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Literary Links

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

Vivienne Woodward looks at some books that manipulate our sense of time. The inspiration for this essay is the way COVID-19 lockdown has affected her perception of time:

One of the things reading fiction makes clear is how many ways there are to use and manipulate time. This period of quarantine has made me think about the art of time in my own life in a new way; it has forced me to wake up every day and make more deliberate choices about how I will spend it. Perhaps the way we experience reality is not so different from the way writers construct narrative. Joan Didion famously said that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” If we take her word on that, then let’s make better study of one of the most malleable narrative elements we have: time.

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

This is the fifth installment in Lisa Levy’s examination of why so many crime novels feature the word girl: “Girls are the easiest characters to put into peril and the ones with whom the audience is most likely to sympathize.”

There are links to the first four installments near the beginning of the article. 

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

The title of this article comes from a comment writer Lee Child made when he recently turned over the writing of the Jack Reacher series to his brother Andrew Grant.

“Creating a long-running series featuring a much-loved character can be both a blessing and a curse,” Alison Flood says here. Read how some authors, including Sara Paretsky, Attica Locke, Val McDermid, Ann Cleeves, and Michael Connelly, have dealt with their long-term relationships with their fictional creations.

On Owning Many Books

If you follow the topic “reading” on any social media platform, you’ve undoubtedly seen the statement “It’s not hoarding if it’s books.” Here Mik Awake declares, “Book-hoarding is less cute if you think of it as book-privatizing.”

As far back as the novels in Oates’s Wonderland Quartet, such as “Expensive People” (1968) and “them” (1969), which received the National Book Award fifty years ago this fall, Oates has deployed her zeal for revision to forge a style of rousing roughness. Her dozens of novels and hundreds of short stories, many of them set in western New York, forgo an air of cool mastery in favor of a kind of cultivated vulnerability, an openness to engulfment.

The Best Psychological Thrillers

Because I like mysteries and thrillers, I’m always interested in any article that includes them in its title. Here Tammy Cohen, author of six psychological thrillers, lists five of her favorites by other authors.

Cohen also offers an inclusive definition of the genre psychological thriller:

The psychological thriller explores our internal state, our internal fears, our relationships, the way we see ourselves in our domestic world, in our small world, interacting with the people around us. And it plays on our fears about things that could go wrong within that sphere. It doesn’t have to be domestic, but it usually takes place within a small group, which gives it that claustrophobic feeling.

Her definition well explains why I find that such novels explore most fully the darkest depths of the human heart and mind.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Last Week's Links Literary History Literature & Psychology

Literary Links

The Case for Teaching Depressing Books

High school English teacher Sahar Mustafah writes that her students often ask when they’re going to read happy books.

Young people, quite naturally, equate “happy” with a safe, uneventful existence. Genocide, sexual assault, poverty, racism, climate change—it’s hard to find any reason to be excited about reading these subjects as a plot line. And the experience can be just as hard for a teacher to present to students.

“But I pose that books containing difficult issues or trauma are good for our youth. In fact, they’re downright essential,” Mustafeh counters. Her reasoning?

literature can increasingly shape empathetic, socially-conscious individuals. Shielding students from challenging texts because “there’s so much bad stuff already going on” only seeks to reinforce systems of power and inequity.

Why We Turn to Jane Austen in Dark Times

Jane Hadlow:

I’d argue that her power to connect with us in hard times arises not because her retired life shielded her from grief, pain, and fear—but because she knew very well what it was like to feel vulnerable, exposed, and anxious about the well-being of those she cared about. 

Hadlow concludes: “What Austen really prizes is resilience” and “the self-discipline she insists upon as a means to survive” during hard times.

Why Anxious Readers Under Quarantine Turn to “Mrs. Dalloway”

Perhaps you prefer Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. Evan Kindley, a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a visiting assistant professor at Pomona College, discusses Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, “set in 1923, five years on from the global influenza pandemic that killed somewhere between fifty and a hundred million people.”

Woolf’s vivid description of a crowded metropolis right now, when our own cities’ streets lie empty, feels like something out of a fantasy novel. Yet Clarissa’s joie de vivre is mixed with a sense of latent dread: “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”

Dispatches from a Pandemic

This is the landing page for a series of several articles from many authors commenting on the current health pandemic. The articles are from the April 13, 2020, print issue of The New Yorker.

The Best Australian Crime Fiction, recommended by Emma Viskic

I’m including this article not just because it recommends five books. Novelist Emma Viskic and interviewer Cal Flyn also discuss the significance of crime fiction and the specious distinctions between crime fiction and literary fiction.

What Is the Great American Novel?

“What is the Great American Novel? Its existence as a singular volume is surely a myth, but what is the concept of the Great American Novel?” Annika Barranti Klein examines the history of the concept of the Great American Novel and tries to figure out what the term actually means.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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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
Literature & Psychology Review Uncategorized

“An Anonymous Girl” by Green Hendricks & Sarah Pekkanen

Hendricks, Greer & Sarah Pekkanen. An Anonymous Girl
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
ISBN 978-1-250-13373-1

Recommended

Jessica Farris, age 28, works as a freelance make-up specialist, lugging her product cases all over Manhattan and barely earning enough to get by. On a typical Friday night Jessica overhears Taylor, one of her college-student clients, tell her roommate that she won’t be getting up early enough the next morning to participate in the psychological survey she’s signed up for. “It pays $500,” Taylor casually says.

With a couple of distractions Jessica manages to see the appointment information on Taylor’s phone and decides to take Taylor’s place the next morning. After all, she needs the money.

When Jessica shows up at the appointed place and time the next morning, a young man greets her and explains that he’s the research assistant for Dr. Shields, a psychiatrist who’s conducting a morality and ethics research project. He directs Jessica to a seat in a classroom where an open laptop awaits. 

Jessica is surprised to find out that she’s the only person scheduled for that time slot. She’d be more surprised if she knew that Dr. Shields was watching her complete the questionnaire through the computer’s camera. Some of the questions make Jessica squirm in her seat just a bit.

“It can be frightening to become acquainted with parts of yourself that you don’t like to admit exist.” (p. 15)

Dr. Lydia Shields

While watching Jessica from the next room, Dr. Shields recognizes something she needs in the young woman, even though she knows this woman isn’t the scheduled Taylor. Watching Dr. Shields watch Jessica, the reader suspects the psychiatrist’s observation applies to herself as much as to her research subject.

“You are staring at the therapist. The carefully constructed facade is working. It is all you see. It’s all you will ever see.” (p. 61)

Dr. Lydia Shields

But the reader sees everything.

This novel is unusual in its use of two first-person narrators. Jessica and Dr. Shields speak in alternating chapters, and the reader soon has no trouble recognizing which one is speaking. Jessica’s narrations are conversational and straightforward, while Dr. Shields’s use of passive verbs (e.g., “the door is opened to you,” “your coat is hung up,” “a gift is offered”) peg her as a researcher and academician. Dr. Shields at first uses this type of language only sparingly, but she uses it progressively more frequently as the novel develops.

“Sometimes a therapist who coaxes out all of your secrets is holding the biggest one in the room.” (p. 99)

Dr. Lydia Shields

As Dr. Shields asks her to perform more actions as part of the ethics research project, Jessica becomes suspicious. She continues to do as asked, though, because Dr. Shields pays her handsomely and Jessica needs the money to help her family pay for her handicapped younger sister’s special needs.

When Dr. Shields introduces Jessica to her husband, Thomas Cooper, also a psychotherapist, Jessica realizes there’s more to this psychological experiment than she originally thought.

“At least I’ve finally learned something concrete: Neither of them can be trusted.” (p. 233)

Jessica Farris

By now Jessica knows she’s in way deeper than she ever imagined possible. Will she be able to figure out what exactly is going on and how to protect herself?

It would be easy to read this novel as simply an engaging thriller, but, as suspenseful as it is, it also examines serious underlying moral issues of human existence: truth, responsibility, loyalty, betrayal, trust, love. How these moral questions play out will determine if anyone emerges unscathed from this psychological experiment.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Last Week's Links Literary History Literature & Psychology Reading

Literary Links

My mistress Melancholy

Mary Ann Lund, associate professor in Renaissance English literature at the University of Leicester in the UK, discusses Robert Burton (1577-1640) and his The Anatomy of Melancholy, “the most pervasive and elusive of Renaissance diseases.”

“One of the great achievements of The Anatomy of Melancholy is to draw together the collective wisdom of nearly two millennia on a condition that was alluring and dangerous in equal measure.” Lund writes “melancholy came to be seen as a European epidemic” during the 16th and 17th centuries.

I READ MY WAY OUT: MY YEAR OF READING COPIOUSLY AND THERAPEUTICALLY

2018 was “a rough year” for college professor and academician Carole Bell. She made several significant life changes during 2019 to help herself overcome isolation, depression, and anxiety, and one of those changes involved “reading intentionally and reading as self-medicating and self-soothing.”

In the end, I read 403 books in 2019, not counting the few I abandoned or partial reads of the academic books I read select chapters from for research. I also wrote 50 book reviews, sent one to a popular blog and had it accepted it for publication. The bottom line: I had been in a funk, and I read my way out. Reading is no substitute for therapy. And I did some other things along the way like find a critique partner and a writing coach, train for a half marathon, and run my best time. But as it had on other occasions before, the biggest internal change began with books.

Coronavirus feels like something out of a sci-fi novel. Here’s how writers have imagined similar scenarios

“The coronavirus outbreak feels like something out of a science fiction — or horror — novel. Indeed, novelists have been imagining scenarios like this for centuries,” write Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar in The Washington Post. Read their discussion of several pandemic novels that may offer readers “a fascinating what-if thought experiment.”

Why Tales of Female Trios Are Newly Relevant

In literature and pop culture, women often come in threes, deriving power from solidarity even as they work to forge their own paths.

How Reading Into The Setting Enhances A Book

I don’t emphasize often enough the importance of close reading for fully understanding and appreciating works of fiction. Here Yash Raaj explains how he uses outside resources to understand fully a novel’s setting—both time and place—and how the setting “interacts with characters.” This approach to reading literature allowed him to see “how literature branched into history, sociology, etc., connecting these disciplines in one text.”

Moreover, this habit has brought out a new side to me as a reader. I have learned how to arm myself with information, which is highly necessary in an era of social media activism. Careful reading certainly adds an edge and displays a streak of awareness accumulated through literature.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Literature & Psychology

The Interplay of Plot and Character in Fiction

2020 Discussion Challenge

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dianne Freeman

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

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

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

In contrast, Tana French begins with characters:

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

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

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

thriller writer Mary Kubica

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

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

Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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

Literary Links

Looking for a Book to Read With Friends?

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

Its inaugural choice is Long Bright River by Liz Moore:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOW HORROR HELPS WITH PROCESSING GRIEF AND TRAUMA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY ONLY READING GOAL THIS YEAR IS TO HAVE FUN

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

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

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Life Stories in Literature List Literature & Psychology Memoir Personal Reading

10 Reading Regrets of 2019

Yesterday I came across the article Readers’ Regrets: The Books We Wish We Read in 2019. It prompted me to take a look at my own shelves for the books I regret not having read in 2019. Here are 10 of them, listed in no particular order.

(Links that describe the book are to either Goodreads, Amazon, or the book’s publisher.)

Normal People by Sally Rooney

cover: Normal People

The description of the author’s “brilliant psychological acuity” drew me so quickly to this book that I bought a hardcover copy soon after its publication. 

Alas, that book still stands on my shelf, expectantly.


Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb

cover: Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

Although I’m not—nor have I ever wanted to be—a therapist, I’m interested in psychology. I even went back to school at age 57 and got a Ph.D. in general psychology. I bought a copy of this book because it promises to scratch two of my itches: (1) a look at psychology that can inform my study of literature (fiction), and (2) an effort to read more nonfiction. The book still has a prominent place on my nonfiction TBR shelf.


In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado

cover: In the Dream House

This book was published only recently (November 5, 2019), so I don’t have a copy and don’t feel too guilty about not having read it yet. Although my first literary love is fiction, my second-favorite type of book to read is memoir (nonfiction). (My focus of study in my Ph.D. program was life stories.) This story of Carmen Maria Machado’s experiences in “an abusive same-sex relationship” has gotten consistently good reviews, so I hope to read it soon.


Circe by Madeline Miller

cover: Circe

As a college classics major, I was immediately drawn to this novel featuring a figure from classical Greek mythology. I ordered a copy from Book of the Month Club when this title was chosen as BOTM book of the year for 2018. It still sits on my BOTM shelf along with a few others as yet unread.


The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth #1) by N.K. Jemisin

cover: The Fifth Season

This book, originally published in 2015, recently drew my attention when I decided that I should at least try to read and appreciate some fantasy. For the record, I have read and loved Lord of the Rings twice and all of the Harry Potter books. This novel consistently appears on lists of good fantasy, so I’ll start here. I put it on the Christmas book wishlist that my daughter, who LOVES fantasy, requested, so it my show up at my house soon. 


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

cover: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

This book hits two of my sweet spots: it’s a novel about life stories:

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

This book is also on just about everybody’s list of the best books of 2019, which makes it call my name even more loudly.


All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

cover: All This Could Be Yours

All This Could Be Yours is a timely, piercing exploration of what it means to be caught in the web of a toxic man who abused his power; it shows how those webs can tangle a family for generations and what it takes to—maybe, hopefully—break free.

A dysfunctional family with hidden secrets: how could I resist? I recently bought the Kindle edition when it was on sale.


Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

cover: Ask Again, Yes

This is another title that comes up on almost all the best books of 2019 lists:

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born six months apart. One shocking night their loyalties are divided, and their bond will be tested again and again over the next 40 years. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while haunted by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.


The Need by Helen Phillips

cover: The Need

This promises to be a psychological thriller that deals in suspense and features family secrets along with an examination of the meaning of motherhood: “The Need is a glorious celebration of the bizarre and beautiful nature of our everyday lives.”


 Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

cover: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

I had this novel, translated from Polish, on my radar even before it received the Nobel Prize in Literature. 

A deeply satisfying thriller cum fairy tale, Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a provocative exploration of the murky borderland between sanity and madness, justice and tradition, autonomy and fate. Whom do we deem sane? it asks. Who is worthy of a voice?

I bought a hardcover copy soon after the English translation was published in August 2019, and it still has a place of honor right at the end of my TBR shelf.


© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Last Week's Links Literature & Psychology

Literary Links

America’s First Banned Book Really Ticked Off the Plymouth Puritans

A portrait of Thomas Morton, an English businessman who came to the New World with the Puritans but didn’t share their religious zeal. Morton “had the audacity to erect a maypole in Massachusetts.”

The Rise and Fall of Booth Tarkington

“How a candidate for the Great American Novelist dwindled into America’s most distinguished hack.”

Recently I read The Magnificent Ambersons, one of Booth Tarkington’s two—yes, TWO!—Pulitzer-Prize-winning novels, and just about choked on it. This New Yorker profile tackles the question “How to explain this remarkable career—the meteoric ascent to fame, the impregnable reputation over several decades, and then the pronounced plunge into obscurity?”

All of Our Good—and All of Our Evil—Lies in Wait in the Archives

“The more time I spend in archives, the more I realize how important they are,” writes Sara Sligar. Here she explains why archives are such “good fodder for fiction” and discusses some of her “favorite novels about archives and documents: thrilling reads that turn seemingly dreary record-keeping into nail-biting suspense.” Her list includes, among others, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Possession by A.S. Byatt, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.

THE CURRENT STATE AND FUTURE OF GOODREADS

Steph Coelho discusses the history and still-growing popularity among readers of Goodreads. Despite its popularity, Coelho writes, the site hasn’t changed much since its inception in December 2006. Here she looks at “what’s not working according to Goodreads users” and “what people love about Goodreads.” She discusses the issue of what the future holds for Goodreads with Goodreads CEO Veronica Moss and, if you’re more dissatisfied than satisfied with Goodreads, offers some current alternatives for keeping track of your reading.

But, she writes, “I wouldn’t recommend abandoning the platform anytime soon. I’m excited to see what’s on the horizon.”

My friend, my self

“Female friendship is central to much recent fiction and film. What can it say about the role of relationships in identity?”

Susan Bright examines the role of female friendships, with a focus on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV comedy drama Fleabag:

What makes both these examples of friendship resonate is their intimacy and vulnerability, not only between the two women, but within the main characters themselves. These women are flawed but honest. Their fallibility, loneliness and insecurity might not make them likeable, but they are totally relatable. In short, seeing ourselves reflected in fiction makes us feel less alone. And so it seems that the most compelling stories are not really about friendship at all, but about self-awareness, self-deception, loneliness and self-confidence (or its lack). These stories focus on female friendship to show that there can be competitiveness and jealousy, transgression and guilt, but also genuine love; the relationships between women can be acutely observant and thought-provoking guides to deep emotions of the self.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Film Last Week's Links Literary History Literature & Psychology

Literary Links

In the rush to harvest body parts, death investigations have been upended

Maybe I just read too many crime novels and watch too many cop shows. Or maybe I’m just gruesome by nature. Yet I often think of exactly this problem when I’m reading a novel or watching a show. A medical examiner needs time to conduct a full investigation (autopsy and lab tests) to determine manner of death (natural causes, accident, suicide, homicide), yet time is of the essence if the dead person is an organ, bone, and/or tissue donor. So who takes precedence, the medical examiner or the transplant team?

This article from the Los Angeles Times also has a local angle for me. If you click through to the article, you’ll see that the photo of a corpse at the top is from the Pierce County medical examiner’s office in Tacoma, Washington—my home town. The reason for this is probably that Melissa Baker, a former investigator in the Pierce County medical examiner’s office, filed a whistleblower complaint in 2015. She is quoted in this article:

“One of my biggest concerns … was the mere fact that someone could potentially get away with murder because evidence has been bungled, lost or not collected,” she said.

While most of this article focuses on Los Angeles County and California law, many of the issues it brings up are informative for anyone interested in what happens after someone dies. I found the graphic labeled “How much is a body worth?” particularly eye-opening.

ADAPTING ADULT BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS

Adapting books for young readers can mean a variety of different things. It can mean adding pictures, changing slurs to slightly less harsh words, or cutting out passages that may seem a little boring to young readers. There are many great books adapted for young readers that come out of this process, and it is a helpful way to introduce kids to new historical and contemporary figures that don’t have as many books for all reading levels as, for example, Abraham Lincoln.

Here’s an interesting article about adapting nonfiction texts for younger (say middle-grade) readers. Such adaptations can contribute to providing children with diverse life stories and new paths of encouragement—for example, Life in Motion, the memoir of pioneering dancer Misty Copeland. “Being able to choose a book with a picture or drawing on the front that looks like yourself is still a privilege, and should not be taken for granted.”

American Gothic: The Woman Who Escaped the Asylum

This excerpt from Nightmare Factories: The Asylum in the American Imagination by Troy Rondinone focuses on two images of Woman that pervaded the 19th century: the woman in white, the angel of the house; and the woman in black, representing woman’s roles as caretaker and moral guardian of society. “Both images are archetypes, two sides of a rubric of femininity that simultaneously empowered and smothered the 19th-century female.”

In “a culture that demanded that women know and accept their place . . . the asylum became a tool of discipline in the gothic world of sentimental fiction.”

What Greta Gerwig Saw in ‘Little Women’: ‘Those Are My Girls’

Cover: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will debut on Christmas Day 2019. In this article Amanda Hess writes that Gerwig’s treatment is “less an update than it is an excavation” of a novel that portrays the March sisters as “posed unnaturally in the conventional narratives of their time.” 

‘A Walk in the Woods’ vs. A Walk in the Woods: On Reading as a Substitute for Experience

Jacob Lambert learns a lesson:

Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown