Please read this piece by award-winning novelist Jesmyn Ward.
Jeffrey Davies looks at the history of the celebrity book, whether it be “a memoir, an essay collection, a cookbook, a book of poetry, or a self-help book.” He discusses the rise of the ghostwriter, what happens when celebrity culture and science clash (for example, Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbooks and health books), and whether celebrity books make it harder for other books to get published.
From the Chicago Tribune:
The memoir, at once literary and fact-based, js a shape-shifter, a container for a diverse array of voices, stories and narrative techniques. A sampling of this year’s entries exemplify the genre’s elasticity. In eclectic formats, they speak of trauma and healing, family dysfunction, the limitations of medical science, and the forging of identity in the face of social and cultural obstacles.
In an article summarizing the ups and downs of this past year’s literary prizes worldwide, Somak Ghoshal concludes:
The reality of judging a prize is complicated by a multitude of conflicting factors. The impulse to do right by being aware of the conditions in which a writer or an artist produces their work often clashes with the duty to uphold aesthetic merit above all else. But these days, the solution seems to come from the contenders themselves. In August, writer Olivia Laing shared the James Tait Black prize for fiction with her fellow nominees because “competition has no place in art”. More recently, the four shortlisted artists for the Turner Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious awards for the arts, requested the jury to divide the prize equally among them. If this trend continues, it will soon become unfashionable to run for competitions, or to win any.
I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, and I often talk about the use of genre tropes in these books. Here Diane Zhang describes several of those tropes and discusses both the origin and recent examples of each.
This article in The Guardian examines how J.M. Barrie “toned down Peter Pan’s character to suit audiences in 1911” as he edited his manuscript for publication.
Barrie’s original manuscript, entitled Peter Pan and Wendy, was published earlier this month.
© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown
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.)
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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
Here are some of the articles that got me thinking over the past week.
Stephen King experienced (celebrated doesn’t seem like the appropriate word) an anniversary last week: 20 years since the automobile accident that nearly killed him. He wrote this article for The New Yorker a year after the accident.
I loved Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and have just read (though not yet reviewed) his newly released novel, Recursion, which this interview calls “another particle collider of narrative ambition.” In the interview for Goodread Crouch discusses “the new book, the nature of memory, and the cosmic implications of déjà vu.”
On June 12 the Center for Publishing at NYU’s School of Professional Studies in conjunction with Publishers Weekly hosted a PubTechConnect event entitled “Book Lovers on the Internet: Connecting with Readers in Digital Ways.”
The group discussed a wide range of internet-focused book-related topics, including whether the internet has changed literary culture for the better or worse, how to effectively use social media to talk about (or promote) books online, how book criticism has changed in the digital era, and which authors were best at using social media as part of their work or brand.
“If there was one major takeaway from the evening, it was that all of the panelists believed that the internet has served to expand literary culture and its reach.”
We all process grief in different ways. For Jayson Greene, who lost his two-year-old daughter due to a freak accident, it was to take pen to paper. The result is Once More We Saw Stars, a memoir so moving and powerful, it “[restores Greta] ever-so-briefly to the world.” Here, Greene argues that there are words to express unimaginable loss, and how healing it can be to use them.
Comfort by Ann Hood is another memoir written under similar circumstances.
Two veteran women crime writers, Rene Denfeld and Gilly Macmillan, “discuss the wave of new women crime writers—and if being a woman has changed how they write about violence and crime.”
Denfeld says, “Writing about violence can be a way for us to explore what it means, where violence comes from, and what we can do to prevent it.”
Both writers emphasize the need for fully developed characters on both sides of the violence equation, both the victims and the perpetrators. Since women have historically suffered the effects of violence, the current push of crime fiction written by women aims to demonstrate resilience rather than simply victimization.
Macmillan says, “Crime fiction can delve deep into current societal issues and does it best when those issues strike a universal chord, giving us an opportunity to connect with readers in a very visceral way.”
Author Jennifer Weiner has “spent nearly a decade challenging the elitism and sexism of book publishing and criticism. Her new novel, “Mrs. Everybody” is a culmination of Weiner’s work as both a storyteller and a truth-teller, a sweeping multigenerational family saga against a backdrop of 70 years of women’s history.”
In this interview in Salon she discusses her new novel, Mrs. Everything, a multigenerational novel about women and families, and the inequality between men and women in the publishing industry.
Here are some of Weiner’s major points:
- “women’s stories can be big stories, even though we are not taught to think of them that way.”
- “We read men in school and we were taught that that was Literature, with a capital L. We read books by men. Men did not grow up reading books by women in school and believing that that was literature.”
- “I wanted readers [of Weiner’s latest novel, Mrs. Everything] to think about the importance of naming things. How once you’ve got a term for something or a word for something or a language for something, that’s when you can start to solve it. That’s when you can start to fix it.”
© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown
Kalish, Mildred Armstrong. Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
Bantam Books, 2007
Some time around 1930, when the author was “little more than five years old” (p. 6), she, her mother, her baby sister, and her two brothers went to live with her mother’s parents in the town of Garrison, Iowa. The children’s father had committed some unnamed infraction against their mother and was consequently banished from the family and never spoken of again.
When Millie and family arrived, their grandparents had retired from farming and were living in a house in town. But they still owned several outlying farms, and Millie’s family was given one to live on and work, across the road from another farm occupied by an aunt and uncle and their children. Millie’s family spent summers on the farm, then attended the rural school through December, when winter shut down the farm. They then moved into the grandparents’ house in town and attended the town school from January until school ended in May.
Grandma and Grandpa Urmy were “two very strict and stern individuals. For us children, building character, developing a sense of responsibility, and above all, improving one’s mind would become the essential focus of our lives” (p 6). In contrast to the regimented and regulated life in their grandparents’ house in town, life on the farm was much more easygoing. Their mother allowed them to roam freely as long as they did their chores—and they had lots of chores—and they spent much time exploring with their cousins.
In chapters about topics such as chores, school, cooking, and holidays, Kalish describes how she learned the lessons of pioneer thrift, proper work ethic, and acceptable behavior that allowed her family to thrive during the difficult times of the Great Depression.
In looking back, I realize that I have had the good fortune to have absorbed the events that transpired during my childhood years into my very being, as if no boundary exists between then and now, as if the past had not really passed… . I tell of a time, a place, and a way of life long gone, nearly forgotten by the world, but still indelible in my memory. It is my hope to resurrect them, to make them live again. (p. 7)
In this book Kalish has successfully resurrected her childhood experiences and made them live again. There are no surprises or revelations in this book, but it contributes much to future generations’ knowledge of what everyday life was like at one particular point in history.
© 2014 by Mary Daniels Brown
Hood, Ann. Comfort: A Journey Through Grief
New York: Norton, 2008
When Ann Hood’s five-year-old daughter Grace died suddenly in 2002 from a virulent form of strep, everyone tried to comfort Ann with platitudes like “She’s in a better place” or “Time heals.” But Hood did not find these cliches comforting. And everyone told her to write down what she was experiencing. But this accomplished novelist couldn’t write. She couldn’t even read: “Friends delivered volumes of poetry and books on grief by the dozen. But when I tried to read, letters no longer formed words, and words did not make sentences. Instead, each page held a jumble of letters that meant nothing, no matter how hard I stared” (p. 43).
In desperation Ann Hood turned to knitting:
For me, knitting is like meditation. It is not that my mind numbs or goes blank; in a way, the complete opposite happens. If I stop paying attention, I make a mistake. I confess that I love to knit while cooking shows play on my television. Knitters I know knit to all kinds of music, from classical to show tunes. But as soon as we pick up our needles, we enter that still place. Our attention becomes specific to what is in our hands and the outside world fades away. (p. 49)
“Grief is not linear” (p. 52), Hood tells us. And so writing about grief cannot be linear, either:
Writing about Grace, losing her, loving her, anything at all, is not linear either. Readers want a writer to be able to connect the dots. But these dots don’t connect. One day I think about how knitting saved my life, and I write about that. But how do I connect it to other parts of my grief? Grief doesn’t have a plot. It isn’t smooth. There is no beginning and middle and end. (p. 53)
Comfort therefore is not a chronological narrative of events: first Christmas without Grace, Grace’s sixth birthday, the first anniversary of Grace’s death. Rather, it is a series of interconnected meditations on various themes, many involving seemingly ordinary details of everyday life such as Grace’s favorite foods or her favorite music. But these details are no longer ordinary, suffused as they are with a mother’s memories of her child and the pain of her loss:
Time passes and I am still not through it. Grief isn’t something you get over. You live with it. You go on with it lodged in you. Sometimes I feel like I have swallowed a pile of stones. Grief makes me heavy. It makes me slow. (p. 150)
Writer Alice Sebold found that she could not write fiction until she had written about the reality of the trauma of her own life. She therefore had to write Lucky: A Memoir (1999), about being raped as a college student, before she could turn the experience into fiction in The Lovely Bones (2002). Unlike Sebold, Hood dealt with her trauma first in fiction (The Knitting Circle, 2007) before turning to memoir. In The Knitting Circle the main character learns of the healing power of sharing our stories with others who have had similar experiences and can therefore empathize with us. Perhaps writing her fictional character’s story first finally freed Ann Hood to write her own.
In Old Friend from Far Away, her book about memoir writing, Natalie Goldberg says, “Anchor your inner world with details from the outer. And anchor the outer in a human life of feelings, hopes, desires, loves, and hates. Weave the two together. Integrate them” (p. 202). Ann Hood’s memoir tells of the sweetness of memory encased within the bitter pain of loss. Seldom will you find such an aptly emblematic representation of human emotion that integrates an individual’s inner and outer worlds as this passage:
Not long ago, I was in the supermarket and a small basket of bright orange kumquats caught my eye. I remembered that long-ago trip to Italy when Grace developed a taste for this funny fruit. I could almost picture her in the front seat of my shopping cart, filled with delight at the sight of kumquats. I reached into the basket of fruit and lifted out one perfect kumquat, small and oblong and orange. When I bit into it, tears sprang into my eyes. The fruit’s skin is sour, and it takes time before you find the sweetness hidden inside. (p. 58)
©2008 by Mary Daniels Brown
Kidd, Sue Monk. The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996)
HarperCollins, 238 pages, $12.95 trade paperback
Long before Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees hit the bestseller lists, Kidd was an established Christian inspirational writer and speaker. Then suddenly one day an incident involving her teenage daughter sent her on a years-long journey to discover the role of women—and therefore of herself—in society, in the universe, and in the spiritual world.
Although Kidd’s Southern Baptist upbringing had taught her that women are—and are meant to be—subordinate to men, through research she “began to discover that for many thousands of years before the rise of the Hebrew religion, in virtually every culture of the world, people worshiped the Supreme Being in the form of a female deity–the Great Goddess” (134). This discovery sent her on a quest to rediscover the sacred feminine that traditional religion has for thousands of years denied. For Kidd, this was not simply a research project, but rather a deeply personal investigation into how she, as a woman, fit into an all-encompassing spiritual realm:
Reclaiming the ancient feminine consciousness as a model of what’s possible, integrating it into the world as it is now evolving, and balancing it with masculine symbol, image, and power together allow us to go forward and create an utterly new consciousness, one large enough and strong enough to carry us into the future. (p. 145)
This spiritual quest affected Kidd profoundly and up-ended every aspect of her life. In this moving memoir she puts her considerable writing skills to work to explain how she reached the conclusion that “What is ultimately needed is balance–divine symbols that reflect masculine and feminine and a genuine marriage of the masculine and feminine in each of us” (p. 189).
“The Divine Feminine is returning to collective consciousness, all right. She’s coming, and it will happen whether we’re ready or not” (p. 99), Kidd warns. Like the ancient oracle, she seems to have predicted the best-selling suspense novel of summer 2003, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
I encourage all women, particularly those in midlife, to read The Dance of the Dissident Daughter.
© 2003 by Mary Daniels Brown