On Margaret Atwood’s “The Blind Assassin”

Commentary on one of my all-time favorite Big Books:

Cover: The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin (2000) is a multilayered and deftly plotted work of autobiographical and historical fiction set in 20th-century Canada. In just the first few pages, layers of family history and mystery unfurl by way of a trifecta of memoir flashback, newspaper clippings and novel-within-a-novel narratives. It’s around Iris — our now-octogenarian protagonist and witty narrative anchor — that these myriad elements swirl and eddy, coming together to form a sprawling family saga peppered with death, deceit and disappointment.

. . .

whether you’re an Atwood novice or a superfan looking to revisit the prolific writer’s expansive back catalog, start with The Blind Assassin, which, nearly two decades out from publication, still speaks with a fresh voice about powerful men, politics and female victimization.

Lauren Cocking, WHY MARGARET ATWOOD’S ‘THE BLIND ASSASSIN’ IS WORTH REVISITING

A New Newspaper Column on Crime Books

Detective novels are, for me, a sort of literary comfort food; a respite from real life — in which problems aren’t always neatly wrapped up — and a chance to walk in the sensibly shod footsteps of a crime-solver . . . , analyzing clues and side-eyeing witnesses and, ultimately, making the world a tiny bit better. I also love stand-alone literary thrillers . . . that provide an intense reading experience; wrapping things up less tidily, leaving a tingle of unease in their wake. And the best of true-crime books, not hastily written potboilers but thoughtful examinations of why and how a person steps into darkness, thrill me and haunt me, letting me slip into a mind and spend uneasy time there.

Moira Macdonald, arts critic for The Seattle Times, on the introduction of The Plot Thickens, the newspaper’s new column on crime books

Quotation: Elena Ferrante: Storytelling as Power

There is one form of power that has fascinated me ever since I was a girl, even though it has been widely colonized by men: the power of storytelling. Telling stories really is a kind of power, and not an insignificant one. Stories give shape to experience, sometimes by accommodating traditional literary forms, sometimes by turning them upside down, sometimes by reorganizing them. Stories draw readers into their web, and engage them by putting them to work, body and soul, so that they can transform the black thread of writing into people, ideas, feelings, actions, cities, worlds, humanity, life. Storytelling, in other words, gives us the power to bring order to the chaos of the real under our own sign, and in this it isn’t very far from political power.

Elena Ferrante: A Power of Our Own

Quotation: Susan Sontag Was a Monster

“She took things too seriously. She was difficult and unyielding. That’s why Susan Sontag’s work matters so much even now.”

This is how I see her monstrosity: residing not in whether she was or was not likeable, but in her relentlessness, and her refusal to pander. The word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin monere, to warn. We need monsters like Sontag because they aren’t afraid to speak a certain kind of truth: cutting through cant, received opinion, nationalist rote, the efforts of alt-Right bot farms. We need critics who insist on hierarchies of thought and output, instead of buying into marketing hype that makes everyone really, really good, critics who don’t lunge straight for content, for what a book is ‘about’ or what it ‘says’, but who stop to consider form, and style – which, as Sontag shows us, are inextricably bound up in content. We need critics to keep us on our toes, to question authority, sweeping claims, totalising world views. We need Sontag to help us think for ourselves, and be unafraid to speak our minds. And we need her for these things now, more than ever. Maintaining a lively critical capability isn’t just about snark. It’s how we’re going to make it out of these dark days of nationalism and populism with our democracy intact.

Susan Sontag was a monster by Lauren Elkin

Novelist Lev Grossman on Narrative

Lev Grossman: My depression helped inspire the Magicians trilogy – Salon.com.

I think literary critics — of whom you’re one and I’m another — are much better at describing beauty on the sentence level than we are at talking about the grace of a narrative twist or wonderful pacing or the thrilling tension that a well-put-together narrative gives you. I feel like we’re not very good at praising that. We don’t have a good critical language for it. I think that’s why books with that kind of narrative flare lag behind the more non- or anti-narrative novels in critical reputation.

–Novelist Lev Grossman to interviewer Laura Miller

Quotation of the Day

“writing and reading can allow people to live other lives and to try things out symbolically so that we can make better decisions about what we value and do. There is no guarantee, of course, that reading and writing make people act more wisely. But, writing and reading, by expanding our experience and repertoire of strategies, can provide additional possibilities from which we may choose in order to live and act effectively in specific contexts.”

—Tilly Warnock