There are many reasons to love literature, and one of them is seeing things familiar to a reader’s specific life.
Of course, that can mean spotting recognizable emotions, character types, etc., but for the purposes of this blog post I’m mostly talking about other content — as you’ll see. I should add that when authors are accurate or not accurate in mentioning things we’ve experienced firsthand, we obviously know it!
Anyway, I’ll give some examples that are personal to me, and then ask for some that are personal to you.
For instance, I read Sue Grafton’s B is for Burglar this week, and, early in that excellent novel, California-based private investigator Kinsey Millhone flies to Florida and drives a rental car north to Boca Raton to look into the disappearance of a woman. I immediately thought of flying to Florida last April and driving a rental car north to Boca Raton to start a weekend celebrating my mother’s 90th birthday.
Speaking of travel, the mentions of New York City subway rides in James Baldwin’s compelling Go Tell It On the Mountain reminded me of the countless NYC subway rides I’ve taken myself.
Edith Wharton, an author often associated with NYC, wrote some terrific ghost stories. When I read a collection of them last year I was thrilled to see that “The Looking Glass” tale was set in my town of Montclair — the same New Jersey setting for Susan Moore Jordan’s absorbing novel Jamie’s Children, which I also read in 2016.
Then there’s Junot Diaz’s memorable The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which includes scenes at my Rutgers University alma mater in New Brunswick, N.J.
And Audrey Niffenegger’s haunting The Time Traveler’s Wife visits several of the Chicago places I saw during my time as a student at Evanston, Ill.-based Northwestern University. Niffenegger even mentions punk clubs, which made me think of the Clash concert I saw way back when — though that was in NYC rather than The Windy City.
Many of us had “interesting” roommates during and after college, and the different-household pairings of Marian and Ainsley, and Duncan and Fischer, in Margaret Atwood’s quirky debut novel The Edible Woman reminded me of my own dorm and apartment experiences as a young adult.
Moving this blog post out of the U.S. for a minute, I saw the great statue of painter Paul Cézanne during a 2007 visit to Aix-en-Provence, where my French professor wife was presenting a paper at an Emile Zola Society conference. Not long after that trip, I read Zola’s dramatic The Masterpiece starring an artist partly based on Cézanne, and immediately thought of that statue. (Zola’s not-so-positive portrayal of fictional painter Claude Lantier apparently ended the author’s lifelong friendship with Cézanne.)
During that same trip to France, we visited the Chateau d’If island prison off Marseille that figured so prominently in The Count of Monte Cristo. That stony jail was in my mind’s eye when I soon reread Alexandre Dumas’ rousing revenge novel.
And if I ever reread Sinclair Lewis’ eye-opening novel It Can’t Happen Here, I’ll think about miserably getting through Jan. 20, 2017 — the day when a man with fascist tendencies became president of the United States in real life. But those huge, fantastic anti-Trump marches the next day — wow! 🙂
Which novels have contained things personally recognizable to you, and what were those things?
(I wrote a “Recognizing Ourselves in Literature” post in 2012, but today’s new piece takes a somewhat different angle and mentions different books.)
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My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.
But I’m 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 “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as 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 email@example.com 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.