Not Always 100% Narrative and Dialogue

Bel Kaufman with Sandy Dennis, who starred in the movie version of Ms. Kaufman’s novel Up the Down Staircase.

We admire the ingenuity of authors who include nontraditional elements in their novels, even as that sort of thing can get a bit annoying when overdone.

Most novels of course consist solely of narrative prose and dialogue. The exceptions are when authors throw in poems or songs or letters or emails or texts or newspaper clippings or memos or lists or recipes or drawings or… 

All this can make a novel more interesting, but also less smooth to read. We might feel interrupted, thrown out of our page-turning zone. Especially if the non-prose, non-dialogue elements are long or frequent. It can be hard to leave the comfort of our usual reading habits.

I just read Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase. It’s quite good — hilariously, frenetically, and at times movingly capturing the challenges faced by an idealistic new teacher in an urban high school where many students are troubled, classes are large, administrators are insanely over-bureaucratic, and supplies are in short…supply. But the semi-autobiographical 1964 novel is not always easy to get totally absorbed in, as it’s written entirely in the form of letters, lesson plans, student assignments, inter-school memos, meeting minutes, and so on. Still, a reader has got to hand it to Ms. Kaufman for creativity, for the social-justice bent in her best-selling book, and…for living an impressively long life, from 1911 to 2014.

Nontraditional elements didn’t significantly slow down another recently read book: J.K. Rowling’s Troubled Blood. That crime novel features many text messages (in bold type), but they’re brief — as text messages usually are. And the book’s full-page drawings by a police-detective character losing his mind are used sparingly. The texts and drawings definitely enhance the novel, as nontraditional elements can do.

Among the other novels that include nontraditional elements are A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, H. Rider Haggard’s She, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, to name just a few. Those Burney and Goethe novels are a reminder that a number of 18th-century novels feature plenty of correspondence between characters — the epistolary format.

Any novels you’d like to mention that fit this theme? Do you like or not like it when novels include lots of content other than narrative prose and dialogue?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — containing local news to be thankful and not thankful for on Thanksgiving — is here.

Some Blog Posts Have Staying Power

If you’re a blogger, I’m sure you periodically go “backstage” on your site to look at viewership statistics. When I do that, I see a recurring thing I’d like to mention this week.

My most-read posts at a given time are of course the most recent ones. But continuing to lurk in second, third, or fourth place every week and month is a piece I published three-and-half years ago — on June 3, 2018. You’d think most people would have read it by now, but WordPress users (perhaps newer ones?) keep finding it, as do people searching the Internet for that topic. 

The post is “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction,” and I guess it struck a nerve. Many people are fascinated with real and fictional women in the arts, and the 1800s certainly had plenty of iconic female authors and protagonists such as the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, and their creations. Some male authors of that era created memorable women characters, too. All during a time that was sadly ultra-patriarchal.

In addition, the novel as a genre really came into its own during the 1800s — so there’s a LOT of interest in fiction books of that era. The large number of great, iconic 19th-century novels is hard to count. 

Anyway, here’s a link to that 2018 blog post, which I also cut-and-pasted after the next paragraph.

If you’d like to add any new comments about the 2018 post under today’s post, please do. And if you’re a blogger, which of your posts keep getting read the most — months or years after you first published them? Also, why are those pieces popular, if you have any theories about that.

Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction

June 3, 2018

We look back on the 1800s as a time of rampant sexism, patriarchy, male dominance, gender inequality — whatever you want to call it. And it was indeed that sort of time. But a number of 19th-century female novelists, and a few male ones, managed to directly or indirect speak against that in some of their books.

I thought of this last week while reading Lelia by George Sand (born Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin). In that fascinating 1833 novel, the independent, intellectual, skeptical, cynical, depressed, world-weary, God-doubting title character in some ways sounds like she could be living in 2018 — if the eloquent language used in Sand’s philosophical book were more casual and not densely rich like a lot of 19th-century prose was. Lelia is not always an easy book to read, but you’ll rarely see better writing than penned by Sand.

Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) is another strong heroine. The capable Anne is in love with Captain Frederick Wentworth, but lives a very useful life even as the relationship between her and Wentworth is thwarted for years.

The star of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) has strong feminist leanings that come out in various ways — including her pride in being smart, her need to work, and her insistence that she be an equal in marriage.

Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) courageously leaves her abusive/alcoholic husband to save both her son and her own self-worth. It’s a novel so feminist that Anne’s not-quite-as-feminist sister Charlotte unfortunately helped prevent wider distribution of it after Anne’s death.

Of course, some of the 19th century’s male critics and readers slammed works that dared depict women as equal to men. Undoubtedly one of the reasons fewer women back then tried to write novels — and a number of those who did write them used male or gender-neutral aliases.

Another author with a George pseudonym, George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans), created a number of strong women — including lay preacher Dinah Morris of Adam Bede (1859). And Eliot lamented the second-class citizenry of female characters in novels such as The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which Maggie Tulliver’s less-brainy brother is treated much better than her by their parents and society as a whole.

Jo March, who thirsts to be a writer, is another non-stereotypical 19th-century female — in Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women.

And Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) depicts Edna Pontellier’s memorable rebellion against her constricted role as a wife and mother.

Can 1900 be considered the last year of the 19th century? If so, Colette’s Claudine at School belongs in this discussion with its assertive, mischievous, hilarious protagonist.

Some male novelists of the 1800s also created female protagonists who didn’t act like stereotypical women of their time. Examples include Jeanie Deans in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Judith Hutter of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), Becky Sharp of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847), Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Marian Halcombe of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), the title character in Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), journalist Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and the martyred protagonist in Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).

Of course, there were also strong women in pre-1800s novels, with just two examples being the very different stars of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). Moll has a tougher exterior than Evelina, but the latter protagonist also has lots of inner strength.

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 coming “Greenway” and some local leaders treating my town’s library in a mean way — is here.

Novelists Who Will Not Be Pigeon-Holed

Holliday Grainger as Robin Ellacott and Tom Burke as Cormoran Strike in the TV series based on J.K. Rowling’s crime novels. (Photo by Steffan Hill.)

Some novelists do variations on a similar theme, book after book. Other novelists think pigeon-holing is “for the birds,” as the saying goes. This post will focus on the latter group of authors.

I’m currently reading Troubled Blood, the fifth in the Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott crime series written by J.K. Rowling under the alias Robert Galbraith. Rowling is a prime example of a novelist who has avoided being put in a box. She of course first created the insanely popular Harry Potter series, but, after those seven books were done, went on to pen The Casual Vacancy novel that was wizard-less and not aimed at kid and teen readers. Then she switched to crime fiction — creating the novels starring private investigators Strike and Ellacott that are almost as page-turning as the Potter saga, with the added bonus of adult romantic tension. 

(A note: I’m dismayed with Rowling’s recently expressed anti-transgender beliefs — an unwelcome surprise from the otherwise open-minded, philanthropic author.)

Another living author who avoided pigeon-holing in her books is Margaret Atwood. Her first few novels mostly focused on then-present-day women, with a welcome feminist approach. Atwood kept that approach while periodically branching out into speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, etc.) as well as historical fiction (Alias Grace).

John Grisham? He made his name with riveting legal thrillers and such, including The Firm and The Client. But he occasionally diverges into other realms, with his baseball novel Calico Joe one example.

Among authors no longer with us, Alexandre Dumas’ adventure novels starred white protagonists even though Dumas himself had some Black ancestry. But he broke that mold once with Georges — still an adventure novel, but featuring characters of color in the main roles.

Also in the 19th century, much of Herman Melville’s fiction had a sea setting. Moby-Dick, of course, and also Typee, Redburn, White-Jacket, Billy Budd, etc. But Melville took another route with the compelling, controversial, land-based novel Pierre — and with the ultra-memorable short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” about an unusual Wall Street clerk.

Mark Twain’s work mostly starred boys and men, but his protagonist was female in the absorbing historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Well, perhaps the co-protagonist — Joan’s story was told through the lens of a male character.

John Steinbeck set most of his work in the U.S., and, more specifically, California. But his World War II novel The Moon Is Down took place in a European town occupied by the Nazis. Also, Steinbeck’s most famous books — The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden — are nearly 100% serious, but the social-justice-conscious author also displayed a terrific sense of humor in the seriocomic Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday.

Aldous Huxley is of course most known for his dystopian sci-fi classic Brave New World. But before that, he wrote more “traditional” novels such as Point Counter Point.

Obviously, many novelists have also varied their approach by writing short stories, poems, plays, nonfiction, and so on, but I mostly stuck with different approaches to novels in this post.

Any authors you’d like to mention who broke their own mold?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which includes a post-mortem of a contentious Board of Education referendum as well as some potentially troubling library news — is here.

Stacks of Good Books Are Weighty from the Decade That Started With ’80

It’s been a while since I focused on a specific decade of literature, so today I’ll discuss…the 1980s.

At first thought, those 10 years don’t seem like an amazing period for fiction, but there were quite a few memorable novels published during that time. Just a coincidence? Maybe. Still, many ’80s authors were directly or indirectly influenced by that decade’s many political and cultural happenings — the conservative reigns of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the seismic changes in the Soviet Union, far-right evangelical involvement in U.S. politics, continued racism and patriarchy (“thanks” in part to those evangelicals), the sick “greed is good” mentality (not just in the ’80s of course), the AIDS pandemic, MTV, the rise of personal computers, etc.

I just finished The Alchemist, a seemingly simple short novel (just 167 pages) that’s actually quite profound. Paulo Coelho’s 1988-published saga of young Santiago’s epic journey probably could have been written in almost any decade, but it had a certain ’80s vibe in the way it emphasized self-fulfillment — while also tweaking materialism and conventionality.

Masterful novels such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982), and Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) told tales almost any reader could relate to while taking sobering looks at racism, misogyny, and more.

One could also include Blood Meridian (1985) in the previous paragraph, as Cormac McCarthy depicted a gang of depraved white-male murderers in the 19th-century American West — with many of their often-female victims Native Americans and people of Mexican descent.

Even Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear (1980) and its five “Earth’s Children” sequels — the first three of which came out in 1982, 1986, and 1989 — included strong references to racism (against Neanderthals) and sexism that were quite recognizable in the 1980s even though the series was set 30,000 or so years ago.

Getting back to misogyny in particular, Margaret Atwood put that on steroids with The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) — which seemed unbelievable in the way it depicted a harshly patriarchal/hypocritically “religious” future U.S. society. But how unbelievable was it?

And in another women’s-rights area, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules (1985) dealt frankly with the issue of abortion.

In the realm of “greed is good” (it isn’t), Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989) included a problematic, ultra-wealthy family. (Is any ultra-wealthy family NOT problematic?)

Moving to the crime-thriller genre, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park (1981) and its initial sequel Polar Star (1989) had a lot to say about the Soviet Union and what led to its coming apart. 

Among many other memorable ’80s novels were Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (both 1989), Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye (1988), Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers (1987), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, and Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song (all 1985).

Also, William Kennedy’s Ironweed (1983), W.P. Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe (the 1982 book that inspired the Field of Dreams movie), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1980), Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert (1980), and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (published in 1980 but written years earlier).

In addition, there was Barbara Kingsolver’s debut novel The Bean Trees (1988), various Stephen King novels such as Misery (1987), Sue Grafton’s first seven alphabet mysteries (starting in 1982), etc.

Of course, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) is considered a quintessential ’80s novel, but I haven’t read it. Same with Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (1984).

And a number of novels waited until after the 1980s to at least partly address started-in-the-’80s issues such as AIDS, with one example being John Irving’s In One Person (2012). On the flip side of that time line, a certain 1949 George Orwell novel was set in…1984.

Last but not least, 1986 was when playwright/novelist Wole Soyinka became the first African writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. (The 1957 recipient, Albert Camus, was born in Algeria but is mostly associated with France.)

I’ve named only some of the 1980s novels I’ve read. What are your favorites from that decade, whether I mentioned them or not?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the welcome results of a contentious Board of Education referendum — is here.

Halloween-Appropriate Lit That Might Scare You a Bit

Arthur Rackham’s “Cask of Amontillado” illustration from 1935.

Today is Halloween, so I’ve made the frightfully unoriginal decision to discuss novels and stories I’ve found scary or spooky or disturbing or whatever. They include general literature, horror fiction, ghost tales, mysteries, dystopian books, apocalyptic offerings, adventure sagas, sci-fi, etc.

When one thinks of horror writing, the first author names that come to mind — well, come to my mind at least — are Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, and Stephen King. I’ve read multiple works by all four, and the ones that most creeped me out by each were “The Cask of Amontillado” story (Poe), “The Colour Out of Space” story (Lovecraft), “The Lottery” story (Jackson), and the Misery novel (King).

MANY honorable mentions, of course, among them “The Pit and the Pendulum” story (Poe), the At the Mountains of Madness novella (Lovecraft), the We Have Always Lived in the Castle novel (Jackson), and the ‘Salem’s Lot novel (King). 

Then there are numerous dystopian and apocalyptic novels with multiple gut-wrenching moments — including Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Albert Camus’ The Plague, George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, to name just five works.

Other novels that will haunt your dreams include Octavia Butler’s Kindred (a 20th-century Black woman is yanked back in time to the slave-holding U.S. South), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, H. Rider Haggard’s She, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, to again name only a few. Oh, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — all those sickening massacres perpetrated by white men in America’s Old West and the book’s big, pale, hairless, terrifying Judge Holden character.

I’m not a huge fan of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, but I’m sure many people would differ. 🙂 Those two novels just didn’t scare me much.

Other great short stories perfect for Halloween? One is Richard Connell’s thriller “The Most Dangerous Game,” about a person being hunted like an animal (a theme later chillingly used by Richard Matheson in his novel Hunted Past Reason). Also, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s disorienting feminist tale “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Graham Greene’s macabre shocker “Proof Positive,” Edith Wharton’s unnerving dog-ghost tale “Kerfol,” Charles Dickens’ eye-opening “The Signal-Man,” and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s disquieting “The Sandman.” Also, various episodes of Rod Serling’s iconic Twilight Zone TV series were converted into stories collected in books — I have one!

I’ve obviously only scratched the surface here. Your favorite fiction appropriate for Halloween (whether works I mentioned or those I didn’t)?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a significant election this Tuesday — is here.

Reflections on Rereading

I rarely reread novels these days because there are so many books I want to “visit” for the first time. I’m getting older and this blog needs to be fed, so it’s mostly in with the new (to me) and out with the old (to me).

But there was a time when I reread some favorites fairly often, and found many benefits to that. They included the sheer enjoyment of again experiencing great literary works, and the chance to perhaps better appreciate a novel the next time around because I was more mature and ready for it — certainly the case when I returned to such classics as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter many years after I first read them.

Of course we know what will happen in a novel when we reread it (if we haven’t forgotten everything in the book). That predictability is a drawback — much of the thrill of discovery is gone, especially with genres such as mysteries. But that’s replaced by a certain comfort, and not having to figure out from scratch what the author is doing. 

When it comes to series, there’s also the potential of experiencing a group of novels somewhat differently. For instance, I read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books one at a time as they were published — waiting until each was written and released. Then I consecutively reread all seven within a couple months, and felt a greater admiration for the foreshadowing, how the books were tied together, Rowling’s depiction of the young characters at different ages, etc. Yes, one can see things with new eyes when rereading.

Which novels have I reread the most? Number one is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which I’ve enjoyed a half-dozen times — not surprising given that it’s my favorite book. I’ve read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings five times (I think). John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Ms. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, Albert Payson Terhune’s His Dog, and Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back? Three times apiece. The last book is not widely known, but it’s a page-turner with a ridiculously entertaining time-travel/19th-century-baseball theme. His Dog is a bit over-sentimental, yet extremely heartwarming as we see the effect an amazing canine has on an unhappy farmer.

There are also many novels I’ve reread once. To name just a few: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, George Orwell’s 1984, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Also, The Pickwick Papers — by no means Charles Dickens’ best book, but his funniest. Sometimes that’s how rereading rolls; it can just be for sheer delight. Or rereading can mean again plumbing the depths of profound novels such as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov — both of which I’ve immersed myself in twice.

Getting back to my opening paragraph, a major reason why there are so many novels I want to read for the first time is because of the great recommendations from commenters here. 🙂 Thank you!

Which novels have you reread the most? Your thoughts on rereading?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a seriously real referendum and some silly fictional referenda — is here.

A Word Count Doesn’t Have to Mount

The long and short of it is that I discussed long novels last week and will discuss short novels this week.

Literature’s best short novels pack a lot of plot, nuance, emotion, character development, and prose/dialogue mastery into a limited length. Then, you can quickly move on to the next title on your too-long reading list. 🙂

How short is a short novel? Part of that is in the eye of the beholder, but I think under 200 pages (or maybe a bit over) fits the bill — with page size and type size a factor. A short novel is often called a novella, of course, and a web search indicates that a novella is at least 10,000-20,000 words and less than 40,000. But I feel a short novel can extend to 60,000 words or so.

Obviously, there’s a blurring between a long short story and what’s on the short end of the novella spectrum. For instance, James Joyce’s very poignant “The Dead” is considered a story, but its nearly 16,000 words are on the lesser end of novella territory.

When one thinks of top-tier short novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is often the first title that comes to mind. So much packed into a small package, with some of the most beautiful writing…this side of paradise.

Another excellent short novel is Ethan Frome, in which Edith Wharton stepped outside the upper-class New York City milieu her books frequently frequented to tell the sad story of a rural Massachusetts man.

Other short 20th-century novels I’ve found compelling include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, Toni Morrison’s Sula, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, to name just a few.

The best short novels written in the 19th century? Among them are Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (posthumously published in 1924), Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

The 18th century was known for fairly long fictional works, but Voltaire’s scintillating Candide is rather concise.

Your favorite short 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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a League of Women VOTERS branch being against VOTING for Board of Education members, and about a visit to my town by Vice President Kamala Harris — is here.

A Short Post About Long Novels

Don Quixote with a lance less lengthy than the book in which he stars.

I mentioned The Winds of War in last week’s post but will mention it again today because it’s a long novel that I’m still reading. But what theme can I think of that would warrant giving that 885-page book a second consecutive mention? Hmm…how about a post discussing long novels I’ve read and liked? 🙂

Herman Wouk’s World War II-themed novel is certainly holding my interest — and part of the reason is its length. All those hundreds of pages are helping me get to really “know” the characters and see how they mature and react to things as time goes by. Plus it can be wonderful to get totally absorbed in a novel’s world for a couple weeks — and a reader can’t help but be impressed by the time, research, and prodigious effort that go into writing a doorstop book.

Of course, there are also downsides to long novels. They can drag in spots (though this is not always the case) and they take time away from other books. You’ll spend about the same number of hours reading a 1,000-page novel as four 250-page novels, if my math is correct. 🙂

The title that most comes to mind when thinking of fiction “tomes” is Leo Tolstoy’s iconic War and Peace, which clocks in at 1,440 pages in at least one edition. Fortunately, it’s a very readable novel.

Also very readable, and often quite funny, is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote — 1,056 pages in an edition I saw listed online. Victor Hugo’s mesmerizing Les Miserables? 1,232 pages. Stephen King’s apocalyptic The Stand? 1,152 pages.

Among other in-the-vicinity-of-1,000-page novels I’ve read are Alexandre Dumas’ scintillating The Count of Monte Cristo and James Clavell’s breathtaking Shogun.

In the 700-plus or 800-plus-page realm? Fyodor Dostoevsky’s tour de force The Brothers Karamazov, George Eliot’s masterful Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’ compelling David Copperfield, Herman Melville’s whale of a book Moby-Dick, W. Somerset Maugham’s memorable Of Human Bondage, William Thackeray’s vivid Vanity Fair, Donna Tartt’s riveting The Goldfinch, Eleanor Catton’s eye-opening The Luminaries, Henry Fielding’s colorful Tom Jones, Don DeLillo’s uneven Underworld, etc.

Of course, trilogies (such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) and longer series (such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books) can stretch over a thousand or several thousand pages, but I’m focusing on stand-alone novels in this blog post. There ARE individual novels within a series — such as Diana Gabaldon’s eight-volume-soon-to-be-nine-volume Outlander saga — that are each 1,000-plus pages.

Then there’s Marcel Proust’s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, which goes on for a whopping 4,000-plus pages. I only read part of it before giving up, so I really shouldn’t discuss it much here. I found the writing beautiful but also kind of tedious at times.

This blog post has mentioned only a short list of long books. Your favorite doorstop novels?

Speaking of long, here’s my favorite song by the hugely underrated band Renaissance. The “Ashes Are Burning” version I linked to is 12 minutes, but the band extended it to about 30 minutes (!) at some concerts.

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an impressive women’s march for reproductive rights, a raise for teachers, and more — is here.

The Important Human Factor During Important Events

Characters from “The Winds of War” miniseries.

When novelists write about war and other major events, a way to build maximum reader interest is to focus on a limited number of characters. That approach personalizes those major events as they get filtered through the characters’ eyes. Very effective and very relatable.

The limited number of characters can be one person, one family, a few families, a few other people — that sort of thing. And the novels they appear in are of course usually in the historical-fiction genre.

One great example of this approach is The Winds of War, which I’m currently reading. Herman Wouk’s massive/impressive novel periodically offers a wide focus on World War II, including the lead-up to that huge conflagration. But Wouk mainly concentrates on how WWII affects the Henry family: stoic U.S. Navy officer Victor, his oft-dissatisfied wife Rhoda, and their three young-adult children: high-achieving Warren, less-driven Byron, and feisty Madeline. A handful of prominent secondary characters are also featured.

The fictional Victor “Pug” Henry ends up meeting and observing many major real-life WWII players: FDR, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, etc. 

Another WWII novel that takes the small-scale/large-scale approach is Elsa Morante’s Rome-set History, which tells the memorable story of the hapless Ida and her two charismatic sons as they navigate the horrors of war and fascism. Each of the book’s sections starts with a detailed list of a year’s real-life events — some of which are then experienced by the fictional characters. Hence the novel’s title, and a literal way of combining the personal and the universal.

The latter-1930s Spanish Civil War was humanized by Ernest Hemingway in his Spain-set For Whom the Bell Tolls via American dynamiter Robert Jordan and other characters in what is my favorite Hemingway novel. (My wife’s Michigan father was a volunteer fighting the fascists in Spain as a member of what’s often called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s absorbing Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of the late-1960s Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War) from the perspective of a small number of characters such as Olanna, Ugwu, and Richard. They are individuals, but also represent the way different classes, genders, nationalities, etc., experienced the heartbreaking conflict.

Geraldine Brooks’ intense novel March views the U.S. Civil War from an interesting angle — that of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women. He goes through a LOT while trying to aid the Union cause, and his harrowing experiences shed lots of light on war, slavery, and more.

Speaking of war novels, Erich Maria Remarque masterfully did the humanizing thing in a number of books — including All Quiet on the Western Front, Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

The hellishness of American slavery is brought home on a personal level in novels such as Alex Haley’s Roots — subtitled “The Saga of an American Family.” The famous book starts with a focus on the captured-from-Africa Kunta Kinte, and a number of the other major characters are his descendants. Yet there’s also a wider lens on the brutal system of slavery.

Julia Alvarez’s compelling In the Time of the Butterflies looks at the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship through the eyes of four sisters — Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and Dedé — who oppose the murderous regime. A very risky proposition for three of them.

John Steinbeck set The Grapes of Wrath during the days of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and mass migration to California — and has the sympathetic Joad family go through it all. Meanwhile, the riveting book includes a number of Joad-less chapters focusing on the social conditions of that 1930s time.

Your favorite novels that fit this post’s theme?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about four community organizations that may sadly lose their free office space when their building is sold — is here.

Multigenerational Novels Contain Multitudes

Rachel Ward as Meggie and Richard Chamberlain as Ralph in “The Thorn Birds” miniseries.

When I think of sweeping, two things come to mind: brooms, and multigenerational novels in which a number of decades pass.

Many of those literary works are ambitious, impressive, and poignant. Characters grow older, many good and bad things happen, we see how similar or different their children and grandchildren turn out to be, we see those family members interact, we see settings change as characters relocate, we see societal and cultural norms shift, etc.

All of which can be challenging for authors — who obviously have to do lots of research, thread real-life events into story lines, juggle many characters, make those characters speak differently at different ages and during different eras, and so on. When novelists pull all that off, it’s a thing to behold.

I beheld The Thorn Birds last week, and found that novel riveting and often heartbreaking. Among the most memorable things about Colleen McCullough’s book was the way she took her characters from 1915 to 1969 and from New Zealand to Australia to Europe — mixing in then-current events along the way. But the most fascinating element was seeing Meggie Cleary depicted as a kid, then as a teen, then as a young adult, and then as a middle-aged woman — including her interactions with her parents, her many brothers, her two out-of-the-ordinary children, and her nasty, conniving, ultra-rich aunt. Plus Meggie’s compelling, complicated relationship with charismatic priest Ralph de Bricassart. 

Other multigenerational novels of note?

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden covers a time span from roughly America’s Civil War to the end of World War I. Parts of the book are semi-autobiographical, with a young Steinbeck himself even making a cameo. The novel might not be quite as famous as The Grapes of Wrath, but in some ways is even more ambitious — certainly occupying a much longer stretch of years than Steinbeck’s 1930s-set tale of the Joad family.

Even more ambitious is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which chronicles SEVEN generations of the Buendia family amid much magical realism. Here, the book’s title obviously provides a sense of the story’s decades-long scope.

While One Hundred Years of Solitude is mostly set in one place, many other multigenerational novels take readers to far-flung locales — with immigration often an element. For instance, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex starts in 1922 near the border of Greece and Turkey with the grandparents of protagonist Cal/Calliope before things eventually move to the U.S. and Michigan. There, the novel’s story of complex gender identity unfolds.

In many cases, it requires a series of novels for a multigenerational saga to be chronicled. One example is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, the first of which begins the time-travel love story of 20th-century nurse (later doctor) Claire and 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie. Eventually, their daughter and grandchildren are among those added to the family/extended-family mix. 

Your favorite multigenerational novels and series that take place over a number of decades?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town being a welcoming place for LGBTQ people — is here.