‘I See Dead People’ As I Write This Post

Literature lovers are among the people who need cheering up in these troubled times, so today’s blog post is about…death. Oops.

It can’t be denied that many great and not-so-great novels have a mortality element, and some of those books are 100% depressing. But others are also inspiring, therapeutic, cathartic, etc.

Death entered my mind as I recently read Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, much of which features residents of the fictional Missouri town of Elmwood Springs talking with each other after they die. Yet the novel is mostly sunny and comforting, though not so sentimental that some real-life social issues (such as sexism) are ignored.

On the other hand, many death-permeated novels — such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — are mostly downbeat. Yet they can be totally worth reading for their powerful writing, psychological insights, perspectives on religion, and so on.

“Permeated with death” doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of characters pass away in a particular book. Just two deaths are most central to Crime and Punishment, and there’s only one major demise in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. In mass-audience fiction, among the mortality-infused novels with just one key death is Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember.

Yet “permeated with death” can mean many lives snuffed out — especially in fictional works set during wartime (such as Erich Maria Remarque’s concentration-camp novel Spark of Life), during an attack on civilians (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch), during resistance to a brutal dictatorship (Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies), during slavery (Octavia Butler’s Kindred), during a plague (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man), etc.

Then there are the five people who die when a bridge collapses in Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Nothing more than awful fate and horrible luck, of course, but a monk who witnesses the disaster tries to find a reason why that particular quintet lost their lives.

Early in Old Mortality, Sir Walter Scott focuses on a man who travels to various cemeteries to re-engrave the tombs of 17th-century men who died in battle. Then Scott moves the action back to 1679, and we see the deaths occur.

In “The Dead,” hearing a particular song causes a married woman to remember the passing away of a young former boyfriend. The effect on her and her husband (along with James Joyce’s evocative writing) gives the long short story its emotional wallop.

Other fictional works prominently featuring the no-longer-living? Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (obviously), Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (Catherine Earnshaw’s spectral presence), Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (brutal white guys massacring innocents in the 19th-century American West), and (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That (with its memorable conclusion that juggles life and death), to name just four.

What about Edgar Allan Poe? Agatha Christie? Sue Grafton? Walter Mosley? Louise Penny? Lee Child? Authors of certain genre fiction — horror stories, ghost tales, mysteries, detective novels, thrillers, etc. — of course often include in their books murdered or otherwise-deceased characters, but that’s for different blog posts to discuss. Several of which I already wrote, such as this one.  🙂

The death-permeated works of fiction you’ve found most memorable? (Feel free to also comment on mysteries and the other genres mentioned in the above paragraph!)

And, sort of on this topic, here’s a video of the Evanescence song “My Immortal.”

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, a dystopian fantasy about greedy developers paving over and building in parks, is here.

‘No Book Panic Syndrome’ Is a Novel Problem

Do you occasionally suffer from NBPS? Yes, I’m talking about No Book Panic Syndrome.

Let me explain. You’re a literature lover, and you’ve finished all the not-read novels in your home. You need to go to the library or bookstore, but you can’t get there quite yet — maybe the next day. Or you’ve ordered a title or two online, and it won’t be arriving in the mail until, say, the weekend. And (this is important!) you read books the old-fashioned way, not on a Kindle.

What to do? You can of course click on some free short stories online, and read them there. But you crave print.

I suffered from NBPS this past week. On Tuesday, I finished Louise Penny’s excellent mystery How the Light Gets In — mostly set in a small Canadian town filled with memorable characters. Two other library books I borrowed in August — Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher adventure Night School — had already been read, admired, and put aside. But I couldn’t get to the library until Thursday because of chores and car availability.

(Yes, Car Availability would make a great name for a rock band.)

Why not go a couple days without reading, I asked myself? Yeah, right, I answered — ain’t happening.

Perusing the back of cereal boxes was not a tempting option, and I had already read too much about Hurricane Irma and What a Pain Donald Trump in the print and online New York Times. So, although I’ve promised myself the past few years not to reread books I own (too many never-tried novels and authors out there), I was desperate enough to start scanning my living-room shelves. There I spotted Ray Bradbury’s R Is For Rocket, a yellowing paperback collection of 17 short stories I hadn’t read since I was a teen. Just 184 pages — the perfect length for a bridge to that Thursday library visit.

And what evocative, exquisitely written tales — about kids (as well as adults) longing to travel in space, and the occasional pitfalls of doing so; about a huge, ancient sea creature falling in love with a lighthouse and foghorn; and the classic “A Sound of Thunder” that depicts how the killing of a tiny butterfly during a trip back in time revises the present the travelers return to just enough to have a nightmarish result.

After Bradbury filled that two-day gap, I found reinforcements on Thursday when my library visit got me Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Kind Words Saloon, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I’ll undoubtedly mention all those fictional works in future posts.

What do you do when you temporarily have no book you want to read? Do you reread something? Do extra non-reading things? Sob uncontrollably?  🙂

Or maybe the crying will happen when I get to the above-mentioned John Green novel…

I’ll end today’s post with this video of a 2017 U2 song called “The Little Things That Give You Away.” Such as suffering from No Book Panic Syndrome…  🙂

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, about a way-way-too-big project that became way too big, is here.

In the Time of Trump, a Look at Latin-American Lit

Donald Trump this month cruelly and disgracefully decided to deport nearly 800,000 law-abiding children of undocumented immigrants. Those “Dreamers” were brought to the U.S. at a young age by parents mostly from Latin America — where the rich cultures include many examples of amazing literature.

So I thought I’d make today’s blog post about some of that literature, which is perhaps most known for magic realism (portraying fantastical events in a down-to-earth way) but obviously includes works written in all kinds of styles. I’ll also mention U.S. authors of Hispanic descent (some “Dreamers” could eventually be among them if allowed to stay) and even mention Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was of course written in Spanish.

Today’s blog topic is a bit ironic because the incurious Trump is notorious for (among other things) not reading novels or nonfiction books — though the word “Don” in the name Don Quixote might interest America’s narcissist-in-chief for a New York minute.

I have some personal interest in this because my younger daughter was born in Guatemala. But I’m hardly an expert on Latin-American literature, or an expert on Spanish- or Portuguese-language literature from anywhere, or an expert on literature by U.S. writers of Hispanic descent. Still, I’ll mention some of the fictional works I’ve read — including those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Isabel Allende (U.S. resident of Chilean descent), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Jorge Amado (Brazil), Laura Esquivel (Mexico), Junot Diaz (U.S. resident born in the Dominican Republic), Julia Alvarez (U.S. resident of Dominican descent), and others.

Garcia Marquez’s magic-realism-infused One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is rather challenging but often mesmerizing — and is deservedly considered one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. The 2014 New York Times obituary of the author observed: “In following the rise and fall of the Buendia family through several generations of war and peace, affluence, and poverty, the novel seemed to many critics and readers the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history.” Garcia Marquez, who put his journalism career on hold to work on One Hundred Years of Solitude for 18 months as his family went deeply into debt, later authored various other novels — including the more straightforward Love in the Time of Cholera depicting one great romance and various other less-enduring liaisons.

Allende’s also-magic-realism-infused The House of the Spirits (1982) was obviously influenced by One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet is quite different in many ways — more female-centered, and more readable while still satisfyingly deep and sweeping.

Other excellent novels worth mentioning include, among others: Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (not “Don, a Trump, and His Three Wives”), Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (set in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic), and Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (about sisters opposing the DR’s brutal mid-20th-century Trujillo dictatorship).

Then there are memorable works in forms other than novels — the superb short stories (such as “The Aleph”) of Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges (who did magic realism decades before Garcia Marquez), the masterful poetry of Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Spain’s Federico Garcia Lorca, and so on.

And there are Anglo writers who include Hispanic characters or settings in some of their novels — as did Marge Piercy with her Connie Ramos protagonist in Woman on the Edge of Time; Cormac McCarthy with the Mexican segments of his Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain); Graham Greene with his Mexico-placed The Power and the Glory; Paul Theroux with his mostly Honduras-set The Mosquito Coast; Ernest Hemingway with his The Old Man and the Sea starring a Cuban fisherman and his For Whom the Bell Tolls taking place during the Spanish Civil War; and so on. Also, one can’t forget John Steinbeck, who included Hispanic-American characters in several novels such as Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus.

Your favorite authors and fictional works with a Latin-American connection (those I’ve mentioned and/or the many I didn’t mention)? Other thoughts on today’s topic? Whether they end up numbering eight or 800,000, no comments will be kicked out.  🙂 😦

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 back-to-school theme, is here.

Hurricane Harvey and Happenings in Novels

Major real-life events can make fans of literature think of…literature. Such is the case with Hurricane Harvey — the catastrophic storm that has people focusing on lives lost, lives drastically disrupted, immense property damage, overdevelopment that eliminates water-absorbing open space, and…certain books.

I thought of novels that depict the devastating consequences of human-caused climate change, as do Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I also remembered fictional works in which water-related disasters are prominently featured — with those books including George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (huge flood), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (epic rains near the novel’s end), Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Jack London’s Martin Eden (drowning scenarios), etc. And one can’t ignore a novel titled The Year of the Flood — the second installment of Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic/eco-drenched trilogy that starts with Oryx and Crake and ends with MaddAddam.

Parable of the Sower, a 1993 dystopian sci-fi novel I finished this morning, is also prescient about several other things besides climate change — including the evils of profit-driven privatization of public entities. Heck, the horrific Hurricane Katrina, which happened twelve years after Butler’s book came out, resulted in charter school operators taking over the public school system in New Orleans and worsening education there as they monetized it. Parable also has a lot to say about race, gender, religion, and nasty/soulless corporations — topics Donald Trump has helped turn into disasters of another sort in 2017.

Of course, novels featuring ship voyages are often going to have water-related disasters. Two examples — one from literary lit and one from popular lit — include Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick with its ill-fated Pequod vessel and Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure with its capsizing ocean liner that turns upside down.

I haven’t read this novel, but Julie Barnes’ All Flavors includes a Florida hurricane as a significant presence.

For you, what fictional works (if any) came to mind after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, and surrounding areas?

You’re also welcome to mention novels you were reminded of by non-hurricane tragedies of any era. Examples include Albert Camus’ The Plague, Mary Shelley’s plague-filled The Last Man, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (cyclone), and books that use real-life disasters in a fictional setting — such as Pete Hamill’s Forever (the 9/11 attacks) and Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked (which ends with Pompeii’s 79 AD volcanic eruption).

Trump’s unwelcome Twitter storms don’t count…

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, about going back to school but not about going back to school, is here.