All the World’s a Stage, But Only Some Novels Become Plays

Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes.)

We purchased Broadway tickets a few days ago to see a December performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, which led me to think about novels that have become plays or musicals.

Plenty of novels inspire movie adaptations, but fewer such books are turned into plays — with one reason being that there are of course more major films made than major plays staged. Also, certain elements are needed for a novel-to-play transition to have a chance to work: It helps if the novels are well-known, well-written, filled with great dialogue, dramatic, plot-oriented, and graced with memorable protagonists; and it also helps if theatrical productions feature high-profile actresses and actors. Some luck doesn’t hurt, either.

The acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird production, which will reopen this fall along with various other Broadway plays after the long COVID shutdown, first featured movie notable Jeff Daniels as attorney Atticus Finch. Daniels will return to that role when the play resumes October 5, and is scheduled to stay until January 2. Harper Lee’s iconic novel had previously been performed as a play for several decades in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama — an example of how a number of fiction books have inspired local or regional theater productions.

A sampling of other novels turned into successful plays performed in large venues? Alice Walker’s The Color Purple inspired a popular Broadway production and then a popular Broadway revival during our 21st century. In the 1980s, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables became a hit musical, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby was turned into a massive play of more than eight hours, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn spawned Big River. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote was major source material for The Man of La Mancha musical that opened on Broadway in 1965. Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding was adapted for Broadway in the 1950s. James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific inspired the famous South Pacific musical that premiered in 1949. Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road was on stage for eight years starting in 1933. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are among the many other novels that have been adapted for live theater.

There have also been theatrical duds, such as the 1988 Carrie production based on the novel by Stephen King, who of course has fared better with various movie and TV adaptations of his works.

Any novel-to-play transitions you’d like to mention and/or talk about?

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 offers a fake graduation speech 🙂 — is here.

Siblings in Fiction Get Along or Have Friction

The sisters from We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Seven years ago, I wrote a blog post about some of literature’s memorable sibling relationships — including those in The Mill on the Floss, Crime and Punishment, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath, Go Tell It On the Mountain, The Poisonwood Bible, and The Blind Assassin, among other novels.

I thought I would update that today by discussing siblings in several books I’ve read since 2014, starting with two recently finished novels: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Mary Renault’s The Praise Singer.

Why are literature’s sibling relationships potentially compelling? We like when fictional sisters and/or brothers get along, lament when they don’t, feel uneasy when they’re super-competitive with each other, see the unfairness if one sibling is much more intelligent/popular/successful/better-looking, hate if the parents blatantly favor one child over another, etc. Those of us with siblings can certainly relate to some or all of the above.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quirky, disturbing novel (no surprise with Ms. Jackson) that often centers on the interactions between main character Mary Katherine and her decade-older sister Constance — who’s almost like a mother to “Merricat.” They live an isolated life, and…is one of those two young women guilty of having mass-murdered several of their family members?

The Praise Singer is a well-crafted historical novel focusing on ancient Greek poet Simonides. One interesting aspect of the book is the relationship between the protagonist and his older brother Theas when they’re both living at home as boys. Their father blatantly favors Theas — who’s more handsome, charismatic, and confident than Simonides. But Theas treats Simonides affectionately, encourages him, and defends him. Theas goes on to become a successful adult, even as his poet brother becomes widely famous.

Another historical novel is Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies — in which three of the four Mirabel sisters become revolutionaries opposing the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship at great risk to their lives. The trio (Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa) have quite different personalities, and don’t always get along, but share a hatred of the brutal regime. The fourth sister (Dede) is less revolutionary, and takes a somewhat divergent path in life.

As in The Praise Singer, there is unfortunate parental favoritism in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brookyn. Katie Nolan prefers her son Neeley over her daughter Francie, yet Francie (the novel’s protagonist) and her younger brother get along well for the most part — taking some psychological comfort in their companionship as they deal with a charming but often-irresponsible alcoholic father.

Also getting along well are Jemmy and Mandy — the young son and younger daughter of Brianna and Roger, who bounce around in time more than once in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. The two kids (the grandchildren of Brianna’s 20th-century-born mother Claire and 18th-century-born father Jamie) are a familar touchstone for each other during their unorthodox lives.

An example of a dysfunctional sibling relationship is the one between Hank and Leland in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Hank is more confident and physically stronger than his more intellectual half-brother Leland, and the oil-and-water mix between the two helps fuel a lot of the drama in the novel.

Any novels you’d like to mention with memorable sibling characters?

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’s bus service resuming, LGBTQ news, and COVID’s effect on two parades — is here.

Long-Remembered Books Released Within a Short Time

Creative bursts! They can happen at the start of novelists’ careers, or after they become established enough to quit time-consuming day jobs, or after they become parental empty-nesters with more writing hours, or near the end of careers when authors know their remaining years are limited, or because they’re creating series rather than stand-alone books, or for momentum reasons, or for other reasons, or for no discernible reasons at all. Readers are the beneficiaries.

One memorable burst occurred when George Eliot wrote her first, second, and third novels in rapid succession — all classics. Adam Bede in 1859, The Mill on the Floss in 1860, and Silas Marner in 1861. Eliot’s novel-writing career began relatively late — she turned 40 in 1859 — so there was plenty of pent-up literary energy and ideas.

During the same 1859-61 period in England, the prolific-for-more-than-two-decades Charles Dickens penned a pair of novels that were unquestionably among his best: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.

In the U.S. a decade earlier, Nathaniel Hawthorne produced The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851) back-to-back.

Hawthorne’s friend Herman Melville churned out seven novels between 1846 and 1852. Only one all-time classic (1851’s Moby-Dick), but all very good — and the last the underappreciated near-classic Pierre (1852). Then came 1853’s extraordinary short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

Also impressively prolific for a long time was Alexandre Dumas — but his two most-famous novels, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, were both completed in a single year! That was 1844.

Still earlier in the 19th century, between 1811 and 1818, Jane Austen’s classics Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey*, and Persuasion were all published — the last two titles posthumously. (*Well, I’m not sure Northanger Abbey is a classic. 🙂 ) Work on some of those novels began well before 1811, but it was still an amazing few years of productivity.

Austen contemporary Sir Walter Scott was 43 in 1814 when he finally became a published novelist after achieving fame as a poet, and proceeded to write a barrage of novels — about 25 — before his 1832 death 18 years later. His two best-known titles, Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, were released three years apart (1817 and 1820).

Moving forward in time, the also-very-prolific Henry James had some creative bursts with his more notable novels — for instance, Washington Square in 1880 and The Portrait of a Lady in 1881. But perhaps his most impressive feat was writing The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904) in three consecutive later-career years. All highly ambitious (some might say overwritten) novels.

Later in the 20th century and into the 21st, some novelists have created canons so copious it seems like much of their respective writing careers have been one creative burst — with some books better than others, of course. Among those fertile “fictioneers” were/are Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Lee Child, and John Grisham, to name just a few.

Finally, we have famous familial fiction frenzies. In that realm, it’s hard to top the three Bronte sisters — with Charlotte’s classic Jane Eyre, Emily’s classic Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s good Agnes Grey all released in 1847. Then came Anne’s excellent The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848.

Any authorial creative bursts you’d like to mention?

The great Canadian podcaster Rebecca Budd, who often comments here under the name Clanmother, invited Russian-literature blogger Elisabeth van der Meer of Finland and myself in Montclair, New Jersey, to a long-distance, three-way conversation about enduring themes in fiction. Among the works we discussed were Pride and Prejudice, The Handmaid’s Tale, All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Farm, Lorna Doone, Eugene Onegin, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Lord of the Rings. The podcast can be heard here.

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 an upcoming referendum for an elected school board — is here.

The 1960s: a Novel Decade

After writing about Stoner a couple weeks ago, I thought about how the 1960s were a very interesting time for literature.

Actually, John Williams’ superb 1965 novel — a character study of an academic who lived and died before the ’60s began — was somewhat atypical for a decade known for Vietnam War protests; the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements; “the sexual revolution”; the counterculture; defiance of authority; and more. Some of the decade’s best-known novels included lots of sociopolitical elements along with memorable characters. I’m thinking of titanic titles such as Harper Lee’s 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird (which addressed racism), Joseph Heller’s 1961 Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 Slaughterhouse-Five (both with war/antiwar themes), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude (which addressed just about everything).

Other excellent but not masterpiece-quality ’60s novels also referenced topical issues in addition to depicting characters that stick in one’s mind. Among them were Margaret Atwood’s feminist debut novel The Edible Woman (1969), Philip Roth’s sexually candid Portnoy’s Complaint (also 1969), and Ken Kesey’s authority-defying One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

Meanwhile, the decade saw notable late-career works by several literary giants. They included John Steinbeck’s 1961 The Winter of Our Discontent (with its interesting take on ethics and materialism), Erich Maria Remarque’s 1962 The Night in Lisbon (a mesmerizing World War II novel), Aldous Huxley’s 1962 Island (a utopian counterpart to the author’s dystopian Brave New World), and Daphne du Maurier’s 1969 The House on the Strand (a fascinating time-travel novel).

Other highly regarded novels of the decade (as in the rest of this post, I’m just naming ones I’ve read) included John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey (1960); Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961); Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962); Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and James Michener’s Caravans (1963); Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, and Dorothy Gilman’s The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966); S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare (1967); Charles Portis’ True Grit (1968); and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). That last work was a memoir, of course, but almost feels like a novel.

The book I just started reading is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

Your favorite novels published during the 1960s? Any other thoughts on literature in that decade?

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 the planned reopening of a historic movie theater — is here.

Very Much Alone

I’ve written about loners in novels before, but what about characters who are literally alone — cut off from all contact with other humans?

Though that situation might seem like a possible recipe for reader boredom, there is actually plenty of potential drama of a tense and poignant nature. How does the alone person handle that dire situation? How does she or he pass the time? How does she or he get out of the situation, if that happens? Etc. We certainly feel sympathy for those without companionship.

All that occurred to me last week as I read The Valley of Horses, the very good first sequel to Jean M. Auel’s great The Clan of the Cave Bear. Cro-Magnon protagonist Ayla is no longer living with the Neanderthal group with which she spent much of her childhood, and is now seeking people of her own kind in sparsely populated prehistoric Europe. The resourceful/proto-feminist young woman ends up being solo for quite a long time, just trying to survive — though, as is the case with some novels of this type, she does find some memorable animal companionship.

Then there are novels in which a character is stranded alone on an island — with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe probably the most famous example.

There are also fictional prisoners in solitary confinement — with one of the most famous Edmond Dantes, unjustly incarcerated for years in an island jail in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

Characters can be stranded in outer space, too; one recent example is Mark Watney of Andy Weir’s The Martian. The astro-botanist/engineer becomes The Martian of the title when stuck on The Red Planet.

In the above categories, sometimes rescue or self-rescue will happen and sometimes it won’t. Hope for a happy ending can certainly encourage readers to stick with a grim story line.

Apocalyptic novels in which millions devastatingly die can also find surviving characters alone; the title of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man clearly offers more than a clue to THAT scenario.

Of course, a novel starring a completely isolated character might or might not juxtapose scenes with people living more normal social existences. That’s the case in The Valley of Horses, which alternates chapters spotlighting Ayla with chapters featuring two journeying Cro-Magnon brothers who fall in with a Cro-Magnon clan different than their own. When charismatic “ladies’ man” Jondalar tells brother Thonolan that he doesn’t want to settle down yet because of a desire to hold out for an extraordinary woman, we sense he and Ayla might eventually meet…

Any “aloner” fiction 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 weekly piece — about school and pool reopenings, and a welcome new ordinance banning gas-powered leaf blowers for part of each year — is here.

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.