In Liane Moriarty’s seventh novel, Truly Madly Guilty, something terrible occurs at “an ordinary neighborhood barbecue in an ordinary neighborhood backyard.” It’s something so profound and unsettling, it seems to rewire the six adults and three children present; will any of them be able to recover the relative peace they enjoyed before? As the life-changing event is processed, friendships and marriages are tested and the adults are racked with guilt and regret. Moriarty is known for her compelling, tightly woven stories of the darkness that can lurk behind the apparently ordinary, the suspenseful secrets, catty rivalry, domestic dysfunction, and the shocking event that changes everything.
I’ve read only one of the five novels on her list. And I haven’t yet read any of Moriarty’s own novels. I need to put these books on my TBR list.
Even if you haven’t read any of Philip K. Dick’s books, you’ve probably come in contact with his work through movies or, to a lesser extent, television: Minority Report, The Man in the High Castle, Blade Runner, Total Recall, Screamers, The Adjustment Bureau.
Much of Dick’s visionary content followed an experience in which he believed that a spiritual force had unlocked his consciousness and given him access to esoteric knowledge. In this article Kyle Arnold, a psychologist at Coney Island Hospital, Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and author of The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick, describes this experience and how it affected the author and his work.
“There’s nothing new under the sun,” the saying goes. If you’ve ever felt this while reading a novel, you’ll be interested in this article.
Researchers from the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington used sentiment analysis—or analysis of emotion in a string of words—to map the plot of over 1,700 works of fiction. By looking at how the emotional tone of a story changes from moment to moment, the researchers could see the overall emotional arc of the stories.
They found that there were six main ones:
Fall-rise-fall, like Oedipus Rex
Rise and then a fall, like what happens to most villains
Fall and then a rise, like what happens to most superheroes
Steady fall, like in Romeo and Juliet
Steady rise, like in a rags-to-riches story
Rise-fall-rise, like in Cinderella
Read the entire article to see the main grains of salt with which you should take these results.
When you read a novel, which aspect of the fiction is more important to you, characterization or plot? This is a common question, yet for a long time now I’ve thought it’s not exactly the right question, or at least not the best way to look at fiction. The key issue isn’t a dichotomy—character vs. plot, one or the other—but rather the interaction between the two elements. People do certain things (plot) for their own personal reasons (character), and individuals (character) react to other people and to occurrences (plot) in their own unique ways. In this article Emily Barton discusses how she thought about plot while writing her latest novel, The Book of Esther. Despite the title of her essay (she chooses plot over character), much of what she says seems to me to involve the interaction between plot and character.
A number of years ago—well before Gone Girl —I realized that most of the new crime fiction I was enjoying had been written by women. The guys had been all but run off the field by a bunch of very crafty girls, coming at them from everywhere: America (Megan Abbott, Alison Gaylin, Laura Lippman), England (Alex Marwood, Paula Hawkins, Sophie Hannah), Scotland (Val McDermid, Denise Mina), Ireland (Tana French), Norway (Karin Fossum), Japan (Natsuo Kirino).
He summarizes the appeal of such writers this way:
The female writers, for whatever reason (men?), don’t much believe in heroes, which makes their kind of storytelling perhaps a better fit for these cynical times. Their books are light on gunplay, heavy on emotional violence.
The reading of literature, particularly fiction and poetry, as a way to help medical personnel grapple with big questions such as the meaning of life and of death, and their own relationship to their profession, is generally known as medical humanities. In this article Daniel Marchalik, M.D., a urologist and head of the literature and medicine track at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, DC, describes a course he teaches “to foster habits of reflection over four years of medical school”:
On the surface, the assigned books have nothing to do with medicine. We read no patient narratives, doctors’ memoirs or stories about disease.
Our busy jobs on the hospital wards require precision and efficiency, but in literature class we can slow down and explore human lives and thoughts in a different, more complex way. The class is an anatomy lab of the mind. We examine cultural conventions and conflicting perspectives, and reflect on our own preconceived notions about life and work. Reading attentively and well, we hope, will become a sustaining part of our daily lives and practice.
Laura Lippman is the New York Times –bestselling author of the Edgar Award–winning Tess Monaghan series and nine acclaimed standalone mysteries. A graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Lippman worked for 20 years as a reporter, including 12 at the Baltimore Sun.
Elizabeth Little interviews Laura Lippman, whose latest novel is the stand-alone mystery Wilde Lake.
“What has been my prettiest contribution to the culture?” asked Kurt Vonnegut in his autobiography Palm Sunday. His answer? His master’s thesis in anthropology for the University of Chicago, “which was rejected because it was so simple and looked like too much fun.” The elegant simplicity and playfulness of Vonnegut’s idea is exactly its enduring appeal. The idea is so simple, in fact, that Vonnegut sums the whole thing up in one elegant sentence: “The fundamental idea is that stories have shapes which can be drawn on graph paper, and that the shape of a given society’s stories is at least as interesting as the shape of its pots or spearheads.”
This piece, which features an infographic, also includes a short video of Vonnegut explaining his ideas. There are also links to other articles about Vonnegut.
What a great local story about the power of the human spirit—and of the written word. The judges were unaware of Angel Gardner’s background and current living situation when they chose her to be Seattle’s Youth Poet Laureate:
Gardner’s poems — explicit and raw on matters of race, homelessness and abuse — “feel urgent when you read them, in a way that seems important for folks to pay attention to,” said one of the judges, Aaron Counts.
So you thought we’d seen the last of Harry Potter? NOT!
Here were a host of memorable characters, many of them making what amount to quick cameo appearances, much as a star might drop into a movie for a few minutes. Here were a second generation of new characters, including Scorpius, the unexpectedly delightful son of the decidedly undelightful Draco Malfoy, and of course the troubled Albus [Harry’s son], whose adolescent struggles to make sense of himself, his friends and his family form the focus of the play.
An interesting graphic, even if it does perpetuate an inaccuracy that is one of my pet peeves.
To wit: in medias res, which isn’t even spelled correctly here. It’s also not defined quite correctly, but that’s a common mistake. Just about every literary handbook in the world tells you that this Latin phrase means “in the middle of things.” Except that it doesn’t; it means “into the middle of things.”
A book that begins in medias res throws readers into the middle of things, right into the action, where they must quickly figure out what’s going on.
I reported on the introduction of Lit Hub’s Book Marks here. When I took my first look at the site, which assigns letter grades to books on the basis of published reviews, I thought that the grades looked high.
Alex Shephard, writing for The New Republic, has the same impression:
Lit Hub uses an A-F grading system. But none of the books are remotely in danger of flunking.
The reviews themselves have been pulled from 70 publications, including The New Republic, but only a few have been graded below a B-
Shephard looks at the state of literary criticism—and there are a lot of informative links in the article—before concluding that “literary criticism, like America’s universities, is suffering from severe grade inflation.”
Because literature reflects the culture that produces it:
Five years after the popular uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, a bleak, apocalyptic strain of post-revolutionary literature has taken root in the region. Some writers are using science fiction and fantasy tropes to describe grim current political realities. Others are writing about controversial subjects like sexuality and atheism, or exhuming painful historical episodes that were previously off limits.
Literary critic Jonathan Russell Clark disagrees deeply with:
the implication that criticism is separate from the literature it describes, as if novelists, poets, playwrights, and nonfiction writers were the players in the game and we critics merely the referees. What’s intimated in many defenses of criticism is this gap between observer and observed, between artist and non-artist.
You’ve no doubt heard that offensive adage, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” In literary circles that’s often amended to, “Those who can, write books. Those who can’t, become critics.”
Here Clark insists on:
criticism’s inclusion as a genre of literature, and not as a subject that stands outside of it. When viewed as a separate entity, criticism becomes this Big Brother-like authority ready to pop up and take down any unsuspecting artist; it turns criticism into a practical evil that published authors must suffer through; and it devalues the work of those who became critics because they love literature and they love to write.
Critics have honed their love of literature and their skills in reading and writing as much as have the authors of the books they critique, and they deserve to be acknowledged as writers in their own right.
I had not heard of The Gilmore Girls until recently, and then suddenly I came across three or four references to the show. Since I believe in such synchronicities, I think I must now look for the show on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
But for those of you who are already Gilmore Girls fans, here are some reading suggestions from Amber Brock, a teacher of British literature.
Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime was a big hit with one of my book groups when we read it shortly after it came out in 2003. The protagonist of the novel is a young man with autism, and the book’s presentation of his point of view was riveting and informative.
Although still primarily associated with his most famous work, Haddon has published three books since, which you can read about here.
“My daughter has proved to be cunning and manipulative—I couldn’t be more proud.” This loving adulation is spoken by Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) near the end of Whit Stillman’s fifth film, Love & Friendship, which chronicles the conniving successes of a widowed woman set on finding the perfect match for herself and her daughter. An adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s lesser known works, the novella Lady Susan, here Stillman has found his ideal match in the 18th century novelist: both revel in the gentle mockery of bourgeois social norms through the comedy of manners.
Antonia Malchik writes of the role of setting in Karin Salvalaggio’s mystery novels:
The northwest Montana brought to life in Karin Salvalaggio’s mystery novels has a great deal in common with Hansel and Gretel’s unkind world. Silent, pine-filled mountains offer a hefty dose of frisson, and remind us that in the best mysteries the role of place as character is essential but subtle. From the national parks that form the setting for every one of Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon mysteries to the idyllic Three Pines village full of discomfiting undertones in Louise Penny’s acclaimed Inspector Gamache series, literary mystery novels in particular rely on place to create atmosphere and challenge their protagonists.
Writer Annette Gendler takes issue with Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard’s project, which he calls an autobiographical novel. He calls the work autobiographical because he uses the real names of people in his life and writes about actual events that have happened to them. But he also calls it a novel, which suggests that what he’s writing may—or may not—be fictional. Gendler objects to this blurring of the line between fiction and truth, between fiction and memoir:
His novel is about him, his wife, his kids, his friends, and other relatives: real people using real names. He’s telling stories not only about himself that might be true or not, but he’s doing the same with the people in his life. None of these real people has any recourse over what’s being said about them because, after all, it’s a novel. A novelist is not going to be raked over the coals — like James Frey was — for inventing or embellishing facts.
In a good companion piece to Gendler’s, novelist Rufi Thorpe insists that all writers, including novelists, steal details from their lives:
I had always wondered, as a student of literature, why so many authors made a point of how completely non-autobiographical their work was. I had thought it was because they were proud of their imaginations. But the older I get, the more I suspect it was to ward off the hurt feelings of every person they had ever known.
I do not write plots that are autobiographical, or even biographical of the people I have known. But I do steal details. I steal them obsessively. In fact, it is possible that my entire career writing fiction is in fact a fanatical love affair with detail. I steal houses, bowls on counters, perfumes and scents, phrases, anecdotes, realizations, jokes, car accidents, dogs, meals, clothes, plants. It is a metaphysical form of kleptomania.
On the 100th anniversary of the publication of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about the work’s significance:
What appeared at the time to be unprecedented about the novel seems more mundane to us today, whereas what then came across as mundane now seems unprecedented. Joyce’s novel remains vital, in contrast to almost all other novels published in 1916, because he forcefully strived toward an idiosyncratic form of expression, a language intrinsic to the story he wanted to tell, about the young protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, and his formative years in Dublin, in which uniqueness was the very point and the question of what constitutes the individual was the issue posed.
This article drew my attention because of my interest in memoir. One perennial question about memoirs is how much of the content is true, and the related question, when, if ever, it’s permissible to make up things in memoir. But here Becca Rothfeld asks how much autobiographical material novelists can or should incorporate into their fiction:
Linda Rosenkrantz’s “novel” Talk (1968), a compilation of transcribed conversations between three denizens of the New York art world that was recently reissued by New York Review Books.
it’s amazing to me how rare it still is to find complex female friendships in literature for adults (YA has it a little more locked), and even the whiff of a good one can send me straight to the bookstore. In case you’ve been having the same feeling, here are 25 books that investigate female friendship in one form or another.
A novel is a machine for simulating experience, a ‘life simulator’ and – like its flight equivalent – it allows us safely to experience what it might – in real life – take us years and great danger to go through. Unaided, we are puny in our powers of empathy and comprehension, isolated from the inner lives of others, limited in our experiences, short of time, and able to encounter only a tiny portion of the world first hand. Fiction extends our range – it takes us inside the intimate consciousness of strangers, it lets us sit in on experiences that would be terrifying or reckless in reality; it lends us more lives than we have been given.
Read why he believes we should spend more time reading what he terms Classical novels than we spend reading Romantic novels, which he says construct “a devilish template of expectations of what relationships are supposed to be like – in the light of which our own love lives often look grievously and deeply unsatisfying.”
Here’s more on the question of truth, memoir, and fiction:
both the memoirist and the novelist are inevitably inspired by the people they have met, and will make use of them to suit their purposes. This may not strictly be plagiarism, but it is similar territory. “Writing is an act of thievery,” admits Khalid Hosseini, author of the autobiographical novel The Kite Runner. “You adapt experiences and anecdotes for your own purposes.”
Emotion is essential to learning, Dr. Immordino-Yang said, and should not be underestimated or misunderstood as a trend, or as merely the “E” in “SEL,” or social-emotional learning. Emotion is where learning begins, or, as is often the case, where it ends. Put simply, “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about,” she said.
The agony of death is more than just physical – it is an existential wound that gnaws away until there is slow, and frequently unwilling, acceptance of the inevitability of one’s mortality. I sometimes see a similar pain in my baby girl’s eyes as she makes another arduous journey – learning how to be alive. Frequently, as she cries when she is hungry, or cries when she is overfed, or cries as she tries to have a bowel movement, or just cries, it seems as if she is yearning to go back to the simple comforts of her mother’s womb.
Haider Javed Warraich, M.D., a fellow in cardiology at Duke University Medical Center, is the author of the book Modern Death – How Medicine Changed the End of Life, to be published in February 2017.
The sensitivity to both authentic storytelling and being vulnerable on the page in the interest of relating to your reader will naturally bring you to the issue of what right you have to include another person’s story.
Books are, have always been, a shared vernacular between us. It’s in the pattern of our interactions; each conversation, after a few minutes of personal prologue (“How’s your son?” he’ll ask, to which I’ll answer, “Fine.” Or: “Adrift.” Or: “Let’s talk about something else”), and then he’s telling me what he’s been reading, mysteries usually, high-end crime, Donna Leon and Andrea Camilleri, neither of whose work I know.
The significant role that these school years have on shaping personalities is something I’ve been thinking about as our kids get older, but really came to a head when the kids and I listened to an interview of one of our favorite kids’ book authors recently. We are all big fans of Andrew Clements, who is well known for writing “school stories” such as Frindle and Lunch Money. In explaining the reason that he writes those kinds of stories, he said that it was because everyone’s life is a school story. Everyone has their own stories from school and their own ideas on how these interactions helped shape them as a person. That stuck in my head and when I also ran across a blog post written by Emily McDowell (a favorite illustrator and designer of mine) discussing how school interactions contribute to “limiting beliefs” we have about ourselves, I really started to think about how to approach the concept with my own kids.
Because of these wide-ranging interests, I often end up with lots of open browser tabs containing quite a variety of materials.
Since sorting all these materials out for the individual blogs can be quite time-consuming, I’m going to try to streamline my blogging process by putting together a weekly list of all the interesting articles I come across and publishing the same post to all three of the blogs. Feel free to click on whichever links interest you and to ignore the rest.
Note: In compiling this initial list, I discovered that I’ve actually been holding many of these tabs open for two weeks. Therefore, this entry is longer than future ones will probably be.
While the overall age of Ph.D. candidates has dropped in the last decade, about 14 percent of all doctoral recipients are over age 40, according to the National Science Foundation. Relatively few students work on Ph.D.s [in their 60s], but educators are seeing increasing enrollment in doctoral programs by students in their 40s and 50s. Many candidates hope doctorates will help them advance careers in business, government and nonprofit organizations; some … are headed for academic research or teaching positions.
This article caught my eye because I started working on a doctorate at age 57 and finally received my degree on my 63rd birthday. About 30 years earlier I had completed the course work but not the dissertation for a doctorate in English and American literature. My main motivation for returning to school was to fulfill a life-long dream of earning a Ph.D., but I also benefitted from being able to focus my studies on the particular area I was interested in (life stories).
Returning to a book you’ve read multiple times can feel like drinks with an old friend. There’s a welcome familiarity — but also sometimes a slight suspicion that time has changed you both, and thus the relationship. But books don’t change, people do. And that’s what makes the act of rereading so rich and transformative.
Juan Vidal explains why he rereads three books every year: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard, and Save Twilight: Selected Poems by Julio Cortázar.
Longevity breeds literature. As people (including writers) live longer thanks to medical advances, we can expect many more books contemplating the vicissitudes of aging, illness and dying. These topics, previously thought uncommercial, not to mention unsexy, have been eloquently explored recently by Diana Athill (“Somewhere Towards the End”), Roger Angell (“This Old Man”) and Christopher Hitchens (“Mortality”), among others. Now that the baby boom generation, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, “enter life’s last chapter,” Michael Kinsley writes, “there is going to be a tsunami of books about health issues by every boomer journalist who has any, which ultimately will be all of them.” Hoping to scoop the others, he has written “Old Age,” a short, witty “beginner’s guide,” with an appropriate blend of sincerity and opportunism.
Literature of the American South comprises more than just Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the works of William Faulkner. Here Emily Gatlin provides a class list of the full range of works that illustrate the Southern literary experience.
A new generation of doctor writers is investigating the mysteries of the medical profession, exploring the vital intersection between science and art
In telling the stories of illness, we need to tell the stories of the lives within which illness is embedded. Neither humanism nor medicine can explain much without the other, and so many people ricochet between two ways of describing their very being. This is in part because medicine has become so much harder to understand, with its designer molecules, bewildering toxins and digital cameras inserted into parts of ourselves we have never seen, nor wanted to see.
Telling the stories of illness has given rise to a movement known as “narrative medicine,” or, more broadly, “medical humanities.” We are seeing more and more memoirs by patients about their experiences of illness and by doctors about their attempts to understand their patients’ stories. Many of the books by physicians include their authors’ own experiences of being ill.
Books by physicians concerned about understanding patients’ stories of illness discussed here include the following:
Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science by Atul Gawande Being Mortal by Atul Gawande Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh What Doctors Feel by Danielle Ofri The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi Adventures in Human Being by Gavin Francis
I always used to want complete quiet when reading or concentrating, but when I went back to school I discovered that certain types of music could help me focus. This article summarizes the research demonstrating how music can increase concentration and discusses which types of music work best for this purpose.
The best part of this article is the links to examples of music for focus in these categories: classical, electronic, video game soundtracks, ambient noise, and “everything else.”
Scientists have created an “atlas of the brain” that reveals how the meanings of words are arranged across different regions of the organ.
Described as a “tour de force” by one researcher who was not involved in the study, the atlas demonstrates how modern imaging can transform our knowledge of how the brain performs some of its most important tasks. With further advances, the technology could have a profound impact on medicine and other fields.
After a career of working, scrimping and saving, many retirees are well prepared financially to stop earning a living. But how do you find meaning, identity and purpose in the remaining years of your life?
This excerpt from Pistols and Petticoats: 175 Years of Lady Detectives in Fact and Fiction by Erika Janik discusses the female detectives, real and literary, who preceded Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski.