Surprise, Surprise! How Authors Keep Us On Our Toes

There are various ways fiction writers can play with reader expectations as they try to make their work more interesting.

Obviously, one approach is to create an ironic and/or surprise conclusion a la O. Henry — who was a master of that in tales such as “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf.” Readers will certainly want to keep reading a writer who offers story-line stunners.

Other short stories with major jolts at the end include “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, “The Necklace” by Guy de Maupassant, “Proof Positive” by Graham Greene, “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, and “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains” by Edgar Allan Poe, to name just a few.

Another way to intrigue readers is to mix in poetry, letters, lists, newspaper clippings, author drawings, and/or other content amid traditional text. That’s the case with A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, various novels by writer/doodler Kurt Vonnegut, and so on. (In Goethe’s day, novels with letters were fairly common.)

As I wrote in a past post, some authors also shake things up by including small amounts of whimsical humor in what are mostly dead-serious novels — such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Erich Maria Remarque’s The Black Obelisk, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. This can surprise readers as well as give them a little breather that helps them better appreciate the rest of the great-but-depressing prose.

Yet another way of using unpredictability to draw readers in is to juxtapose a sad or partly sad plot line with an idyllic setting — say, Paris. Much of the French capital is of course beautiful and romantic, yet I can think of few very upbeat works set in “The City of Light.”

Instead, I think of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (with the struggling Jean Valjean) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with the unhappy Quasimodo). Or Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (with frustrated painter Claude Lantier) and The Ladies’ Delight (which has a love story but mainly depicts the “Walmartization” of a 19th-century Paris neighborhood).

Or Balzac’s Cesar Birotteau (with its affluent title character duped into losing so much money he may or may not be able to repay his debts), Colette’s The Vagabond (about the often-tough life of vaudeville performer Renee Nere), and J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert (whose Lalla protagonist has some success in Paris but misses her native Morocco).

Non-French authors also depict Paris as a place with the potential for heartache. For instance, Henry James chronicles Christopher Newman’s difficult effort to marry a French woman in The American, Edith Wharton sets up the possibility of a happy or unhappy Paris ending in the mostly New York-set The Age of Innocence, and James Baldwin depicts a visiting American struggling with his gay identity (among other things) in Giovanni’s Room.

Without divulging too much about plot lines ( πŸ™‚ ), can you name additional literary works that play with reader expectations in the ways I mentioned in this post? Also, in what other ways do authors shake up readers, and which literary works exemplify those other ways? And, heck, if you don’t want to deal with those two questions, I’d be happy to hear the titles of other novels set in Paris!

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area β€” unless you’re replying to someone else. Also, please feel free to read through comments and reply to anyone you want; I love not only being in conversations, but also reading conversations in which I’m not involved!)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

207 thoughts on “Surprise, Surprise! How Authors Keep Us On Our Toes

  1. Sometimes authors keep us guessing as to why we weren’t previously guessing about things we had assumed had to be settled business of the most foundational sort– a good example being Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, a book which manages, despite some brilliant bits of description (see the construction described in the title), to feel like an elaborate trick made for the amusement of Banks. Still, i have kept the book around because those descriptive bits are brilliant– and I will read the next Banks I happen upon.

    I don’t want to give too much away, but The Wasp Factory, in a way that tortures sense, has something in common with V. Woolf’s Orlando.

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    • Perhaps some gender confusion/ambiguity in “The Wasp Factory”? (Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex” brilliantly explores that as well.)

      Interesting how some novels are superb in parts but perhaps not as a whole.

      Thanks, jhNY! The first line of your comment — wow!

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      • “Interesting how, etc”
        More than few suffer that malady, even Huck, according to more than a few. Under the Volcano is another, to most tastes, as it starts so slowly as to move imperceptibly– but move it does, as somebody else more or else put it, like water at the edge of a whirlpool,and faster and faster it moves to center and circles the drain of dissolution unto death. But some parts are better than others.

        It would perhaps be more fruitful to study the novels that succeed entirely, but I’m not sure I could do better than to nominate my favorites– most of which I’m sure, are imperfect by a longshot.

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        • So true, jhNY! I guess it’s relatively rare for a great novel to be great on every page, totally seamless, and all that. “Huckleberry Finn,” as you mention, is certainly an example of a superb novel that isn’t always superb.

          As you also note, some novels start slowly and then pick up a big head of steam. Perhaps George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” fall into that category (though I liked each novel from the beginning).

          And, yes, a novel can seem “perfect” to one reader and not to another!

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  2. As for the uses of Paris to writers (of whatever national origin) who have ugly tales to tell– perhaps it’s but working with the simple irony of dark doings done in the City of Light.

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    • Thanks for your comment and question, Kristy!

      If I’m remembering right, the site said it wouldn’t force long-time users to comment via Facebook (unless they wanted to), and then broke that promise. Also, I believe there was a promise that commenters could continue to use aliases, and that option was also eliminated.

      A number of commenters wanted to avoid Facebook and avoid using their real names for a variety of good reasons — including not wanting to have their political views known to employers and, in some cases, because they had previously been harassed and/or stalked online.

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      • Perfectly described and answered well Dave..
        Good Morning to you and so we have moved on. Huffington Post is in the past almost one year now and the World moves on.
        Thank you for all your comments and answers to all of us. .
        Appreciate much.

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      • Because of those very valid reasons, which are what drove me away, HuffPost lost the interesting commenters in all their sections, now and then I read some comments to various stories and am appalled. Most of the knowledgeable and literate have fled!!!

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        • Perfectly stated, Clairdelune, and you’re absolutely right! HP lost a lot of IQ when many of its most intelligent and admirable commenters left because of the Facebook requirement, the no-anonymity requirement, the deletion of great comments, the long waits for comments to post, the clunky comment-format changes, the tech department ignoring requests for help, the additional “tabloid-y” content, etc. I’ve 99% stopped visiting the site, but when I do I’ve also noticed plenty of comments nowhere near as good as before — as you said.

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            • Thanks for your additional comment, Kristy! I agree that that view is too narrow and predictable (in literature or in reality — including on Web sites). Men are probably “the guilty party” more than 50% of the time, but in literature there are certainly cases of women being the “villains” — as in novels such as Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” (Cathy) and Edith Wharton’s “The Custom of the Country” (Undine).

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                • Clairdelune, that’s a great example of another not-admirable female in literature. Cousin Bette was nothing like the almost saintly Eugenie Grandet, to name a different titular Balzac character.

                  There’s also Madame Merle in Henry James’ excellent “The Portrait of a Lady,” which I recently read for the first time. She’s another wolf in sheep’s clothing. As you say, that kind of shifty character can be the worst.

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                    • Clairdelune, unlike you, I’ve been late to Henry James! But I’ve been catching up recently. I also was very impressed this fall with his “The American,” while finding “The Europeans” good but not as good.

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                    • Well, I have been alive for a lot longer than you, πŸ˜‰ and got a very early start with the reading because books were my only/best friends, and still are. The downside is that there is much I do not remember clearly because so much time has passed, and possibly I have exceeded the storage capacity of my brain given how voraciously I read for so many decades. But there are a few things that impressed me too strongly to forget – I have never forgotten the deep delight and wonder I felt the first time I read Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine”.

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                    • Clairdelune, I’m not sure you’ve been alive longer than me; I’m not young! πŸ™‚

                      It’s great that you started reading books so early, and it’s perfectly natural to forget a lot of details in books after many years. As I’ve mentioned in another comment or two (hopefully I’m not repeating myself to you πŸ™‚ ), I’m currently rereading the wonderful “To Kill a Mockingbird” after several decades, and I’m remembering almost nothing from its pages. But as is the case with “Dandelion Wine” for you, some books never leave my mind. I’ve found that with “Jane Eyre,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and a few others.

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                    • Dave, I find it interesting that you mention “Jane Eyre” and “The Grapes of Wrath”, because those are books that left a strong impression also. Especially “The Grapes of Wrath”, I was only 13 or 14 when I read it for the first time (in the Italian translation, of course), and the poverty and suffering of the migrant family devastated me. Which, thinking back, was odd considering that only four years earlier I was living through a war, with bombs and Nazis horrors and the death of my father, but even that did not seem as awful as that family’s life. (I AM a lot older than you!!)

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                    • Oh yes, Eric, the evil Milady deWinter! I read “The Three Musketeers” for the first time when I was barely a teenager, and I found Milady fascinating, wishing I could be a little bit evil like her. :-).

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                    • Eric, great mention of Milady de Winter! She was indeed up to no good. As an aside, Alexandre Dumas certainly created some memorably evil MALE characters in “The Count of Monte Cristo.”

                      One thing about evil characters, of course, is that they can be rather charismatic in addition to being bad. But better to experience that charisma in fiction than in real life. πŸ™‚

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                    • Clairdelune, after seeing your latest comment, I do vividly remember you discussing (at the HP site) your devastating World War II experiences. What a time and place to be living, with all the war-related horrors on top of personal tragedy. So sorry about that.

                      Have you ever read Elsa Morante’s “History,” set in WWII Italy? Eric here and commenter jhNY recommended it to me a few months ago, and I thought it was one of the 10 or so best novels I’ve ever had the privilege to read.

                      “The Grapes of Wrath” was indeed beyond heartbreaking. The Joads were not in a war, but they almost might as well have been with all the awful stuff that happened to them. I suppose they were victims of a sort of war on the non-rich, which unfortunately is still going strong today.

                      (Also, I forgot to mention in an earlier comment that I put Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine” on my to-read list after you mentioned it. It sounds REALLY good.)

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            • Very kind of you to say that, Clairdelune, and it WAS sad when good bloggers left the site. I wonder if HP even cared; I certainly never received a message from anyone there asking why I stopped writing for the site — which, as you say, has become almost like a digital National Enquirer. 😦 Still some good content there, but fewer and farther between.

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              • Sadly, Dave, based on the plethora of inane TV reality shows and oh what happened to HP, the media trend seems to be to cater to very lowest denominator… But fortunately there still are some online sites where rational thought is still valued!!! πŸ™‚

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                • Yes, Clairdelune, that is definitely the trend — on TV, online, and in print. Dumbing down for profit is a big thing, and it has the added “bonus” of keeping citizens disengaged from the things that really matter — a disengagement corporate types love.

                  It was especially disappointing when HP went downhill, because it was in part a thinking person’s site for a while (or at least it seemed that way). The purchase of HP by the lowest-common-denominator AOL certainly didn’t help.

                  But you’re right that some sites remain intelligent. I greatly value the intelligent conversations you and others bring to this blog!

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                • I noticed no sloppiness whatsoever! But very sorry you’ve been working so hard and not getting enough sleep. (You do have a sense of humor about your exhaustion — funny line between your asterisks. πŸ™‚ )

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  3. Rereading a favourite books doesn’t take nearly as long as reading a new book, and so I don’t feel THAT guilty. I’ve recently read a few complex books, that I’m sure I didn’t pay enough attention to, and so most of my guilt at the moment is about NOT having enough time for a reread. If only we could plug up the hold at the bottom of the vessel

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    • You’re right, Susan, rereading a favorite novel usually doesn’t take as long as reading it for the first time. It’s sort of like having all the research done before writing something, or being warmed up before running a race. πŸ™‚

      Not sure yet if it’s complex or just long, but I’m getting closer to reading “The Luminaries” novel you highly recommended. Hopefully by early next week. I’m greatly looking forward to it!

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  4. Hi Dave…the books of Somerset Maugham particularly “The Razor’s Edge” where Larry Darrell after the war moved to Chicago and then decided he would rather loaf around than be a responsible married man, Moved to Paris to study and drifted to find his spiritual self in India came back to Paris..and life took a complex turn. His books would keep one on their edge particularly with ” Moon and Sixpence, Of Human bondage”.

    Arthur Conan Doyle and his “The Hound of the Baskervilles” among other spell binding books.Wonderful thriller..BBC is bringing the Sherlock series back again .

    Halloween is just around the corner Robert Louis Stevenson`s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, decades ago in PBS watched the series starring Jack Palance…Dave he was so scary i can`t begin to tell you about that.
    Thoroughly convincing as an superb actor.

    Lastly The short stories of O. Henry..”The Gift of Magi” among other wonderful short one….I read the book in my college years and the book walked away from me. I should look for that again in my public library.

    The modern version…http://youtu.be/o2VFgHGKzx4

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    • Hi, bebe!

      Brilliant of you to bring up W. Somerset Maugham. His great novels DID take surprising turns — as you note, in “The Razor’s Edge,” “The Moon and Sixpence” (stockbroker turned starving artist!), and other titles such as “The Painted Veil.” I’ve yet to read “Of Human Bondage” — I know it’s considered Maugham’s best.

      The Sherlock Holmes novels and stories were also full of surprises, as were “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” and some other Robert Louis Stevenson works.

      Thanks for linking to that Bert and Ernie version of O. Henry’s story! Love it! “Sesame Street” is often so heartwarming — and clever, funny, and of course educational.

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      • Dave..I read all these classics in my college years instead of text books, if I did the outcome would be different, but no regrets. Of Human bondage is a brilliant novel. So many movies have been made..i have not seen any of those those. Suddenly thinking of “Jamaica Inn” by the English writer Daphne du Maurier. What a thriller it was .

        I wish they bring back Jack Palance`s movie in DVD..of course i would not be watching it.

        Incidentally I found the O.. Henry short stories at the library, did not borrow that yet ..good to know that it is available.

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        • Reading the classics more than textbooks sounds good to me, bebe! πŸ™‚

          I DEFINITELY want to read “Of Human Bondage.”

          Remember those discussions we had at HP with “Rumzee” and others about some of Daphne du Maurier’s novels? An excellent writer — I loved her “My Cousin Rachel” and “The House on the Strand” books, among others. I’ve never read “Jamaica Inn,” unfortunately.

          The Jack Palance performance you describe sounds amazing!

          I have an O. Henry collection at home that I really enjoy. One interesting bit of trivia about that writer: He coined the term “banana republic”!

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    • I agree as to the Palance performance- in my experience, the best ever.

      Another creepy and convincing PBS gem, now years old: Peter O’Toole as Uncle Silas in The Dark Angel, a multi-part dramatization “Uncle Silas”, the Sheridan LeFanu classic.

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      • So you have seen it too ? In early 70`s and I remember so vividly that one scene when his wife was seating in front of her dresser and the transformation of his face from Dr. Jekyll to Mr Hyde was shown through the mirror …I had a couple of sleepless nights after that spectacular acting. .

        Now I should look for the Peter O’Toole video if available.

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        • Yep, saw it too, but maybe in the 80’s. I seem to remember his daughter had a show on, a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not sort of a thing, if not the thing itself, already airing when I saw Jack as Jeckyll and Hyde– and that show was definitely broadcast in the 80’s.

          Fantastic stuff, and so far as I know, the best thing he ever did.

          If you like that sort of transformation, be on the lookout for John Barrymore’s Don Juan, silent, made in the mid-Twenties by Warner Brothers. In it, he plays a mad monk as well as the Don, and attempting to evade capture by his pursuers, the Don comes upon the monk in a torture chamber, if I remember right. He overpowers the monk and turning to the camera, contorts his face methodically yet fluidly till he looks just like the overpowered monk. As in JUST LIKE. Took me years to figure out his advantage– since he played both parts, he had played one contortedly all along, and the other as the matinee idol he was, so that the transformation scene might shock and amaze the way it did me at least, the first two times I saw it.

          Hope you find O’Toole. He is unforgettably evil in that role.

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          • Amazing is it not, just pure acting, no makeup required to facilitate those transformation…just superb performance.
            I am in OH but the Public Library has an amazing amount of collection of movie old and now. I shall definitely look for Don Juan. Also Peter O’Toole was another brilliant performer and lived the life to its full extent.

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  5. I had a pal long ago that opined, but half-seriously, that a great deal of what passes for plot, maybe all of it, was driven by one lonesome principle: The Old Switcheroo.

    Certainly in detective fiction, which only occasionally rises to literature class, much hay might be made under the light of TOS. And I read a fair amount of it yearly, so I must be at least a bit a devotee of TOS in practice.

    But in recent years at least, I find that what I treasure most of all in literary fiction is the narrative voice,whenever I find such a one as worthy of treasuring.

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    • There’s certainly some truth to your friend’s “Switcheroo” theory, jhNY.

      The great narrative voice is indeed a major draw, and can make a novel fascinating even if there isn’t a lot of plot, action, and other elements. George Eliot, who I had the pleasure of reading a lot of this year, is a master at the narrative voice (though, heck, she also offers plenty of “plot, action, and other elements”). Maybe a better example is Henry James, whose “The Portrait of a Lady” I just finished. His stellar narrative voice helps make 600 small-print pages and some rather long, convoluted sentences go by rather quickly, and with little boredom.

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      • I am reading The American Scene by James, in fits and starts, mostly because I am proving denser than his sentences there. But also because his voice, exalted and exalting, seems to find much to say about and around and on top of, but always apart from, not very much, by way of insight, by the page, though I love to hear him talk by the phrase.

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        • I’ve never read Henry James’ nonfiction. Sounds like at least some of it has prose as dense as some of his fiction. Your comment’s second sentence is quite a (wry?) approximation of James’ prose. Nicely done! Even though there’s a lot of (beautiful) verbiage to get through, I’ve become a James fan and admire the psychological way he depicts his characters and the psychology he gives those characters.

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          • I am a fan of his fiction, and of his phrase-making generally, I guess. And I like The American Scene; I just can’t love it, as the author never seems to get outside his hatband.

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            • “…never seems to get outside his hatband” — great line, jhNY!

              I’m looking forward to reading more of Henry James. I’ve now read five of his novels and novellas (“Daisy Miller,” “The American,” “The Europeans,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” and “The Turn of the Screw”), so there are many more to choose from!

              What’s your favorite James novel!

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              • “The Turn of the Screw”, because I am extremely fond of ghost stories, and because I saw “The Innocents” with my mother at a too-tender age for the story not to have seared itself on my insides.

                But there is much James ahead of me, and I am going to next read “The Wings of the Dove”– bought it from one of my street sellers only last week….

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                • “The Turn of the Screw” is certainly memorable and spooky. (Say, I wonder what holiday is coming up in nine days?)

                  I would also like to eventually read “The Wings of the Dove,” which is supposed to be one of his more challenging but superb later-period novels. Glad you were able to purchase it!

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  6. Hey Dave, have to laugh as I was teasing you about enabling “spoilers” so lo and behold it actually seems to be a concern. Below is a link to a recent NPR piece that discusses a study claiming that people enjoy reading stories more when they already know the ending. I plan on stopping by with some thoughts on a work that I feel completely alters our expectations and perspective in what I personally feel is the greatest short story ever written James Joyce’s The Dead… spoiler alert , at the ending it’s snowing like all get out over Ireland. http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2012/07/26/157430614/it-was-all-a-dream-or-turns-out-spoilers-are-good-for-you

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    • That NPR piece is really interesting, Donny. Thanks for linking to it! But I still would rather not know what’s coming in a literary work (though rereading does have its pleasures).

      I agree that “The Dead” is a fantastic story. (To date, the only James Joyce work I’ve read.) I believe you and perhaps 3fingerbrown had recommended it to me back at HP. There is definitely a major revelation in that atmospheric tale!

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      • I think it depends on the work in question genre stuff like mysteries or sci-fi of course but for most great literature knowing the ending does nothing to diminish the readers experience. Odysseus and his wiles are no less exciting because we know he’ll be making it back to Penelope , who actually started Moby Dick not knowing the home team( the whale of course) would win in a rout ,unlike KC currently, and does any reader not cheer the impudent Romeo on regardless of the fact that it’s predetermined everybody dies over one roll in the hay?

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        • I guess I feel that knowing the ending of a great piece of literature diminishes the experience somewhat, though not in a way that ruins the reading satisfaction — as you explained with your excellent examples. I certainly knew Moby-Dick would live to celebrate another White (Whale) Christmas, but it was nice, when I first read Melville’s classic in my younger days, not knowing all the details of how things would play out.

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        • I cheered myself out on Mercutio, but probably only because he seemed most like me, as Romeo did not, though I would have liked him to win his fair lady, if only to spoil the family feud.

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  7. The Red Shoes film from the 1940’s starring Moira Shearer, based on a fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen. The tale is Grimm in nature,anti thesis of a pleasant measuring the marigolds refrain. The film is about a ballerina who is the obsession of the Russian ballet company director. The love is unrequited,and she falls for a composer and travels the world. The ballet The Red Shoes is her final performance. Like the fairytale,the shoes control frenetic dance making their wearer helpless. The film surprisingly and frightenly ends, spoiler alert,with the ballerina throwing herself off a balcony to her demise. Another work of literature set in Paris with a surprise ending is a wonderful,imaginative moving and sentimental read is Elegance of the Hedgehog,highly recommended.

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      • Michele, thanks for mentioning and skillfully describing “The Red Shoes,” which I’ve somehow never read or seen. One surprising thing about many fairy tales (or maybe not so surprising) is how uneasy they can make us feel.

        And “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” is now on my list! I’ve read many, many French novels from roughly 1830 to the 1940s (Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Flaubert, Zola, de Maupassant, Colette, Camus, etc.), but hardly any French novels of more recent vintage!

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        • Eric, great example of a novel in which readers know what will NOT happen, yet the book is still riveting. Sort of like knowing the destination, but interesting and unexpected things can happen along the way. A lot of historical novels have conclusions we’re aware of, but great characters and great writing still make many of them well worth reading.

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            • I agree, Eric!

              Also, with historical fiction we know how “the big picture” will end — say, the Allies win World War II. Yet we don’t know what will happen to the fictional characters that populate historical novels along with real-life people. For instance, in Elsa Morante’s amazing novel “History,” which you and jhNY recommended, one of course knew that the Nazis and the Italian fascists would eventually lose, but one didn’t know exactly what would happen to Ida and her family.

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        • The Red Shoes film storyline does not really derive from Hans Christian Anderson, except symbolically; the ballet “The Red Shoes” contained within the film, does.
          The storyline of the film involves obsession, and its necessities in a life of art, which as it turns out, is only so much of a life, as is life without it.

          The color and Norma Shearer, who also made The Tales of Hoffmann (and little else in film), are hauntingly gorgeous.

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  8. Another excellent article here, Dave! I think you’re touching on two issues in narratives: surprises and unexpected revelations, ironic developments in a narrative. Irony is often involved in some of the unanticipated turns in a narrative. I think a novelist’s skill lies in how he or she can present these in a way so they naturally emerge from the narrative and the behavior of this particular set of characters. If an author is less skillful, then such swerves may seem like contrivances. One of the first examples I thought of with an ironic resolution is Balzac’s ‘Cousin Bette.’ The poor relation Bette plots the downfall of her more prosperous relatives as well as other individuals peripheral in those relatives’ lives. She is actually more successful than one would ever expect primarily because the relatives are really unaware that the mastermind of these disastrous happenings is right under their roof. Bette goes to her grave with her reputation as the faithful, steadfast and dependable spinster cousin. None of these people ever suspect her real intentions. Narrative missteps and jarring changes in tone can be unwelcome surprises in great novels. The foremost one in my mind is the last 40 pages or so of ‘Huckleberry Finn’. Twain sabotages his great American novel with the protracted conclusion in which Tom Sawyer at his most unbearable and most control freakish manipulates unnecessarily convoluted tomfoolery all in the service of–what? Tom’s own inflated sense of adventure, almost invalidating the powerful moral evolution of Huck and Jim. Sam Clemens, where was the great editor that might possibly have talked some sense into you?

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    • Many people might also say that the King and Duke “hijack” the novel.And even with Tom’s “foolishness”, I believe it is more than that. Twain had written extensively on what he thought of the ending of his novel, and he said it ended “exactly the way a novel should.,with a conclusion.”

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      • bobess48 and Eric, terrific discussion about “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”!

        I also feel that Tom Sawyer’s appearance and actions in the latter part of Mark Twain’s novel definitely hurt the book. Heck, Tom and his shenanigans push “Huckleberry Finn” out of my top-ten favorite novels into maybe one of my top-25 favorite novels. “Sam Clemens, where was the great editor that might possibly have talked some sense into you?” — indeed, bobess48! And “tomfoolery” is a VERY appropriate word to use. πŸ™‚

        Eric, I’ve never read what Twain said about the end of “Huckleberry Finn.” It would be fascinating! By inserting Tom into things, maybe Twain was deliberately making some sort of statement about “foolishness,” ignorance, annoying behavior, boyhood pranks, racism, or something else in addition to trying to be “humorous”? But I really do think Twain sent his book partly off the rails.

        bobess48, I’ll reply separately to the other part of your comment.

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              • Eric, this is an absolutely brilliant essay you linked to. It not only made me rethink my feelings about “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (my love of much of the novel has been knocked down a peg) but also reinforced how much I love and respect “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” I’ve always felt a little embarrassed about that, because the critical consensus is that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel is not great literature. But while somewhat melodramatic, I do think it’s great literature — along with being a powerful treatise against injustice.

                Interesting that Stowe and Mark Twain were neighbors in real life as well as “neighbors” in that Jane Smiley essay. πŸ™‚

                Thanks so much for linking to that essay!

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                • Welcome, Dave. I think the essay is great writing, but I think ti also misses the mark in a way; I had written to Jane Smiley and got a response many years ago. The things that Twain did with writing, figurative and non-figurative language, his society criticisms of so many aspects, his universal themes which are incredibly numerous, and his ability to write through the voice of a 13-year-old boy outweighs many of its disadvantages. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” just knocks you over the head to say slavery is bad, but it takes a real artist to say more than that.

                  Slave narratives are also abound, but it takes a great artist like Frederick Douglas to also say more than “slavery was wrong.” Slave narratives, by the way, have more twists and turns than you “can shake a stick at.” Many times, one wonders if so-and-so character will live or die at the end.

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                  • Thanks for the excellent follow-up comment, Eric! I’m still a big fan of (most of) “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and of Twain in general. He is indeed a complex, deep writer — both when he is and isn’t being funny and satirical. But Jane Smiley’s take on things did hold some truth for me.

                    I agree that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has a “screed” quality at times, but there is nuance there, too. The whites in the book include (among others) abolitionists, somewhat “benign” slave owners, and brutal slave owners, and the black characters include (among others) the stoic Tom, the intellectual George, the complex Cassy, etc.

                    As an aside, I recently saw “12 Years a Slave,” and it was powerful and devastating.

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                    • I’ve never read the book, Eric. Do you know who the ghostwriter was? Perhaps an abolitionist? In the movie, at least, the abused Solomon Northup seemed like a man eminently capable of writing his own book.

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                    • Thanks for that information, Eric! You know your authorial facts!

                      I guess a more “partisan” writer might have made the book even more riveting. Again, I haven’t read it so I can only guess.

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                • I have just finished reading the Smiley essay (thanks ericpollock!), and am wiser for it, her raising up of Stowe to my mind not necessary to the business of illuminating the moral shortcomings of Twain. But I’m a guy who can read a lot of complaints without requiring the complainer to also provide solutions.

                  However, I think, given that the subject of race, or rather, the centrality of white supremacy to our culture, remains white-hot and blinding to much good sense, Twain’s book remains a fine measure of where only some of us have actually got to– we know black people, we recognize their humanity, we are fond of some– for which acts we expect grateful reward, despite our inaction in any practical way to discomfort ourselves on their behalf, and on behalf of our own humanity.

                  Read the comments that gather today under a news story from Ferguson MO– how far from Hannibal anytime, really?– and note how many bristlingly unreconstructed attitudes and resentments reside to this day among those of us who have prospered, too often unknowingly, from the racial hierarchy at work here from our nation’s beginnings.

                  I am of the opinion that we whites may never be able to forgive the blacks for having allowed us to treat them so badly that we cannot forgive ourselves– unless we ignore history altogether, and declare ourselves and the nation post-racial, sans any evidence beyond our own need to be well past the eternal race question.

                  Twain’s novel is a great American one because of what remains unresolved and in conflict at its heart. Like us.

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        • Maybe Twain was normalizing the extraordinary Huck’s adventures by bringing in Tom; maybe he was contextualizing Huck with the larger Twain franchise. He was trying to make a living with this stuff. I do agree the novel would have been better off without it– but perhaps not the franchise.

          As the US has never been able to break off its masochistic love of the English on the make among us, I have always appreciated the Duke and his farcical doings in Huckleberry Finn. It’s the sort of thing that makes a book ‘evergreen’

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          • All excellent points, jhNY! Mark Twain was indeed highly conscious of the commercial aspects of his work along with its literary aspects. He wanted to be wealthy, he had a fairly large family, his Hartford, Conn., house was huge and ornate, and (perhaps later) he was investing lots of money in what turned out to be a dud of a printing press. He needed the cash!

            The Duke, whether or not he (along with Tom Sawyer) helped push the latter part of “Huckleberry Finn” off the rails, was a memorable Twain-esque creation.

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            • One of the best reasons to nominate Huckleberry Finn as a, if not the, Great American Novel, is its depictions of characters– types– loose in various parts of the contemporary national scene– the girl pining away from consumption, and over-consumption of morbid literature; the man who, on point of honor, would shoot another in cold blood; the feuders who cannot remember exactly what the fuss was originally about– I categorize the Duke and his doings among them.

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              • jhNY, I agree that “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” characters were not only vivid personalities but American “types” (whether in a real or mythological sense).

                “Huckleberry Finn” is certainly in the mix for “Great American Novel.” Other candidates? Perhaps “Moby-Dick,” “The Great Gatsby,” and a few others I can’t think of at the moment!

                With “Freedom,” Jonathan Franzen was trying to write a modern-day “Great American Novel,” and I feel he came pretty darn close to succeeding. Have you read it?

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      • bobess48, I have periodically revealed spoilers or worried that I did. It’s hard to avoid doing that or avoid worrying about doing that. πŸ™‚

        I’ve read about a half dozen Balzac novels (“Father Goriot” and “Eugenie Grandet” are my favorites), but have not gotten to “Cousin Bette” yet. Your description of it will in no way stop me from eventually reading it — in fact, I’m very intrigued!

        You make a fantastic point about how surprises in a novel can feel contrived unless the author is skillful enough to make the surprise seem organic — i.e., to masterfully hide the puppet strings the author is wielding.

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  9. “…small amounts of whimsical humor in what are mostly dead-serious novels β€” such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.”

    Well, we have Stubb’s pronouncement that:
    “Ha! ha! ha! ha! hem! clear my throat!β€”I’ve been thinking over it ever since, and that ha, ha’s the final consequence. Why so? Because a laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer; and come what will, one comfort’s always leftβ€”that unfailing comfort is, it’s all predestinated.”

    While this sounds jolly, it’s very nihilistic and he even denounces free will.

    Also quite funny is the whaling ship that has had such bad luck hunting whales, that it must hail the Pequod and ask for oil to light their lamps.

    There is a novel by T.C. Boyle called The Women, which is a fictional account of Frank Lloyd Wright, his times, his women. I was shocked by its ending which I never saw coming. It was disturbingly violent. It did not fit the tone of the rest of the book. I remember it catching me by surprise so, that I put it down and just stared off, asking myself where did that come from?

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    • And then there’s Ishmael and Queequeg in the inn bedroom before the Pequod’s voyage (a scene I mentioned in a previous post or two). I found it hilarious.

      There were definitely some fascinating secondary characters in “Moby-Dick,” including Stubb (who you mentioned) and Starbuck (of future coffee fame πŸ™‚ ). Thanks for posting that amazing Stubb quote, and for mentioning the needing-oil scene!

      Melville was also funny in such works as his “I and My Chimney” short story and (in a dark-humor sort of way) “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

      Interesting, Joe, about that out-of-the-blue ending in “The Women.” Not good. I remember being surprised at “The House of the Seven Gables” ending. I don’t want to give it away, but it didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the novel. I later read that Hawthorne was convinced to change the original, better ending.

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      • Hi Dave, I read “The House of Seven Gables” eons ago, and must confess that I do not recall the ending. Now I will HAVE to get a copy of it and read it again — well, at least try to squeeze some much needed reading time in my work schedule. I have several books set aside for such possibility.

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        • Hi, Clairedelune! I wish I could discuss β€œThe House of Seven Gables” ending here, but I’m afraid of giving too much away. πŸ™‚ As you might remember, the novel as a whole is not as interesting or as accomplished as Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” but it’s still pretty absorbing.

          I hope you can fit in some reading amid your work schedule — and thanks for commenting!

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      • “Another way to intrigue readers is to mix in poetry, letters, lists, newspaper clippings, author drawings, and/or other content amid traditional text.”

        I cannot make an exhaustive list of all instances, but only a very partial one:

        In Moby Dick, before the narrative commences, two pre-sections, “”Etymology” and Extracts”, qualify as such stuff as you describe. What they have in common is their references out of the book to the wider world of other books– which is not the same thing as the world– such as the narrator has run across, somewhat incredibly, in his unlikely researches, which of course, are actually the author’s.

        There is in Chapter 1, “Loomings”, an imaginary newspaper headline:
        Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.
        Whaling Voyage of One Ishmael.
        BLOODY BATTLE IN AFGHANISTAN.

        Note the verisimilitude and the timeless aspect of the last item.

        In Chapter 7, “The Chapel”, there are boxed transcriptions of marble tablets marking the deaths at sea of several members of the congregation that loosely copy the form of the tablets themselves, which qualify in your description as “other content”.

        Chapter 108, “Ahab and the Carpenter” is written in the literary form of a scene in an Elizabethan, even Shakespearian play– literally.

        Then throughout there are, extended ruminations as to the categorizing of whales, (Chapter 32 “Cetology”), their depiction in art, the history of the whaling industry, etc., all of which are meant to enhance and deepen the reader’s understanding of all things whale, none of which do much if anything to advance the storyline– not that I minded, once I realized I was not reading a whaling story, but rather a whale of a book.

        Sadly, for most readers now the various diversions from plot seem to tax the diverted attention to the point of overmuch, and thus those chapters devoted to the imparting of this stuff prove to be the undoing of many a resolution made before coming aboard this Great American Experimental Novel.

        And leave me wondering: what did Melville think of Tristram Shandy?

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        • You’re right, jhNY, “Moby-Dick” is a prime example of using all kinds of interesting literary tools. Thanks for providing all those great examples!

          That kind of thing can be challenging, or even boring, for some readers, as you note. But I think it further enriches Herman Melville’s very rich novel.

          Reminds me a bit of “The Grapes of Wrath,” which has those alternating chapters that are “big picture” rather than about the Joad family. Those chapters can be a bit slow at times, and they do interrupt the story line, yet they ultimately make the novel much deeper. Same with Junot Diaz’s VERY extensive use of on-page footnotes about Dominican Republic history in his novel “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”

          As for “Tristram Shandy,” I read it so long ago that I’ve forgotten every bit of it! It’s still on one of my home bookshelves, though. πŸ™‚

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  10. As mentioned before, detective stories almost always have a twist. The greatest one I’ve read was “And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie. Her twist is so good, she had to write an epilogue to explain it.

    I like the mixing it up with newspaper clippings in many stories, it give you an idea of a larger world that the characters are actors in, even if you never see more than that.

    One of my favorite mix-it-up styles is in “World War Z” by Max Brooks. The story is told in a series of interviews fragmented and pieced into the chronological story of what happened. Very entertaining and different from most books I’ve read. It kept my interest so well I didn’t read any other books while till I finished that one.

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    • GL, I love “And Then There Were None”! So ingenious and claustrophobic (with those ten people stuck together, and then fewer than ten people stuck together…). The twist in that Agatha Christie novel certainly fooled me!

      Great point about how newspaper clippings ground a fictional work in the real world — even if the clippings are sometimes fictional themselves. πŸ™‚ I recently read Elsa Morante’s “History,” a powerful novel recommended by commenters jhNY and Eric Pollock, and the almost-machine-gun-like lists of actual World War II-era news events prior to each chapter were extremely effective.

      “World War Z” does sound VERY interesting and original.

      I admire your ability to read more than one novel at a time — something I find hard to do.

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      • Dave, I haven’t read “History” yet but it does sound intriguing. I’ll be adding it to the ever growing to read list.

        I think I can handle multiple books because of college. Having to read three or four books due to separate classes on different subjects and keep them straight was something I couldn’t due before then.

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        • “…ever growing to read list” — I hear you, GL! I still have to try two authors you recommended: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

          True that college is a time of multiple reading! I guess I juggled several books at a time during college, too, but then stopped doing that for whatever reason. πŸ™‚

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  11. Howdy, Dave!

    β€” [C]an you name additional literary works that play with reader expectations in the ways I mentioned in this post? β€”

    As one of my two literary polestars, William Blake, once wrote, β€œYou never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough,” I especially like masterly twists in both form and content. Favorites of this doubly twisty type include John Collier’s short story β€œThe Chaser” and his employment of dialogue, Harold Pinter’s play β€œBetrayal” and his use of reverse-chronological order, and Weldon Kees’ poem β€œCrime Club” and all his unsolved mysteries. The game is afoot, not in prose but in poetry!

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • That’s a terrific William Blake quote, J.J.!

      And thanks for those excellent examples of surprising formats and content. The one I’m familiar with is “Betrayal.” Its reverse chronology (end of an affair back to its beginning) works spectacularly well in creating tension, intrigue, and melancholy in that superb play. Great movie version, too.

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  12. Authors that can best keep us on our toes best are those writers of mystery and detective novels–Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Poe, Hammett, Chandler, Sayers, and Durbridge–that have to keep us following along or even guessing at who the most probable suspect really is. Even if our thinking goes towards one character, the great writers of detective fiction can always think of another clue, or “red herring” to throw in at the last moment to force us along a new path of thinking.

    And then there is William Shakespeare–in a class by himself. Even in the most bloodthirsty of plays in which more than a dozen people are killed including children, Shakespeare can add his special brand of “comedic relief” into a play to keep us on our toes, and give us a respite from the savagery along with guessing what will happen next, unless of course we are already familiar with the plot.

    I will think of others, I am sure, after a few more posters reply.

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    • Mystery and detective novels – I should have mentioned them, Eric! Thanks! Guess I don’t read enough of those books to be thinking a lot about them, though I do read and love lots of so-called “popular fiction.”

      You named some great mystery/detective writers and, as you eloquently noted, they have to surprise us and keep us guessing to succeed — often with a narrative menu that includes red herring.

      There are also the mostly non-genre authors with a mystery/detective novel or two in their canons: Wilkie Collins (“The Moonstone”), Umberto Eco (“The Name of the Rose”), etc. Even A.S. Byatt’s fantastic “Possession,” which I mentioned in my column, is a mystery novel in a way — a historical mystery, not a murder mystery.

      And you’re right — Shakespeare was a master at comic relief!

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      • Conan Doyle was on my reading to do list. I think he is one of the few writers of mystery and detective fiction to be considered a classic author and approved for all types of classes by the MLA and Library Association.

        Is “Possession” about these two poets , I don’;t remember if they were real or not, and it had something to do with the Victorian era and has almost all of the conventions of modern writing; poems. letters, etc, I think there was some great history in it and just about everything including the “kitchen sink.”

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        • Very true, Eric, that some mystery/detective authors are also classic authors…and “literary” authors. I’d put Poe in that category, too.

          You described A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” to a “T” — or “P”? πŸ™‚ The two 19th-century writers in the flashback parts of the book are fictional, but seem very real.

          I have to admit that “Possession” has so many elements in the mix that it dragged a bit here and there. But, overall, it’s an enthralling “tour de force” that’s on my top-ten list of favorite novels.

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          • Poe is certainly in that category with “Murders in the Rue Morgue” and his creation of one of the first fictional detectives– C August Dupin–who also was in “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter,” the latter being less “gory,” iI believe.

            That’s what I thought “Possession” was too, Dave–a force of writing that was like a whirlpool that was dragging me down in some areas. but overall, an encapsulating read of a book.

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            • C. Auguste Dupin IS a great creation, Eric. And you’re right — I don’t think there were any gruesome murders in “The Purloined Letter,” but it’s still a compelling story. Actually, Poe was almost incapable of writing a not-compelling story!

              Excellent description of “Possession”! One of those novels that must have been incredibly difficult to write.

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              • I will have to add that to my growing list of books to read again (“Possession”). the great writers were always able to add multiple layers of writing style like letters and poerty within novels of varying greatness from “Pride and Prejudice” to “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?” I think most readers who read Huck for the first time never expect it to be in the form of a letter, at the very end the reader finds out, nor do most people think he will end up right back (almost) from where he started. That might also qualify as an indirect unexpected surprise.

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                • Eric, it indeed takes a great author to write a very layered novel that works. I’d love to reread “Possession,” too, but it has been only about a year since I first read it, so it’s not time yet. πŸ™‚

                  Excellent point about the surprising nature of “Huckleberry Finn,” which, as you know, is one of those novels that seem kind of straightforward but are actually quite complex in certain ways.

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                    • That novel and various other works by Twain were also surprising for their time in using so much vernacular in dialogue. George Eliot did a similar thing (perhaps to a lesser extent) with some characters in novels such as “Silas Marner.”

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                    • I was thinking about plays with surprises and twists and I thought all the way back to “Oedipus Rex”: and his eventual discovery that he had killed his father and married his mother, though I am convinced that I am not giving that ending away, already known by just about everyone. I then thought of Harold Pinter’s famous play “Betrayal”; I won’t give that surprise ending away, which is surely a surprise, but then again, the whole play is one surprising twist after another..

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                    • Thanks for the great comment, Eric! There are definitely a number of plays with “twists.” Anthony Shaffer’s “Sleuth” (later made into a film) is another memorable example.

                      The reverse-chronology nature of “Betrayal” is like one big (and riveting) surprise.

                      When you mentioned “Oedipus Rex,” I thought of Herman Melville’s “Pierre” and its strong incestuous overtones — especially surprising for a novel published in the 1850s. The book was slammed by readers and critics, but I found it to be excellent in its very offbeat way.

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      • Dave, that’s the main reason I have loved mystery novels since I discovered them when I was around 12 years old and was raiding my uncle’s eclectic library. Of the books yo mentioned, I fondly recall “The Moonstone”; “The Name of the Rose” not only contains surprises but some humor also, in the person of the polyglot monk whose brain becomes addled with age and ends up speaking in a mixture of several languages, a veritable human Tower of Babel. I remember laughing out loud, but then had the insidious thought that maybe that would be me in a decade or so… :-{

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        • Clairdelune, how great to have a relative with an eclectic library!

          If I had a little more time, I’d read more mystery novels because I do like them. But when “triaging” what to read and what not to read, mysteries have mostly lost out. I did recently read Dorothy L. Sayers’ excellent “Strong Poison” after Sayers was recommended by Kat Lib and littleprincess, and also recently enjoyed a couple of Rita Mae Brown’s engaging “Sweetie Pie Brown” mysteries after they were recommended by giftsthatpurr.

          “The Moonstone” IS great, as is Wilkie Collins’ mysterious “The Woman in White.”

          Thanks for reminding me that the terrific “The Name of the Rose” includes some humor; I haven’t read that novel in a long time. I also chuckled at your comment’s last line — what you mentioned might be the fate of us all. πŸ™‚

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          • Dorothy L. Sayers is one of my favorite mystery writers, along with the Agatha Christie, the master of genteel murder, and Edgar Wallace who was the master of secret passages and intricate plots, mysterious characters and dark rooms in old buildings. πŸ™‚

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            • Clairdelune, I’ve never read Edgar Wallace. You make his work sound VERY intriguing. Do you have a favorite or two of his you could recommend?

              “…the master of genteel murder” — I love that phrase of yours.

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              • “The Four Just Men” series is a good place to start; “The Red Hand” and the Inspector Wade books; “The Secret House”. There are some other writers with similar styles, can’t recall their names (it’s happening!) but I’ll check some books in my collection stored in the basement that I liked too much to give away. I’m a big fan of early British mysteries; among the later ones, P.D. James is the queen, similar to Christie but much more sophisticated, with much more depth.

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                • Thanks, Clairdelune, for those Edgar Wallace recommendations! I’ll try one next time I read a mystery. Thanks, also, for mentioning P.D. James, who I also need to try one of these days. If she’s better than Agatha Christie, that’s pretty good! I see on Wikipedia that James is still alive, at 94!

                  Another chuckle from your “it’s happening” line. πŸ™‚

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                  • Dave…I believe P.D. James is not only alive but is still writing..not so long ago perhaps less than a year ago I have seen her book in the Public library newly published shelf.

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                    • Thanks, bebe! To be writing in one’s mid-90s is amazing. Even older than P.D. James is Herman Wouk, 99, who most recently had a book published in 2012! (I’ve never read him, but, as you probably know, he wrote novels such as “The Caine Mutiny,” “Marjorie Morningstar,” and “The Winds of War.”)

                      I plan to try a P.D. James novel when I can!

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                    • Thanks, bebe and Clairdelune, for the information about P.D. James in book and screen-adaptation form!

                      Also, I’m curious: Did James use initials to disguise her being a woman, given the sexism among readers, critics, and publishers then and even now? (I know that’s the original reason for the “J.K.” in J.K. Rowling.) Or was there another reason for why James did that?

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                    • Considering how long ago she started writing, I’m sure it was to avoid being identified as a “female writer”. I have read all her books, but not the latest one. What I like about her books, aside from the great intricate plots, is the quality of her writing, intelligent and literate, and her characters have real depth with well defined personalities, qualities not always found in mysteries and detective novels..

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                    • Thanks, Clairdelune, for that “initials” information — and for the eloquently expressed admiration of P.D. James’ work and the way it transcends its genre. My large reading list is growing. πŸ™‚

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                    • But one thing that Sherlock Holmes had over Adam Dalgliesh, the favorite detective of PD James, and probably what put him on the pedestal of the great imaginative characters of literature is that even with his cocaine habit and all of his idiosyncrasies, people can still can have amazing accomplishments, no matter what kind of faults we have.

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                    • Eric, after seeing your excellent Sherlock Holmes comment, it occurred to me that P.D. James was alive for about 10 years while Arthur Conan Doyle was still alive! πŸ™‚

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                    • If you can, check out her book “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.” It features a very young female police detective, Cordelia Gray, in which there is very little antagonism towards her for being female, and only 22. It was surprising that the novel was so straightforward. The character is interesting, being not well-liked, and the fact that she was thinking about going back to a job as secretary puts the novel in a narrow setting. I thought it was quite short and I saw the program on BBC recently.

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                    • Eric, I read the book and liked it, and also saw the TV series by the BBC – short-lived, but fun. Which reminded me of the TV series with Dalgliesh, portrayed wonderfully by a handsome, soulful-looking British actor whose name I cannot recall. Amazon, here I come! πŸ™‚

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                    • Eric and Clairdelune, thank you for mentioning and interestingly discussing “An Unsuitable Job for a Woman”! I’ll see if my local library has it when I visit in 10 days or so. Or if the library has “Death Comes to Pemberley,” or… πŸ™‚ I imagine there will be a number of P.D. James novels in stock!

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                    • Similarly to Conan Doyle, her writing style is identical to any length of her books, so you can even choose her shortest book and still receive the character of her writing.. Doyle was a master in his short stories as well as novels, so if short on time, his short stories are also gems.

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                    • Good to know, Eric! Thanks! After finishing my reread of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the next few days, I plan to read Eleanor Catton’s very long “The Luminaries” (recommended by commenter “Susan”), so I might be ready for a relatively short novel after that. πŸ™‚

                      And I totally agree that the Sherlock Holmes stories were great in both novel and short-story form!

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  13. Ah yes so here we are invited to divulge literary spoilers hence negating the recommendations we were presumably making, fun stuff to be sure. If you haven’t been watching the Sunday Night game Peyton Manning broke the all time touchdown pass record throwing his 509th in the second quarter. First example that sprung to mind for me was a great Muriel Spark short story whose title eludes me at the moment. The surprise or twist occurs towards the middle of the story which I assume is okay. With the line from the first “person ” narrator …..” he looked as though he would kill me, and he did” we learn the woman telling the story is a ghost.

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    • Thanks, Donny! I didn’t mean to divulge spoilers, but I may have done it to some extent. Sorry about that. I did consciously hold back on giving too many details for many of the stories and novels I mentioned, so some surprises await for anyone who reads one or more of those works. πŸ™‚

      Muriel Spark’s story sounds amazing — and reminds me just a little of the “Proof Positive” tale I mentioned in my post. That five-or-so-page Graham Greene story has an absolute knockout of an ending.

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      • Donny, I just tweaked the column to remove a few spoilers or semi-spoilers. Thanks for spurring me to do that! And I have a feeling that most commenters bringing up surprises in other literary works will be circumspect about giving too much away. πŸ™‚

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  14. People’s tastes are so incredibly different! I love the plot twists of O. Henry. “The Last Leaf” is one of my favorites. In fact, as my memory fails, I had attributed “The Necklace” to O. Henry too since the surprise at the end is SO LIKE an O. Henry story. On the other hand, my brother who has read all of Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway couldn’t stand O. Henry. He said that once you had read one, you had read them all.

    One of my very favorite modern authors who always seems to have an unexpected plot twist is Fannie Flagg. You should remember clearly the incredible plot twist in “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe”. “The secret’s in the sauce.” All of Fannie Flagg’s novels have unexpected events that are so well woven into the plot that they are incredible! I don’t know how she does it! She does it so well! I think I have read all of her novels except the most recent one. You should read another one when you get a chance πŸ™‚

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    • Thanks for the great comment, Mary! I wonder if O. Henry was influenced to use twist endings by the shocking conclusion to “The Necklace,” which predated his somewhat-lighter work.

      O. Henry’s tales do have similarities to each other, but I think that’s the case with many short-story writers and novelists. I’ve read most of O. Henry’s stories, and they differed enough to keep me interested. “The Last Leaf” is indeed excellent — really poignant. And “The Ransom of Red Chief” — hilarious!

      “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” (which you had recommended to me) is an absolutely wonderful novel. Funny, serious, surprising, and more. I SHOULD read something else by Fannie Flagg. πŸ™‚

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  15. Dave, as I’ved always known, you are much well read than I am, although I sometimes like to think I’ve just read different books from you. ) I’ve enjoyed many of the short stories you have, such as ‘The Gift of the Magi” and “The Lottery,” and loved many of the same books that you have, especially “The American” and “The Age of Innocence.” However, I also love books of mysteries and science fiction, and other modern fiction, such as “Gone Girl,” “Sister,”. YA books by John Green and Gayle Forman. I remember a teacher I had in junior high, who said I don’t care what you read, even if it is only comic books. About five years ago I went through a period when I was unable to read anything more complicated than Archie or Betty & Veronica comics. One of my brothers and sister-in-laws were at that point thinking about starting up a bookstore in Florida with putting me in charge of their store, who were horrified by my choice in reading materials (not that I can now blame them):)

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    • Kat Lib, I think we just read a lot of different books — though some of the same ones, too! You are VERY well read, as you’ve shown via many, many comments. I know you’ve read tons more mysteries than I have, my sci-fi reading is decent but not extensive, and I still haven’t gotten to John Green because the popular “The Fault in Our Stars” always seems to be checked out of my local library. 😦

      Loved your bookstore anecdote, and, heck, comic books can be fun to read. I wish I had kept the ones I read as a kid. And of course some graphic novels are quite deep — including Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home.”

      By the way, I just finished one of your favorite novels: “The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James. Very understated, yet very powerful. I was impressed with James’ depiction of the book’s two subtle villains and various other characters — including, of course, the memorable Isabel Archer. Painful to see an enthusiastic idealist like her get clobbered by certain decisions and events.

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      • OK, I have a true confession to make here. I don’t know if you read the memoir by Will Schwalbe, who wrote the book “The End of Your Life Book Club,” a very touching book in which the author started a book club with his mother while she was undergoing chemotherapy. They would each read the same book, and then discuss it while she was undergoing her chemo treatments. At some point, the mother admits that she always read the last part or a chapter of a book before reading the book from front to finish. So I must admit that I came to the same conclusion, especially after reading almost back-to-back books, then threw them out because I hated the endings. This is especially hard for me to admit as someone who reads so many mysteries, yet I’ve found that a book is as good as what comes before, not just as a possible plot twist at the very end. I’ve reread many mysteries in my life, including those by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, and many other writers, yet it doesn’t bother me if I know the ending, as long as they are well-written and hold my attention.

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        • I haven’t read that memoir, Kat Lib. It does sound very touching and interesting.

          Myself, I try to avoid reading the last chapter first. I now also avoid introductions to novels until I finish the book; the intros often give away key plot points. But I totally hear you about how what comes before the end of a book is super important. In fact, a number of novels are great for 98% of their pages before a conclusion that’s at least somewhat disappointing. For instance, I found this to be the case with the two Anne Tyler novels I’ve read (“The Accidental Tourist” and “Ladder of Years”) and with the just-finished “The Portrait of a Lady.”

          Novels that I thought had amazing endings include, among many others, “The Great Gatsby,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Moby-Dick,” Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” and Jack London’s “Martin Eden.”

          Fascinating comment! Thanks!

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          • I suppose that anyone could argue either side of the issue and that ultimately it comes down to personal preference. I can’t oppose anyone who wants to be surprised by any plot twist, as well as what I feel as certitude in what I feel certain characters should be feeling, which is not always what happens.

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            • Yes, Kat Lib, definitely a personal preference. πŸ™‚

              Sometimes, there’s comfort in quickly knowing a novel’s ending — because it might not be as painful as one expects. Mentioning “The Portrait of a Lady” once again, I was quite worried about what might happen to Isabel Archer. What eventually happened was indeed not good, but I thought it would be worse!

              And I agree that it’s frustrating when characters don’t act or feel the way they seemingly should act or feel. Sometimes, that can be a case of an author putting her/his own persona into a character rather than letting the character keep her/his own persona.

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              • I suppose that one of the marks of a great writer is to still be drawn into a story so deeply, even though one knows how it turns out in the end. I know I feel that way when it comes to some books, especially by my favorite writer, Jane Austen. I know that Elizabeth and Darcy will always end up together, as will Emma and Mr. Knightley, and Anne and Captain Wentworth, yet every time I read one of those books, I still read every page as though it could still turn out differently. πŸ™‚

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                • Well said, Kat Lib, especially your line that ended with “I still read every page as though it could still turn out differently.”

                  What you say sort of gets into the pleasures of reading a great novel for the first time vs. rereading it. First-time reading gives us more of a sense of revelation and surprise, but rereading has its own pleasures — including not having to strain to get into the rhythm of the author’s writing style, not having to figure out the plot, not having to figure out what makes characters tick, etc. Instead, one can just enjoy the experience of a wonderful read. It’s a very comfortable feeling!

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                  • The joy of re-reading may force someone to not just “… having to figure out the plot…” but also to possibly think about it in a different light, or possibly realize something else is going on “between the lines.: How many times do people read the same Shakespeare play, but see different things in it each timer he or she re=reads it?

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                    • You’re so right, Eric. Rereading can indeed also offer surprise and revelation when one sees things one didn’t see before or think about before. (And if many years have gone by since the previous read, rereading can almost be like reading for the first time!)

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    • As a child I read a series of detective stories. Can’t really remember what they were now, but there were a lot of them, all at around 200 pages each. Anyway, at one point, I was reading a collection of 3 of these stories, so the book was around 600 pages, which was apparently impressive. But I know that no one would have noticed if I’d read all three of them separately. Exact same books, in a different format, created different reactions. I don’t think it should matter what you’re reading, or what other people think of it, as long as you enjoy it. And it’s a bonus if you can find great people with similar tastes so that you can talk about it πŸ™‚ Having said that, I’ve only read one of the books that Dave has mentioned! I’ve read a lot of the authors, but in each case, it’s one of their other books. A lot of these are on my list though…

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  16. Nice work here, Dave Astor. Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning “The Sense of an Ending” is amazing in how it plays with the reader’s memory, and then has you wondering at the end if you really understood what you read in the beginning–masterful. http://www.amazon.com/The-Sense-Ending…/dp/0307947726

    The Sense of an Ending

    Winner of the 2011 Man Booker PrizeOne of The Atlantic’s Best Books I Read This YearA novel so…

    amazon.com

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Telly! I’ve actually had “The Sense of an Ending” on my to-read list for a while, but it’s a very popular “takeout item” from my local library. πŸ™‚ From your excellent description, it does sound like Julian Barnes’ novel plays wonderful tricks on readers.

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      • I actually have read this book and enjoyed it. Yet, Dave, as you know, I don’t remember books I’ve only read once, so I must admit I don’t really recall what the book was about, let alone what the “ending” of the book was. I know this says poor things about my memory or even comprehension, but I have to admit that is one of my failings as a devout reader.

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        • Kat Lib, if you liked “The Sense of an Ending” at the time, that’s the important thing! After a certain number of months or years go by, I also don’t remember a lot of details of many novels I’ve read. For instance, I’m currently rereading “To Kill a Mockingbird” and am very impressed, but I barely remember a word. It has been decades since I read Harper Lee’s iconic novel, but still… On the other hand, a couple of years ago I reread the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe after several decades, and I remembered virtually every sentence. The brain works in strange ways… πŸ™‚

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        • I don’t think it’s a failing at all Kat Lib. I know some people notice every little detail in a book, and retain that information for a long time. But not me. I struggle to pay attention as I’m reading, and pretty much forget the details as soon as I’m done. That’s what makes rereading so much fun!!

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          • You’re absolutely right, Susan, that not remembering anything or much about a book is one of the benefits of rereading. And if one does remember a lot about a book, and the book is excellent, then rereading is great for that reason as well! The proverbial win-win situation. πŸ™‚

            My big problem with rereading is feeling guilty that I’m not spending that time reading a novel I never read before!

            Anyway, thanks for commenting, and pardon my interruption into your conversation with Kat Lib. πŸ™‚

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        • Mine too!

          I got into a bad habit as a reader– as an artist type, I have read, most often,for inspiration, and seldom for plot– there are times when a sentence almost seems to burn on the page before my eyes, blazing with import. Then there are many pages when nothing shines but the lamp nearby, and what happens on those pages, once I am done with the book, I don’t much recall. And sometimes those sentences vanish too.

          Some books are the product of years’ work; some are so richly made. I skitter across the surface of them, gathering up whatever shines attractively, but there are depths below, cross-currents, even sea monsters beneath my little raft, over which I drift unaware.

          Not surprisingly I’m sure, given the paragraph above, I re-read Moby Dick only two years ago, and enjoyed it immensely. Writing about it yesterday here, I realized how little of the book I retained, given all it contains. I think I could read it again to my own benefit, possibly even several times. And I think I would have missed something, maybe even a lot of somethings, in the process.

          Meanwhile, I read new things, especially literature, in hopes of a more comprehensive understanding of authors and ages, but always with the nagging realization that I’m also forgetting much of what I have finished.

          I am forever filling a vessel with a hole in its bottom.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Another eloquent, interesting comment, jhNY. However you read, and whatever you retain or don’t retain, you (as well as Kat Lib, Susan, and others) know a LOT about literature. πŸ™‚

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