Tag Archives: Being a reader

Stories That Save You (Part 2)

As we’ve mentioned here before, beloved patrons, we all have stories that save us.  Those books that come into our lives precisely when we need them or stay around for years and years like an old friend.  Today, I wanted to talk with you about another one of those books in my life.  It’s a book I turn to every year around this time, for reasons that might very well become clear as we chat…

It’s ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King.

King’s second novel, ‘Salem’s Lot was first published in 1975.  According to his introduction to the 2014 audiobook recording, King was teaching Dracula to a high school class, and was inspired to consider what might happen if the titular count were to return again.  Though he might not survive in, say New York City, King’s wife Tabitha mused what might happen if he appeared in a more rural setting.  Like Maine.  And that was that.  The book was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 1976, and the Locus Award for the All-Time Best Fantasy Novel in 1987, and King has stated several times that it is among his favorite of his works.  In 1987 he told Phil Konstantin in The Highway Patrolman magazine: “In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now. The story seems sort of down home to me. I have a special cold spot in my heart for it!”

Very broadly speaking, the novel follows a 32-year-old writer named Benjamin Mears, who returns to Jerusalem’s Lot township in southern Maine (where he lived for four years as a child), following the death of his wife, Miranda.  Ben is intending to write a novel inspired by, and based on, an old, decaying, creepy house in ‘Salem’s Lot known to locals as The Marsten House.  It is a house in which Ben had a traumatically frightening experience as a child that he hopes to heal fully through his writing.  Ben is not, however, the only newcomer to ‘Salem’s Lot.  Another person has rented The Marsten House. And their intentions are far from neighborly, to say the least.

I first encountered ‘Salem’s Lot while I was living in the UK and working on my Master’s Degree.  I had written a seminar paper on Dracula  (another book that I love just a bit too much), and was devouring all the subsequent vampire novels I could get my hands on.  My dad, who I think I’ve mentioned before, is an enormous Stephen King fan (I thought he was a family friend because we had so many of his books around his house), and reminded me that King himself had written a book inspired by Dracula, so I made it my present to myself.  The day I handed in my Masters’ Thesis (September 10, if I remember correctly), I bought a copy of ‘Salem’s Lot.

I loved it from the moment I started reading. Being far away from home, I adored the sections that talk about fall in New England, about the feeling of the cold seeping into the air, into your bones, into your consciousness.  I loved being reminded of the way telephone lines used to buzz gently in the days before digital.  I loved the discussions of darkness, and about what darkness did to the people who lived with it.

I also really liked that King used his study of a small town to talk about the ways in which secrets moved and circulated, and about the impact of evil.  Not just the big evils (although Big Evils abound in this book), but the petty kinds of evil: laziness, greed, selfishness, chauvinism.  If this book reinforces a real-world message, it is that those kind of small evils permit more small evils, and those build and build into something truly fearful.  Larry Crockett, for example, is a shady, lazy, sexist real estate agent who rents out the Marsten House (see an imagined image on the left), even though he knows in his gut that the man renting it is seriously bad news.  But he is also earning a very fat commission on the transaction, so he looks the other way–and allows the vampires to enter ‘Salem’s Lot.  We learn, eventually, about how the town turned away from the things that scared or disturbed them about the Marsten House…and how that permitted the evil inside it to fester.  I appreciated the ways that King discussed the grief and pain that these evils caused, from the loss of a child to the anguish of marital rape (and I also give him a world a credit for calling it ‘marital rape’ in 1975).

Oh, right, and I also loved the vampires.  That should go without saying.  But if you can’t tell, while this book scared me, I loved it too much to be scared of it.  Instead, I read it every year as fall begins.  And every year, I find something else to love.  Right after reading it the first time, I traveled to Belfast for a research trip.  Belfast wasn’t the best of areas to be around that time, as the trauma of the Troubles was still very real.  While I was there, I listened to the audiobook of ‘Salem’s Lot, and appreciated anew how well King plays on our very human fears of being alone and isolated.  It was a sensational that was as real in Belfast at the turn of the century as it was in the ghost town of Momson, Vermont, which “dried up and blew away” in 1923 (according to the novel).

You can read more about Vermont Ghost Towns here: https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/vermont/ghost-town-vt/

Years later, I was working in Copley Square, and had to go to work two days after the Boston Marathon Bombing.  As I, and my fellow workers, emerged from the Green Line to a mob of reporters, camera operators, and police, a found myself recalling a scene where Susan Norton goes to pay a call on the Marsten House–and realizes what real fear is.  Not the jump-scare fear of movies, but the deep-down, paralyzing fear that can warp a person into something very ugly.   But Susan, like others in the book, reject that fear, and confront the darkness in the world with determination and hope.  “The act of moving forward at all became heroism,” King wrote.  That line remains one of my favorite in the book.

These past few years in reading ‘Salem’s Lot, I am struck by the discussion of faith in the book.  Not necessarily religious faith–though that it discussed in the book–but something perhaps more fundamental.  A trust in an inherent structure and a goodness in the world that goes beyond hierarchies and symbols.  Several times in the course of the story, at times of greatest emotional peril, characters in the book refer to their love for each other, and it is that love that saves them.  I find myself reaching for that kind of faith in my readings this time around, and it makes the world outside the book just a little less scary.

…What are the books that save you, dear readers?  Feel free to share them with us here, or come in and find some new ones today!

Sharp Objects, Big Little Lies, and The End of Things…

Friendly Notice: The following post contains frank discussion and spoilers for the television mini-series Sharp Objects.

Pardon me while I climb on my soapbox…

The past two summers have gifted us with heady, visually intriguing mini-series based on powerful works by women.  Last year’s Big Little Liesan adaptation of Lynne Moriarty’s 2015 novel broached the topic of domestic abuse, violence against women, and the repercussions–expected and unexpected–of that violence.  This summer, HBO aired Sharp Objects, an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel.  Both productions were directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.  They are both visually stunning, sensual, scenic productions that manage to convey as much (if not more) through silence than most productions do with pages and pages and pages of dialog.  Sharp Objects was a languorous, slow-moving southern gothic that made you feel sweaty from the sweltering heat portrayed on the screen.   Amy Adams’ performance was the stuff of legends and deserves applause, awards, and accolades.

Image result for sharp objects amy adams
Amy Adams in Sharp Objects, via The Wrap


There be spoilers ahead, Matey!
(And let’s also note that we are talking about these shows as adaptations.  While we understand that the book and its film are independent pieces of art, they can also be considered side-by-side, which we are doing here).

We really need to talk about these endings. (Seriously.  Spoilers.  You’ve been warned.)

Image result for spoilers

Both Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects are the kind of stories where the ending redefine the entire story, forcing the reader to go back, rethink the story they have just read, and contemplate not only the truth that’s been lurking under the surface, but also about how their assumptions about “good guys” and “bad guys” affected their ability to recognize what was going on.  They are clear, coherent, wonderfully intelligent, and thoughtful.  However, one of the major themes that connect both shows are the plethora of headlines talking about the “abrupt” and “confusing” endings.  So let me be clear: neither book has a confusing ending.  In fact, they are both notable and noteworthy for the definitive statements they make about women learning to heal from trauma.

Let’s stick, for now, with Sharp Objects, since it’s the freshest in my (and perhaps your) memory–and also because I’m more angry at it right now.  In the book, journalist Camille Preaker is sent back to her hometown to investigate the murder of a young girl and the disappearance of another.  From the beginning, we learn that Camille is depressed, self-harming (she carves words on her skin), and self-medicating with alcohol.  We learn that her younger sister, Marian, the undisputed ‘favorite child’ died of an unknown or unspecified disease, leaving Camille alone and forced to cope with her narcissistic, manipulative mother Adora.  Her return home refuels all the old tensions within her family, but now, Camille is focused on her half-sister Amma, some twenty years her junior, who is trapped with their mother and clearly coping badly.  Amma lives a double life: she acts out, takes drugs, and drinks (among other problematic behavior) outside, but in her house, Amma regresses, becoming a meek, innocent child that their mother can care for and manipulate.

Over the course of the story, we learn that Camille’s mother Adora suffers from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, or, as it is now known, Factitious disorder imposed on another–a condition in which a caregiver develops a long-term mental disorder of a type involving a breakdown in the relation between thought, emotion, and behavior, and harms the person in their care in order to be perceived as a helpful, saintly, martyr figure.   Adora herself was responsible for the death of Camille’s sister and, indeed, nearly kills Camille and Amma by feeding them a tonic containing rat poison.  The daughters are saved at the last moment, Adora is arrested, and Camille takes Amma to live with her.  Things seem fine until a girl at Amma’s new school is murdered, and Camille realizes that Amma was the murderer of the two girls, driven to violent rage when she though that the girls were getting more attention from Adora than Amma herself.  Distraught after Amma’s arrest, Camille uses a knife to carve more words into her back and very nearly begins cutting her face.  She is saved by her editor, who takes her in.  At the end of the book, Camille is living with the editor and his wife, and learning how to be part of a stable, loving family for once in her life.   For the record, this is a very watered-down version of the plot, and you should still read it.

The mini-series which aired on HBO (and concluded on Sunday) ends with Camille discovering vital (and horribly gruesome) evidence of Amma’s guilt concealed in Amma’s creepy-as-sin dollhouse.  Abruptly, we see Amma standing in the doorway.  She whispers “Don’t tell Mama,” before a brutally quick cut to the credits.  The only indication we have about the reality of Amma’s actions are a series of rapid-fire, hazy cuts that implicate Amma and her two friends in the deaths of the girls in Windgap, and Amma alone in the death of her friend from school.  The final shot of the entire episode is Amma’s face.

There have been a number of critics who have taken issue with this ending for its style, for its glamorization of Amma’s cruelty, for its ambiguity.  There is a lot to be said about this show, and this story, from the reality of female rage, the importance of telling women’s stories without pretense, or, indeed without needing male characters to justify their behavior.  But what has gone largely overlooked here, is how it destroys the real power of Sharp Objects‘ ending.

As we’ve pointed out here before, there is a troubling, pervasive trope of women victims in fiction–not only in mysteries, but they remain a primary offender.  For time immemorial, we have been treated to the image of a women’s silent body, violated and harmed.  We have been taught that women endure pain as a permanent condition–think of Miss Havisham forever in her wedding dress; or Bertha Mason in the attic; or any female ghost who ever haunted a house.  Women are vessels for pain in fiction, and we are taught to see that pain as inescapable.

Gillian Flynn flipped this trope on its head in Sharp Objects. From the beginning of the story, it seems that Camille is another damaged woman, trapped in her own pain.  This is a character who quite literally carved her pain into her own flesh, making her skin both an armor against the world and a cage from which she can never (apparently) break free.  In the show, we also learn in far more detail about the harm Camille endured as a result of the people in her town–yet another trap keeping her from healing.  At the book’s end, however, we see that Camille has learned that there is a way out from the horrible cycle of illness, anger, self-loathing, and self-deception that her family and her town practice.  She is given the choice and the opportunity to grow and heal–and she takes it.

That opportunity, that choice, that hope, is taken away from her in the mini-series.  By giving us Amma’s face at the end of the show, Sharp Objects is no longer Camille’s story.  Instead, she facilitates a story about Amma and Adora, and the ways in which violence destroys people, ruining the idea of a “pure victim.”  This is not to say this is not an important trope.  But to take away Camille’s hope is to perpetuate the notion that women in fiction (that women in general) suffer without resolution, and without real choice.  To take away the book’s ending is to dilute the shocking feminist ending of Sharp Objects in favor of a far more problematic one.  The miniseries states that women can be anything–victim, murderer, villain, or bystander.  Again, this is fine.  But the book says that women can change.  And that is vital.

On Westerns and Book Hangovers

We’ve talked here before about book hangovers, dear readers, where a book lingers for so long in your mind and heart that it’s difficult to find another book to suit.  Today, we discuss one of our staff member’s experiences with just such a book: Unbury Carol, by Josh Malerman.

I grew up with westerns.  My godfather, one of the most quietly enthusiastic readers I have ever known, would spend hours in used bookstores and library book sales, searching out pulp Western novels by Louis L’Amour and William W. Johnstone, delighting in the now-forgotten stories that had exclamation points in the title (Montana! or perhaps it was something less specific, like Ghostown!), or the pulp novels like the kind shown at left (via Rough Edges).  My father grew up with the television show Gunsmoke and still watched re-runs with delight.  But even though I was surrounded by westerns, and could appreciate the love that others had for them, I struggled to find the enduring appeal in them myself..  This was largely because all the westerns to which I was exposed featured white men fulfilling traditionally white, masculine roles, enforcing a white, masculine code of justice, and having all-male, almost exclusively all-white adventures.  Though the women, like Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke, were strong, smart, and thoroughly capable, their screen time and their storylines were limited, especially in comparison to the men of Dodge.  They hardly ever left the saloon, and when they did, it was always on the arm of a man who would shoo them away to safety if there was a concern that harm might befall them.

So I was personally delighted to discover that a new generation of writers have begun re-imagining ‘the Wild West’ as a place of diversity, of feminism, and of magic.  The first such series for me was Laura Anne Gilman’s The Devil’s West series, which focuses on a young woman’s coming of age in an American West population by monsters, ghosts, and living embodiments of Native American myths that features characters who are both wise and vulnerable, and a setting that is positively immersive.  And it was while casting around for another such book to enjoy that I discovered Josh Malerman’s Unbury Carol.  Malerman’s novel The Bird Box was a genuinely unsettling, sensory delight, so I knew this story would be memorable.  However, I wasn’t really prepared for how long this book, marketed as dark re-imagining of the Sleeping Beauty story, would linger with me.

Malerman, via his author website: http://joshmalerman.com/about-josh-malerman/

The book itself is set, to quote Malerman, “somewhere between a western novel and not”, with elements of supernatural horror and steampunk mixed in with the some of the more familiar aspects of the Western genre, including a long pursuit across a literal and emotional wasteland. Though it is an exceptionally white West, without Native American/Indians, Black folk, or Spanish-speaking characters, its fictional-ish setting redeems what it lacks in historical accuracy.

The heroine of this novel, the titular Carol, is precisely the kind of person that traditional westerns would tend to overlook: though her age is not specifically mentioned, she is no young ingenue.  Carol is a self-assured married woman with her own fortune and relationships outside of her marriage. Indeed, when we meet her, she is mourning the loss of her closest friend, John Bowie, who has recently died of a mysterious and much-feared fever. Bowie, in addition to being one of the most intriguing secondary characters in recent memory, is also one of the only three people who knew the truth of her inexplicable condition–that she falls into a death-like comas during which she is completely paralyzed, but totally mentally alert.  The only other people who know are her husband Dwight, who married her only for her money, and her own true love, the outlaw James Moxie, who abandoned Carol when she revealed her secret. Although she tries to share the secret with her maid, Carol tumbles into unconsciousness before she can fully explain the condition that has shaped her life.

As Carol falls into her next coma, we learn that her husband Dwight has a plan to steal her fortune by convincing the community that she is dead, and burying her alive.  But Moxie also gets word of Dwight’s plan, thanks to the quick thinking of Carol’s maid, and he sets out to right the wrong that he committed against Carol so many years ago by facing up to her condition and rescuing her.  At the same time, Moxie himself is being pursued by madman named Smoke, who is hellbent on foiling his plan, destroying Moxie’s formidable reputation, and unleashing hell in the process. And it is here that the fairytale parallels begin to fall apart, and the real imagination of Malerman’s story shines through, as these two men chase each other down a lonesome trail that is at once dreamlike in its fancifulness and tangibly real in its old-west scenery.

Via Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/gun-control-old-west-180968013/

As Jennifer Weiner so wisely pointed out in an editorial for  The New York Times last summer, it seems that readers “can’t get away from the man-boy as hero…If boys will be boys, then girls must be grown-ups, whose job it is to protect men from their worst impulses.”  On the surface, it seems that Unbury Carol is yet another rehashing of this idea, with immature men controlling the narrative for their own purposes; Dwight’s murder plot is a combination of cowardness and narcissism; Moxie’s whole life (and Carol’s, as well) has been shaped by his inability to face up to reality; the chillingly maniacal Smoke, is driven by a hatred for Moxie and his own insatiable addictions.  Yet, even as this familiar premise plays out, Malerman subverts his own premise by letting us see Carol’s struggles in her coma to save herself, and to remember all her mother’s advice from her childhood. Moreover, Carol’s maid is the only person advocating for Carol throughout the book; and Moxie spends the story confronting his own demonic, destructive guilt, being forced to grow up and become worthy of the woman he still loves.  Beneath the familiar fictional facade, this is a book that shows women working for the benefit of themselves and other women, and men who are forced to confront their own immaturity and selfishness. The final revelation about Carol’s fate was a pitch-perfect ending to this modern western, combining actual historical oddities and a powerful legacy of feminine agency. From beginning to end, this book subverted expectations, from the character’s agency in the main plot to the truth of James Moxie’s magical reputation.  In challenging genre and gender assumptions, Malerman’s restructured, imaginative western is an unsettling, surprising, and spell-binding success.

Summer Reading: Thinking Outside the Covers

Today we share with you a post that first ran in 2016, which has been updated with information for this years’ Peabody Summer Reading.  We hope you enjoy exploring the various kinds of reading you can accomplish at the Library this summer!

I think we’ve made the analogy here at some point before, but books are a lot like food.  Some formats, genres, styles, etc., are like candy, that you can just keep consuming with nary a thought.  Some are like really expensive, decadent cakes that you bring out for special occasions, and some are like bananas, that, frankly, make you gag just thinking about them (I’m using a personal example here.  If bananas are your thing, then more power to you.  You can have All My Bananas, too).


Furthermore, the way that we ingest stories is as varied and as particular as the way we ingest food.  Some people gobble, some people nibble…you get the idea.  The point I am trying to make here (other than the fact that I wish it were lunchtime) is that there is no right way or wrong way to get your daily dose of reading.

downloadIn the case of younger readers (and anyone who has Summer Reading to accomplish).  Time was when ‘Summer Reading’ was akin to force-feeding, especially for those students who weren’t visual learners, or who read more slowly, or in a way that wasn’t strictly standard.  And that experience turned a lot of people off of reading for a very long time, which is truly heartbreaking.  Thankfully, now, summer reading lists tend to be much more flexible in terms of students’ choices, as well as much more inclusive of popular titles and more modern themes (incidentally, if you want to see some of these lists, for you or a student near you, you can see them here).  And, even better, is that, as we learn more and more about the wonders of the human brain, we are beginning to appreciate more that not everyone absorbs books in the same way.

AudiobooksFor example, despite the fact that we live in a world that is increasingly based on visual learning in the form of computers, tablets, and screens, there are still any number of people who are auditory learners, meaning that they remember better after hearing directions or a story or a lecture than they do after reading or watching one.  Often, auditory learners have a tough time with summer reading because it is supposed to be an individual, and highly visual exercise that often feels at once very challenging and very boring.  For these readers, audiobooks have been a saving grace.  Not only to they present books in a way that auditory learners can absorb much better, they offer any number of benefits for all.  For example, audiobooks can help readers access stories about their reading level, or in an unfamiliar vernacular–for example, books like Wuthering Heights or Return of the Native that are denser, and tend to feature very rural language and slang that isn’t always easy to comprehend if not spoken out loud.  Additionally, I often find that audiobooks allow me to see the humor or subtext in stories that aren’t always readily obvious from the text.

Fortunately, the Library not only has plenty of audiobooks on our shelves, we also have access to digital audiobooks via Overdrive (which you can download) and Hoopla (which allows you to stream content).  You can chose to read along with the audiobooks, or listen exclusively.  Additionally, a number of e-books offer audio narration along with the text (which Amazon has named WhisperSync) so that you can listen and read at the same time.

graphic-novels-melbourne-482x298For Peabody middle school readers, praise the Heavens, the only requirement for the summer is to read two books.  Any books, whatever books make you happy.  And this opens up a whole world of potential for readers.  For those who aren’t huge fans of traditional books, the Library has a sizable collection of Graphic Novels.  These books are just as valid, just as emotionally and intellectually engaging as straightforward novels, and feature a range of plots, genres, and reading levels.  It’s also worth noting that, as graphic novels become an increasingly popular genre, we are seeing the rise of picture books for adults, that feature beautiful, vivid, and imaginative illustrations for those of us who might not be graphic novel readers.  These books are a great way to start a conversation about visuals in books, and to help readers of different mediums find some common ground.

Finally, reading never has to be a solitary pursuit.  Check out our great Teen and Children Events calendars to see some of the great programs we have lined up to help you meet your reading goals, whatever those might be.


Fun With Evergreen: Window-Shopping Your Next Read

I don’t know about you, but looking for a new book to read can stir up some pretty conflicting emotions.  On the one hand, the idea of finding a super-terrific, gripping, emotional, can’t-put-down, talk-to-strangers-about-it, miss-your-bus-stop-because-you’re-reading book is the kind of thing for which I go on living.  But when you’re finished with that book, how can you tell which book to read next?

Or perhaps you found a new favorite author, and are eager to put all her books on hold right now…is there a way to know that all of her other books are as gripping and intriguing and well-written as the one in your hands?

Or maybe you and a younger reader in your life are looking for a book to share.  How can you tell if the book is the correct reading-level, or has a story that will keep you both interested?

One solution to this conundrum, clearly, is to seek out the book yourself and give it a browse.  But if that book lives far-away, on the shelves of another NOBLE library, that just isn’t feasible.  So what is a reader to do?

Well, one option is to window shop that book via our online catalog.

The NOBLE catalog is linked to Google Books, which allows readers to see a preview of any book listed in both places.  This means the process is not a fail-safe one, as it relies on the book being both in the NOBLE network and in Google Books, but it is a helpful tool in most situations.

Here’s how it works:

Find a book you are interested in reading on our catalog.  For this example, I have chosen Mick Herron’s Reconstructionseeing how it’s a book I want to read.  Here is the page in our catalog (please click on the image to enlarge it):

If you look on the right-hand side of the page, you will see a link to Google Preview:

Note the stellar hand-drawn arrow, as well!

Clicking on the “Google Preview” will open a new browser window that will allow you read the first few pages of the book in question.  Your page may look slightly different depending on the book you selected, but here is Reconstruction:

From here, you can scroll down the page to read the opening of the book.

While this tip won’t save you from all book-related heartaches and disappointments, it is a nifty way to meet a book before committing to it, and also a fun way to meet new books that you might not have considered reading before.

Check in soon for some more fun tips and tricks to help you find your new favorite reads in Evergreen!

Announcing The Staunch Book Prize

…How many thrillers can you count that open with the body of a dead woman?  Or thrillers that focus on physical harm or the threat of physical harm being done to a woman?  That feature a woman being stalked or threatened?  If you stop to think about it, the answer might be surprisingly high.

It’s a little disconcerting to think about how many stories rely on violence against women to drive their plot; whether it’s the discovery of a body, or a report of violence that launches a plot (see, for example, Law & Order: SVU).  Or stories that use a character’s history of violence against women to indicate their villainy, or to make them a suspect in a case.  Or are driven by the (often violent or deadly) disappearance of a women years in the past?

It’s even more disconcerting to think about what that means culturally and historically.  I discuss with my students regularly about the implications of incidents like, for example, Jack the Ripper…the subject of goodness knows how many books, television series, shows, movies, radio plays, stage production, etc.  Some are good, some are great, while others are forgettable and regrettable.  But they all hinge on the story of a person (or persons) who murdered women who were economically, socially, and physically incapable of defending themselves.  Those women are only known to history because they were murdered in brutal fashion.  In some cases, the only reason we know what those women look like is from their autopsy photos.  Similarly, in the books we read, we meet so very many women only when, or after, they die.  Only after they are labeled as a victim.  Only after they have suffered.  Only because they have suffered.  And how does it affect the way we look at actual, real, flesh-and-blood women who are hurt, victimized, or used in the way that fictional characters are?

And, what do we do about it?  Is there anything that can be done about it?  Well, last week, writer and educator Bridget Lawless announced The Staunch Book Prize, an award to be presented to “to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.”  According to the Staunch Book Prize website, “As violence against women in fiction reaches a ridiculous high, the Staunch Book Prize invites thriller writers to keep us on the edge of our seats without resorting to the same old clichés – particularly female characters who are sexually assaulted (however ‘necessary to the plot’), or done away with (however ingeniously).”

The award is a part of the #MeToo movement, in which women, men, and people around the world are not only sharing stories of their own sexual victimization, but also championing attempts to change the way the world works, and to ensure a more just, inclusive, and safe society for everyone.  Within this context, the Staunch Prize argues that making women victims, that hurting women as part of a plot, is a cliche that has gone well and truly stale.  As author Andrew Taylor described it in a quote to The Guardian:  “It has to be good in principle that someone’s drawing attention to crime fiction, on page and screen, that uses women-as-victims-of-violence as … a sort of literary monosodium glutamate: ie, as a gratuitous and fundamentally nasty flavour enhancer lacking moral or artistic purpose.”

The announcement of the prize has set off quite a bit of debate, not only among mystery writers, but among activists and readers, as well.  Laura Lippman, a multiple-award winner mystery writer, was quoted by NBCNews as saying “My first reaction was, that’s so well-intentioned and probably impossible.  Because it’s not the topic of sexualized violence that’s the problem. It’s the treatment…There are literally mysteries in which the cat solves the crime, and then there are these incredibly hard-boiled, how high is the body count, how many prostitutes are you going to murder for the sake of the hero’s development mysteries.”

In other words, how we discuss violence against women is important.  Is it possible to use an example of violence against women to comment on, criticize, and actively contest violence against women?  As award-winning author Val McDermid noted to The Guardian, “My take on writing about violence against women is that it’s my anger at that very thing that fires much of my work. As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed.”

But some authors feel that this award is a form of censorship, both artistically and socially.  Val McDermid was also quoted in The Guardian piece is saying, “To impose a blanket ban on any writing that deals with this seems to me to be self-defeating.”  But let’s be clear, hear–the award isn’t punishing books that feature women as “beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.”  Instead, it is awarding books that do not feature these things.  The Man Booker Prize isn’t a punishment for books that are not written in English.  Nor are the National Book Awards a punishment to books not written by Americans.  What it seems to be, most of all, is a challenge: to re-imagine the thriller genre as a place where female characters can exist and develop without victimization.  To think about what such a world might look like.  Because that seems like a concrete first step to changing the power imbalances in real life–to realize how hard it is to imagine a world without those imbalances.

So what do you think, dear readers?  Will the Staunch Book Prize inspire your reader habits?

Love What You Love

Conversations about books are some of my favorite conversations.

Via https://3appleskdk.wikispaces.com/

recent discussions among some book-minded companions led to a fascinating discussion the other day regarding “books that you love but that are in some way objectionable to others.”  It’s a tricky subject, and one with which a lot of readers tend to grapple, especially as they grow up, and realize that the books they loved at one stage of their development might not fit them and their world view now.

Let’s use my own experience as an example: It’s something of an open secret that I love Jane Eyre.  It’s a book that enchanted me as a fourteen-year-old first discovering early Victorian literature, and one that sustained me in high school amidst all those books I had to read.   But, as an older reader, out of high school and navigating what we usually call “the real world,” I began to realize how whiny, self-centered, and, let’s be honest here, how reckless and dangerous his behavior was.  Secrets aren’t sexy, Edward.  Especially when they involve fire, bleeding, and/or locking people up in towers.  (To be fair, I would argue a great deal of the Rochester mystique is a product of more recent times, but still…).  But, after some soul searching, I realized that I could, and still did, love Jane Eyre.  Because, as I grew older, I began to really appreciate just how strong, how self-reliant, and how confident Jane had to be in herself to survive in the world she did, and to protect herself from Rochester’s more harmful tendencies.  Jane Eyre herself became one of my favorite characters all over again as a grew up, even as I got more and more fed up with Rochester’s fragile ego and his ceaseless emoting.

Similarly, a friend related that they had grown up adoring Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and that they still turned to it when life was being difficult and they needed something familiar to love.  Stephen King is a sensational author and a super guy, but, as my friend noted, Stephen King doesn’t do very well writing about people of color.  They tend to fall pretty hard into the character trope known as the “Magical Negro” trope (Note: the word ‘negro’ is used to denote the archaic view of Black people that this trope embodies).  Briefly put, “Magical Negroes” are characters (created by white authors) who are generally (though not always) outwardly or inwardly disabled as a result  of discrimination, disability or social constraint, and who appear to save the white protagonist through magic.  In other words, they are not human in the same ways that white characters are human.   In the Dark Tower series, Odetta Susannah Holmes is a”Magical Negro”; she is disfigured by a subway train after a white man pushes her onto the tracks.  She suffers from a magical kind of personality disorder in which she embodies two people (each figured and disfigured by American racism) and she is repeatedly victimized to save Roland, who is a white male in the novel.

This is not in any way, shape, or form to imply that Stephen King is a racist.  Far from it.  But it does indicate that he might not be the expert on creating realistic, thoughtful characters of color.

But sometimes, it can be an issue with the author.  Another book brought up in this discussion was Orson Scott Card’s classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game.  This is a novel that shaped the childhoods of many, and is still beloved by readers around the world.  However, it’s very difficult for many readers to reconcile their love of this book with the knowledge that Orson Scott Card himself holds very public, anti-gay and xenophobic views.  For those who find these views troubling, spending money on purchasing an author’s work can be difficult. It can also be difficult to separate the author’s views from one’s love of the books they write.

So what is a reader to do?

First and foremost, love what you love.  If a book or a film or a song has personal meaning for you, helps you to grow, or guides you through a dark time, or makes you a better person, then you deserve that thing in your life.  As The Velveteen Rabbit taught us, the things we love become real, and become a part of us and who we are.  I became a stronger person by reading Jane Eyre, even as I learned not to put up with whiners like Rochester.  My friends learned fortitude and strength and insight from the books they loved, above and apart from the problematic aspects of their construction and their authorship.  This does not mean to be blind to their faults or shortcomings, but, instead, to love the thing for how it helps you.

Secondly, as in so many other matters, the library can help you in these circumstances.  For example: do you love an author, like Stephen King, who may not be the best at portraying people of color (…or women? …or another group of people?)?  Why not come to the Library and learn about some authors who do?!  Use your favorite author or series as a jumping-off point to explore other works of literature than can become new favorites.  In the case of the Dark Tower series, we might recommend books by N. K. Jemisin, or Nnedi Okorafor, for example.

Finally, the library is a super-terrific place to access material that you might not otherwise want to contribute your hard-earned dollars.  As we discussed in our post on Fire and Fury, you can have your literary cake and eat it took by borrowing the book from us.

Ultimately, it’s a win-win-win situation when you come to the Library and learn to love the things inside it.  And we are here to help you find the books and films and music that you can and will love, and that will help you be better.  Just keep loving what you love, and we’ll be here for the rest of it.