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Murder, He Wrote

When Charles Dickens dropped dead on 9 June 1850, he was hard at work on his latest novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Readers who had already devoured the first three instalments of the story were left to solve its central mystery without the author’s help. On the 150th anniversary of Dickens’s death, Frances Wilson looks back on his final months. What lay behind Dickens’s turn to crime fiction? What were the real-life inspirations for this new novel? And, most importantly, who killed Edwin Drood?

The Lockdown Lessons of “Crime and Punishment”

“A college class weathering the pandemic finds Dostoyevsky’s savage inwardness and apocalyptic feverishness uncomfortably resonant.”

This is a fascinating account of David Denby’s experience of enrolling in the course Literary Humanities at Columbia University in New York City at the age of 76, then having the class moved online with the onset of COVID-19. Read how the pandemic-induced isolation affected students’ reactions to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Denby, a Columbia graduate, first took this course as an undergraduate at the university. He enrolled in the course again at age 48 to re-examine the “great books” that traditionally have made up the Western literary canon but more recently have come under fire as too limited to represent world culture. The result of that experience was his 1996 book The Great Books.

This current article recounts his third time through the same two-semester course, begun in fall 2019.

 Natural attenuation as a decontamination approach for SARS-CoV-2 on five library materials

Don’t let that dull and formal-sounding title scare you off. Now that we’re beginning to have hope that libraries will be able to reopen, this report from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) offers encouraging news—or, as it describes itself, “science-based information designed to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to staff and visitors who are engaging in the delivery or use of museum, library, and archival services.”

To sum up: “Results show that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was not detectable on the materials after three days of quarantine.

You should take a look at the report yourself to find out exactly what materials they tested and what procedures they used.

You’re not alone: Thrillers and mysteries that also feature characters stuck in isolation

“Sheltering in place doesn’t mean you can’t go visiting. You can drop in on fictional characters trapped in isolated houses in out-of-the-way places. No social distancing is required, and you’ll sympathize when they feel the walls closing in.”

Carol Memmott, a writer from Austin, Texas, describes five mysteries, some of which are variations on the traditional locked-room mystery.

Parental Fear and Cultural Erasure: The Logic Behind Banning Books

Because I’m very openly against censorship, I approached this article with interest. Nancy Snyder here asks, “Have you ever considered what lies beneath the vitriolic fury within the parents screaming at the school board meetings in favor of banning children’s and YA books?”

I ended up quite disappointed in this article because it didn’t teach me anything I didn’t already know. Here’s the conclusion:

For anyone who respects the First Amendment and the free exchange of ideas, book banning is an exercise in repression and ignorance. Removing controversial content does nothing but have the young reader want to read the book that has been banned from them. Too often, these banned book titles are the exact books young people need to read: banned books are effective in helping children develop their own values and moral convictions.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Book Recommendations Fiction List On Novels and Novelists Reading

On Novels and Novelists

John Fowles, The Art of Fiction No. 109

This article originally appeared in the Summer 1989 issue of The Paris Review. James R. Baker interviews John Fowles, author of, among others, The Collector (1963) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969).

Fowles says that he was heavily influenced by the existentialists. When the interview asks if he read Jung, Fowles replies:

For me Jung has always been the most fruitful psychologist, that is, most fertile in his effects on any subsequent fiction. I suspect a straight analyst, more or less in Freud’s footsteps, would suit me better medically, if I ever needed such attention—which perhaps I do … like every other novelist!

The French Lieutenant’s Woman offers alternate endings and is considered a touchstone in novelistic approaches to narrative form. When asked about this, Fowles replies:

In a sense the young novelist finds himself in a gymnasium, with apparatus for set exercises, and wants to try his hand at some or all of them. I think it is only when he at last has mastered that side of it, that the real work, and the freedom we all fundamentally covet, become possible. Certainly I hope that in that way The French Lieutenant’s Woman marks a real change and a new openness—what the Russians now call glasnost, transparency.

There’s lots more in this long interview for you to enjoy.

AS Byatt: the artist who helps me write

In this fascinating article writer A. S. Byatt talks about how the abstract paintings of Patrick Heron influence her work:

I love Heron’s paintings because they are the opposite of stories. Writing moves on the whole from beginning to end, however much experimental writers may try to break this temporal lock. Words follow one another and there is an end. Painting is space, and writing is time, and Heron’s abstraction is at one end of that spectrum. You can close a book. There is no reason ever to stop looking at a painting… . I have come to think of my writing as a moving screen of images which I use to see what is unbalanced, what needs elaborating, what is overdone. I need to know something about the whole form of a novel – changing as I work.

Time to read a good long book

Writing in The Irish Times Eileen Battersby encourages us to indulge ourselves this summer by reading a good long book. No audiobooks or ebooks for her: “All hail The Book as it was meant to be read – as a book, between covers.”

Here are her suggestions:

  • Independence Day by Richard Ford
  • East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • Vanity Fair by William Thackeray
  • The Vienna Melody by Ernst Lothar
  • Exodus by Leon Uris
  • Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Once and Future King by T.H. White
  • The Alexandra Quartet by Lawrence Durrell
  • Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  • Parade’s End by Ford Maddox Ford
  • Middlemarch: A Study of a Provincial Life by George Eliot
  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  • Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

Truth Clothed in Fiction

I loved David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, although I suspected that there were lots of layers of meaning that I wasn’t even beginning to scratch as I watched the interlaced stories unfold. In this piece Freddie Pinheiro discusses that novel in relation to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which David Mitchell has acknowledged as the primary inspiration for his book:

The level of metafiction Mitchell achieves through his characters’ skepticism points to Calvino’s influence, namely, in the idea of authorial immanence. By pointing to his own stories’ artificiality through his characters, Mitchell creates another character: the authorial Mitchell, distinct from the actual David Mitchell. The authorial Mitchell appears in the story as the creator of myths, the one Frobisher accuses of fabricating “The Pacific Journal.” Indeed, each of Atlas’ stories fits too snugly into its genre; whether travelogue or action-packed detective novel, the stories seem specific types generated by a “realm of forms.” In this way they emulate the motif of clouds, randomly generated, almost indistinguishable, yet unique formations.

Top 10 gleeful adulterers in literature

As relief from all the other dense material here, Eliza Kennedy presents some lighter-hearted fare:

As well as the characters whose cheating brings on their doom, there is another set of literary sinners whose forbidden erotic adventures bring them much happiness. From Zeus to Rabbit Angstrom, these are the ones I love best

See what she has to say about these lusty characters:

  • Abraham in the Bible
  • Zeus in pretty much every Greek myth
  • Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Inferno
  • Nicholas and Alison in “The Miller’s Tale” by Chaucer
  • Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
  • Edna Pontellier in The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • Molly Bloom in Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run by John Updike
  • Ada Vinelander in Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
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Book Recommendations Film Literary Criticism Monday Miscellany Reading

Monday Miscellany

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Harry Potter boxed setSure, Harry Potter destroyed the evil Lord Voldemort. But, aside from making lots of money for book publishers and film studio/theme-park conglomerates, what has the wizard done for us lately?

In fact, he has been helping to reduce prejudice.

That’s the conclusion of research just published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. It finds that, among young people, reading J.K. Rowling’s book series—and, crucially, identifying with the lead character—can reduce bias toward stigmatized minority groups.

We’ve seen a lot of studies about how reading fiction can increase self-understanding and empathy, but now there’s scientific evidence that it can also reduce prejudice.

Tom Jacobs does a good job here of explaining this research and comparing it with earlier research on whether reading literature can reduce racism.

The Scourge of “Relatability”

What do people mean when they say that they relate to a character in a literary work? Rebecca Mead tackles that question in The New Yorker:

Whence comes relatability? A hundred years ago, if someone said something was “relatable,” she meant that it could be told—the Shakespearean sense of “relate”—or that it could be connected to some other thing. As recently as a decade ago, even as “relatable” began to accrue its current meaning, the word remained uncommon. The contemporary meaning of “relatable”—to describe a character or a situation in which an ordinary person might see himself reflected—first was popularized by the television industry.

With bold insight Mead differentiates between identification with a character—an active process in which the reader engages with the artistic work—and relating to a character—a response in which the “reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play.” Relatability is a mere self-reflection, while identification requires “the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy.”

Send Yourself Flying: 3 Books For An Out Of Body Experience

Characters don’t need to become better people by the final page of a book, but I do hope they change. I read to experience another world, and characters are often most tangible when they undergo transitions.

In some books, that change is an actual physical transformation. Characters stop being human, and become transfigured. If the writer is successful, they pull the audience into that metamorphosis. Here are three books about characters not bound by their bodies.

See what books Nick Ripatrazone recommends for a transformative experience.

Book Buzz: ‘Ulysses’ to become virtual reality game

James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the greatest books in literature, and it is also one of the hardest to read. Irish filmmaker Eoghan Kidney is crowdfunding a creative solution to this problem: A virtual reality video game that allows the reader to experience the book as the protagonist.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this. I really don’t.

10 of the Most Depressing Places in Literature

“here are a selection of other depressing places and the writers they inspired,” including Dickens’s London, Orhan Pamuk’s Turkey, and Truman Capote’s Holcomb, Kansas.

The Goldfinch: who should direct and star in the movie?

The excitement surrounding The Goldfinch seems to have no end in sight. When it’s not it being lauded with the Pulitzer prize, it’s crowds flocking to see the original artwork by which Donna Tartt’s novel was inspired, or articles praising the book as one of the best of the year. Now the inevitable movie version is on its way – it doesn’t even have a director, a screenwriter or a cast yet, but at this rate it’s becoming one of the most hyped movies-to-be of the year.

Check the comments section to see answers from U.K. readers to The Guardian’s questions.

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Book Recommendations Fiction Film Literary Criticism Literary History Monday Miscellany Reading

Monday Miscellany

It’s been a good week for literature-relating reading.

The Top 10 Charles Dickens Books

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Robert Gottlieb, author of Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens, explains why he thinks these are Dickens’s 10 best books:

  1. Great Expectations
  2. Our Mutual Friend
  3. David Copperfield
  4. Bleak House
  5. Little Dorrit
  6. Oliver Twist
  7. Nicholas Nickleby
  8. Dombey and Son
  9. The Pickwick Papers
  10. The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens

The Education of Virginia Woolf

At The Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz uses the publication of volume 6 of The Essays of Virginia Woolf  as the springboard to a discussion of Virginia Woolf as discerning reader of literature: “Taken as a whole, Woolf’s essays are probably the most intense paean to reading—an activity pursued not for a purpose but for love—ever written in English.”

The multivolume compilation The Essays of Virginia Woolf has been out of print for decades, and readers have been awaiting the conclusion of this expertly edited and lavishly annotated scholarly edition of Woolf’s complete essays for nearly 25 years. At last the project is finished with this, the sixth volume, which was published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Woolf’s death last year. This installment, which gathers the pieces she wrote from 1933 until her suicide in 1941, poignantly illuminates the effort and ideals that informed her critical writing. Woolf became a financially secure novelist in 1928 with the publication of Orlando, yet she continued to toil at her relatively unremunerative reviews. For example, by cross-referencing her letters and diaries, Stuart N. Clarke, this volume’s editor, reveals that in November 1936, Woolf began work on her lapidary, psychologically astute, tender essay on Edward Gibbon. That project demanded that she read his journals, letters, and the six drafts of his autobiography—and reread the six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the work that naturally forms the cynosure of her piece. She labored at this review through the winter and spring of 1937 (“I’ve spent all the morning, every morning, writing; every evening reading. I had to dash through Gibbon”), until its publication that May. For this staggering quantity of work, she was paid 28 pounds, equal to something like $2,500 today—a nice lump sum, but a minuscule per-hour rate.

Famous authors: Why their biggest fans love to hate them

Declaring “the more beloved a particular book becomes, the more responsibility the author has to treat their readers with respect and understanding,” the folks at hypable list authors they love to hate:

  • J. K. Rowling
  • Suzanane Collins
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • John Green

On Bad Endings

On The New Yorker‘s Page-Turner blog Joan Acocella declares:

Many of the world’s best novels have bad endings. I don’t mean that they end sadly, or on a back-to-work, all-is-forgiven note (e.g. “War and Peace,” “The Red and the Black,” “A Suitable Boy”), but that the ending is actually inartistic—a betrayal of what came before. This is true not just of good novels but also of books on which the reputation of Western fiction rests.

Read why she hates the endings of these well known novels:

  • David Copperfield
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Song of the Lark
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Hollywood’s 25 Most Powerful Authors

The Hollywood Reporter offers its list of:

those living authors who have been most successful in shepherding their books from page to screen, balancing success in publishing (total output, sales, best-sellers) and in Hollywood (completed adaptations, projects in development, screenwriting and producing credits) while accounting for cultural influence. More power to them.

Yes, some of the big names—Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, George R. R. Martin—are there at the top of the list, but some of the names farther down might surprise you.

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Author News Book News Literary Criticism Monday Miscellany Publishing Writing

Monday Miscellany

Your Favorites: 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels

A while back NPR asked readers/listeners to vote on their favorite YA novels. 75,220 people voted, helping to whittle the list of 235 finalists down to the top 100. In addition to the list of winners, this page includes links to explanations of what exactly constitutes YA literature.

Top 100 Teen Novels
Illustration by Harriet Russell for NPR

A life in writing: Mark Billingham

British crime novelist Mark Billingham has “always believed that location is a character”:

When I began to write I was surprised at how little London had been used in crime fiction. Places such as Edinburgh or Oxford or LA seemed to have stronger identities. Part of the reason why Scandinavian crime has been so popular is the landscape. It is just so strong and alien. Although without taking anything away, you should probably also never discount the fact that blood does look particularly good against snow.”

Billingham started his professional life as an actor and stand-up comic before becoming a writer of dark crime fiction. His first novel, Sleepyhead, came out in 2001. His most recent novel is Rush of Blood.

The depiction of violence in crime fiction is a perennial source of argument: Val McDermid has claimed that women writers, used to a lifetime of experiencing potential dangers, tend to write about what violence feels like, while men more often write about what it looks like; but she expressly exempted Billingham from this characterisation. He says: “I think I am an exception because I have been through it.” In 1997, Billingham was held hostage at gunpoint in a hotel room and robbed. “When I sat down to write about a year after I was attacked, reflecting the victim’s experience was very important to me. From book one, I wanted the victim to be a major character and not just a plot device. I didn’t want a cop and a killer and victims 1-6 who you don’t know or care about. Even though Thorne [Billingham’s series detective] had the most onstage time in Sleepyhead, the character I got most feedback about was the victim, Alison, who was in a locked-in state and doesn’t speak. She was actually much more fully formed than Thorne, although I hope he’s become a bit more fleshed out as time has gone on.”

Here’s what he says about writing about violence:

“I still believe you should show what violence does to people, but it’s done best without depicting the actual mechanics. The single spot of blood on a pristine kitchen floor is far more powerful than blood-spattered walls with messages smeared in it, and it doesn’t detract from how dark or suspenseful a story is.”

Against Enthusiasm: The epidemic of niceness in online book culture

There’s been a lot spoken and written lately about the overwhelming crush of negative book reviews, but on Slate Jacob Silverman expresses the opposite opinion in lamenting “the mutual admiration society that is today’s literary culture, particularly online”:

Whereas critics once performed one role in print and another in life—Rebecca West could savage someone’s book in the morning and dine with him in the evening—social media has collapsed these barriers. Moreover, social media’s centrifugal forces of approbation—retweets, likes, favorites, and the self-consciousness that accompanies each public utterance—make any critique stick out sorely.

Here’s the alternative he proposes:

A better literary culture would be one that’s not so dependent on personal esteem and mutual reinforcement. It would not treat offense or disagreement as toxic. We wouldn’t want so badly to be liked above all. We’d tolerate barbed reviews, some quarrels, and blistering critiques, because they make our culture more interesting and because they are often more sincere reflections of our passions. If we all think more and enthuse less, when I do truly love Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, you’ll be more likely to believe me.

Goodreads v. LibraryThing- Part One

Which social reading network do you prefer, Goodreads or LibraryThing? On BookRiot Amanda Nelson offers the first installment of an in-depth comparison between the two. And there’s a link at the bottom of the page to Part Two.

Dickens’s Best Novel? Six Experts Share Their Opinions

Over on The Millions, six specialists in Victorian literature make their case for what they consider to be the best novel by Charles Dickens.