A Literary-Trivia Roundup

I’m away this week, but still wanted to post something new, so I thought I’d offer some highlights from my 2017 literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

Dorothy Parker willed her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who she had never met).

Jane Austen got the title of Pride and Prejudice from a line in Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia.

The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originally referred to the wealthy family in which Edith Wharton (nee Jones) grew up.

The Starbuck character in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick inspired the name of a certain coffee chain.

O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” (when on the lam in Latin America after being charged with embezzlement).

George Orwell popularized the term “cold war.”

Orwell was briefly Aldous Huxley’s student at England’s Eton school (years before they respectively authored two of the 20th century’s most famous dystopian novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World).

The title of Huxley’s nonfiction book The Doors of Perception inspired the name of The Doors rock band.

Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died on nearly the same day in 1616.

The first modern novel? Not Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but perhaps Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. She wrote it 1,000 years ago.

Isaac Asimov wrote and edited more than 500 books!

Agatha Christie’s greatest mystery? She disappeared for 10 days in 1926.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ancestors include Francis Scott Key (writer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” words) and Mary Surratt (who was executed for her part in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln).

Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Mark Twain were longtime neighbors in Hartford, Conn.

Twain was a huge fan of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, comparing Anne to Alice (of Wonderland fame).

Richard Wright starred as his Native Son novel’s teen protagonist Bigger Thomas in a 1950 movie. Wright was 42 at the time!

Daphne du Maurier may have been the favorite writer of Alfred Hitchcock, who made three films — including The Birds — based on her work.

H.G. Wells and Orson Welles (each of The War of the Worlds fame) appeared together on the same San Antonio radio show in 1940.

The Group author Mary McCarthy’s brother was actor Kevin McCarthy and a cousin was politician Eugene McCarthy.

The Jungle author Upton Sinclair received nearly 900,000 votes when he ran for governor of California in 1934.

Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) worked as an anthropologist with Margaret Mead.

What do Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Beatles have in common? Liverpool! Hawthorne was U.S. consul there.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling is the only YA (young adult) novel to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Patricia Highsmith, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, and Kurt Vonnegut were among the writers who were also cartoonists.

“Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s favorite novels included The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.

Dr. Seuss partly based the look of his Cat in the Hat character on the Uncle Sam he drew for his editorial cartoons about 15 years earlier.

You can read many more facts if you buy the book!

Any interesting literary trivia you’d like to mention?

I might reply to comments more slowly this week (spotty wifi isn’t helping), but I will reply!

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about rampant overdevelopment in my town, is here.

The Talent and Relevance of Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale television series based on Margaret Atwood’s iconic 1985 novel is a smash hit — helped by the fact that this screen adaptation is very relevant during the time of a Trump administration that’s profoundly mean, sexist, macho, misogynist, anti-women, and patriarchal. Also, I just finished reading Atwood’s 2013 novel MaddAddam — the great third installment of the speculative-fiction trilogy whose first two books were Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

So I thought I’d write an Atwood appreciation — one that combines new material with some material from the first literature blog post I ever published, on June 2, 2011. That post was an Atwood appreciation, too.

MaddAddam is one of those novels that has it all: memorable characters, adventure, scares, intrigue, humor, satire, snappy dialogue, romance of a sort, non-preachy social commentary (ranging from the environment to gender relations), and more. The postapocalyptic story of a small group of people who survived the almost total eradication of Earth’s population shows that Atwood is still a terrific novelist in her 70s — and that she has a way of sounding so current and up-to-date that one could mistake her for a writer in her 20s or 30s.

The 1939-born Canadian author is well known for bestselling fiction set in a dismal near-future. Heck, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the 20th century’s great dystopian novels — up there with Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four — about a U.S. society in which women have lost their rights and the relatively small number of fertile ones are forced to become “handmaids” basically raped for reproductive purposes.

But there’s an astonishing variety to Atwood’s canon. She has also written gripping historical fiction (the well-researched Alias Grace about a 19th-century double murder), many contemporary novels (such as Cat’s Eye about a middle-aged Canadian artist and The Robber Bride about three longtime friends dealing with a nemesis), and even a book from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife Penelope as her legendary hubby is off adventuring (The Penelopiad). Other Atwood novels contain elements of mystery (Surfacing) and surrealism (The Edible Woman). And the ultra-prolific author has penned short stories, children’s books, nonfiction books, poetry, and more. In fact, Atwood was a widely published poet for several years before her first novel was released — a career arc like Sir Walter Scott’s.

Atwood’s fiction is also quite layered. She often shifts scenes from the present to the past to the present — MaddAddam does this quite a bit — while managing not to confuse her readers. The Blind Assassin even includes a novel within that Booker Prize-winning novel. And several of Atwood’s novels contain poems, letters, newspaper stories, and other devices. Plus her characters are complex, three-dimensional people — with the “good” ones usually having some negative traits and the “bad” ones usually having some positive attributes.

No appreciation of Atwood would be complete without an example of her wonderful prose. In the “Hairball” story that’s part of her 1991 short-story collection Wilderness Tips, Atwood describes a character’s name this way: “During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school she’d shed the frills and emerged as bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped-denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street feline, and pointed as a nail.”

Give this author a much-deserved Nobel Prize!

If you’ve read Atwood, what do you think of her work? And, in your opinion, what other living authors deserve a future Nobel for literature? A list of past winners can be seen here.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, with a silly focus on the date August 10 through the centuries, is here.

Characters Who Make a Big Impression in a Small Amount of Time

The very weird Anthony Scaramucci lasted only 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications director — a brief and memorable White House cameo for that minor cast member in “Trumpland.”

Which reminds me of the many fictional people who appear for a short or relatively short time in novels, yet are unforgettable — whether they’re good or evil, funny or not funny, etc. They’re not as important as the protagonists and the top-tier secondary characters, but they leave their mark.

A few examples (chronologically by the novels’ publication date):

The gentle/ill-fated Helen of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre becomes friends with Jane when they’re both girls at the Lowood institution. Helen shows the young Jane that there’s some kindness in the world, and her (Helen’s) death helps spark changes at the unhealthy Lowood — cheaply run by wealthy “religious” hypocrite Mr. Brocklehurst — that probably save the lives of Jane and others.

Moby-Dick‘s Starbuck doesn’t appear a lot in Herman Melville’s novel, but the calm/earnest first mate is quite a contrast to the crazed Captain Ahab — and the only person on the Pequod ship who tries to talk Ahab out of continuing his obsessive quest to revenge himself on the white whale who bit off Ahab’s leg. But the not-brave-enough Starbuck (who inspired the name of a certain coffee chain) ultimately goes along with Ahab’s doomed mission.

In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, the mother Daniel has never really known turns up late, and only briefly, but she is a crucial piece in the puzzle as the title character discovers his secret Jewish identity. The mother-son scene is dramatic, heightened by the fact that she’s terminally ill.

A highlight of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is the devil cameo in an amazing scene that’s philosophical, hilarious, and more. Satan (a hallucination?) appears in the guise of an amiable elderly man and proceeds to tell a bunch of silly — or perhaps not so silly — stories.

In Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, there are many minor characters with cameos that will have you rolling on the floor. My favorite of those people might be Baloun, who’s always so hungry and food-obsessed that he can’t help scarfing down the edibles he’s supposed to be saving for his commanding officer.

Readers of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon only get to see the leader of Shangri-La for a short time, but that leader’s life is long: he’s 250 years old! Not easy to forget that

Eowyn has a minor part in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but it’s a memorable one as she disguises herself as a man to fight in battle. She stands out even more given that most of Tolkien’s characters are male and his trilogy has quite a bit of gender stereotyping. Yet The Lord of the Rings is still great.

Which is more than one can say about anybody who was or is part of the Trump administration.

Who are some of the minor characters in literature you’ve found majorly memorable?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, with education and health themes, is here.