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

Categories
Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Older Adults in Literature

Moral Depth in Current 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.


Introduction

I came upon Adam O’Fallon Price’s article The Subjective Mood, in which he laments the lack of moral depth in current fiction, back in February. I included it in a literary-links round-up, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it because I find a lot of moral depth in most of the fiction I read. 

Price’s piece made me think about the interplay between plot and character in fiction because of its correlation between plot and moral depth.

What is moral depth in fiction?

Price describes moral depth as the quality in a novel that doesn’t merely settle for telling a story but “also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality.” He explains further:

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.

This definition feels misleading because books don’t think; people do, both authors and readers. “What the book thinks” means exactly what? 

Price correlates moral depth with plot, writing that “so many of these books are boring”:

The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a 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. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this?

And there’s that troublesome concept of “what the book thinks” again.

But perhaps Price’s best description of the lack of moral depth is this extended passage:

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

What does “recent fiction” mean?

Price avoids a specific definition of what he means by the phrases contemporary novels and recently published novels, but he does offer this: “Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago.”  Waldman’s novel carries a copyright date of 2013, so let’s assume that, in general, he’s talking about novels published since 2013.

In considering the cause of the lack of moral depth in recent fiction, Price gives us this disingenuous explanation: “the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet.” 

It has been a long time since I heard anyone give this knee-jerk reaction to explain everything that’s wrong with modern society. Blaming the loss of moral depth on the internet only underlines even more finely how imprecise Price’s terminology is.

4 Recent Novels with Moral Depth

Here are four novels, all published after 2013, that contain moral depth. Oh, and not one of them is boring.

Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch

cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

In a world in which quantum physics allows scientists to explore parallel universes, physics teacher Jason Deesen pursues answers to the questions “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?”

In his pursuit Jason makes several choices and deals with their consequences as he searches for the answer to the most basic questions of human existence: “Who am I?” and “Who do I choose to be?” In this way, Dark Matter directly contradicts Price’s description of a lack of moral depth:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

Miracle Creek (2019) by Angie Kim

cover: Miracle Creek

This novel follows the lives of seven people over the course of a four-day murder trial. Through the use of multiple points of view, Miracle Creek allows all participants to tell their stories and explain how they ended up at the place where a terrible tragedy caused the deaths of two people.

In the moral depth that Price misses in current fiction, “Action and choice occasions a moral dimension.” This novel attains that moral dimension by giving all the major characters the opportunity to tell their stories.

If your notion of moral depth is passing judgment, you’ll find that in this novel. The perpetrator is identified and duly punished by law. But if your notion of moral depth is to examine and understand choices people make within the complex circumstances their lives have offered them, you’ll find that here as well. Moral depth doesn’t get much deeper than this.

Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night

Price laments the loss of “the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative.” Our Souls at Night presents exactly that in its story about two widowed older adults who seek caring and companionship in each other’s company within the confines of their small-town existence.

Like Miracle Creek, this little (179 pages) novel takes a big look at the preconceptions of conventional morality to examine moral choice in the context of individual characters’ lives.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) by Taylor Jenkins Reid

cover: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

In this novel the aging actress Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the story of her life and career, but she’ll only tell it to one person, the struggling, little-known young journalist Monique Grant. It’s a story featuring ruthless ambition, seven husbands, a deep but forbidden love—and no regrets. She’d do it all exactly the same way again, Hugo tells Grant.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is an example of a life review in fiction. The concept of life review comes from an area of psychology known as narrative identity theory. Many older adults, as they approach their life’s end, engage in life review, the process of understanding and accepting the life they’ve lived. 

In his description of the lack of moral depth he finds in current fiction, Price writes:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, the telling of the story is both the significant action and the facing of the consequences of actions made earlier in life.

(Another example of life review in fiction is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. For more information about life stories in literature, click here.)

Conclusions

To find recent novels like these, one has to be willing to look for them. Dark Matter is straight-up science fiction, while Miracle Creek, because it features a murder, likely sits in the mystery section of bookstores and libraries. I’ve often written that I like mysteries and thrillers because the best of them deal with what it’s like to be human in the world. Readers who spurn genre fiction will never find these gems.

Also, we find the books we need at the times in our lives when we need them. Price says in his article that he’s 44. I have nearly 30 years on him, and for that reason books that feature older adult characters coming to terms with their lives draw my attention. The best of those novels carry the moral depth that accompanies the wisdom of their characters.

Books don’t think, but good books make people think. Throughout its history the novel has been the literary form that probes the questions of how individuals relate to the societies they live in. My guess is that as society evolves, novelists will continue to find ways to explore its moral complexity through fiction.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links Reading

Literary Links

I hope that you are all staying healthy and finding solace in activities that comfort you.

Book sales surge as self-isolating readers stock up on ‘bucket list’ novels

cover: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

From the U.K. comes news that “Book sales have leapt across the country as readers find they have extra time on their hands, with bookshops reporting a significant increase in sales of longer novels and classic fiction.” Sales are also up for longer books such as Hilary Mantel’s recently released The Mirror and the Light as well as older long books, including The Goldfinch and The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

When we were initially introduced to the idea of staying home, I thought this sounded like a good opportunity to tackle some of the longer works on my TBR shelf, like Middlemarch by George Eliot (794 pages, exclusive of endnotes), Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (817 pages, exclusive of notes), Ulysses by James Joyce (732 pages), and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (568 pages). But that plan didn’t turn out very well.

After about a week and a half of being unable to read anything other than news stories, I was finally able to read books once again. But I’ve been sticking with my backlog of mysteries and thrillers, as I still don’t have the ability to focus on something more demanding for a long time. So all of those Big Books will still be on my shelves waiting for me long after the current health emergency has passed.

However, I can also see the appeal of something long by less demanding than Ulysses. I’ve heard several people mention rereading the Harry Potter series or The Lord of the Rings, both of which sound like excellent choices for these unsettled times. But I won’t be going there until I’ve made a lot more progress on my backlog of Book of the Month goodies.

The Girl in the Title of the Crime Novel: The Great Crime Fiction Disambiguation Project

cover: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Over the past several years there’s been a lot of discussion about the number of books with the word girl in the title:

Girl is the perfect word for inspiring curiosity and fear in psychological thrillers: since the Bible, or the Greek myths, the protection of girls has been paramount to holding a society together. Girls, after all, become women, and women birth and raise the next generation, keeping civilization going. So the question here is not why did girl instantly become so popular, but how it reflects on our cultural preoccupation with keeping women—made even more impotent and infantilized by being labeled girls—under patriarchal control.

Here Lisa Levy discusses eight such books, with particular emphasis on how these books and their characters reflect the effects of patriarchy and misogyny.

Our Obsession with Beautiful Dead Girls Is Keeping Us from Addressing Domestic Violence

Here Jessica Moor addresses the same general topic but with a more focused emphasis: how the normalization of the violent man coexists with another standard trope, the beautiful dead girl.

Her conclusion:

no matter how fascinating the machinations of a random killer seem, they cannot be more chilling than the reality that, for women, the most dangerous place in the world is not a bar or a dark alleyway or a deserted forest. It’s their own home.

The Best Books for Distancing Yourself From Reality Right Now

Esquire has some suggestions of “literature for an escape from the ails of restlessness and anxiety.” The list comprises mostly fiction, but there’s a wide enough range that everyone can probably find at least one or two appealing books.

How a Chinese-American Novelist Wrote Herself Into the Wild West

“C Pam Zhang’s debut, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” is one of several new or forthcoming books by Asian-American writers set in a period that historically hasn’t recognized them.”

Never mind the Brits, here are five American novels perfect for ‘Masterpiece’ treatment

Why does PBS outsource almost all of its costume dramas to the Brits, in some cases simply importing and screening BBC productions as Masterpiece series? Why not look to the American canon for worthy novels in which men sport top hats, women get laced into corsets and carriages make their gravel-crunching way to glittering receptions or illicit assignations?

Dennis Drabelle has some suggestions for how PBS can provide U.S. audiences some dramas from their own literary heritage.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links Publishing Reading

Literary Links

Penguin Classics and Others Work to Diversify Offerings From the Canon

“Across the industry, publishers are releasing titles by authors who were previously marginalized or entirely lost to history.”

The critical and commercial success of these titles is a result of a combination of factors: initiative on the part of writers’ families or estates; changing leadership within the publishing industry; and a willingness among modern readers to engage with unknown texts.

After a Husband’s Betrayal, Turning to Mystery Novels

The whole point of a mystery is to create a plot so suspenseful that the reader can’t put it down—which is exactly what I needed, to get back into reading. A terrible crime has been committed (usually a murder) and a detective or amateur sleuth then applies logic to figure out who did it, what happened and why until the perpetrator is brought to justice.

Laura Hilgers turned to mysteries for comfort after her divorce.

I, fortunately, do not have the same reason for liking mysteries. See 5 Examples of Why I Like Mysteries.

Will the coronavirus outbreak lead to new L.A. crime fiction? The jury is out

Los Angeles has been the locus of crime fiction for nearly 100 years. Here’s a discussion of some of the novels, characters, and authors LA has produced as well as speculation about what kinds of novels the current health crisis will give rise to.

Genre Primer: Short Story Examples in (Almost) Every Genre

If you want to use your time at home to broaden your literary horizons, let Annika Barranti Klein be your guide. She offers links to free online stories, plus the names of a novel or two, in the following categories:

  • science fiction
  • steampunk
  • low fantasy
  • second world/high fantasy
  • portal fantasy
  • fairytale
  • myth
  • eldritch
  • magical realism
  • paranormal
  • mystery
  • thriller/suspense
  • noir
  • historical
  • western
  • romance
  • horror
  • gothic
  • literary

And yes, she includes definitions in case you don’t know, as I didn’t, what some of these terms mean (e.g., eldritch, low fantasy, second world/high fantasy, portal fantasy).

Ann Patchett on Why We Need Life-Changing Books Right Now

Ann Patchett on what she learned by reading the books of middle-grade novelist Kate DiCamillo. Patchett began with The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, which, she says, changed her life.

9 Great Books With Lonely Protagonists

According to Hillary Kelly:

there’s a certain kind of isolation that makes for a vivid reading experience — when the protagonist is quite literally all alone, whether by circumstance or choice, either struggling to be seen or hoping to disappear even further. The novel, after all, is the perfect medium for that message, the only art form in which an interior monologue doesn’t regularly come off as hokey. If you’re into that kind of thing, and want to grapple a little harder with the bizarre swaddling effect that COVID-19 has had on our ability to simply stand close to another human, here are nine books that offer insights into the wild terrain of the isolated mind.

14 Enormous Crime Books for the Long Days Ahead

“. . . we are stuck at home, and perhaps now is the time to rediscover the lengthy novel,” writes Molly Odintz.

mug that says "I like big books and I cannot lie"

If you follow this blog, you know I love Big Books. Here’s Odintz’s list of 14 crime novels, all of which meet the Big Book definition of 500 or more pages. 


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown