Every September, the Primetime Emmy Awards are handed out, celebrating the best that television had to offer from the previous season. Usually, this event entails the red carpet, designer dresses, flashing lights, and giant crowds. Well, this year is going to be a little bit different. This year’s virtual ceremony will combine pre-recorded and live video of host Jimmy Kimmel and the nominees. And of those nominees, a whopping 12 shows were adapted from books.
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.
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.
In the Paris Review, J. Hoberman looks at cinematic representations of plagues, including The Plague by Albert Camus and Contagion by Steven Soderbergh.
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.
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.
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.
If fantasy is more your choice for light reading, Nicole Hill has you covered with this list.
More suggestions, these from Ken Liu, winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards.
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.)
“Publishers, bookstores and authors are struggling to confront and limit the financial fallout from the unfolding coronavirus crisis.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
11 authors, from Laila Lalami to Jonathan Lethem, on the books they might finally read in quarantine
This list is from Teen Vogue, but the books are decidedly grown-up (for example, Steinbeck’s East of Eden).
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.
Prolonged travel restrictions and venue closings leave some people craving artistic and cultural stimulation. Many organizations are satisfying those desires.
This article is from 2016, but the links still work.
“The Met’s executives say the coronavirus outbreak makes painful layoffs likely for every cultural institution.”
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
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.
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.
“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.
A look at how quarantine helped prevent disease in these 19th century novels, when there were no other options for handling epidemics.
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
Publishers Weekly reports that Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million are currently staying open. I would imagine, though, that this situation could change at any time, so you’d probably want to check with your local store.
The U.K.’s Guardian advises that, in addition to all the pandemic novels everyone is talking about, you might also want to read “some novels about being alone. You should also add some comfort reads, and poetry, and books about people being thoughtful and useful and kind.”
Ashlie Swicker writes, “Around the country, people who care about children are coming together and using their considerable talents to provide entertainment and education for the masses who are out of school and in need of stimulation.”
Here she offers links (current as of Monday, March 16) to several such resources.
Bookshop, “an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community,” offers a list of authors whose book tours have been canceled because of the epidemic. Since book tours can be crucial for sales, buying these writers’ books can help them weather the storm.
Amy Klein, author of The Trying Game: Get Through Fertility Treatment and Get Pregnant Without Losing Your Mind (Penguin/Random House), explains, “Canceling events and shutting down tours is crucial for public health—but it could tank my career.”
“People like me—writers with books that are scheduled to come out or have just come out—are almost as worried about our book babies as we are about our personal health.”
“Pandemics — like wars and economic depressions, with which they often coincide — leave scars on the body of history,” writes Lawrence Wright, author of the novel The End of October, scheduled for publication next month (April 2020).
In fact, this is the second time he has written a novel that was published around the same time as an eerily similar historical event. “What may seem like prophecy is actually the fruit of research,” he explains. Read about how he researched and created these fictional narratives.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
The folks at Lifehacker list works entering the public domain this year in the areas of film, music (both popular and classical), literature, and artworks.
Here are many of the literary works on the list:
- Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Land That Time Forgot and Tarzan and the Ant Men
- Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit and Poirot Investigates
- Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game
- W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Gift of Black Folk
- Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not… (first volume of Parade’s End)
- E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India
- Emma Goldman’s My Further Disillusionment in Russia
- A preliminary version of Ernest Hemingway’s short story collection In Our Time
- Muhammad Iqbal’s Bang-i-Dara
- Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph
- H. P. Lovecraft’s short story “The Rats in the Walls”
- Katherine Mansfield’s Something Childish and Other Stories
- Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain
- Herman Melville’s posthumously published Billy Budd
- A. A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young
- Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
- Mark Twain’s Autobiography (posthumous)
- Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Box-Car Children, first book in the series
- H. G. Wells’s The Dream
- Edith Wharton’s The Old Maid
- Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Grampa in Oz, the 18th Oz book
The editors at Bookish have created a literary flag in honor of Pride Month.
Check out the article to see a larger version of the flag and the list of nearly 350 book covers used to create it: “Each book used in this collage is either written by an author or features a character who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.”
I take no pleasure in reporting this.
Back in 2017 I read Jay Asher’s book Thirteen Reasons Why in preparation for the Netflix series. I wrote about the mixed messages I found in the book, which disturbed me so much that I refused to watch the Netflix production, in Thoughts on “Thirteen Reasons Why.”
Now The New York Times reports that:
a new study finds that suicide rates spiked in the month after the release of the series among boys aged 10 to 17. That month, April 2017, had the highest overall suicide rate for this age group in the past five years, the study found; the rate subsequently dropped back into line with recent trends, but remained elevated for the year.In Month After ‘13 Reasons Why’ Debut on Netflix, Study Finds Teen Suicide Grew
Suicide rates for girls aged 10 to 17 — the demographic expected to identify most strongly with the show’s protagonist — did not increase significantly.
The NY Times article contains a link to the study abstract as posted by the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Thirteen Reasons Why is the story of 13 tape recordings left by a young woman who committed suicide after being bullied and shamed at school, which is why the newspaper article identifies girls as “the demographic expected to identify most strongly with the show’s protagonist.”
However, I was most concerned with the way the book presents the effects that the recordings had on the young man who had tried to talk with the girl. My heart sank when I read this in the article abstract: “Contrary to expectations, these associations [of increased monthly suicide rates] were restricted to boys.”
This study reminds us that words have power, whether they appear in print form in books or in dramatic form in television shows or movies.
I’m now seeing more discussion of the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why prompted by the study discussed in The New York Times.
Stephen Marche in The New Yorker article “Netflix and Suicide: The Disturbing Example of ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’” reports that, before Netflix aired the series, many experts warned “that a wide array of studies has linked portrayals of suicide in the media to increases in the suicide rate.” And, Marche continues, “Netflix responded to the controversy surrounding the release of the show with bromides.”
And there’s more:
Our understanding of the interaction between pop culture and real-world consequences is fraught with lazy assumptions and fearmongering, and the best research is never utterly conclusive, but suicide is mostly an exception to this state of confusion. Suicide contagion has been observed for centuries.
Those who predicted the association between the show’s release and a rise in the suicide rate have met the fate of so much expert opinion in the twenty-first century: their predictions were ignored or cast into doubt by financially interested parties; the research, which came too late to matter, gave evidence that the predictions were true; and there were no consequences.
Constance Grady for Vox approaches the question of how difficult it is to prove whether the TV series is responsible for the death of teenagers:
So when I talked to academics about the study, all of them said that they continue to be wary of shows like 13 Reasons Why — but they also said the study is nowhere near proof that 13 Reasons Why is actually responsible for the death of teenagers. And in part that’s because, regardless of whether such a relationship might exist, it’s nearly impossible to prove.
Grady consulted with other experts and researchers. Her article also includes a list of online resources for learning more about how to help someone you think might be suicidal.
CNN reported on the recent study’s findings here.
Finally, you can read the report released by the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded and conducted the study, here.
© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown
This coming year marks the first time in two decades that a large body of copyrighted works will lose their protected status — a shift that will have profound consequences for publishers and literary estates, which stand to lose both money and creative control.
But it will also be a boon for readers, who will have more editions to choose from, and for writers and other artists who can create new works based on classic stories without getting hit with an intellectual property lawsuit.
I’ve set out my own reading plan for 2017, but if you’d prefer a challenge with specific category descriptions to guide you, here are several. Many of these challenges offer discussion groups either on their own web sites or through Facebook pages, so you’ll be getting a book group as well as book recommendations.
Here are several challenges to get you started in your search for the right one for you. If you don’t find anything appealing here, do a web search for “reading challenge 2017.” You’ll find lots of entries, some for specific interests (e.g., Christian reading challenge, European reading challenge).
For this well-known challenge “there are 24 tasks, averaging to two per month over the course of the next 12 months. You may count one book for multiple tasks, or read one book per task.” The purpose is to achieve “a perspective shift – but one for which you’ll only be accountable to yourself.” You can download a printable PDF of the challenge tasks.
From Modern Mrs. Darcy, who describes this as a “choose-your-own-adventure reading challenge.” She offers two focused challenges, “reading for fun” and “reading for growth.”
POPSUGAR offers “40 book prompts to help diversify and expand your reading in the new year, PLUS an “advanced” section with 12 books for hardcore readers who complete the challenge before the year is over.” The challenge consists of “a variety of ideas to mix up your reading choices, not specific book titles.” Examples of categories are “a book set in the wilderness” and “a novel set during wartime.”
There’s a printable list you can download and use to check off categories as you complete them.
This challenge from Better World Books aims to get you “to try different kinds of books.” There’s a PDF checklist to download to keep track of your progress. And the Better World Books blog will be posting recommended books for each challenge category throughout the year, just in case you have trouble coming up with titles on your own.
This challenge from the U.K. asks you to read retellings of stories such as classics, children’s classics, fairy tales, myths, legends, folk tales, well known people’s lives.
This Pinterest board links to many reading challenges from several years.
This challenge asks you “to read at least one book from one of these categories every month.” There’s no indication that you must be a teacher to participate.
This challenge, from Justina Wooten of Anythink Wright Farms of the Rangeview Library District in Colorado, might suit you if the 40+-category challenges are too much to take on. This one lists a different category of book for each month in 2017.
© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown
Amazon says its best-selling book of 2016 is “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts 1 & 2, Special Rehearsal Edition Script.”