Toni Morrison and Other Excellent Female Novelists of Color

Toni MorrisonI was starting to read Alice Walker’s novel The Temple of My Familiar the morning of August 6 when I learned that literary great Toni Morrison had died the day before. So it seemed time to write a long-overdue piece about female authors of color.

Of course the women I’m about to mention are AUTHORS — one word, stop. But being female and not being white informs much of their fiction. Their writing expresses anger over racism and sexism, illustrates the evils of those isms, depicts coping mechanisms for women and people of color, and also includes all kinds of other personal, social, political, and non-political elements.

Not much I can say about Toni Morrison (pictured above) that hasn’t already been said. Nobel Prize winner, Pulitzer Prize recipient, professor, book editor, and more. I’ve read only two of her novels — Beloved and Sula — but found her writing about the black experience in the U.S. and other topics to be brilliant, evocative, harrowing, and highly original. Song of Solomon is prominent on my to-read list.

The Temple of My Familiar is my second Alice Walker novel — after the ultra-memorable The Color Purple, of course — and it’s an absorbing/heartbreaking book with magic-realism elements and fascinating characters from different places and times. Haven’t finished it yet.

Perhaps my favorite living female author of color is the biracial Zadie Smith — whose London-set debut novel White Teeth is at times hilarious, at times dead-serious, always multicultural, and published when Smith was only in her mid-20s. Two books later came the set-in-U.S.-academia On Beauty, also a winner.

Another stunning debut novel was The God of Small Things by Indian author Arundhati Roy. A heartbreaking book with many socioeconomic and political overtones.

Then there’s American author of Indian descent Jhumpa Lahiri, whose excellent novels The Namesake and The Lowland look at the immigrant experience and more.

I’ve also enjoyed reading Terry McMillan, whose work is somewhat lighter than the other authors I’ve mentioned but still compelling. Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back

Some additional deceased authors of color who shouldn’t be missed include Zora Neale Hurston and her masterful Their Eyes Were Watching God, which chronicles a black woman, her three marriages, and more; science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler, known for novels such as the searing time-travel work Kindred and the apocalyptic Parable of the Sower; the Nigerian-born Buchi Emecheta, perhaps most famous for her gripping semi-autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen; and Maya Angelou, who wasn’t a novelist per se but whose autobiographies (including I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) read like novels.

Sort of/sort of not “eligible” for this post is the great French novelist Colette (Gigi, The Vagabond, etc.), who had some black Caribbean ancestry.

I’ve obviously left out many authors. Your favorite women-of-color writers and your favorite works by them that I mentioned or didn’t mention?

I’ll be skipping an August 18 post next Sunday because of a vacation week. Back on August 25!

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — written by my cat 🙂 — is here.

Sex in Literature Wasn’t Invented a Half Century Ago

Marjorie MorningstarMany novels of the past 50 years or so, including literary ones, have been fairly candid in their references to sexual matters. That’s the case with parts of John Irving’s In One Person, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, and numerous other fiction books. (Fifty Shades of Grey? Haven’t read it.)

But while sexual references were often more coded and subtle in pre-1960s fiction, things could still get relatively frank at times. I was reminded of that last week while reading Marjorie Morningstar, which was published in 1955 and mostly set in the 1930s. (Poster of the movie version above.) There’s plenty of G-rated “necking” in Herman Wouk’s novel, but also adultery, sex with no plans to get married, flashes of naked skin, and more — even as much of the novel has non-romantic things on its mind (show biz, ambition, conformity vs. rebellion, class divisions, obsessive parenting, Jewish culture, the rise of Nazi Germany, etc.). An excellent novel, though the plot turn at the very end was disappointing.

Going further back in time, we have Henry Miller’s sex-heavy Tropic of Cancer (1934), which was banned in the U.S. for many years; Erskine Caldwell’s God’s Little Acre (1933), which contains scenes explicit enough for its time to get the author taken to court and the book banned in some cities; D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), which was graphic enough to have about 10% of its content edited out before publication — even as some remaining scenes were still pretty risquĂ© for their day; Emile Zola’s Nana (1880), with its blunt depiction of the life of its prostitute protagonist; Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), which focuses on a possibly incestuous relationship; and HonorĂ© de Balzac’s The Magic Skin (1831), which includes an orgy scene.

Long before that, there’s plenty of amorousness in novels such as Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) — with characters like the revealingly named Lady Booby.

What are your favorite pre-1960s novels that were more sexually frank than you might have expected? And some of the more candid ’60s and post-’60s fiction you’ve liked?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about yet another oversized building coming to my town — is here.

When Bad Things Happen to Good Characters

Mueller for blog postWe’ve all heard the phrases “No good deed goes unpunished,” “When bad things happen to good people,” and “Only the good die young.” So it goes in literature, as it goes in real life. Likable, ethical, admirable characters often have negative things happen to them.

In some cases, this is followed by a happy ending — as we witness the goes-through-trials-and-tribulations-before-life-gets-better scenario. In other cases, life does not improve for the unlucky characters. Either situation can make for compelling, depressing reading as most of us intensely relate to wronged protagonists we like.

I thought about today’s topic last week while upstanding, straight-shooting, known-for-his-integrity Robert Mueller testified before the U.S. Congress about his two-year investigation of the corrupt Trump and his corrupt administration — and was treated badly at the hearings by Republicans despite Mueller being a lifelong Republican appointed by Republicans. The reason for this disgraceful treatment, of course, was that the GOP was trying to protect Trump. Many Republicans know how guilty Trump is, but they’ve made a devil’s bargain to look the other way in order to get tax cuts for the rich, far-right judges, rigged elections, etc.

Adding to the sorry situation is the fact that Mueller is so boring and “by the book” that it makes it easier for Republicans — including despicable Attorney General William Barr, who “spun” Mueller’s damning special-counsel report into something much more positive about Trump than it was — to take advantage.

There are countless novels with exemplary beleaguered protagonists, so I’ll name just a few — starting with some 19th-century books.

The good-guy title character in George Eliot’s Silas Marner is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, after which the immoral perpetrator marries Marner’s fiancee. Silas then moves in despair to another part of England, and it isn’t long before most of the money he’s earned as a reclusive weaver is stolen. But this short (for Eliot) novel unexpectedly turns happy in a very moving way.

There’s also a negative-to-positive story arc in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. As a young woman, Anne Elliot breaks her engagement with Frederick Wentworth after immense pressure from several family members. Wentworth is nice, smart, and ambitious, but Anne’s snobby relatives feel the young Navy man doesn’t have the wealth and connections to marry into the Elliot family. Yet, as always in Austen novels, true love wins out — though not before various challenges.

Then there are novels in which at least some beloved, harshly treated protagonists don’t ever find happiness. Very sad, but perhaps more realistic.

It’s no surprise that several people meet terrible fates in the anti-slavery classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin. That’s of course the case with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s title character: the almost-angelic Tom, especially after he is purchased by the horribly evil slave owner Simon Legree. (BTW, Tom is not the stereotype he was later twisted into by some.) And Tom’s also-almost-angelic friend, the white girl Eva, dies way too young.

Another downer classic is Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which most Pequod crew members die after Captain Ahab takes his whale obsession to its logical (or illogical) conclusion. Those doomed sailors could have said “Call me fish meal…”

A couple of the many later novels with sympathetic characters who don’t catch a break?

One would be Elsa Morante’s gripping World War II-set History, which is a great read despite being almost unrelentingly downbeat. The timid Ida is raped by a Nazi soldier, and lives in constant fear that her part-Jewish ancestry could doom her in fascist Italy. Her two very-different-but-each-charismatic sons ultimately don’t fare well, either.

Another is John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath — which, while containing a few hopeful notes, sees many members of the impoverished, mostly likable Joad family battered by events before, during, and after their epic 1930s relocation ride to California.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

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Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be, or Maybe It Is

carThere’s bad nostalgia, such as Donald Trump’s delusional belief that the United States was once great (perhaps for a good number of affluent white males but often not for other demographics). And there’s more positive nostalgia, which will be the subject of today’s blog post. More positive nostalgia in literature, that is.

One prime example is Goodbye, Mr. Chips, in which James Hilton tells the story of English schoolteacher Mr. Chipping. The novel, like many books with a nostalgic bent, is not without bad times and tragedy — but the overall feeling is warm, especially in the description of how Mr. Chips’ brief marriage helped make him a more tolerant and less conventional person and educator.

Fannie Flagg’s World War II-themed The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (see image above) has various nostalgic elements — including the story being told from a vantage point decades after the 1940s and the remembrance of how women briefly had more prominent work roles during WWII — including operating a gas station without men and flying important missions as WASPs (Women Airfare Service Pilots). Also, as the title indicates, some of the novel’s aged characters meet one final time.

Ray Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical 1957 novel Dandelion Wine looks at a boy’s small-town Illinois childhood through the lens of a 1928 summer. That childhood is in some ways idyllic, but there are enough painful and mysterious things going on to keep the book from getting too sentimental.

Given how many people live in suburbs and cities these days, novels set in small towns or on farms or in the wilderness can almost seem automatically nostalgic — even if the books are not anywhere close to 100% happy. Examples include L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, George Eliot’s Adam Bede, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, among many others.

Novels that time-travel into the past can also provide plenty of nostalgia. The past is far from perfect, but things at least were or seemed slower-paced/less frantic/more technologically “analog.” Jack Finney’s Time and Again and Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand would be two examples.

Prequel novels also can be at least partly nostalgic by their very nature. For instance, at different points after his first Jack Reacher book was published, Lee Child wrote three Reacher novels set when Jack is younger than in that first book. Due to the usual Reacher-realm violence, The Enemy and The Affair and Night School are not very wistful, but they feel partly nostalgic because we’re seeing Jack in his earlier years — during which time he had his first romantic encounter and so on. (First love can be quite nostalgic.)

Last but not least, In Search of Lost Time is steeped in nostalgia — often of a melancholy nature. The very title of Marcel Proust’s opus, which I’ve only read part of, conveys a longing for the past.

Novels you consider very or somewhat nostalgic?

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Current Novelists Published for Many Years

Who are some living authors with the longest novel-writing careers, dating back to the 1970s or earlier?

I contemplated that this past week as I read In One Person, John Irving’s quirky and compelling 2012 book about sexual identity (among other things). It was his 13th novel since his first, Setting Free the Bears, was published a whopping 51 years ago — in 1968.

Starting her novel career around the same time was the now-as-popular-as-ever Margaret Atwood, whose initial fiction book (The Edible Woman) was released exactly a half-century ago — in 1969. The Handmaid’s Tale and many other novels followed.

A year later, The Color Purple author Alice Walker came out with her first novel: The Third Life of Grange Copeland. Also in 1970, Beloved writer Toni Morrison entered the novel realm with The Bluest Eye. And in 1971, Underworld author Don DeLillo’s first novel (Americana) appeared.

Stephen King? His debut novel Carrie was published in 1974, the same year A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin produced his first novel: A Song for Lya. Salman Rushdie of Midnight’s Children fame and Russell Banks of Continental Drift fame? Their respective debut novels Grimus and Family Life were published in 1975. Anne Rice? She started big with 1976’s Interview with the Vampire. And Atonement author Ian McEwan? His debut novel The Cement Garden arrived in 1978.

Going back further, Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry earned his first novel credit in 1961 with Horseman, Pass By. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter author Mario Vargas Llosa’s first novel (The Time of the Hero) reached print in 1963 — the same year Joan Didion and Margaret Drabble entered the novel realm with Run, River and A Summer Bird-Cage, respectively. Drabble’s sister, Possession writer A.S. Byatt, saw her first novel The Shadow of the Sun released in 1964 — the same year as Joyce Carol Oates’ With Shuddering Fall debut. Cormac McCarthy started walking “The Road” of novel-writing in 1965, courtesy of The Orchard Keeper.

Who are your favorite living authors with long novel careers?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which has a Revolutionary War airports theme 🙂 — is here.

Nepotism in Novels

Among the Trump administration’s many, many horrible aspects is the blatant nepotism of incompetent daughter Ivanka and incompetent son-in-law Jared Kushner “serving” in major positions.

So, how about nepotism in literature? The beneficiaries are often also not deserving of their positions, which makes them easy for readers to root against — though there are occasional examples of those characters having some talent. Increasing the un-sympathy factor is that nepotism beneficiaries frequently aren’t nice, frequently act entitled, and frequently are quite flush with unearned family money.

Novels — historical fiction or otherwise — with royal characters of course often feature such people. For instance, in Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, there’s the weak-willed Louis XIII who obviously had a bunch of other Louis guys come before him. One of them, Louis XI, is in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Quentin Durward.

Then there’s Rufus Weylin, the son of a slaveholder in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred. He’s somewhat needy and unsure of himself as a boy, but grows into a mostly brutal and not especially smart master when he takes over the family plantation from his merciless father Tom.

Or how about the scenario in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel Worth Dying For? In that book, Seth Duncan works for a Mafia-connected Nebraska trucking company run by his father and uncles that ruthlessly extorts business from surrounding farms and engages in human trafficking. The vile Seth continues his family’s low ethical standards by also abusing his wife.

Of course, participating in or taking over the family “business” doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. While there are plenty of differing views on nihilism and such in Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, it seems okay that Arkady eventually assumes the management of his father’s modest Russian estate.

Another positive nepotism example is in One for the Money, the first of Janet Evanovich’s seriocomic Stephanie Plum crime novels. Stephanie gets a bounty-hunting job via her bail-bondsman cousin Vinnie, and ends up being quite good at that work (in One and the many subsequent Plum novels) despite some periodic bumbling.

Then there’s the complicated would-be nepotism situation in Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. The wealthy Paul Dombey is so focused on his son, and the hope that the boy will eventually take over his shipping company, that he almost totally rejects/neglects his daughter Florence.

Before ending this post, I’ll add that in real life there are plenty of children and other relatives of novelists who became novelists themselves. But that’s another topic — discussed in this piece I wrote in 2011.

Examples of nepotistic characters you’ve found memorable?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which has a July 4th theme — is here.

Authors Who’ve Excelled at Fiction and Nonfiction

There are many great fiction authors and many great nonfiction authors, but obviously a smaller number of authors who’ve written excellent books in both categories.

The skill sets for each category are similar in certain ways and different in others. Many novels contain at least some of the level of research we often find in nonfiction books, and obviously it helps any type of book to be well-written and interesting. But not every author can capably create fictional characters and fictional dialogue, or have the qualities (such as scholarly chops) to create top-notch nonfiction.

One who did excel in both categories was John Hersey, whose Hiroshima nonfiction book — originally a very long article in The New Yorker magazine — takes a riveting look at six survivors of the devastating atomic bomb unleashed on Japan by the U.S. in 1945. I finally got a chance to also read one of Hersey’s novels, and found A Single Pebble to be really compelling after thinking it started rather slowly. The book is about a young American engineer’s river voyage on a junk in China, and it has a lot to say about cultural differences, cultural misunderstandings, the “old ways” vs. the new, and more. (Hersey’s most famous novel is the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Bell for Adano, which I haven’t read.)

More recently, we have Barbara Kingsolver — who has written many a memorable novel (including The Poisonwood Bible, Prodigal Summer, The Lacuna, and Flight Behavior) but has also penned absorbing nonfiction books such as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a Year of Food Life.

Another living author who has ably spanned the fiction and nonfiction worlds is Stephen King, who’s of course famous for dozens of best-selling novels but is admired by fellow wordsmiths for the advice in the partly autobiographical On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Alice Walker has penned an almost equal number of novels and short-story collections (13, including The Color Purple) as nonfiction books (12, including Go Girl! The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure).

Zadie Smith has produced several novels, such as White Teeth, as well as essay collections, such as Feel Free.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction includes The Namesake novel, and she turned to nonfiction with works such as In Other Words — about her immersion in Italy and the Italian language.

Some deceased authors in addition to Hersey? Moving backward chronologically from the writers’ birth years:

James Baldwin toggled between categories with novels such as Go Tell It On the Mountain and nonfiction such as The Fire Next Time.

As did Richard Wright with works like the novel Native Son and the memoir Black Boy. (Wright is pictured at the top of this blog post with Zora Neale Hurston, who’s mentioned a few paragraphs below.)

John Steinbeck is famous for novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, but Travels With Charley — his uneven but great-in-spots chronicle of a cross-country road trip with his dog — is pretty well known, too.

George Orwell wrote three nonfiction books (with Down and Out in Paris and London having the highest profile) and six novels (of course including Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four).

Aldous Huxley? We have novels such as Brave New World and Point Counter Point, and nonfiction such as The Doors of Perception. (Yes, The Doors rock group named itself after that Huxley book, which in turn was named after a William Blake line.)

Dorothy L. Sayers is best known for her Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mysteries such as Gaudy Night, while also producing plenty of nonfiction — including the Christian theological book The Mind of the Maker.

Zora Neale Hurston is most remembered for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but the author/anthropologist wrote nonfiction books such as Mules and Men, too.

Readers admire Edith Wharton for fiction classics such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, but she also penned popular nonfiction books such as Fighting France (a contemporary look at World War I) and The Decoration of Houses.

Mark Twain of course penned novels like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn while also writing nonfiction classics like The Innocents Abroad and Life on the Mississippi.

And Elizabeth Gaskell authored Cranford and other novels even as she was perhaps best known for her biography The Life of Charlotte Bronte.

I’ll end by saying (as a Facebook comment I just saw from Brian Bess noted) that some nonfiction books can have a lot of made-up elements — just as novels (and not just historical fiction) can include plenty of facts.

Which authors do you feel have written novels AND nonfiction books really well?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — which discusses everything from the future reopening of an old movie theater to a cruel jail for immigrants near my town — is here.