Monday, March 30, 2020


The first two rounds of competition are over, and this year's book bracket enters the Sweet 16. See the current standings below.

The early rounds saw a number of close matches and even a few upsets (Hemingway fell to McCarthy in round 1! Agatha Christie lost to Gillian Flynn in round 2!), and some interesting match-ups still await us.

So, readers, what are your predictions for the final round? If I had to guess, I'd predict a Hugo-Fitzgerald championship match, though The Stand could upset everyone's predictions and sail through on sheer timeliness. What do you think? Sound off in the comments, and don't forget to follow Talking Lit with Aunt Mary on Facebook to vote in the daily matches!

Friday, March 27, 2020

What to Read in Quarantine

I asked people what kind of reads they’re looking for to pass the time now that most of us are stuck at home. (And if you're NOT at home right now because you're working in healthcare, groceries, or another essential field, thank you for what you're doing, and I wish you a gloriously long vacation when this is all over.) Here are the responses I got, followed by my recommendations. In each case, I’ve tried to include at least one public domain book you can get for free online (ebooks through or, in one case,, and audiobooks through since libraries are closed. Hope you like them, and feel free to make additional recommendations in the comments!

“Something easy to get lost in, with a healthy dose of absurdity! Just like quarantine.”

The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
Availability: Free in ebook and audio.

No one I’ve ever talked books with IRL will be at all surprised to see that I’m recommending this book. It’s my go-to recommendation. It’s one of those titles that makes its way onto the classics shelf despite most people completely forgetting about it.

So here’s the deal: Wilkie Collins was the undisputed king of the thriller before the modern thriller was really a thing. His books are memorable, dramatically-plotted, narratively innovative, completely off-the-rails wild, and just plain fun, and this is his best.

In order to give you just a taste of why you should read this book, allow me to introduce you to the cast of main characters:

Laura Fairlie: A beautiful and virtuous heiress. Ok, she’s the only boring one, moving on.
Marian Halcombe: Laura’s half-sister. Shares neither her beauty nor her fortune, but arguably the most badass female character ever written by a Victorian man. Smarter than everyone. Climbs on roofs and shit.
Walter Hartright: Loves Laura. You know he’s the good guy and the hero cause his heart is right...get it? See what Collins did there? Is it subtle? Of course not. But it’s exactly the level of cheese you need right now.
Sir Percival Glyde: Laura’s fiancé, a baronet, every bit as slimy as his name suggests (Collins is on a roll with these names, man).
Count Ottavio Baldassare Fosco: Sir Percival’s friend, an evil, eccentric Italian with secrets. We’re talking mustache-twirling. He only eats sweets and has an improbable entourage of animals that follow him around.
The Woman in White: Yeah, she has a name, but I’m not gonna spoil that right now. You don’t know who she is, but she’s gonna show up out of nowhere and start screaming unheeded warnings and you’re not going to know whether she’s real or a ghost or what and it’s gonna be great.

Look, if you’re not already on board after that, I don’t know what to tell you, but I will further promise you multiple major plot twists (don’t let anyone spoil this book for you) and a pioneering use of the multiple-narrators-from-different-documents technique later used by Bram Stoker in Dracula.

“Pure escapism. Good guys win. Probably something YA.”

“The farthest away from reality that I can get.”

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. LeGuin.
Availability: Check your library’s electronic resources, or $9 for kindle, or used copies starting at $4 on

The first book in the great sci-fi writer’s only YA series. A coming-of-age story with magic, friendship, and adventure.

The Princess Bride, William Goldman
Availability: Check your library’s electronic resources, or $9 for kindle, or used copies starting at $4.50 on

What could be better comfort-food reading than the book that inspired the beloved movie? It’s been years since I read this one, but I remember laughing out loud and turning pages with excitement.

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Availability: Free in ebook and audio.

If you didn’t read this growing up, you’ll feel like you did. Ninety percent of the pirate clichés you know from childhood (or themed parties in college) are from this book (starting with “Shiver me timbers”), making it a pleasantly nostalgic escape.

White Fang, Jack London
Availability: Free in ebook and audio.

I guess this one is less “far from reality” than the others on this list, but then again it IS told from the perspective of a wolfdog. Like some of the aforementioned, you may or may not have read it growing up, but dog lovers will find it warm and fuzzy regardless.

“Something long. Historical fiction I haven't read yet.”

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Availability: Free in ebook.

Hmmm, long historical it cliché to say War and Peace? Cause if you haven’t read it, now’s the time, and I unironically think it’s one of the best books ever written.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
Availability: Check your library’s electronic resources, or $10 for kindle, or used copies starting at $3.50 on

I should mention this book’s biggest flaw right up front: Eco wanted you to have to work through the first 100 pages before it got good. A dick move? I mean, yeah. Kind of elitist? Also yeah. But worth it? Look, if you make it through, you get rewarded with a kick-ass medieval and philosophical murder mystery and an ending that will leave you breathless.

The Betrothed, Alessandro Manzoni
Availability: Free in ebook and audio

Ok, look, this one’s not for everyone, but if you’re really dedicated to long historical fiction and have read both of the aforementioned, this might be for you. Italian teenagers read it in school, and complaining about it is a national pastime, but I have long maintained that reading it as an adult is entirely different.

Written in the early nineteenth century and set in the seventeenth, the story follows two young lovers from the shores of Lake Como whose marriage is impeded by an evil local nobleman and his henchmen. They (separately) flee the town to escape him, and in their respective adventures they face an uprising in Milan, a lustful nun, an even more evil nobleman than the first, and the plague (so, um, yeah, there’s plague in this, fair warning). So you’ve got adventure, pure-hearted good guys against evil rich people, and some comic relief, all against a lovely Italian backdrop.

“Biography with universal messages, maybe inspiring.”

So first off, I’m departing from the assumptions that most of us have already read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in school. If you haven’t, now’s as good a time as any to check it out, and of course it’s free online in ebook and audio.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Daniel James Brown
Availability: Check your library’s electronic resources, or $15 for kindle, or used copies starting at $5 on

Something of a group biography though with one team member as a focus, Brown’s book tells the story of the rowing team of working-class young men from Washington state that took on a fearsome German team at Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics. I approached this one with skepticism because I hate sports and am not easily inspired by them, but Brown’s skillful, character-driven storytelling and building of suspense won me over.

Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain
Availability: Check your library’s electronic resources, or $4 for kindle, or used copies starting at $4.30 on

Fair warning: This one will break your heart. If you’re down for something that will demand an investment of your time and emotions, proceed, but seek no escapism here. Vera Brittain volunteered as a nurse during World War I and recorded her experiences in this memoir afterwards. Her unspeakable losses and the horrors she witnessed set her on a journey to become a pacifist and a socialist. If you finish it and feel like you still haven’t cried enough, you can check out the 2015 film starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harrington.

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini
Availability: Free in ebook and audio in two volumes

Look, I’m not going to lie to you: This one is absolutely not inspiring or universal, but it is a ton of fun. Cellini was kind of an asshole, to be honest, but don’t you want to read the autobiography of an asshole who escaped from Castel Sant’Angelo and who tried to fight anyone who spoke ill of his hometown after like two drinks? Oh, also, there’s Renaissance art.


Because I’m somewhat less well-read in biography than other genres, I’m also going to give shout-outs here to two books I have not read but intend to eventually:

How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Sarah Bakewell
Availability: Check your library’s electronic resources, or $10 for kindle, or used copies starting at $5 on

This one’s been on my shelf for awhile and comes highly recommended. I read and very much enjoyed the author’s subsequent book, At the Existentialist Cafe, a group biography / intellectual history of the existentialist philosophers.

John Brown, W. E. B. Du Bois
Availability: Free text online

Came across this one on a list of great biographies, and think it’s well worth seeing what the U.S.’s best-known black intellectual of the early twentieth century had to say about the daring abolitionist.

“A series I can get hooked on.”

What gets you into a series? Action? Mystery? Sci-fi? Lovable characters? Read on for some very different choices for very different tastes.

The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell
Availability: Check your library’s electronic resources, or $5 for kindle, or used copies starting at $4 on

I read this one on a whim awhile back and couldn’t put it down. The first novel in The Saxon Stories, it’s set in England in the ninth century during the reign of Alfred the Great and follows the life of Uhtred, a bold warrior in Alfred’s bloody wars against the invading Danes (vikings).

I’ve heard this series described as “Game of Thrones but with history,” and that’s not far off. I will add that if you are uncomfortable with Game of Thrones’s level of violence, this one is not for you. But if you would enjoy a series with blood feuds, contested loyalties, prophecies, viking rituals, and plenty of edge-of-your-seat battles, look no further.

As a bonus, I understand there's also a Netflix show based on this series. I haven't seen it, but, hey, one more way to pass the time, right?

Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters
Availability: Check your library’s electronic resources, or $10 for kindle, or used copies starting at $4.50 on

A Victorian spinster unexpectedly inherits and uses her new money to procure the services of a lady companion and set off for Egypt to fulfill her dream of archeological discovery. There, the two women encounter two handsome brothers and a mummy’s curse. Hijinks ensue.

This is the first book in the Amelia Peabody series, which I can best describe as Scooby Doo for adults. There’s usually a murder mystery (or a mummy or something) that Amelia and her lovable and hilarious band of supporting characters have to solve, and there’s always adventure, romance, and some ancient history. The series isn’t perfect, and, being about a European woman in Egypt at the turn of the century, is not without problematic moments. But overall, it’s lighthearted fun.

Dawn, Octavia Butler
Availability: Check your library’s electronic resources, or $9 ($12.50 for full trilogy) for kindle, or used copies starting at $12 ($10 for full trilogy together) on

This is the first book in a trilogy sometimes called Lilith’s Brood and sometimes called Xenogenesis. Lilith Iyapo is a human woman who awakes in the custody of the alien Oankali centuries after humans have mostly destroyed earth in a catastrophic war. The Oankali have kept her alive and healed her of all ailments, and they want something unusual in return. I will refrain from saying more because there’s too much spoiler potential, but shit gets weird.

A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle
Availability: Free in ebook and audio

I mean, if you’re going to start a series, why not one of the classics? “God, I can’t stand the Sherlock Holmes books,” said literally no one I’ve ever met.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Dude Book Talk: A Translation Guide

As many of you have noticed, I host a March Madness bracket for books every year (be sure to like and follow Talking Lit with Aunt Mary on Facebook to play!). As you may further have noticed, books are divided into often snarky themed “divisions” for the first round of competition. Past years have included divisions such as the “But I Saw the Movie” Division, the “Too Hot for the Censors” division, the “Baby It’s Cold Outside and Also in My Raw Soul (The Russians)” Division, etc. But as much fun as we’ve had with the “Time Travel and Aliens” Division and the “Books Probably Written on Drugs” Division, one favorite has been repeated for three years running by popular demand, with new titles each year: the “Books Dudes Really Want You to Know They’ve Read” Division. I can only assume that this division’s popularity speaks to a widespread experience among women of hearing about the same dozen books all the time while conversing with men in bars, so I’ve decided to compose this handy guide to interpretations.

I will preface this by saying that I have read all these authors and liked many of them, that men and women I like and respect list some of these as their favorites, and that this is all in good fun. I also wish more people of all genders talked about books in bars, even if it’s Cormac F-ing McCarthy.

So. Ladies. When he says he loves this book, what he really means is...

The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)

I haven’t read a novel since high school. I have lots of residual teen angst.

Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)

I have read many novels since high school. Long ones, even! Also, I am sensitive and earnest and ever so emotionally available. I wear flannel.

No Country for Old Men (Cormac McCarthy)

I am edgy. I either can or would like you to believe that I can ride a horse and shoot a gun. Emotionally unavailable. I also wear flannel.

Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)

I read the New Yorker and wear nice shoes.

The Sun Also Rises (Ernest Hemingway)

I am a poetic soul. Chicks dig poetic souls. However, women will always disappoint me and love is an ultimately fruitless pursuit.

Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut)

I am Political without necessarily actually being political. We live in a Society. I am from Indiana.

American Pastoral (Philip Roth)

I am Political without necessarily actually being political. We live in a Society. I am from New Jersey.

Ficciones (Jorge Luis Borges)

I am lettered enough to appreciate the short story as an art form. I either read another language or would like you to think I do.

Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk)

I know this book is actually a critique of aggressive and heteronormative masculinity, but it actually makes it sounds pretty awesome. So I am a very tough guy. But, like, self-aware about it.


I actually did not get that this book was a critique, in which case I am a very bad idea.

Ulysses (James Joyce)

I hold an advanced degree in English literature or a related field. I either own a blazer with elbow patches or would like to.

On the Road (Jack Keroac)

I’m either under 25 or over 65. 420 (and more) friendly. Not interested in a commitment.

Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)

I believe in the gold standard and that’s what we’re going to talk about for the rest of the evening.

Friday, February 28, 2020

The 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates as Jane Austen Characters

I will generally keep political posting to a minimum, but this week only two things are on my mind: the Democratic presidential primary and the new film adaptation of Emma.

Special thanks to Michelle R. and Matt R. for consulting on this one.

Mike Bloomberg / Lady Catherine de Bourgh

Extremely rich and won’t let you forget it. Believes her money entitles her to run things. “Miss Bennet, do you know who I am?” Republican.

Joe Biden / Mrs. Bennet

So many gaffes, you can’t take her anywhere. Thinks she knows what’s best for the younger generation whether they like it or not. Would marry her daughter to Cornpop if he had four thousand a year. #OKBoomer

Amy Klobuchar / Caroline Bingley

Can be friendly if there is a benefit, but would 100% throw a stapler (or, like, an inkwell) at someone on her payroll.

Pete Buttigieg / Mr. Collins

Loves rich people. Your mother thinks he’d make a sensible choice, and Charlotte Lucas seems to agree. Compliments your boiled potatoes and the shape of democracy to win your favour.

Tulsi Gabbard / Mr. Wickham

Military. Sexy as hell. Would be unwise to entangle yourself.

Andrew Yang / Emma Woodhouse

Rich. Meant well and really just thought you deserved a marriage that would bring you one thousand pounds.

Tom Steyer / Frank Churchill

Will try to flatter and charm the hell out of you, but secretly already married to someone else (the someone else is the ruling class).

Elizabeth Warren / Elinor Dashwood

All sense, no sensibility. Lots of plans. Just wants everyone to follow the rules.

Marianne Williamson / Marianne Dashwood

All sensibility, no sense. Lots of feelings. Just wants everyone to love.

Bernie Sanders / Captain Wentworth

One of the few main characters in all of Austen’s work who doesn’t live on literal interest. Once rejected, given a second chance at his happy ending. “I am half agony, half hope” = me until this whole thing is over.

Edited March 2 to add: Wow, this post has gotten a lot more attention than my previous ones! I'm so glad you are enjoying it. Follow me on facebook (search Talking Lit with Aunt Mary) for more, including the March Madness book bracket starting this Friday!

Friday, February 14, 2020

Some Literary Valentines

So we already know that Heathcliffe would use you for long-game revenge against his ex and that Darcy would insult your family at first then come around. This year you’re getting some Valentines from literary characters you didn’t expect.

Enjolras (Les Misérables)

My dearest,

Your beauty is beyond compare, unless I were to compare it to the fire sparked by Lamarque in the people. No sound is more melodious than your voice, unless it be the singing of the people as they rise in revolution. No smell is sweeter than your perfume, unless it be that of the sweat of my comrades behind the barricade. No color is brighter than that of your eyes, unless it be RED, THE BLOOD OF ANGRY MEN.

Vive la France,

Nino Sarratore (The Neapolitan Novels)

[literally just the full text of Blank Space by Taylor Swift, cause baby I’m a nightmare dressed like a daydream, and we WILL take this way too far]

Molly Bloom (Ulysses)

my mountain flower come to me at ten o’clock no stupid husbands jealousy will tell me no because O there is a flower that bloometh O and my heart going like mad O please do say youll come say yes I said yes I will Yes.

Lilith Iyapo (The Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood Trilogy)

Roses are red
Life on pre-apocalyptic earth was pain
Look, it’s going to take five of us to make a baby, Nikanj will explain.

Mary Katherine Blackwood (We Have Always Lived in the Castle)

Valentine, said Merricat, would you like a cup of tea?
Say yes, Valentine, that you’ll drink it with me.
All my other Valentines are dead.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Announcing the 2020 March Madness Book Bracket

I have a tradition of hosting a book march madness tournament every year on Facebook, and while I have in the past used my personal account to do so, this year's tournament will be hosted through the blog's Facebook page, so be sure to like and follow if you want to play.

Here's how this will work:

1. The tournament begins March 6. Each day I'll post two match-ups until the final to take place on April 6, the day of the NCAA March Madness championship game.

2. Simply cast a vote in each poll for your choice. HOWEVER, to keep it interesting, I allow additional votes in the form of good memes or just exceptionally entertaining comments, counted at my discretion. Beware that it is possible for your choice to win the popular vote but lose in the meme college.

3. I will vote only to break ties, but do not claim neutrality.

4. As always, the books chosen are not meant to be representative of, like, Good Literature or something. I love some of them and I love to hate some of them. The primary criterion for inclusion was my ability to fit the book into a snarkily-named category. There's also an obvious bias towards books I've read, but I MAKE THE RULES, OK?

5. I did not repeat winners or finalists from previous years cause I don't want this to be a boring thing where Pride and Prejudice just dominates every year. In case you're curious, previous winners are:
2019: 1984
2018: Frankenstein
2017: Pride and Prejudice

Edited March 6 to add rule number 6: As per longstanding tradition, one person and only one person not using facebook is allowed a vote, which I will register in the comments: my dear friend The-One-and-Only-No-Longer-On-Facebook-LC (TOAONLOFLC).

Without further ado, I give you the 2020 Book Bracket:

Friday, January 31, 2020

Eight Different Detective Writers Explain the Disappearance of Your Neighbor’s Cat

Agatha Christie

It is frightful indeed when such a disturbance strikes a pleasant village like St. Mary Mead! So make a pot of English Breakfast and fetch your favorite shawl as you prepare to discover a feline corpse that will not disturb you in the least, dear reader. In fact, you’ll feel downright cozy as you watch the neighborhood go into a tizzy and await the arrival of a dear elderly lady who will explain everything without looking up from her knitting.

Dorothy Sayers

By Jove, I do say the cat’s got herself into a spot of trouble, what? But fear not, and don’t let our detective’s jolly manner or attention to his top hat fool you: he is first-rate. We may come to the diverting if gruesome conclusion that some unlikely and inanimate object is responsible for your cat’s untimely demise, or we may call upon Harriet and take this opportunity for an extended meditation on love and feminism on our way to finding her safe and sound. Either way, you can be assured that the mystery will be solved. Now Bunter, if you would just fetch our coats, there’s a good chap.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Ah, you see that speck of dust on your potted plant? That particular type of limestone is only found at the specific quarry located 2.4 miles to the southwest of here. We can thus assume that the cat has been wandering to the quarry and back, and you will surely find her there. Elementary!

Wilkie Collins

The cat had a secret, you see. Six hundred pages and three major plot twists later, you will face the cat’s secret husband in the family catacombs in front of the empty tomb of Patches, where he will reveal that Whiskers actually had no legitimate claim to the baronetcy.

Robert Galbraith

It’s likely the cat has met a grizzly end, but it will take us about 250 more pages than necessary to find out, because I’m J. K. Rowling and no editor is going to tell me what to do. In the meantime, this case will provide ample opportunity for private detective Cormoran Strike to grapple with his sexual and romantic feelings for his beautiful and clever assistant, Robin Ellacott.

Tana French

Don’t worry, we will solve this mystery, and its solution will be satisfactorily horrifying or gruesome. But for now, let’s focus on you, narrator. How’s your past? Any absent parents who could turn up at the wrong time? Childhood sweethearts you’ve lost touch with who may or may not be dead? Cold cases that still haunt you? You may think your personal life has fuckall to do with this case, but that’s where you’re wrong. Buckle in, baby, cause this shite’s about to get traumatic.

Louise Penny

Come for the relatively painless and wholesome mystery, and stay for the French Canadian detective with a British accent and the whole quirky gang at Three Pines. The cat is probably fine.

Gillian Flynn

The cat has been brutally murdered by a charming and stunningly beautiful female psychopath. That’s right, women and hot girls can be psychopathic killers, too! #LeanIn