Happy Hobbit Day, a celebration of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthdays.
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 Curtis Sittenfeld’s latest novel, Rodham, published May 19, 2000. According to Goodreads, Sittenfeld’s novel examines this question: “What if Hillary Rodham hadn’t married Bill Clinton?”
I have not read this book and am not likely to, because Hillary Rodham Clinton is still alive and well, and more than capable of examining and explicating her own life choices. Whether she does so publicly or privately should be her own choice. I find the whole premise of Rodham presumptuous, distasteful, even offensive.
However, I appreciate fiction that sets out to give voice to unheard women whose lives have been largely overlooked by the writers of history (most of whom have always been men). Here are six novels that do just that.
1. The first novel I remember reading consciously as the effort to give voice to historically suppressed women is The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant. The novel tells the story of Dinah, a daughter of Jacob, who is mentioned only tangentially in the narration about the famous patriarch and his many sons in the Book of Genesis. In telling of Dinah’s interactions with Jacob’s four wives, Diamant imagines what the life of women’s society inside the red tent might have been like during biblical times.
2. Greek and Roman mythology feature many stories of women, both divine and mortal, at the mercy of men. In Circe (2018) Madeline Miller tells the story of one such woman, the daughter of mighty sun god Helios. When Circe turns to the mortal world for companionship, she discovers and perfects her powers of witchcraft while interacting with several mythological mortals, including Homer’s Odysseus. Chosen by Book of the Month subscribers as Book of the Year for 2018 and nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019), the novel is “a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world” (from the dust jacket).
3. In The Silence of the Girls (2018) Pat Barker gives voice to Briseis as a representative of the thousands of women behind the scenes of the ancient war between the Greeks and the Trojans. First taken as a spoil of war by Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, Briseis soon becomes a pawn in the power struggle between Achilles and Agamemnon, the Greek leader. Barker “brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations” (Goodreads).
4. In Galileo’s Daughter (2000) Dava Sobel turns to the historical figure of Galileo’s oldest child, Sister Marie Celeste, who was the scientist’s main confidante and supporter through his contentious relationship with the Catholic Church. Sobel has translated Marie Celeste’s remaining letters to her father and used them as a basis for this book, the subtitle of which is “A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love.”
5. In 1903 Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her husband Edwin hired Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new house for them. During the construction of the house Mamah and Frank fell in love, although each was married, with children. The two plunged into a life together that scandalized Chicago society. But Mamah Cheney remained merely a footnote to the life of the eminent architect until Nancy Horan brought her imaginatively to life in her 2007 novel Loving Frank.
6. While kernels of history provided the sources for the previous books, Sena Jeter Naslund found the inspiration for her novel Ahab’s Wife, or The Star-Gazer (1999) in an earlier work of fiction. A brief mention in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick lead her to imagine a woman whose own life could stand beside that of the relentless Captain Ahab. Amazon calls this book “an enthralling and compellingly readable saga, spanning a rich, eventful, and dramatic life. At once a family drama, a romantic adventure, and a portrait of a real and loving marriage, Ahab’s Wife gives new perspective on the American experience.”
All these works of historical fiction demonstrate how writers can use their art to give voice to people who have been glossed over by history. I would prefer that novelists use their talents in this vein and leave still-living people to own their own stories.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
“Critics say Reclaim Her Name fails to reflect the array of reasons authors chose to publish under male pseudonyms”
Nora McGreevy reports in Smithsonian Magazine about the Reclaim Her Name project recently launched by the Women’s Prize for Fiction in conjunction with Baileys (of Irish cream liqueur fame).
More about the project in a minute. But first, a personal digression. When I click on the link for the Reclaim Her Name project given in the opening paragraph of this article, I get sent to a page with this URL: https://www.baileys.com/en-gb/reclaim-her-name-campaign . OK, since Baileys is a sponsor. But there’s an overlay on the page that requires me to submit my birthday: “Can we see some ID please? It’s part of our commitment to responsible drinking.” I can’t get into the site without giving them my birthdate. An ID to read about books? I don’t think so. Consequently, I can only report on McGreevy’s article, not on the Reclaim Her Name project itself.
According to McGreevy, the Reclaim Her Name project, “a joint initiative honoring the literary award’s 25th anniversary,” focuses on “25 classic and lesser-known works by authors who historically wrote under male pseudonyms.” The Reclaim Her Name collection comprises free ebooks that feature the writers’ actual names on the covers.
But, McGreevy writes, “Despite its arguably well-intentioned aims, Reclaim Her Name quickly attracted criticism from scholars and authors, many of whom cited a number of historical inaccuracies embedded in the project.” Most complaints, many of which this article links to, involve a general disregard for the reasons why individual authors chose to publish these works under pseudonyms.
This article from the Los Angeles Times delves into the history of the Little Free Library movement as well as the benefits and problems of unmonitored distribution of books during a health epidemic.
The Ox-Bow Incident: William Wellman’s stunning Western illuminates how righteous cowboys can become a mob of vigilantes
The Ox-Bow Incident is one of the best novels to illustrate how a writer can use language to convey a character’s state of mind. In this essay for the Library of America, Michael Sragow argues that the 1943 film version of The Ox-Bow Incident “generates a visceral and emotional force that equals or surpasses the power of Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s ruminative, soul-quaking 1940 novel.”
Lilly Dancyger looks at Alisson Wood’s memoir Being Lolita, which Cancyger calls “a fearless interrogation of her own experience being groomed and manipulated by an older man—and a reclaiming of the narrative of Lolita, reminding readers that the cultural understanding of the novel still tends to favor the predator’s perspective, and that teenage girls need support, not objectification.”
Katy Waldman addresses what she calls the reflexivity trap in fiction:
This is the implicit, and sometimes explicit, idea that professing awareness of a fault absolves you of that fault—that lip service equals resistance. The problem with such signalling is that it rarely resolves the anxieties that seem to prompt it. Mocking your emotions, or expressing doubt or shame about them, doesn’t negate those emotions; castigating yourself for hypocrisy, cowardice, or racism won’t necessarily make you less hypocritical, cowardly, or racist. As the cracks in our systems become increasingly visible, the reflexivity trap casts self-awareness as a finish line, not a starting point. To the extent that this discourages further action, oblivion might be preferable.
“How Life’s Shifting Identities Filter Into the Work of a Novelist”
Novelist Caroline Leavitt discusses how personality changes can occur and how she explored their significance in writing her books:
I realize that the only thing any of us—including my characters—can know is that everything you thought you knew about yourself or others can derail. But unexpected transformation can also revive, burnishing new possibilities you never expected, and that new person you might become can actually turn out to be your truest self of all.
I love mysteries and thrillers, and I’ve read a lot of them.
This list of reading recommendations, by the PBS show MASTERPIECE Mystery!, comes from the creators and writers of the program Grantchester as well as “ a selection of mystery insiders.” The list includes works by the following authors:
- Louise Penny
- Nicholas Blake
- Kate Griffin
- Thomas H. Cook
- Eva Dolan
- Margaret Millar
- Anthony Oliver
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Lynn Steger Strong writes that Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy “broke open a new and surprisingly vital form: the novel of passivity.” Strong is happy to see that, for the last decade or so, women’s fiction has been recognized for probing what the novel—“forms built by and for males”—can be:
In particular, novels about a woman thinking, being talked at, are being actively considered. As opposed to the Great Male Novels that centered agency and action, these books are being seen as an expansion of the form, a shaking off of its conventional demands. Often they are built in fragments, structured around failure, absences, passivity and lacks. They defy the novelistic demands for a certain type of resolution; they land in spaces of confusion and of questions, refuse to give clear lines between cause and effect.
Andi Diehn lovingly describes how her reading—not just the books read, but the process and purpose of reading—has changed from age 10 through college, then through graduate school.
I can relate. I left graduate school after completing the coursework, though not the dissertation, for a Ph.D. in literature after realizing that the academic experience did not correspond to my joy in and love of reading literature.
HBO’s new series Lovecraft Country is based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name. This article takes a look at why Ruff decided to use Lovecraft’s work as the basis for an examination of American bigotry: “the fact that Lovecraft himself was deeply racist and anti-Semitic. And while many long-dead artists espoused beliefs that are abhorrent by 2020 standards, Lovecraft was even a bigot for his own time.”
This short article offers an overview of the writer and his legacy.
“Long underrepresented in genre fiction, Native American and First Nations authors are reshaping its otherworldly (but still often Eurocentric) worlds.”
there has been an explosion of novels, comics, graphic novels and short stories from writers blending sci-fi and fantasy with Native narratives, writing everything from “slipstream” alternate realities to supernatural horror to post-apocalyptic stories about environmental collapse.
Rachel Hadas, professor of English at Rutgers University, shares the idea “that good art gives a clear picture of what is happening – even . . . if it hadn’t happened yet when that art was created.”
Here she gives some examples from literature written between 1897 and the middle of the 20th century.
“In 2017, the Times dissolved its copy desk, possibly permitting more typos to slip through. Meet the anonymous lawyer who’s correcting the paper of record one untactful tweet at a time.”
The former English teacher and copy editor in me couldn’t resist this article. I’m often distressed by the glaring errors in punctuation and grammar that I see just about everywhere, not just in The New York Times. But I don’t think I’d have the stamina that the person behind this Twitter account seems to have.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Alan Dershowitz claims a fictional lawyer defamed him. The implications for novelists are very real.
on Charles of the Washington Post reports that Alan Dershowitz, a real-life attorney, claims that he was defamed by a fictional attorney on the CBS All Access show The Good Fight.
This may sound comic, “But his complaint, if successful, could pose a challenge to the vibrancy of contemporary historical fiction and biographical fiction — indeed, to any creative work that includes interactions between fictional and real-life public figures,” writes Charles.
“A handy guide to distinguishing the notoriously slippery concept from its distant cousins coincidence, satire, parody, and paradox.”
In this excerpt from his book Irony and Sarcasm, Roger Kreuz, Associate Dean and Director of Graduate Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Psychology at the University of Memphis, attempts to define this notoriously slippery term and differentiate it from related concepts such as coincidence, paradox, satire, and parody.
Author Angie Thomas on How Books Are Transforming the Next Generation: ‘They’re Realizing Their Power’
“I believe in the power of books and how they shape young people for the future,” Thomas declared. “I’m very hopeful that we’re giving them better tools so that they could be better leaders than any of us ever imagined.”
Angie Thomas, whose 2017 YA debut novel was The Hate U Give, believes books can inspire and empower the world’s future leaders.
I’ve always thought of audiobooks as a way to get more reading done while doing other tasks such as cleaning or folding laundry. Here Stacey Megally bolsters that function with information on the mental, physical, and emotional benefits of audiobooks.
Beth Daley, co-author with Kristina Horn Sheeler of the book Woman President: Confronting Postfeminist Political Culture, examines “how fictional and actual women presidential figures are framed in news coverage, political satire, memes, television and film. Our close reading of these diverse texts reveals a persistent backlash that takes many forms: satirical cartoons that deploy sexist stereotypes; the pornification of women candidates in memes; and news framing that includes misogynistic metaphors, to name a few.”
Gracie Bialecki lauds reading as a form of protest because of novels’ ability to increase empathy by immersing readers into the lives of characters different from themselves.
Among the books she cites are Black Boy by Richard Wright, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and Sula by Toni Morrison.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
I don’t write fiction, but I read a lot about and talk with people who do. I’m always fascinated when fiction writers say that a character either appeared and demanded to be written about or appeared to object when the writer wrote the character in a particular way.
Here’s a fascinating look by John Foxwell, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of English at the U.K.’s Durham University, into how writers experience this phenomenon. Foxwell and colleagues surveyed 181 writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014 and 2018.
“. . . the more researchers delve into thought and imagination, the more difficult it is to say exactly how much control over our thoughts and actions any of us actually have – and to what extent the control we feel we have is an illusion.”
“For decades, a white woman’s memoir shaped our understanding of America’s first Black poet. Does a new book change the story?”
Elizabeth Winkler reports on the life of Black poet Phillis Wheatley and examines a new book, The Age of Phillis, by poet and professor Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. In her book Jeffers attempts to understand the only version of Phillis Wheatley’s life, written 50 years after the poet’s death, by Margaretta Matilda Odell, a white woman who claimed to be a “collateral descendant” of Susanna Wheatley of Boston, owner of slave Phillis.
In turbulent times, culling my book collection gave me the illusion of control. Then the dilemmas began multiplying.
Michael Dirda writes that over the past two months “I’ve been sorting and culling the vast number of books I’ve accumulated in a lifetime of reading and collecting.” The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a “persistent feeling of helplessness, frustration, anger and mild despair,” but he hoped that going through 300 boxes of books and deciding which to keep and which to part ways with would give him a feeling of control.
“However, making these decisions has turned out to be harder than I expected.”
Read some of the dilemmas he faces in deciding which one of multiple copies of the same book he should keep.
Here’s a big topic I’m still trying to get my head around: Tim Parks sets out to answer the question “Why do we categorize novels?” In the article linked here he explains how he found similarities between a number of authors, all of whose works center around the question of belonging to a particular group.
But this is only the first article. There are three more articles in the series, each dealing with another such category. (This introductory article contains a link to the entire series.) Parks constitutes his categories as “clearly defined hierarchies of value, or centers of interest, generating distinct, or at least recognizable, types of plot and character interaction.”
Over the course of the four articles Parks arrives at four fictional categories, or fiction that centers around one of these four “distinct value systems”:
- stories focused on the characters’ relations to the community (belonging)
- around conflicts between indulgence and renunciation (goodness)
- around a tension between the craving to be free and a need to feel protected (liberty)
- those related to winning and losing: confidence and inadequacy, strength and weakness, complacency and resentment, envy and emulation, seducing and succumbing, jubilation, but also wise resignation (power)
So if you’re spending some of your pandemic downtime categorizing and rearranging your book shelves, why not give Parks’s system a try?
“The one-sitting novel isn’t just something you can read in one afternoon—it’s something you should read in one afternoon. The one-sitting novel is perfectly structured to be consumed as a complete, transporting experience, whether that’s a breakneck ride through a thrilling narrative, or a slow, dreamy fog that envelops your mind as you page through,” writes Adrienne Westenfeld for Esquire.
I was attracted to this list mainly because my ability to focus over extended periods of time has been hampered by the uncertainties of the COVID-19 world. Westenfeld says the upper limit of her choices here is 250 pages, which seems appropriate for a book to be read in one day.
If you need a truly feel-good story—and who doesn’t need one of those right now?—read about how one teacher in Tennessee helped pilot a project that has boosted primary students’ reading comprehension and made them eager and excited about reading.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
“New translations of the ‘Aeneid,’ ‘Beowulf’ and other ancient stories challenge some of our modern-day ideas.”
Classical epic poetry has been the basis of the Western literary canon for centuries and has helped shape social values and political identities as well as literary history. But new translations of such epics as Vergil’s Aeneid, Beowulf, and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene aim to bolster “a sense of urgency about restoring nuance to the public’s understanding of the [epic] genre”:
As a series of political crises have, in the West, posed fresh challenges to the stories that have shaped our norms and principles, those who study epics see critical readings as an increasingly vital endeavor.
“What is the essence of a person? When we profess to know someone, that is, really know someone—like a close friend, or a husband or wife—what is it that we know?”
In this excerpt from The Act of Living: What the Great Psychologists Can Teach Us About Finding Fulfillment, clinical psychologist Frank Tallis illustrates why “We have a natural inclination to think of ourselves—our past, present, and future—as an ongoing story.”
“Whether you’re scared most by graphic body horror, the uncategorisable, or the blurring of boundaries between supernatural menace and psychological unraveling, this list will have something for you.”
Xavier Aldana Reyes, editor of Horror: A Literary History, discusses five scary books. “With horror novels and films, you know you’re experiencing fear in a safe space that you ultimately control,” he writes.
Author Joan Frank explicates what she calls a tendency “to editorialize in the course of storytelling” that she began noticing in literary fiction a few years ago. She began noticing novels and stories that contain an agenda, “bearing a Message, with a capital M.”
While these agendas—on topics such as human rights, climate change, gender fluidity—may be well intentioned, she argues that they are not art. She argues that, although such causes are worthy and important, “They are not the story.” Furthermore, “I must insist that art that is art—at least in terms of literary fiction—wants nothing to do with lobbying or lobbyists.”
Also see propoganda novel.
I am old enough to remember when a phone ringing in the middle of the night indicated that something very bad had happened. Of course, that ringing phone was a landline, the only kind of phone we had back in those days.
“Since its invention, in the nineteenth century, the landline has often been portrayed as sinister—the object through which fate comes to call,” writes Sophie Haigney. She discusses how the landline was used in literature “as an open line of possibility, just waiting to ring,” that has been eliminated by the ubiquitous cell phone.
“Modern life can feel too frantic for books. Use these habit-building strategies to carve out time for the joy of reading”
I avoid advice on how to read more books that advocates speed reading because I believe that reading requires more time for interacting with the text than speed reading allows. Reading better is more important than simply reading more.
But this article is aimed at people who in the past have loved their reading life but, because of the proliferation of forms of information delivery and entertainment, haven’t been able to give pleasure reading the attention they’d like.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront many bioethical questions, such as, when resources are limited, which lives should be saved and which sacrificed? Maren Tova Linett, author of Literary Bioethics, argues that fiction, with its ability to present imagined worlds, offers the chance to explore such concerns: “Fiction has the virtue of presenting vividly imagined worlds in which certain values hold sway, casting new light onto those values. And the more plausible we find these imagined worlds, the more thoroughly we can evaluate the justice of those values.”
Literary Bioethics considers novels such as The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells, and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.
It’s been impossible to avoid at least cursory exposure to all that’s been going on in the publishing industry over the last year or so. Here, writing in The New York Times, Alexandra Alter and Elizabeth A. Harris look at some of the people now poised to champion change.
over the last year, deaths, retirements and executive reshuffling have made way for new leaders, more diverse and often more commercial than their predecessors, as well as people who have never worked in publishing before. Those appointments stand to fundamentally change the industry, and the books it puts out into the world.
Since I don’t read much fantasy (“so many books, so little time”), this article caught my eye. It’s the introduction to The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, and published by Vintage Books on July 21, 2020.
we have worked from a simple concept of what makes a story “fantasy”: any story in which an element of the unreal permeates the real world or any story that takes place in a secondary world that is identifiably not a version of ours, whether anything overtly “fantastical” occurs in the story. We distinguish fantasy from horror or the weird by considering the story’s apparent purpose: fantasy isn’t primarily concerned with the creation of terror or the exploration of an altered state of being frightened, alienated, or fascinated by an eruption of the uncanny.
Modern fantasy, the authors write, begins with the end of World War II in 1945. It was soon after that date that “fantasy solidified into a publishing category,” separate from horror and science fiction. Since then, fantasy has become more mainstream than it was previously, although some literary magazines still refer to stories with fantastical elements as “‘surrealism,’ ‘fabulism,’ or ‘magical realism’ to distinguish them from genre fantasy.”
This article has encouraged me to think about expanding my reading horizon and giving some contemporary fantasy a try.
“Pain, whether physical or emotional is a significant part of the overall narrative” of all the various subgenres of crime fiction, writes S.A. Crosby, author of the recently published novel Blacktop Wasteland.
In May of 1850, after four years abroad, Margaret Fuller set sail from Livorno to New York, bound for her native Massachusetts. She was just about to turn forty, and her stature in America was unique. In the space of a decade, she had invented a new vocation: the female public intellectual.
From 2013, a portrait of Margaret Fuller, “once the best-read woman in America,” the first woman American foreign correspondent and combat reporter, and author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century, a foundational work of feminist history.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown
Vivienne Woodward looks at some books that manipulate our sense of time. The inspiration for this essay is the way COVID-19 lockdown has affected her perception of time:
One of the things reading fiction makes clear is how many ways there are to use and manipulate time. This period of quarantine has made me think about the art of time in my own life in a new way; it has forced me to wake up every day and make more deliberate choices about how I will spend it. Perhaps the way we experience reality is not so different from the way writers construct narrative. Joan Didion famously said that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If we take her word on that, then let’s make better study of one of the most malleable narrative elements we have: time.
This is the fifth installment in Lisa Levy’s examination of why so many crime novels feature the word girl: “Girls are the easiest characters to put into peril and the ones with whom the audience is most likely to sympathize.”
There are links to the first four installments near the beginning of the article.
The title of this article comes from a comment writer Lee Child made when he recently turned over the writing of the Jack Reacher series to his brother Andrew Grant.
“Creating a long-running series featuring a much-loved character can be both a blessing and a curse,” Alison Flood says here. Read how some authors, including Sara Paretsky, Attica Locke, Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves, and Michael Connelly, have dealt with their long-term relationships with their fictional creations.
If you follow the topic “reading” on any social media platform, you’ve undoubtedly seen the statement “It’s not hoarding if it’s books.” Here Mik Awake declares, “Book-hoarding is less cute if you think of it as book-privatizing.”
As far back as the novels in Oates’s Wonderland Quartet, such as “Expensive People” (1968) and “them” (1969), which received the National Book Award fifty years ago this fall, Oates has deployed her zeal for revision to forge a style of rousing roughness. Her dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories, many of them set in western New York, forgo an air of cool mastery in favor of a kind of cultivated vulnerability, an openness to engulfment.
Because I like mysteries and thrillers, I’m always interested in any article that includes them in its title. Here Tammy Cohen, author of six psychological thrillers, lists five of her favorites by other authors.
Cohen also offers an inclusive definition of the genre psychological thriller:
The psychological thriller explores our internal state, our internal fears, our relationships, the way we see ourselves in our domestic world, in our small world, interacting with the people around us. And it plays on our fears about things that could go wrong within that sphere. It doesn’t have to be domestic, but it usually takes place within a small group, which gives it that claustrophobic feeling.
Her definition well explains why I find that such novels explore most fully the darkest depths of the human heart and mind.
© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown