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Discussion Personal The Classics Club

CC Spin #23: A Change of Plan

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.


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Earlier this month the Classics Club announced a return of its spin, in which we make a numbered list of books, then read the book on our list with the number chosen at random. Initially I welcomed the exercise, because I have been  having trouble reading and writing in the current pandemic. I hoped this spin would help me break out of that slump by compelling me to read and write about a particular book.

But my heart sank when the lucky number was called because my book with that number is Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. I originally put this novel on my Classics Club reading list because it is generally acknowledged as Faulkner’s masterpiece, the book that encapsulates his literary vision of the American South. I knew that reading it would be challenging yet rewarding.

And therein lies the problem with having Absalom, Absalom! come up for me right now. While this novel is acknowledged to be Faulkner’s masterpiece, it is also universally acknowledged to be a difficult novel to read. It’s dense with biblical and mythological allusions, a story peopled by archetypal characters comprising a multigenerational family saga of interlocking stories.

In other words, reading Absalom, Absalom! requires a lot of patience and concentration, two qualities that I’m still short on, although I have been slowly improving in those areas. I’m afraid undertaking this project now would be counterproductive because I can’t give it the extended, intense focus it requires. I’m afraid the effort would end up frustrating me enough to force me either to do a sloppy job with it or to give it up altogether. 

I’d rather save Absalom, Absalom! for a time when I’ll be able to give this difficult project my best shot. For that reason I’ve decided that I’m not going to read Faulkner’s novel for this spin.

Instead, I’m going to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, another book on my Classics Club list. I first read this book probably about 40 years ago, and I’ve been wanting to reread it for quite some time. I know what to expect and what I’m looking for in this book. I’m eager to reread this book and welcome the opportunity to do so now.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Book Recommendations Personal Reading

World Book and Copyright Day

Source: World Book and Copyright Day

For additional information, including the importance of April 23rd, free book offers, and events you can watch “from the comfort of your armchair,” see this article from Newsweek.

Categories
Book Recommendations

It’s Earth Day! Read On

Today is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. If you’ve finally decided that it’s time to read a book about climate change, The New York Times has some suggestions in the following categories:

  • I don’t even know where to start.
  • I just want to understand how we got here.
  • I’m ready for the hard truth. Don’t sugar-coat it.
  • Who saw this coming?
  • I’m fascinated by how people behave when things get bad.
  • Did we learn anything from Hurricane Katrina?
  • I live on the coast. How scared should I be?
  • New York is the center of my universe.
  • What’s happening to the Great Lakes?
  • I know it’s all politics. So who’s to blame?
  • Someone must be profiting from climate change. Where’s the money?
  • I’d like a novel that taps into my current, IRL dread.
  • What are some future scenarios?
  • I’m a dystopian. Prepare me for the worst.
  • I need help arguing with my denialist uncle.
  • I’m just an old-fashioned tree-hugger.
  • What about the animals?
  • I only have time for one canonical read.
  • What will inspire the climate activist of the future?
  • What will our grandchildren think of us?
  • What I can do right now?

And here are some more reading suggestions: 9 Nonfiction Books About Nature and Climate Change.

If you’d like to learn about the history of Earth Day, here you go: 10 Fascinating Facts About Earth Day.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Libraries

National Library Week April 19-25, 2020

Find Your Place at the Library: National Library Week April 19-25, 2020

Source: National Library Week | Conferences & Events

Categories
Literary History Reading

Medieval Reads Day

Get ready for tales of knights, battles, court intrigue and more. It’s Medieval Reads Day!

Source: Medieval Reads Day

According to Book Riot, it’s Medieval Reads Day, and they’ve got you covered with the following articles:

  • 10 of the Best Medieval Romance Stories
  • 10 Books with Our Favorite Fictional Knights
  • 8 Courtly Medieval Female Writers
  • 10 Great Medieval (and Medieval-ish) Mystery Books
  • Get Spellbound by These Magical Medieval Fantasy Books
  • 8 Great Medieval History Reads from East to West
  • 8 Fascinating Characters from Arthurian Legend
  • 9 Medieval Poets You Will Actually Enjoy Reading
  • 6 of the Best Medieval Young Adult Books
  • 3 of the Best Comics for Fans of Arthurian Legend
Categories
Last Week's Links Literary History Literature & Psychology

Literary Links

The Case for Teaching Depressing Books

High school English teacher Sahar Mustafah writes that her students often ask when they’re going to read happy books.

Young people, quite naturally, equate “happy” with a safe, uneventful existence. Genocide, sexual assault, poverty, racism, climate change—it’s hard to find any reason to be excited about reading these subjects as a plot line. And the experience can be just as hard for a teacher to present to students.

“But I pose that books containing difficult issues or trauma are good for our youth. In fact, they’re downright essential,” Mustafeh counters. Her reasoning?

literature can increasingly shape empathetic, socially-conscious individuals. Shielding students from challenging texts because “there’s so much bad stuff already going on” only seeks to reinforce systems of power and inequity.

Why We Turn to Jane Austen in Dark Times

Jane Hadlow:

I’d argue that her power to connect with us in hard times arises not because her retired life shielded her from grief, pain, and fear—but because she knew very well what it was like to feel vulnerable, exposed, and anxious about the well-being of those she cared about. 

Hadlow concludes: “What Austen really prizes is resilience” and “the self-discipline she insists upon as a means to survive” during hard times.

Why Anxious Readers Under Quarantine Turn to “Mrs. Dalloway”

Perhaps you prefer Virginia Woolf to Jane Austen. Evan Kindley, a senior editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a visiting assistant professor at Pomona College, discusses Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, “set in 1923, five years on from the global influenza pandemic that killed somewhere between fifty and a hundred million people.”

Woolf’s vivid description of a crowded metropolis right now, when our own cities’ streets lie empty, feels like something out of a fantasy novel. Yet Clarissa’s joie de vivre is mixed with a sense of latent dread: “she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.”

Dispatches from a Pandemic

This is the landing page for a series of several articles from many authors commenting on the current health pandemic. The articles are from the April 13, 2020, print issue of The New Yorker.

The Best Australian Crime Fiction, recommended by Emma Viskic

I’m including this article not just because it recommends five books. Novelist Emma Viskic and interviewer Cal Flyn also discuss the significance of crime fiction and the specious distinctions between crime fiction and literary fiction.

What Is the Great American Novel?

“What is the Great American Novel? Its existence as a singular volume is surely a myth, but what is the concept of the Great American Novel?” Annika Barranti Klein examines the history of the concept of the Great American Novel and tries to figure out what the term actually means.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
The Classics Club

Classics Club Spin #23

It’s time for another Classics Club Spin!

Here’s how it works: I post a numbered list of 20 titles from my Classics Club list. On Sunday, April 19 the Classics Club curators will post a number from 1 through 20. I then have to read whatever title has that number on my list by June 1, 2020. 

Here’s my list:

  1. Connell, Evan S. Mr. Bridge    
  2. Jackson, Shirley. Just an Ordinary Day: Stories    
  3. Highsmith, Patricia. The Tremor of Forgery    
  4. Cather, Willa. O Pioneers!   
  5. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment   
  6. Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!   
  7. McEwan, Ian. Atonement    
  8. Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire   
  9. Hardy, Thomas. Far From the Madding Crowd   
  10. Agee, James. A Death in the Family   
  11. Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle    
  12. Rendell, Ruth. The Crocodile Bird    
  13. Baker, Nicholson. The Mezzanine   
  14. Jewett, Sarah Orne. The Country of the Pointed Firs    
  15. Howard, Elizabeth Jane. The Long View    
  16. Tevis, Walter. The Man Who Fell to Earth
  17. Piercy, Marge. Woman on the Edge of Time    
  18. James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle   
  19. Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman 
  20. Wharton, Edith. Ghost Stories 

I’m excited to find out which of these books I’ll be reading.

And the winner is . . .

#6, so I’ll be reading Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner for the June 1 deadline.

To be honest, this is not one I would have chosen on my own. But I’ve been reading indulgently during the COVID-19 shutdown, so maybe it’s time, finally, to stretch a bit.

Update

CC Spin #23: A Change of Plan

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Life Stories in Literature Literature & Psychology Older Adults in Literature

Moral Depth in Current Fiction

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.


Introduction

I came upon Adam O’Fallon Price’s article The Subjective Mood, in which he laments the lack of moral depth in current fiction, back in February. I included it in a literary-links round-up, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it because I find a lot of moral depth in most of the fiction I read. 

Price’s piece made me think about the interplay between plot and character in fiction because of its correlation between plot and moral depth.

What is moral depth in fiction?

Price describes moral depth as the quality in a novel that doesn’t merely settle for telling a story but “also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality.” He explains further:

over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.

This definition feels misleading because books don’t think; people do, both authors and readers. “What the book thinks” means exactly what? 

Price correlates moral depth with plot, writing that “so many of these books are boring”:

The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this?

And there’s that troublesome concept of “what the book thinks” again.

But perhaps Price’s best description of the lack of moral depth is this extended passage:

But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.

What does “recent fiction” mean?

Price avoids a specific definition of what he means by the phrases contemporary novels and recently published novels, but he does offer this: “Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago.”  Waldman’s novel carries a copyright date of 2013, so let’s assume that, in general, he’s talking about novels published since 2013.

In considering the cause of the lack of moral depth in recent fiction, Price gives us this disingenuous explanation: “the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet.” 

It has been a long time since I heard anyone give this knee-jerk reaction to explain everything that’s wrong with modern society. Blaming the loss of moral depth on the internet only underlines even more finely how imprecise Price’s terminology is.

4 Recent Novels with Moral Depth

Here are four novels, all published after 2013, that contain moral depth. Oh, and not one of them is boring.

Dark Matter (2016) by Blake Crouch

cover: Dark Matter
Cover: Dark Matter

In a world in which quantum physics allows scientists to explore parallel universes, physics teacher Jason Deesen pursues answers to the questions “How do you feel about your place in the world, Jason? … Are you happy in your life?”

In his pursuit Jason makes several choices and deals with their consequences as he searches for the answer to the most basic questions of human existence: “Who am I?” and “Who do I choose to be?” In this way, Dark Matter directly contradicts Price’s description of a lack of moral depth:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

Miracle Creek (2019) by Angie Kim

cover: Miracle Creek

This novel follows the lives of seven people over the course of a four-day murder trial. Through the use of multiple points of view, Miracle Creek allows all participants to tell their stories and explain how they ended up at the place where a terrible tragedy caused the deaths of two people.

In the moral depth that Price misses in current fiction, “Action and choice occasions a moral dimension.” This novel attains that moral dimension by giving all the major characters the opportunity to tell their stories.

If your notion of moral depth is passing judgment, you’ll find that in this novel. The perpetrator is identified and duly punished by law. But if your notion of moral depth is to examine and understand choices people make within the complex circumstances their lives have offered them, you’ll find that here as well. Moral depth doesn’t get much deeper than this.

Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf

Our Souls at Night

Price laments the loss of “the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative.” Our Souls at Night presents exactly that in its story about two widowed older adults who seek caring and companionship in each other’s company within the confines of their small-town existence.

Like Miracle Creek, this little (179 pages) novel takes a big look at the preconceptions of conventional morality to examine moral choice in the context of individual characters’ lives.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo (2017) by Taylor Jenkins Reid

cover: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

In this novel the aging actress Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the story of her life and career, but she’ll only tell it to one person, the struggling, little-known young journalist Monique Grant. It’s a story featuring ruthless ambition, seven husbands, a deep but forbidden love—and no regrets. She’d do it all exactly the same way again, Hugo tells Grant.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is an example of a life review in fiction. The concept of life review comes from an area of psychology known as narrative identity theory. Many older adults, as they approach their life’s end, engage in life review, the process of understanding and accepting the life they’ve lived. 

In his description of the lack of moral depth he finds in current fiction, Price writes:

It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice.

In The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, the telling of the story is both the significant action and the facing of the consequences of actions made earlier in life.

(Another example of life review in fiction is Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. For more information about life stories in literature, click here.)

Conclusions

To find recent novels like these, one has to be willing to look for them. Dark Matter is straight-up science fiction, while Miracle Creek, because it features a murder, likely sits in the mystery section of bookstores and libraries. I’ve often written that I like mysteries and thrillers because the best of them deal with what it’s like to be human in the world. Readers who spurn genre fiction will never find these gems.

Also, we find the books we need at the times in our lives when we need them. Price says in his article that he’s 44. I have nearly 30 years on him, and for that reason books that feature older adult characters coming to terms with their lives draw my attention. The best of those novels carry the moral depth that accompanies the wisdom of their characters.

Books don’t think, but good books make people think. Throughout its history the novel has been the literary form that probes the questions of how individuals relate to the societies they live in. My guess is that as society evolves, novelists will continue to find ways to explore its moral complexity through fiction.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Book Recommendations Fiction Last Week's Links Reading

Literary Links

I hope that you are all staying healthy and finding solace in activities that comfort you.

Book sales surge as self-isolating readers stock up on ‘bucket list’ novels

cover: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

From the U.K. comes news that “Book sales have leapt across the country as readers find they have extra time on their hands, with bookshops reporting a significant increase in sales of longer novels and classic fiction.” Sales are also up for longer books such as Hilary Mantel’s recently released The Mirror and the Light as well as older long books, including The Goldfinch and The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

When we were initially introduced to the idea of staying home, I thought this sounded like a good opportunity to tackle some of the longer works on my TBR shelf, like Middlemarch by George Eliot (794 pages, exclusive of endnotes), Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (817 pages, exclusive of notes), Ulysses by James Joyce (732 pages), and The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (568 pages). But that plan didn’t turn out very well.

After about a week and a half of being unable to read anything other than news stories, I was finally able to read books once again. But I’ve been sticking with my backlog of mysteries and thrillers, as I still don’t have the ability to focus on something more demanding for a long time. So all of those Big Books will still be on my shelves waiting for me long after the current health emergency has passed.

However, I can also see the appeal of something long by less demanding than Ulysses. I’ve heard several people mention rereading the Harry Potter series or The Lord of the Rings, both of which sound like excellent choices for these unsettled times. But I won’t be going there until I’ve made a lot more progress on my backlog of Book of the Month goodies.

The Girl in the Title of the Crime Novel: The Great Crime Fiction Disambiguation Project

cover: Final Girls by Riley Sager

Over the past several years there’s been a lot of discussion about the number of books with the word girl in the title:

Girl is the perfect word for inspiring curiosity and fear in psychological thrillers: since the Bible, or the Greek myths, the protection of girls has been paramount to holding a society together. Girls, after all, become women, and women birth and raise the next generation, keeping civilization going. So the question here is not why did girl instantly become so popular, but how it reflects on our cultural preoccupation with keeping women—made even more impotent and infantilized by being labeled girls—under patriarchal control.

Here Lisa Levy discusses eight such books, with particular emphasis on how these books and their characters reflect the effects of patriarchy and misogyny.

Our Obsession with Beautiful Dead Girls Is Keeping Us from Addressing Domestic Violence

Here Jessica Moor addresses the same general topic but with a more focused emphasis: how the normalization of the violent man coexists with another standard trope, the beautiful dead girl.

Her conclusion:

no matter how fascinating the machinations of a random killer seem, they cannot be more chilling than the reality that, for women, the most dangerous place in the world is not a bar or a dark alleyway or a deserted forest. It’s their own home.

The Best Books for Distancing Yourself From Reality Right Now

Esquire has some suggestions of “literature for an escape from the ails of restlessness and anxiety.” The list comprises mostly fiction, but there’s a wide enough range that everyone can probably find at least one or two appealing books.

How a Chinese-American Novelist Wrote Herself Into the Wild West

“C Pam Zhang’s debut, “How Much of These Hills Is Gold,” is one of several new or forthcoming books by Asian-American writers set in a period that historically hasn’t recognized them.”

Never mind the Brits, here are five American novels perfect for ‘Masterpiece’ treatment

Why does PBS outsource almost all of its costume dramas to the Brits, in some cases simply importing and screening BBC productions as Masterpiece series? Why not look to the American canon for worthy novels in which men sport top hats, women get laced into corsets and carriages make their gravel-crunching way to glittering receptions or illicit assignations?

Dennis Drabelle has some suggestions for how PBS can provide U.S. audiences some dramas from their own literary heritage.


© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Personal

Last Night’s Super Moon

Here’s my husband’s photo of last night’s super moon over Tacoma, WA, USA.

We often can’t see the full moon here because of cloud cover, but the last couple of nights have been super clear for the super moon.

Here’s a photo I took with my phone to give you an idea of how big the moon looked. Of course the resolution of the moon itself is horrible, but you can see the moon in context.

Super moon over Tacoma, WA, USA, April7, 2020

And here’s an explanation of the super pink moon from The Seattle Times.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown