Thrillers and Mysteries Had Homogenous Histories

I’ve written about diversity in literature before, but this time I’m going to be a bit more specific. As in the welcome increased diversity in thrillers and mysteries during the past few decades.

Many right-wing Republicans would find that “woke,” but they’re welcome to fall asleep listening to Ron DeSantis speeches.

There was of course some diversity in long-ago mysteries and thrillers, but old novels in those genres often featured white male detectives in lead roles and mostly “conventional” women in supporting roles. If there were rare inclusions of people of color, those characters were usually depicted in cringe stereotypical fashion.

Famous white male detectives of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century included Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin (in three short stories rather than any novels), Charles Dickens’ Inspector Bucket, Wilkie Collins’ Sergeant Cuff, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, and Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, among others.

There were a few long-ago exceptions of strong females as leads or co-stars in crime fiction, including Miss Marple and Harriet Vane in the novels by the aforementioned Christie and Sayers, respectively; Marian Halcombe of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White; and…Nancy Drew! But the portrayal of people of color in, say, Christie’s otherwise fabulous Death on the Nile? Ugh. And LGBTQ+ people were usually not portrayed at all; if they were, it was almost always in a veiled, negative way.

I got to thinking about all this last week while reading Still Life (2005), the absorbing debut novel in Louise Penny’s series starring investigator Armand Gamache. He’s a white guy, but the residents of Three Pines — the small Canadian town where the murder in Still Life occurs — are a wonderful mix: a Black woman who owns a bookstore, a white female artist, a white female poet, two gay restaurant operators, etc. Plus some female investigators and a Jewish female prosecutor. Most are three-dimensional; their color, gender, sexual orientation, and religion/culture are part of who they are, but not all of who they are.

There was a similar mix in Caleb Carr’s The Alienist and its scintillating sequel, The Angel of Darkness — both written in the 1990s and both set in the 1890s. The team investigating some very seedy goings-on include white men, a woman, a Black man, and two Jewish detective brothers. Given the 19th-century timeframe, Sara Howard, Cyrus Montrose, and Marcus and Lucius Isaacson are hit with plenty of nasty societal bias, but the mostly cordial interactions within the investigating team are inspiring. Everyone is respected for what they bring to the table.

Women and people of color who are the flat-out stars of crime series? They include private investigator Kinsey Millhone of Sue Grafton’s “Alphabet Mysteries” (first installment published in 1982), Black private investigator Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins of Walter Mosley’s novels (debut book in 1990), and bounty hunter Stephanie Plum of Janet Evanovich’s novels (a 1994 start), to name a few protagonists. Oh, and Rita Mae Brown’s 1990-launched mysteries with Mary “Harry” Haristeen (and some animal detectives 🙂 ) as well as Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax novels starring an amateur CIA agent. That latter series, which began in 1966, does have some stereotypical moments with its senior-citizen lead character, but overall Emily P. is fairly modern in her way.

A female investigator co-starring in a series? That would be Robin Ellacott of J.K. Rowling’s crime novels. Male investigator Cormoran Strike was the initial focus of the series (written under the pen name Robert Galbraith), but Ellacott moved into a position of essentially being equal to Strike.

Quite a few of John Grisham’s novels — The Racketeer, The Judge’s List, The Client, etc. — have Black characters as protagonists or in memorable secondary roles. And Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels (now co-written by Andrew Child) have plenty of women and people of color (female or male) as significant supporting players.

Your thoughts on this topic?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a current court case that makes some of my town’s leaders and their attorneys look pathetic — is here.

‘Prodigal’ Praise for an Author

This appreciation of Barbara Kingsolver combines new material with a partly revised Huffington Post piece I wrote in 2012.

Earlier this month, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2022 novel Demon Copperhead co-won (with Hernan Diaz’s Trust) the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

I’ve yet to get to Kingsolver’s reimagining of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, but I’ve read all her other novels, and she’s definitely a deserving award winner. One of my favorite living authors.

Why? She’s progressive, feminist, and her fiction often puts things in a sociopolitical context. But I think many open-minded people of any ideology would find Kingsolver’s work engaging, because her writing style is so fluid and her characters and plots take precedence over polemics. She can also be quite funny at times.

Kingsolver’s most famous novel is of course 1998’s The Poisonwood Bible, a 1999 Pulitzer finalist that should have been the author’s first Pulitzer win. That book is about colonialism, evangelicalism, and other topics, but it’s mostly about the Price family — arrogant missionary father Nathan, long-suffering but ultimately independent mother Orleanna, and their four fascinating daughters.

Just two years later came another Kingsolver masterpiece, albeit one not quite as ambitious. That was 2000’s Prodigal Summer, which weaves three separate characters/plot lines into a very satisfying, interconnected whole. While ecological concerns infuse the novel, it’s the three protagonists (park ranger Deanna, farm widow Lusa, and tree expert Garnett) who stick in a reader’s mind.

In 2009, Kingsolver’s The Lacuna was published. Again, the author used her fiction to address sociopolitical matters (such as getting smeared during the McCarthy era and being gay), but main characters Harrison William Shepherd (who eventually becomes a novelist) and Violet Brown (his delightful and efficient secretary) are memorable creations. Plus real-life historical figures Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky, and (briefly) Richard Nixon appear in the book’s pages.

Then came the absorbing Flight Behavior in 2012, about a farm woman (Dellarobia Turnbow) in an unhappy marriage who changes her life even as the climate is changing — a major sub-theme of the book.

In 2018, Kingsolver kept the compelling novels coming with Unsheltered, which I discussed in this blog post a couple months ago.

The 1956-born author’s earlier novels — The Bean Trees (1988), Animal Dreams (1990), and Pigs in Heaven (1993) — are not as multifaceted but still very good, as are her short-story collections such as Homeland.

Kingsolver’s canon also includes nonfiction releases such as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle — about the benefits of eating locally grown, unprocessed foods.

(That skilled 2007 book occasionally goes on interesting tangents, such as when Kingsolver mentions her inclusion in right-winger Bernard Goldberg’s biased 2005 book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. All 100 of Goldberg’s subjects were left-of-center, and most of them admirable people. Kingsolver was a good sport about that “honor,” writing: “My thrilling new status had no impact on my household position. I still had to wait till the comics were read to get the Sudoku puzzle, and the dog ignored me as usual.”)

If you’ve read Kingsolver, what are your thoughts about her work? Or, if you’d like, you could mention some of your favorite living authors. Among mine, besides Kingsolver, are (in alphabetical order) Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Lee Child, Fannie Flagg, John Grisham, Liane Moriarty, J.K. Rowling, Zadie Smith, and Amor Towles, to name just a few.

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — which uses a Wizard of Oz theme to lament school district budget cuts and municipal secrecy — is here.

A Delay in Seeing the Light of Day

Georgette Heyer. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

When I prepared last week to read a 1979 edition of a 1925 novel by English author Georgette Heyer, I was fascinated by a brief foreword by her son. Richard Rougier said his mother never wanted the book — Simon the Coldheart, written in her early 20s — to be reprinted. Yet here it was being reprinted, and making its U.S. debut, in 1979 — five years after Heyer’s death. Richard said the 15th-century-set novel was not as “mature” as Georgette’s later work, but he approved its reprinting because the book had “a quick eye for historical detail and an ability to paint a scene from another age” that would mark his mother’s peak efforts.

I agree. I enjoyed Simon the Coldheart as Heyer — who I was reading for the first time — depicted the coming of age and life of her stoic, fearless, determined, ambitious, adventurous, antisocial protagonist who’s in for a surprise in the second half of the novel. Meanwhile, the book’s almost-not-reprinted history reminded me that some works of fiction came close to not being published at all.

A few of those situations are well known. Franz Kafka saw some of his writings published while he was alive, but had enough misgivings about his work to ask friend and literary executor Max Brod to destroy the rest. Brod disregarded that wish, and much of Kafka’s masterful writing — including The Trial novel — appeared posthumously.

In the poetry realm, only 10 of Emily Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 creations were published while she was alive. Much of her highly original verse finally first appeared in 1890 — four years after the poet’s death.

The Last Cavalier historical novel by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) was published as a newspaper serial in 1869 but never in book form at the time. The late-career effort was “rediscovered” well over a century later and finally released as a book in France and English-speaking countries in 2005 and 2007, respectively. The novel will not disappoint Dumas fans.

Jules Verne’s 1960-set Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1860, didn’t get published until 1994 — 89 years after the author’s death. The early-career novel was not accepted by the publisher because it was considered too unbelievable, even though Verne’s book turned out to be prescient about a number of things — as the author would also be in his later, more famous novels.

Of course, there are cases of a novel’s publication being delayed deliberately. For instance, Agatha Christie’s wrote Hercule Poirot’s swan song, Curtain, in the early 1940s and had the book locked in a vault for more than 30 years. It was finally released in 1975, not long before the author’s 1976 death.

E.M. Forster wrote Maurice in 1913 and 1914, and revised it somewhat in later years, but didn’t allow publication in his lifetime because of worry about how the public would react to the novel’s gay theme. The book finally appeared posthumously in 1971 — the year after Forster’s 1970 death.

So, in some cases writers had a degree of control over when their novel belatedly got published and in other cases they did not. Your thoughts on this week’s topic, including the question of author consent?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about devastating budget cuts and teacher layoffs in my school district — is here.

Guilty of Being Not Guilty

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou in The Da Vinci Code movie.

Do you like “wac”-ky books? By “wac”-ky, I mean novels with “wrongly accused characters.”

It’s a compelling “genre.” The drama and tension are intense as we see people punished and/or put in danger for something they didn’t do. That obviously offends our sense of fairness, and we feel lots of sympathy for protagonists in those dire straits — as well as curiosity about how they’re reacting. Also, we wonder if they’ll get out of their predicament, and, if so, how?

All this is certainly a major motif in Dan Brown’s page-turning The Da Vinci Code, in which Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is falsely implicated in the murder of a curator at The Louvre. Langdon escapes that iconic Paris museum with the help of French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (the curator’s granddaughter), and various cliffhangers ensue as the in-peril pair try to solve a number of mind-bending clues that might lead them to…The Holy Grail!

Caleb Carr’s The Angel of Darkness, a novel I read just before The Da Vinci Code this month, includes a character (criminal psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler) who’s wrongly blamed for a suicide in the facility he runs for troubled young people. While this is not the main plot line of the riveting book, Dr. Kreizler’s placement on leave as the suicide is investigated gives him the time to join a group of other fascinating characters who are trying to catch a woman guilty of a kidnapping and various shocking murders.

A classic in the wrongful-accusation “genre” is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the innocent Edmond Dantes is framed for treason and jailed in the Chateau d’If island prison. That long incarceration sets in motion a series of events that has made that novel one of the great revenge tales ever written.

Sadly, minorities can too often be among the falsely accused. One of literature’s best-known examples of that is Tom Robinson, who is falsely charged with the rape of a white woman in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

There is also a character wrongly accused of rape in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, with profound effects on three lives.

Several of Lee Child’s 27 Jack Reacher books (the last few co-authored by Andrew Child) see the roving title character get falsely accused of a crime soon after entering a new town. Sometimes local law-enforcement officials actually think Reacher is guilty, while other times they arrest him as a distraction to protect the real guilty parties — who tend to be powerful players. Of course, those law-enforcement officials and powerful players get more than they bargain for from the almost-superhuman Jack.

Novels you’ve read that fit this topic? Other thoughts?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — which includes an offbeat tribute to my town’s terrific teachers — is here.

From Procrastination to Producing Prose

My cat Misty is the star of my in-progress book. (Photo by me.)

This is a tale of why it can take an author a long time to start writing their next book.

Back in early 2017, my Fascinating Facts literary-trivia book was published. I spent more than five years sporadically writing it, with my time limited by being the father of a 2007-born girl my wife and I had adopted despite us not exactly being young parents. 🙂 (I also have an adult daughter, Maggie, from my first marriage.)

I’m aware that many of you who read this blog are authors, so you know the adrenaline rush one feels when your latest book comes out. You’re thrilled, you’re into marketing it, and that energy often translates into eagerly starting another book soon after.

But, for me, some reality set in six years ago — albeit a reality more about time constraints than procrastination. My aforementioned daughter, Maria, had turned out to be quite an athlete (at one point simultaneously doing softball, soccer, and gymnastics), so the driving to practices and games/meets — and watching said games/meets — took up lots of hours.

Then my Florida-based mother Thelma’s health began failing in mid-2017, and there were countless phone calls I made from New Jersey talking with her, with doctors, with hospitals, with home-aide agencies, with the aides themselves, etc. Adding to the stress was that my mother, even when younger and healthy, was not an easy person to get along with. In retrospect, I have to laugh about how, when I gave her a copy of Fascinating Facts a couple months before she got sick, she pronounced it “boring.” Naturally, because the not-boring book was mostly about novelists, and my mother rarely read novels — or nonfiction books, for that matter — during her life.

Still, Thelma was in need, and, while I decided not to travel to Florida because of having a preteen at home and my professor wife Laurel commuting to New York City several days a week, my phone became practically attached to my ear.

Writing a book at that time was not a priority, and not really possible.

My mother died in April 2018, after which I obviously did go to Florida. Five times in fact — first for the funeral and then four more times that year. I did five short trips rather than a couple of long trips mostly to try to work around Laurel’s teaching schedule so one of us would always be home with/for Maria.

Anyway, I and my sister Linda went through lots of stuff at Thelma’s small-but-packed condo and dealt with her rather problematic will/estate. (Long story I won’t get into here.)

Adding to the craziness was Thelma’s modest home sustaining major damage when flooded by its water heater in July 2018. That same month I had jury duty and was picked for a trial. And that same month our cat Misty, who we adopted in December 2017, had a scary asthma flare-up that might have killed him if we hadn’t gotten him to an animal hospital for an overnight stay in an oxygen room. July 2018? #&@&#!

Also making it harder to write a book was spending lots of time with Misty, who we eventually began walking every morning on a leash to help his health and give him a break from our not-large apartment. Pets deserve their humans’ attention, and Misty loves his strolls!

The years went on. Still tons of sports activities for Maria, though she eventually dropped the soccer. And many time-consuming doctor appointments and physical-therapy sessions, because she played so aggressively that she often got injured. Concussions, sprains, and more.

Plus I was of course writing this weekly literature blog, as well as a weekly humor column about my New Jersey town of Montclair. With those deadlines, I never procrastinated. Plus I’m on the board of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, copy-edit its newsletter, and often wrote for that newsletter before cutting back in 2020.

I began to think maybe I wouldn’t start my next book until Maria went to college. I certainly had several ideas in mind, so it was frustrating to have those ideas remain trapped in my brain.

In October 2022, during Maria’s second season on Montclair High’s gymnastics team, she tore her ACL during a class at a private gym — throwing a big wrench in her life and her parents’ lives. She was in a lot of pain, and needed to be driven everywhere; her trusty bike was out of the question for a while. And she was devastated and quite grumpy about not being able to do competitive sports until at least September 2023 — nine months after the reconstructive surgery she had on her right knee in December 2022.

Then I myself had a major operation in January of this year. As I dealt with constant bleeding for about six weeks, I began to think of mortality and how I really, really wanted to write a third book sooner rather than later. (My Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir had come out in 2012, preceding Fascinating Facts by five years.) So I resolved to start a book, buoyed by the knowledge that I would have some extra time to do so. Because while Maria still needed to be driven to post-surgery physical therapy three days a week, there would be no high school softball season for her this spring and all the driving to practice and game-watching that entailed. While I would greatly miss the games…many more hours to write!

But fate has a way with things. Maria learned that Montclair High’s crew team was looking for a coxswain, which doesn’t require strenuous exercise and thus could be done while Maria recovered from her ACL tear. But the time devoted to crew would make softball seem like a picnic, because, in addition to the three PT sessions a week, Laurel or I are now driving Maria almost every day to and from practices at a river that’s not very close and involves navigating an often-crowded highway (Route 3, which New Jersey motorists use to get to nearby New York City). Maria joined the team too late for us to join a parent carpool. Ugh.

I resolved to continue the book, though, even though it means less sleep and less relaxation time — other than reading novels, of course. 🙂 The book, with the working title of Misty the Cat’s (Partly True) Memoir, is written by me in the voice of my beloved feline as the kitty relates his life, chronicles his daily walks, tells jokes, offers information about his species, etc., in an effort to pass the time while stuck in a dangerous situation. Nearly 26,000 words so far, and I hope it will come out sometime in 2024.

Any thoughts on time constraints, procrastination, and more?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s poor-performing township manager FINALLY getting fired after being credibly accused of misogynistic and racist actions — is here.

Marrying Marriage Ceremonies to Literature

The wedding in A Walk to Remember‘s movie version. (Screen shot by me.)

I’ll be attending a family wedding this coming weekend, so naturally I’ll write today about…weddings in literature.

As in real life, fictional weddings can be wonderful and/or weird and/or lavish and/or bare bones and/or dramatic and/or problematic and/or heartwarming and/or…whatever.

One of the most famous fictional wedding ceremonies is that of the title character and Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 classic Jane Eyre. They are a couple very much in love, but, as many of you know, Rochester has quite a secret. Will it be revealed before the duo says “I do”?

Also memorable is the union of Gervaise and Coupeau in Emile Zola’s 1877 novel The Drinking Den. The couple spend more money on the nuptials than they can afford, the priest who marries them is surly, and the guests get lost in The Louvre museum while killing time between the ceremony and reception. Gervaise had been reluctant to marry Coupeau, or any man, and the imperfect wedding is a harbinger of the disasters that will follow after a few years of happiness.

Their daughter would meet with her own disasters in a subsequent Zola novel, 1880’s Nana.

In Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, the wedding of Claire and Jamie takes place not long after Claire involuntarily time-travels from the 1900s to the 1700s. The two barely know each other, and the union is basically forced — making for a tension-filled yet partly humorous situation. But, lo and behold, the 20th-century-born Claire and the 18th-century-born Jamie by chance end up being very compatible even as they face many daunting challenges in the rest of the novel and its sequels.

Claire and Jamie tied the knot in the first Outlander book, but sometimes it pays to build things up more gradually. For instance, Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe have like-dislike interactions in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and beyond. It’s not until the fourth sequel — Anne’s House of Dreams — that they marry. The wedding scene, and Montgomery’s writing of it, are worth the wait. As with Claire and Jamie, Anne and Gilbert are ultimately compatible.

Nicholas Sparks’ tear-jerker A Walk to Remember features the unexpected high-school-student relationship between the popular Landon and the ostracized Jamie, who’s immensely good-hearted but considered “uncool” for dressing poorly and being religious. We learn she is terminally ill, but the two teens marry anyway in a beautiful ceremony. The novel, whose story is told 40 years later by Landon, leaves things ambiguous as to whether Jamie died or not.

Then there’s the wedding element in Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations. Miss Havisham was jilted at the altar by a scoundrel, and becomes a bitter/depressed recluse who never gets over the traumatic nuptials experience she had as a young woman.

On a more upbeat note, Jane Austen novels are known for a number of “happy ending” weddings after complications and obstacles are overcome. The marriage ceremonies tend to be mentioned more than actually depicted.

Your thoughts about, and examples of, today’s theme?

My next blog post will run on Monday, May 8, rather than the usual Sunday.

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about two Black firefighters suing over blatant racism in my town’s “leadership” — is here.

A Range of Role Reversal Reads

Roll reversals! When you eat a roll from the bottom up. Actually, my topic this week is ROLE reversals…in literature.

There’s plenty of potential drama in those reversals — including how the protagonists act in the unexpected/unfamiliar situations they find themselves in, and how other people react to those characters. 

Perhaps the best known example of a role reversal in fiction is Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, whose two main characters dizzyingly switch stations in life. But role reversals can be more realistic and recognizable.

In a novel I recently read — Kristin Hannah’s heart-wrenching, masterful Home Front — Jolene is deployed as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq War while her attorney husband Michael remains on the…home front…to take care of their two daughters. A somewhat unusual gender reversal. Of course, many women are now in the military, but the novel is set nearly 20 years ago and there are still many more cases where the man is the member of the couple overseas.

Jolene and Michael’s marriage is already on shaky ground before the deployment, partly because Michael opposed the Bush administration’s unnecessary, disastrous invasion of Iraq, even as Jolene was a pilot in the National Guard. Then, something happens to Jolene in the war zone that makes things REALLY challenging. Ms. Hannah certainly doesn’t sugar-coat the situation. 

Another recently read novel — Mary Robinette Kowal’s absorbing The Fated Sky, sequel to The Calculating Stars — continues the alternate-history story of female American astronaut Dr. Elma York into the early 1960s, a time when all real-life American astronauts were men. All white men, too, while Kowal’s fictional crew to Mars includes several women and men of color. They experience plenty of bias from one racist crew member, but they’re there.

Herman Melville’s gripping 1855 novella Benito Cereno is set on a slave ship where a very clever and intricate role reversal has taken place. Another example of how Melville was one of the few 19th-century authors to give characters of color significant roles and some three-dimensionality — as he did with Queequeg four years earlier in Moby-Dick.

A time-travel novel with quite a generational reversal is Marlys Millhiser’s The Mirror, in which a granddaughter and grandmother involuntarily switch bodies and the years they live in (1978 and 1900). Major culture shock for both.

Also a role reversal of sorts is when novels make animals the main characters and humans the secondary ones. Various examples of this, with the two I read last year being Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song (featuring cats) and Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris (starring a horse and other critters).

Your thoughts about, and examples of, this topic?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local legal expenses controversy and more — is here.

Not-Terrific Novels Can Still Be Quite Good

Margaret Atwood (photo by Chris Boland/Flickr

If you really like a writer, even their “lesser” novels can be appealing.

I recently experienced that with The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood — a 2015 novel, by one of my favorite living authors, that I had somehow failed to read before. Far from her best book, but it’s still a fairly engrossing, socially conscious, and at times funny work of speculative fiction about people escaping a U.S. turned dystopian for a closed U.S. community where they all alternate between a house and a prison. A community that, not surprisingly, turns out to be rather dystopian, too. The weirdly humorous parts? Well, for one thing, prepare to meet multiple Elvis Presleys and Marilyn Monroes.

Willa Cather, whose authorial career ended a year after Atwood was born, is best known for My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. But she also wrote a number of other novels ranging from good to very good — including The Song of the Lark (about an opera singer), One of Ours (a World War I novel), and Shadows on the Rock (historical fiction set in Quebec City).

James Hilton is also best known for two novels — the moving Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the eye-opening Lost Horizon — but some of his not-as-scintillating works, including So Well Remembered, are rather nice, too.

Maugham is most famous for Of Human Bondage, and also pretty famous for The Painted Veil, The Razor’s Edge, and The Moon and Sixpence. But there’s a pretty good sleeper amid the Maugham canon: Cakes and Ale, which is more compelling than its title might indicate.

Aldous Huxley? The iconic Brave New World is practically synonymous with his name, but he wrote several not-iconic novels that are quite readable — including the not-dystopian Point Counter Point.

Getting back to favorite living authors, I give many of Liane Moriarty’s novels an A or A+. But even the one I liked least — Truly Madly Guilty, focusing on a fateful barbecue — more than held my interest.

Good but not terrific Jane Austen? Northanger Abbey. Charles Dickens? Hard Times. Herman Melville? Omoo. Anne Bronte? Agnes Grey. Mark Twain? Pudd’nhead Wilson. John Steinbeck? The Wayward Bus. Isabel Allende? The Japanese Lover. Donna Tartt? The Little Friend. Etc.

Anything you’d like to say related to this week’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” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about a time machine, a bridge, and a $1,000 (!) dessert — is here.

Late in Life in Literature

The movie version of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night novel starred Jane Fonda and Robert Redford. 

A person’s later years comprise a life’s p.m. — which also might stand for poignant and moving. There can be declining health, death of loved ones, loneliness, regrets, and other negatives — as well as positives such as the gaining of wisdom and the experiencing of memorable “last hurrahs.”

Such is the case with various fictional characters — including the older protagonists in Kent Haruf’s bittersweet novel Our Souls at Night, which I read “late” last month. It stars a widowed woman (Addie) and a widowed man (Louis) who barely knew each other as neighbors when their spouses were alive but develop an interestingly offbeat relationship soon after the compelling book begins. They find a good measure of happiness but also face challenges — such as dealing with judgmental residents of their small town, a son who tries to break up their relationship, and the responsibilities of taking care of a previously neglected grandchild. Making Our Souls at Night even more elegiac is that it was Haruf’s final novel, published about six months after his 2014 death.

There are few novels with as much of a “last hurrah” as Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, whose protagonist experiences more adventures after reaching the century mark than most people a quarter or half his age.

Or how about Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman? That book uses the main character’s extremely advanced age (110) to recount Jane’s often-difficult life as well as take a general look at the U.S. sociopolitical climate from the time of slavery to the modern civil rights movement.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, about a very delayed late-life romance, also fits this theme. The male co-protagonist can be annoyingly sexist at times, but the novel is beautifully written.

Among the many other lead or supporting characters who are memorable in old age are the brilliant wizard Dumbledore of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, the long-suffering Iris Chase of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Miss Marple the amateur detective in various Agatha Christie mysteries, Emily Pollifax the amateur spy in Dorothy Gilman’s novels, the loner grandfather in Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, the problematic family patriarch Larry Cook in Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, the woodsman Natty Bumppo at end of life in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Prairie, the dying George Washington Crosby in Paul Harding’s Tinkers, the “Chowder Society” men in Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, and of course the title character in Honore de Balzac’s Old Goriot as well as Santiago the fisherman in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

Any thoughts on this week’s theme and novels you’ve read that fit it?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about an outrageous monetary demand from a misogynist township manager and some alternatives to the ending of a long-time local bus service — is here.

‘Fish Out of Water’ Are ‘C’ (Character) Creatures

Ten years ago, before I started this blog, I wrote a piece about characters who are “fish out of water.” Time to revisit that “fishional”…um…fictional topic by discussing some novels I’ve read since 2013 that are relevant to this theme.

As I noted back then, there’s often lots of drama and/or comedy when authors transport protagonists to a much different place. Those characters may initially “flounder” and have embarrassing moments — which is not good for them but interesting to read about. Then they might eventually get their bearings, experience new things, meet new people, and gain more confidence — which is good for them and also interesting to read about. Even if characters don’t adapt to new locales, there’s drama in that, too.

And readers — many of whom have been “fish out of water” themselves during vacations or after moving to new places — can compare their own real-life memories with the made-up situations depicted by authors.

Last week, I read John Grisham’s Gray Mountain, which tells the story of a young attorney at a big Manhattan law firm who unexpectedly ends up working at a legal-aid clinic in a small Virginia town. Samantha Kofer experiences culture shock far from her beloved New York City, but satisfaction as well practicing meaningful law for low-income clients. Samantha also finds herself in danger when she gets on the radar of Big Coal, which always plays hardball to keep the profits rolling in — whatever the cost to workers, to residents living near strip mines, and to the environment.

Another novel with a leaving-a-larger-population dynamic is Joyce Carol Oates’ Solstice, in which newly divorced Monica Jensen takes a job teaching in rural Pennsylvania — where she gets to know a rather interesting, problematic woman.

The opposite dynamic — small town to big city — probably happens more often in literature. One memorable example is when Denise Baudu moves to Paris in Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight to work in a large department store. Another is when Molly Bolt, in Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, leaves an anti-LGBTQIA+ environment in Florida (sound familiar? 😦 ) to move to New York City.

Immigrants/long-time visitors to other countries are very much “fish out of water” at first. So many novels with that motif: Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, James Clavell’s Shogun, Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit, Wilkie Collins’ A Rogue’s Life, etc.

Being a “fish out of water” can of course be mostly positive. Such is the case with Anne Shirley of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, who leaves an orphanage to live with adult siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert in a house and rural area she finds bucolic — though obviously life isn’t perfect.

Science fiction certainly makes characters “fish out of water” as they might exit the Earth for other worlds or visit Earth from other worlds. So many examples, including the human colonizers of The Red Planet in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles.

Not surprisingly, time travel novels also offer major “fish out of water” experiences for characters visiting the past or future. Some books, including Jack Finney’s Time and Again, even give us both of that. Much of Finney’s novel is devoted to Simon Morley’s trips to 1880s New York City from the second half of the 20th century. Later, the woman Simon falls in love with — Julia Charbonneau — accompanies him back to HIS time in Manhattan. She is certainly shocked by all the cars, the less-modest clothing, TVs, and more.

Last but not least, animals can be “fish out of water,” too — without being sea creatures. 🙂 Jack London’s The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck the canine being yanked from “civilization” to become a sled dog in…the wild, while London’s novel White Fang features the opposite scenario: from the wild to “civilization” for its title character. That part-dog/part-wolf is as shocked as Julia Charbonneau when seeing a big city, in this case San Francisco.

Any examples of, or thoughts about, this week’s topic?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a municipal budget and a misogynist township manager who seemingly can’t be gotten rid of — is here.