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Personal Reading Writing

Reading & Blogging in the Time of COVID-19

2020 Discussion Challenge

Thanks to these two bloggers for sponsoring the 2020 Blog Discussion Challenge:

You can join the discussion challenge at any time during 2020 by clicking on either link above.


Related Posts:

fancy scroll

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.

woman writing in notebook

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.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Fiction Last Week's Links Nonfiction Publishing Television Writing

Literary Links

“What Do I Know To Be True?”: Emma Copley Eisenberg on Truth in Nonfiction, Writing Trauma, and The Dead Girl Newsroom

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.”

I called out American Dirt’s racism. I won’t be silenced.

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.”

The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation

“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.”

These Powerful Women Are Changing The Literary Landscape

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.

From ‘The Outsider’ to ‘It,’ the joys — and challenges — of adapting Stephen King

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 on families, fiction and feminism: ‘Society still expects women to do all the caring’

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.”


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Challenge Discussion Writing

2020 Book Blog Discussion Challenge Sign-Up

In an effort to motivate myself to produce more substantive posts next year, I’ve decided to sign up for the 2020 Book Blog Discussion Challenge.

2020 Discussion Challenge

This challenge is hosted by two book bloggers:

Thanks to Nicole and Shannon for running this annual challenge, which they’ve been doing for several years now.

My goal for the challenge is to write at least one discussion post a month.

I look forward to reading everyone else’s posts. I expect to come across a whole lot of interesting topics that I haven’t thought of yet but will enjoy thinking about next year!

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Fiction Last Week's Links Literary Criticism Literary History Writing

Literary Links

The first fairytales were feminist critiques of patriarchy. We need to revive their legacy

Melissa Ashley finds the origin of fairytales to “a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.” Fairytales “crystallised as a genre” in this time when women, sometimes as young as 15, were married off—often to men many years older than themselves—to protect family property. Women could not divorce, work, or control their inheritances. The conteuses’ stories “invited women to imagine greater freedom in their lives, to be their own authors of the most fundamental of all human endeavours – to be able to choose whom to love.”

THE LAST UNPROBLEMATIC OLD WHITE MALE AUTHORS (WE THINK)

In this age of #MeToo and disparagement of the Western literary canon as outmoded products from the minds of dead white guys, Dylan Brown argues that “there are, by my count, at least three old white guys (all of whom are alive!) who are still ‘safe’ to read.” Read why he finds the work of these three men “stands the test of time — even in these times. It is, in other words, enlightened despite their era”: Charles Portis (True Grit), Nicholson Baker (A Box of Matches), and Steven Millhauser (Martin Dressler).

WHEN YOU WRITE YOUR WORST FEARS IN YOUR NOVEL—AND THEN THEY COME TRUE

Six days before the publication of her first novel, Amber Cowie’s brother died. When she visited the room he had last inhabited, she sickeningly realized “the space was nearly identical to a scene I had written in my book.” Cowie found help in understanding her situation by examining the lives of writers Lois Duncan, who wrote about her daughter’s murder, and Shirley Jackson, whose last diary entries before her sudden death suggest she felt “a portending sense of loss and mystery.” 

Jackson, Duncan and I created stories that both reflected and predicted the things that scared us the most.

From Iliad to Inspiration: How Homer’s Epic Inspired My Debut Novel

Probably the question writers hear most often is “Where do you get your ideas?” Here Shannon Price describes how Homer’s Iliad, required reading in a required college course, inspired her first novel.

How Literary Translation Can Shift the Tides of Power

Whether it came from a news report, travel blog, film or work of fiction, our understanding of these far-flung countries [China, Japan, Korea] is limited by what gets translated into our language. But who and what determines which voices and whose stories we get to hear? Whose voices are we not hearing?

Jen Wei Ting explains the responsibilities she feels as a translator.

The Disappearance of John M. Ford

When a friend insisted he read The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford, Isaac Butler was dazzled by the book:

The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another.

Yet when Butler tried to buy more of Ford’s works, he found they were out of print and mostly not available even in used copies. He set out to discover how Ford had written such amazing books and why he was so unknown today. Butler’s investigation into Ford and his works makes for fascinating reading. Best of all, his work resulted in an agreement to republish Ford’s work, beginning in 2020.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Quotation Story Writing

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
Categories
Fiction How Fiction Works Reading Uncategorized Writing

5 Irresistible Introductions in Fiction

Tips for Writers and Readers

Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Read that sentence, one of the most famous first sentences in literature, aloud. Notice its cadence. The rhythm lulls you toward sleepiness—appropriate for a dream. And the rest of the book hinges on that final word, again. “Why again?” we wonder. “What happened during the other time or times at Manderley?” “Is Manderley only a dream now, and, if so, why?”

A good introduction piques readers’ interest and compels them to keep reading.

Charles Dickens was a master of grand openings:

A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us …

David Copperfield:

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.

A Christmas Carol:

Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Most readers say that they evaluate whether to read a book by looking at the first sentence. Writers have maybe five seconds to capture potential readers’ attention. If the opening sentence doesn’t somehow do that, readers will put that book back on the shelf and pick up another one.

Good introductions grab readers immediately by involving them in the story. Effective introductions make readers ask questions and keep turning the pages to find out the answers. There is no formula for an irresistible introduction, but readers know one when they encounter it.

Here are five more examples of introductions that grabbed me and refused to let me go.

Emma by Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Like the opening of Rebecca, the soothing poetic meter of the first part of this introduction draws readers in and underscores the harmony of Emma Woodhouse’s life. However, the second part suggests that changes are coming. I need to keep reading to see what will happen to distress or vex Emma.

The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly

Everybody lies.

Cops lie. Lawyers lie. Witnesses lie. The victims lie.

A trial is a contest of lies. And everybody in the courtroom knows this.

In my heart I know that even the most honest person will lie under certain circumstances. But this opening turns upside down my expectation that justice involves a trial in which witnesses vow to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” I must see how how everyone in this case is going to lie and how a trial in which everybody lies will turn out.

Mind Prey by John Sandford

The storm blew up late in the afternoon, tight, gray clouds hustling over the lake like dirty, balled-up sweat socks spilling from a basket.

Here weather imagery sets the mood: threatening weather suggests ominous happenings coming up. And when the conditions smell like “dirty, balled-up sweat socks,” I know that nothing good can possibly happen.

Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson

I EXIST! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall.

A first-person narrator who observes her own conception can only take me to dizzying places. I want to continue reading to see what else she has in store for me.

The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton

What it begins with, I know finally, is the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts. I don’t know exactly how or why it gets inside us; that’s one of the mysteries I haven’t solved yet.

Not only do I want to learn about “the kernel of meanness in people’s hearts,” but I want to hear the story of how the narrator discovers this truth that he or she finally knows. Maybe what I learn here will teach me about human nature, or “exactly how or why [the kernel of meanness] gets inside us.”

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Author News Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links List Writing

Last Week’s Literary Links

10 Best Whodunits

I love a good mystery! Here mystery novelist John Verdon (his latest book is Wolf Lake, featuring NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney) offers a list of “ten remarkable works, each of which has a special appeal to my whodunit mentality”:Cover: The Crossing by Michael Connelly

  1. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
  2. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  3. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  4. The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald
  5. On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill
  6. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
  7. Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith
  8. Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
  9. Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason
  10. The Crossing by Michael Connelly

I love that he has included literary classics as well as classic mysteries. And since I’ve only read four of these books (numbers 1,2, 8, and 10), I have yet some more titles to add to my TBR list.

Where Lit-Fic and Horror Converge: Ten Literary Chillers

While researching horror literature I came across this article by writer Christopher Shultz. Shultz addresses the snobbish discrimination between literary fiction and genre fiction (such as horror) to end up with a chronological list of 10 novels and short stories that use horror elements (dark subject matter, entities of a sinister and often supernatural nature, a sense of dread and terror) while also achieving standard criteria of literary fiction (complex characters, existential questions, and elegant prose):

  1. ‘Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus’ by Mary Shelley
  2. “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
  3. “The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen
  4. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
  5. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates
  6. ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ by Ira Levin
  7. “The Companion” by Ramsey Campbell
  8. “The Paperhanger” by William Gay
  9. ‘Black Moon’ by Kenneth Calhoun
  10. ‘The Fever’ by Megan Abbot

I usually avoid horror, so I’ve only read three of these (numbers 1,2, and 4; and I’ve seen the film Rosemary’s Baby, if that counts). From Shultz’s descriptions I’m also thinking of adding numbers 5 and 10 to my TBR list.

SIX WRITERS ON THE GENIUS OF MARCEL PROUST

In honor of Marcel Proust’s 145th birthday on July 10, six current authors comment on why his work remains so important today. Contributing authors are Siri Hustvedt, Francine Prose, Edmund White, André Aciman, Aleksandar Hemon, and Daniel Mendelsohn.

The Failure of Language and A Dream of the West: An Interview with Bonnie Nadzam

Bryan Hurt interviews his friend Bonnie Nadzam, whom he describes as “someone who felt a dis-ease with conventional fiction and who sought to experiment and push against the boundaries of expectation and form.”

Nadzam is the author of two novels, Lamb (2011) and Lions (2016). Here are some of her statements about how and why she writes:

knowing a character is as complex a process as knowing myself. Both seem to involve a process of patience and observation, and of allowing space for unexpected things/motivations/behaviors to arise.

with Lions in particular, I did try to make the reader a character in this story, to the extent that the reader is tracking signs and assembling and telling stories alongside everyone else in the book. And everyone is mistaken; and also, by the end, everyone is also peculiarly exactly right.

I can’t just write fiction as though language were functioning and reliable. I also, however, don’t want to write heady philosophical fiction. So that means experimenting to find ways to drop into stories that are as unreliable as the language in which they’re written.

I suppose when I write fiction, it’s because there’s something I feel the need to express that I can’t get at intellectually.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Personal Writing

Annual Blog Report

Even though it’s not quite the end of the year yet, the blogging stat monkeys have delivered their report on how things went here at the Notes in the Margin blog during 2015. I’ll have my own, more detailed report ready early next month, but for now I offer you the stat monkeys’ findings.

“In 2015, there were 121 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 830 posts.”

Of the five most viewed posts this year, only two of them were written in 2015:

Cover: The Girl on the Train
Cover: The Girl on the Train

(1) Review: “The Girl on the Train,” Paula Hawkins, from January

(4) “Books fall open, you fall in.” —David McCord, also from January

The other three most viewed posts were all from 2014:

(2) “The Door,” E.B. White, a Literature & Psychology post

(3) Gothic Elements in Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle”, a Classics Club post

(5) Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, a Literature & Psychology post

These were some of my favorite posts to write during 2015:

(1) Getting Lost in a Good Book

(2) Reading in Flow

(3) “Go Set a Watchman”: A Lesson in Writing & Reading Fiction

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Categories
Author News Literary History Writing

Harper Lee: my Christmas in New York | Books | The Guardian

One midwinter in 1950s New York, Harper Lee went to stay with friends. Little did she know she was about to receive the gift of a lifetime…

Source: Harper Lee: my Christmas in New York | Books | The Guardian

Categories
Book Recommendations Literary Criticism Literary History Writing

3 Blogs I’ve Loved Recently

Thanks to a recent WordPress Daily Prompt for today’s post:

Give some love to three blog posts you’ve read and loved in the past week, and tell us why they’re worth reading.

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(1) SAGA SATURDAY I

This post was my introduction to AbbieLu’s site Cafe Book Bean. In this post she defines what a saga is, then lists some of her favorite ones:

  • Gone with the Wind
  • Far and Away
  • East of Eden
  • The Thorn Birds

This post made me want to turn to my TBR shelves and grab a huge book to sink into. (Alas, I’ll have to wait until after January 1st to so indulge myself.) Overall, I love AbbieLu’s enthusiasm about books.

(2) #48: The Kings of Crime – II: Jim Thompson, the King of Clubs

On The Invisible Event, an unnamed Invisible Blogger writes about classic crime fiction.

This post particularly attracted me because one of the many books on my TBR shelves is Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. That book, and hence this blog post as well, are good fits for my interest in Literature & Psychology.

(3) ALL YOU ZOMBIES, ROBERT HEINLEIN

I loved finding this blog post by Marilyn Armstrong because it, too, relates to Literature & Psychology. Like Marilyn, I find the concept of time travel fascinating, and I did not know about the book she discusses here, Robert A. Heinlein’s All You Zombies.

I hope I’ll be able to find a copy of this book!