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Ruth Ware Won’t Read ‘Bleak House’ Until She Retires



Too many to list. I mean, literally about 20 or 30 titles. Some are old favorites that I like to dip back into after a hard day — “Howl’s Moving Castle,” by Diana Wynne Jones, would fall into that category. Some are books I finished a while ago and just haven’t moved to the shelves in my office — Sarah Pinborough’s “Insomnia” or Dorothy Koomson’s “The Ice Cream Girls,” for example. Some are books I’m in the middle of or have yet to get to — Lisa Jewell’s “The Family Remains” is one of those. I’m halfway through and got distracted by something I had to read for an event, but it’s waiting for me!

I only recently read “The Shining,” by Stephen King. I had always considered myself too much of a scaredy-cat for King’s work, having been traumatized by “Christine” aged about 13, but actually “The Shining” wasn’t as horrifying as I had feared. Or maybe I’ve just toughened up with age! Regardless, I’m sorry I waited so long. I also took a long time to get into Dickens. I had to read him at school and university and found him by turns boring, twee and irritating. The only one I really liked was “Great Expectations,” but I think now I’m old enough to see the humanity in his work. I’m saving “Bleak House” for my retirement. There’s a temptation to rush through the canon as young as possible, but you can only ever read a book for the first time once, and I like the idea of having that to look forward to.

Pre-smartphones, I would have said something like a cozy sofa with a cat on my feet, or a long hot bath with a glass of wine. But now, I actually think my ideal reading experience is a longish flight (not unpleasantly long, say five or six hours) with a comfortably reclined seat — ideally against the bulkhead so I don’t have to feel guilty about inconveniencing the person behind me. Some nice steward would bring me charming little portions of delicious food and drink at regular intervals (look, this is ideal, not realistic) and most importantly there would be absolutely no cellphone reception and no Wi-Fi. I love social media as much as the next person, but there’s something particularly blissful about a totally uninterrupted reading experience these days, with no possibility of getting distracted by Twitter or pinged on WhatsApp. Kind of like the cinema, but for books?

It used to be “The Blessing,” by Nancy Mitford, but the Mitfords have become much better known in recent years; although that’s one of her less famous titles, I think a lot of people probably do know it now. Maybe a rather obscure memoir called “A London Child of the 1870s,” which details the author’s very ordinary upbringing in Victorian London. Absolutely nothing remarkable happens, but there’s something so charming and real about the characters that you feel they’re your personal friends by the end of the book. Molly Hughes wrote it, in part, to debunk the idea that the typical Victorian childhood was strict and gloomy and suffused with punishment — certainly the one in the book comes across as one you’d want for your own kids, full of friendship, laughter and scrapes.

The two authors that made me fall in love with the genre were probably Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie. But my entry drug, one of the first real “crime” stories I encountered, was Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” My mum read it to me and my sister as a bedtime story when I would have been about 8 or 9, and I had nightmares for weeks. It definitely showed me the power of the imagination!

This is a very hard one to answer because there are so many excellent possibilities. Sherlock Holmes has to be up there for setting so many of the tropes of the genre. Lord Peter Wimsey was one of my first literary crushes. Agatha Christie’s two brilliant outsiders — the war refugee Hercule Poirot and the “superfluous spinster” Miss Marple — both showed that you didn’t need to be part of the establishment to make a difference. Chester Himes’s Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones did the same in a powerful way. I honestly don’t think I could pick just one. Best villain is probably easier — I think for me it would have to be Tom Ripley. I’m not so interested in shadowy Moriartys or psychopathic serial killers. I love antiheroes who let you see through their eyes, ones that you can both hate and cheer on at the same time. Ripley fits that bill.

As a reader, I can read almost anything as long as I feel invested in the characters. I don’t have to admire them; some of my favorite books have deeply unlikable main characters. But I have to care about them. There are some subjects that do put me off in a blurb — violence or abuse, mainly, particularly involving children. As a writer, I suppose what pulls me into a story is a conundrum or “what if” that resonates with me, and that I want to explore. Some fear or phobia or personal terror of my own is seeded through the pages of most of my books — some obviously, some perhaps not so much. The French writer Colette said, I think in reference to what makes for a good writer, “Look long at what gives you pleasure, and longer at what pains you.” I think that’s good advice, although in my case it’s probably more: Look longer at what scares you.

Voracious! And omnivorous. I read anything and everything, from hard sci-fi to totally unsuitable bonkbusters.

I think empathy is in short supply at the moment, so probably anything that encourages that. Perhaps “Razorblade Tears,” by S.A. Cosby, which shows two very different men connected by their unbearable grief over the loss of their sons, or the memoir “Lowborn,” by Kerry Hudson, which lays painfully bare the reality of the harsh choices facing many families.

I abandon books all the time. I won’t name them because that feels like tacitly implying it’s the fault of the book, and 99 times out of 100 it’s not — it’s just not the right book for me in that moment. I sometimes get tweeted by people who are not enjoying my books but are forcing themselves on, and I always want to say, don’t! I give you permission to stop! It’s very strange; we don’t feel bad about turning off the TV if we’re not enjoying a show, but books are too often still treated like medicine. You’ve got to finish the course, even if you’re not enjoying it. I don’t think books should be anything other than enriching. That doesn’t always mean fun, or easy reads — sometimes a book is upsetting or challenging or difficult to read. But if you’re not getting anything out of a book, I think you should absolutely feel free to drop it and walk away.

Me. I would be deeply affronted if anyone else tried. I think you probably can’t write a clause into your will forbidding biographies, otherwise I would probably try.

The temptation here is to say “Chaucer, Shakespeare and Emily Brontë” to show how well read you are, and there would certainly be something quite fascinating about the chance to solve some of the mysteries of Shakespeare’s life, like why did he leave his wife nothing but his second-best bed? However, honestly, I think it would be too much pressure for me to enjoy my food. So, in reality, I think I would have a better time with just a load of crime writer mates. It’s very hard to pick just three because what I would really like to do is have a huge potluck with about 40 writers all crowded around sharing serving spoons and gossip — but I think I would have a very good time with Clare Mackintosh, Laura Shepherd-Robinson and Abir Mukherjee, and I know they are all foodies so they would appreciate my cooking.


Can You Connect These Memorable Characters With Their Novels?



Welcome to Lit Trivia, the Book Review’s multiple-choice quiz designed to test your knowledge of books and their authors. This week’s installment asks you to identify memorable characters from mid-20th-century novels. After the last question, you’ll find a list of books highlighted in the quiz.

The Book Review Quiz Bowl appears on the Books page every week with a new topic. Click here for the archive of past quizzes.

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In Her Fiction, Ayana Mathis Refuses to Ignore Black History



THE UNSETTLED, by Ayana Mathis

As a novelist and a student of history, I’m interested in the question of whether Black novelists must acknowledge history in our work, or if it is possible, in the name of artistic freedom, to truly set it aside. I, for one, submit that Black history will always hover over American literature, whether or not the author intends it to. As Toni Morrison wrote in 1992, the Black American population “preceded every American writer of renown and was, I have come to believe, one of the most furtively radical impinging forces on the country’s literature.”

Ayana Mathis’s explicitly historical second novel, “The Unsettled” — appearing nearly 11 years after her acclaimed debut, “The Twelve Tribes of Hattie” — makes a strong case for the fact that the past can never truly be shaken off. Mathis follows three central characters across time and geography: the emotionally delicate Ava, a young mother trying to create a sense of home for herself and her son in 1980s Philadelphia; her wonderfully profane mother, Dutchess, who still lives in Ava’s tiny, all-Black hometown in Alabama; and Ava’s precocious son, Toussaint, who is arguably the book’s protagonist. He begins the novel with a short prologue in which he’s 13, has run away from foster care and is heading down to Bonaparte, Ala., to find Dutchess. Ava is now in prison.

The novel introduces these mysteries — Why is Ava in prison? Where is Toussaint’s father? Why is the boy running toward instead of away from Alabama, as so many Black folks have done since the Great Migration? — before jumping back a few years, to 1985, when Ava drags 10-year-old Toussaint into a homeless shelter in Philadelphia. The mother and son have been thrown out of the home they shared with Abemi, Ava’s abusive husband and Toussaint’s stepfather, in New Jersey. What brought them to this point?

Mathis renders Ava and Toussaint’s time in the shelter in poignant, heartbreaking detail. The staff members are at best cold and insensitive, at worst sexually exploitative. Though Ava tries her best, she increasingly loses connection with reality, reminiscing about her past with Toussaint’s father, Cass, in a series of disorienting, fragmented memories. These episodes, along with the residual trauma from Abemi’s abuse, prevent her from nurturing Toussaint, who is left to his own devices, essentially adultified. Her maternal neglect tests the reader’s sympathy as she leaves her child to ready himself for school, forgets to take him to the shelter cafeteria for their meals, doesn’t search for him when he disappears for hours at a time.

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In Defense of Men? Caitlin Moran’s Answer Will Surprise You.



WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran

Caitlin Moran was giving a speech, and she was annoyed. For years, she’d been on this circuit — talking about her books, her columns, feminism and the state of womanhood. Everywhere she went, she seemed to get the same question: What was her advice for men?

Men, of course, are not her area of expertise. She isn’t one, for starters, though she is married to a man. She hasn’t birthed any, though she has daughters. Her successful writing career hasn’t been about men; she’s best known for her books “How to Be a Woman” and “How to Build a Girl.” Anyway, shouldn’t somebody be asking a man these questions?

Moran dismissed these inquiries with a joke: “My advice to men? I guess, a) please, if you can possibly avoid it, don’t rape us, and b) put the bowls in the dishwasher — rather than next to the dishwasher?”

The questions kept coming — eventually, from Moran’s own teenage girls. But it took a conversation with four boys from one daughter’s school — during a Zoom for International Women’s Day, no less — to really shake her.

“Men are just seen as bad, or toxic,” one boys tells her. “We’re blamed for everything. People just automatically presume we’re all rapists.”

When the call was over, the girls pleaded with her to recommend the boys some reading, a TV show, anything that would help close the gap between the sexes. She couldn’t think of anything. At least not anything that was useful and entertaining.

Moran changed course.

The result is “What About Men?,” an irreverent, albeit anecdotal, dig into the claim made in incel chat rooms, on Reddit and in the so-called manosphere that it’s easier to be a woman than it is to be a straight white man today. And, guess what? She believes it.

No, really.

In part because straight white men are still seen as the “default,” Moran writes, “it’s almost as if the actual details of their lives have become see-through. Invisible.”

That, and they can’t blame the patriarchy for their problems. For women, she writes, “change begins with the delicious moment” when you realize the problem is not your own. “But how can men blame ‘the patriarchy’ when, as a straight white man, you look like the patriarchy? Then you’re just in a ‘Fight Club’ situation, where you’re hitting yourself in the face.”

“What About Men?” is written in Moran’s usual confessional style — except that she’s defending the very people we’ve grown accustomed to her poking fun at.

Moran begins by interviewing men ages 40 to 55 (a hilariously narrow slice of the population), about the messages they received about how to be a man. For instance, many boys learn they “have to hit someone,” and there are apparently rules about this playground violence: Slapping is insulting. Kicking in the groin could be mistaken for “a bit gay.” For those with no physical skills, there’s always humor — “a currency and a power,” Moran learns.

Moran talks to a friend in an eye-opening chapter about being addicted to porn. (This person is not an expert, per se; just someone she happened to chat with. The majority of Moran’s subjects have this vibe.) She takes on unattainable beauty standards for men, who don’t have a “body positivity” movement to flood their Instagram with “rolls, stretch marks, lavish thighs and triumphant wibbly-wobbly bums.” She interviews a friend named Hugo about pickup artists, explores why men don’t go to the doctor (fear of judgment; fear of death; fear of looking weak) and takes on aging.

Moran also dispatches some womanly advice.

About sex: Women don’t really care about size, though “in the weeks, and sometimes months, after a breakup, women will almost always accuse their ex of having a tiny penis.”

About libido: “Women are as horny as men.”

About why women often don’t act on that libido: “The toughest thing about being a heterosexual woman is that the thing that, very often, we love the most — that you are bigger than us; your beautiful strong hands; the solidity of your arms; the weight of your body on top of us … — is also the thing we are most scared of.”

Those hoping for a sociological dig into men and masculinity will be disappointed. Her strength is in writing what she knows, and it is impossible even for the most clever and comprehensive author to sum up an entire sex.

And anyway, “What About Men?” isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It’s meant to be funny. But that at times, without research of any kind to support her clever observations — and no, a stoned conversation with her husband’s balls does not count — she runs the risk of perpetuating the very stereotypes she’s trying to unravel.

Ultimately, Moran seems to approach the world with irreverence. In the case of this book, readers should do the same.

Jessica Bennett is a contributing editor in the Opinion section of The Times.

WHAT ABOUT MEN? A Feminist Answers the Question, by Caitlin Moran | 320 pp. | Harper | $29.99

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