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

Categories
Fiction Literature & Psychology

“Monsters, villains, and antiheroes are largely just like us”

Monsters, villains, and antiheroes are largely just like us—with one key difference. They have the power to fulfill self-interests because they live beyond the dictates of morality. They care little for how their actions affect others, so nothing is forbidden. For them, it’s not a matter of “Should I do this?” but “Can I do this?” And whether that means seeking vengeance or stealing the crown or setting fire to an entire city, these characters can and do act on their desires, regardless of the consequences. Their depravity—their freedom—allows us readers to explore the darker side of our own natures in a safe way. Because even though we might fantasize about eviscerating our enemies, we don’t actually want to.

Shelby Mahurin
Categories
Author News Fiction Last Week's Links Literary History Literature & Psychology Publishing Reading Television

Literary Links

Learning to Write Mysteries the Mystic River Way

Angie Kim’s recently published debut novel Miracle Creek is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Dennis Lehane’s 2001 book Mystic River is a novel I still remember well even after all these years. Coming across this article, in which Angie Kim explains teaching herself how to structure the novel she wanted to write by rereading Mystic River multiple times, felt like a reunion with two old friends.

Kim writes that she also studied novels by Kate Atkinson, Laura Lippman, Tana French, and Chris Bohjalian: “I loved how [these novels] used the mystery frame to immediately pull their readers into the narrative and propel them forward, but how they forced us to slow way down as we went deep into the psyche of the narrators.” She wanted to create in her novel the same degree of immersiveness she found in those models. Her success in doing so is what makes Miracle Creek such a powerful novel.

HOW TO DETERMINE THE READING LEVEL OF A BOOK

For parents wondering how to choose books appropriate for their children, Katherine Willoughby takes a look at “all of the various ways educators, librarians, and book publishers level and categorize books for young readers.”

WHY FICTION IS THE PERFECT TROJAN HORSE TO DISCUSS ETHICAL DILEMMAS

Kira Peikoff explains one of the benefits of reading fiction:

we need fictional outlets like television, movies, and books. Far from being superficial add-ons to life, they help us to live life. Storytelling is the oldest form of virtual reality. Through the safe haven of fiction, as we watch characters go through their own turmoil, we may encounter our own deepest fears and flaws, our highest hopes and strongest convictions. We may find inspiration, learn profound lessons, and gain the strength to overcome our own conflicts. In rare cases, we may even find ourselves rethinking our entire perspective.

‘All crime writers are asking is for a little respect’

Bert Wright, writing for The Irish Times, tackles the question of why crime fiction is so often spoken of as inferior to literary fiction. “All crime writers are asking is for a little respect but too often it is not forthcoming.”

“Whatever the truth of the matter, crime fiction is on an irresistible roll and no amount of splenetic wind-baggery can make the slightest dent in crime fiction’s hard-earned self-esteem.”

CAROLYN KEENE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE REAL NANCY DREW AUTHOR

You may have heard that Carolyn Keene was the original Nancy Drew author and that Harriet Stratemeyer Adams later wrote additional novels published under Keene’s name. But Annika Barranti Klein explains that the real story isn’t quite that simple. Read the complex story of who really wrote and published all the novels in this popular series.

 The Talented Patricia Highsmith’s Private Diaries Are Going Public

Now this news is worth waiting for: Liveright Publishing plans to publish hundreds of pages from Patricia Highsmith’s personal diaries as a single volume in 2021. This article describes Highsmith as:

a literary figure whose sharply observed psychological thrillers, including “Strangers on a Train” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” became cultural touchstones. She was a secretive, often prickly woman who remained a cipher even to her friends and lovers, and a trailblazer who wrote one of the first mainstream novels depicting two women in love. But she could be blinded by her own bigotry and espoused racist and anti-Semitic views.

The diaries—“56 spiral-bound notebooks, totaling some 8,000 pages”—were discovered after Highsmith’s death in 1995, tucked behind sheets and towels in a linen closet of her house in Switzerland.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Literature & Psychology

How Thrillers Grab Our Attention

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

Literary Links

Tash Aw in Conversation with Chia-Chia Lin

Chinese Malaysian novelist Tash Aw discusses his latest novel, We, the Survivors, and the relationship between literature and the immigrant experience. 

Of course there are always local details that make more sense to some. But when a very specific story of racism is committed to paper, it acquires a universality that speaks far beyond its boundaries.

Why Monster Stories Captivate Us

“Our brains are compelled by category violations.”

Every culture has “monstrous mash-ups,” or composite creatures, in their folklore and religion. Think of the Sphinx (half human, half lion), centaurs (half human, half horse), and mermaids (half woman, half fish). Such unexpected hybrids violate our “innate or . . . early developmental folk taxonomy of the world, according to psychologist Dan Sperber and anthropologist Pascal Boyer.” Such monstrous creatures “offer surrogate rehearsals for how the real community (‘us’) will resist actual enemies (‘them’).”

True crime always risks exploitation. But it can still make the world a better place

when we center the lives of the victims and their families rather than obsessing over the quirks of killers and accept the costs of being more sensitive to victims’ pain than we are thrilled by murderers’ transgressions, true-crime stories can make a small contribution to making the world a more just, more empathetic place.

‘Ulysses’ on Trial

In connection with the centennial anniversary of the American Civil Liberties Union, novelist Michael Chabon discusses the significance of the trial that determined James Joyce’s Ulysses was not obscene. 

The 100 best books of the 21st century

Here’s a very humbling list of the best of world literature, both fiction and nonfiction, produced so far in the 21st century. I’ll never catch up.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown