough patch that left the perfectionist part of himself anxiety ridden and unable to read. 

What finally helped him through that time was a copy of Sidney Sheldeon’s 2000 novel The Sky Is Falling left in the lobby of his apartment building: “It was reassuring in a way, to be in such a world. What I valued was the simple happening-ness of life. The book reknitted my conception of reading, demonstrated that it wasn’t a stoic march to edification but a way to be open to experience.”

WHEN MEN NARRATE PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS

I read a lot of mysterie and psychological thrillers. The usual trope set-up for these novels is a woman under duress, whose carefully constructed current life is about to be ruined by some ex who shows up and threatens to expose all her secrets. In this article crime fiction critic Lisa Levy discusses seven novels that turn this trope upside down by having a man narrate the story.

Annotate This: On Marginalia

How could I pass up this article on a web site called Notes in the Margin? (I initially wanted the title Marginalia, but that domain name was already taken.) 

Here Ed Simon, Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, declares “in the genre of marginalia, which is its own form of instantaneous commentary on a literary text, there is a creative act in its own right. Such commentary is the cowriting of a new text, between the reader and the read, as much an act of composition as the initial one.”

One of the reasons for seeking out used books is the possible discovery of marginalia:

Such scribblings, notations, and glosses, whether commentary on the writing itself, or personal note, or inscrutable cipher known only to its creator, is artifact, evidence, and detritus, the remainder of what’s left over after a fiery mind has immolated the candle of the text. A book bloody with red ink is the result of a struggle between author and reader, it is the spent ash from the immolation of the text, it is evidence of the process – the record of a mind thinking. A pristine book is something yet to be read, but marginalia is the reading itself. Far from the molestation of the pristine object, the writing of marginalia is a form of reverence, a ritual, a sacred act. So rarely do you get the opportunity to write back to authors, whether out of love or hate. Marginalia lets you do it for even the dead ones.

Murder, We Wrote

The depiction of homicide in popular culture is continuously evolving, and our ceaseless fascination with these narratives says something about us. Human nature being what it is, we can’t ask “where is murder going?” without also asking “where are we?”

Brian Phillips discusses popular culture’s fascination with murder, particularly as featured in “the wave of psychological thrillers often lumped together under the heading of “Girl books”—Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window, and so forth.”

I’m a novelist – and this is why I choose middle-aged women as the heroes of my crime thrillers

Emily Bernhard Jackson, Lecturer in English at the University of Exeter, discusses why, when she started to write crime novels in her 40s, she made her detectives two women in their 40s. “Women in the 40-to-60 range don’t get much of a showing as main characters in literature generally, so maybe it’s no surprise that they don’t show up as headliners in the mystery genre.” But, she adds, she didn’t create her detectives simply to mirror herself:

For all its advances and improvements, contemporary culture remains uncomfortable, not just with middle-aged women, but to an even greater degree with contentedly single middle-aged women – and to an even greater degree than that with childless women who are childless by choice. I wanted to confront this odd aversion head on, so I made sure that between them my detectives fill all these categories.

Jackson says she created her detectives to offer a model of a world in which the choices to remain single and not to have children as normal enough to be unremarkable. Published under the name Emilia Bernhard, Jackson’s novels include Death in Paris and The Books of the Dead

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Why I’ll Never Read a Book a Week Ever Again

Calling herself a slow reader, writer Hurley Winkler describes her 2019 experience of “the 52 books in 52 weeks reading challenge” she found on the literary blogosphere. During the year she finished several books she “wasn’t wild about” simply because she’d already invested time in reading the first part and didn’t want to fall behind her reading schedule. “The pressure to finish books sucked some of the day-to-day joy out of my reading life,” she writes. She also chose several books because they were short, despite her love for “big, sprawling novels.”

So for this year she has decided to jettison any obsession with productivity: “I resolve to abandon books I don’t like.” She intends to read “intentionally and joyously,” taking the time necessary to savor good books.

This is not a bad reading plan at all. 

The Most Anticipated Books of 2020

Here are some suggestions to start off the new reading year.

Gillian Flynn Peers Into the Dark Side of Femininity

If you grapple with the works of Gillian Flynn, here’s really all you need to know:

“I really do think the world can be divided into the people who like to look under the rock and the people who don’t want to look under the rock,” Flynn told me. “I’ve always said, since birth, ‘Let’s look under the rock.’ ”

Without women the novel would die: discuss

Women are fiction’s life support system – buying 80% of all novels. But as a major new book argues, their love of an emotional truth has been used to trivialise the genre.

In The Guardian Johanna Thomas-Corr discusses Why Women Read Fiction: The Stories of Our Lives by Helen Taylor, published by Oxford University Press. “Fiction takes you on indirect routes to truth,” says Taylor.

D.C. Writers Celebrate The 200th Birthday Of A Famous — And Forgotten — Local Novelist

In graduate school I wrote a paper on Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth, a now little-known but at the time immensely popular 19th-century novelist. I was therefore delighted to cone across this article from American University Radio of Washington, DC. On December 26, 2019, novelist Mary Kay Zuravleff and a few fellow writers laid a wreath at the grave of E.D.E.N. Southworth in Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mrs. Southworth’s birth.

Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth was one of the most successful American writers — male or female — of the mid-19th century, outselling contemporaries like Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. She was a mainstay of Washington’s early literary scene: She hosted Friday night salons at her Georgetown cottage, attended Lincoln’s second inaugural ball and is even credited with encouraging Harriet Beecher Stowe to write the anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“Many of her stories featured women having adventures that Southworth’s readers were often unable to experience firsthand.”

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown