Comparing the Not So Comparable

Do you ever play intellectual games with books? For me, this sometimes involves trying to find the similarities between two very different novels I’ve read consecutively or fairly close together. Why do I do this? I don’t know — it’s sort of fun.

For instance, the last two novels I read were Lisa Scottoline’s The Vendetta Defense and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. The first is a start-of-the-21st-century legal thriller about a long-delayed revenge killing, while the other is a 1950s class-differences story with nothing more violent than a hard-fought tennis match.

So what possible connections are there between those two books? Well, both focus on a certain group of people — Italian-Americans in The Vendetta Defense and Jewish characters in Goodbye, Columbus. Each features a romantic couple who seem somewhat mismatched — lawyer Judy Carrier and stonemason Frank Lucia in Scottoline’s novel, and lower-middle-class Neil Klugman and upper-class Brenda Patimkin in Roth’s novel. Both books are essentially serious but have plenty of humor. And they share a palpable sense of place — Philadelphia and its environs in The Vendetta Defense and Essex County, N.J.’s gritty Newark and affluent Short Hills in Goodbye, Columbus. Heck, my Essex County town of Montclair is mentioned and disparaged twice in Roth’s book. Thanks, Philip!

Last year, I reread George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov back-to-back. (How did I remember it was back-to-back? I keep a list! πŸ™‚ ) What those books share is length (lots of it!), some slow pages that are more than made up for by many brilliant pages, and authors with virtually concurrent life spans (Eliot 1819-1880 and Dostoyevsky 1821-1881). On a deeper level, both novels depict interesting sibling relationships, bad marriages, some questionable moral choices, profound thoughts about religion and religious hypocrisy, etc. Yet the books are also as disparate as disparate can be: England vs. Russia, female vs. male perspective, and much more.

Several years ago, I consecutively read T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, a part-comic historical novel set in corn flakes inventor John Harvey Kellogg’s Michigan sanitarium more than a century ago; and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a deadly serious dystopian trilogy set in the future. What in the world could those two works have in common?

On a surface level, the title of Collins’ trilogy and first trilogy book obviously remind one of food — even as Will Lightbody in Boyle’s novel is desperate for some unhealthy grub while reluctantly staying with his wife Eleanor at Kellogg’s health-oriented sanitarium. More seriously, there is a LOT of death in The Hunger Games but also some weirdly unexpected dying in The Road to Wellville. And both novels depict abuse of power — of course on a much smaller scale in Boyle’s book.

Do you have two very different novels you’d like to contrast here to see if they have some commonalities?

And here’s a 2013 post I wrote that looks at similarities in novels that might not be so different from each other. You’re welcome to discuss those types of books, too!

(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.)

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.

61 thoughts on “Comparing the Not So Comparable

  1. Great, great post and many wonderful comments Dave. I love the idea of hearing echos and gaining insights not only between ostensibly disparate works of literature but across art mediums. I wonder if others will find themselves listening to a Leonard Cohen song being led to say a James Joyce short story. The choreographer Martha Graham once famously looked at a Wassily Kandinsky painting and remarked ” That is how I want to dance” ! A wonderful young pianist and music teacher Anna Sutyagina has a fabulous project where she does fantasy performances combining Classical music icons with various novelists and works of fiction. In the link below Jane Austin plays Beethoven. I so hope a few enjoy this as much as I do πŸ™‚ http://movingclassics.tv/videos/jane-austen-plays-beethoven-sonatine-g-dur-op-79-2nd-movement-secret-musical-encounter/

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    • Thanks for your kind words about the post, Donny! And I agree that the comments have been VERY interesting (including your eloquent one above) — as is the video you linked to. (A link you made without pride and prejudice, with sense and sensibility, and…okay, I’ll stop now.) I like your bringing up of connections across art mediums, as exemplified by that video and your Cohen-Joyce and Graham-Kandinsky mentions.

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  2. I tend to read a book with some aspirations to literature at the very least, and then, read a detective/thriller book after. Sometimes I read them simultaneously.

    Just now I’m reading Joseph Mitchell’s “Up in the Old Hotel”, which is mostly about New York characters in the 1930’s- 40’s. It’s a compilation of his “New Yorker” columns, and is wonderful, wherever it is not merely very good. He tends to seek out and reveal curmudgeons and characters of an overwhelmingly individualistic nature, marginal types mostly, who cling to old ways and places against a pitiless backdrop of shifting everything, otherwise known as nowadays (or was), as practiced in and by New York City.

    But in between Mitchell bits, I’m reading “The Blind Goddess”, by Norwegian crime writer Anne Holt– a detective novel, nicely done,from a knowing and observant p. o. v. — at least so far as I can tell, having never been to Oslo. Marginals of a more unsavory variety are plentiful, including a few on the force.

    I could make more comparisons, but I read the way I do for contrast.

    Still, here’s one: chalk and cheese. Both can be held in the hand, unless they are in cliff or wheel size, both have one syllable, both start with “ch”, but only one makes a screechy noise when skittering across a blackboard, and nobody says “who moved my chalk?”

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      • Sincere congratulations on your good taste. I managed to miss him till this year, when I read a review of the compilation in the New York Review of Books– don’t know how or when or if I would have stumbled on him otherwise, though I had already read a compilation by AJ Liebling, so maybe a search for more of him would have led me to Mitchell. The intro to the compilation I’m reading, titled (yet not, I think, identical to an earlier same-name publication of his) “Up in the Old Hotel”, mentions those “who spent years seeking his out-of-print books for crazy prices.” Hope you’re not one of those– or rather, that you picked ’em up cheap, in perfect condition.

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    • Thanks, jhNY! I have a somewhat similar reading pattern — maybe three literary or semi-literary books and then a thriller (lately often one of the addictive Jack Reacher novels).

      I appreciate your thoughts on the work of Joseph Mitchell and Anne Holt, neither of whom I’ve read. Your Mitchell paragraph was especially descriptive! And I chuckled at, and was cheered by, your cheeky chalk and cheese paragraph. πŸ™‚

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  3. I once wrote a column after reading “Huck Finn” and “The Satanic Verses” at the same time and, just for fun, mixed them all up so I had an Indian guy falling out of an airplane and landing in Hannibal, Mo. The mind is a terrible thing to mind.

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  4. To answer your latest interesting, burning question: “Do you have two very different novels you’d like to contrast here to see if they have some commonalities?” I would like instead to contrast my two mothers-in-law.

    The first one did not live in New York. Neither did the second one. The first one was a blonde. The second one also had hair. One was very thin-skinned while the other had very noisy skin. One said her son was so smart, he’d end up a millionaire, while the other said her son was so smart, he used to change his own diapers. One wore sweatsuits night and day, while the other made a Christmas tree look somber. One resembled a tethered blimp, while the other looked like a blood donor who couldn’t say no.

    They say boys want to marry a girl just like their mother but all I ever shared with these mothers was a head start on eccentricity.

    See what you started, Dave?

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  5. Dave, this sounds intriguing, but I just received about 10,000 words of stuff ALL due this week… holding my breath and diving in… will comment when I come up for air.
    I REALLY could use a magic wand or a winning lottery ticket! 😦

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  6. Hmmmmm, I picked up two dissimilar books at the library. One a murder mystery and the other a western. I did this on purpose to shake up my reading…. Now you got me looking for similarities in them. Thanks buddy. πŸ™‚

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      • Oh heck, Dave. I’m just messing with you. πŸ™‚

        Seriously, with a little effort I could find all kinds of parallels between my murder mystery and the western. These exist because literature is about the human condition and that drama rarely changes.

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        • True, Almost Iowa. Every human is more alike than different, and most novels feature humans, thus…

          Plus there’s that thing about the existence of only seven basic stories — with everything a variation on them.

          All of which means that “Crime and Punishment” and “Valley of the Dolls” are practically companion pieces… πŸ™‚

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          • Exactly… and who knows, maybe Raskolnikov was pushing “ludes” on the side. I mean, why hatchet an old lady when you could sell her “downers”.

            A while back, a very good writer here on WordPress wrote about how hard it was to be original… pretty hard to do when there are only seven basic stories… or a writer could just find a new way to tell them.

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            • LOL! And, rather than years in a Siberian prison camp, Raskolnikov’s punishment could be…having to read “Valley of the Dolls”!

              Yes, originality is hard — and it gets harder and harder each year, decade, and century as more novels exist in the past.

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  7. Dave, you may remember that I read all of Lisa Scottoline’s series in a very short period of time during a quite stressful month (i.e. “the flood”). One of the nice things about it is that while most of them are about the all-women law firm she does switch around which one of the lawyers is featured in each book. The heart of the series is the DiNunzio family.

    Scottoline’s depiction of a South Philly townhouse was spot-on (at least according to my West Philly Irish Catholic friend), down to the picture of the Pope on the kitchen wall (although she may be changing it over to one of Pope Francis after his historic visit to Philly this weekend!).

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    • Kat Lib, very sorry about how difficult it is for you to type with one hand after your surgery. I hope you’re feeling a little better by now.

      I deleted your other comments, as requested, and did a little editing of your comment above. If there are any problems with it, let me know and I would be happy to edit again. πŸ™‚

      One thing I liked about “The Vendetta Defense” was that law firm having all female attorneys, as you note. (Sort of a nice counterbalance to that creepy all-male-attorney law firm in John Grisham’s “The Firm.”) And it’s great that Lisa Scottoline spotlights different people from the firm in different books. Sort of a version of the way various members of an (ill-fated) extended family get their starring roles in different Emile Zola novels. (The daughter of the star of “The Drinking Den” becoming the star of “Nana” is one example.) And I’m glad that Scottoline captured Philadelphia so accurately!

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  8. I often have a few books on the go at the same time. I’m currently reading β€œGrand Days”. Set in Geneva in the 1920s, it’s a (mostly) fictional story of some of the people working at the League of Nations. I’m also re-reading β€œThe Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Maybe some sort of Improbability Computer could find a connection between the two, but I’m drawing a blank…

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  9. I bet that you can guess what two novels I’m going to mention, Dave. “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee and “Lady” by Thomas Tryon are both set in the 30’s, although they were written over a decade apart. They are both written from the perspective of children – 6 year old Scout in “To Kill A Mockingbird” and 8 year old Woody in “Lady”. Lastly, they both delve into the world of prejudice during a time when black people must stay in their “place”, whatever that was supposed to mean. Most people consider “To Kill A Mockingbird” a GREAT American novel, or THE great American novel, and so do I. I think that Thomas Tryon didn’t get nearly enough recognition for his novel “Lady”. I adored it! I think it IS a great American novel.

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  10. I started thinking about the similarities that are found in Agatha Christie’s books. Trying to spot the character you’ve read before while also trying to solve the mystery before the detective adds to the enjoyment greatly for me.

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    • Well said, GL! I’ve only read a handful of Agatha Christie novels, but they do have some commonalities. And I think you hit upon one of the appeals of any mystery for readers — trying to out-detective the detective!

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    • Oops, Pat — my column’s theme seems to have taken precedence over saying what I thought of some of the novels I mentioned. πŸ™‚

      Not sure I loved “Goodbye, Columbus,” but I liked it. Especially impressive that it was written by a novelist only in his 20s back then.

      The characters are three-dimensional and believable — and, given that the book is set near where I live, I recognized several “types.” Also, the scenes and dialogue are very well done. Last but not least, the novel really dissected two class levels of Jewish-American life, assimilation vs. non-assimilation, etc.

      What are your thoughts about “Goodbye, Columbus”?

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      • I completely understand, Dave; you still were able to give an idea of your opinion of the book, and I appreciate that πŸ™‚ As I said in another post, I read the book when I was in my 20s. At the time I was absolutely smitten with the writing, the characters, the humor, the conflict — the whole thing. I honestly don’t know how I would receive it at this late age if I were reading for the first time, and I don’t want to disappoint myself by re-reading it and seeing it in a different light — reality isn’t always necessary πŸ™‚

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        • Well said, Pat — and thanks! Reading a book in our 20s and then rereading it later can be interesting. I certainly liked “Moby-Dick” and “The Scarlet Letter” more the second time around, but there are beloved novels that don’t seem quite as good on rereading. Maybe we notice the author’s puppet strings too much…

          Still, I would give “Goodbye, Columbus” an A- or B+, and I can see that it could be rated higher. I guess we all have somewhat different opinions about books. Maybe Philip Roth’s novel hit a little TOO close to home for me; I was reminded of some of my relatives. πŸ™‚

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            • Pat, relatives can indeed be…interesting. I have some very nice ones, but also some who are rather annoying and/or neurotic. Sounds like you have some of the latter, too. Sorry about that. 😦

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              • I don’t know a single family who doesn’t have at least one jackass in it, Dave; it’s the nature of the beast πŸ™‚

                In keeping with your theme, when I was in college (a lifetime ago), I took a literature class which led to some of the most varied reading of my life in the short space of a semester. William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”, Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”, and the two books that came to mind when I read your post: Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men”, and W. Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage”. I guess the main similarity between the two, other than both titles starting with “of”, is that each book is a story about two lonely people who are pivotal to each other’s orbit. In both stories, these characters are outcasts, each in his or her own way, trying to get along in the world as best they can. Each story is tragic, and each story is redemptive.

                To be honest, I’m a little slow on the uptake this weekend and when I read your post, I wasn’t completely sure what you wanted. Hopefully this is in the ballpark. See you next week, Dave. πŸ™‚

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                • Yes — one or more of that species in most families! VERY nice wordplay in your first line, Pat. πŸ™‚

                  And a terrific rest of your comment. That DOES sound like a memorably eclectic literature class you took. I now have “Of Human Bondage” on my bookshelf, and will finally read it within a month or so. Can’t wait. And then I can compare it to “Of Mice and Men,” like you eloquently did! I’ve read and greatly liked other Maugham novels (“The Painted Veil,” “The Razor’s Edge,” “The Moon and Sixpence,” “Cakes and Ale,” etc.), so it will be nice to finally get to what’s considered his best book.

                  Your comment was definitely in the ballpark — finding similarities in novels, whether or not those novels are very different.

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  11. Hi Dave, I’m glad you enjoyed The Vendetta Defense. I must admit that I love that Scottoline’s novels are set in my area. When you told me you were going to write about this legal thriller yesterday, I had to go to that novel on my Nook to reacquaint myself with it, and I reread at least a third of it. There was a comment that Judy, the lawyer, made about driving to Chester County and saying to herself that everyone in that county was rich and spent most of their lives on Route 202. I have to say that that is the county I live in and there are many of us who aren’t rich. While I used to spend every day on 202 when I was working, things have gotten better, especially because they have widened it since this book was published. BTW, I have read Goodbye Columbus, but it was so long ago I can’t remember how I even felt about it. I think I liked it, but who knows.

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    • I will definitely be reading more Lisa Scottoline, Kat Lib! Her writing is exciting, warm, fun, and more.

      It IS interesting when a novel or series of novels are set in/near where we live.

      Also, while my column mentioned the Philadelphia setting of “The Vendetta Defense,” the book does indeed get out into the countryside here and there.

      In addition, as you say, places can get stereotyped as all rich or all poor while in reality having at least somewhat of a mix. “Goodbye, Columbus,” in its brief mentions of my town of Montclair, made it seem like a mostly rich place — which wasn’t true in the 1950s and isn’t true now, though it has plenty of affluence. As is the case with you and Chester County, I’m not one of those affluent. πŸ™‚

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    • Fascinating approach to literature. Thomas C. Foster of the University of Michigan wrote a book, “How to Read Literature Like a Professor” (could have been a better title sounds uppity and snobbish). Two basic approaches: 1) when is something like something else? 2) where have I seen that before? When teaching literature classes, this is the methodology I employed. It can be done with virtually every novel or short story. One example: “The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories” is a 2004 book by Christopher Booker. He cites Peter Benchley’s Jaws and…Beowulf. Think about it. Another I stumbled on: Charles Dickens essay, “A Visit to Newgate Prison” and Ambrose Bierce’s later “An Occurrence at Owl’s Creek Bridge.” Did Bierce read Dickens? It doesn’t matter. Foster said comparisons invite commentary and then we have discussion, not just in the classroom, but with all readers.

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      • Thanks, Joe! Really interesting and elegantly stated comment!

        Two great questions by Thomas C. Foster, and the methodology you used when teaching literature sounds like an excellent one.

        While I chose the theme of comparing seemingly different novels, there are certainly other works that have some close resemblances. You named a couple of fascinating examples. Another example: William Trevor’s “Felicia’s Journey” (which I read this month) reminded me so much of William Faulkner’s “Light in August” — with each novel featuring a pregnant protagonist seeking the irresponsible former male partner who doesn’t want to be found.

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