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Book Groups Bookstores Discussion

Life in an Independent Bookstore Near Seattle

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.


Coronavirus Diaries: I Own a Bookstore. I Don’t Know How Much Longer We Can Survive.

I live in Tacoma, WA, about 30 miles south of Seattle, the epicenter of the coronavirus influx into the United States. This article in Slate therefore caught my eye and seems appropriate to pass on since it’s about books.

Laurie Swift Raisys, owner of Island Books in Mercer Island, WA, points out a fear that all business owners must face when nobody is going out shopping: 

As a business owner, you rely on the community and the people that come in and shop at your store in order to pay your bills and pay your employees. Last week was incredibly stressful, and this week has been very stressful, and I don’t really see an end in sight right now.

But what pulled at my heartstrings even more than the purely economic complications of this medical emergency is the community impact:

We’re a community gathering place. Our slogan is “Real people, real books, real community,” and we’ve been around 46 years. My husband grew up on the island, and I worked part time for a number of years as a contractor. My contract ended one year and I decided I was going to do something different. I’d always wanted to own an island business, because I love this community. Everyone knows your name. They know your kids.

Raisys explains that several of her customers are over 60, the demographic most at risk from this particular virus. These people have been ordering by phone or email, and she has been dropping off books at their homes.

Further, “People are hibernating, and it makes it hard for us as a place of community. You cannot be in the business of social distancing, as they’re calling it, when you are a place that people come to for book clubs.” Often, book club represents the sum total of people’s social life, especially older people’s.

It’s easy to lose sight of aspects like this when we’re focused on more immediate health concerns. “It’s a small town, and they [residents] support when they can,” Raisys writes, but this disease is bound to have severe long-term effects after the immediate crisis is over.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Big Books Book Recommendations Personal Reading

Big Books to Read Right Now

If there’s some extra reading time in your life right now, this article has you covered:

Long live Big Books!

fancy scroll

Seriously, please take care of yourselves and each other during this trying time. 

I live in Washington State, one of the hottest spots in the U.S. for this pandemic, and everything here is shut down. As much as this introvert loves the excuse to stay home and read, I wish the circumstances were not so dire. 

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Last Week's Links Literary History Literature & Psychology Reading

Literary Links

My mistress Melancholy

Mary Ann Lund, associate professor in Renaissance English literature at the University of Leicester in the UK, discusses Robert Burton (1577-1640) and his The Anatomy of Melancholy, “the most pervasive and elusive of Renaissance diseases.”

“One of the great achievements of The Anatomy of Melancholy is to draw together the collective wisdom of nearly two millennia on a condition that was alluring and dangerous in equal measure.” Lund writes “melancholy came to be seen as a European epidemic” during the 16th and 17th centuries.

I READ MY WAY OUT: MY YEAR OF READING COPIOUSLY AND THERAPEUTICALLY

2018 was “a rough year” for college professor and academician Carole Bell. She made several significant life changes during 2019 to help herself overcome isolation, depression, and anxiety, and one of those changes involved “reading intentionally and reading as self-medicating and self-soothing.”

In the end, I read 403 books in 2019, not counting the few I abandoned or partial reads of the academic books I read select chapters from for research. I also wrote 50 book reviews, sent one to a popular blog and had it accepted it for publication. The bottom line: I had been in a funk, and I read my way out. Reading is no substitute for therapy. And I did some other things along the way like find a critique partner and a writing coach, train for a half marathon, and run my best time. But as it had on other occasions before, the biggest internal change began with books.

Coronavirus feels like something out of a sci-fi novel. Here’s how writers have imagined similar scenarios

“The coronavirus outbreak feels like something out of a science fiction — or horror — novel. Indeed, novelists have been imagining scenarios like this for centuries,” write Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Lavie Tidhar in The Washington Post. Read their discussion of several pandemic novels that may offer readers “a fascinating what-if thought experiment.”

Why Tales of Female Trios Are Newly Relevant

In literature and pop culture, women often come in threes, deriving power from solidarity even as they work to forge their own paths.

How Reading Into The Setting Enhances A Book

I don’t emphasize often enough the importance of close reading for fully understanding and appreciating works of fiction. Here Yash Raaj explains how he uses outside resources to understand fully a novel’s setting—both time and place—and how the setting “interacts with characters.” This approach to reading literature allowed him to see “how literature branched into history, sociology, etc., connecting these disciplines in one text.”

Moreover, this habit has brought out a new side to me as a reader. I have learned how to arm myself with information, which is highly necessary in an era of social media activism. Careful reading certainly adds an edge and displays a streak of awareness accumulated through literature.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Book Recommendations Literary History

Celebrate International Women’s Day!

In honor of International Women’s Day, here are some suggested books about women:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot 
  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
  • Woman As Healer by Jeanne Achterberg
  • Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine Weiss

For more reading suggestions, Canterbury Classics has put together a list of works by authors who “all had to defy social norms and push boundaries in order to accomplish what they did, and although some didn’t live to see it, get the respect that they deserved”:

And publishing conglomerate Penguin Random House features the series Modern Library Torchbearers, books by “women who wrote on their own terms, with boldness, creativity, and a spirit of resistance”:

How about you?

What other reading do you suggest for International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month?

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
6 Degrees of Separation

6 Degrees of Separation: From “Wolfe Island” to “Me”

It’s time for another adventure in Kate’s 6 Degrees of Separation Meme from her blog, Books Are My Favourite and Best. We are given a book to start with, and from there we free associate six books.

This month we begin with Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island. According to Amazon, this novel is not available in the U.S. (except in audio CD format for ~$50), although it was just published in summer 2019. Here’s the description of the book from Goodreads:

For years Kitty Hawke has lived alone on Wolfe Island, witness to the island’s erosion and clinging to the ghosts of her past. Her work as a sculptor and her wolfdog Girl are enough. News of mainland turmoil is as distant as myth until refugees from that world arrive: her granddaughter Cat, and Luis and Alejandra, a brother and sister escaping persecution. When threats from the mainland draw closer, they are forced to flee for their lives. They travel north through winter, a journey during which Kitty must decide what she will do to protect the people she loves.

Part western, part lament for a disappearing world, Wolfe Island (set off the northeast coast of the US) is a transporting novel that explores connection and isolation and the ways lives and families shatter and are remade.

From the comments on Goodreads, I see that the novel is about climate change, as Wolfe Island, along with many other coastal islands, has now become nearly uninhabitable, with millions of people worldwide losing their homes. The novel further addresses the issues of family, love, and treatment of refugees. 

1. Whenever I have to discuss climate fiction, my go-to illustration is the seminal ecofiction classic Dune by Frank Herbert. Herbert grew up in Tacoma, WA, USA, my recently adopted home town.

2. Most of Arrakis, the planet on which Dune is set, is covered with sand. Jane Harper’s novel The Lost Man also features a sandy desert landscape, the Australian outback. Nathan Bright returns to his family’s cattle station for the burial of his younger brother. 

3. While Harper’s novel features a man standing over his brother’s grave, My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni shows us a woman, Tracy Crosswhite, at her sister’s grave. The murder of her sister, Sarah, is what caused Tracy to become a homicide detective with the Seattle PD.

4. The novel Long Bright River by Liz Moore, which is in the next-up position on my TBR shelf, also features sisters. One is a police officer, while the other is buried deep in the opiod-addiction crisis.

5. In Two Kinds of Truth Michael Connelly’s fictional detective Harry Bosch goes undercover to investigate an operation using homeless people to obtain and fill prescriptions for opiods that are then sold illegally. Bosch befriends a woman who turned to drugs after the death of her teenage daughter many years earlier. He even helps her through rehab, but, eventually, unable to overcome her grief, she relapses and dies of an overdose.

6. So as not to end on a low note, I turn finally to another book waiting patiently on my TBR shelf, Elton John’s autobiography Me. After many years of abusing alcohol and drugs, he has now been clean and sober for nearly 30 years.

I always enjoy seeing where these free-association book chains end up. I hope you’ll consider participating in this monthly exercise.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Last Week's Links

Literary Links

Top 10 books of eco-fiction

A blog challenge that I’m working on for next month includes a novel about climate fiction. This challenge made me realize that I haven’t read many works in which this topic figures prominently. I was therefore glad to come across this list by Michael Christie, whose recent novel Greenwood, set in 2038, features a vacation spot where wealthy tourists can visit one of the world’s last forests. In addition to Christie’s 10 choices, there are more than 150 reader comments, some of which suggest other titles. 

The Hottest New Literary Genre Is ‘Doomer Lit’

In another entry about climate fiction, Kate Knibbs describes the trend of doomer literature, which “calls pessimistic fatalism one of the major ‘paradigmatic responses to climate change in recent fiction.’”

UNRELIABLE NARRATORS WHO BREAK EVERY RULE WE THOUGHT WE KNEW

A good unreliable narrator is hard to resist. Here Michael Seidlinger takes the unreliable narrator trope a step beyond the usual: “Using a narrator that doesn’t stick to any preexisting rules makes for structural experimentation that changes the very way a story can be told.”

Elizabeth Wurtzel and the Feminist Disability Memoir

Patricia Grisafi writes a tribute to Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose works such as Prozac Nation (1994) address “the burden she feels as a Young Woman Of Promise who keeps letting people down because of her mental illness.” Wurtzel’s writings made Grisafi “felt seen in a way I had not since reading Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.”

Wurtzel, who died on January 7 [2020], made a generation of women feel as if their shitty lives might make a good book someday. She made me feel like I could get help for my seemingly broken brain.

The Outlander Effect: The popular book and TV series is increasing travel to these Scottish sites

Best-selling author Diana Gabaldon hadn’t even set foot in Scotland when she began the book that launched the popular Outlander series. But she’s made the country so attractive to readers — and to watchers of the Starz television program . . . — that the Scottish government’s tourism agency gave her an honorary Thistle Award for generating a flood of visitors to the fens, glens, jagged mountains and soft jade landscapes she so alluringly describes.

PRH Makes Progress in Green Initiatives

I usually avoid pieces based on public-relations announcements, but in light of the first two articles in this listing, that seems both appropriate and praiseworthy. Publishing giant Penguin Random House explains its plans “to publish its books responsibly and minimize its environmental impact.”

Top 10 random encounters in literature

British writer Will Harris, author of the recent poetry collection RENDANG, lists 10 works that “all helped me to imagine the self as a collision point.” Read his discussion in praise of the random encounters in literature.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Audiobooks Fiction Last Week's Links Reading

Literary Links

HOME SWEET HO…MAYBE NOT: THE HAUNTED HOUSE IN FICTION

So what is it about the haunted house that spans media types? What is it about the concept that transfixes both audience in the land of imagination, and truth seekers in the science world? Why is this one of those subjects that bridges the gap between fact and fiction?

S.F. Whitaker examines what makes us, while screaming (even if only in our minds) “Don’t go in there!” dying to know what will happen when some character dares to open that door or window . . .

How locked-room mystery king Seishi Yokomizo broke into English at last

Pushkin Vertigo, an independent press in the U.K., is publishing the first English translations of the classic Japanese mystery novels by Seishi Yokomizo. Yokomizo’s first novel was published in Japan in 1946. Read here about the life and works of the writer called “Japan’s answer to Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr.”

WHAT IS SPECULATIVE FICTION?

Lyndsie Manusos examines the many meanings that make the term speculative fiction particularly amorphous. Manusos consults sources from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia to the Speculative Literature Foundation, including authors such as Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. Le Guin. She concludes:

Speculative fiction is indeed nebulous. It’s actually why I love this over-arching genre so much. I live for books that maintain our world but bend the boundaries. Books that look underneath the skin of our reality and probe what might be or might’ve been.

Finding Self-Help in Fiction: A Stranger Truth

Rachel Smalter Hall, an editor for audiobook giant Audible (a division of Amazon) writes that, after a difficult year in 2019, she realized that “I get most of my self-help from novels.”

Fiction might not have a checklist at the end of each chapter to help one live a better life, but it does provide a narrative lens through which to view the human experience. It’s proven to help build empathy, and it can give us tools to make sense of our own lives and how we relate to others.

Read her list of six novels that provided her with “unlikely lessons.”

A YEAR OF MOURNING AND READING

Jaime Herndon describes how her grandmother’s death in January 2019 affected her: “it was hard to write non-work things, but one thing I was still able to do was read. I read and read and read. I read over 250 books in 2019.” Here she mentions several of the books that helped her get through that year.

I wish Herndon offered fuller descriptions of some of the books she mentions, but the Book Riot format is short articles. Even without fuller descriptions, it’s good to hear how reading helped her get through such a difficult time.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Book Recommendations Libraries List

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Some holiday reading . . .

50 States of Love

“From sea to shining sea, here’s a tour of unforgettable fiction that explores matters of the heart.”

125 Books We Love

As the New York Public Library celebrates its 125th anniversary, “125 Books We Love honors all the books from the past 125 years that made us fall in love with reading.”

Happy reading!

Categories
Author News Book News Fiction Last Week's Links Publishing Television

Literary Links

American Dirt Starts An Important Conversation But Not The One Author Intended

I avoided the recent brouhaha over Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt while it was developing, but most of the dust seems to have settled now. If you looking for a summary of the situation, this article provides a good overview. It also contains a lot of links, so you can go as far down the internet rabbit hole as you like.

What You Miss When You Snub “Chick Lit”

Mandy Shunnarah of Off the Beaten Shelf compares the novels The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer, marketed as literary fiction, and Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner, whose works are usually described as chick lit.

Here’s the thing, though: I thought The Female Persuasion was good, but I think Mrs. Everything is truly excellent. It’s about as perfect of a novel as I’ve read.

Shunnarah wonders how many other great novels she’s missed because of the way a “publisher has historically pigeonholed” the books’ (usually female) author.

Bingeing on Cop Propaganda

Nick Martin, writing in The New Republic, argues that:

beyond the familiar tropes, every episode of Law & Order: SVU or NCIS mindlessly consumed after work or on a weekend afternoon is also a vehicle for a particular understanding of law enforcement: a police-know-best mind-set that takes all of the mess and violence of our criminal legal system and packages it for tidy consumption. Given the ubiquity of these shows, it’s jarring to consider the scale of it.

His conclusion:

it’s clear the market and appetite for these shows means something and that the model works for a reason. So the next time you’re hit with the “Are you still watching?” message after the fourth straight episode of white victimhood and cop ass-kicking, it might be worth thinking about why shows like this have become a kind of comfort food.

JOANNA RUSS, THE SCIENCE-FICTION WRITER WHO SAID NO

The New Yorker profiles science fiction writer Joanna Russ, who died in 2011:

she was brilliant in a way that couldn’t be denied, even by those who hated her. Her writing was at once arch and serious; she issued her judgments with supreme confidence, even when they were issued against herself. She was here to imagine, to invent wildly, and to undo the process, as one of her heroines puts it, of “learning to despise one’s self.” But she was going to have a lot of fun doing it. And, if you were doing anything else, you were not really, to her mind, writing science fiction.

Five Fun Forensic Facts 4 Fiction!

Forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek and her husband, writer T.J. Mitchell, have written the nonfiction book Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner and often blog about forensics as presented on television. Here they present “the 5 most common forensics errors that crime writers make.” 

These five points will change the way you watch TV crime shows and read crime fiction.

10 Dual Timeline Novels with Plots You’ll Be Desperate to Unravel

I love novels with unusual narrative structures.

That’s probably why I’ve read six of the 10 novels that Sarah Walsh presents here, “books that traipse between different timelines—the nonsequential events of the past and present forming one intriguing narrative spread throughout time.”

When well done—and the six I’ve read of the 10 mentioned here are all very well done—novels with more than one time line can be enormously satisfying to read.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

Categories
Discussion Fiction How Fiction Works Literature & Psychology

The Interplay of Plot and Character in 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.


Which is more important in fiction: plot or character? Novels that engage in complex characterization are often called character-driven stories or character studies, while books heavy on fast action and unexpected turns of events are called plot-driven novels. But even in character studies the characters still have to DO something (even if all they do is think), and even in plot-driven novels someone must be DOING all that action. 

Plot and character are like love and marriage: You can’t have one without the other. 

This is true no matter what kind of fiction you’re reading. Some people distinguish between literary fiction and genre fiction, a distinction in which the term genre fiction refers to format-specific categories such as mystery, thriller, science fiction, horror, and romance. The term is usually used pejoratively, to suggest that literary fiction is somehow better than “mere genre fiction.”

But all fiction requires characters who do something, and the best works of fiction, whether literary or genre fiction, hit the sweet spot of combining complex characterization with interesting plotting. 

I gravitate toward mysteries and thrillers because I think that some of the most thought-provoking fiction—novels that explore the extremes of what the human heart is capable of—slots into those genres.

I often hear that crime fiction is just plot-driven entertainment—that unlike literary fiction, or even general fiction, it doesn’t examine the human condition. The truth is you can’t write crime fiction without examining the human condition and the society of a place or time. If a writer doesn’t understand the very elements that led someone to desperation, to the ultimate bad choice of taking another life, he can never write a convincing antagonist. Villains are not just bad people, they’re often in an untenable situation and see no other way out.

Dianne Freeman

Thriller author Karin Slaughter, when asked what makes for a good thriller, replied, “Character has to matter as much as plot. If they’re not equally strong, then no one really cares what happens.”

But while the question of whether character or plot is more important may be moot, the question of which comes first in an author’s writing process can yield some interesting results. 

Queen of suspense Mary Higgins Clark reportedly scanned the New York City tabloids every morning looking for story ideas, a suggestion she was looking for unusual plot twists.

In contrast, Tana French begins with characters:

I don’t outline at all, actually. In fact, I can’t really figure out what’s going on myself until I’ve been writing the characters for a while. I don’t even know “whodunit” until I’ve been writing long enough to know who might kill someone, and for what reasons.

But in the end, plot and character work hand in hand. 

For me, the best thrillers are a combination of plot and characterization. There is nothing better than a thriller I absolutely can’t put down. That said, it isn’t everything; I also want to feel something for the characters in the books I read. If I don’t, then ultimately I won’t care what happens to them in the end. They also need to feel authentic.

thriller writer Mary Kubica

Plot + character = story, and good stories keep us reading.

We read on because we love the characters but also because we want to know how the story plays out. There are mysteries to be solved here, genuine puzzles that keep us questioning to the very end.

Scottish mystery writer Val McDermid

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown