An Appreciation of Underappreciated Novels

Cover image of the character William Stoner.

Real life isn’t fair, and the same goes for fiction. Some stellar novels deserve more reader love, but remain relatively obscure.

Among the many books that should be much better known is one I just read after it was enthusiastically recommended by several of this blog’s frequent visitors (credited in the comments section). The novel is John Williams’ Stoner, and it left me absolutely gobsmacked with admiration. It’s exquisitely written, with a near-perfect authorial voice. Plus one feels such sympathy for the beleaguered, achingly three-dimensional protagonist William Stoner (yes, the 1965 novel’s title is the last name of its lead character, not a reference to being stoned).

So the question is why Stoner didn’t become as famous as other exceptional 1960s novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Catch-22. I’ll offer several theories, while first noting that the reasons for a novel not achieving widespread recognition can be inexplicable — bad luck or something. Or perhaps inadequate initial marketing in certain cases.

Speaking specifically of Stoner, its bleakness might be a turnoff to a portion of potential readers; the book is heartbreaking. Yet I couldn’t put it down; devouring it in a day.

Also, some readers might feel the novel isn’t sweeping enough. William Stoner is a farm boy-turned-English professor who seldom leaves Missouri. Fictional works with that kind of narrow lens, or that are set in academia, are not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, a focus on mostly one life can “contain multitudes,” and the novel does glance at outside events: World War I, the Depression, World War II.

In addition, William is not a particularly charismatic protagonist — indeed, he’s often rather passive. But he’s a decent sort many readers can relate to, and we’re devastated as bad things happen to him (even as his life does have some happy moments). The novel is still inspiring at times as we admire William’s stoicism in the face of what fate metes out, and appreciate his unbending love of learning and literature.

Another novel that doesn’t receive nearly its due is Elsa Morante’s stunning History (1974), whose title conveys how it’s partly a chronicle of the World War II era in Rome even as it focuses on one woman (Ida Ramundo) and her two sons (Antonio and Giuseppe). It sold pretty well in Italy during its decade of publication, but never became very well known outside that country, then or now.

Why? There could be some bias against a female author writing a novel set in wartime. Also, like William Stoner, Ida is a passive character who has bad things happen to her. But Giuseppe is one of the most precocious kids you’ll find in literature, and there’s a memorable dog, too.

L.M. Montgomery’s novel The Blue Castle has periodically enjoyed a modest level of popularity since its 1926 release, but it’s much less famous than the author’s Anne of Green Gables — even as The Blue Castle is just as compelling, poignant, and funny as it focuses on what the feisty Valancy Stirling does after receiving a shocking medical diagnosis. Perhaps part of the reason The Blue Castle is somewhat obscure is that it’s an adult novel and Montgomery is pigeon-holed as a writer for younger readers.

Sometimes a novel is grossly underappreciated when it’s first published, before later capturing the public imagination. Such is the case with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), which initially sold poorly and was dismissed by many critics. Perhaps it was just too deep (pun not intended) for its time — plus people who had read Melville’s earlier, less-complex sea sagas may not have been prepared for the author’s leap into masterpiece territory. It wasn’t until decades after Melville’s 1891 death that Moby-Dick deservedly became a phenomenon.

Any great novels you’d like to mention that aren’t as known as they should be? (Not an easy question to answer, of course, because there’s less chance we’d have heard of a book if it’s underappreciated. 🙂 😦 )

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a return to school, an immigrant jail, and library funding — is here.

When a Book Title’s Words Return

Tommy Orange and his novel.

Amid the big pleasures of reading fiction are some small pleasures, and one of them is when a novel’s title appears in the body of the book.

I’m of course not talking about novels whose titles are a person or place; those names will inevitably be mentioned multiple times in a book’s pages. I’m talking about the more evocative matter of novels with titles you might initially puzzle over, or with titles you’re kind of familiar with but are curious how they’ll be used in the book.

I just read There There, whose title can be interpreted in various ways. Tommy Orange’s impressive, compelling, VERY painful 2018 novel focuses on about a dozen contemporary Native-American characters — mostly residents of Oakland, Calif., and its urban milieu. Many of the characters are struggling with racism (at the hands of the white power structure), poverty, broken families, addiction, and other problems. They are “accidents waiting to happen,” which happens to be a line in Radiohead’s 2003 song “There There” — a song Orange mentions in the book. Later on, the author also mentions Gertrude Stein’s famous quote “There is no there there” — about…Oakland, Calif.

On top of that, Orange constantly bounces the narrative from one character to another, or, to put it a different way, from one household (there) to another household (there). Finally, we think of “there, there…” as a phrase expressing sympathy — something many of Orange’s characters can use, especially during the novel’s shattering climax.

Another impressive, compelling, VERY painful recent novel — Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give — has a title many readers have heard somewhere before. Sure enough, the book mentions rapper Tupac Shakur’s concept of “THUG LIFE”: “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” The traumatic events in Thomas’ 2017 novel — about a white cop’s murder of a young black man and what ensues — certainly bear that out.

The two words in Zadie Smith’s intriguingly titled White Teeth show up more than once in her multiethnic novel. Those words refer to how people of all types are essentially the same (most originally have white teeth) yet have some differences (teeth can turn yellow or be in various other conditions). And one way racism is historically mentioned in Smith’s novel is via the horrid memory of racist/murderous white soldiers spotting vulnerable Africans in the dark by the contrast of their white teeth and dark skin.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has a title that of course conveys the anger of exploited, impoverished people (including the Joad family) treated badly by such entities as American big business and law enforcement. But will those four words, also known for being part of the 19th-century “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” turn up in the novel? They do, in this memorably striking passage: “…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

In some cases, readers think a title means one thing but it turns out to mean something else when the words pop up in the novel — an ambiguity often crafted deliberately by the authors. For instance, the latest Jack Reacher thriller by Lee Child and Andrew Child is called The Sentinel and one of course thinks of someone who stands guard. But we eventually learn that “The Sentinel” is the name of a software program pivotal to the novel’s plot.

Any examples you’d like to offer that fit the theme of this post?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which looks at allegations of mayoral conflicts of interest — is here.

Memorable Moments of Fearlessness in Fiction

My cat Misty, who gets a leashed stroll every morning, during an adventurous fence walk.

Some characters in novels take major risks out of desperation, to courageously save someone, to feed a daredevil nature, or for other reasons. Those scenes can be ultra-memorable, staying in readers’ minds for years. Here are a few such scenes — including some with spoilers, even as I tried fudging things a bit, so continue at your peril: 🙂

One of the most heart-stopping examples of fearlessness in fiction involves the cruelly pursued Eliza clutching her young son as she tries to escape slavery by leaping northward from ice floe to ice floe across the Ohio River in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

In Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I discussed last week in a different context, young Cro-Magnon protagonist Ayla attempts to save a Neanderthal boy from drowning at grave risk to her life.

Water is also a factor when long-jailed innocent Edmond Dantes, star of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, strives to make a desperate swimming escape from the Chateau d’If island prison off Marseille.

Speaking of prisons, among the many heroic scenes in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is one in the first book when Claire sneaks into a heavily fortified jail to try to save her husband Jamie — and even fights off a ravenous wolf soon after.

Among hobbit Samwise Gangee’s courageous acts in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is daringly trying to rescue Frodo Baggins from the Tower of Cirith Ungol. And then there’s that climactic scene at Mount Doom…

Another series with all kinds of heroism is J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga. Harry, Hermione, Ron, and other kid and adult characters do many brave things, of course, but teen Neville Longbottom’s gutsiness in the presence of archvillain Lord Voldemort near the end of the final novel particularly resonates because Neville was very timid and put-upon in the early books.

As is the case with many other stars of crime-fiction series, Jack Reacher is nearly fearless in Lee Child’s novels. But the massive and somewhat claustrophobic Jack is especially valiant in 61 Hours as he squirms around a small underground bunker in snowy South Dakota to try to nab that novel’s villain.

There are quieter forms of boldness, too, as when Alice Howland of Lisa Genova’s Still Alice gives a public speech after her early-onset Alzheimer’s disease has gotten much worse.

Last but not least, there are few actions braver than trying to take the place of a person who’s about to be executed. Such was the intention of Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities — leading to one of literature’s most memorable closing scenes and closing lines.

Examples of courage you most remember in novels?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which criticizes a departing Board of Education member for criticizing teachers — is here.

The Clan of Novels Set Far in the Past

Jean M. Auel

Every novel is a work of imagination, but sometimes the imagination can be more striking than usual. That’s certainly the case with fiction set way back in time.

By “way back in time” I don’t mean several centuries. I’m talking about novels written in our modern age that are set millennia ago, perhaps MANY millennia. When a story is that far in the past, there are usually few or no documents for an author to draw on during the research phase of writing — and life was VERY different then. So, more imaginative leaping is needed by the novelist.

I’m currently reading Jean M. Auel’s impressive prehistoric saga The Clan of the Cave Bear, which takes place more than 25,000 years ago — a time when the Neanderthal race was reaching the end of the line and Cro-Magnon people were becoming ascendant. Auel did plenty of research, but obviously had to make up and theorize about many things relating to her characters’ thoughts, day-to-day existence, etc. I have no idea how accurate it all is, but The Clan of the Cave Bear is well done, compelling, and often absolutely riveting. It helps that human emotions never really change — quite recognizable in the 1980 novel is the infighting among some of the Neanderthals, the tension between them and adopted Cro-Magnon orphan girl Ayla, the interactions between women and men, the interactions between younger and older characters, and more.

Auel’s book was followed by five sequels in the “Earth’s Children” series.

Another novel set early in human evolution is Jack London’s 1907 book Before Adam, although that setting is in a dream by a modern character tapping into distant ancestral memories. Still, ancient people and their lives are the focus of what is one of London’s lesser — but still interesting — books.

Set not as far back in history but still pretty far is Anita Diamant’s 1997 novel The Red Tent, which unfolds not quite 4,000 years ago in the time of Jacob and Leah. Told from the vantage point of their daughter Dinah, the book obviously relies on the Old Testament (fact, fiction, or both?) for some of its source material even as Diamant uses plenty of imagination to envision the life of the historically little-documented Dinah.

Then there’s Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked, set around the time of Christianity’s birth 2,000 years ago. This 1985 novel relies a lot on the New Testament (fact, fiction, or both?), but, again, the author makes up plenty of things to help advance the story.

Taking place during roughly the same period, in the early days of the Roman Empire, are the events in Robert Graves’ 1934 novel I, Claudius (perhaps best known for the 1970s TV series). The book is yet another example of partly fictionalized history, as is often the case in works with way-back settings.

Novels you like that were written in modern times yet set long ago?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s elementary schools reopening, a new local LGBTQ organization, and local reaction to another horrific murder of a Black citizen by a white cop — is here.

Book Selections Come From All Directions

With all the novels out there, how do we decide which ones to read?

Throwing darts in the general direction of library or bookstore shelves is one way, but not recommended. If you want a novel with holes, you don’t need darts to end up with Louis Sachar’s…Holes.

Anyway, several factors affect what I choose to read. For one thing, I’ve mostly given up nonfiction books for the time being in order to concentrate on fiction. That helps me read as many novels as possible, and feed this blog! Still, I miss nonfiction books — especially the biographies I used to relish — and eventually might return to them when the U.S. Congress passes a law expanding days to 48 hours.

But how do I pick which novels to read? Many are recommended by family, friends, and of course the literature aficionados who post great comments on this blog. 🙂 Also, if I like one novel by an author, I’m sure to immediately or eventually try others — whether it’s another stand-alone book or the next installment of a series. Familiarity breeds content(ment).

Selecting what I read also takes variety into account — making sure I mix literary and mass-audience fiction, different genres (mustn’t miss the occasional thriller), old classics and contemporary novels, long and short novels, fiction by women and men, fiction by authors of color and white authors, fiction by LGBTQ and straight writers, novels by authors from various countries, novels by authors from various planets… Well, maybe not the last category, but if Ray Bradbury could write The Martian Chronicles, why can’t a Martian wordsmith write The Earthly Chronicles?

Another factor behind what I read involves which titles my local library happens to have on its shelves when I visit. If certain novels on my list aren’t there that day, I immediately move on to others. And sometimes I see a book I had no plans to read (or never heard of) that intrigues me. I think that’s called serendipity; I hope to serendipitously stumble on an online dictionary to know for sure.

Other times, I read about a book or an author in a review or article and become interested. Or I receive a novel as a gift. Also, there are occasions where what I select to read is just kind of random and not really explainable. Finally, there are book-choosing methods that I’ve probably forgotten and thus don’t appear in this blog post. Agatha Christie wrote Elephants Can Remember, but that doesn’t mean human bloggers always do.

How do you choose which books to read?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which opposes an unpopular annual standardized test — is here.

COVID Causes Comical Fiction Revision

Is that a big syringe rather than a harpoon Queequeg is holding?

We’re sure to see many future novels that are about COVID or at least mention COVID. Until then, we’ll have to make do with revising the plots of classics…

Moby-Dick, pandemic edition: Captain Ahab learns that M-D the whale has contracted the coronavirus, and embarks on an obsessive sea voyage that enables harpooner Queequeg to hurl a huge Moderna-vaccine-filled syringe into the flipper of said whale.

Middlemarch, pandemic edition: Dorothea Brooke gets her first Pfizer shot in February, and, in an effort to remember that her second shot is scheduled for the 15th of the following month, successfully lobbies local leaders to change the name of her town from Earlyapril to…

Bleak House, pandemic edition: Things get kind of…bleak when characters from every Dickens novel have to quarantine together in a…house after an ill-advised American tour led by Martin Chuzzlewit. When the group orders food online from FreshDirect, Oliver Twist tells the deliverer: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

Crime and Punishment, pandemic edition: Raskolnikov denies killing two people, claiming they died of the coronavirus after flying Anachronism Airlines from St. Petersburg to Trump’s COVID-protocol-ignoring White House. Sonya starts to wonder if Raskolnikov is capable of redemption.

A Farewell to Arms, pandemic edition: After Hemingway’s protagonists say goodbye to their upper limbs, they have no arms left for getting jabbed with the COVID vaccine. But they still have legs to run with the bulls in Pamplona, where one never-stationary bull earns the nickname “A Moveable Beast.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God, pandemic edition. But their noses and mouths weren’t doing much of anything behind those light-blue disposable masks.

Of Human Bondage, pandemic edition: Philip and Mildred get tangled in one of the aforementioned masks and live unhappily ever after.

Far from the Madding Crowd, pandemic edition: Being far from ANY crowd makes it easier for Thomas Hardy’s characters to social-distance, even as the mayor of Casterbridge allows restaurants and fitness centers to reopen too soon.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, pandemic edition: The ultimate in social-distancing, lasting a century.

The Yearling, pandemic edition: Life in 1870s Florida gets more exciting for young Jody Baxter and his fawn when the National Basketball Association moves its COVID-truncated season to a “bubble” near Orlando, after which LeBron James and the fawn shoot a beer commercial.

Anne of Avonlea, pandemic edition: In the first Anne of Green Gables sequel, Anne Shirley experiences some frustration teaching online after her school closes due to COVID. Anne lives in the 19th century, so barely half of her students have WiFi.

The Count of Monte Cristo, pandemic edition: Edmond Dantès escapes the Chateau d’If island prison and sets out to wreak vengeance against the men who framed him for the theft of Napoleon’s laminated vaccination card.

Any pandemic-related revisions you’d like to suggest for famous novels?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which has an April Fools theme befitting its April 1 publishing date — is here.

When One Finally Reads a Famous Writer

My cat Misty leaves John
le Carré’s name uncovered

Because we can only read so much, it might take years to try the work of some bold-faced names in the fiction realm. And when we ARE ready, we wonder if those authors will live up to the hype.

Or, if we for some reason have a negative impression of not-yet-read writers, we wonder if we’ll like their work after all.

In short, many people love the novels of famous authors, but, given that everyone’s tastes are of course different, we don’t know if WE’LL love their books.

All that was on my mind as I prepared to finally read a novel by John le Carré — who I’ve heard about for years (including in comments on this blog) and is considered a master of what might be called the international spy thriller.

The le Carré novel I chose at random was The Russia House, which I read much of last week (not finished yet). Well, le Carré delivered. He obviously knows his stuff — having worked in secret intelligence himself — and the characters are nicely fleshed out, the plot page-turning, the prose smooth, and the occasional touches of humor welcome.

Moving to other authors, many commenters in the early days of this 2014-launched blog raved about Liane Moriarty — whose first novel was published in 2004. So I belatedly started reading her books, and they totally lived up to the hype. Among her terrific titles are The Hypnotist’s Love Story, The Husband’s Secret, and especially Big Little Lies.

I also waited a long time to read Edith Wharton. I had the impression that the born-from-wealth Wharton focused mostly on high-society rich people in her books, something I didn’t find particularly appealing. But the first novel I read of hers, the riveting Ethan Frome, features non-affluent characters. And the Wharton books that DO focus a lot on the rich — such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence — look at many of the wealthy characters with a jaundiced eye that partly stemmed from Wharton’s insider knowledge of her class.

Miguel de Cervantes? His Don Quixote was much more readable and funny than I expected from a 400-year-old novel when I finally got to it about a decade ago. Hermann Hesse? His Steppenwolf was depressingly entertaining in a way I hadn’t expected from a writer with such a “deep,” intellectual reputation.

Taking a brief detour into the short-story realm, there’s Anton Chekhov (also a playwright, of course). I finally grabbed two collections of his stories from the library five or so years ago, and was very impressed. Chekhov’s superb tales are not especially plot-driven, but are notable for their subtlety and psychological nuance.

John Grisham has been writing novels for more than three decades, but I didn’t read him until the 2010s — starting with The Client. I was hooked, and he’s never disappointed since. (Except for Calico Joe being so-so, don’t you know.)

Then there are super-popular series writers in the thriller/mystery/detective/crime realms. I was late to the party in trying Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, Sue Grafton’s alphabet novels, Janet Evanovich’s numbered-title offerings, and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins saga. All as good as I expected. Maybe not great literature, but written really well and hard to stop reading once you start.

Of course there are going to be mixed feelings or disappointments, too. When I finally read William Faulkner, there were novels I liked a lot (especially Light in August) and others I found near-incomprehensible (The Sound and the Fury). Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is beautifully written, but tedious enough for me at times to eventually stop reading it. James Patterson? Not impressed. Kate Atkinson’s work? Didn’t grab me, either. But of course the writers and novels mentioned in this paragraph are loved by many other readers.

Your experiences finally reading famous authors years later than you could have?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which laments that a young participant in the Trump-incited Capitol riot was from my town — is here.

Problematic Parents in Literature

Author Amy Tan

Many of us have or had them: problematic parents. (I’ve been there.) Then we add insult to injury by voluntarily reading the depictions of problematic parents in more than a few novels. Of course, that can be also be cathartic, depending on the book — and great novels are worth reading even when they, and because they, push our emotional buttons.

There was certainly a less-than-stellar parent in the San Francisco-set first half of Amy Tan’s excellent The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which I read last week. Ruth’s elderly mother LuLing is pushy and embarrassing — and has undermined, and not respected the privacy of, the now-40-something Ruth since Ruth was a kid. We cheer for Ruth when she pushes back at least somewhat against this exasperating parent.

Then things get more complex in the novel’s second half, which chronicles LuLing’s life in China as a girl and young woman. LuLing goes through so much trauma that we understand why she became so neurotic — neuroticism that ends up coloring Ruth’s personality, too.

Will LuLing and Ruth reach some sort of reconciliation when things return to San Francisco near the book’s conclusion?

Relationships with problematic parents can improve (as is the case between daughter Anne and her adoptive mother Marilla in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables) or they can remain bad or worsen (think daughter Bela and her mother Gauri who abandons Bela in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland). Another abandoning parent, the evil Cathy in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, is no peach, either.

The novel I read before The Bonesetter’s Daughter — Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I discussed last week in a different context — also features parents with some issues. Johnny the dad and Katie the mom are basically good-hearted people, but the former is an often-irresponsible alcoholic and the latter favors son Neeley over her bright daughter Francie — the book’s appealing young protagonist.

Echoes of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, in which the parents favor son Tom Tulliver over their smarter and more likable daughter Maggie.

The bad choice to play favorites not only involves male vs. female children but can also have an orphan angle. The titular character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is treated badly by her Aunt Sarah in a household where Sarah’s children (Jane’s cousins) fare much better. Also the situation for Harry Potter in the home of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, both of whom dote on their thuggish son Dudley while behaving abominably toward Harry.

Returning to hard-drinking dads in fiction, among the many examples is Huck Finn’s father in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Pap” Finn is a drifter who resents Huck bettering himself even as he begs his son for booze money.

Many other 19th-century novels also have irksome parents. For instance, the father of the three brothers in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a vile guy who took little interest in his trio of boys when they were growing up. Things are no better after they reach adulthood — with dirty-old-man dad even competing with eldest son Dmitri for the affections of the young woman Grushenka.

One last nod to recent literature: daughter Jordan is suspicious of her stepmother in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. Could the new wife of Jordan’s American father be an escaped Nazi with a murderous past? That’s a LOT more than problematic.

Some annoying (and worse) fictional parents you’d like to mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a councilor in my town criticizing scandal-plagued New York Gov. Cuomo, for whom he used to work — is here.

Fiction With COVID Frisson

This past Thursday, March 11, was the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and various countries went into COVID lockdown. It’s also the one-year anniversary of COVID coloring my reaction to the content of non-pandemic novels — at least a little.

No surprise there. One’s life can affect how we react to literature, and COVID has had a huge impact on our lives. When reading fiction in 2020 and 2021, I sometimes overtly and sometime subconsciously thought of the pandemic.

The latest instance for me, this past week, involved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Betty Smith’s poignant, memorable, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel may have been published in 1943, but parts of it really resonated in this time of coronavirus.

How? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘s young, bright, impoverished, early-20th-century protagonist Francie Nolan has vivid school experiences as a preteen/teen that reminded me that my similarly aged younger daughter has been doing remote instruction since March 2020. The requirement that Francie get the smallpox vaccine before starting school reminded me of the COVID-vaccine shots now sweeping the planet. Francie living in a city neighborhood of tenements reminded me how crowded milieus are unfortunately conducive to spreading disease. And the novel’s Brooklyn setting reminded me that, despite my living just 12 miles west of New York City (where I worked for several decades and continued to visit fairly often), I haven’t traveled there for over a year.

(The photo atop this blog post is from 1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn movie.)

When reading other novels last year such as Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s Americanah, I thought once again of COVID’s racial and economic disparities — with people of color and people of lower incomes much more affected.

Heidi? As I finally got to Johanna Spyri’s classic last year, all that fresh air in the mountains of Switzerland sure sounded non-pandemic-y — though the novel included a major secondary character who was ill.

Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine? Many haven’t been able to say the same during the pandemic, though that novel’s title was mostly meant to be ironic.

While enjoying Lee Child’s/Andrew Child’s Jack Reacher novel The Sentinel this year, I fantasized about the powerful Reacher punching out COVID.

And during the pandemic’s early days of March 2020, I read Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers — about nine imperfect guests at a health resort. I was lamenting at the time that my wife and I had just canceled an April 2020 family vacation, but, then again, there was the silver lining of there being no chance of staying in lodgings as weird and scary as the one Moriarty depicted. 🙂

Every novel I mentioned in this post was published before COVID, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t spur pandemic-related feelings. And in coming years, of course, a not-insignificant chunk of literature will undoubtedly reference this time of coronavirus.

Has some of the fiction you’ve read during the past year made you think of COVID? Any examples you’d like to offer?

Then there is fiction directly about pandemics and such, which I covered last year.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a settlement that will bring some of my town’s teachers back into schools next month — is here.

Authors and Readers Throw Their ‘Wait’ Around

One great but also frustrating aspect of loving literature is anticipating the next novel in a series. Or anticipating an author’s next standalone novel. Or, back in the golden age of serialization, anticipating the next chapters of a novel.

After finishing the eighth Outlander book during a 2020 binge-reading of Diana Gabaldon’s riveting series, I wanted so badly to continue with the ninth novel. Unfortunately, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone wasn’t out yet (it might appear later this year). I don’t blame Ms. Gabaldon — authors work at their own pace, she’s very busy with various projects, and her Outlander romance/adventure novels are long and carefully researched and thus take years to write. Plus I was lucky in a way to discover the series late — meaning I could read the first eight books (published between 1991 and 2014) without waiting for the next one to be written.

(Pictured above are Caitriona Balfe as time-traveling 20th-century English physician Claire and Sam Heughan as 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie in the popular Outlander TV series.)

There’s also plenty of anticipation, but more publishing-date certainty, for the addictive Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child (now being co-written by his brother Andrew). A new Reacher thriller arrives every fall like Halloween — with both having treat appeal. Book number 26 expected this autumn.

Of course, probably the most famous modern book-anticipation phenomenon involved J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels published from 1997 to 2007. I and my 1989-born older daughter — like millions of others — COULD NOT WAIT for each new installment to appear. As many people reading this will remember, quite a few bookstores even opened at midnight the day a new Potter novel was first available.

We also look forward to new stand-alone novels written by authors we love. Depending on how prolific the writer is, the wait might be long or short. We know that someone like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates will churn out one novel after another, so there’s not TOO much waiting. But in other cases…

Take Marilynne Robinson. I loved her first novel, Housekeeping, which came out in 1980. Then there wasn’t another, Gilead, until 2004 — nearly a quarter-century later. Unfortunately, I found Gilead rather boring, though it somehow won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Then Robinson wrote three more novels between 2008 and 2020. Didn’t see THAT coming.

There are also authors known for long, often-literary works that take many years to write. For example, Donna Tartt has authored only one stand-alone novel per decade — in 1992, 2002, and 2013; the third the excellent The Goldfinch. Could there be a fourth novel in two or three years? Maybe. Hope so.

Then there’s the serialization phenomenon most associated with the 19th century, as readers eagerly anticipated the next installment from novelists such as Charles Dickens. Even excitedly meeting ships as new chapters arrived. And if readers suddenly became less eager, authors could adjust. A famous instance of that was when Dickens, after about a half-dozen years of enormous popularity, found interest lagging in his being-serialized Martin Chuzzlewit novel. So the English author changed the plot on a dime to send Martin to the United States, and 1840s readers were hooked once again.

Which authors, series, and novels have you greatly anticipated?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about teachers finally getting the okay for COVID vaccinations, and about new luxury apartments in my town even though it desperately needs more affordable housing — is here.