Even the Plots of Past Novels Change in the Disruptive Era of Trump

With President Trump and America’s far-right-Republican-controlled Congress changing everything for the worse (trying to yank away medical insurance, gut environmental regulations, lower taxes on the rich, etc.), it’s only a matter of time before the content of past novels changes to more accurately reflect what’s currently going on. Here’s what we might see:

— John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces becomes the story of today’s vile GOP politicians.

— Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls becomes the biography of House and Senate leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

— Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping becomes the saga of Republicans trying to retain control of the House via gerrymandering and suppression of Democratic votes.

— Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness becomes the story of Vice President Mike Pence.

— Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter becomes the tale of dad-enabler Ivanka Trump’s rise.

— Toni Morrison’s Beloved becomes about the admirable people who oppose Trump, Ryan, McConnell, and their GOP ilk.

— Henry James’ Washington Square becomes a confirmation that the far right now in DC is just plain un-hip.

— Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country becomes a description of the custom of many lower-income whites in rural areas (“the country”) to vote against their self-interest for the cater-to-the-rich Trump.

— George Orwell’s 1984 becomes about the IQ Trump thinks he has (but doesn’t).

— (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother becomes an Orwellian novel rather than a book about an obese sibling.

— Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses becomes Trump’s self-published book of bawdy limericks.

— Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood becomes a list of all the lies flowing out of Trump’s mouth in 2017. Annual sequels to follow.

— Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things becomes an anatomical look at Trump’s small fingers and his small…

— Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock becomes the story of how Trump and his expanding waistline loom over Melania’s huge wedding ring.

— Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 becomes about the first 22 law-abiding, hard-working undocumented immigrants the Trump administration cruelly nabs and deports.

— Colette’s The Shackle becomes the description of a prison device Trump wants to use on innocent Muslims.

— Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind becomes about climate change melting polar ice and causing various species to become extinct.

— Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano becomes about the coolest place to huddle after climate change worsens.

— Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire becomes the story of the all-white, cross-burning Ku Klux Klan that enthusiastically supports Trump and other GOP leaders.

— Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude becomes a treatise on the length and type of prison sentence deserved by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

— James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain becomes the story of Mount Rushmore’s four sculpted heads getting so disgusted with Trump that they actually speak.

— Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale becomes speculative fiction about anticipating the day Trump leaves or gets kicked out of the White House.

— Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy become the go-to collections of our physiological and verbal reactions to today’s far-right GOP rule.

Any novels with new meanings you’d like to add to my list? Would love to see them!

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

It’s Earth Day in Some Parts of Planet Literature

Yesterday, April 22, was Earth Day. Our planet is in deep ecological trouble, and America’s Predator-in-Chief is making things worse with his profoundly anti-environment policies. I guess he’s also the Polluter-in-Chief.

Anyway, I began to think about novels that have directly or indirectly focused on the environment, and the first one that came to mind was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

That book is many things — including a compelling portrayal of a rural Tennessean’s dissatisfaction with her life and marriage, and what she does about it. But Flight Behavior is also a novel about climate change — including how butterflies are devastatingly affected by it.

Kingsolver addresses ecological matters in Prodigal Summer, too.

One of the ultimate environmental catastrophes takes place in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach when nuclear radiation bears down on Australia after ruining much of the world.

Then there are novels in which environmentalism is perhaps not the biggest theme, but an important theme. For instance, the harming of Oklahoma land by greedy agribusiness is a big reason why the Joad family of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is forced to uproot themselves to try their luck in California. The evil forces in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings certainly lay waste to a lot of Middle-earth land. And Anne Shirley’s keen appreciation of nature is one of the endearing elements in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

Also, the shrinking of the American wilderness is a poignant backdrop in James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels (The Last of the Mohicans, etc.). Heck, protagonist Natty Bumppo is more comfortable with the eco-friendlier ways of Native Americans (such as his close friend Chingachgook) than he is with the eco-destructive ways of his fellow whites.

Of course, sci-fi, speculative fiction, dystopian novels, and post-apocalypse books often address environmental issues in direct or indirect fashion — as when they show the Earth abused by corporations and humankind in general. Examples include Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and various other books. There are also the death throes of Earth at the end of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

In the children’s-book area, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is considered a fable about how corporate greed does a number on nature.

What are some of your favorite fictional works that touch on environmental issues?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time  — which earned a “Best Seller” tag on Amazon for a time this weekend.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Fifteen Books for April 15 (Tax Day)

With America’s official yearly tax day yesterday, thoughts turn to tranquilizers…um…money.

Most fictional works touch on money in some direct or indirect way, but of course some focus on it more than others. And it’s quite a topic! What reader can’t relate to making or losing money, not having enough of it, being jealous of people who are affluent, being disgusted with showy or immoral uses of money, being appalled at how heartless some of the rich can be, being heartened by charitable uses of money, etc.?

Some novels with a more-pronounced-than-average money motif? Let’s discuss a few of them.

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth portrays Lily Bart as she moves in a wealthy social circle while not being wealthy herself. That lack of money greatly complicates her life, especially given that she has the integrity to not marry men (however rich) she doesn’t love.

Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries is about various things, and one of them is the get-rich urge of people participating in New Zealand’s 1860s West Coast Gold Rush. Similarly, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild is in one way a “dog book,” but it’s also about greed relating to the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, the title character gets rich in large part to impress a woman (Daisy) with whom he wants to reunite, while living his shallow existence in Long Island, N.Y., splendor.

The co-protagonist in Emile Zola’s Paris-based The Ladies’ Delight is a 19th-century department-store magnate who ruthlessly amasses a fortune as he drives mom-and-pop shops out of business. Think an 1800s version of Walmart…

A French shopkeeper who stars in Honore de Balzac’s Cesar Birotteau goes bankrupt because of property speculation that involves someone trying to get revenge on Cesar. Much of the novel — which includes several unsavory bankers as secondary characters — focuses on Birotteau’s honest efforts to pay off his debt.

Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner’s novel The Gilded Age (which coined that famous term) also takes on property speculation, including a decades-long effort to sell land in the lust to get rich.

(Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That features a protagonist who painstakingly saves lots of money for a planned retirement on some tropical island, then uses almost all those funds for his wife’s medical expenses in the universal healthcare-lacking United States, and then…

In Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, the ambitious protagonist is always trying to get or save enough money — for the rent, for her education, and more.

The title character in George Eliot’s Silas Marner is a miser in the first part of the book, but it’s more depression than greed that makes him that way.

Then there’s Theodore Dreiser’s The Financier, Terry Pratchett’s Making Money, Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and Herman Melville’s Wall Street-set “Bartleby, the Scrivener” short story — which is almost long enough to be a novella.

We’ll end with Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The title just about says it all.

What are your favorite fictional works with a strong money aspect?

Here’s an April 10 review
of, and an April 11 video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Nattering About Novel Names

Book titles! They’re important, and the best of them can be quite memorable.

Some titles say a lot about what’s in the novels, as do War and Peace and Crime and Punishment in summarizing Leo Tolstoy’s and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s respective masterpieces. Others tease you with their intriguing nature (many examples a few paragraphs below).

Titles can be funny, serious, long, short, evocative, descriptive, clever, slangy, punny, and more. They can be drawn from unforgettable phrases in the earlier works of other authors. They can just be the name of a place (as with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Henry James’ Washington Square, and many of James Michener’s novels). Or they can include the year in which the novel is set (witness George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Or the name of the protagonist, or a description of the protagonist (such as The Vagabond by Colette, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison — whose main character is invisible metaphorically rather than in an H.G. Wells-like way). Titles can even tell you the order of a book in a series — as with D is for Deadbeat, the fourth of Sue Grafton’s “alphabet mysteries.”

I finished that excellent Grafton novel late last month, and followed it with Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I’ve read about a third of Jorge Amado’s book so far, and the title is of course intriguing because one is curious about who the second hubby will be. The first spouse, a charismatic/irresponsible gambler, drops dead early in the masterful/sometimes-humorous/sometimes-erotic work.

Among many other novels with intriguing titles are Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Kathy Eliscu’s Not Even Dark Chocolate Can Fix This Mess, Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe, Amanda Moores’ Grail Nights, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, to name just a few.

Novels with the name of the protagonist or co-protagonist comprising all or part of the title? Countless examples, including Jane Austen’s Emma, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith, Jack London’s Martin Eden, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, Herman Melville’s Pierre, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway… Titles containing a person AND place? L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables comes immediately to mind.

The aforementioned approach of using memorable phrases of past works? W. Somerset Maugham took the words Of Human Bondage from Benedict de Spinoza’s Ethics. John Steinbeck’s title The Winter of Our Discontent came from Shakespeare’s Richard III. Jane Austen’s naming of Pride and Prejudice may have been inspired by those three words in Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia. The ancestry of Aldous Huxley’s title The Doors of Perception was a line in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — with Hell the place Satan sang “Light My Fire” when learning that Huxley’s nonfiction book in turn inspired the name of The Doors rock band. (That last fact is in the Huxley chapter of my new literary-trivia book, linked to at the end of this post.) And Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 created a phrase!

(Ms.) Lionel Shriver has written a book with a slangy title (So Much for That) and a punny title (Big Brother, about an overweight sibling who wasn’t born in 1984).

Then there are titles that I think are misleading or kind of boring. For instance, the titular character in Rob Roy is not the most prominently featured person in that Sir Walter Scott novel. And Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story title is rather “blah.”

The Black Tulip has a title that makes you wonder whether the novel will be a snooze to read, but Alexandre Dumas spins an exciting tale of a contest involving said flower.

What are some of your favorite or least favorite book titles, and why?

By the way, if you’re desperately looking for some laughs in these tough Trump times, I recommend two hilarious new nonfiction humor books by friends of mine — and both have excellent titles. They are Barb Best’s The Misery Manifesto: A Self-Help Parody for the Self-Absorbed and Dawn Weber’s I Love You. Now Go Away: Confessions of a Woman with a Smartphone.

My new literary-trivia book is out! Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time is described and can be purchased here.

In addition to this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

My New Literary-Trivia Book — and the Results of That ‘Best Novels of All Time’ Poll!

Did you know that the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originally referred to the wealthy family in which novelist Edith Wharton (nee Jones) grew up? That Jane Austen wrote a differently titled version of Pride and Prejudice more than 15 years before it was published? That Shakespeare and Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes died on almost the same day in 1616? That O. Henry coined the term “banana republic”? That Dorothy Parker bequeathed her money to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? That the 1950s Cat in the Hat character created by Dr. Seuss looks like a feline version of the Uncle Sam character drawn by that same writer/artist for his 1940s editorial cartoons?

I didn’t know most of the above before I started work on my just-published Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia. That was back in 2011 — which means I researched, wrote, and rewrote the book for nearly as long as its title.  🙂

Before continuing to discuss the book and its back story, I wanted to mention that the results of that “Best Novels of All Time” poll is at the end of this column. I also posted the results this past Friday in the comments section under my March 26 piece announcing the poll, but thought I’d post them again today.

Anyway, the Fascinating Facts book is not a collection of my weekly columns from this 2014-launched blog. Rather, it’s new material about authors that I gleaned from reading biographies, reading scholarly introductions to novels, looking at online author sites, etc. — plus I included my recollections of seeing a few authors (such as Isaac Asimov and John Updike) in person. All this in short, easy-to-read chapters (more than 100 of them), with humor here and there.

In the book, every featured author — from Austen and Alcott to Zola and Zora (Neale Hurston) — is deceased, though I mentioned many authors who haven’t passed in passing. (BTW, today is Emile Zola’s birthday — he turns 177.) I should add that a number of novelists in the book were recommended to me by you in your wonderful comments here and on Facebook.

I came up with the idea for Fascinating Facts in mid-2011. At the time, I was blogging about literature for The Huffington Post, and one of the site’s editors asked me to put together a book-related “slideshow” feature (for no pay, of course — meaning I never accepted another of those very-work-intensive assignments). I decided I would focus on interesting author facts, and the feature was so popular that it occurred to me there might be a book in it.

Why did it take nearly six years? Well, I first contacted literary agents with the idea and some sample chapters. A few expressed a bit of interest, but none were willing to represent me and try to sell the book to a major publisher. So I just kept continuing to write it when I could, but life got in the way and made it a slower process than it should have been. My memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional came out in 2012, and I spent a lot of time trying to market that. My French professor wife Laurel Cummins started a three-year term as chair of her department, which meant my (enjoyable!) stay-at-home parenting of Maria took even more hours. I was also busy with this blog, my weekly humor column, my work on the National Society of Newspaper Columnists board, a move to an apartment from a house I had lived in for 21 years, etc.

And of course it took a while to research the lives of more than 100 authors, and to make sure I read at least one (and often several) of the novels they wrote — if I hadn’t read them before I started to work on Fascinating Facts.

I finally finished the book last fall. Given that I was not happy with the small press that published Comic (and Column) Confessional, I decided to go the self-publishing route this time. My friend and exceptional author Cathy Turney (who has commented under blog posts here) recommended the Let’s Write Books company run by Howard VanEs. Howard turned out to be incredibly helpful, talented, knowledgeable, and friendly. He, his copy editor, his designer, and others made the book read and look better than I would have imagined.

Fascinating Facts — available in paperback and Kindle versions — can be ordered here. If you buy it and like it, I’d be grateful for an Amazon review. And if you want to also give it as a gift, please do.  🙂

Now…here are the poll results! I looked at every top-ten-novels list I saw in the comments section under my March 26 column and elsewhere in response to that column (and also factored in my own list; alas, my favorite novel — Jane Eyre — didn’t make the cut). Then I gave first-place picks 10 points, second-place choices 9 points, etc. The overall top ten:

1. Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 49 points

2. Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee: 35 points apiece

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck: 33 points

4. Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller: 23 points

5. The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Dostoyevsky, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain, and The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 20 points apiece

6. Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy L. Sayers: 18 points

7. A Hero of Our Time (1840) by Mikhail Lermontov: 17 points

8. The Good Earth (1931) by Pearl S. Buck: 16 points

9. Wuthering Heights
(1847) by Emily Brontë: 14 points

10. Kindred (1979) by Octavia E. Butler: 13 points

As it turned out, most of the above authors and novels are featured or mentioned in my new book.  🙂

Any reaction to the poll results? Any literature-related trivia, anecdotes, oddities, or coincidences you’d like to mention? Any other comments?

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

In addition to doing this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.