Book News Fiction Literary Criticism Literary History Monday Miscellany Nonfiction

Monday Miscellany

Book lovers rake in the reading as publishers release fall titles

It’s time to trade in the beach reads for the usually longer and more serious fall reads. The Sacramento Bee‘s Allen Pierleoni lists upcoming new titles, some by big-name authors (think Joan Didion, Lee Child, Stephen King, Alice Hoffman, and Sue Grafton ) in both fiction and nonfiction.

Perfectly Flawed: In defense of unlikable characters

Lionel Shriver, author of, among other novels, We Need to Talk about Kevin, discusses the flawed main characters that she has often been reprimanded for creating. Shriver distinguishes her characters from both villains and anti-heroes: “flawed main characters, neither villains nor anti-heroes, [are main characters] whom the author has deliberately, even perversely contrived as hard to like.”

Most famously in my own work, Eva Khatchadourian, the narrator of We Need to Talk About Kevin, is hard to like: a woman whose world travels make her feel superior to her American compatriots, who experiences pregnancy as an infestation and, worst of all, who fails to love her own son.

Shriver argues that a character’s likeability comprises two components, moral approval and affection, and “Readers often get approval and affection confused.” She asks, ” do we always want to read about characters who conform to current political conventions—who don’t smoke, never say anything bigoted, and always recycle their yogurt pots?” Such “nice” characters would be easy for the writer to recreate, she says, but would we truly want to read about only these paragons?

Goodness is not only boring but downright annoying. In fiction and reality both, multilingual, loftily-educated ponces on missions to save the rainforest are probably pains in the bum. Thus, however readily I might construct exemplars who pick up litter and volunteer at soup kitchens, this cheap courting of your approval might well backfire. Despite my heavy-handed stacking of the moral deck, you wouldn’t like them. Nick Hornby made exactly this point in his delightful novel How To Be Good, in which the main character’s determination to be virtuous—he gives away the family assets and invites homeless people to live in the house—is delectably repellent.

Creating only nice characters is not an accurate representation of life:

Because in real life, people are not always perfectly charming. I try to duplicate in fiction the complex, contradictory, and infuriating people I meet on the other side of my study door. When fiction works, readers can develop the same nuanced, conflicted relationships to characters that they have to their own friends and family. I’m less concerned that you love my characters than that you recognise them. Human beings have rough edges. Authors who write exclusively about ethical, admirable, likeable characters are not writing about real people.

Her flawed main characters are interesting, Shriver says, and

readers want to be engaged even more than they want to be seduced. When purely affectionate and approving, a reader’s relationship to a character is flat. When positive feelings mix with censure and consternation, the relationship is dynamic. In fact, authorial elicitation of the reader’s frantic if impotent warning, “Oh, no, don’t do that!” is a powerful literary tool, for dismay generates energy and intensifies engagement. In Kevin, I made Eva’s husband Franklin deliberately exasperating—see-no-evil, he refuses to recognize his son’s growing malice—because this “What a dupe! Wake up, buddy!” reaction is involving and oddly enjoyable.

My own view is that liking or disliking a literary character is not the point; understanding the character is what’s important. When writers do their jobs well (as Shriver does in We Need to Talk about Kevin), we understand who the characters are and why they do what they do. At their root, all good stories require conflict, and conflict arises from characters who are less than perfect. Or, as Shriver puts it, “Good stories require mistakes.”

Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions 

Sandra Gilbert (both individually and with her collaborator Susan Gubar) has played a long and distinguished part in the rethinking of the teaching of English literature. The title of the first major Gilbert and Gubar collaboration, The Madwoman in the Attic, has become shorthand to indicate all those questions that once were not asked about fiction. Since that book’s publication in 1979, all kinds of silences have been broken as women have become central figures both as subjects and as critics in the academic study of literature.

Mary Evans discusses Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions:

Rereading Women is a collection of previously published essays dating from 1977 to 2008, with new material limited to an introductory essay that describes how Gilbert began her collaboration with Gubar and became a professional academic. It is written within the standard assumptions of second-wave feminism in which, to paraphrase, the people who lived in darkness (particularly the darkness of the US in the 1950s) saw a great light in the early 1970s.

Evans discusses Gilbert’s work in its relation to university curriculums, to what is chosen for study and how it is studied.

this collection has one very considerable merit: it situates the reader at the centre of the reading of literature. The work that Gilbert did, both in the classroom and the study, was essentially democratic: she wanted the people she was teaching to engage with literature and through it find not the voices of authoritative “great traditions”, but their own voices.

When she, and Gubar, introduced the idea of the woman locked away in an attic by people for whom her existence was inconvenient, they introduced an idea into the curriculum that encouraged the recognition of other forms and occasions of silencing.


Author News Book Groups Book News Book Recommendations Film Monday Miscellany Nonfiction Reading

Monday Miscellany

Vashon Great Books club one of oldest in U.S.

The Seattle Times spotlights 92-year-old Grace Crecelius:

For 61 years, Grace Crecelius has cracked the books. Not just any books, mind you, but the works of Plato, Descartes and Kant, Shakespeare, Marx and Freud.

At 92, Crecelius is the oldest member of what may be one of the longest-running book clubs around — the Vashon Island Great Books Foundation discussion group.

The Great Books Foundation was founded in 1947 by Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins. Its purpose is to help readers of all ages become more reflective and responsible thinkers by engaging with great works of literature. Since its beginning the Foundation has expanded its materials to serve students of all ages (K-12, college, and adults). While its original offerings focused on great works of thinkers such as Plato and Socrates, current materials include newer literary works such as contemporary novels and even science fiction. Its aim is to “make the reading and discussion of literature a lifelong source of enjoyment, personal growth, and social engagement.”

On the Great Books web site you can search for a group in your area. If there isn’t one, you can also find out how to start a group. The Foundation also offers instruction in how to practice civil discourse in discussion of the ideas presented in literature.

P.D. James writes Jane Austen sequel

P.D. James could hold back no longer.

The 91-year-old detective novelist said Wednesday she was glad to finally complete a long-desired project – a sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”

James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley” will be published by Faber & Faber in Britain in early November and by Alfred A. Knopf in the United states on Dec. 6.

Ms. Readers’ 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of All Time: The Top 10 and the Complete List!

Scholar, activist, provocateur, teacher, community-builder, inspiration: No one word can span the career of bell hooks or capture how much we love her work. According to Ms. readers’ selections of the best feminist non-fiction of all time, she’s your favorite writer, with three books in our top ten–including number one–and a total of seven books throughout the list. To judge by the final picks, issues of work, sex and intersectionality ranked highest among our reader’s feminist concerns.

And here are the top 10:

10. The Purity Myth: How America’s Obsession with Virginity is Hurting Young Women
by Jessica Valenti
Seal Press, 2009
Jessica Valenti combats a nation’s virginity complex, arguing that myths about “purity” are damaging to both girls and women. She points the way forward toward a world where women are perceived as more than vessels of chastity. 

9. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
by bell hooks
South End Press, 1985
Cementing her place as one of the most influential feminist theorists, hooks’ Feminist Theory explores Kimberle Crenshaw’s conversation-changing idea of intersectionality: the way racism, classism and sexism work together to foster oppression.

8. Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism
by bell hooks
South End Press, 1999
Named after the famous speech by Sojourner Truth, this must-read by bell hooks discusses black women’s struggle with U.S. racism and sexism since the time of slavery and doesn’t shirk from how white middle- and upper-class feminists have at times failed poor and non-white women. 

7. Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture
by Ariel Levy
Free Press, 2005
What do phenomena such as Girls Gone Wild say about feminism? This book looks at the ways women today make sex objects of themselves, and she’s not impressed. She chews out false “empowerment” based on self-objectification and offers feminist alternatives. 

6. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
by Susan Faludi
Crown, 1991
This landmark book sounded the alarm about a pervasive backlash against feminism. She painstakingly refutes each insidious anti-feminist argument–for instance, that feminism is responsible for a supposed epidemic of unhappiness in women. What’s really wrong, she says, is that equality hasn’t been achieved; in fact, the struggle has only just begun. 

5. Nickel and Dimed
by Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books, 2001
Long-time Ms. columnist Barbara Ehrenreich posed undercover as a low-income worker to gain material for this empathetic portrait of how the bottom half lives. She reveals that simply making ends meet is a silent struggle for many Americans, especially for women with families to support.

4. A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf
Harcourt Brace, 1929
This classic from the 1920s makes a devastatingly eloquent argument with a simple takeaway: For a women artist to thrive, she must have space in which to work and some money for her efforts. 

3. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
by Audre Lorde
Crossing Press, 1984
This master work by Audre Lorde, a Caribbean American lesbian feminist writer, collects her prose from the late 70s and early 80s. Many of these pieces made feminist history, including her candid dialogue with Adrienne Rich about race and feminism, her oft-quoted critique of academia “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and her Open Letter to Mary Daly. 

2. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence
by Inga Muscio
Seal Press 2002
Inga Muscio’s 2002 feminist manifesto radicalized a new generation. She argues for the reclaiming of the tarnished word cunt, and discusses her personal experiences with self-protection, sex work, abortion and solidarity.

1. Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics
by bell hooks
South End Press, 2000
Fittingly, in Ms. readers’ favorite feminist book of all time, bell hooks argues that feminism is for everybody, regardless of race, gender or creed. She urges all to live a feminism that finds commonality across differences and makes room for impassioned debate. 

Movies Totally Different From The Books They Were Based On

You know how readers almost always say that they liked a book better than its movie version? Well, in another one of those lists that they love so much, The Huffington Post presents “movies that feature totally different endings, story lines, and main characters than the original book. Here are a few of our favorite examples. Be warned, spoilers ahead!”

From Chick Lit to Victim Books: Problems with the Woman’s Book Club

Luanne Bradley asks, “What came first, the depressing women’s book clubs or the morbid books?”

The inevitable prerequisite [of book group selections] is the agreed-upon selections must be meaty enough to spark evocative feedback for eloquent sharing round the coffee table. As a result, our picks are highly wrought works of historic, political or cultural significance perpetually mired in sadness. Or, as a fellow member recently commiserated, “Can’t we move on from the holocaust and women in pain?”

I do admit that my own book group has read so many holocaust books that we’ve decided on a moratorium for that subject matter. And a few years ago we read so many books about men who treated women badly that we called ourselves, for a time, the SOB book group.

But back to Bradley’s article:

“As someone who has written about ‘women in pain,’ women dealing with the death of a child, for example, I think that the premise of your question is problematic,” novelist Ayelet Waldman tells me. “All interesting stories are about someone in crisis – in ‘pain’ if you will. Who wants to read about happy people doing happy things? Story is conflict, conflict is story. The Corrections was about people in crisis. Does that fall into your category of ‘victim-literature?’ If it doesn’t, then I think you should take a good look at the question you’re asking, and consider whether it isn’t inherently sexist.”

One suggestion Bradley has for finding other types of books to read is not to “rely solely on the New York Times lists and peruse book stores for the employee recommendations. Oftentimes, you will find sparkling little stories that didn’t cut the mustard with the corporate giant, but are worthwhile nonetheless.”

And my personal assignment from my book group is to find a good mystery that we can all cozy up to this fall.

Why teens should read adult fiction

We’ve seen the discussion before about whether YA (young adult) literature is too dark for adolescents. In this article Brian McGreevy dismisses this subject:

My concern is not this debate — in fact, I consider it to be moot. The YA category is a marketing distinction, not a moral one, however much parents would like it to be a synonym for “safe.”

Instead, he argues that when adolescents reach the point when they’re interested in reading adult fiction, they should be allowed to do so. He calls this point “the V.C. Andrews Curve, after the author of ‘Flowers in the Attic.’”  At this point, “not only will your kids survive an exposure to violence and sexuality in books, but it is crucial to their moral development”:

Of course adolescents have an irresistible attraction to adult themes; perverse and puritanical an instinct as there is in this culture to prolong childhood, there is a far stronger counter-instinct in children to analyze, simulate, and as soon as humanly possible participate in the challenges of adulthood.

Furthermore, he argues that books provide a kind of experience that neither films nor video games can provide:

What neither films nor video games are cut out for is developing the critical faculties that reading does. Higher-order mental processes are not even strictly required to enjoy a movie, whereas books, by nature, are undemocratic. A combination of education and innate sensitivity is required to enjoy them, and the reward is the closest possible experience to entering another human being’s consciousness and revising the parameters of your own. It’s harder because it should be.

I’ve often thought that preventing children who are growing into young adults from reading about the truths of human existence is both a disservice to and a devaluation of them. Young adults know and understand more than we give them credit for. And, while parents’ desire to protect their children from adult knowledge may have good intentions, preventing young adults from learning about adult life leaves them unprepared for a world that they will eventually grow into, whether we like it or not. We need to trust our children:

They’re equipped with a strength and ingenuity they’re not often enough credited with. Life’s genesis and termination — and every gradation of human experience in between — is their birthright. They are entitled to learn about it at exactly the rate it is appropriate to their individual moral development to do so. And as long as you love them enough, they’ll end up basically OK.


Memoir Nonfiction Review

“Comfort: A Journey Through Grief” by Ann Hood

Hood, Ann. Comfort: A Journey Through Grief  
New York: Norton, 2008 
ISBN 978-0-393-06456-8

Highly Recommended

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

Book Recommendations Nonfiction

Best nonfiction books of 2008

Best nonfiction books of 2008 |

The Christian Science Monitor offers its gift-giving guide to nonfiction.

Author News Nonfiction

Former Football Player Writes Book about His Dissociative Identity Disorder

Walker on mission | Denton Record-Chronicle | News for Denton County, Texas | Local News
Herschel Walker, winner of the Heisman Trophy (an award for college football players) and former member of the Dallas Cowboys, has written a book about his experience with dissociative identity disorder (DID, commonly known as multiple personality disorder) and his efforts to overcome the disorder. He has been touring to promote the book, Breaking Free: My Life with Dissociative Identity Disorder. This article reports on his appearance in Denton, TX, in association with University Behavioral Health (UBH) of Denton:

‘He [Walker] has a mission for himself of bringing a message out to people who have mental health issues, that it’s a strength to ask for help, not a weakness,’ said UBH of Denton Chief Executive Officer Susan Young. ‘He wants people to know he’s had issues and he sees that as something very positive. He doesn’t want anybody to be uncomfortable or ashamed.’

Walker’s own condition surfaced about 10 years ago, when he suddenly developed anger problems. His search for the cause of his problem finally led to the diagnosis of DID. He wants to let people with mental health issues, including substance abuse, know that it’s all right to seek help. He is critical of the National Football League’s substance abuse policy, which, he says, suspends players for abuse without providing treatment.

Book Recommendations Nonfiction

Four quite different memoirists help to prove the vitality of the literary form

Four quite different memoirists help to prove the vitality of the literary form

John Marshall, book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, briefly discusses four memoirs that “demonstrate the genre’s vitality and variety.” The four cover very different subjects:

  1. childhood in Africa
  2. divorce
  3. alternative lifestyle–“living green”
  4. mental illness
Book Recommendations Nonfiction

Oprah Makes Her “Boldest Choice”

Oprah Makes Her “Boldest Choice” – 1/30/2008 9:27:00 AM – Publishers Weekly

Oprah’s going all out with this book club choice, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle:

Saying she was “over the moon excited” about the book, Oprah described it as an extension of her life’s mission, “to lead people to their higher selves.” She also announced that the book would be the subject of her “first worldwide interactive class,” a free 10-week course she will co-teach with Tolle on live Mondays at 9 p.m. EST beginning March 3.

Book Recommendations Fiction Nonfiction Best of 2007: Books Best of 2007: Books

Sorry to be so late with this, but here’s one of those year-end lists that I missed.  In fact, there are several lists here, broken down by subject matter. There are readers’ favorites as well as editors’ picks included, so you can get a feel for what books other ordinary readers (not just editors or critics) liked best from last year.

Author News Nonfiction

What’s a nice girl like Ann Rule doing in a genre like true crime?

What’s a nice girl like Ann Rule doing in a genre like true crime?

In this piece in one of her hometown newspapers, true-crime queen Ann Rule, a former Seattle police officer, tells how she found her true calling. Her first book contract was for the story of a serial killer then stalking the Pacific Northwest. When a suspect was finally arrested, she was stunned to discover he was someone she had volunteered with at a local crisis hotline–Ted Bundy. Bundy was convicted and eventually executed, and The Stranger Beside Me was Ann Rule’s first published book.

According to the article, Rule has had 28 books on the New York Times bestseller list.  I can attest that her writing is detailed, thorough, and very readable.

Book Recommendations Nonfiction

Books of 2007: Science


This is the season for year-end lists of books in which the mainstream review media steer literate culture away from deep questions about how our world works and who we are and toward celebrations of narcissism, celebrity gossip, and literary cliques.

John Brockman, editor and publisher at Edge, laments “that there are no science books (and hardly any books on ideas) on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year list; no science category in the Economist Books of the Year 2007; only Oliver Sacks in the New Yorker’s list of Books From Our Pages .” He presents a list of books published in 2007 by science writers who help us understand how science contributes to dealing with some of the world’s most pressing issues.