Some Novels Put the Dramatic in the Bureaucratic

With my 91-year-old mother going through a difficult health period the past few months, I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy. I’ve sent dozens of forms and other stuff to home-health-aide agencies, hospitals, and an insurance company. I’ve exchanged countless phone calls, emails, and texts. I’ve been put on hold and shunted to other people. Etc.

Which of course means I’ve also been thinking about depictions of bureaucracy in literature — whether it be medical bureaucracy, legal bureaucracy, military bureaucracy, corporate bureaucracy, governmental bureaucracy, or other versions of the “b” word.

It can be a fraught topic for a novel, because just the thought of bureaucracy can induce feelings in readers ranging from boredom to frustration to fury. So, when an author makes something compelling and perhaps funny out of all that, well, it’s pretty impressive. And it doesn’t hurt that characters slammed by bureaucracy almost always have our sympathy.

Of course, a certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary, but there almost always seems to be too much of it! I guess it creates jobs, and gives some bureaucrats a feeling of power as they make life difficult for others. Plus lower bureaucrats are basically forced to be too bureaucratic by higher bureaucrats. (I added this paragraph after seeing and responding to J.J. McGrath’s thoughts in the comments section.)

So Much For That is among the novels that belong in this post. (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s book touches many bases, with one of them the agony of dealing with America’s medical system. A system so inhumane, convoluted, and costly/profit-driven that it can easily make sick people even sicker.

In the legal area, we have Franz Kafka’s The Trial surreally showing just how opaque, inscrutable, and unfair the “justice” system and its bureaucracy can be. There’s also Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, in which a court case grinds on for years and years.

Military bureaucracy? You’ll find that in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Those books mercilessly/hilariously satirize that bureaucracy, and readers feel grateful during the occasional moments they stop laughing.

Corporate bureaucracy? Certainly a strong element in such novels as Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. In those three books, we see the horrible results when corporate bureaucracy and corporate malfeasance run amok.

There’s also governmental bureaucracy, as in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (of course), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. In Piercy’s novel, Connie Ramos unfortunately struggles with the trifecta of welfare, child-custody, and mental health systems. All of which are needed by any humane society, but give Ms. Ramos more grief than help.

Last but not least: It’s not one of the Balzac novels I’ve gotten to, but that author wrote…The Bureaucrats.

What novels have you read that contain strong bureaucratic elements?

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? 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. It’s not only for literature lovers but also for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles.  🙂

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece, which slams an ice-cream place’s sexualized logo, is here.

Don’t Think Twice About Enjoying First-Person Novels

Today I’m going to talk about first-person books. Not novels starring Adam or Eve, but those with protagonists who tell their own stories.

Among the advantages of that approach? Emotions feel more intimate when viewed through the eyes of one character rather than an omniscient narrator, and a first-person novel reminds readers of how they see life. After all, everyone witnesses the world through their own eyes.

A couple of disadvantages? A first-person protagonist can’t be everywhere in a novel like an omniscient narrator can, so the story is told from only one perspective. And a book dominated by one character’s “voice” might have a little too much sameness after a while.

One important feature of first-person fiction is that the story-telling protagonist tends to be sympathetic. Readers obviously trust, believe in, and relate more to a likable/admirable character, and there can always be villains amid the rest of a novel’s cast.

There are some not-as-sympathetic exceptions — such as Holden Caulfield, who I found annoying in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Also, Leda in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter is very unlikable (heck, she even steals a girl’s beloved doll) even as we sort of understand why Leda is the way she is and enjoy the exquisite writing in the book — which I read this past week.

Other appealing or mostly appealing protagonists who tell their own stories? The title character of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is my favorite, but there’s also Scout Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a child’s view of adult life can be quite interesting), Ishmael of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Huck in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nick Carraway of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Offred of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Dana Franklin of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Katniss Everdeen of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Hazel Grace Lancaster of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Mark Watney of Andy Weir’s The Martian, to name just a few.

The above novels’ first-person approaches accentuate the fears, sorrows, happiness, growing awareness, and other feelings the protagonists experience.

Your favorite novels told in the first person? The pros and cons of that approach compared to the omniscient narrator?

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? 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. It’s for literature lovers and for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles. 🙂

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece, which slams football, is here.

When Novels Have a Lot in Common

Reading literature can sometimes be a serendipitous experience. With no particular plan in mind — the novels I was interested in just happened to be available at my local library at the same time — I read two books back-to-back and found they featured many similarities amid their differences. Heck, even the authors have some things in common.

The novels? Big Little Lies (2014) and Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012). The authors? Liane Moriarty and Maria Semple. The similarities? First I’ll discuss a few commonalities in the writers’ lives, then I’ll dive deeper into the two books.

Moriarty is Australian and Semple is American, but they’re both in their early 50s. Semple now lives in Seattle, but is a California native associated with that state’s entertainment biz from her years as a TV producer and TV writer. Meanwhile, Moriarty’s Big Little Lies was turned into a TV miniseries that switched the book’s setting from Australia to…California.

On to the novels. Both feature a variety of affluent characters, with some not-affluent ones sprinkled in. Both have school settings (Big Little Lies more so). Both include a number of entitled parents. Both have some parents too involved in their kids’ lives. Both have several of those parents — usually the mothers — battling each other in various ways. Both novels, despite those battling moms, have good things to say against sexism. Both books, being published this decade, are full of tech references. Both address social issues in major or minor ways — for instance, domestic violence in Big Little Lies and homelessness in Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both have mystery elements — a parent’s death in Big Little Lies and, well, where did the brilliant/beleaguered/damaged Bernadette go?

Yet there are of course some differences in the two novels’ content and approach. The riveting Big Little Lies contains a very nice amount of humor and satire, but seriousness is pretty prominent and many of the expertly drawn characters are as three-dimensional as can be. The lampoon-laced Where’d You Go, Bernadette is ultra-clever (sometimes too clever?) and absolutely hilarious, but the book didn’t feel as “deep” or as full of genuine emotion as Big Little Lies — until Semple’s novel showed a lot more heart in its second half.

I’d give the intricately constructed (emails, flashbacks, etc.!) Where’d You Go, Bernadette an A next to an A+ for Big Little Lies. I’ve so far read just two novels (also The Hypnotist’s Love Story) by Moriarty, and she’s astoundingly good — one of the very best contemporary authors.

Have you read Big Little Lies, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, or other novels by Moriarty and Semple? If so, what did you think? More generally, are there novels (perused consecutively or not, and by any authors — not just Moriarty and Semple) that struck you as having an unusual number of similarities?

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 The latest weekly piece, which looks at the death of a movie theater and threats to several stately old homes, is here.

When It Comes to Character Names in Fiction, These Monikers Have Meaning

A character name can be any name, but sometimes it’s a very significant name.

Take Christopher Newman in Henry James’ The American. He’s depicted as seemingly a new type of man — unlike the supposed old type of men in the Europe visited by U.S. citizen Christopher.

In a later novel, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, we have 19th-century character Newland Archer — who lives in the “new land” of the U.S.

The idea for this blog post was suggested by my friend and National Society of Newspaper Columnists colleague Suzette Martinez Standring, who mentioned the Gogol character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Gogol’s father gave his son that name after the father’s life was saved in a train accident by a collection of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s short stories.

How about Roger Chillingworth of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? That malevolent husband of Hester Prynne is…chilling.

On a more positive note, the first name of majestic attorney Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird just sounds so…majestic.

And Valancy Stirling of L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle has a character that’s…sterling.

Also, we have the “Plain Jane” trope, embodied by Jane Chapman before she undergoes a change in Liane Moriarty’s superb Big Little Lies (which I read this past week) and the iconic star of  Jane Eyre (though Charlotte Bronte’s novel predates that trope’s origins).

In Wuthering Heights by Charlotte’s sister Emily Bronte, the name Heathcliff has a raw, wild, earthy quality befitting that force-of-nature character.

Then there’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, of Walter Mosley’s mystery novels, whose first and last names juxtapose that character’s traits of having a prophetic, almost-biblical sense of justice combined with a relatively casual nature.

And the long-living Lazarus Long in a number of Robert A. Heinlein’s science-fiction works.

How about all the meaningful names in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? Among them are the spacey/kindhearted Luna Lovegood, the tricky and weird Bellatrix Lestrange, the always-takes-umbrage Dolores Umbridge, the snake-like yet not-snake-like Severus Snape, and the mostly villainous Malfoy family — whose last name alludes to the French term for bad faith.

Then there’s the initials method of giving characters significant names. The semi-autobiographical protagonist in David Copperfield has the same-but-flipped initials of that novel’s author Charles Dickens — who of course also created many colorful/quirky characters with colorful/quirky names such as Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Wilkins Micawber, Martin Chuzzlewit, Betsey Trotwood, Cornelia Blimber, Kit Nubbles, Polly Toodle, Thomas Gradgrind, Fanny Squeers, and Newman Noggs.

Other initials-meaningful protagonists include Edith Wharton’s greedy/materialistic Undine Spragg (same opening letters as the United States) from The Custom of the Country; Jack London’s semi-autobiographical Martin Eden title character (“me,” i.e. London); and John Steinbeck’s righteous/injustice-fighting Jim Casy, the ex-preacher in The Grapes of Wrath with the same initials as Jesus Christ.

What names in literature strike you as being significant to the characters?

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 The latest weekly piece, which looks at the death of an historic movie theater and a very much alive development travesty near my local library, is here.

Unfairness in Literature

I have unfairness on my mind these days. The unfairness of Trump — almost exactly a year ago — defeating the flawed but infinitely more qualified Hillary Clinton because of sexism, racism, the Electoral College, Russian interference, Republican voter-suppression efforts, etc. The unfairness of Democratic National Committee shenanigans helping to give Clinton an advantage in the 2016 primaries over the more progressive/less-corporate-tied Bernie Sanders — shenanigans again confirmed this month in a book by DNC insider Donna Brazile. And there are other unfair things, in and out of politics, too numerous to mention here.

That got me thinking about the many depictions of unfairness in literature — depictions that evoke all kinds of reader emotions: sorrow, anger, frustration, “I can relate to that in real life,” or “glad it wasn’t me in real life.” Sometimes things end well in those fictional works, and we’re happy in a wish-fulfillment sort of way. Other times things end badly, which is upsetting but perhaps more believable. Here are just a few examples:

In George Eliot’s Silas Marner, the title character is betrayed by his best friend — who not only falsely frames Silas of a crime but also ends up marrying Mr. Marner’s fiancee. Silas is devastated by those horribly unfair blows, and only an unexpected event helps him recover.

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred shows African-American protagonist Dana living a pretty good life in 1970s California before she’s yanked back to a plantation in pre-Civil War years. As terribly unfair a destination as there is for someone involuntarily traveling in time.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin includes the slaveowner character Augustine St. Clare, who pledges to free Tom but never does the necessary paperwork before he (Augustine) unexpectedly dies. The results are tragic for Tom, who’s then sold to vicious plantation owner Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. Unfair is a gross understatement here.

The two main characters in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars have nothing but unfair lives as they each deal with ultra-serious medical conditions. But they meet and develop a wonderful relationship, until the unfairness escalates to another level…

In W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Philip Carey is unfairly born with a club foot that’s one of the things that takes a toll on his self-esteem. So, even though he’s a smart guy with good prospects, he ends up pathetically enamored with an unlikable woman spectacularly unsuited for him.

But, more often than not, female characters in literature experience more unfairness than male ones — whether it’s beleaguered welfare recipient Connie Ramos in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, several women in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, or the basically enslaved women in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to name just three examples.

Then there’s the unfair way so many gay characters are treated by other characters in literature, as is the case with Molly Bolt of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle.

In Peter Straub’s “Blue Rose” short story, which I read last month, a young boy is part of an extremely dysfunctional family. That unfair accident of birth is bad enough, but then his older brother begins manipulating him through hypnosis — leading to a shocking fate for the poor kid.

An example of the very ultimate in unfairness? In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Australia’s residents await certain death from a wave of radiation set off by a nuclear war their country had nothing to do with.

What are some memorable fictional works that fit this topic for you?

(Also, debate about my first paragraph is welcome. 🙂 I know there are some Hillary Clinton supporters who regularly comment here, while I preferred Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. It would have been nice if Donna Brazile had waited until after the November 7 election to release her book, but it didn’t seem to hurt the Democrats last Tuesday.)

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 The latest weekly piece, which looks at Election Day results, is here.

‘Compartment’-alizing With Trains in Literature

This blog sometimes goes off the rails, but I’d like to stay within them this week by offering a post about…trains.

Yes, trains have been a memorable part of various novels — maybe even more so than planes, buses, and other forms of mass transit (which, for churchgoers, can include any way you travel to Sunday mass).

There’s something sort of romantic about rail travel, even though trains (especially in the underfunded-mass-transit United States) are often rather unromantic. Other potential dramatic elements: the many-hours length of some train rides, strangers sitting near each other, long corridors, dining cars, station stops, sleeping berths, etc. And of course trains take characters to other locales — temporarily or permanently. So, with all the above, there’s plenty of time and places for great, good, bad, and awful things to happen.

Famous novels with a railway milieu? Of course, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, whose title says it all; and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, in which a man suggests to another man that they “trade” murders. Both made into memorable, well-known movies.

Somewhat less known, but perhaps the quintessential railway novel, is The Beast in Man. The train is practically a living character as its engine driver and other characters play out Emile Zola’s riveting tale of romance and violence — including an astonishing depiction of a train “accident” caused by sabotaged tracks. Obviously, 19th-century novels such as Zola’s were written pre-airplane and pre-car (or in the very early years of cars), so trains were a much more prominent travel option — in real life and novels.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake contains a horrific train accident in the father’s past — a significant moment that impacts the novel’s present.

Speaking of the present, I’m currently reading Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, in which we learn a lot about the protagonist in the novel’s first chapter as he rides a train, interacts with passengers and the porter, and uneasily dreams in a sleeping berth.

Then we of course have the Hogwarts Express in J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books. Harry, Hermione, and Ron first meet on that train, and many other things happen there as well. In the subsequent play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, there’s a pivotal Hogwarts Express scene involving the sons of Harry and Draco Malfoy.

On the subject of plays, the excellent On the Twentieth Century by Betty Comden and others is set on a train. Part musical, part drama, part screwball comedy, part farce.

And speaking of pivotal, there are several important rail scenes in Darryl Brock’s novel If I Never Get Back — including one in which the 20th-century protagonist goes back in time to the 19th century, and another in which that protagonist meets Mark Twain in a train-car corridor.

One obviously can’t forget Holocaust-novel scenes on or near the horrific Nazi death trains, such as a shocking/heart-wrenching moment in the William Styron-authored Sophie’s Choice.

And Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s description of the corpse train of murdered on-strike workers in One Hundred Years of Solitude is shattering.

One of the iconic rail scenes in literature involves the train-related fate of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina character.

Then there are subways. One gripping, suicidal, New York City-set underground event occurs in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novel Gone Tomorrow.

I see I’ve described a lot of bad things happening on trains. But some fictional works do offer positive tales of things like falling in love on the rails.

Novels can “take you places,” and trains help readers do that.

What are some of your favorite fictional works with train elements?

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 The latest weekly piece, which comically previews Election Day, is here.

Deserving ‘Nobel Prize in Literature’ Recipients Who Haven’t Won Yet

Earlier this month, Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I’ve read only one of his books — The Remains of the Day — but just from that novel alone I can see that he was deserving of fiction’s top honor. A magnificent, subtle work.

Ishiguro’s win got me thinking about living authors who have yet to receive a deserved Nobel. They include, among others, Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, etc.), Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.), John Irving (The Cider House Rules, etc.), Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, etc.), Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian, etc.), Philip Roth (American Pastoral, etc.), and Alice Walker (The Color Purple, etc.).

Heck, when interviewed after learning of his Nobel naming, Ishiguro mentioned how deserving Atwood is of literature’s utmost prize.

Other writers I’ve read who should at least be considered? A.S. Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Haruki Murakami, and Anne Tyler, to name a few.

And how about Stephen King? Sure, he’s a mega-mass-audience writer, but some of his novels (I’ve read 15 of them) have plenty of literary elements. Plus King’s relentless output!

Or J.K. Rowling? Not only has she written the amazing Harry Potter books but the compelling non-fantasy novel The Casual Vacancy and detective fiction.

Then there are authors I’ve never read who, from their reputations, seem Nobel-worthy. Joyce Carol Oates is one prime example.

Heck, I wish any of the many names above had won the prize last year rather than Bob Dylan, a great songwriter but hardly a Nobel fit, in my opinion.

Perhaps they haven’t had enough output or long-enough careers yet, but I could also see future Nobel Prize in Literature consideration for Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Liane Moriarty, (Ms.) Lionel Shriver, Zadie Smith, and Donna Tartt, among others.

I’m sure I left out some very deserving names, including writers obscure to many readers. Who do you think should win the fiction Nobel who hasn’t — including authors I mentioned or didn’t mention?

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 The latest weekly piece, which has a Halloween theme, is here.