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And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of September 2, 2018.

  • In the ’70s, 53-year-old J.D. Salinger invited the teenage Joyce Maynard to come live with him. Maynard’s eventual memoir of their relationship, At Home in the World, was roundly trashed, and Maynard herself was held up as an example of a shameless woman trying to shame a brilliant man. At Jezebel, Frida Garza reevaluates Maynard’s legacy:

At Home is a disarming and up-close recollection of how Salinger, then 53, poised himself as an intellectual ally and confidante to an 18-year-old girl who felt excluded from her peers. (According to Maynard, her essay only furthered her alienation from her classmates, who began to see her as a hack.) She recounts how she cut almost everyone out of her life to be with him; how he won her trust and wooed her parents. When Salinger invited Maynard to spend the weekend with him in Cornish, New Hampshire, a former English teacher from Exeter Academy agreed to drive her. On the way, “he says nothing to indicate that there might be something worrisome about this visit I’m making,” Maynard wrote 40 years later in At Home.

  • I will always stan for Elizabeth Gaskell, the Victorian novelist who was friends with Dickens and Charlotte Brontë but has long been treated as a staid and matronly also-ran in the Victorian canon. (Look, is the prose in North and South brilliant? No. Is that book nevertheless immensely satisfying, and does its critique of classical liberalism still have merit? Hard yes.) So I am very here for Hannah Rosefield’s examination of her novels at the New Yorker:

I suspect that the comparative lack of generosity with which time, fashion, and progress have treated Gaskell has at least as much to do with her stuffy image as with her work, which has its own admirable qualities. She was more versatile than many of her casual readers realize: alongside her better-known realist novels, she wrote ghost stories, historical fiction, and the first biography of Charlotte Brontë. “Cranford,” a collection of stories set in the titular village, and the novella “My Lady Ludlow” both imagine a world almost entirely inhabited by women. Unlike Eliot and the Brontë sisters, who often set their novels in the past, Gaskell was, in her early works, at least, fiercely and explicitly concerned with the present and its problems.

Aiken wrote more than a hundred novels over the course of her long career, and many of them manage something like this transformation. An absurd premise (we live on a bus; the Glorious Revolution never happened; a queen claims that her lake has been stolen) is treated with deadpan seriousness, allowing its latent magical possibilities to emerge in an atmosphere that’s half ironic, half enchanted — or, rather, in an atmosphere that’s entirely ironic and entirely enchanted, at the same time.

When I pick the books up, a part of me expects them to be warm, like a just-vacated seat. They often still contain the life detritus of the last person to open them: makeshift bookmarks, boarding passes or receipts; oil stains or flecks of melted chocolate or even blood; an eyelash. Sometimes the books make me itchy, and I know the last borrower owns a dog. Sometimes there are clusters of related books that must have been checked out by the same patron. It’s like getting to look at someone’s night stand, but whose? The shelf is everyone’s night stand, an average of night stands.

When I first saw The Book Shop in Wigtown I was 18 years old, back in my home town and about to leave for university. I clearly remember walking past it with a friend and commenting that I was quite certain that it would be closed within the year. Twelve years later, while visiting my parents at Christmastime, I called in to see if they had a copy of Three Fevers in stock, by Leo Walmsley, and while I was talking to the owner, admitted to him that I was struggling to find a job I enjoyed. He suggested that I buy his shop since he was keen to retire. When I told him that I didn’t have any money, he replied, “You don’t need money — what do you think banks are for?”

Even more important and more attractive is the manipulation involved in letter-writing, the filtering of events for another reader or readers that naturally takes place. Our interest as readers is piqued when there is some discrepancy between what we know to be true and the letter-writer’s presentation of these facts. Expressed otherwise, it is the dichotomy between how a person perceives herself, what she aims to project to the world, and what the rest of us see: the style of her writing, what she chooses to tell or leave out, the tone. A good writer manages to let that character’s personality present its true self to the reader even when the letter-writer herself wishes to hide parts of her being from the world.

  • In a compelling counterargument to the standard “fiction is about empathy” line, Kanta Dihal makes the case at Aeon that our stories actually prove that we are very bad at putting ourselves in other people’s shoes:

I am a literature scholar. Over thousands of years of literary history, authors have tried and failed to convey an understanding of Others (with a capital ‘O’). Writing fiction is an exercise that stretches an author’s imagination to its limits. And fiction shows us, again and again, that our capacity to imagine other minds is extremely limited.

It took feminism and postcolonialism to point out that writers were systematically misrepresenting characters who weren’t like them. Male authors, it seems, still struggle to present convincing female characters a lot of the time. The same problem surfaces again when writers try to introduce a figure with a different ethnicity to their own, and fail spectacularly.

This is Daniela’s theory: She is immortal and has cycled through many existences. She does not tell anyone, for fear that they will disbelieve her, test her, or hang her for witchcraft. When she was a teenager, a palmist took up her hand at a fair and after a moment of scrutinizing slapped it away as though it was on fire. Daniela tried to get her to explain, but the woman refused, and after that Daniela began to have dreams: She was the handmaid of a queen of an ancient nation; she carried lilies for her mistress’ late husband after his heart stopped in Bangkok; she modeled for a minor Flemish painter.


Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!

Author: Constance Grady


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