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Author News Fiction

Happy 100th Birthday, Patricia Highsmith

American novelist Patricia Highsmith was born on this day 100 years ago (January 19, 1921) in Fort Worth, Texas. She died on February 4, 1995. In between, her life was marked by chronic cycles of depression, anorexia, and alcoholism. She was a misanthrope who preferred the company of animals to that of people. She was misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and, at least in later life, racist.

But she wrote some brilliant fiction. Alfred Hitchcock turned her first novel, Strangers on a Train (1950), into a film released in 1951. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), the other novel for which she is perhaps best known, was made into a film released in 1999. She wrote four more novels about Tom Ripley, whom various critics have described as amoral, sociopathic, and psychopathic.

violence, torment, obsession, all bubbling beneath a cool veneer – that was the signature of her fiction. . . . you don’t come to Patricia Highsmith for goodness or light or comfort. You come to her for uncanny observations about human depravity; you come to her because you’ve forgotten the sour taste of fear.

Twisted brilliance: Patricia Highsmith at 100

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book News Fiction Last Week's Links Reading Writing

Literary Links

Reading, That Strange and Uniquely Human Thing

“How we evolved to read is a story of one creative species.”

young girl reading

Lydia Wilson explains how writing developed from a system to record the ownership of particular goods to one capable of creating great works of literature.

Turning the Page on the Year

“If ever there were a new year that called for a new notebook, this would be it.”

Dr. Perri Klass admits that she loves notebooks even if she’s not as diligent in writing in them as she’d like to be. I used to write in a journal just about every day, but for about two years, when we were traveling extensively in early retirement (and hopefully we’ll be able to do that again some time), I let myself fall out of the habit. (Yes, it’s much easier to let a habit lapse than to build a habit in the first place.)

But I’ve been building up the old habit over the last couple of months and intend to do much better this year.

Memorial by Bryan Washington review – a masterclass in empathy

I include this review because Memorial is one of the novels on my TBR shelf that I’m determined to read soon.

a shelf filled with upright hardcover books
See Memorial over there on the end on the right?

Notable Novels of Spring 2021

“We continue to experience a publishing pile-up, as books postponed from 2020 spill over into the new year’s catalogue. As a result, this season offers an embarrassment of riches for the reader of novels,” writes Cal Flyn, deputy editor of Five Books. Although this article follows the traditional Five-Books approach of featuring five covers, Flyn discusses additional titles in the discussion.

Top 10 most dislikable characters in fiction

The question of fictional characters’ likability comes up often. (See Must We Like Fictional Characters? and Why I Don’t Need to Like Fictional Characters.)

Here novelist Louise Candlish puts a particular spin on the discussion: “dislikable is not the same as irredeemable, and for this reason, there is no place on my list for any love-to-hate Tom Ripleys or morbidly mesmerising Humbert Humberts.”

Here she explains why she dislikes these 10 irredeemable characters. Because this list is in The Guardian, her emphasis is decidedly British. But #9 is the product of an American author, and #10 is from a very recent novel.

Ray Bradbury at 100: A Conversation Between Sam Weller and Dana Gioia

“Ray Bradbury is one of the most important American writers of the mid-20th century. He transformed science fiction’s position in American literature during the 1950s. There were other fine sci-fi writers, but Ray was the one who first engaged the mainstream audience. He had a huge impact on both American literature and popular culture.”

The Villainous White Mother Was All Over the Domestic Novel This Year

In this article, which came out at the end of December, Kelly Coyne writes, “It is often in the home where the plainest expressions of politics appear. This year, you could see it everywhere in the domestic novel.”

Coyne reflects on recent novels that “thrust white liberal parents into a harsh light” in the ways in which they interact with domestic workers.

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

We Need More Dark Stories with Hopeful Endings

Author Les Edgerton believes that dark novels needn’t have completely dark endings: “To endure page after page of never-ending pain and sorrow and to culminate in the same morass of tragedy would only be nihilism, and the best books don’t end like that.”

Here he lists some novels that illustrate an ending that combines something good with something bad to achieve a realistic view of life.

The Bigger the Publishers, the Blander the Books

Dennis Johnson, the co-founder and publisher of Melville House, writes that “the Penguin Random House–Simon & Schuster deal threatens the values that the book business champions.”

Stephen King Has Thoughts About Stephen King TV Shows

With a new adaptation of The Stand arriving on CBS All Access, Stephen King discusses the best and the worst TV adaptations of his novels.

Book Clubs in Lockdown

BookBrowse surveyed readers and book clubs to see how book clubs are adapting to conditions brought about by the current pandemic. You can download their report on current conditions and implications for the future.

When Reading Had No End

Dwight Garner discusses the dual nature of reading in 2020: “This was the worst year, and nothing made sense any longer, except when it was the best year, because time for reading seemed to expand like one of those endless summer afternoons when one was in the late stages of grade school.”

The literary life of Octavia E. Butler

“How local libraries shaped a sci-fi legend”

This interactaive map of the areas in California where science fiction author Octavia Butler grew up reveals how important libraries were in shaping her vision and her career.

The Benefits of Community Reading Programs

by Summer Loomis, for Book Riot:

Community reading programs have always interested me. I like the idea of people from different backgrounds and experiences coming together to read something together. There is something so calming about people being capable of this. I find it very comforting. However, it can be hard to feel like we’re part of a community at times. So I went searching for community reading programs of the “one book one community” type.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Fiction How Fiction Works Last Week's Links Literary Criticism Reading

Literary Links

How Crime Writers Use Unreliable Narrators to Add Suspense

Emily Martin uses the categories that William Riggan explores in his book Pícaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator to look at ways crime writers employ them to build suspense.

The 2021 Tournament of Books Long List

Next March’s Tournament of Books, something that I only recently discovered, has posted its long list of 77 books. “In a few weeks we’ll release the shortlist of the 16 or so books that will be in play come March.”

The Tennessee Solution to Disappearing Book Reviews

As a result of the shrinking book coverage by newspapers and magazine over recent years, Humanities Tennessee has created Chapter 16: “a part-digital, part-print publication that covers literature and literary life in the state.” The publication offers its contents free to readers and to any publications that want to reproduce it.

Useful Books: The past and present of self-help literature

Jennifer Wilson examines the history of reading for self-development as presented in Beth Blum’s book The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature.

The Long Awakening of Adrienne Rich

Maggie Doherty, who teaches writing at Harvard, looks at the life of Adrienne Rich through the lens of the first biography of the poet, The Power of Adrienne Rich by Hilary Holladay. 

But while Holladay’s book seeks to define Rich’s identity, Doherty discusses how Rich continuously changed her identity as she sought to deal with the culture in which she lived and wrote.

What to Write in a Book As a Gift: 40 Bookish Inscription-Ready Quotes

If you’re planning to give books as holiday gifts this season, BookRiot has suggestions for meaningful inscriptions. After all, “that inscription means as much as the book does.”

William Faulkner’s Demons

“In his own life, the novelist failed to truly acknowledge the evils of slavery and segregation. But he did so with savage thoroughness in his fiction.”

Casey Cep writes:

A new book by Michael Gorra, “The Saddest Words: William Faulkner’s Civil War” (Liveright), traces Faulkner’s literary depictions of the military conflict in the nineteenth century and his personal engagement with the racial conflict of the twentieth. The latter struggle, within the novelist himself, is the real war of Gorra’s subtitle. In “The Saddest Words,” Faulkner emerges as a character as tragic as any he invented: a writer who brilliantly portrayed the way that the South’s refusal to accept its defeat led to cultural decay, but a Southerner whose private letters and public statements were riddled with the very racism that his books so pointedly damned.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Fiction Last Week's Links Reading Television

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The 50 Greatest Apocalypse Novels

“Apropos of . . . Nothing”

I’m including this list here because, really, how could I not? How many of these have you read?

I’ve read five, and I have two more on the top of my TBR pile. I think that’s pretty good, given that I usually avoid most science fiction and horror, which many of these are.

In 2020, Is Science Fiction Still an Escape?

“Matthew B. Tepper, president of the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society—now celebrating its 86th anniversary—discusses these strange times and explains why (the late) Ray Bradbury is still a member in good standing.”

And always remember: Science fiction isn’t about the future; it’s about the present.

How Lolita Author Vladimir Nabokov Helped Ruth Bader Ginsburg Find Her Voice

He [Vladimir Nabokov] was a man who was in love with the sound of words. It had to be the right word and in the right word order. So he changed the way I read, the way I write. He was an enormous influence.


—Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The late Supreme Court justice on the importance of her English classes taught by Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell, where she earned her undergraduate degree.

Reading literary versus popular fiction promotes different socio-cognitive processes, study suggests

Recently published research out of Italy “suggests that the type of fiction a person reads affects their social cognition in different ways. Specifically, literary fiction was associated with increased attributional complexity and accuracy in predicting social attitudes, while popular fiction was linked to increased egocentric bias.”

But, emphasizes lead author Emanuele Castano of the University of Trento and the National Research Council in Italy:

We are not saying that literary fiction is better than popular fiction. As human beings, we need the two types of thinking that are trained by these two types of fiction. The literary type pushes us to assess others as unique individuals, to withhold judgment, to think deeply. It is important, but it can paralyze us in our attempt to navigate the social world. The popular type reinforces our socially-learned and culturally-shared schemas . . .

Rebecca and beyond: the creative allure of gothic Cornwall

The recent Netflix movie version of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier has prompted new interest in Cornwall, also the setting for the recent PBS drama Poldark

According to Joan Passey, teaching associate in Victorian literature and culture at the University of Bristol:

Cornwall’s legends, landscape, and distinctive identity lent themselves to the gothic imagination from the end of the 18th century. As far afield as the US, Cornwall was perceived as a place of hauntings, madness, and death — a foreign, liminal threat composed of precipices and thresholds which would influence subsequent representations of the county.

Cornwall has remained a central location in the gothic literary tradition that has lasted more than 200 years.

Why Are We Learning About White America’s Historical Atrocities from TV?

How “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country” got stuck filling in the gaps in our education.

Author Elwin Cotman writes, “I learned the truth about the past and present of white terrorism from my parents, who grew up in the Jim Crow South and had firsthand experience.” Here he discusses the significance of the fact that most Americans are now learning about atrocities against Black people in the U.S. from television rather than from history classes. 

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Recommendations Fiction Film List Personal

Happy Halloween!

Because I was having trouble cranking up much enthusiasm for Halloween this year, here’s a collection of items I’ve collected. I hope you’ll find something here to help you get into this weekend’s holiday spirit.

Read What You Need: 9 Gothic Novels for Every Mood

This is the one that first inspired me. Did you ever see a display in a bookstore—back in the days when we could actually go into a bookstore—of offerings for “a blind date with a book”? These are books wrapped in paper with a tag describing the contents from which you can choose. Here Isabelle Popp describes how, when she worked at a library, she did a similar thing with books from the collection and called it “Read What You Need.” 

She does the same thing here with suggestions of various forms of gothic literature to read for Halloween. An added bonus is a section labeled “gothic sidebar” in which she explains several ways in which the term gothic can be applied to literature. Read her descriptions, then choose a book from the type of gothic literature that most appeals to you.

Despite the deep history and heavy themes, gothic literature is expansive. The best writers can deftly expose monsters both literal and metaphorical while delivering a thrilling reading experience that can suit a variety of moods. Here are nine varied Gothic novels so you can read what you need.

8 Books About Hexing the Patriarchy

First, a few key terms. Patriarchy is not, at the end of the day, defined by the gender of one’s leaders. It’s a societal model based on the rigid binaries and hierarchies necessary to divide, conquer, and control—e.g., men over women, men over nature, straight and cis over queer and trans, rich over poor, and, often, white over Black and Brown. Magic is energy moved with the intention of transforming reality. Therefore, for our purposes, #HexingThePatriarchy is channeling energy to dismantle this hierarchical world order and then cast a new, freer world.

Ruth Franklin on the novels of Shirley Jackson: “She never did the same thing twice”

Ruth Franklin: A decade of Shirley Jackson

Discussion of Shirley Jackson, author of “The Lottery,” The Haunting of Hill House, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, among many other works, always comes up at this time of year because of the haunting, spooky nature of her work. In these two essays from Library of America, Ruth Franklin, author of Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, discusses the author and her iconic works.

Read Shirley Jackson’s Eerily Contemporary Letter About Fear

“Author Shirley Jackson often responded to readers’ letters; this one, written in 1962 after republication of her historical fiction for juveniles, The Witchcraft of Salem Village, seems uncannily prescient for our times.”

Meh! Halloween! A Bookish Guide to a Low-Key Halloween

Sarah Hannah Gómez, who thinks “horror movies are fun all year long anyway,” has trouble getting charged up for Halloween. “If you find that you are one of those in-betweenies who wants to participate in holiday fun without losing your cred as an iconoclast, here are some ironic, trope-destroying, or meta selections that might allow you to find common ground with your Halloween enthusiast friends.”

Which Scary Books Should You Pair with Scary Movies This Halloween Weekend?

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to stay home this Halloween, “that doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy our haunted holiday,” writes Rachel Harrison. Here she shares her list of some of the best new horror books of 2020 paired “with horror movies that I feel compliment them in tone.” 

The 40 Most Terrifying TV Episodes to Watch This Halloween

Brian Tallerico’s got you covered if you’d prefer watch TV all weekend. His includes episodes from shows such as Black Mirror, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Fringe, and Lost

Monster Mythology

Here’s Atlas Obscura’s gateway to 10 articles about various monster myths. 

They Scream! We Scream!

Even the venerable New York Times gets into the Halloween spirit.

“What’s more fundamental to scary movies than the bone-chilling shriek? But delivering a terrifying wail isn’t easy. It’s an entire art with a history and a world of its own.

NASA offers ‘creepy’ playlist of space sounds for Halloween

“The sounds you’re hearing have been translated into something humans can hear and appreciate. They are not actually sounds that the universe emits, but a different way of appreciating the data NASA collects,” said Kimberly Arcand, visualization and emerging technology lead for NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory space telescope.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book News Fiction Oddities

9+ Tolkien-Inspired Recipes to Enjoy on Hobbit Day

Celebrate Hobbit Day with a feast fit for the Shire and these Tolkien inspired recipes for your second breakfast and more.

Source: 9+ Tolkien-Inspired Recipes to Enjoy on Hobbit Day

Happy Hobbit Day, a celebration of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthdays.

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Author News Fiction

Agatha Christie and The Art of Opening a Mystery Novel | CrimeReads

Agatha Christie probably doesn’t need our honors. Born on this day in 1890, in Torquay, England, she enjoyed surpassing fame in her lifetime and lays a current claim to being the bestselling …

Source: Agatha Christie and The Art of Opening a Mystery Novel | CrimeReads

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6 Degrees of Separation Fiction

6 Degrees of Separation: Women’s Voices

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

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Why a Campaign to ‘Reclaim’ Women Writers’ Names Is So Controversial

“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.

Are Little Free Libraries helping locals survive COVID? L.A. weighs in

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.”

“Lolita” Belongs to the Girls Who Lived It

cover: Being Lolita by Alisson Wood

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.”

Has Self-Awareness Gone Too Far in Fiction?

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.

Caroline Leavitt on Writing the Disconnected Self

“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.

7 Best Mystery Books (According to Mystery Experts)

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