Elegiac to the Future: The End of Eras in Novels

This blog post will be about novels with strong elements of EOAE. Examples Of Author Excellence? Well, yes, but I’m actually referring to End Of An Era.

Yes, a number of novels have a poignant feeling that something major has ended or is coming to a close. Or it might be a “good riddance” feeling, if the era was rotten and better days could be ahead. Or it can be a combination of negative and positive.

My most recently read example of all this was Larry McMurtry’s The Last Kind Words Saloon — which includes an aging Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Buffalo Bill Cody in a cast experiencing the end of the Wild West. Sort of sad, because the frontier era was a major/crucial part of U.S. history, but it was also a time of huge negatives such as the decimation of the Native-American population.

Of course, Alex Haley’s Roots and other novels that include the demise of slavery after the American Civil War make a reader pleased that an atrocious era has ended. Yet there are still plenty of horrors to think about as U.S. racism continued to rear its ugly head in countless ways post-1865, as we see in books such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Then there are many novels that expertly capture the feeling of life immediately after the carnage of World War II. The relief and the optimism, but also the pessimism that sets in when some of the optimism is found wanting. One novel that does the pessimism part of that really well is Walter Mosley’s crime mystery Devil in a Blue Dress, set in late-1940s Los Angeles.

Speaking of WWII, Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion includes a major story line about women who served as pilots during that war. The part-nostalgic, part-indignant-at-sexism novel is set many decades later — when many of the characters are now old or deceased.

Set in an earlier time, Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons depicts, among other things, the end of the horse-and-buggy era and the start of the automobile age.

Going back even further in time, one of the compelling things about Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford is the way a rural, homogenous English village begins to experience the industrial age and the arrival of people with more of an international background.

The end of an era can also involve a specific person, as is the case with the James Hilton novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips that chronicles the life of a beloved teacher at career’s end.

What are some of your favorite fictional works that fit the theme of this post?

My 2017 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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a literature theme! — is here.

Graphic Novels Can Be Novels That Are Graphic Rather Than Graphic Novels!

I’ve written about literature for more than six years (including three-plus years at my own blog here), so it can sometimes be difficult to come up with new themes to discuss.

Case in point: I read The Fault in Our Stars late last month and, after shedding many tears, tried hard to think of how to fit John Green’s page-turningly impressive book into a theme I hadn’t specifically written about before. Death in literature? Been there. Young-adult (YA) novels? Done that. Etc. Also, I almost never focus on just one fictional work — this is not a book-review blog.

Then it occurred to me: Write about novels that don’t shy away from showing how painful and gruesome illness and death can be. Books — especially those written decades or centuries ago — often sanitize or sentimentalize those sorts of things, which can spare readers some emotional upheaval but make some of us feel we’re not getting enough realism.

The Fault in Our Stars, while extraordinarily inspiring and funny in many ways, does not go that latter route. What its two ill protagonists face (I won’t give specific details to avoid spoilers) is often depicted graphically and disgustingly. And a secondary character suffering from eye cancer? There’s a heartbreaking scene that will leave you totally shaken.

In So Much For That, Lionel Shriver also gets down and dirty with the details of three of her characters’ major physical ailments. But, as with John Green, Shriver offers enough upbeat moments to keep us reading. After all, most literature lovers don’t want to be depressed on every page. It also helps that Shriver, Green, and certain other authors offer tons of high-quality writing.

Things can also get pretty graphic when some novels depict (sexual or non-sexual) assaults, as is the case with Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Abigail Tarttelin’s Golden Boy, Stephen King’s Misery, Richard Matheson’s Hunted Past Reason, Frank Bill’s Donnybrook, and James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls, among many other books. (Of course, sexual assault is really about violence rather than sex.) There’s a high blood quotient in many of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, too.

And some novels show the grievous physical and psychic toll of war more graphically than others. Among the books that don’t pull many punches in that area are Geraldine Brooks’ March, Louis de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.

In the usually more sanitized pre-1900 era of literature, one of the most stomach-turning depictions of death comes near the end of Emile Zola’s 1880 novel Nana.

What are some of the memorable novels you’ve read that mostly tell it like it is when it comes to things like illness and death?

My next blog post will appear Monday, October 16, rather than Sunday, October 15. I have something to do that Sunday…what is it…what is it…oh…my older daughter Maggie is getting married! (Monday, October 16, note: I’m now shooting for a new blog posting on Tuesday, October 17.)

My 2017 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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which includes advice to dress like a developer for Halloween, is here.

Characters Who Are Not What They Seem

Impersonations. Dual identities. Switched identities. Hidden Identities. Etc. Literature has many of them, and discussion of all that will be unmasked…now.

Characters not being what they seem can help make books interesting, compelling, and dramatic. Those elements of mystery (for lack of a better word) can be puzzles to solve for other characters and for us, the readers.

This topic came to mind when I recently read Isak Dinesen’s 79-page short story “The Deluge at Norderney.” Various things happen in that striking tale of four people stranded in a house as floodwaters rise, but the biggest shocker is when we learn one of the characters isn’t who he claimed to be.

A number of famous novels also contain identity twists. For instance, we as readers know that the titular character in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo is Edmond Dantes, but the people the Count is wreaking revenge on (for his false imprisonment) do not know until the last minute that this charismatic rich guy is the man they framed.

Mark Twain wrote two memorable “swap” novels: The Prince and the Pauper (a rich kid and a poor kid change places) and Pudd’nhead Wilson (a white baby born to the master of the house and a white-looking but partly black baby born into slavery are switched in infancy and grow into each other’s station in life — making for a strong commentary on race, class, upbringing, and genetics).

Also from the 19th century, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explores the idea of dual personalities, good and evil. And Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre includes the memorable scene of Rochester disguising himself as a gypsy to try to learn what Jane’s feelings might be for him. Later, Jane adopts the name Jane Elliott when she flees and doesn’t want to be traced — similar to when Helen Huntingdon becomes Helen Graham when escaping an abusive marriage in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Moving to the 20th century, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle has Valancy Stirling’s love interest hide his identity as both a rich heir and famous author of books written under a different name.

Then, in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, there’s the servant to Lord Voldemort known as Peter Pettigrew, Wormtail, and (in rat disguise) Scabbers. An identity trifecta!

Of course, there are various comic-book superheroes (Wonder Woman, Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, etc.) with both human identities and costumed identities. Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay includes a cartoon character’s creation/exploitation that kind of mirrors the story of Superman’s creation/exploitation.

What are some of your favorite fictional works (those I mentioned or didn’t mention) containing characters who fit the topic of this blog post?

And here are two songs: Renaissance’s “Jekyll and Hyde” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Brilliant Disguise.”

My 2017 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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about everything from Trumpcare to kneeling during the national anthem, is here.

‘I See Dead People’ As I Write This Post

Literature lovers are among the people who need cheering up in these troubled times, so today’s blog post is about…death. Oops.

It can’t be denied that many great and not-so-great novels have a mortality element, and some of those books are nearly 100% depressing. But others are also inspiring, therapeutic, cathartic, etc.

Death entered my mind as I recently read Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, much of which features residents of the fictional Missouri town of Elmwood Springs talking with each other after they die. Yet the novel is mostly sunny and comforting, though not so sentimental that some real-life social issues (such as sexism) are ignored.

On the other hand, many death-permeated novels — such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — are mostly downbeat. Yet they can be totally worth reading for their powerful writing, psychological insights, perspectives on religion, and so on.

“Death-permeated” doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of characters pass away in a particular book. Just two deaths are most central to Crime and Punishment, and there’s only one major demise in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. In mass-audience fiction, among the mortality-infused novels with just one key death is Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember.

Yet “death-permeated” can mean many lives snuffed out — especially in fictional works set during wartime (such as Erich Maria Remarque’s concentration-camp novel Spark of Life), during an attack on civilians (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), during resistance to a brutal dictatorship (Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies), during slavery (Octavia Butler’s Kindred), during a plague (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man), etc.

Then there are the five people who die when a bridge collapses in Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Nothing more than awful fate and horrible luck, of course, but a monk who witnesses the disaster tries to find a reason why that particular quintet lost their lives.

Early in Old Mortality, Sir Walter Scott focuses on a man who travels to various cemeteries to re-engrave the tombs of 17th-century men who died in battle. Then Scott moves the action back to 1679, and we see the deaths occur.

In “The Dead,” hearing a particular song causes a married woman to remember the passing away of a young former boyfriend. The effect on her and her husband (along with James Joyce’s evocative writing) gives the long short story its emotional wallop.

Other fictional works prominently featuring the no-longer-living? Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (obviously), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (Catherine Earnshaw’s spectral presence), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (brutal white guys massacring innocents in the 19th-century American West), and (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That (with its memorable conclusion that juggles life and death), to name just four.

What about Edgar Allan Poe? Agatha Christie? Sue Grafton? Walter Mosley? Louise Penny? Lee Child? Authors of certain genre fiction — horror stories, ghost tales, mysteries, detective novels, thrillers, etc. — of course often include in their books murdered or otherwise-deceased characters, but that’s for different blog posts to discuss. Several of which I already wrote, such as this one.  🙂

The death-permeated works of fiction you’ve found most memorable? (Feel free to also comment on mysteries and the other genres mentioned in the above paragraph!)

And, sort of on this topic, here’s a video of the Evanescence song “My Immortal.”

My 2017 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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, a dystopian fantasy about greedy developers paving over and building in parks, is here.

‘No Book Panic Syndrome’ Is a Novel Problem

Do you occasionally suffer from NBPS? Yes, I’m talking about No Book Panic Syndrome.

Let me explain. You’re a literature lover, and you’ve finished all the not-read novels in your home. You need to go to the library or bookstore, but you can’t get there quite yet — maybe the next day. Or you’ve ordered a title or two online, and it won’t be arriving in the mail until, say, the weekend. And (this is important!) you read books the old-fashioned way, not on a Kindle.

What to do? You can of course click on some free short stories online, and read them there. But you crave print.

I suffered from NBPS this past week. On Tuesday, I finished Louise Penny’s excellent mystery How the Light Gets In — mostly set in a small Canadian town filled with memorable characters. Two other library books I borrowed in August — Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher adventure Night School — had already been read, admired, and put aside. But I couldn’t get to the library until Thursday because of chores and car availability.

(Yes, Car Availability would make a great name for a rock band.)

Why not go a couple days without reading, I asked myself? Yeah, right, I answered — ain’t happening.

Perusing the back of cereal boxes was not a tempting option, and I had already read too much about Hurricane Irma and What a Pain Donald Trump in the print and online New York Times. So, although I’ve promised myself the past few years not to reread books I own (too many never-tried novels and authors out there), I was desperate enough to start scanning my living-room shelves. There I spotted Ray Bradbury’s R Is For Rocket, a yellowing paperback collection of 17 short stories I hadn’t read since I was a teen. Just 184 pages — the perfect length for a bridge to that Thursday library visit.

And what evocative, exquisitely written tales — about kids (as well as adults) longing to travel in space, and the occasional pitfalls of doing so; about a huge, ancient sea creature falling in love with a lighthouse and foghorn; and the classic “A Sound of Thunder” that depicts how the killing of a tiny butterfly during a trip back in time revises the present the travelers return to just enough to have a nightmarish result.

After Bradbury filled that two-day gap, I found reinforcements on Thursday when my library visit got me Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Kind Words Saloon, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I’ll undoubtedly mention all those fictional works in future posts.

What do you do when you temporarily have no book you want to read? Do you reread something? Do extra non-reading things? Sob uncontrollably?  🙂

Or maybe the crying will happen when I get to the above-mentioned John Green novel…

I’ll end today’s post with this video of a 2017 U2 song called “The Little Things That Give You Away.” Such as suffering from No Book Panic Syndrome…  🙂

My 2017 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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about a way-way-too-big project that became way too big, is here.

In the Time of Trump, a Look at Latin-American Lit

Donald Trump this month cruelly and disgracefully decided to deport nearly 800,000 law-abiding children of undocumented immigrants. Those “Dreamers” were brought to the U.S. at a young age by parents mostly from Latin America — where the rich cultures include many examples of amazing literature.

So I thought I’d make today’s blog post about some of that literature, which is perhaps most known for magic realism (portraying fantastical events in a down-to-earth way) but obviously includes works written in all kinds of styles. I’ll also mention U.S. authors of Hispanic descent (some “Dreamers” could eventually be among them if allowed to stay) and even mention Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was of course written in Spanish.

Today’s blog topic is a bit ironic because the incurious Trump is notorious for (among other things) not reading novels or nonfiction books — though the word “Don” in the name Don Quixote might interest America’s narcissist-in-chief for a New York minute.

I have some personal interest in this because my younger daughter was born in Guatemala. But I’m hardly an expert on Latin-American literature, or an expert on Spanish- or Portuguese-language literature from anywhere, or an expert on literature by U.S. writers of Hispanic descent. Still, I’ll mention some of the fictional works I’ve read — including those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Isabel Allende (U.S. resident of Chilean descent), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Jorge Amado (Brazil), Laura Esquivel (Mexico), Junot Diaz (U.S. resident born in the Dominican Republic), Julia Alvarez (U.S. resident of Dominican descent), and others.

Garcia Marquez’s magic-realism-infused One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is rather challenging but often mesmerizing — and is deservedly considered one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. The 2014 New York Times obituary of the author observed: “In following the rise and fall of the Buendia family through several generations of war and peace, affluence, and poverty, the novel seemed to many critics and readers the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history.” Garcia Marquez, who put his journalism career on hold to work on One Hundred Years of Solitude for 18 months as his family went deeply into debt, later authored various other novels — including the more straightforward Love in the Time of Cholera depicting one great romance and various other less-enduring liaisons.

Allende’s also-magic-realism-infused The House of the Spirits (1982) was obviously influenced by One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet is quite different in many ways — more female-centered, and more readable while still satisfyingly deep and sweeping.

Other excellent novels worth mentioning include, among others: Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (not “Don, a Trump, and His Three Wives”), Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (set in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic), and Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (about sisters opposing the DR’s brutal mid-20th-century Trujillo dictatorship).

Then there are memorable works in forms other than novels — the superb short stories (such as “The Aleph”) of Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges (who did magic realism decades before Garcia Marquez), the masterful poetry of Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Spain’s Federico Garcia Lorca, and so on.

And there are Anglo writers who include Hispanic characters or settings in some of their novels — as did Marge Piercy with her Connie Ramos protagonist in Woman on the Edge of Time; Cormac McCarthy with the Mexican segments of his Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain); Graham Greene with his Mexico-placed The Power and the Glory; Paul Theroux with his mostly Honduras-set The Mosquito Coast; Ernest Hemingway with his The Old Man and the Sea starring a Cuban fisherman and his For Whom the Bell Tolls taking place during the Spanish Civil War; and so on. Also, one can’t forget John Steinbeck, who included Hispanic-American characters in several novels such as Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus.

Your favorite authors and fictional works with a Latin-American connection (those I’ve mentioned and/or the many I didn’t mention)? Other thoughts on today’s topic? Whether they end up numbering eight or 800,000, no comments will be kicked out.  🙂 😦

My 2017 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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, with a back-to-school theme, is here.

Hurricane Harvey and Happenings in Novels

Major real-life events can make fans of literature think of…literature. Such is the case with Hurricane Harvey — the catastrophic storm that has people focusing on lives lost, lives drastically disrupted, immense property damage, overdevelopment that eliminates water-absorbing open space, and…certain books.

I thought of novels that depict the devastating consequences of human-caused climate change, as do Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I also remembered fictional works in which water-related disasters are prominently featured — with those books including George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (huge flood), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (epic rains near the novel’s end), Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Jack London’s Martin Eden (drowning scenarios), etc. And one can’t ignore a novel titled The Year of the Flood — the second installment of Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic/eco-drenched trilogy that starts with Oryx and Crake and ends with MaddAddam.

Parable of the Sower, a 1993 dystopian sci-fi novel I finished this morning, is also prescient about several other things besides climate change — including the evils of profit-driven privatization of public entities. Heck, the horrific Hurricane Katrina, which happened twelve years after Butler’s book came out, resulted in charter school operators taking over the public school system in New Orleans and worsening education there as they monetized it. Parable also has a lot to say about race, gender, religion, and nasty/soulless corporations — topics Donald Trump has helped turn into disasters of another sort in 2017.

Of course, novels featuring ship voyages are often going to have water-related disasters. Two examples — one from literary lit and one from popular lit — include Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick with its ill-fated Pequod vessel and Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure with its capsizing ocean liner that turns upside down.

I haven’t read this novel, but Julie Barnes’ All Flavors includes a Florida hurricane as a significant presence.

For you, what fictional works (if any) came to mind after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, and surrounding areas?

You’re also welcome to mention novels you were reminded of by non-hurricane tragedies of any era. Examples include Albert Camus’ The Plague, Mary Shelley’s plague-filled The Last Man, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (cyclone), and books that use real-life disasters in a fictional setting — such as Pete Hamill’s Forever (the 9/11 attacks) and Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked (which ends with Pompeii’s 79 AD volcanic eruption).

Trump’s unwelcome Twitter storms don’t count…

My 2017 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 Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about going back to school but not about going back to school, is here.