Tag Archives: Fiction

Barack Obama(!), The Beatles(?), Google(!)…?

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did… I wised up.”

-Phillip Roth, of American Pastoral (and over 50 other titles) fame, in an interview with Financial Times.

I don’t really know what to say about this. Every reader in my life who prefers non-fiction does so almost exclusively and happens to be incredibly learned. Not just smart, but academician-smart.  And not a single one of them is an empty shell devoid of imagination or an inclination toward the figurative. What irks me about Roth’s comment isn’t that he doesn’t read fiction anymore, it’s that he doesn’t read fiction because he “wised up.” There are two things I know for certain about myself regarding old age, and I will be happy to check back in with you when the time comes: no matter how ugly and wrinkly and in need of a paper bag I get, I will never attempt to reverse the natural order of things. And I will never stop reading fiction as long as good fiction is being written. Clearly, wisdom is nowhere on my list of long-term plans, but I can’t help but wonder what he means by his comment. Is it that when you start to run out of time, reality (rather, the reality of what is happening in the real world in real time with real consequences,) becomes more important to consume? Or is it that at a certain point all fiction has to offer becomes recycled (because it’s only an endless procession of futile attempts at autopsy) and ceases to enrich you as it once could? What do you mean, Phillip Roth? Do I have to wait to wise up myself to understand what you mean?


In totally unrelated news, apparently 5% of those surveyed by the 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll think that Harper Lee is a martial-arts expert. Here I go wondering again: To Kill a Mockingbird is, at the very least, one of the most widely-taught books in this country. At best, it’s one of the most well-known, most-alluded to, most well-regarded by readers and non-readers alike for, if nothing else, its social value.  And it turns out even that can’t be taken for granted. 53% percent didn’t even recognize the name. These are people who know what 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair are. That’s something. Isn’t it? I think I’m more shocked by this than irked by Mr. Roth’s comment.  If the name Harper Lee cannot be counted on as a living part of our collective knowledge, (not because of what the name means but simply because it was my very strong sense until this morning that “everybody knows Harper Lee”,) first of all, why is that and, secondly, what can be counted on? Is it because when we talk about Harper Lee we’re most often talking about literature? Is it because she was “relevant” a “long time ago”? If so, what is the span of time, these days, our memory can collectively contain? What is something today that everyone, let’s say, on the grid, can say for sure they share with everyone else? Besides Facebook. Or Google.



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The Staff Picks: Week of May 16th

This is the week we turn 25 years old. Mid-twenties. Quarter century… Portrait of a Bookstore can now rent a car!

Here is what the Staff Picks this week:


Julie Picks:

This Life Is in Your Hands, by Melissa Coleman

In 1968, Melissa Coleman’s parents, Eliot and Sue—a handsome, idealistic young couple from well-to-do families—pack a few essentials into their VW truck and abandon the complications of modern reality to carve a farm from the woods. They move to a remote peninsula on the coast of Maine and become disciples of Helen and Scott Nearing, authors of the homesteading bible Living the Good Life. On sixty acres of sandy, intractable land, Eliot and Sue begin to forge a new existence, subsisting on the crops they grow and building a home with their own hands.

While they establish a happy family and achieve their visionary goals, the pursuit of a purer, simpler life comes at a price. Winters are long and lean, summers frenetic with the work of the harvest, and the distraction of the many young farm apprentices threatens the Colemans’ marriage. Then, one summer day when Melissa is seven, her three-year-old sister, Heidi, wanders off and drowns in the pond where she liked to play. In the wake of the accident, ideals give way to human frailty, divorce, and a mother’s breakdown—and ultimately young Melissa is abandoned to the care of neighbors. What really happened, and who, if anyone, is to blame?

This Life Is in Your Hands is the search to understand a complicated past; a true story, both tragic and redemptive, it tells of the quest to make a good life, the role of fate, and the power of forgiveness.


Jane Picks:

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem–ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory. She is an astute young Housekeeper, with a ten-year-old son, who is hired to care for him. And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor’s mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities–like the Housekeeper’s shoe size–and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is an enchanting story about what it means to live in the present, and about the curious equations that can create a family.


Lucia Picks:

A Moment in the Sun, by John Sayles

Spanning five years and half a dozen countries, Sayles’s latest novel takes the late 1890’s in its sights–from the white coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, to the bloody dawn of U.S. interventionism in Cuba and the Philippines.
Many, many pages long.

Danielle Picks:

A Drove of Bullocks and A Filth of Starlings, by PatrickGeorge

A litter of kittens, a colony of ants, a pride of lions: everyone has heard of these plural nouns. But what about a parcel of hogs, a kaleidoscope of butterflies, or a business of ferrets? What could be more apt than calling a group of cockroaches an intrusion? Perhaps a loveliness of ladybirds! These fanciful groups and many more are illustrated with cutting-edge design—dazzling as a dazzle of zebras.


BJ Picks:

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

On a hot summer day, Joanna Mason’s family slowly wanders home along a country lane. A moment later, Joanna’s life is changed forever…

On a dark night thirty years later, ex-detective Jackson Brodie finds himself on a train that is both crowded and late. Lost in his thoughts, he suddenly hears a shocking sound…

At the end of a long day, 16-year-old Reggie is looking forward to watching a little TV. Then a terrifying noise shatters her peaceful evening. Luckily, Reggie makes it a point to be prepared for an emergency…

These three lives come together in unexpected and deeply thrilling ways in the latest novel from Kate Atkinson, the critically acclaimed author who Harlan Coben calls “an absolute must-read.”


Donna Picks:

The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee

Smart and socially gifted, Adam and Cynthia Morey are perfect for each other. With Adam’s rising career in the world of private equity, a beautiful home in Manhattan, gorgeous children, and plenty of money, they are, by any reasonable standard, successful. But for the Moreys, their future of boundless privilege is not arriving fast enough. As Cynthia begins to drift, Adam is confronted with a choice that will test how much he is willing to risk to ensure his family’s happiness and to recapture the sense that the only acceptable life is one of infinite possibility. The Privileges is an odyssey of a couple touched by fortune, changed by time, and guided above all else by their epic love for each other.


Lilly Picks:

Damn You, Autocorrect!by Jillian Madison

A buck a boat funny stuff the happens with autocorrect.

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Ahistorical Historical Fiction, Part Deux

Historical Fiction is not always historically accurate, but that’s okay. Please see Part One for more words on the subject and the first half of this list.


Michael Moorcock

I’ve written a bit about Michael Moorcock in one of my previous posts, and I return to him again with Gloriana, his rather fantastical and darkly imagined take on the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  Moorcock always takes pains to write fantasies lacking in idealism, and the England (or Albion) of Gloriana is an unpleasant, decadent, and bloated empire ruled by a debauched queen, with the book’s lurid descriptions of the kingdom and its court sometimes bordering on the didactic.  Written as “a dialogue with Spenser’s The Faerie Queen“, Gloriana offers a rare, unabashedly fantastic take on a supposed golden age that is not afraid to confront the ugly realities of the period.


The Sot-Weed Factor
John Barth

John Barth is an occasionally difficult author known to interlace his works with complex structures and esoteric ideas, but his works are also filled with ribald humor, genuine cleverness and exciting storytelling.  The Sot-Weed Factor, his most well-known work, tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, ‘Poet-Laureate and Virgin’, a somewhat over-aged innocent traveling throughout Colonial America whilst attempting to write an epic poem about his homeland.  Primarily what drives this story is the quirkiness of its characters and the adventurous spirit of the novel, but the work also contains extended portions examining the actual events surrounding American colonization, including a notably different take on the story of John Smith and Pocahontas.


Umberto Eco

Baudolino, for what it’s worth, grants the reader a reprieve from Eco’s traditionally overstuffed and extravagantly erudite style of writing.  This may or may not be a good thing, since I tend to enjoy the challenges his fiction offers, but even with its deceptive simplicity, Baudolino stands with Eco’s best works.  Set in the High Middle Ages, Baudolino is the story of the titular character, a born liar and the adopted son of German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, as he travels across Europe using his genius and penchant for lying to solve the various problems of the continent.  To get the full gist of the story you are best served to have several degrees in European history, but even if you fall short of this requirement it is not hard to grasp the central thesis of the book: the way history, myth, and outright fabrication all contribute to our perception of the past.  Most of the book plays it straight, but in the last third of the story we follow Baudolino to the legendary and quite fictional realm of Prester John, where he encounters satyrs, unicorns, blemmyes and other inventions of the medieval mind.  Although the story is straightforward, much of it is based around a complex, multilayered examination of truth and fiction and the story may leave the reader with some fairly heavy lingering philosophical questions. (What is reality?  How does mythmaking affect our understanding of history and the immanence of time?  Did anything real actually happen to Baudolino or did I just read a 500-page novel that was some guy riffin’ on made up stuff!?)


The Baroque Cycle
Neil Stephenson

Like science?  Want to read a 2600 page trilogy about the establishment and early history of science, including excessive jargon, seemingly endless tangents on subjects you never thought to consider, complex historical analysis and bold, occasionally revolutionary diatribes on the changing nature of science and evolving paradigms in the way we view nature and reality?  Neil Stephenson is a science nerd par excellance, and he requires that his readers be the same.  Traditionally challenging, dense, and packed with facts you don’t need to know but should anyhow, his books excel because as an author he rarely forgets the fundamentals of a good story and fills his work with excitement, fun, and, in the case of ‘The Baroque Cycle’, some good swashbuckling.  Set during the time of Isaac Newton’s inquiries into science, the novels track the story of a group of scientists (or natural philosophers, as they were known at the time) as they seek to develop the systematized method of thought and analysis later to become the scientific method.  Lots of other stuff too. And there are enough bizarre and decidedly pseudoscientific events occurring in the series to place them disticntly in the camp of science-fiction, even if the optimist might declare that some of the oddities throughout the story are more improbable than impossible, and that Stephenson is educating us about branches of science that are yet to be uncovered.


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
David Mitchell

The most recent work on this list, and directly and openly inspired by Norfolk’s Lempriere’s Dictionary.  Set in Japan during the Napoleonic Wars, (making it the third book on this list set in that period,) The Thousand Autumns chronicles the lives of Dutch traders living on a small traders’ post in Nagasaki Harbor, attempting to adapt to the alien culture as well as to the changing times.  For the most part this book is very straightforward, and might read as some exceptionally well-written spinoff of the ‘Shogun‘ novels, but the inclusion of an immortal Zen master and his rather enigmatic temple adds what is, for my money, some old fashioned science fiction goodness to an otherwise very unremarkable tale of culture class, forbidden love, and days of trade and plunder.  I won’t say too much about what happens, but I will say I have a distinct theory about what Mitchell leaves to the reader to figure out. (Hooray for me.) Also, let it be noted that Mitchell has announced this book IS a science fiction novel, despite the scarce evidence to prove it as such, and he is currently planning two sequels that will involve the theme of immortality and take place in the far future.


Happy Reading!



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Goth Talk, Part II

Precisely one eternity after Part I, (which you should read before wading in here,) we bring you the second installment of Kevin’s most excellent list, in time for…

well, just in time.


The Historian
by Elizabeth Kostova

Debuting at what may be considered the beginning of the now slightly moribund vampire craze, The Historian is a novel that had a fairly good run on the bestseller list and gained some fairly favorable reviews.  Written in a self-consciously literary style, with chapters split into alternating timelines and much of the story told in epistolary form, the novel has a similar vibe to it as occult-academic thrillers such as Foucault’s Pendulum and The Club Dumas.  Taking place in three different periods of the 20th Century, the novel follows an academic, and later his daughter, as they try to unravel the legacy of Vlad Tepes, the real-life character Dracula was based on.  Never coming quite fully into the story, Tepes is imagined by Kostova as combining the qualities of the historical Vlad the Impaler with those of the literary Dracula, as imagined by Bram Stoker.  Painstakingly researched, the novel analyzes the folkloric roots of the vampire legend in Eastern Europe, as well as offers an in-depth look at Eastern Europe’s significance as a transitional region between the Islamic East and Christian West during the Middle Ages and between Capitalist and Communist societies in the Modern Era.

Suffused with an atmosphere of eeriness and subtle terror, The Historian is not filled with grue and blood like other Gothic tales; rather, Kostova obsesses on another stock feature of Gothic literature: books.  This book is filled with lavish, evocative, and slightly obsessive descriptions of maps, documents,  mysterious tomes, old letters, and the decaying structures that house them. [Ed.  Yum!]


The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

One of horror’s forgotten classics and a significantly influential book to many later writers, The Great God Pan explored the theme of the rational mind’s inability to deal with the monsterousness and perversity of nature.  Starting out as something of a science fiction story, the novel soon turns into a story of supernatural horror, as the narrative follows a woman who appears to be the offspring of the pagan god, Pan.

Machen has some flaws as a writer, but he has a singular ability to write stories that are bizarrely imaginative and still shocking by today’s standards.  The Great God Pan, like The Horla, (see Part I) had a significant influence on later Weird Horror writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, and others, inspiring the concept of the ‘Eldritch Abomination’: a creature of godlike capabilities and malignant indifference towards mankind, who can drive a person insane simply by its presence.  Later writers would usually cast their abominations as extraterrestrial or inter-dimensional beings, but Machen’s Pan is stated explicitly to be the well-known pastoral deity known from Greek mythology, who, according to ancient standards, was far more dangerous and terrifying than we would ever imagine.


The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
by Carson McCullers

Despite achieving some popularity in her lifetime and having a fairly interesting circle of Lost Generation friends, Carson McCullers’ life was not an easy one.  Suffering several strokes before the age of twenty and constant physical impairment afterward,  watching a promising career as a young musical prodigy peter out before it started, and enduring an endlessly repetitive cycle of bad relationships throughout her life, it is no wonder her stories are almost without exception about misfits and outcasts living in some degree of isolation or deprivation.  Told  in the relatively realistic tradition of Southern Gothic literature, her stories usually forgo horror for horror’s sake and instead offer startlingly sympathetic and often heartbreaking looks at the lives of her characters.  The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, one of her more fantastic and fable-like novellas, is the story of two strange outcasts: the extremely masculine Miss Amelia, and the hunchbacked, childish Cousin Lymon.  The two meet each other and a Platonic love blossoms between them as they run the increasingly popular Sad Cafe, which offers them both acceptance and a sense of purpose within their community.  Into the mix comes Miss Amelia’s ex-husband, and a very strange, somewhat tragic love triangle develops.  Unlike any other work on this list, McCullers’ fixation on deformity, deprivation and suffering is not intended to horrify, but to give the reader a sense of the universality and inescapability of these conditions, and to posit as to the manner one may find dignity and hope within them.


by Daphne du Maurier

Sharing much in common with Jane Eyre, Rebecca is a sort-of Gothic crime novel chronicling a young woman’s journey into adulthood as she finds herself living under the shadow of her husband’s former wife, the seemingly perfect and beatific Rebecca.  Although there is not a hint of the supernatural, this story is as Gothic as they come.  Dark secrets, sadistic villains, labyrinthine mind-games, dangerous attractions, decaying country homes, and poignant descriptions of bad weather, Rebecca self-consciously appropriates the tropes of Gothic literature but does so rather effortlessly.  A rare and celebrated case of high literature that reads like a guilty pleasure.


The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea
by Yukio Mishima

It is debatable whether Yukio Mishima falls in to the realm of the Gothic tradition or if his personal perspective was just so weird and unpleasant that he appropriated the features of the genre in his work without knowing it.  The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea is a good example of just how effective a writer he is in any case.  Set in a Japanese village by the sea, the story follows a sailor, a young mother, and her son, as their relationships constrict around each other.  Dreamlike, with spare, tense passages and a sense of menace that descends slowly, we float along as the anger and isolation surrounding the young son Noboro give way to a suggestion of horrific, senseless violence.  What I like about this book, besides its serious weirdness, is its ambiguity.  Characters in the story seem supernatural at times, but little is explained, and a great deal is left to the reader’s imagination in terms of what actually happens.  [Ed. If you insist on watching the film first, (which happens not to be terrible,) be sure to pick up the book at some point after and marvel, mouth agape, at how much more satisfying your own imagination can be for your various forms of hunger.]


Exquisite Corpse
by Poppy Z. Brite

Like with most works by Poppy Z. Brite, either you will enjoy this book or you will read it and want to immediately wash your brain out with bleach.  Brite is the master of two things:  Baudelairean, bruise-purple prose and incredibly detailed and explicit acts of depravity, murder, torture and etcetera. Exquisite Corpse is one of her non-supernatural stories– essentially the novel is the story of two serial killers in New Orleans as they indulge themselves in their favorite pastime.  Though gore and torture are not my cup of tea in literature, I have to admit a lot of respect for Brite’s absolute mastery of the genre and his ability to go to the darkest and most horrific places imaginable while rising above the cheap-shocking and sensationalistic.


As a final thought on the subject, I’d like to broach a topic that has been debated furiously over the last few years.  Is  the Twilight Saga Gothic Literature? It does, on the surface, have some resemblance to the Gothic genre; primarily the inclusion of supernatural elements and the theme of a young woman’s journey into a terrifying world where she confuses the fearful for the alluring.  The reason Twilight does not quite make the grade is because the alluring is too alluring, and the terrifying not terrifying enough.  Elements of terror and the grotesque surface, but mostly fleetingly.  Instead of the main character (who, being a somewhat dim-witted innocent, is undeniably a Gothic heroine in the high style,) being confronted with the hideous and malevolent as she falls deeper into a dangerous attraction, the primary drive of the Twilight Saga is her  love for the angelic Edward.  Making evil attractive is a feature of Gothic literature, but it is debatable if Twipires are in fact evil (their feeding habits are somewhat similar to those of Bunnicula).  Where Twilight succeeds is as a supernatural romance,  but as I have stated the supernatural is not a guaranteed element of Gothic literature, and the intense focus on beauty and love as major themes run counter to the traditional Gothic formula.  Other young adult books like Harry Potter, The Spiderwick Chronicles, and especially Lemony Snickett, fulfill the requirements of Gothic literature at least somewhat notably.

If anyone would like to comment on this dilemma please feel free to do so.  The question of if the Saga qualfies as good literature is beside the point. Since it is consciously modeled on the formula of Gothic literature and currently sets some standard for that genre, it is a question I think is worth asking in good faith.



[Ed. Wait. So. Do you mean to say, Kevin, that you read Twilight? I’m confused. Apologies for tactlessly butting in, Aida.]

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