Claire Messud on Edith Wharton’s Clear and Complex Vision

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For the New York Times Style Magazine, Claire Messud reflects on one of Edith Wharton’s most memorable characters, Undine Spragg from The Custom of the Country. “The fact that The Custom of the Country is entertaining — that it seems to whisk us, as readers, to a faraway time and to glamorous places — doesn’t mean that Undine Spragg’s dogged rise through the social ranks of the early 20th century is irrelevant to our times,” Messud writes. “Wharton’s clear but complex vision (whether Undine is ultimately heroine or antihero is not entirely obvious) follows her protagonist as she navigates ever more rarefied realms, from the dining rooms and opera boxes of Manhattan to the spas and châteaus of France, each with its own language and conventions, in search of the ultimate triumph — though what that may be, beyond enormous wealth, is never entirely clear, and remains just out of reach.”

James Baldwin, Seen Through His Record Collection

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At Hyperallergic, Valentina Di Liscia speaks to Hammer Museum curator Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, who compiled a 32-hour Spotify playlist based on James Baldwin’s sprawling record collection, which includes Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Shirley Bassey, and more. “The playlist is a balm of sorts when one is writing,” Onyewuenyi says. “Baldwin referred to his office as a ‘torture chamber.’ We’ve all encountered those moments of writers’ block, where the process of putting pen to paper feels like bloodletting. That process of torture for Baldwin was negotiated with these records.”

Image source: Allan Warren

The Unruly Energy of Ursula K. Le Guin

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At the London Review of Books, Colin Burrow reflects on how Ursula K. Le Guin’s narrative prowess flourished within the constraints of science fiction and children’s literature. “Fiction needs the unruly energies of indeterminacy,” Burrow writes, “of being partly inside the mind of the reader, of trying to hold in check or wrestle with earlier fictions that it doesn’t quite want to become, of being only in an illusory way autonomous. To put that less abstractly, the constraints of genre fiction, of SF and children’s literature, were good for Le Guin: they forced her imagination not only to make a world, but to throw stories at it. Narrative matters in fiction because when things happen the structures of an imagined world have to flex a bit, and that can test their resilience and generate new energies.”

Image credit: Marian Wood Kolisch

Carmen Maria Machado on the Darkness Behind Patricia Highsmith

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At the Guardian, Carmen Maria Machado reflects on the complicated, “fundamentally difficult” work of suspense writer Patricia Highsmith. “If you read the genres of suspense,” Machado writes, “crime and mystery and horror in its many iterations – you know the sensation of allowing a master of her craft to pursue you through a maze; the tingly energy of the chase, the eroticism of encountering the end of the line. ‘Murder,’ Highsmith wrote in her diary in 1950, ‘is a kind of making love, a kind of possessing.’ When you read one of Highsmith’s stories, you’ve given her permission to follow you, catch you, take you apart. Get ready to run.”

Jacqueline Woodson on the Power of Changing the Narrative

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At the Cut, Jacqueline Woodson, author of Red at the Bone, shares how she structures her days, from her reading habits to how she organizes her thoughts. “Another thing about being a writer is you get to create content and you get to change the narrative,” Woodson says. “For me, writing allows me to have some control in that way. Living in my head and imagining what the world can be like — where there can be beauty, hope, empathy, social justice, and change — is really a way to make it through every day.”

Jenny Offill on the Shocks of Recognition in Mrs. Dalloway

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At the New Yorker, Jenny Offill writes about the multitudes found within her favorite book, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. “In 1916, Virginia Woolf wrote about a peculiarity that runs through all real works of art,” Offill writes. “The books of certain writers (she was speaking of Charlotte Brontë at the time) seem to shape-shift with each reading. […] For me, Mrs. Dalloway is such a book, one to which I have mapped the twists and turns of my own autobiography over the years. Each time, I have found shocks of recognition on the page, but they are always new ones, never the ones I was remembering. Instead, some forgotten facet of the story comes to light, and the feeling is always that of having blurred past something that was right in front of me.”

George Saunders on Stories as Laboratories of Connection

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At the Guardian, George Saunders discusses his newest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, with Killian Fox. “I think the main thing that it [fiction] teaches us about is the process of projection that we’re constantly doing,” Saunders says. “I’m a Buddhist, and we believe you really do make the world with your mind. So a story is like a laboratory to help you identify your own habits and projections. Also, it’s about being in connection with that other human being who wrote it. Working on this book made me realise that when you’re reading a story and analysing it, you’re really reassuring yourself that connection is possible, and that even though this person looks like my enemy, there is – maybe, not always – a way to temper that a bit.”

A Year in Reading: Kate Gavino

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January: Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac and Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

February: Ponti by Sharlene Teo and Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley

March: Real Life by Brandon Taylor and Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang

April: Writers and Lovers by Lily King and Fairest by Meredith Talusan

May: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer and The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi

June: Leaving Home by Anita Brookner and The Farm by Joanne Ramos

July: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and How to Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

August: Earthlings by Sayaka Murata and Luster by Raven Leilani

September: Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman and The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey

October: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam and Memorial by Bryan Washington

November: The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio and No Name in the Street by James Baldwin

December: Weird But Normal by Mia Mercado and Jillian by Halle Butler

Embracing the Mysteries in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona Quimby Books

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At the Paris Review, Adrienne Raphel looks back at Beverly Cleary’s beloved Ramona Quimby series, and notes that the books are riddled with odd discrepancies that are both puzzling and charming. “Ramona taught us how to look for the weirdness in the everyday,” Raphel writes, “and the everyday in the scariest moments. When she wears a particularly gruesome witch costume in Ramona the Pest (the baddest witch in the world!,’ she declares), she begins the day delighted with her anonymity, but ends terrified by the greatest fear of all: no one will know who she is. So, she carries a huge poster with her name on it, presumably beaming under the warty disguise. The mask itself isn’t scary—disappearing, anonymity, being forgotten is what’s most frightening of all.”

Isabel Allende on the Many Dimensions of Reality

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At O, Isabelle Allende discusses her newest book, A Long Petal of the Sea, with Elena Nicolaou, and how the world’s inexplicable nature drove her writing. “I grew up with the idea that the world is a very mysterious place,” Allende says, “and there are many dimensions of reality. If you open your heart and your mind, your heart is enriched by everything we cannot explain and control, but we see the evidence.”