“If ever there were a new year that called for a new notebook, this would be it.”
Dr. Perri Klass admits that she loves notebooks even if she’s not as diligent in writing in them as she’d like to be. I used to write in a journal just about every day, but for about two years, when we were traveling extensively in early retirement (and hopefully we’ll be able to do that again some time), I let myself fall out of the habit. (Yes, it’s much easier to let a habit lapse than to build a habit in the first place.)
But I’ve been building up the old habit over the last couple of months and intend to do much better this year.
“We continue to experience a publishing pile-up, as books postponed from 2020 spill over into the new year’s catalogue. As a result, this season offers an embarrassment of riches for the reader of novels,” writes Cal Flyn, deputy editor of Five Books. Although this article follows the traditional Five-Books approach of featuring five covers, Flyn discusses additional titles in the discussion.
Here novelist Louise Candlish puts a particular spin on the discussion: “dislikable is not the same as irredeemable, and for this reason, there is no place on my list for any love-to-hate Tom Ripleys or morbidly mesmerising Humbert Humberts.”
Here she explains why she dislikes these 10 irredeemable characters. Because this list is in The Guardian, her emphasis is decidedly British. But #9 is the product of an American author, and #10 is from a very recent novel.
“Ray Bradbury is one of the most important American writers of the mid-20th century. He transformed science fiction’s position in American literature during the 1950s. There were other fine sci-fi writers, but Ray was the one who first engaged the mainstream audience. He had a huge impact on both American literature and popular culture.”
In this article, which came out at the end of December, Kelly Coyne writes, “It is often in the home where the plainest expressions of politics appear. This year, you could see it everywhere in the domestic novel.”
Coyne reflects on recent novels that “thrust white liberal parents into a harsh light” in the ways in which they interact with domestic workers.
You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2021 by clicking on either link above.
I keep reading things like “I can’t wait to be done with 2020 and move on to 2021.” Do most people truly believe that merely taking one calendar off the wall and hanging up another one is going to change their day-to-day existence? Such magical thinking. Reality doesn’t work that way. The truth is still out there.
As I write this post in the first full week of January, we are in our 44th week of lockdown. (The last social event we attended was a monthly lunch excursion to a restaurant on March 6, 2020.) Even with the good news of the arrival of vaccines, I expect we won’t see any substantive change in our daily lives until July 1, 2021, at the earliest. I’m preparing for another six months, at least, just like the previous nine months:
Looking back on how well I fulfilled my reading plan for 2020 made me realize that the year well illustrates the validity of the old proverb “Man plans. God laughs.” And there are some lessons to be learned from this realization.
The biggest lesson is that, since we probably won’t see significant change in our current situation for at least half of this new year, the whole notion of a plan feels irrelevant. Last year I had my whole year’s reading planned out, month by month. But when COVID-19 hit and brought with it heightened anxiety along with reader’s and writer’s block, I was only able to get back to reading by ditching the plan. I allowed myself to stand in front of my TBR shelves and look for the book that called to me the loudest. I kept up that process, sometimes letting one book lead me to the next, at other times finding a new book to set me off on a different chain of association.
I have therefore decided not to use the label of plan at all for 2021. Instead, I’m going to focus on some goals that will still be possible no matter which particular books I may read. For example, one part of my plan for last year was to use the Blog Discussion Challenge to motivate me to write some substantive blog posts. Even though I didn’t meet my original quota, I was able to write about just about anything—including a look at why I was having trouble reading and writing—and call it a discussion post. So this year I’m going to talk about reading and writing goals instead of a reading and writing plan.
After looking at last year’s plan, I’m describing this year’s goals in relation to last year’s in two major areas:
I. Elements I’m keeping from last year
II. Elements I’m dropping from last year, replacing, or adding
I. Elements I’m Keeping from 2020
Most of these are general challenges and goals.
1. Goodreads Challenge
I did make last year’s goal of 55, but I had to rush and include a couple of particularly short works. I’m therefore going to dial my challenge goal back to 50 books, a number I think I can more easily achieve.
2. The Classics Club
Although I had good intentions last year, I didn’t come even close to my goal of crossing six books off my Classics Club list.
I’m going to cut back this year’s goal to four and hope for the best.
3. 2021 Book Blog Discussion Challenge
I signed up for the 2020 Discussion Challenge to motivate myself to write substantive posts on literary topics. Despite not writing as many discussion posts as I had wanted to (because, you know, COVID-19), I enjoyed working on the 12 that I did manage and was pleased with the results. I’m therefore signing up for the 2021 Discussion Challenge with the goal of writing one discussion post per month.
II. Elements I’m Dropping, Replacing, or Adding
For 2021 I’m taking the focus off reading exclusively and incorporating the intention to write about more of the books I read. Not every book I read warrants a review on the blog, but many do, and I need to make more of an effort to discuss those. For me, writing seems to take some time; thoughts swirl around in the unconscious before percolating to the surface of awareness. It’s too easy for me to finish reading one book, then immediately pick up another one without going back to revisit the first one again.
I will need to follow through and return to each previous book to finish the reading process. And this emphasis on writing may have a secondary effect of influencing me to choose more meaty books to read so that they’ll be ones I’ll want to review.
Here, then, is a new goal I’m adding for 2021:
4. to review 50% of the books I read on this blog
I’m also adding another reading goal this year:
5. to read more of my TBR books
Here is my current TBR shelf of Book of the Month editions I haven’t gotten to yet:
The shelf contains 22 books, with two more to be added as soon as my January box arrives. And those are just my Book of the Month books. Several other shelves contain books I’ve been wanting to read for some time, including Where the Crawdads Sing, All the Light We Cannot See, The Hours, Crime and Punishment, A God in Ruins, and Trust Exercise.
I do not acquire books haphazardly; I chose every book on these shelves for particular reasons. They’re all good books that I want to read.
When I jettisoned the calendar part of last year’s reading plan at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing myself to choose whatever book I wanted to read next proved to be a tremendously freeing experience. Suddenly reading became an adventure again, not just some productivity goal to tick off on a to-do list.
This rediscovery of the joy of reading convinced me not to include a specific reading calendar in this year’s goals. I still have several reading projects I’m interested in pursuing, so I’m keeping the list of projects, but I’m treating them as possibilities rather than requirements tied to specific completion dates.
Starting today, we’ll be counting down the 50 biggest literary stories of the year, so you can remember the good (yes, there was some!), the bad, and the Zoom book launch. Join us, won’t you, on this very special journey.
Annalee Newitz is both a science journalist and a science fiction writer who uses science to spur investigations into the nature of human existence. Newitz says science fiction is “less teaching people about how science works, and more about teaching people how history works.”
Newitz uses the version of time travel “where characters can actually change the past. It becomes a metaphor for how we change things in the present, as well as how our relationship to the past changes us in the present.” This approach to time travel is especially appealing in time of upheaval, such as we’re experiencing now, because it offers the opportunity to go back and look at how and why things have happened and are now happening.
Jeannine Hall Gailey, who previously served as the second poet laureate of Redmond, Washington, describes how reading has been a lifeline in helping her cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, can reading really address the state of anger, despair, and confusion so many of us are in? I can only say that books (along with gardening, cats, chocolate, and phone calls with friends) definitely helped me hold on to not only sanity and hope, but also serve as a reminder of why we continue to act to address injustice instead of just saying “that’s the way it’s always been.” Reading also provided a useful context to talk with family and friends who were also experiencing anxiety about politics, race, class, and fear of illness and death. Discussing books — even on social media — seems safer and more enjoyable than merely doomscrolling or rehashing whatever the day’s traumatic news cycle had revealed.
Have you ever gotten so involved in reading a book that your sense of time passing slipped away as you became completely absorbed in the world created by the story? This experience is known as a state of flow, and it often happens to people when reading, writing, performing, or observing a performance.
During what psychologists call “flow states,” where one is completely immersed and absorbed in a mental or physical act, people often report an altered sense of time, place, and self. It’s a transportive and pleasurable experience that people seek to achieve, and that neuroscience is now seeking to understand.
The recent release of Netflix’s new movie based on Daphne du Maurier’s novel Rebecca has created renewed interest in the writer’s life. Here’s the story behind the estate that prompted that famous opening line: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
If it was a book it would be a page-turner: the Australian woman living on a tropical island who founded a literary festival imperilled by terrorist attacks, smouldering volcanoes, the shadow of a massacre and a global pandemic.
Read the story of a writers festival founded in 2003, after the terrorist bombing of a nightclub in Bali.
As every reader knows, the book is always better than the movie or TV adaptation. But this article intrigued me because it offers a new take on the subject.
Gillian Flynn, author of Sharp Objects and Gone Girl, worked as writer and executive producer of the science fiction TV series Utopia, currently streaming on Amazon Prime. The series is adapted from Dennis Kelly’s British of the same title. Here’s what Flynn has to say about the process of creating this adaptation:
I approached Utopia the way I’ve approached all adaptations—this has to become my own. I don’t think it serves the original material by trying to be beholden to it. I don’t believe in just remaking something because the original was good. Adapt when you really know that you want to do something different or have it come to life in a different way.
So maybe instead of grousing because the movie differs from the book, we ought to look for and examine those differences. And although I haven’t read the source material for Utopia, I eagerly anticipate watching that series as soon as my husband and I finish the series we’re current bingeing on Acorn TV.
I have liked J.K. Rowling’s mystery novels featuring Cormoran Strike—published under the pen name Robert Galbraith—very much. But Rowling herself has been criticized recently for transphobic remarks she made earlier this year. (This article contains a link to a related article.)
The fifth novel in the Cormoran Strike series, Troubled Blood, has recently been published. “In her new book, Rowling has created a creepy serial killer who dresses in women’s clothes to more easily reel in his female victims,” writes Bill Sheehan in this article in The Washington Post. Further:
A question quickly arises: Is the creation of such a character a legitimate aesthetic choice or is it an affront to the LGBTQ community? While I don’t pretend to know the author’s motivations, I lean toward the former interpretation. Many others will no doubt passionately disagree.
Sheehan’s appreciative review of the book is quite short, yet it has reopened the discussion about whether authors can or should be separated from their works. He ends the piece with “Let the arguments begin.”
And begin they have. There are already 734 comments. Read on.
After six months, we’re far enough into the COVID-19 health crisis to begin to see what kind of literature will emerge from it. Adrienne Westenfeld, an assistant editor at Esquire, leads the way:
When truth is stranger than fiction, writers of fiction often make sense of reality on the page; yet in the unprecedented age of the coronavirus pandemic, many writers have reported feeling paralyzed by incessant despair, leaving them unable to create. But Regina Porter, the acclaimed author of 2019’s The Travelers, wasn’t paralyzed—instead, Porter found herself “compelled” to start a new novel at the height of the pandemic. In “Daily Cleanse,” a story adapted from that forthcoming novel-in-progress, tentatively titled The Rich People Have Gone Away, Porter introduces Theo Harper, a privileged New Yorker struggling to keep secrets from his pregnant wife, Darla, as life in the city grinds to a devastating halt due to the coronavirus. “Daily Cleanse” is at once an unsparing look into the discomforts of intimacy and a deeply felt portrait of a transformed city, one where, Porte
In this interview, “Porter spoke with Esquire about accessing her creativity against all odds, creating morally complicated characters, and employing fiction to investigate questions about race.”
Nearly three years ago, Seattle’s literary reputation was solidified on the world stage with its designation as a UNESCO City of Literature. On Sept. 15, “Seismic — Seattle, City of Literature,” a collection of essays from Seattle-area writers like Timothy Egan, Claudia Castro Luna, Charles Johnson and more will be released — a series of reflections on what this status means for Seattle, and how art, literature and stories can be forces for change.
The Seattle Times offers the collection’s introductory chapter by editor Kristen Millares Young and the essay by Ken Workman (Duwamish, great-great-great-great-grandson of Chief Si’ahl), which Young describes as “canonical.”
I use Goodreads, but only for a few particular aspects of my life. But I see a lot of references to how unhappy people are with Goodreads. Sarah Manavis fills in some of the blanks for me here; I don’t have most of the problems because I don’t use the features that people find problematic. But from her descriptions, I can tell that if I did use Goodreads for those purposes, I’d probably be unsatisfied with the platform’s functionality, too.
I found particularly interesting her description of The StoryGraph, a new service under development and scheduled for formal launch early next year.
When I was a kid, ballpoint pens—which we didn’t get to use in school until 4th grade—came only in blue, black, or red. By the time I started college, green ballpoints were available, which the rebel in me promptly adopted as my main writing implement.
In this article Yashvi Peeti delves into the history of ink and the psychology of color to help us choose among all the writing implements and colors now available.
I don’t write fiction, but I read a lot about and talk with people who do. I’m always fascinated when fiction writers say that a character either appeared and demanded to be written about or appeared to object when the writer wrote the character in a particular way.
Here’s a fascinating look by John Foxwell, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of English at the U.K.’s Durham University, into how writers experience this phenomenon. Foxwell and colleagues surveyed 181 writers at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2014 and 2018.
“. . . the more researchers delve into thought and imagination, the more difficult it is to say exactly how much control over our thoughts and actions any of us actually have – and to what extent the control we feel we have is an illusion.”
“For decades, a white woman’s memoir shaped our understanding of America’s first Black poet. Does a new book change the story?”
Elizabeth Winkler reports on the life of Black poet Phillis Wheatley and examines a new book, The Age of Phillis, by poet and professor Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. In her book Jeffers attempts to understand the only version of Phillis Wheatley’s life, written 50 years after the poet’s death, by Margaretta Matilda Odell, a white woman who claimed to be a “collateral descendant” of Susanna Wheatley of Boston, owner of slave Phillis.
Michael Dirda writes that over the past two months “I’ve been sorting and culling the vast number of books I’ve accumulated in a lifetime of reading and collecting.” The COVID-19 pandemic has produced a “persistent feeling of helplessness, frustration, anger and mild despair,” but he hoped that going through 300 boxes of books and deciding which to keep and which to part ways with would give him a feeling of control.
“However, making these decisions has turned out to be harder than I expected.”
Read some of the dilemmas he faces in deciding which one of multiple copies of the same book he should keep.
Here’s a big topic I’m still trying to get my head around: Tim Parks sets out to answer the question “Why do we categorize novels?” In the article linked here he explains how he found similarities between a number of authors, all of whose works center around the question of belonging to a particular group.
But this is only the first article. There are three more articles in the series, each dealing with another such category. (This introductory article contains a link to the entire series.) Parks constitutes his categories as “clearly defined hierarchies of value, or centers of interest, generating distinct, or at least recognizable, types of plot and character interaction.”
Over the course of the four articles Parks arrives at four fictional categories, or fiction that centers around one of these four “distinct value systems”:
stories focused on the characters’ relations to the community (belonging)
around conflicts between indulgence and renunciation (goodness)
around a tension between the craving to be free and a need to feel protected (liberty)
those related to winning and losing: confidence and inadequacy, strength and weakness, complacency and resentment, envy and emulation, seducing and succumbing, jubilation, but also wise resignation (power)
So if you’re spending some of your pandemic downtime categorizing and rearranging your book shelves, why not give Parks’s system a try?
“The one-sitting novel isn’t just something you can read in one afternoon—it’s something you should read in one afternoon. The one-sitting novel is perfectly structured to be consumed as a complete, transporting experience, whether that’s a breakneck ride through a thrilling narrative, or a slow, dreamy fog that envelops your mind as you page through,” writes Adrienne Westenfeld for Esquire.
I was attracted to this list mainly because my ability to focus over extended periods of time has been hampered by the uncertainties of the COVID-19 world. Westenfeld says the upper limit of her choices here is 250 pages, which seems appropriate for a book to be read in one day.
If you need a truly feel-good story—and who doesn’t need one of those right now?—read about how one teacher in Tennessee helped pilot a project that has boosted primary students’ reading comprehension and made them eager and excited about reading.
All of my recent posts have been lists of COVID-19—related links. I just kept collecting these links, almost obsessively. Now that we’re approaching the end of our third week of self-isolation and social distancing here in Washington State, I’m finally beginning to understand why.
When we first started this virus-induced cocooning, I was excited. As an introvert who likes nothing better than to kick back with a good book, I’ve been practicing for this my whole life. Bring it on, I thought. I’m going to get a whole lot of books read.
However, I wasn’t prepared for the emotional onslaught that accompanies this medical emergency.
And so I began curating those lists of links. For about 10 days I spent most of my time reading article after article about what was happening here at home and around the world. Every time I thought that I should start reading a book, I felt completely overwhelmed. I have so many books on my TBR shelves that I got flustered wondering which one to pick up. The more I thought about which book to select, the antsier I got.
I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t focus on any one thing, so I just kept going from one article to another about the advance of COVID-19. Reading individual news stories and articles didn’t require the extended attention necessary for reading a book.
So I thought that, if I wasn’t going to read books, I should write. How silly that thought turned out to be, since writing anything more than the occasional Facebook post requires even more focused attention than reading a novel. For about a week and a half I did nothing but make those lists and wonder what was happening to me.
My life has been a series of research projects.
Ever since I was a child, my way of dealing with anything new and different—and therefore confusing—has been to read up on it. If I learn all about whatever it is, I can deal with it. In the past, knowing about something meant that I had some personal control over it, or at least how it affected me.
But of course there’s no controlling this virus. No matter how much I learn about it, it is still in control. And nobody knows how all this is going to turn out. We’re experiencing anxiety at a whole new level. In fact, anxiety doesn’t seem like the right word to use here. This situation requires a much stronger term.
I came across an article byScott Berinato in the Harvard Business Review called “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.” I found especially enlightening his concept of anticipatory grief, that is, grief in anticipation of how different our lives are going to be in the future than they were in the past because of this pandemic. There is definitely a grief component to what I’m feeling.
“There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us,” Berinato writes. But while I agree that just naming something helps us deal with it, I don’t think that grief quite tells the whole story by itself.
So for now I’m calling it generalized dread.
I did finally manage to break out of my reading slump, although whether the naming process or simply the passage of time is responsible I’m not sure. Probably both contributed. The book that rescued me is Long Bright River by Liz Moore. I hope to write a review of it soon, although I fear the ability to concentrate enough to do much writing is still a little way off.
I hope you are all staying healthy and dealing with this new reality. I’d love to hear how you’re coping.
Jacqueline Alnes talks with Emma Copley Eisenberg, author of true-crime book The Third Rainbow Girl, “about what it means to seek truth in nonfiction, and how writing the personal can allow for more complicated realities to emerge; how undermining conventions of genre can impact the way a book is both marketed and read; and what it means to find clarity — or at least community — while writing into murky, and often traumatizing subject matter.”
Questions of “the boundaries between subject and writer, research and lived experience, and how we classify it all” are significant in journalism and in nonfiction writing. In the book, Alnes writes, “Eisenberg undermines many features of the subgenre by centering place as a major subject.” According to Alnes, Eisenberg inserts herself into the narrative as someone who cares about the region where the crime occurred and can therefore discuss some of the expectations and stereotypes of the people who live there. “In prose that brims with empathy, and through research that illuminates narratives that have long been hidden by problematic representation, Eisenberg exposes the kinds of fictions we tell ourselves often enough that we believe them to be true.”
Myriam Gurba was among the first to call out the novel American Dirt, published in January 2020, as “a novel filled with stereotypes of Mexicans.” She is one of the founding members of Dignidad Literaria, a group that arose out of the American Dirt controversy to demand more representation of people of color in publishing.
Here she explains, “As I’ve learned again and again, if you speak out against racism, there are risks you must take on.”
“Reflections on my father’s novels The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice, in the age of American Dirt”
Alexandra Styron, daughter of William Styron, writes, “With the possible exception of Harriet Beecher Stowe, my father was the first novelist in modern history to be accused of cultural appropriation.”
And, she continues, “That experience, and what he made of it, reflects complicated truths about mid-century American culture, and maybe offers some guidance for our own contentious times.”
Despite the publishing industry’s continuing dominancy by white men, Kristin Iversen finds some reasons for hope:
While it’s still hard to say what will or won’t be a best-seller, there are a couple of things that are promising when it comes to publishing’s future: One is that most of the last decade’s best-selling books were written by women, and another is that the majority of the people reading multiple books each year are also women. And so it follows that if there’s one prevailing theme in the literary world right now, it’s that the industry’s most influential members — from behind-the-scenes publicity powerhouses to the biggest authors to prominent critics to podcast hosts to, you know, supermodels — are overwhelmingly women.
Read here about the women Iversen sees as the sources of these hopes.
Travis M. Andrews discusses the recent HBO adaptation of King’s The Outsider by focusing on “one of the primary challenges in adapting King’s work: taking something so interior (in this case, doubt) and making it visual.”
Joanna “Trollope is the queen of contemporary women’s fiction and seems to be wired to the anxieties of a devoted, predominantly female, readership. The complexities of life and love cascade through novels that have confronted lust, adoption, divorce, infidelity and the changing nature of the modern family.”
In this piece for the Guardian Claire Armitstead weaves together a short biography, references to Trollope’s novels, and an interview with the author.
Here’s my favorite quotation from Trollope: fiction “can be a physical confessional: when you’re within the covers of a book, you can admit to all kinds of things that you can’t otherwise. It’s also where you learn about the rest of human life and where you get your most profound experience of life – except from actually living it.”