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Like the namesake of his most recent novels, J. M. Coetzee speaks to us in parables. The Childhood of Jesus and The Schooldays of Jesus, like Disgrace and Summertime before them, give us politically charged stories seemingly without side. This encourages the Nobel laureate’s reviewers to become Coetzeeologists, attempting to parse out whether the book before them sets opposing tensions in play for art’s sake alone, or whether we can discern a clear moral leaning beneath the tensions. We assume Coetzee came to the story with an open mind but did he leave with one too? What’s he trying to say?

Since about The Master of Petersburg, most of Coetzee’s novels have used oppositional ideas to power their dynamos. The reader’s changing sympathies fall into a sort of dance with the story itself: Each revelation shifts our allegiances, tilting the axis of the book. It’s like watching a courtroom drama where the very ideas by which we live our lives are put on trial, and we’re not yet certain whodunit. In Disgrace, a college professor in Coetzee’s native South Africa takes sexual advantage of a student and then is himself savagely victimized — in what measure has justice been served? In the underrated Elizabeth Costello, the eponymous fictional novelist accuses a fictionalized version of the real novelist Paul West of depicting the horrors of the Holocaust in a way that effectively exploits them; as we watch her argument unfold, we find ourselves first cheering her on, then recoiling. This is fiction at its best. More… “The Dancer Upstairs”

John Cotter’s first novel Under the Small Lights appeared in 2010 from Miami University Press. A founding editor at the review site Open Letters Monthly, John’s published critical work in Sculpture, Bookforum, and The The Poetry Foundation. Say hi at John [at] JohnCotter [dot] net.

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In the news this weekend: Space is awesome. From the Super Blood Moon to water on Mars, there’s plenty going on up there. But the possibility for life on the red planet was no surprise to Ridley Scott, director of The Martian, an upcoming movie about a stranded astronaut. (The Guardian)

In the era of political correctness, universities with curricula that discuss potentially traumatic subjects walk the line between conducting open, intellectual debates and mentally scarring students with difficult pasts. When it comes to tough subjects, some advocate for the use of trigger warnings, while others condemn them as a barrier to intellectual freedom. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Readers can get very attached to the words on the page — books can become our friends, family, and lovers. Die-hard Jane Austen or Dan Brown fans may remember their first encounters with a twinkle in their eye, but do the authors do the same? Six writers reminisce over their first novels and decide if that young romance was really true love. (The Millions) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

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David Hume turns 300 on May 7. It is fitting, I suppose, that a man so resolutely mortal should be enjoying such immortality. Most of Hume’s contemporaries are long forgotten. Hume, somehow, endures. His old pal Adam Smith (author of The Wealth of Nations), relates that in Hume’s dying days he told his friends, “I have done every thing of consequence which I ever meant to do, and I could at no time expect to leave my relations and friends in a better situation than that in which I am likely to leave them: I therefore have all reason to die contented.”

 

It was that ancient and ugly Greek, Socrates, who first made the claim that philosophy is a preparation for death. He said it just before taking his hemlock, so we can assume that he was being… More…

In the week it takes me to read five different books on how to be a writer, approximately 30 books are delivered to my Berlin apartment. This is a decline from the 15 to 30 that used to be delivered every day, and I’m grateful for the barrier of costly international postage that keeps these numbers down. I will immediately discard about three-quarters of the books. Some of these, I would say maybe eight percent of the books I receive, are self-published. Under their bios the writers dutifully list the writing programs they attended. Now they have landed here, with a clip-art book cover, a cheap binding, and a $12 stamp to send it to a book critic who doesn’t even really review fiction anymore. I feel bad for these writers, and the years of effort and money they spent on a writing education, and all of that boundless optimism… More…

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Two hundred years is a long time, and much of the appeal of Jane Austen lies in how long ago she wrote. Every year the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) meets in a major city and stages a series of events that recreate that long lost world. There’s a bonnet-making workshop and a Regency-style ball, and everyone marches around in archaic fancy dress. All of this strikes an appealing note to those of us who find the modern world chaotic and unmannerly, who wish that we could take tea at the right hour (if only someone could brew a proper cup) and think we would all look much better in Empire gowns.

 

By the same token, much of the appeal of… More…

He was a writer, first and foremost, and he spent a lot of time thinking about writing. He was a good writer. He could turn a phrase. He could move a story along. Still, it was difficult to make any money at the thing. He spent some time in Greenwich Village in the 1930s, hanging out with the other writers and artists, thinking about what it means to spend a life with the written word, to pay the bills working as a writer. He found his answer in the pulp fiction scene of the ’30s and ’40s. Magazines and book publishers were looking for fast-paced writing that told fast-paced stories of adventure, mystery, and intrigue. He could do that. He could do that as well as anyone.

 

His name was L. Ron Hubbard. This year, 2011, happens to… More…

Readers are notorious grave robbers. When it comes to our favorite authors, many of us posses a compulsion to read and learn everything. We cheer when manuscript fragments are uncovered, private correspondence tracked down, diaries published for all to read. The authors, long dead, can no longer insist on privacy, and it is often their loved ones and descendants who betray them by leaving items unburned and handing over love letters to publishers.

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings. 624 pages. John Murray. £14.99 (U.S. May 2010).

If you look at the fall publishing list or read literary news you might think the dead have come back to walk the Earth. Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura — not so much a book as a series of detailed note cards about a book — is being… More…