The link below is to an article covering the winners for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for books.
The link below is to an article that asks the question, ‘are audiobooks real books?’
Women’s writing has long been a thorn in the side of the male literary establishment. From fears in the late 18th century that reading novels – particularly written by women – would be emotionally and physically dangerous for women, to the Brontë sisters publishing initially under male pseudonyms, to the dismissal of the genre of romance fiction as beyond the critical pale, there has been a dominant culture which finds the association of women and writing to be dangerous. It has long been something to be controlled, managed and dismissed.
One of the ways that publishers, booksellers and critics use to “manage” literature is through the notion of genre: labelling a book as “detective fiction” becomes an easy way to identify particular tropes in a novel. These genre designations are particularly helpful for publishers and booksellers, with the logic running something like this: a reader can walk into any bookstore, anywhere, and go to the detective fiction section and find a book to read, because s/he has read detective fiction before and enjoyed it.
What complicates this is who makes the decision of which genres are deemed to be appropriate, and which books are put into which category. Genre is also complicated by the idea of women’s writing. Can we have a genre that is designated solely by the sex of the author? What if we turned this around, and rather than a genre, women’s writing was a term we used to simply celebrate writing about women?
Here are five novels by women – and about women – from across the 20th century. These novels all grapple, in very different ways, with women and independence.
Agatha Christie, The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)
Anna Beddingfeld, a self-mocking heroine, who is very aware of the conventions of gender and genre, impulsively buys a ticket to South Africa because the boat fare is the exact amount she has left in the world. She ends up taking down an international crime syndicate with aplomb and panache.
Lucy Maud Montgomery, The Blue Castle (1926)
Doss is the expendable unmarried older woman in a Victorian novel. But in this story, she walks out on her largely uninterested family to move into a cabin on an island with a man she has met only briefly. A fantasy of the Canadian wilderness, the novel was one of Montgomery’s few novels for adults.
Mary Stewart, Nine Coaches Waiting (1958)
A rewriting of Jane Eyre, the novel contains all the tropes of the Gothic romance – a castle, a family secret, murder – but these are challenged by one of Stewart’s finest protagonists, Linda Martin. Martin is employed as a governess by an aristocratic family, but rejects the trappings of romance to protect her charge, and her own integrity.
Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979)
Edana Franklin wakes up in hospital with her arm amputated and the police questioning her husband. It is revealed that she has been travelling back to 1815, where she comes into repeated contact and conflict with Rufus, one of her slave-owning ancestors. A novel that raises important questions about masculinity, power and violence.
Shirley Jackson, Patchwork Girl (1995)
One of the earliest pieces of electronic fiction, this retelling of Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Baum’s The Patchwork Girl (1913) places the narrative in the hands of the reader, who pieces together the story through illustrations of parts of a female body.
Often popular novels by women have a narrative arc that is visible from the outset: the protagonists will find a romantic partner in the end. In some of the above books, some of the women do, and some of them don’t, find a romantic partner. For those who do, the romance is secondary to the work they do, and the choices that they make about their own lives.
What unites the novels is an exploration of the choices that some women have to make as a result of their sexed and gendered embodiment, whether travelling to South Africa on a whim, being jolted unwillingly back onto a slave plantation, or making an explicit call to the (woman) reader to make choices about how the electronic story develops.
Writing about women (and often by women) gives us some examples of how to challenge the status quo, if only for a little while. Each challenge, however, provides another example of how to effect change in a patriarchal culture. Here’s to the writers about women who have done this – from Jane Austen to Shirley Jackson, from Frances Burney to Josephine Tey, and from Angela Carter to Val McDermid.
The link below is another article on hardbacks/hardcovers that is, in fact, a response to the previous article posted.
The link below is to an article that looks at the future of the hardback/hardcover.
The link below is to an article that asks the question, ‘do we really need books anymore?’
The link below is to an article that takes a look at the history of book acquisition for the world’s libraries throughout history.
The link below is to an article that considers that difficult question, ‘when should I just give up on this terrible book?’
Editor’s note: What better season than winter to curl up with some interesting books? We went to ScotiaBank Giller Prize nominated novelist and University of Toronto English professor Randy Boyagoda and asked him to recommend to us five of his personal book choices from the shelves of Canadian literature.
Randy Boyagoda published his first novel, Governor of the Northern Province, in 2006, followed by Beggar’s Feast in 2011. His new novel, Original Prin, is forthcoming in 2018.
Randy surveyed his shelves and here are his five idiosyncratic choices:
Written by Brian Moore (1985)
Black Robe is historical fiction set in the 17th century Canada — meaning New France. It’s a novel involving an encounter that French Jesuit missionaries have with members of the Algonquin, Huron and Iroquois.
What I found so remarkable about the book is its potential contribution to our contemporary conversation about truth and reconciliation especially given that it was written in a very different cultural moment. I think the book is honest and bracing and has a certain spaciousness of vision that attempts to provide full and meaningful lives for every character.
Arrival: The Story of CanLit
Written by Nick Mount (2017)
Arrival (Anansi) by Nick Mount, has rightly been generating a great deal of both public and critical attention this fall.
Nick’s book is an ambitious and readable effort to tell the story of how we went from being a nation without a literature to a literature without a nation. The book explores a specific interest in what we might think of as the “boom time” of Canadian literature, from the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s.
What I found especially interesting about Nick’s book is his willingness to offer a series of evaluations, ratings even, of various Canadian novels. We live in a culture that sometimes shies away from making aesthetic and critical judgements. I think what’s great in Arrival is that Nick invites us to read these books and disagree with him.
The Great Canadian Novel
I’m trying to decide whether I disagree with Nick when he says in his book, Arrival, that The Double Hook by Sheila Watson (1959), which is a slim and complex mid-century Canadian novel, is the Great Canadian Novel.
That’s a big claim. If I were going to make the same claim, I’d assign that honour to Solomon Gursky Was Here by Mordecai Richler (1989).
I’ve decided to read Double Hook in the coming weeks and decide if I agree with Nick or not.
The Way of the Strangers
Written by Graeme Wood (2017)
The Way of the Strangers is a work of striking literary journalism. It recently won the Governor General’s Award for non-fiction. Wood is best known for his cover story in The Atlantic two years ago, on ISIS. His book is a series of first-person essays, travelogues and analyses of radical Islam.
Wood goes to various Middle Eastern states, places in the U.S., and elsewhere. There’s wide, personal contact with people in various forms of radicalization and he’s also subjected to various attempts at conversion—reading about that is also fascinating.
Wood’s care, seriousness and persuasive criticisms of radical Islam shows that understanding his subject only in political terms or as a misrepresentation of Islam does not do justice to the complex and riven reality of contemporary Islam. As an outsider who’s interested in these matters, I found the book really engaging.
A news-minded audience would find a book like this of real interest. It really does give you a sense of the inner lives of people who have committed to a radical interpretation of Islam and are trying to live that out in the world around them.
The quality of writing and reporting is excellent and the book is especially timely now for obvious reasons. I think that it will be an important historical document in global affairs thirty years from now.
Fifteen Canadian Poets x 2
Edited by Gary Geddes (1978)
My last pick involves a family tradition.
Most Sunday nights, the Boyagoda family gathers in our own library and we each read a poem. I choose my Sunday poem out of Fifteen Canadian Poets x 2 edited by Gary Geddes. It came out in 1978. The book was a very important and timely anthologizing of new Canadian poetry and also at that point, established poets. There are people in there ranging from E.J. Pratt to then emerging voices, such as Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood.
When I pick a writer out of that anthology, the writers I go for most often are poets like P.K. Page, Raymond Souster and Alden Nowlan. Here are people who write beautiful, arresting, strange and funny poetry. Reading from it is a double break: it’s a nice break, frankly, from the usual suspects, and it also introduces my American-born wife, who has a PhD in twentieth century American and Caribbean poetry, I add, and our American children, to all the wonders of Canadian literature, poetically.
Parents often receive books at pediatric checkups via programs like Reach Out and Read and hear from a variety of health professionals and educators that reading to their kids is critical for supporting development.
The pro-reading message is getting through to parents, who recognize that it’s an important habit. A summary report by Child Trends, for instance, suggests 55 percent of three- to five-year-old children were read to every day in 2007. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 83 percent of three- to five-year-old children were read to three or more times per week by a family member in 2012.
What this ever-present advice to read with infants doesn’t necessarily make clear, though, is that what’s on the pages may be just as important as the book-reading experience itself. Are all books created equal when it comes to early shared-book reading? Does it matter what you pick to read? And are the best books for babies different than the best books for toddlers?
In order to guide parents on how to create a high-quality book-reading experience for their infants, my psychology research lab has conducted a series of baby learning studies. One of our goals is to better understand the extent to which shared book reading is important for brain and behavioral development.
What’s on baby’s bookshelf
Researchers see clear benefits of shared book reading for child development. Shared book reading with young children is good for language and cognitive development, increasing vocabulary and pre-reading skills and honing conceptual development.
Shared book reading also likely enhances the quality of the parent-infant relationship by encouraging reciprocal interactions – the back-and-forth dance between parents and infants. Certainly not least of all, it gives infants and parents a consistent daily time to cuddle.
Recent research has found that both the quality and quantity of shared book reading in infancy predicted later childhood vocabulary, reading skills and name writing ability. In other words, the more books parents read, and the more time they’d spent reading, the greater the developmental benefits in their 4-year-old children.
This important finding is one of the first to measure the benefit of shared book reading starting early in infancy. But there’s still more to figure out about whether some books might naturally lead to higher-quality interactions and increased learning.
Babies and books in the lab
In our investigations, my colleagues and I followed infants across the second six months of life. We’ve found that when parents showed babies books with faces or objects that were individually named, they learn more, generalize what they learn to new situations and show more specialized brain responses. This is in contrast to books with no labels or books with the same generic label under each image in the book. Early learning in infancy was also associated with benefits four years later in childhood.
First, we brought six-month-old infants into our lab, where we could see how much attention they paid to story characters they’d never seen before. We used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure their brain responses. Infants wear a cap-like net of 128 sensors that let us record the electricity naturally emitted from the scalp as the brain works. We measured these neural responses while infants looked at and paid attention to pictures on a computer screen. These brain measurements can tell us about what infants know and whether they can tell the difference between the characters we show them.
We also tracked the infants’ gaze using eye-tracking technology to see what parts of the characters they focused on and how long they paid attention.
The data we collected at this first visit to our lab served as a baseline. We wanted to compare their initial measurements with future measurements we’d take, after we sent them home with storybooks featuring these same characters.
We divided up our volunteers into three groups. One group of parents read their infants storybooks that contained six individually named characters that they’d never seen before. Another group were given the same storybooks but instead of individually naming the characters, a generic and made-up label was used to refer to all the characters (such as “Hitchel”). Finally, we had a third comparison group of infants whose parents didn’t read them anything special for the study.
After three months passed, the families returned to our lab so we could again measure the infants’ attention to our storybook characters. It turned out that only those who received books with individually labeled characters showed enhanced attention compared to their earlier visit. And the brain activity of babies who learned individual labels also showed that they could distinguish between different individual characters. We didn’t see these effects for infants in the comparison group or for infants who received books with generic labels.
These findings suggest that very young infants are able to use labels to learn about the world around them and that shared book reading is an effective tool for supporting development in the first year of life.
Tailoring book picks for maximum effect
So what do our results from the lab mean for parents who want to maximize the benefits of storytime?
Not all books are created equal. The books that parents should read to six- and nine-month-olds will likely be different than those they read to two-year-olds, which will likely be different than those appropriate for four-year-olds who are getting ready to read on their own. In other words, to reap the benefits of shared book reading during infancy, we need to be reading our little ones the right books at the right time.
For infants, finding books that name different characters may lead to higher-quality shared book reading experiences and result in the learning and brain development benefits we find in our studies. All infants are unique, so parents should try to find books that interest their baby.
It’s possible that books that include named characters simply increase the amount of parent talking. We know that talking to babies is important for their development. So parents of infants: Add shared book reading to your daily routines and name the characters in the books you read. Talk to your babies early and often to guide them through their amazing new world – and let storytime help.