A Literary-Trivia Roundup

I’m away this week, but still wanted to post something new, so I thought I’d offer some highlights from my 2017 literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

Dorothy Parker willed her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who she had never met).

Jane Austen got the title of Pride and Prejudice from a line in Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia.

The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originally referred to the wealthy family in which Edith Wharton (nee Jones) grew up.

The Starbuck character in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick inspired the name of a certain coffee chain.

O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” (when on the lam in Latin America after being charged with embezzlement).

George Orwell popularized the term “cold war.”

Orwell was briefly Aldous Huxley’s student at England’s Eton school (years before they respectively authored two of the 20th century’s most famous dystopian novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World).

The title of Huxley’s nonfiction book The Doors of Perception inspired the name of The Doors rock band.

Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died on nearly the same day in 1616.

The first modern novel? Not Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but perhaps Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. She wrote it 1,000 years ago.

Isaac Asimov wrote and edited more than 500 books!

Agatha Christie’s greatest mystery? She disappeared for 10 days in 1926.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ancestors include Francis Scott Key (writer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” words) and Mary Surratt (who was executed for her part in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln).

Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Mark Twain were longtime neighbors in Hartford, Conn.

Twain was a huge fan of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, comparing Anne to Alice (of Wonderland fame).

Richard Wright starred as his Native Son novel’s teen protagonist Bigger Thomas in a 1950 movie. Wright was 42 at the time!

Daphne du Maurier may have been the favorite writer of Alfred Hitchcock, who made three films — including The Birds — based on her work.

H.G. Wells and Orson Welles (each of The War of the Worlds fame) appeared together on the same San Antonio radio show in 1940.

The Group author Mary McCarthy’s brother was actor Kevin McCarthy and a cousin was politician Eugene McCarthy.

The Jungle author Upton Sinclair received nearly 900,000 votes when he ran for governor of California in 1934.

Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) worked as an anthropologist with Margaret Mead.

What do Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Beatles have in common? Liverpool! Hawthorne was U.S. consul there.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling is the only YA (young adult) novel to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Patricia Highsmith, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, and Kurt Vonnegut were among the writers who were also cartoonists.

“Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s favorite novels included The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.

Dr. Seuss partly based the look of his Cat in the Hat character on the Uncle Sam he drew for his editorial cartoons about 15 years earlier.

You can read many more facts if you buy the book!

Any interesting literary trivia you’d like to mention?

I might reply to comments more slowly this week (spotty wifi isn’t helping), but I will reply!

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about rampant overdevelopment in my town, is here.

The Talent and Relevance of Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale television series based on Margaret Atwood’s iconic 1985 novel is a smash hit — helped by the fact that this screen adaptation is very relevant during the time of a Trump administration that’s profoundly mean, sexist, macho, misogynist, anti-women, and patriarchal. Also, I just finished reading Atwood’s 2013 novel MaddAddam — the great third installment of the speculative-fiction trilogy whose first two books were Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

So I thought I’d write an Atwood appreciation — one that combines new material with some material from the first literature blog post I ever published, on June 2, 2011. That post was an Atwood appreciation, too.

MaddAddam is one of those novels that has it all: memorable characters, adventure, scares, intrigue, humor, satire, snappy dialogue, romance of a sort, non-preachy social commentary (ranging from the environment to gender relations), and more. The postapocalyptic story of a small group of people who survived the almost total eradication of Earth’s population shows that Atwood is still a terrific novelist in her 70s — and that she has a way of sounding so current and up-to-date that one could mistake her for a writer in her 20s or 30s.

The 1939-born Canadian author is well known for bestselling fiction set in a dismal near-future. Heck, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the 20th century’s great dystopian novels — up there with Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four — about a U.S. society in which women have lost their rights and the relatively small number of fertile ones are forced to become “handmaids” basically raped for reproductive purposes.

But there’s an astonishing variety to Atwood’s canon. She has also written gripping historical fiction (the well-researched Alias Grace about a 19th-century double murder), many contemporary novels (such as Cat’s Eye about a middle-aged Canadian artist and The Robber Bride about three longtime friends dealing with a nemesis), and even a book from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife Penelope as her legendary hubby is off adventuring (The Penelopiad). Other Atwood novels contain elements of mystery (Surfacing) and surrealism (The Edible Woman). And the ultra-prolific author has penned short stories, children’s books, nonfiction books, poetry, and more. In fact, Atwood was a widely published poet for several years before her first novel was released — a career arc like Sir Walter Scott’s.

Atwood’s fiction is also quite layered. She often shifts scenes from the present to the past to the present — MaddAddam does this quite a bit — while managing not to confuse her readers. The Blind Assassin even includes a novel within that Booker Prize-winning novel. And several of Atwood’s novels contain poems, letters, newspaper stories, and other devices. Plus her characters are complex, three-dimensional people — with the “good” ones usually having some negative traits and the “bad” ones usually having some positive attributes.

No appreciation of Atwood would be complete without an example of her wonderful prose. In the “Hairball” story that’s part of her 1991 short-story collection Wilderness Tips, Atwood describes a character’s name this way: “During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school she’d shed the frills and emerged as bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped-denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street feline, and pointed as a nail.”

Give this author a much-deserved Nobel Prize!

If you’ve read Atwood, what do you think of her work? And, in your opinion, what other living authors deserve a future Nobel for literature? A list of past winners can be seen here.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, with a silly focus on the date August 10 through the centuries, is here.

Characters Who Make a Big Impression in a Small Amount of Time

The very weird Anthony Scaramucci lasted only 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications director — a brief and memorable White House cameo for that minor cast member in “Trumpland.”

Which reminds me of the many fictional people who appear for a short or relatively short time in novels, yet are unforgettable — whether they’re good or evil, funny or not funny, etc. They’re not as important as the protagonists and the top-tier secondary characters, but they leave their mark.

A few examples (chronologically by the novels’ publication date):

The gentle/ill-fated Helen of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre becomes friends with Jane when they’re both girls at the Lowood institution. Helen shows the young Jane that there’s some kindness in the world, and her (Helen’s) death helps spark changes at the unhealthy Lowood — cheaply run by wealthy “religious” hypocrite Mr. Brocklehurst — that probably save the lives of Jane and others.

Moby-Dick‘s Starbuck doesn’t appear a lot in Herman Melville’s novel, but the calm/earnest first mate is quite a contrast to the crazed Captain Ahab — and the only person on the Pequod ship who tries to talk Ahab out of continuing his obsessive quest to revenge himself on the white whale who bit off Ahab’s leg. But the not-brave-enough Starbuck (who inspired the name of a certain coffee chain) ultimately goes along with Ahab’s doomed mission.

In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, the mother Daniel has never really known turns up late, and only briefly, but she is a crucial piece in the puzzle as the title character discovers his secret Jewish identity. The mother-son scene is dramatic, heightened by the fact that she’s terminally ill.

A highlight of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is the devil cameo in an amazing scene that’s philosophical, hilarious, and more. Satan (a hallucination?) appears in the guise of an amiable elderly man and proceeds to tell a bunch of silly — or perhaps not so silly — stories.

In Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, there are many minor characters with cameos that will have you rolling on the floor. My favorite of those people might be Baloun, who’s always so hungry and food-obsessed that he can’t help scarfing down the edibles he’s supposed to be saving for his commanding officer.

Readers of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon only get to see the leader of Shangri-La for a short time, but that leader’s life is long: he’s 250 years old! Not easy to forget that

Eowyn has a minor part in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but it’s a memorable one as she disguises herself as a man to fight in battle. She stands out even more given that most of Tolkien’s characters are male and his trilogy has quite a bit of gender stereotyping. Yet The Lord of the Rings is still great.

Which is more than one can say about anybody who was or is part of the Trump administration.

Who are some of the minor characters in literature you’ve found majorly memorable?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, with education and health themes, is here.

A Collection of Cowardly Characters

U.S. Senator John McCain occasionally talks humanely and “maverick-y.” But the Arizona Republican, until July 28, almost always voted with far-right members of his party — including worst-human-being-on-the-planet Donald Trump. So the words of war hero McCain (who bravely refused release from a Vietnam prison when fellow POWs without influential fathers didn’t get the same offer) are usually worthless.

Well, maybe not totally worthless — when it comes to spurring blog ideas. I began writing this post after the brain-cancer-stricken McCain returned to Washington, DC, on July 25 to mouth platitudes about bipartisanship while capitulating to Republican pressure to allow the Senate to discuss repealing Obamacare and replace it with some awful Trumpcare version that would kick millions off health insurance — of which McCain enjoys a fancy government version.

My blog idea? Literature’s cowards — some of whom redeem themselves and some of whom don’t. From McCain’s political track record, I thought he’d remain in the non-redeem group, but he thrillingly voted July 28 to save Obamacare (for the time being).

Actually, Trumpcare-resisting American citizens (MANY of them women), Democratic senators (some of them women), and Republican senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine deserve even more of the credit for saving Obamacare (which is not as good as single payer, yet infinitely better than what the GOP tried to replace it with). But McCain received more kudos and media attention — as is often the case with men.  😦

Anyway, back to cowardice in literature. Perhaps the most famous example is Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, in which a scared soldier deserts his regiment but later has an opportunity to act differently. Also well known is Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, about a sailor who abandons a sinking ship and then wrestles with his guilt for a long time.

Then there are the many villains in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels who act ultra-tough until Jack turns the tables on them. A few take their punishment courageously, but many become weak-kneed wimps when getting a taste of their own medicine.

In Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the men who framed the innocent Edmond Dantes also become quite fearful when revenge is about to be exacted.

In some versions of the Robin Hood tales, the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham is a coward, too.

Celebrity professor Gilderoy Lockhart of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets built a reputation as a hero, but was actually a gutless guy who had other people do “his” brave acts and then wiped their memories. In J.K. Rowling’s book, Harry and Hermione and Ron show a lot more courage than Lockhart despite being 12-year-old kids.

Of course, a fictional character can also act cowardly in situations other than being in potential physical danger. For instance, the wealthy Godfrey Cass of George Eliot’s Silas Marner is too chicken for years to acknowledge that the “lower-born” Molly Farren is his secret wife and that Eppie (who will do so much to turn around Marner’s life) is his biological daughter. But Cass does have some moments of acting decently.

Arthur Dimmesdale of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a sympathetic character in certain ways yet shows no spine when keeping secret the affair he had with Hester Prynne, who bears the brunt of becoming an outcast in her narrow-minded community.

Newland Archer of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence could be considered cowardly (or maybe just loyal) when he reluctantly goes through with marriage to the bland May Welland rather than trying to make a life with the unconventional Countess Ellen Olenska — the woman with whom Newland is intrigued and enamored.

Oh, and then there’s the Cowardly Lion in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Who are some of the cowardly or part-cowardly characters you’ve found most memorable?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, featuring fake histories of street names, is here.

Illustrations in Novels

When kids graduate from picture books to eventually read grown-up fiction, they don’t always have to give up visual images. As we all know, some adult novels include illustrations.

I thought about this while currently reading Czech author Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, which has drawings every few pages that add to the satiric feel of that hilarious antiwar novel. Josef Lada’s illustrations seem as simple as Svejk himself, but both have more depth than immediately meets the eye.

British writer George Monbiot said of The Good Soldier Svejk: “Perhaps the funniest novel ever written, and a brilliant study in how to get one up on the authorities while seeming to cooperate. Svejk appears to be the most loyal soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, yet all his energies are dedicated to trying to desert.”

Among the novels most associated with pictures are those written by Lewis Carroll (whose Alice books were illustrated by John Tenniel) and Charles Dickens (whose work was illustrated by “Phiz,” George Cruikshank, and others during the author’s lifetime). Masterful art.

Also, the illustrators of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote over the centuries have fixed a memorable image in our minds of that ultra-thin, tilt-at-windmills title character.

Some novelists, such as Kurt Vonnegut, have illustrated their own books. And, in the poetry area, William Blake created astoundingly great illustrations to go along with his verse.

Speaking of artists with the first name William, my friend Kathy Eliscu’s great, quirky, seriocomic novel Not Even Dark Chocolate Can Fix This Mess includes illustrations by William D. Eldridge.

Then there are novels with photos, such as the evocative 19th-century New York City shots in Jack Finney’s time-travel tour de force Time and Again.

There’s also the “Great Illustrated Classics” series — which has included novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, to name a few.

Young-adult (YA) novels of course tend to have more images than adult books. But even some grown-up novels that don’t include illustrations within their chapters might have little sketches at the start of chapters — as is the case with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Then there are drawing-heavy graphic novels (which have been described as large, literary comic books), but that’s a whole other story.

The positives of images in novels? We get to admire the skill of accomplished artists, their drawings help break up hundreds of pages of text, we find out what characters look like, and more.

Negatives? Many readers would rather imagine what characters and scenes look like than be shown. (Some of those readers might try to avoid screen adaptations of fictional works for the same reason.) Of course, many novels without inside illustrations do picture the protagonists on the cover.

What are some of your favorite novels you’ve read in illustrated editions? The pros and cons of pictures accompanying fictional prose?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about overdevelopment, is here.

Domestic Violence in Literature

Novels featuring abusive men are painful to get through, but there is something to be said for reading them.

When treated fictionally, one sees the horrible abuse problem on a visceral, dramatic level — whether the problem is physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, or all three. We might see why it happens (though there’s never a legitimate excuse), how the victim is affected, whether the legal system gets involved, and more. And if the abuser gets his comeuppance, that can be very satisfying.

Heck, fictional abusers get that comeuppance more often than real-life abusers (though not always). After all, some novels are partly vehicles for wish fulfillment.

This is a topic I have some personal experience with, given that my late father unfortunately was often verbally abusive and sometimes physically abusive. So I bring those memories into the reading of certain novels, as do many other people with their own painful memories.

Last week I finished Amanda Moores’ Dream Palace, and central to that 1994 novel is a young woman who becomes infatuated with a macho, handsome, charismatic diver (when he works). Though the warning signs of abuse are there (as is often the case) and Laurie barely knows Jim, she impulsively agrees to his offer of marriage.

Then the verbal harassment and physical blows begin, along with ultra-controlling behavior. How the initially meek Laurie finds some backbone to deal with all that is a major focus of the eloquently written book by Ms. Moores, who happens to be the wife of this blog’s regular commenter jhNY.

(Some of you may recall a 2015 post in which I discussed Ms. Moores’ later fictional work, the emotionally riveting Grail Nights, which focuses on a New Orleans bartender named Sheila who has a small role in Dream Palace.)

Another compelling novel featuring domestic violence is Stephen King’s Rose Madder — in which low-life abuser Norman is scarily a police officer. The oft-beaten Rose Daniels escapes the house and boards a bus to a new place — after which husband Norman seeks her out. Will Rose fight back? You’ll see if she does as the novel turns into a mix of realism and the supernatural.

The Jack Reacher character is a human fighting machine but also feminist in his way, so it’s no surprise that some of Lee Child’s novels — including Echo Burning and Worthy Dying For — include vile abusive men who draw Reacher’s wrath. Readers will cheer when Jack socks the (rich) abuser in the latter book.

Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second Class Citizen stars Adah, who maintains her ambition and resilience despite various obstacles that include being physically abused by a husband who also cheats on her.

In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie is abused by her father — a parental outrage that probably also happens to the Mayella character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

And Margaret Atwood’s iconic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale — now a TV phenomenon — is of course about domestic violence writ large as women are denied their rights and the fertile ones are forced to bear children.

Here’s a list of many other fiction books that apparently contain domestic-violence content.

What are the some of the most memorable novels you’ve read on this topic?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be bought here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a Harry Potter theme! — is here.

You Too (U2) Can Enjoy Irish Literature!

On June 28, I and perhaps 60,000 other people saw a great U2 concert in New Jersey. The world-famous rock band is of course from Ireland, so I naturally thought of writing a blog post about Irish or Irish-born authors.  🙂 That means if you ever said “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” and what you were looking for was a piece about Irish literature, look no more.  🙂

Is there some underlying theme or “feel” to Irish literature? I’m not expert enough to say, so I thought I’d just discuss some of the fictional works I’ve read with an authorial connection to Ireland.

When one thinks of Irish literature, James Joyce is often the first writer who comes to mind. I haven’t read a lot of Joyce’s work; for instance, I’ve yet to tackle Ulysses or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But I did read the Dubliners collection that ends with the iconic short story “The Dead.” That haunting, almost-novella-length tale features a woman who hears a song that triggers a melancholy memory of her youth — and also triggers a sort of stunned reaction from her husband.

Another legendary Irish writer (some think of him as English) is Oscar Wilde — who’s known for short stories such as the hilarious “The Canterville Ghost” and the striking novel The Picture of Dorian Gray but is most remembered for his witty plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest.

Speaking of theater, other notable Irish or Irish-born playwrights have included George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Oliver Goldsmith.

Going back even further in the 18th-century than Goldsmith, we have Jonathan Swift — author of the amazing novel Gulliver’s Travels.

Speaking of amazing novelists, Dracula writer Bram Stoker was Irish. Which reminds me that the title of U2’s song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” omits six days of vampire feasting each week…

C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia fame was born in Ireland, too. As was Brian O’Nolan (pen name: Flann O’Brien), who, in the James Joyce tradition, wrote extremely enigmatic novels such as The Third Policeman.

A more straightforward wordsmith is Colm Toibin, who has perfected a blend of literary and popular fiction with such novels as The Master (about Henry James) and Brooklyn (about a young Irish woman who comes to America — and which was turned into a 2015 major motion picture of the same name).

Then there’s John Banville, who, under the pen name Benjamin Black, has written absorbing crime novels starring Dublin pathologist Quirke. Some of that fiction has a very jaded view of the corruption and child abuse of which some Catholic Church leaders have been guilty.

Among other past and present Irish or Irish-born writers of note: Brendan Behan, Maeve Binchy, Elizabeth Bowen, Clare Boylan, Maeve Brennan, Frank Delaney, Roddy Doyle, Maria Edgeworth, Anne Enright, Molly Keane, Claire Keegan, Marian Keyes, Brian Moore, Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien, Frank O’Connor, and William Trevor.

I can’t end this blog post without noting that there have of course been great Irish or Irish-born poets (such as William Butler Yeats) and nonfiction writers (such as Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame). Also, the father of literary icons Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Bronte was born in Ireland as Patrick Brunty.

Who/what are your favorite Irish authors and fictional works?

Here’s a song performed at the U2 concert I attended. Nope, not “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” but “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

I’ll be away much of this week — with less time (and perhaps less WiFi access) to quickly reply to comments. But I’ll answer when I can!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be bought here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

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