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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
“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’).”
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.
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.
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
Content Warning: This piece discusses recent sexual assault headlines.
I want to be as frank with you as is possible: it is increasingly hard for me to find joy or purpose in reading lately, specifically novels. I find myself asking, why read fiction at all when the world is falling apart around me?
D.R. Baker, “a transgender, nonbinary person,” continues to grapple with this question as the distressing headlines continue to pile up.
Because I was born, and spent the first 19 years of my life, in Connecticut, here’s a literary tour of significant places in and around the state’s capital of Hartford. Featured writers include “Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Wallace Stevens, and more.”
Jill Lepore searches for a picture of the private Herman Melville in The New Yorker during the celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth.
Bestseller lists and book recommendations of best books to read abound, but in this piece Kelly Jensen discusses the Panorama Project, which “looks at the books most frequently requested at libraries across the U.S. and breaks down the popularity by region.” This project can produce a glimpse below all the big, popular titles for “a more micro level look at books which are popular by specific areas of the country.”
The result is lists of fiction and nonfiction for both adults and YA readers exclusive of “well known bestsellers, book club selections and other heavily promoted titles.” Look here for suggestions of books your regional neighbors are checking out from their local libraries.
the novels of Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and the “sensation” fiction she pioneered, left an imprint on literature that remains today.
At age 17 Braddon began acting “in everything from comedies to burlesques to Shakespeare.” This background in theater gave her a sense of story and plot that allowed her to turn to writing novels for the masses, books that “earned [her] a reputation as a writer with a knack for presenting the more scandalous side of the upper classes.”
© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown
Lots of interesting literary-related articles this week.
The Staunch prize was founded in 2018 to honor a thriller ““in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” This article reports on the many writers, including Val McDermid and Sophie Hannah, who refute the accusation that their books influence the outcome of trials involving violence against women.
The Staunch prize was founded as an antidote to what many cultural and literary critics decry as the trend of “girl books,” typified by works such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. Such books, the criticism goes, treat women as objects and glorify acts of violence against women such as stalking, gaslighting, sexual harassment, and rape. Novelist Nina Laurin, who has used the word girl and the related words sister and wife, in her book titles asks, “why do these concepts continue to capture the imagination all these years after this titling trend began?” She argues that< while such words call up certain stereotypes:
In the “girl” books, however, the female characters are also ruthless killers, kick-ass vigilantes, and skilled manipulators. The wives spy, snoop, and poison, and the mothers don’t always know best.
Jennifer Szalai discusses the book I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by TV critic Emily Nussbaum. Szalai says that Nussbaum unashamedly “treats television as art in its own right” rather than approaching it as a lesser art form.
Kelly Faircloth praises Judith Krantz, who died last month, as someone who “wrote highly popular commercial fiction that encapsulates her era, the late 1970s to the mid-1990s.”
Krantz’s books are often dismissed as trash, but as any archeologist will tell you, there are few resources so valuable for reconstructing a historical era as a nicely overflowing dump.
Abigail N. Rosewood, author of If I had Two Lives, has spent much of her life moving around, not living in any one place for longer than five years. This transitory life has given her many different layers of identity that she sometimes has trouble stitching together. Here she offers a list of “seven works of art that investigate powerful psychic ruptures.”
They are not easy books and they shouldn’t be. Like most great works of literature, they ask difficult questions⎯How does a psychic split happen? Can a person survive it? How many masks can one wear before getting crushed beneath their weight? Is coherency an illusion?
Nicole Rudick looks at the stories collected in the Library of America’s recently issued volume The Future Is Female!: 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women, from Pulp Pioneers to Ursula K. Le Guin, edited by Lisa Yaszek.
It encompasses the genre’s pulp years (1926–1940) and the so-called Golden Age (approximately 1940–1960), and ends just before the emergence of feminist SF in the 1970s. The anthology dispels the commonly held belief that women didn’t participate much in science fiction before the Seventies and argues that a category of fiction often thought to be socially retrograde, technologically fetishistic, and poorly written is in fact rich in style and humanity.
It is a rare writer who can use sci-fi not simply to chart an escape from reality, but as a pointed reflection of the most minute and magnified experiences that frame and determine the lives of those who live in black skin. Octavia E. Butler was one such writer. This year marks 20 years since the publication of one of her most inspired and radically profound novels, Parable of the Talents. This is a book which saw America through the “double consciousness” which W.E.B. Dubois asserted that only black people have cultivated, and which black women have sharpened to an extreme degree. An America that is bloody, unyielding, violent and tentatively united to mask a history never reckoned with.
Julie Sedivy looks at the development of social intelligence over centuries by comparing medieval literature with novels of today. Medieval literature discusses what characters do with almost no consideration of how those characters felt about their actions or their motivations. Current literature (by which she means fiction—short stories or novels), in contrast, often focuses more on characters’ feelings than on their actions. This difference illustrates what Sedivy calls “Western literature’s gradual progression from narratives that relate actions and events to stories that portray minds in all their meandering, many-layered, self-contradictory complexities.”
Literature certainly reflects the preoccupations of its time, but there is evidence that it may also reshape the minds of readers in unexpected ways. Stories that vault readers outside of their own lives and into characters’ inner experiences may sharpen readers’ general abilities to imagine the minds of others. If that’s the case, the historical shift in literature from just-the-facts narration to the tracing of mental peregrinations may have had an unintended side effect: helping to train precisely the skills that people needed to function in societies that were becoming more socially complex and ambiguous.
Sedivy writes that in medieval literature people are “constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing,” but without the author drawing much attention to such processes. These early authors present characters’ mental states through direct speech or gestures. “The direct reporting of emotion was fairly common, but mostly kept short and simple (“He was afraid”).”
This approach to emotional representation began to change between 1500 and 1700, “when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy.” The soliloquies of Shakespearean characters such as Hamlet illustrate this change, which early literature specialist Elizabeth Hart attributes to the advent of print and the increase in literacy it prompted. The ability to reread and study printed passages prompted “a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.”
Among these new cognitive skills was “the ability to accurately grasp the thoughts and emotions of others, or mentalizing ability.” Mentalizing ability grew along with the emergence of the novel in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sedivy reviews psychological research into how reading current fiction enhances readers’ mentalizing ability. She concludes that literature that trusts readers’ ability to recognize clues and draw inferences about characters’ motivations most effectively nurtures and sharpens readers’ understanding of characters’ mental states. The benefits are most obvious when study participants read “ literary passages that described characters’ thoughts, desires, or beliefs.”
And this process of reading challenging literature to improve mentalizing ability is circular: Reading challenging literature sharpens one’s mentalizing ability, and that improved mentalizing ability makes one an increasingly skillful reader of literary characters’ inner lives.
When an author expresses deep confidence in a reader and creates a space in which the reader can, from the depths of her own social imagination, lower her consciousness into the body and experiences of another, the effect can be transformational.
This article by Joseph Epstein is a good follow-up to the article above. “By the bookish life, I mean a life in which the reading of books has a central, even a dominating, place.”
Nobody has read, or can read, everything, and by everything I include only the good, the beautiful, the important books.
After admitting that there exists no definitive list of the good, the beautiful, the important books, Epstein continues, with much humor, to expound on the joy he has found in the bookish life.
Tyler Sage on Ross Macdonald: the man who added psychological insight to the hard-boiled thriller
While for Raymond Chandler and other early noir writers “the detective story was a tool for laying bare the unspoken realities of American life, in which dreams of prosperity and freedom collided with corruption, abuse of power and modern social conditions,” Ross Macdonald turned such concerns inward: “his deepest obsession was with the horrors of family life and the way those horrors form us when we are young.”
Sage quotes from one of Macdonald’s notebooks: ““Hell lies at the bottom of the human heart, and you find it by expressing your personality.”
Sage here analyzes the 18 Lew Archer novels Macdonald wrote over 27 years, “a handful of which are as good as the genre has to offer.”
Literary Hub is running a series called A Century of Reading comprising lists of books that defined each decade from the 1900s “to the (nearly complete) 2010s.” Series writer Emily Temple explains:
Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered.
Since I came of age in the 1960s, this one particularly caught my eye. I’d say Temple has nailed the decade pretty well with her 10 choices. And beneath the chosen books is a HUGE list of other relevant books from that time period. So many memories—and suggestions for further reading—and rereading.
© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown
At a time when female “others”—black, brown, and yellow—together constitute the largest block of the world’s population, their persistent invisibility to Westerners not only means they are overlooked in the present moment, but that they are consistently erased from the historical record.
Rafia Zakaria reacts against “the challenges that arise from a Western literary canon that, despite decades of feminist intervention, remains largely male and white” with a look at key texts that have helped her in her “own self-fashioning as a lettered woman of color.” In her series Reading Other Women in Boston Review she undertakes “a journey into complexity, into the lives and literary worlds of those who are challenging their own marginalization through the power of the story.” While “little brown girls” must undertake such a reading journey out of necessity, Zakaria hopes that the “Western reader must choose to do it.”
On The Many Visions of Voyeurism in Crime Fiction
Claire Fuller, whose novels include Swimming Lessons, discusses the frequent presence of characters she calls watchers in crime fiction, “ staring via two-way mirrors, spying through surveillance cameras, peeping from behind trees, and peering through train and car windows” at other characters. But, she adds, we as readers are staring at the watchers just as those watchers are looking at other people. “Does that make us in some way complicit in the crimes committed between these pages?” Fuller asks.
be careful who you’re judging when you’re horrified by a fictional watcher or voyeur, and remember that readers—you included—could be considered guilty of the same crime.
These writers are embracing a more elastic literary form — the novel — and a number of recent works, often genre-bending as well as gender-bending, have won critical acclaim.
In The New York Times Peter Haldeman discusses recent works of literature that, “[I]n a field previously dominated by memoir and genre fiction (sci-fi, young adult), [includes] a number of first novels with more purely literary designs — including playing with genre — [that] are getting attention.” The works discussed here include the following:
- Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor
- Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg
- Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl’s Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom
- An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
- Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
- Little Fish by Casey Plett
- The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara
Read how these authors are bending and blending literary types and genres to create new forms to portray new narratives of being.
Halloween was last week, but I’m still coming across interesting articles about all the usual trappings of that holiday. Here Sarah Perry explains why “[t]o understand the literary gothic—to even begin to account for its curious appeal, and its simultaneous qualities of seduction and repulsion—it is necessary to undertake a little time travel.” Perry explains how the term gothic, originally applied to architecture, came to be applied to literature that “repels and appeals in equally fervent measure.”
I make no secret of the fact that I like mysteries, and I read a lot of them. So I enjoyed this journey down memory lane by John Wilson (who is just my age) of his own love of and history with reading mysteries. There’s a bit of a Christian-theology overtone in his account that I do not share, but he seems just as fascinated with the ways mysteries probe the human condition as I am.
© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown
It’s only the middle of the month, so you’ve got some time to get into the Halloween book/film mood. Here are some suggestions.
Sarah Smeltzer writes:
The haunted house is a staple of the horror genre and it’s easy to see why. Your house should be familiar and it should behave predictably. When your safe, warm home turns out to be something else, it’s terrifying… . But what do women do in the haunted house? How does the haunted house function as the terrain on which women work out their fears and anxieties?
Smeltzer examines three classic haunted-house stories:
- The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
She concludes that “the haunted house is a physical expression of anxiety and trauma that stems from violent misogyny.”
Furthermore, maybe the haunted house is the only way that women in the novels discussed above can process what has happened to them. There do not seem to be very many other options for their processing, after all. The women might not have the words or the protection of societal structures to articulate their fears and passions. Therefore, the entire house models itself after them, horrors and all. The physical space takes on their trauma and anxieties.
The article includes a link to a “list of classic haunted house novels” to allow readers to see if other examples follow a similar pattern.
Christine Ro presents:
just a few quotes from the novel that hint at why The Haunting of Hill House resonates when it comes to perceptions of haunted houses.
The most telling of these quotations, to me, is this one:
“In all our conscious minds, as we sit here talking, there is not one iota of belief in ghosts. Not one of us, even after last night, can say the word ‘ghost’ without a little involuntary smile. No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense. Not one of us thinks rationally that what ran through the garden last night was a ghost, and what knocked on the door was a ghost, and yet there was certainly something going on in Hill House last night, and the mind’s instinctive refuge—self-doubt—is eliminated. We cannot say, ‘It was my imagination,’ because three other people were there too.”
This list is broken into categories:
- Gothic movies based on books
- Original gothic movies
- Gothic TV
And there’s an added bonus: a list of several links to related articles about all things gothic
Yes, haunted houses are a staple of Halloween lore, but here are some books that offer different versions of scary and spooky.
YA (young adult) novels are often short, so you probably have time to squeeze in at least one or two of these before October 31st.
we’ve rounded up a list of new books to read for Halloween, including an upcoming release from Stephen King. From spine-tingling horror to twisty psychological thrillers to historical novels full of mysterious creatures, these books are sure to get you in the spooky spirit.
In the show, New Zealand journalist David Farrier visits an array of peculiar or dangerous places around the world to see what he can learn. Most people who participate in “dark tourism” travel to places that have, historically, been connected to tragedy, death, or other dark topics.
This article isn’t limited to Halloween; it’s appropriate for the fall season. Romeo Rosales is “excited for the fall beers that hit market shelves to welcome the change in weather and season.”
I am not claiming to know an actual science behind which dark beers should be paired with which dark read. You could pair your favorite dark beer with any dark book, but I have a few book and beer recommendations.
And if you’re not a beer drinker, presumably these books could also be read with wine, coffee, tea, or any other favorite beverage.
Here’s another article about Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Jackson was the first author to understand that “houses aren’t haunted – people are”, says Hill [writer Joe Hill, son of Stephen King]. “All the most terrible spectres are already there inside your head, just waiting for the cellar door of the subconscious to spring open so they can get out, sink their icy claws into you,” he says. “In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.”
You can also read what other horror writers have to say about Jackson’s novel.
As for the new Netflix adaptation, the description indicates that it makes many major changes in the source material. I plan to watch it at some point to see if it’s true to the novel’s spirit despite the changes.
© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown
Septembr 23 is Bi Visibility Day and the start of #BiWeek. Here, one reader discusses four books about bisexuality that made her feel valid and understood.
I welcome you and ask that you join me on the journey of understanding bisexuality. It isn’t another “kind of gay.” It’s its own orientation. It’s real, it’s not a phase, it doesn’t mean I’m confused, it doesn’t mean I’m straight if I’m dating a man or a lesbian if I’m dating a woman. I’m bi. Bi people are just as varied as any other group, but we’re real and we often go unseen. Here are four books about bisexuality helped me understand it and claim it for myself.