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More Arts-Related Pandemic News

More Book-Related Pandemic News

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

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

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

America Infected: The Social (Distance) Catastrophe

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

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

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

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

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

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

IT’S THE RIGHT TIME TO READ CRIME NOVELS

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

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

20 MUST-READ FEEL-GOOD FANTASIES

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

The Best of Speculative Fiction

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

How you can support bookstores during the coronavirus pandemic

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

The World of Books Braces for a Newly Ominous Future

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

15 Books and Authors Hurt by the Coronavirus

Novelists Ignite A Mighty Blaze in Response to Extinguished Book Tours

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

Without Places to Gather, Debut Novelists Reimagine Book Promotion

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

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

Sales Skyrocket at Libro.fm and Bookshop.org

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

Tolstoy Together

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

How To Take Your Book Club Online While Practicing Social Distancing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art Galleries Respond to Virus Outbreak With Online Viewing Rooms

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

12 World-Class Museums You Can Visit Online

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

No travel required: 10 iconic museums you can tour online

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Stream: Classics for Comfort

From film critic Richard Brody:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because sometimes all you can do is laugh. Example:

Pride and Prejudice

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


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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I’m Not Feeling Good at All

“The perplexingly alienated women of recent American fiction”

Jess Bergman writes, “the new heroines of contemporary fiction possess a kind of anhedonic equanimity, more numb than overwhelmed.”

Doing No Harm: A Look at Writing Suicide and Self-Harm in Fiction

Alice Nuttall makes the case that “Suicide and self-harm are serious topics, and ones that are absolutely necessary for literature to tackle – but carefully, thoughtfully, and in a way that avoids harming any vulnerable readers.” 

The article provides several links to further discussions of this topic.

A Close Reading of the Chilling Prologue of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

I’m a fan of close reading. Here Emily Temple offers a close reading of the prologue of a big and very complex book.

Why Emma Is Still Jane Austen’s Most Pleasurable Heroine

With the recent release of the new film Emma, Hillary Kelly explains why Austen’s novel is “not a story of a young woman who makes her way up in the world through a lucky combination of strong character, bright intellect, and an estate-owning love match, but one of a bored 20-year-old sprite whose family ‘has no equals’ in the town of Highbury, but whose days have little to fill them.”

Woody Allen’s book could signal a new era in the publishing industry

According to Maris Kreizman:

The book publishing industry last week learned the potency of pushback — that bad business decisions have consequences and that lower-level employees have more power than for which they’d previously been given credit.

The Best of Speculative Fiction

The term speculative fiction means different things to different people. Here’s science fiction and fantasy writer Ken Liu’s definition:

to me, speculative fiction is generally the type of fiction that uses the technique of literalizing some aspect of reality that we usually speak of as metaphorical. By making that aspect literally true—by making that metaphor literally true—we are able to gain a different perspective and understanding of reality.

Here he recommends five works of this type.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Fiction Last Week's Links Nonfiction Publishing Television Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation

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

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

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

These Powerful Women Are Changing The Literary Landscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Audiobooks Fiction Last Week's Links Reading

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HOME SWEET HO…MAYBE NOT: THE HAUNTED HOUSE IN FICTION

So what is it about the haunted house that spans media types? What is it about the concept that transfixes both audience in the land of imagination, and truth seekers in the science world? Why is this one of those subjects that bridges the gap between fact and fiction?

S.F. Whitaker examines what makes us, while screaming (even if only in our minds) “Don’t go in there!” dying to know what will happen when some character dares to open that door or window . . .

How locked-room mystery king Seishi Yokomizo broke into English at last

Pushkin Vertigo, an independent press in the U.K., is publishing the first English translations of the classic Japanese mystery novels by Seishi Yokomizo. Yokomizo’s first novel was published in Japan in 1946. Read here about the life and works of the writer called “Japan’s answer to Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.”

WHAT IS SPECULATIVE FICTION?

Lyndsie Manusos examines the many meanings that make the term speculative fiction particularly amorphous. Manusos consults sources from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia to the Speculative Literature Foundation, including authors such as Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin. She concludes:

Speculative fiction is indeed nebulous. It’s actually why I love this over-arching genre so much. I live for books that maintain our world but bend the boundaries. Books that look underneath the skin of our reality and probe what might be or might’ve been.

Finding Self-Help in Fiction: A Stranger Truth

Rachel Smalter Hall, an editor for audiobook giant Audible (a division of Amazon) writes that, after a difficult year in 2019, she realized that “I get most of my self-help from novels.”

Fiction might not have a checklist at the end of each chapter to help one live a better life, but it does provide a narrative lens through which to view the human experience. It’s proven to help build empathy, and it can give us tools to make sense of our own lives and how we relate to others.

Read her list of six novels that provided her with “unlikely lessons.”

A YEAR OF MOURNING AND READING

Jaime Herndon describes how her grandmother’s death in January 2019 affected her: “it was hard to write non-work things, but one thing I was still able to do was read. I read and read and read. I read over 250 books in 2019.” Here she mentions several of the books that helped her get through that year.

I wish Herndon offered fuller descriptions of some of the books she mentions, but the Book Riot format is short articles. Even without fuller descriptions, it’s good to hear how reading helped her get through such a difficult time.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Book News Fiction Last Week's Links Publishing Television

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

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

What You Miss When You Snub “Chick Lit”

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

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

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

Bingeing on Cop Propaganda

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

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

His conclusion:

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

JOANNA RUSS, THE SCIENCE-FICTION WRITER WHO SAID NO

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

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

Five Fun Forensic Facts 4 Fiction!

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

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

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

I love novels with unusual narrative structures.

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

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

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Literature & Psychology

The Interplay of Plot and Character in Fiction

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


Which is more important in fiction: plot or character? Novels that engage in complex characterization are often called character-driven stories or character studies, while books heavy on fast action and unexpected turns of events are called plot-driven novels. But even in character studies the characters still have to DO something (even if all they do is think), and even in plot-driven novels someone must be DOING all that action. 

Plot and character are like love and marriage: You can’t have one without the other. 

This is true no matter what kind of fiction you’re reading. Some people distinguish between literary fiction and genre fiction, a distinction in which the term genre fiction refers to format-specific categories such as mystery, thriller, science fiction, horror, and romance. The term is usually used pejoratively, to suggest that literary fiction is somehow better than “mere genre fiction.”

But all fiction requires characters who do something, and the best works of fiction, whether literary or genre fiction, hit the sweet spot of combining complex characterization with interesting plotting. 

I gravitate toward mysteries and thrillers because I think that some of the most thought-provoking fiction—novels that explore the extremes of what the human heart is capable of—slots into those genres.

I often hear that crime fiction is just plot-driven entertainment—that unlike literary fiction, or even general fiction, it doesn’t examine the human condition. The truth is you can’t write crime fiction without examining the human condition and the society of a place or time. If a writer doesn’t understand the very elements that led someone to desperation, to the ultimate bad choice of taking another life, he can never write a convincing antagonist. Villains are not just bad people, they’re often in an untenable situation and see no other way out.

Dianne Freeman

Thriller author Karin Slaughter, when asked what makes for a good thriller, replied, “Character has to matter as much as plot. If they’re not equally strong, then no one really cares what happens.”

But while the question of whether character or plot is more important may be moot, the question of which comes first in an author’s writing process can yield some interesting results. 

Queen of suspense Mary Higgins Clark reportedly scanned the New York City tabloids every morning looking for story ideas, a suggestion she was looking for unusual plot twists.

In contrast, Tana French begins with characters:

I don’t outline at all, actually. In fact, I can’t really figure out what’s going on myself until I’ve been writing the characters for a while. I don’t even know “whodunit” until I’ve been writing long enough to know who might kill someone, and for what reasons.

But in the end, plot and character work hand in hand. 

For me, the best thrillers are a combination of plot and characterization. There is nothing better than a thriller I absolutely can’t put down. That said, it isn’t everything; I also want to feel something for the characters in the books I read. If I don’t, then ultimately I won’t care what happens to them in the end. They also need to feel authentic.

thriller writer Mary Kubica

Plot + character = story, and good stories keep us reading.

We read on because we love the characters but also because we want to know how the story plays out. There are mysteries to be solved here, genuine puzzles that keep us questioning to the very end.

Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Fiction Last Week's Links

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The Subjective Mood

Adam O’Fallon Price describes Muriel Spark’s novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie like this: “The novel does not settle for merely telling a story and telling it well; it also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality, what we might describe as moral depth.”

Price continues: “over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.”

He attributes this lack of moral depth in fiction to the internet, which has allowed everyone to curate all the news and cultural entertainment they consume and thereby to limit exposure to new ideas and experiences. This process has produced “a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.” 

Price laments this situation because “situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art.” He connects the lack of a moral level with “reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions.” Most current novels, he contends, are boring because of this failure to examine the relationship between choices and the resulting consequences. 

Price ends with a call for a return to “fiction that thinks more deeply about life than the average Tumblr post.” 

ARE CRIME WRITERS AS TWISTED AS OUR CHARACTERS?

I remember reading, several years ago, an article in which mystery writer Val McDermid described being told something like “You must be a particularly twisted person to write such dark books.” And her reply was along the lines of “I’m very well adjusted because I get all those dark thoughts out of my head by writing those books.” 

I’ve never been able to find this discussion so that I can document it, but novelist Bryan Gruley addresses the same issue in this article: “are we (authors) secretly as twisted as the twisted characters we conjure?” I particularly like this reply:

“Ideally, our darkest characters come from a place of empathy, a part of us that wants to understand why other people—people who are fully human, not sociopaths or narcissists—rationalize transgressing important societal boundaries,” says Laura Lippman, author of many acclaimed novels . . .

About his own fictional villains, Gurley writes, “The only thing I have in common with these fictional people is that we’re human. And that matters.”

And this truth is at the root of why I like mysteries and thrillers so much. I’d also argue that the best mysteries and thrillers offer the moral depth that Adam O’Fallon Price laments the lack of in the article above. Perhaps he’s just not reading the same books I am.

On My Love of Locked Room Mysteries: The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr

I recently wrote about locked-room mysteries.

Here Scott Adlerberg offers his own appreciation of a classic locked-room mystery, The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr, recently reissued by American Mystery Classics.

THE POWER BETWEEN THE PAGES

Nandi Taylor, a Canadian writer of Caribbean descent, writes here about “what she’d always wanted more of growing up—protagonists of African descent in speculative settings.”

The relationship between art and life is symbiotic: one feeds the other. As representation of marginalized segments of our society has increased, so has respect and tolerance for those segments of society, which has led more accurate and nuanced portrayals of marginalized people, and today we find ourselves with a wealth of diverse mainstream media and heartening advances in human rights.

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Die

Jessi Jezewska Stevens, whose debut novel, The Exhibition of Persephone Q, will be published in March, offers “an unbeliever’s rereading of Christian conceptions of the afterlife” in Marilynne Robinson’s 1980 novel Housekeeping.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Author News Fiction Last Week's Links Literary Criticism Literary History Notes in the Margin Reading

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The Million Basic Plots

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

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

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

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

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

WHEN MEN NARRATE PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLERS

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

Annotate This: On Marginalia

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

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

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

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

Murder, We Wrote

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Recommendations Fiction Film Last Week's Links Literature & Psychology Reading

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Looking for a Book to Read With Friends?

The New York Times introduces Group Text, “a monthly column for readers and book clubs about the novels, memoirs and short-story collections that make you want to talk, ask questions, and dwell in another world for a little bit longer.” The focus for book clubs will be on “the kinds of propulsive, thought-provoking books worthy of discussion.”

Its inaugural choice is Long Bright River by Liz Moore:

What it’s about: When their neighborhood is battered by opioids, two sisters choose very different paths through the wreckage. One is a cop; the other is an addict. And one of the two is missing.

I have a copy of this book on my shelf right now. It was my December 2019 choice from the offerings of Book of the Month.

This article includes discussion questions for Long Bright River and some suggestions for related reading. There’s also information on how to join the book discussion on the Times’s Facebook page.

SIX NOVELS EXPLORING HOW (AND HOW LONG) WE PROCESS TRAUMA

Laurie Faria Stolarz wrote her most recent novel, Jane Anonymous, to focus on “that period of time, post-trauma, when the threat is removed but the wounds remain, raw and searing, as the individual tries to acclimate back in her safer space”:

people’s reactions to trauma are as varied and complex as the trauma itself. Numerous factors can influence one’s reaction(s), including age, personal history, one’s own brain chemistry, and the nature of the trauma. Time, effective treatment, and having a solid support system are also key factors. But, bottom line, while therapists can and do identify common threads and behaviors among victims of trauma, every case is as unique as the person who experiences it.

Here Stolarz discusses six novels that feature some varied reactions to trauma.

HOW HORROR HELPS WITH PROCESSING GRIEF AND TRAUMA

In an article related to the one above, S.F. Whitaker, who describes herself as a trauma survivor, discusses how horror literature and films have helped her deal with her experience. Whitaker says that she “gravitated to the grotesque and weird” from an early age: “Before I could articulate where it hurt there were books, and movies to serve as a balm. In the progression of my reading I found familiarity.”

Whitaker says that one might think that reading horror literature or seeing horror films would exacerbate a person’s feelings of grief and trauma. But she points some psychology studies that have shown that the opposite is true:

Studies have shown that horror can help us with grief, anxiety, depression, and a number of other disorders. For someone experiencing a deep loss or processing trauma, it becomes less about the deaths and more about the survivor. Grief studies in particular have found that trying to make someone feel better only makes the situation worse. You’re invalidating their feelings rather than helping. A book can take someone suffering on a journey. You feel the pain with the characters, some surviving while others do not, and there is a resolution of some kind.

Whitaker does not give specific references to those studies, which I see as a weakness in an article like this. However, her discussion is quite general, and her conclusion pertains only to herself:

In my case, Quincy [in Final Girls by Riley Sager] in particular made it feel like I did not have to have it all together. I can be flawed and that’s okay. There is beauty in the journey, even if it’s blood soaked pages riddled with ghosts, ghoulies, and monsters galore.

United we read: Writer roams a fractured nation with 52 books (or more) in 52 weeks

In an effort to see beyond the fractured state of politics, Heather John Fogarty has decided to read her way across the U.S. in the time leading up to the election of 2020:

I set myself a reading project. In the year leading up to the 2020 election, I would read (at least) one book from each state, as well as from Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., prioritizing contemporary fiction and memoir, with the hope of exploring shared experiences, such as family, identity and a sense of home.

She is reading alphabetically and here reports on books through Connecticut, so this will apparently be an ongoing series.

MY ONLY READING GOAL THIS YEAR IS TO HAVE FUN

In 2019 Matt Grant set himself the goal of reading 100 books. After a year of pushing himself to achieve that goal—which he did accomplish—he has decided to “set myself a new goal this year: to have fun reading.”

Read his discussion of how he achieved his 2019 goal and why he has changed his approach to reading this year.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Fiction

Is the Locked-Room Mystery Obsolete?

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


As a subgenre of the mystery or detective-fiction genre, the locked-room mystery, which originated in the mid-nineteenth century, has long fascinated both writers and readers. But at least one critic asserts that the format has outlived its usefulness and should be scrapped. However, five recent novels demonstrate how writers continue to find ways to apply the traditional formula to create works that continue to challenge and entertain readers.

The locked-room mystery presents a story in which a crime, usually a murder, has been committed in a setting that seemingly offers no way for the culprit to exit the crime scene. Imagine a corpse found inside a room with no windows or method of entry and exit other than a single door, which is locked from the inside. Literary historians generally credit Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” as the first such story.

Nearly 100 years later, in 1939, Agatha Christie first published her own version of the locked-room mystery, now known as And Then There Were None. In her story several characters are summoned to a mansion on a small rock island with no other dwellings or inhabitants. The only way to get to the island is by catching the only row boat available at a nearby coastal village. A bad storm blows up and prevents the small boat from sailing across the channel over the weekend. Meanwhile, on the isolated island, the guests turn up dead, one by one.

Agatha Christie went on to perfect her own variant of the locked-room mystery, the country-house mystery. In these stories, several characters assemble in a remote country house that is then cut off from the outside world by some type of storm involving either giant snow drifts, road-blocking huge fallen trees, or washed-out bridges. The country-house mystery is also called a closed-circle mystery, since none of the characters can leave and no new characters can arrive; the villain must therefore be one of the assembled guests. 

Prolific mystery author and critic Christopher Fowler has argued that the modern age of instant communication and unlimited information access forces mystery writers to up their game:

Gone are the days of the snowed-in, bridge-down, lines-out country house murder, where everyone dutifully assembles in the library to unveil the killer.

Christopher Fowler

Yet these five recent novels demonstrate how writers are finding new ways to use the locked-room mystery formula to create suspenseful, satisfying novels.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

cover: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

In Larsson’s 2005 novel, wealthy Swedish industrialist Henrik Vanger hires researcher and journalist Mikael Blomkvist to dig into the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, more than 40 years earlier. Blomkvist enlists the help of Lisbeth Salander, a brilliant computer hacker but a troubled young woman now at the mercy of the Swedish welfare system because of the government’s need to protect the identity of her Soviet-defector spy father. 

Both the character development and the plotting of this novel are so complex and enthralling that it’s easy to forget that the opening situation, the circumstances of Harriet’s unexplained disappearance—on a day when an accident closed the bridge connecting the Vanger island estate to the mainland—is a locked-room mystery set up.


No Exit by Taylor Adams

cover: No Exit

I have explained my criticisms of this 2019 novel in my review, linked above. Nonetheless, I commend Adams for undertaking the challenge of writing a locked-room mystery novel. 


In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

cover: In a Dark, Dark Wood

In this 2015 novel, Nora hasn’t seen Clare for 10 years, when they were teenagers and Clare orchestrated the break-up of Nora and her boyfriend, James. Then, out of the blue, Nora receives an invitation to Clare’s hen do (bachelorette party). Ware uses elements of the locked-room format to heighten tension and produce suspense in this wild ride of a gothic thriller.


The Escape Room by Megan Goldin

cover: The Escape Room

The Escape Room (2019) begins with two parallel narratives: the first-person account by Sara Hall of her job at a large, high-pressure financial firm, and the third-person look at four business associates in an elevator participating in a corporate trust-building exercise. As the two narratives alternate, suspense increases for both readers and the four people trying to figure out how to escape from the elevator.


The Lost Man by Jane Harper

cover: The Lost Man

I’ve saved the best for last.

Nathan Bright returns to his family’s vast cattle station in Australia for the funeral of his brother, Cameron. Did Cameron commit suicide, or was he murdered? The authorities and the family ponder this question out where only one road leads through town and the nearest neighbors live many hours’ drive away in either direction. Brilliant Australian writer Jane Harper sets this, her third novel (2019), in the Australian Outback, the biggest locked-room on the planet.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown