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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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Summer reading has a fraught history. But if there was ever a time to delight in escapism, it’s now

Wisdom from Ron Charles, book critic for the Washington Post:

The shame of summer reading is almost as old as summer reading itself. It took humanity 200,000 years to produce movable type, widespread literacy and enough leisure time to enjoy a book. But as soon as people discovered the pleasures of a diverting novel, some starchy scold swooped in to make them feel bad.

Charles notes that the term beach reads was still toxic in highbrow circles at the end of the 20th century and that our personal beach-reading “remains fraught with anxiety about what those choices might suggest about ourselves.” 

But I like his conclusion: “If there were ever a summer to stop apologizing, to stop pretending and to stop worrying about what we should read, it’s this summer.”

Literature Is Built on a Foundation of Horror

“Why all great writing, no matter the genre, is steeped in horror.”

I often say that I don’t like horror fiction; in particular, I don’t read fiction involving werewolves, zombies, or vampires.

But novelist Marc E. Fitch argues that all fiction is a form of horror:

Literary fiction, in its attempt to confront reality, is built on a foundation of insanity, meaninglessness, brutality and death. Authors of genre fiction are essentially writing in the basement of that haunted house. They are not the worse for it; they are engaged with the same horrors as writers included in the literary canon and sometimes transcend the genre, creating work that is both horrifying and deeply meaningful. There are no hard boundaries in classifying literature, or course, and people should read widely. But just because it isn’t labeled a horror novel, doesn’t mean it isn’t a novel of horrors.

Questioning the Very Form of the Book

Karla Kelsey discusses The Saddest Thing Is ThatI Have Had to Use Words: A Madeline Gins Reader, edited by Lucy Ives. “Madeline Gins uses the form to dislodge our notion of individual subjectivity, the narrator commonly known as ‘I.’”

Kelsey describes Gins as a writer who explored “the wherefores and why’s of experimental writing — of its capacity to say and do what other forms of writing or art-making cannot.”

Rufi Thorpe on the Narrative Role of the Bystander

“Writing Ordinary People Who Witness the Extraordinary”

Rufi Thorpe, author of the recently published novel The Knockout Queen, praises   books what she calls “The Gospel of Joe Schmo”: “An ordinary person tells the story of their friend, someone extraordinary, who touched their life and changed them forever.”

Such novels, Thorpe writes, “are all told in first person from the point of view of an almost peripheral character.” Such novels include Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, All the King’s Men, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Genre Labels: What Makes a Book More Thriller Than Sci-Fi?

Publishers and marketing directors love genre labels, writes S.L. Huang. Here she describes how some science fiction books end up getting classified as thrillers:

So although there are certainly scifi thrillers that straddle genres and hit it out of the park on both the futuristic elements and the fast-paced thrilling tension, here are some ways that, in my observation, a book that could easily be called science fiction instead gets sucked more into the tense and mainstream maw of the thriller category.

I found this article particularly fascinating because, although Huang doesn’t mention these titles specifically, I’ve enjoyed recent novels, including Dark Matter by Blake Crouch and The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, that are thrillers with science-fiction elements.

© 2020 by Mary Daniels Brown

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Literary Links

CANDID PORTRAITS OR GHOSTWRITTEN FLUFF: THE HISTORY OF THE CELEBRITY BOOK

Jeffrey Davies looks at the history of the celebrity book, whether it be “a memoir, an essay collection, a cookbook, a book of poetry, or a self-help book.” He discusses the rise of the ghostwriter, what happens when celebrity culture and science clash (for example, Gwyneth Paltrow’s cookbooks and health books), and whether celebrity books make it harder for other books to get published.

Reflecting on the memoirs of 2019 and the elasticity of the genre

From the Chicago Tribune:

The memoir, at once literary and fact-based, js a shape-shifter, a container for a diverse array of voices, stories and narrative techniques. A sampling of this year’s entries exemplify the genre’s elasticity. In eclectic formats, they speak of trauma and healing, family dysfunction, the limitations of medical science, and the forging of identity in the face of social and cultural obstacles.

A year of literary prizes and surprises in 2019

In an article summarizing the ups and downs of this past year’s literary prizes worldwide, Somak Ghoshal concludes:

The reality of judging a prize is complicated by a multitude of conflicting factors. The impulse to do right by being aware of the conditions in which a writer or an artist produces their work often clashes with the duty to uphold aesthetic merit above all else. But these days, the solution seems to come from the contenders themselves. In August, writer Olivia Laing shared the James Tait Black prize for fiction with her fellow nominees because “competition has no place in art”. More recently, the four shortlisted artists for the Turner Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious awards for the arts, requested the jury to divide the prize equally among them. If this trend continues, it will soon become unfashionable to run for competitions, or to win any.

The Classics That Invented These Thriller Tropes

I read a lot of mysteries and thrillers, and I often talk about the use of genre tropes in these books. Here Diane Zhang describes several of those tropes and discusses both the origin and recent examples of each.

Peter Pan’s dark side emerges with release of original manuscript

This article in The Guardian examines how J.M. Barrie “toned down Peter Pan’s character to suit audiences in 1911” as he edited his manuscript for publication. 

Barrie’s original manuscript, entitled Peter Pan and Wendy, was published earlier this month. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

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How Thrillers Grab Our Attention

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Last Week’s Links

Why Doctors Should Read Fiction

Students in medical school and nursing traditionally study ethics through the use of case studies, short synopses of situations the students may face later in their careers. This article describes a recent paper from the journal Literature and Medicine that suggests replacing case studies with short stories that present ethical situations in more narrative depth.

Why Little Women Endures

A look at the recent book Meg, Jo, Both, Amy by Anne Boyd Rioux, which argues that Little Women, often called a book full of sweetness, is also an angry book “in a specifically feminist way”:

Alcott uses the structures that hem women in—marriage, home, religion—both to attract and repel her readers.

100 Best Thrillers of All Time

The title is self-evident. The list breaks its contents down into several categories: psychological thrillers, crime/mystery thrillers, sci fi/fantasy thrillers, horror thrillers, legal thrillers, domestic thrillers, medical thrillers, and the catch-all atypical thrillers.

Pat Barker Sees the Women of Troy

As women across the globe come forward with stories of harassment, abuse, and oppression, novelist Pat Barker is giving voice to fictional women in a classic piece of literature. In The Silence of Girls, out in September from Doubleday, she tells the story of The Iliad from a female perspective.

One of the transformative powers of fiction is that it can present a familiar story from a different, never before heard, perspective. Here’s how novelist Pat Barker lets one woman speak about that ultimate example of patriarchy, war.

The Lazy Trope of the Unethical Female Journalist

As Stephen Marche wrote in 2014 for Esquire, the reality of journalists is that they’re “one of the less glamorous species of humanity,” and the most reliable trait of the truly gifted ones is that they’re perpetually on the phone—which is presumably why the entertainment industry has long preferred an alternate depiction of journalists, particularly when it comes to women. On television and in film, the fictional lady reporter tends to look less like Haberman [of the Showtime documentary miniseries The Fourth Estate] and more like Camille Preaker, portrayed in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects by Amy Adams.

Sophie Gilbert, staff writer for The Atlantic, points out that this portrayal of female journalists is devastating in light of the many women who have entered the profession. Furthermore, the picture of female journalists who will sleep with any source just to get a story makes any news story by a woman suspect in popular opinion, a particularly alarming occurrence in the current climate of “fake news.”

Gilbert urges readers to watch The Fourth Estate to see “visibly tired, multitasking women working relentlessly because they know the stories they’re reporting are stories that need telling.”

© 2018 by Mary Daniels Brown