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Reading, That Strange and Uniquely Human Thing

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

young girl reading

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

Turning the Page on the Year

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

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

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

Memorial by Bryan Washington review – a masterclass in empathy

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

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

Notable Novels of Spring 2021

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

Top 10 most dislikable characters in fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

Overlooked No More: Clarice Lispector, Novelist Who Captivated Brazil

“Critics lauded her stream-of-consciousness style and described her as glamorous and mysterious. But she didn’t always welcome the attention she received.”

“This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.”

From the New York Times, a look at Russian-born Clarice Lispector, who,  beginning in the 1940s, fascinated “Brazil’s male-dominated literary world.”

How (and Why) to Spring Clean Your Digital Book Clutter

I think I have more than 3,000 books on my Kindle. Because I only recently discovered how to use collections, there’s very little order to my ebooks. Here Ashley Holstrom offers advice on how to organize your Kindle cloud and your Goodreads shelves. She also tells us to create Goodreads shelves to log our entire elibrary, but I’m not sure I’m going to invest that much time in this project.

Charles Dickens, the Writer Who Saw Lockdown Everywhere

You may have heard the story of how Charles Dickens never outgrew the fear of incarceration after his family’s stint in debtor’s prison in 1841. Here Laurence Scott reports that “In her 2011 biography, Claire Tomalin notes that, in adulthood, Dickens became ‘an obsessive visitor of prisons’” and looks at examples of passages from his works that illustrate his obsession.

11 Words to Spice Up Your Book Blurbs and Reviews

John Maher splendaciously offers 11 words collected by the editors at Merriam-Webster who host the podcast Word Matters.

Who Did J.K. Rowling Become?

“Deciphering the most beloved, most reviled children’s-book author in history.”

If you haven’t kept up with the recent controversy swirling around J.K. Rowling, here’s a very detailed analysis of what it’s all about and what it all means.

Why on Earth Is Someone Stealing Unpublished Book Manuscripts?

The New York Times reports on “a mysterious international phishing scam that has been tricking writers, editors, agents and anyone in their orbit into sharing unpublished book manuscripts.” 

Both big-name writers—like Margaret Atwood and Ian McEwan—and unknown writers have been targeted, and no one seems to know where manuscripts submitted through the scam end up. “When copies of the manuscripts get out, they just seem to vanish. So why is this happening?”

A Year of Historical Turning Points in New Yorker Fiction

Deborah Treisman, fiction editor for The New Yorker, comments on some of the fiction that appeared in the magazine during the “historically pivotal” year of 2020: “It’s hardly surprising that some of the anxiety of this unmooring year trickled into fiction—or sent us to stories that explore other historical turning points and what led to them.”

© 2021 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Club Spotlight: How This 20-Year-Old Book Club Connects Virtually

The group of 15 ladies successfully transitioned from over 20 years of dinner and monthly meetings at the Rancho Santa Margarita City Hall to a virtual format — and were even able to welcome back a few members! Most recently, the club held its annual holiday party on Zoom complete with holiday sweaters, a book swap, and a meaningful book discussion.

PBS to Broadcast Two Documentaries on Agatha Christie

Mark your calendar! “PBS will kick off the year 2021 with two TV documentaries focused on the life and publishing career of bestselling British crime novelist Agatha Christie.”

The broadcast dates are January 17 and January 24.

Publishing saw upheaval in 2020, but ‘books are resilient’

From the Associated Press. “Book publishing in 2020 was a story of how much an industry can change and how much it can, or wants to, remain the same.”

A Speculative Fiction Expert’s Year of Escapist Reading

Kerine Wint, a software engineering graduate who loves to read science fiction and fantasy, writes, “2020 is the year that has made having an escape a necessity.” Speculative fiction is, she says, “ a vehicle that shows us so many new worlds, allowing us to view and understand ourselves and others unlike us.” 

As an added bonus, at the end of the article are links to similar links in other genres: mystery, literary fiction, romance, and young adult.

PW’s Person of the Year: The Book Business Worker

All readers think of people involved in any aspect of producing books as essential workers. Publishers Weekly agrees:

The most important people in the book business in 2020 are not the powerhouse agents or the megabestselling authors or the Big Five CEOs. They are the booksellers, debut and midlist authors, editors, librarians, printers, publicists, sales representatives, and warehouse workers, to mention just a few—the workers, who have been the most important people in the business all along.

I’m a Romance Novelist Who Writes About Politics—And I Won’t “Stay In My Lane”

An ardent argument by novelist Alyssa Cole: “Assuming the romance genre can’t be political is, well…political in itself.”

10 Literary Podcasts to Listen To if You Miss Life Before Quarantine

“Dig into these podcasts even if you don’t have the energy to dig into the stack of novels that’s been growing on your nightstand.”

The Top 10 Library Stories of 2020

Publishers Weekly “looks back at the library stories that captivated the publishing world this year—and what they portend for 2021.”

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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We Need More Dark Stories with Hopeful Endings

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

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

The Bigger the Publishers, the Blander the Books

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

Stephen King Has Thoughts About Stephen King TV Shows

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

Book Clubs in Lockdown

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

When Reading Had No End

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

The literary life of Octavia E. Butler

“How local libraries shaped a sci-fi legend”

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

The Benefits of Community Reading Programs

by Summer Loomis, for Book Riot:

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

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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15 Books About Appalachia to Read Instead of Hillbilly Elegy

This article came out after I posted last week’s articles about Hillbilly Elegy.

Kendra Winchester, from Appalachia, has compiled this list of works to counterbalance “the stereotypes of J.D. Vance’s version of Appalachia . . . [that] the entire region is made up of poor rural white people consumed with violence who have no one to blame but themselves for their life circumstances.”

Oxford’s 2020 Word of the Year? It’s Too Hard to Isolate

This year, Oxford Languages, the publisher of the Oxford English Dictionary, has forgone the selection of a single word in favor of highlighting the coronavirus pandemic’s swift and sudden linguistic impact on English.

Fauci’s plea ‘Wear a mask’ tops list of 2020 notable quotes

In other linguistic news, “A plea from Dr. Anthony Fauci for people to ‘wear a mask’ to slow the spread of the coronavirus tops a Yale Law School librarian’s list of the most notable quotes of 2020.”

How TV Cop Shows Are Tackling Police Brutality Storylines Post-George Floyd

This topic has come up periodically since the recent upheaval about racism in law enforcement. The article reports:

some cop TV shows including CBS’ “S.W.A.T.” and NBC’s “Law & Order: SVU” and “Chicago PD” are returning for their new seasons . . . And many plan to dive head-first into the new environment surrounding law enforcement.

Commentary: The latest publishing mega-merger might kill off small presses — and literary diversity

Another issue that gets talked about a lot is the lack of diversity in publishing. Here’s a look at the latest merger, the acquisition of Simon & Shuster, the third largest publisher in the U.S., by Bertelsmann, the parent company of Penguin Random House.

The Best Epigraphs of 2020

Epigraphs are those short quotations at the beginning of books or, sometimes, at the beginning of each chapter or section in a book. I admit that I usually don’t pay as much attention to them as I should. I always intend to go back at the end and ponder their significance, but often I don’t remember to do it.

Here’s a list compiled by Ashley Holstrom of the best epigraphs of books published in 2020.

11 Short New Books to Read in One Sitting

And here’s something that I found after I had published Books You Can Read in One Day.

All the books on this list are recent publications, so you might find some new recommendations here that aren’t on the other lists.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links: “Hillbilly Elegy” Edition

I have not read J.D. Vance’s multiple-award—winning 2016 memoir Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis for a couple of reasons:

  1. I usually avoid “Poor me, I had a rough childhood” stories.
  2. There are just not enough hours in each day for reading all the books.

I saw the book on lots of “Best Books of 2016” lists and was therefore surprised to see that the recent Netflix movie adaptation, directed by Ron Howard, has drawn so much negative publicity. 

Most of the criticism seems to center around the feeling that the book and, particularly, the film, provide a facile picture of what must be understood as a multi-faceted, complex situation. 

Here’s a compendium of that criticism.

 “Hillbilly Elegy” Is the Last Thing America Needs in 2020

Novelist Kayla Rae Whitaker writes that she’s “from eastern Kentucky, not far from where Vance’s family originates.” She describes Vance’s book as the “old story of America’s weird, craven Son of the Soil.” Here’s the focus of her criticism of the book and its movie adaptation:

The story it offers is one of people who cannot help or save themselves—from laziness, from addiction, from a failure to develop the self-respect necessary to “pull themselves up” within an economy and social system that prevents them at every turn. The film is just another addition to a narrative that is managing to dig a trench between this region and the rest of the country, a divide that will continue to snarl elections and deal further damage to a population that has taken more than its fair share of abuse. And in a year that saw the Biden-Harris ticket win by thinner than anticipated margins, we need to take this opportunity to understand the region as more nuanced than the blighted backcountry that popular media pushes—and that liberal readers and viewers, amazingly, tend to believe.

8 books you should read instead of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’

Lorraine Berry’s article includes a few links to other interpretations of Hillbilly Elegy and what she calls “the book’s troubling politics”:

But other narratives exist. In novels and nonfiction, a working class emerges that is as ethnically and politically diverse as the rest of America. Here are eight books that offer a more honest approach.

The Silent Political Messaging in Ron Howard’s “Hillbilly Elegy” Adaptation

Richard Brody, movie critic for The New Yorker, writes about Howard’s movie “the thinness of the adaptation arises not only from where the movie doesn’t go beyond the book but also from what, of its source material, it chooses to leave out.”

Lost in a (Mis)Gendered Appalachia

This article by Leah Hampton carries the tagline “For centuries, national mythology has emphasized rural America’s supposed masculinity. It has caused incalculable damage.”

Hampton says that she still lives in rural Appalachia, and she invokes both her own experience and that of singer Nina Simone, whose childhood house still stands nearby, to argue “if you know this place like I do, female creativity will be at the center of your understanding of Appalachia. Women like Nina Simone epitomize our artistic traditions and folkways, our music, literature, and collective inner life.” 

Furthermore, “For two centuries now, we have been taught to foreground the men who settled and worked here, and that depiction has damaged us, both in our internal understanding of our identity, and in the way the rest of the world treats us.”

Some Movies Actually Understand Poverty in America

“The complex realities of subsistence escape ‘Hillbilly Elegy.’ But as far back as Charlie Chaplin’s ‘City Lights,’ filmmakers have been turning a discerning eye on destitution.”

Don’t just laugh at “Hillbilly Elegy” — its damaging myths still need to be countered

cover: Road Out of Winter by Alison Stine

This article is by Alison Stine, whose novel Road Out of Winter is one of the eight books Lorraine Berry suggests reading instead of Vance’s book in the Los Angeles Times article linked above.

From one of the very first shots, I knew the Appalachia of this film was not going to be the Appalachia that I, my family, or my friends know: When young Vance rescues a turtle crossing the road, he carries it off with him on his bike. Any self-respecting Appalachian knows you bring the turtle across the road to where it was headed, you don’t take it off its (likely egg-laying) path.

Stine emphasizes throughout that the Hillbilly Elegy narrative, both the book and the film, fails to consider the experience of Black people and women caught up in the cyclic poverty and family trauma of the region. She explains that some people advised her not to write about Hillbilly Elegy because doing so would just give the book and film more publicity. But she argues that such people misunderstand her reason for speaking out: “This is a paycheck, and I need a paycheck. Part of being a writer in Appalachia since 2016, when “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir” came out, is refuting this man.”

I’m going to let Stine have the final word here:

No one who is actually poor is going to look at this movie as a roadmap, but people who are in positions of power to deny money and opportunities may. To only laugh at this movie is a mistake, and undercuts its danger, both of spreading inaccurate myths about poverty and completely overshadowing (and disbelieving) the stories of women, BIPOC, disabled people and queer people living in the region and in poverty throughout America.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

How Crime Writers Use Unreliable Narrators to Add Suspense

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

The 2021 Tournament of Books Long List

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

The Tennessee Solution to Disappearing Book Reviews

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

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

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

The Long Awakening of Adrienne Rich

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

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

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

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

William Faulkner’s Demons

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

Casey Cep writes:

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

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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See What the World’s Reading Habits Look Like in 2020

The editing and proofreading service Global English Editing gathered statistics from various sources, including Pew Research and Amazon’s bestsellers page, that demonstrate how the world’s reading habits changed over the course of 2020: “35 percent of web users worldwide reported reading more during the pandemic, and 14 percent said they read significantly more. This trend was most dramatic in China, where 44 percent of respondents said they increased their reading time due to the coronavirus.”

The Lockdown Lessons of “Crime and Punishment”

At the age of 76 in the fall of 2019, David Denby enrolled in Columbia University’s required year-long freshman course called Literary Humanities. The class began discussing Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment in April 2020, after the campus had been shut down for four weeks. 

Here Denby discusses his experience with studying Dostoyevsky’s novel on a computer screen rather than around a seminar table and how the novel’s ideas resonate in today’s reality.

Why Narrative Structure Is One of the Crime Writer’s Most Valuable Tools

How writers manipulate narrative structure for novelistic effects fascinates me so much that I’ve written a couple of posts about it:

So I was delighted to come across author Sara Foster’s discussion of how she and others have used it in their works. Read her explanations here of how particular novelistic techniques can affect a story’s meaning and impact.

The Limits of the Viral Book Review

“Why are literary critics fixating on one quality nowadays?”

That one particular quality, Larissa Pham writes, is self-awareness. 

As a recent wave of literary criticism seems to demonstrate, this self-awareness falls neatly along political lines: Even within their texts, authors find themselves in the position of navigating their privilege, some of which very well might have helped land them the book deal.

So You’re (Still) in a Pandemic Reading Slump

A lot of us have had trouble, either periodically or continuously, concentrating enough to read since COVID-19 emerged last spring. I wrote about my own such problems here.

In this article article Danika Ellis offers six approaches you might take if you’re still having trouble settling back into a reading routine.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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The Golden Age of Book Adaptations for TV

Andrew Neiderman, the author of 46 thrillers who has written as V.C. Andrews for over 34 years, says, “The pandemic has brought on a new age of book-to-series adaptations, and with it novelists have found not only new sources of income but greater satisfaction in how their books are turned into movies.”

Crime novelists dish on writing about cops in a moment of reckoning

In light of recent protests over police brutality, four crime novelists discuss the issues that swirl around portraying law enforcement officers as fictional characters. Los Angeles Times crime reporter and novelist James Queally talks with Rachel Howzell Hall, Attica Locke, and Ivy Pochoda.

Why I Still Use—And Like—Goodreads

In a recent links column I cited an article complaining about the problems with Goodreads. That article prompted me to write How I Use Goodreads.

After featuring a negative article about Goodreads, I thought it only fair that I should include this more positive article by Kelly Jensen, whose approach is very similar to mine: use the features you like and ignore the ones you don’t like.

The Best Ereaders You Can Buy in 2020

If you’re looking at an ereader as a possible holiday gift this year, Rey Rowland evaluates your options.

University Presses Are Signal Boosters of Knowledge

In this particular moment, when we are being tested as a society both by a pandemic and by the metaphorical virus of systemic racism, the peer review system that defines mission-driven university press publishing—whereby scholars review the work of other experts prior to publication—seems particularly fit for its purpose of ensuring the publication of high-quality content.

A report from Publishers Weekly.

Shakespeare wrote ‘King Lear’ during a plague. What great work will emerge from this pandemic?

Scholars believe that Shakespeare created two of his greatest works, King Lear and Macbeth, during a plague. “In perilous, isolating times, we hunger with a special zeal for great work by artists who can capture the experience for us,” writes Peter Marks, theater critic for The Washington Post, who wonders if our current pandemic will produce any similar “groundbreaking creations.”

7 Literary Translators You Need to Know

“From Indonesian to Brazilian Portuguese, here are the translators who are making contemporary world literature accessible to English readers.”

J.R. Ramakrishnan reports for Electric Literature.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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The 50 Greatest Apocalypse Novels

“Apropos of . . . Nothing”

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

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

In 2020, Is Science Fiction Still an Escape?

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

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

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

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


—Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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

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

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

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

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

Rebecca and beyond: the creative allure of gothic Cornwall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown