What Makes a Good Book and How Do You Talk About It?

The zoom book club meetings with posted unattractive snapshots of attendees does not appeal to me, but I’m still a fan of book discussions. Therese Anne Fowler’s A Good Neighborhood would be on my list for a book chat whenever small groups can meet in person again.

Two catalysts motivated me to find this book I somehow missed last year: one was Jung Yu’s review of the book in the Washington Post, comparing it to one of my favorite pieces of literature, A Rose for Emily by Faulkner; the other an inquiry from a friend asking for books about the writing process which led me to think about Henry James’ essay, The Art of Fiction.  

A side note was the current discussion of writers addressing characters’ viewpoints with racial identities different from their own, begging the question whether or not white authors are entitled to create thoughts out of their experience for people of color.  Yu neatly puts this latter to rest with the comment: “Execution, however, does matter. And what Fowler has executed is a book in which the black characters are thoughtfully rendered and essential to the story being told.”

Which leads me to Henry James and his ideas about what makes a novel “good.” A friend summarized his essay into three questions: What was the artist trying to achieve?  Did he or she succeed? Was it worth doing?  You don’t need to like a work to know what the artists were trying to achieve or if they succeeded, but the last question asks for an evaluation – not really whether a book was well written (a construct I’ve often heard argued in book clubs without merit) but whether the book is to your taste – pretty easy to answer and may not have anything to do with the quality of the book.

James noted the novel, for both the writer and the reader, is the road not to moral principles, but to the moral sense.  “Where the novelist is intelligent, the novel will offer an experience that has the potential for shaping and developing the reader’s own intelligence. {The novel is} the great extension, great beyond all others, of experience and of consciousness {and experience is} our appreciation and our measure of what happens to us as social creatures.  If the novel is intelligently controlled, all the necessary moral ground will be covered.”

In an essay on literary criticism, Mambrol wrote:  “Novels should not transmit moral principles and rules as such, but renovate and develop the mind by attempting to engage the reader in the pursuit of intricate combinations of form, content, and germinating subjects.”

Maybe all this is a little highbrow for the book club discussions I have heard but perhaps it would help to steer ideas into a more thoughtful hour of reflection rather than the norm of dissecting the details.

 

Looking Forward to 2021 in Books

Author Sophie Hannah reminded me that when I curse an inanimate object for getting in my way, causing me to smash my toes or bruise my elbow, it is, after all, not the inanimate object’s fault.  In an article listing her favorite books for the new year, Hannah notes:  “I’ve heard many say good riddance to 2020 and I understand why, but it also makes me want to correct the misunderstanding. A year is a moral-value-free and agenda-free unit of time. It has neither agency nor culpability. It’s merely a container inside which we have experiences.”

She suggests you start your 2021 reading with Abigail Dean’s Girl A a psychological drama about a girl whose new life starts when she escapes from an abusive family. “It’s a riveting page-turner, and full of hope in the face of despair.”  Publication: February 2

Fans of Kristin Hannah will be happy to know she has a new book – The Four Winds – set in the depression era of 1934 Texas. Elsa Martinelli must make the choice between the land she loves and moving west in search of a better life.   Publication: February 2, 2021

 

Here are a few more books to look forward to in 2021:

Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishaguro focuses on what it means to be human in his new novel Klara and the Seed.  Klara, an Artificial Friend, smiles and nods to customers in the store while tracking each day by the sun’s arc. When a mother and daughter adopt Klara, repressed emotion springs open, fleshing out Ishiguro’s themes of resilience and vulnerability in our crazy world.  Publication: March 2, 2021

Remember The Nest?  The author Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney returns with her next novel in Good Company, a tale of a marriage in mid-life and the secrets that threaten to upend the relationship between Flora and her husband, as well as with her best friend, Margot. Publication Date: April 6, 2021

Chris Bohjalian returns with a new thriller in Hour of the Witch. In Boston in 1662, A young Puritan woman plots her escape from an abusive marriage while being careful to avoid any accusations of witchcraft. April 20, 2021

The first novel in nearly a decade by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahira, Whereabouts is set in an unnamed city with the story’s first-person narrator a single woman in her mid-40s.   Lahiri wrote the novel in Italian and translated it into English. Publication: April 27, 2021

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is an historical novel about a female aviator at the turn of the twentieth century whose disappearance becomes the basis for a big Hollywood production a century later. Publication: May 4, 2021

Jean Hanff Korelitz, whose book You Should Have Known became the basis for the HBO series The Undoing,  returns with another tale of deceit and betrayal. Jake, looking for his next bestseller, tries   literary theft to rise to stardom in The Plot.  Publication: May 11, 2021

More books to come.  Ann Patchett is promising a collection of essays in November, and Beatriz Williams has a new historical fiction in June.

Finally, back to author Sophie Hannah for a final recommendation – The Enchiridion by Epictetus

Epictetus was a slave and a Stoic who believed that “men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by the opinions about the things”. We can’t control what happens in the world, or even to our own bodies, but Epictetus believes we can always control our own minds by, for example, deciding to …be at peace with whatever we cannot prevent from happening.

I just ordered the paperback for $1.99 but you can get it for free on Project Gutenberg.

Looking forward to next year and more great books…

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rebecca is Haunting the Airwaves

A good movie at the end of the day seems to have become a routine. The remake of  Roald Dahl’s The Witches is coming to HBO in time for Halloween, and other scary movies I’ve watched lately include The Trial of the Chicago Seven and David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet on Netflix, but last night I watched Lily James and Armie Hammer in the Netflix remake of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a classic scary movie.

James is a little too beautiful for the frumpy second wife Du Maurier wrote about, despite her clunky shoes and baggy sweaters, and Armie Hammer is too young and debonair for the cold, older, reticent aristocrat of the novel, but, oh, they are so good to watch together on the screen,  The steamy scene on the beach reminiscent of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr’s famous scene in From Here to Eternity would never have happened in the novel, but I’m glad it was in the movie.

I wondered at the Netflix ending and spent an hour trying to find a free version of the novel on Gutenberg to compare.  When I read Rebecca, I remembered the Gothic overtones and the feeling of ghostly despair haunting the ending; noone was living happily ever after.  Netflix cures this authorial intent with another steamy bedroom scene, but offers a nod to the possibilities with Lily James crazy stare into the camera at the end.  If you didn’t know the novel, you might think all was well and Rebecca’s ghost was still swimming in the deep.  The movie was good, but, as always, the novel was better – give it a try – you can listen to it, complete with eerie music  – here.

Although true to the novel in most scenes, the romantic ending might be better for viewers in this virus ridden world.  After all, we already have a specter to fear and resist; who needs another one.

Solutions and Other Problems

Having finally finished Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe (taking almost as long as reading The Splendid and the Vile), I found myself happily ensconced in an easier path to philosophical thinking with Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems.  If you have read her first book, Hyperbole and a Half, you will recognize her cartoonish characters combined with serious thinking. I like books with pictures but tend to shy away from graphic novels. Brosh, on the other hand, offers her heavy insight mixed with a light touch.  It was easy to transfer Bakewell’s evaluation of Sartre to Brosh’s world of grimly smiling characters.

Brosh’s book is full of her own story as she navigates through her sister’s suicide and her traumatic health scare and includes a plethora of sublime and funny vignettes from childhood through her thirty year old self (notice I did not say adulthood). She draws herself as a frog-eyed and neckless stick figure with a blonde shark fin of a ponytail protruding from her head.   She explains why:

“There are a lot of distracting things about humans,” she says. “There are ways we’ve learned to interpret each other, based on all these outside clues. Drawing myself in this spastic, animalistic way allows me to communicate more directly about the things I’m trying to talk about without using this confusing [human] vehicle as a medium.”

Her style works to simultaneously provoke humor and pathos, drawing the reader into funny situations with thoughtful outcomes. Brosh adds her quirky art to a humorous angst reminiscent of David Sedaris talking about his childhood or his favorite pants. Allie Brosh transforms simple stories about her cat, her childhood, and her anxiety into humorous lessons. Some are just laugh out loud funny but others will have you connecting to your own experiences.

Best of all, by exposing her own idiosyncracies, worries, and insecurities, she gives the reader the freedom to admit to some too, and, in the end, become your own best friend. Maybe Solutions and Other Problems was not written to draw us out of our social distancing doldrums in a pandemic, but reading the book sure does a good job of it.

The last line in the book:

Because nobody should have to feel like a pointless little weirdo alone.   Especially if they are.

 

 

A Book Can Cure You

A recent article by Catherine Hong for Real Simple magazine focused on the value of reading books for mental well-being – not a new concept – but bibliotherapy is often ignored or under appreciated.  Getting lost in fiction has always been my preferred form of therapy, and I was happy to read the studies Hong provided supporting how reading a good book could “help people become happier and healthier, not to mention more emotionally attuned to others.”

In one of my favorite books, The Little Paris Bookshop, the owner has an uncanny talent to evaluate his customers’ problems  (including doubt, disappointment, and fears) and prescribe exactly the right book to shake them out of their gloom – everyone’s except his own. He believes in the healing properties of fiction and romance.  Being in southern France only adds to the cure.

In Hong’s article she asks other writers for books they use for bibliotherapy.  Among the recommendations are a book of poetry, an examination of a classic, and a puzzle mystery for middle schoolers.

  1.  Look by Somaz Sharif:        Anglie Cruz, the author of Dominica, suggests poetry for soothing the soul.  In Somaz Sharif’s Look, the reader is engaged with how language is used for and against us.  “It’s a good book to read now as we face unbearable loss.”
  2. Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler:     Sue Monk Kidd, author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Book of Longings, suggests this book to transport you to the Yorkshire moors and save you from being “burned out at work or simply in need of creative kindling”
  3. The Westing Game by Ellen Rasling:   Julie Grames, author of Stella Fortuna, recommends this middle-grade mystery novel to inspire you to be a better human being…”

You might write yourself a prescription for reading a book to take you out of your doldrums.  My go-to authors are Jane Gardam, Kent Haruf, and Jeffrey Archer to whisk me away somewhere else and immerse me in someone’s else’s life, but I keep looking for more.      What books do you recommend for bibliotherapy?

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