The Pleasures of Reading an Author’s Second-Best Novel

Isn’t it a thrill to read, for the first time, what turns out to be one of your very favorite novels? It’s an experience hard to duplicate. You can reread the book, and greatly enjoy it again, but it’s not quite the same as that initial “adventure.”

Yet one can partly re-create the experience by reading what’s considered an author’s second-best novel. You’ll get a percentage of the aforementioned thrill — and also get the opportunity to think about what’s similar to the favorite book, what’s different, and why one novel is better than the other.

Of course, what you think is an author’s first- or second-best novel is subjective, and may differ from the critical and popular consensus. For instance, The Brothers Karamazov is actually a more impressive accomplishment than Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s amazing Crime and Punishment, yet I like the latter a bit better. It has a leaner narrative, and a feverish intensity that the more rambling, albeit even deeper The Brothers Karamazov doesn’t 100% match.

Jane Eyre is by far Charlotte Bronte’s most famous book — and, as some of you know, it’s my favorite novel by any author. But I got a good dose of satisfaction reading Bronte’s excellent Villette — whose lonely, brooding, self-reliant, buffeted-by-life Lucy Snowe protagonist reminds me of Jane, and whose crusty M. Paul Emanuel character has elements of Jane’s romantic partner Edward Rochester. Still, the set-in-France Villette doesn’t have quite the unforgettable heartache and primal passion of Bronte’s earlier book, though it does have plenty of melancholy that partly stems from being penned after the early deaths of Charlotte’s sisters Emily and Anne.

My favorite John Steinbeck novel is The Grapes of Wrath — a powerful, compassionate book that cries out for social justice while never losing sight of the need to have that cry filtered through the prism of memorable, three-dimensional characters like Tom Joad, Ma Joad, and Jim Casy. But I also got a lot of pleasure reading what I and many others consider Steinbeck’s second-best novel: East of Eden. The book doesn’t quite pack the emotional wallop or economic-inequality indignation of The Grapes of Wrath, but it’s actually more ambitious in certain ways — with its multigenerational drama covering decades, and its frequent use of biblical symbolism.

The Great Gatsby is of course thought of as F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s best novel, and that iconic book indeed contains beautiful prose and more (even if one wants to sometimes say “who gives a … about these rich people” ๐Ÿ™‚ ). But Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night also offers readers much to enjoy and admire, despite not having Gatsby‘s near-perfect construction.

Then there’s the case of George Eliot. Middlemarch is her most impressive novel, and it’s my favorite of hers in a way. Among other things, it’s hard to find troubled marriages dissected as expertly as the two unions spotlighted in that book. But the lengthy Middlemarch can be a slog at times, unlike Eliot’s very readable yet still multidimensional Daniel Deronda, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Adam Bede. Heck, I think I prefer the riveting Daniel Deronda over Middlemarch.

A similar discussion can be had about Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Not surprisingly, the epic One Hundred Years of Solitude is my favorite novel of his; there are few literary works that as compellingly and comprehensively cover “the human condition.” But the legendary novel can be confusing at times — partly because of all those similar names! Love in the Time of Cholera is a very respectable second for me among Garcia Marquez’s works, as it depicts many facets of romance while maintaining a fairly linear story line.

Also not surprisingly, the acclaimed The Poisonwood Bible is my favorite Barbara Kingsolver novel. It unsparingly looks at the devastation of colonialism and evangelicalism while three-dimensionally depicting the Price family: the vile missionary father, and the beleaguered mother and four daughters. Prodigal Summer is my second favorite of Kingsolver’s other excellent novels; it’s less ambitious than Poisonwood, but does nicely challenge and entertain the reader with three separate story lines that come together at the end.

Mass-audience novels? If one considers the Harry Potter series to be one long book, then that’s my favorite J.K. Rowling work. Her much different The Casual Vacancy is a distant but satisfying second despite its grim subject matter and its much smaller canvas. But if one looks at the Harry Potter series as seven books (which it is!), my favorite is the initial one: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Not as complex and well-written as the later novels, but the thrills of first discovering Rowling’s wizard world are many. The series’ third installment — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban — is my second favorite, and a memorable read.

Well, I could go on and on, but it’s time for this week’s questions: What are examples of your favorite and second-favorite novels by an author? Does the second book give you some or a lot of the thrill of the first? What makes your favorite books better than the runners-up?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else.)



I’m 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, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in 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.

Text and Context: How Our Mood Affects Reading

In and of itself, any novel is good or bad, funny or sad, etc. — right? Well, yes…and no. A literary work does have an intrinsic value (or lack of one), but a reader’s intelligence and experience and mood affect how the book will be perceived. I’m going to focus on the mood thing in this column.

For instance, my main reading when I was on vacation earlier this month was Henry James’ The Ambassadors. It’s a novel (James’ favorite of the many he wrote) that’s beautiful but SLOW. Little action (this is not Jack Reacher, people!); long, intricate sentences; subtle psychological insights; and delicately detailed interplay between characters (one of whom is an American sent to Paris to try to bring a young man back to the U.S.). The fact that I was often relaxing by a lake while reading so leisurely a book seemed appropriate, and probably added to my enjoyment. There was a matching of text and context.

Despite a 10-hour trip from hell to drive 285 miles home, the vacation had made me less stressed than usual when I began rereading Charlotte Bronte’s excellent Villette. Near the start of the novel, I found myself laughing out loud at the interaction between the prim Paulina character and the Graham teen who comically goads her. Would I have found that quite so hilarious if I were in a tense mood? Probably not. (Paulina knows how to jab right back at Graham, literally and figuratively.)

Or how about being angry at someone, yet knowing that real-life revenge is out of the question — unless you want to peruse books in prison? ๐Ÿ™‚ You can vicariously revel in virtual vengeance when reading something like Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Stephen King’s Rose Madder, or any of Lee Child’s visceral novels starring the aforementioned Reacher. Those books are page-turners no matter what mood you’re in, but they can have even more impact when you’re feeling irate.

When you’re feeling melancholy, a novel with melancholy moments can seem even more…melancholy. Try George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda when your mood is sad, and you’ll be sighing more than a person watching a Republican presidential debate. (Eliot’s magnificent novel also has some wonderfully upbeat plot threads.)

Of course, when you’re falling in love, or in a troubled relationship, or in an unrequited-love situation, etc., that can heighten the experience of reading novels with memorably happy or tumultuous romances. I’m thinking George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, James Clavell’s Shogun, and so many other books.

Many of us have experienced bad treatment at the hands of the rich and powerful, at the hands of people who are racist or sexist or homophobic, and so on. When there is that kind of hurt in our lives, it can be especially intense and/or comforting (in an “I’m not in this alone” way) to read books with social-justice elements written by such authors as Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Upton Sinclair, Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, and John Grisham.

And when life gets too burdensome or boring, it’s especially pleasant to escape into fantasy novels or magic-filled books — with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series two obvious examples.

Which books have you read that have been enhanced by you being in a particular mood?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else.)

I’m 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, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in 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.

Prolific Prose Practitioners

There’s a saying that “everyone has a book in them,” but some authors have a LOT of books in them. They’re terrific at being prolific, churning out novels and other works as fast as cartoon bird Road Runner moves (but with fewer feathers).

Many high-speed authors average at least a book a year, with some putting out even more. The vast majority of prolific novelists write mass-audience fiction, because that kind of book can be rather formulaic and thus more quickly created than literary fiction. But there are challenging novelists who also write fast.

Some quick authors, such as James Patterson, have help from assistants — meaning they are not quite as personally prolific as they seem. According to Wikipedia, the 68-year-old Patterson has 150 books to his credit!

Of course, the number of books a novelist writes is not the only proof of productivity; the size of the works has something to do with it, too. For instance, Charles Dickens penned “only” 20 or so novels before dying at age 58, but a number of them are quite long.

And Dickens is an example of an author who also kept busy in other ways — giving speeches, performing in theatrical productions, etc. Meanwhile, some writers pack their schedules by not only penning novels, but short stories, plays, poems, children’s books, nonfiction books, articles, and/or reviews as well. Yes, all that quantity can make the quality suffer, but not always. Some people just write like the wind!

First, let’s look at some literary and classic authors with many books to their credit. For instance, France can boast of Honore de Balzac and Emile Zola, who each wrote about three dozen novels (among other works) before dying at ages 51 and 62, respectively. Given that they obviously weren’t published authors as kids and teens, that’s a ton of output during their adult years. Fellow French author Alexandre Dumas penned about 40 novels, 10 travel books, several plays, and more during his 68 years.

Some prolific novelists from other countries:

Sir Walter Scott wrote a whopping two dozen or so novels and other books between 1814 and his 1832 death at the age of 61. That was after he focused on his widely read poetry during the earlier part of his career.

Henry James, who lived to 72, authored about 30 novels and novellas plus tons of other fiction and nonfiction. And his subtle, intricate, psychological writing was not the kind to be knocked off easily.

Edith Wharton, who died at 75, had nearly the same output as her friend Henry even though she didn’t become a published author until her late 30s.

W. Somerset Maugham wrote 36 novels and short-story collections, 25 plays, 15 nonfiction books, countless articles, and more before dying at the age of 91.

John Updike penned nearly 30 novels, 17 short-story collections, and other works during his 76 years.

A very prolific living author with a literary bent is Joyce Carol Oates, 77 — who has written an astounding 44 novels, 11 novellas, and 38 short-story collections under her own name; 11 other novels under a different name; and more.

Alice Walker, now 71, has written a total of 30-plus novels, short-story collections, poetry collections, and nonfiction books.

Mass-audience novelists? One of the most productive of the past was mystery writer Agatha Christie, who penned 66 novels under her own name, six novels under another name, 17 plays, and more during her 85 years.

Prolific living authors in the mass-audience (but sometimes literary) realm include Dean Koontz (well over 100 novels since 1968), Stephen King (55 novels since 1974 — plus lots of other work), Sue Grafton (24 novels since 1982), John Grisham (29 novels since 1989), Lisa Scottoline (25 novels since 1993), David Baldacci (32 novels since 1996), and Lee Child (20 Jack Reacher novels since 1997).

Last but by no means least, the great Isaac Asimov wrote or edited an incredible 500-plus books — many not science fiction — before dying at age 72.

Oh, and William Shakespeare penned 37 plays and 154 sonnets during his 52 years.

Who are some of your favorite prolific authors? (You can also name some you don’t like. ๐Ÿ™‚ ) Can there be quantity and quality?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else.)

I’m 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, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in 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.

Animals in Literature: The Seagull…um…Sequel

Back in 2011, I wrote a blog post about animals in literature for a Web site with the same initials as Happy Pets. The novels I mentioned as having memorable creature characters included The Call of the Wild, White Fang, Lad: A Dog, The Incredible Journey, and many others.

But that was four years ago, and I’ve read many novels since then that included animals (often dogs) as major or minor characters. Also, there were books I read before 2011 not mentioned in that previous post. So this column will be a Part Two of sorts to that old piece on the Web site with the same initials as Hairy Protagonists. (Okay, I’ll name the site — Huffington Post.)

As I wrote back then, animals can bring a lot of warmth to books — and their relationships with human characters help flesh out the personalities of the critters as well as the people. Heck, if a human character loves animals, there’s an excellent chance she or he is a good person! For instance, the very likable Sookie allows 11 pets — including an alligator! — to live in her house in Fannie Flagg’s poignant The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, and is very dedicated to feeding the birds on her property.

Fictional animals can also remind millions of pet lovers of their own appealing animal buddies.

Of course, things are not all positive when it comes to creatures in author canons. Some are not very lovable and may in fact be “villains” — as in Peter Benchley’s Jaws. And if tragedy befalls an animal in fiction, it’s very painful to read.

I thought of revisiting this topic while recently reading Rilla of Ingleside, one of L.M. Montgomery’s seven sequels to Anne of Green Gables. In the sequel, Anne has a minor role while the star turn goes to her daughter Rilla as the teen is forced to grow up fast during what later became known as World War I. But a character leaping off the page almost as much as Rilla Blythe is the canine “Dog Monday” — who, when Rilla’s brother Jem boards a train to go to war, loyally and heartbreakingly refuses to leave the station for years while waiting to see if Jem will return.

Another excellent novel featuring a dog in a secondary role is Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits — in which Clara’s huge canine Barrabas eats like crazy, knocks over things, and ends up in a scenario that reveals the lack of common sense possessed by Clara’s brutish husband Esteban.

There’s also Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The book draws to a close with an unforgettable symbolic scene involving long-deceased canine Bendico.

Speaking of Italian literature, the lovable dog Bella always accompanies the lonely, precocious boy Giuseppe in Elsa Morante’s World War II novel History.

In American literature, Hector the hunting dog is a constant companion to Natty Bumppo in some of the five novels that comprise James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” series — which includes The Last of the Mohicans.

A dog tragically dies of thirst and hunger in a locked house when his owner is murdered in Lee Child’s Bad Luck and Trouble. When Jack Reacher joins three former military police colleagues to plot revenge for that and various other killings, the thought of the poor dog is one of the things that drives him.

The dog and cat in Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries (such as Wish You Were Here) help their person (Mary “Harry” Haristeen) do amateur detective work. Animals definitely have human qualities in some novels!

Creatures in literature of course aren’t just dogs and cats. For instance, there is the horse who assists mineworkers in Emile Zola’s Germinal, and the experimented-on mouse who is so crucial to what happens in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. Also, we can’t forget the water denizens in novels such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and the aforementioned Jaws.

Which animals do you remember most in literature, whether in major or minor roles?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else.)

A note: I was interviewed by a local filmmaker on July 29. I wasn’t asked about this literature blog, but hopefully you’ll still find the eight-minute-or-so video interesting. ๐Ÿ™‚

Another note: I’ll be skipping my Aug. 9 column for the usual summer reasons, but will be back Aug. 16. And while I won’t be on the computer as much as usual between Aug. 7 and Aug. 15, I’ll reply to comments when I can!

I’m 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, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in 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.