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Fiction Last Week's Links Literary History Reading

Literary Links

Looking at Epic Poetry Through 21st-Century Eyes

“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.

Why Stories Makes Sense of Our Lives (and Relationships)

“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.”

The Scariest Books

“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.

Joan Frank ~ I Say It’s Spinach

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.

An Elegy for the Landline in Literature

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.

How to read more books

kid with books

“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

Categories
Author News Fiction Last Week's Links Literary History Publishing

Literary Links

Viewing Literature as a Lab for Community Ethics

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.

In Publishing, ‘Everything Is Up for Change’

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.

How Fantasy Literature Helped Create the 21st Century

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 Is Universal—That’s What Binds All of Crime Fiction Together

“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

The Desires of Margaret Fuller

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

Categories
Author News Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links Literature & Psychology

Literary Links

Time Is Not Real: Books That Play with the Art of Time

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.

There Are So, So Many Crime Novels with ‘Girl’ in the Title

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. 

‘I don’t like Jack Reacher that much’: Lee Child and fellow crime writers on their creations

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.

On Owning Many Books

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.

The Best Psychological Thrillers

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

Categories
6 Degrees of Separation Fiction

6 Degrees of Separation: Books I Didn’t Like But More That I Did

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 What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, a novel I haven’t read.

1. The only book by Siri Hustvedt that I’ve read is The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, which my library book group read back in 1999. I remember nothing about this book except that I didn’t much like it, and nearly all the members of the group felt the same way. And that experience is why I’ve never read any more books by this author.

2. Ten years later (2009) another book, Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah, produced a similar result. At our meeting one member opened with, “With friends like this, who needs enemies?” Everyone agreed with her. I have never read another novel by Kristin Hannah, even though she has become a very popular author. In fact, I’ve seen several book bloggers and Instagram readers refer to her as one of their “auto-buy authors,” meaning that they automatically buy every book the author publishes.

3. One of my “auto-buy authors” is Michael Connelly. His latest novel, which I preordered, is Fair Warning, published at the end of May 2020. Connelly started out as a journalist before turning into a full-time novelist.

4. Another author who started out as a journalist before turning to crime fiction is Edna Buchanan. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her newspaper work in 1986, but I love her crime novels set in Miami and featuring journalist Britt Montero. The first book in the series in Contents Under Pressure (1992). Buchanan is now in her 80s.

5. Mary Higgins Clark also wrote well into her golden years before she died on January 31, 2020, at age 92. She became known as the queen of romantic suspense. Her first novel, Where Are the Children? (1975), which I recently reread, is still one of the most suspenseful—and chilling—stories I’ve ever read.

6. Before Mary Higgins Clark, another Mary wrote many compelling romantic suspense novels that helped create the genre: Mary Stewart, who died in 2014 at age 97. Her first romantic suspense novel, Madam, Will You Talk?, was published in 1955. Her singular talent was combining romance with compelling mysteries that feature strong, capable women who have no fear of fending for themselves. During my high school and college years I marched against the Vietnam war while also devouring all of Mary Stewart’s novels, which formed a great backdrop for my own coming of age. 

So there we have it, a 6 Degrees of Separation list that progresses nicely from books that I didn’t like to books that I liked at lot.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Book Recommendations Censorship Fiction Last Week's Links Libraries

Literary Links

Murder, He Wrote

When Charles Dickens dropped dead on 9 June 1850, he was hard at work on his latest novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Readers who had already devoured the first three instalments of the story were left to solve its central mystery without the author’s help. On the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death, Frances Wilson looks back on his final months. What lay behind Dickens’s turn to crime fiction? What were the real-life inspirations for this new novel? And, most importantly, who killed Edwin Drood?

The Lockdown Lessons of “Crime and Punishment”

“A college class weathering the pandemic finds Dostoyevsky’s savage inwardness and apocalyptic feverishness uncomfortably resonant.”

This is a fascinating account of David Denby’s experience of enrolling in the course Literary Humanities at Columbia University in New York City at the age of 76, then having the class moved online with the onset of COVID-19. Read how the pandemic-induced isolation affected students’ reactions to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Denby, a Columbia graduate, first took this course as an undergraduate at the university. He enrolled in the course again at age 48 to re-examine the “great books” that traditionally have made up the Western literary canon but more recently have come under fire as too limited to represent world culture. The result of that experience was his 1996 book The Great Books.

This current article recounts his third time through the same two-semester course, begun in fall 2019.

 Natural attenuation as a decontamination approach for SARS-CoV-2 on five library materials

Don’t let that dull and formal-sounding title scare you off. Now that we’re beginning to have hope that libraries will be able to reopen, this report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) offers encouraging news—or, as it describes itself, “science-based information designed to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to staff and visitors who are engaging in the delivery or use of museum, library, and archival services.”

To sum up: “Results show that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not detectable on the materials after three days of quarantine.

You should take a look at the report yourself to find out exactly what materials they tested and what procedures they used.

You’re not alone: Thrillers and mysteries that also feature characters stuck in isolation

“Sheltering in place doesn’t mean you can’t go visiting. You can drop in on fictional characters trapped in isolated houses in out-of-the-way places. No social distancing is required, and you’ll sympathize when they feel the walls closing in.”

Carol Memmott, a writer from Austin, Texas, describes five mysteries, some of which are variations on the traditional locked-room mystery.

Parental Fear and Cultural Erasure: The Logic Behind Banning Books

Because I’m very openly against censorship, I approached this article with interest. Nancy Snyder here asks, “Have you ever considered what lies beneath the vitriolic fury within the parents screaming at the school board meetings in favor of banning children’s and YA books?”

I ended up quite disappointed in this article because it didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Here’s the conclusion:

For anyone who respects the First Amendment and the free exchange of ideas, book banning is an exercise in repression and ignorance. Removing controversial content does nothing but have the young reader want to read the book that has been banned from them. Too often, these banned book titles are the exact books young people need to read: banned books are effective in helping children develop their own values and moral convictions.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Fiction Last Week's Links Reading

Literary Links

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

Categories
6 Degrees of Separation Awards & Prizes Fiction

6 Degrees of Separation on My TBR Shelves

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 Sally Rooney’s best seller (and now a TV series), Normal People. I’ve had this novel on my TBR shelf since it first came out, and I had every intention of reading it before working on this month’s challenge.

However, unlike the people in Rooney’s novel, these times (COVID-19 pandemic and, here in the U.S., racial injustice with associated protests) are not normal, and I didn’t get a lot of reading done over the past month. Since I therefore am not ready to deal with Normal People thematically, I’ve had to look for another approach to this month’s challenge. A check on Goodreads revealed that Normal People received a lot of accolades:

Further digging revealed that I also have on my TBR shelves several novels that in the past received these same awards. 

1. Normal People was on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction (2019). The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller is a former winner of this annual prize.

2. Normal People was on the long list for the 2018 Booker Prize. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes received this award in 2011.

3. Normal People received the Costa Book Award for Novel in 2018. Days Without End by Sebastian Barry won the same award, plus the Costa Book of the Year Award, in 2016.

4. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize in 2013.

5. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders also won the Booker Prize, in 2017.

6. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson won the Whitbread Award, which later became the Costa Novel Award, in 2015.

It’s comforting to know that I have so many good books still on my TBR shelves.  And I also discovered that I’ve already read several past prize winners:

  • Booker Prize: Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984), Possession by A.S. Byatt (1990), and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
  • Women’s Prize: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne
  • Costa Award (formerly Whitbread Award): The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by  Stuart Turton, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The moral of this story is that I should pay more attention to literary prizes in the future.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links

Literary Links

French serial-killer expert admits serial lies, including murder of imaginary wife

Another author debunked: “Stéphane Bourgoin, whose books about murderers have sold millions, says he invented much of his experience, including training with FBI.”

85 years ago, FDR saved American writers. Could it ever happen again?

David Kipen writes in the Los Angeles Times that Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Writers Project introduced “Americans to their multifarious, astonishing, broken country.” Could a similar program help pull the U.S. out of the coronavirus crisis?

To put it gently, 2020 is not 1935. The notion that a consortium of individuals can coordinate on anything like the level that a strong, organized federal government seems difficult to imagine. The sense of shared national endeavor that midwifed the Writers Project feels like a relic from another millennium.

The Sociopath in Black and White: A Reading List

Psychologist Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, reflects upon society’s sociopaths, the people with “absolutely no conscience.” About “1 in 25 people, 4 percent of us, are sociopaths,” she writes. 

Here she examines how sociopaths “appear in literature, where unimaginable things are vividly imagined and portrayed.”

15 epic books you may finally have time to read now

This isn’t the first list like this I’ve seen, but, just in case you need a good Big Book, here’s CNN’s “list of suggested epic reads. They’re all widely acclaimed as classics (or future classics) by readers or critics. And they’re all big, honking doorstops — most of them more than 1,000 pages — that ought to keep you busy for a while.”

The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages

While some people need a long book to occupy themselves during self-isolation, others have trouble concentrating and focusing for extended periods. For them, there are shorter books like those listed here.

Why it’s so hard to read a book right now, explained by a neuroscientist

If you’re one of the people having trouble concentrating long enough to read effectively, take heart: You’re not alone. Here Constance Grady interviews Oliver J. Robinson, a neuroscientist and psychologist based at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London.

I Wrote A Gothic Novel — Now Life Feels Like It Is One

Elisabeth Thomas, author of the recently published gothic thriller Catherine House, writes:

As a little girl, I dreamed of being trapped in a gothic castle; well, here I am, trapped. I’ve been ordered to shelter in place, so I’m sheltering in place. I live in a small apartment with warm yellow walls and African violets on the sill — hardly a romantic gothic manor. But somehow this apartment has become a haunted house, and I am the ghost.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links

Literary Links

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

Categories
Fiction Review

3 Recent Thriller Reviews

To help me break out of a reading slump at the onset of the COVID-19 health emergency, I turned to the books I’ve always trusted to draw me in: thrillers. These three books were among the first I read at that time.

While you can never go wrong with a book by Harlan Coben, the other two didn’t serve me quite so well. I had a twitchy, uneasy feeling while reading both The Holdout and Before She Knew Him. There were specific reasons why both of those books bothered me, and I’ll try to talk about those reasons without giving away too much information in my reviews. 

But I’d like to include a caveat here for my comments on those two books: I was reading them during a time of general upset and unease, and it’s possible that general feeling affected my reactions. Part of what bothered me pertained to the subject matter of each, but perhaps I would have faced them with more equanimity under more normal circumstances.

fancy scroll

The Boy From the Woods by Harlan Coben

The Boy from the Woods

Coben, Harlan. The Boy From the Woods
Grand Central Publishing, 2020 
ISBN 978-1-5387-4814-5

Recommended

The novel opens with a news story from April 18, 1986, about a feral boy, between 6 and 8 years old, found living in the woods in New Jersey.

Then the narrative moves forward to April 23, 2020. Soon we meet the formidable Hester Crimstein, well-known and powerful defense attorney who has appeared in Coben’s earlier books. Her teenage grandson, Matthew, seeks Hester’s help in finding out what happened to his friend, Naomi Pine, who has stopped coming to school and doesn’t answer her phone.

When the boy was discovered in the woods 34 years earlier, he was found because he used to come visit 6-year-old David, Hester’s son, in the woods behind the Crimstein house. Hester and her husband long ago gave up the big house to David’s family, where Matthew and his mother continue to live since David’s death in a car crash 10 years earlier. Hester knows that, to find Naomi, she’ll need the help of the boy from the woods, known as Wilde.

Harlan Coben’s books always combine compelling characterization with pulse-pounding plots,

but this book’s emphasis on characters made it a comforting reading experience during the current health pandemic. All of the characters in this novel care about other people and want to help them. Wilde is a particularly interesting character, even if his backstory does challenge credulity a bit. And I especially appreciated a subplot involving the 70+-year-old Hester and the local sheriff. 

The novel’s ending suggests the possibility that we might meet Wilde again. Whether that happens or not, The Boy from the Woods gave me comfort during troubling times.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown


The Holdout by Graham Moore

cover: The Holdout by Graham Moore

Moore, Graham. The Holdout
Random House, 2020
ISBN 978-0-399-59177-8

Ten years ago, 15-year-old Jessica Silver disappeared. When her teacher, Bobby Nock, is tried for her murder, everyone expects a quick conviction. But juror Maya Seale doubts his guilt and manages to convince the other jurors to acquit Nock.

Now, for the tenth anniversary of the Silver murder trial, a news channel plans  to reassemble the jurors for a documentary. Maya, now a defense attorney herself, originally refuses to participate but reluctantly agrees when one of the original jurors, Rick Leonard, claims to have evidence that Nock was in fact guilty. 

When Rick is found murdered in Maya’s hotel room the first night of the documentary reunion, Maya quickly becomes the prime suspect and is soon arrested and charged. She is represented by a distinguished attorney from the law firm where she works. Although he insists that she stay away from the case and leave the investigation to the firm’s team, Maya just can’t leave things alone.

About four years ago I served on a jury for a murder trial. The experience was emotionally draining, but I was impressed and soothed by how seriously all the jurors took their responsibility. Initially we did not all agree, but the discussions always remained civil and focused on the evidence.

There are lots of potential plot complications and red herrings in The Holdout that keep the story moving. But because of my own jury experience, I felt uncomfortable reading most of this novel. Everything that happens after Maya is charged felt outlandishly wrong. If I hadn’t been a juror myself, I probably would have accepted the story, in which all the pieces eventually fit neatly together, at face value. Instead, I found the story melodramatically improbable.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown


Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson

Before She Knew Him

Swanson, Peter. Before She Knew Him
William Morrow, 2019
ISBN 978-0-06-283815-5

Henrietta (Hen) and her husband Lloyd have recently moved into a house in suburban Boston, where they hope to live a quiet life. Hen, an artist, has rented studio space nearby where she can work on the children’s book illustrations she’s been hired to do and on her own etchings. Since she’s finally found medication that works to control her bipolar disorder, she’s hoping to get her career back on track.

When the neighbors Matthew and Mira invite Hen and Lloyd over, Hen doesn’t want to go but agrees to placate Lloyd. Hen is instantly drawn to Matthew when she sees him, although she doesn’t know why. When she sees an object displayed on the mantel in Matthew’s study, she begins to suspect he’s a serial killer.

I picked this book up because I’d read Swanson’s earlier novel, The Kind Worth Killing, and found it intriguing. But I became wary of Before She Knew Him right away with the revelation of Hen’s bipolar disorder.

I’m opposed to the use of mental illness as a mystery/thriller trope, and it shows up early here when Hen tells the police her suspicions about Matthew. It’s easy to dismiss the theories of a crazy woman, after all. 

As it turns out, this novel goes well beyond the simple usage of bipolar disorder as characterization. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but the whole basis for the rest of the story—for why the novel’s title is Before She Knew Him—makes no sense to me.

There is a need for realistic fictional portrayals of how characters struggle to deal with mental health issues, but those portrayals should focus on otherwise well developed characters who happen to live with mental illness. Before She Knew Him doesn’t do that in any meaningful way.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown