Non-Living Things Can Offer Literary Zings

Sometimes the main or almost-main character in a novel or short story is an inanimate object. And sometimes that object can seem almost as alive as characters who are actually alive (albeit fictionally).

My latest object of (literary) desire is the painted drum in Louise Erdrich’s absorbing novel The Painted Drum, which I’m in the middle of reading. As is often the case with fiction’s noteworthy objects, the non-living thing is named in the title. And this Native-American artifact has a personality of sorts, crafted beauty, and a major impact on the plot. (Ms. Erdrich is pictured above.)

Other prominent objects in literature of course include houses, cars, art, jewelry, statues, and more.

When a house is the title “character,” there’s frequently something about it that makes the human protagonists uneasy. For instance, Jane Austen’s part-spoof-of-Gothic-fiction Northanger Abbey features a character (Catherine Morland) whose overactive imagination gets a bit out of hand when she visits the titular dwelling. The house in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House is legitimately scary, the one in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables is not exactly a happy place, and the abode in Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand is the jumping-off point for some weird time travel.

More positive is the house in L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. It’s not literally a blue castle, but it’s the dream home Valancy Stirling has always wished for but never thought she’d have — and Valancy ends up living there with a man she loves through a very improbable set of circumstances.

Speaking of time travel a la du Maurier, there’s also H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine — with that titular device a vehicle of sorts.

Cars? The automobile “character” I first thought of is the one in Stephen King’s From a Buick 8 that’s a portal to a spooky place.

Art? Donna Tartt’s set-in-recent-times novel The Goldfinch is built around Carel Fabritius’ 1654 painting “The Goldfinch,” which is taken from a museum by protagonist Theo Decker amid the chaos of a terrorist attack that kills his mother and others. The priceless painting subsequently has a giant effect on Theo’s life.

Jewelry, gems, and such? Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone — an early novel in the detective genre — “stars” a huge diamond. The also-huge, very valuable pearl in John Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl is not the positive find Kino and his family hope it will be; it turns out to be a disaster — as does the article of jewelry in Guy de Maupassant’s devastating short story “The Necklace.”

Then there’s of course J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, in which the trilogy’s most-powerful ring is as consequential (to the plot and the future of Middle-earth) as it gets.

Statues? There’s the stone pillar in Erich Maria Remarque’s The Black Obelisk that can be seen as a symbol of the nascent Nazi movement in 1920s Germany. And there’s the famous statuette that’s the title of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon, starring detective Sam Spade.

Another sleuthing work focusing on an object is Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” featuring detective C. Auguste Dupin. Poe also put inanimate things in the titles of several other tales — including “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Oblong Box,” and “The Oval Portrait,” among others.

Oh, and there are the fateful overpasses in The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder and Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather.

Novels and stories you remember that prominently feature objects?

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 disruptive snowstorm and more — is here.

Characters Who Are First in Prominence, But Not the First to Appear

Usually, a novel’s main protagonist appears quickly at/near the start of the book. But there are times she or he doesn’t enter the story until somewhat later, with readers perhaps first meeting a secondary character or two.

While the latter approach can seem odd and counterintuitive — especially if the novel is named after the main protagonist — there are advantages to waiting a bit. We might initially see the protagonist through another character’s eyes, which can offer readers some early insight into the not-yet-met person. Also, waiting for the book’s star to take the stage can be a nice “tease” — building some tension and imbuing the star with some mystery as our gratification is delayed. Last but not least, we sort of get eased into the novel.

I most recently noticed this approach in Richard Russo’s very absorbing Nobody’s Fool. Readers first encounter Beryl, an interesting 80-year-old woman in a small New York State town. After a few pages, I thought the novel would be mostly about her, but then — through Beryl — we meet her upstairs tenant Donald Sullivan, who turns out to be the book’s main character. By that time, thanks to Beryl, we already know a good deal about “Sully” (who, in the above photo, was played by Paul Newman in the 1994 Nobody’s Fool movie; he’s next to Jessica Tandy as Beryl).

Another novel I read this fall that initially traveled the indirect route was The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith). We first meet Robin Ellacott as she travels to the office of private investigator Cormoran Strike to work as a temp for him. Then, we start to learn about Strike when he crashes into Robin as she approaches his office — with the large Cormoran almost knocking Robin down the stairs as he dashes out the door to try to catch the longtime girlfriend who just broke up with him. As it turns out, Robin displays private-investigator abilities and becomes the co-star of The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent books in that Rowling series.

A number of much older novels also take this kind of story-telling route.

For instance, Lockwood visits his landlord Heathcliff in the opening chapters of Wuthering Heights. We of course also meet Heathcliff, the co-star of Emily Bronte’s book, and a scared Lockwood, while sleeping, intensely feels the spirit of the deceased Catherine — the other Wuthering Heights co-star. Soon, through the narration of housekeeper Nelly Dean, we learn the tempestuous tale of Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship.

Mr. Smith, the grandfather of a differently spelled Nellie, is the first character we meet in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured. But he turns out to be a minor figure. The semi-autobiographical young author Vanya is the novel’s star, and Natasha (loved by Vanya), Alyosha (loved by Natasha), the orphaned Nellie, and other characters are much more significant players. But by trying to help the gravely ill Mr. Smith early in the novel, readers learn of Vanya’s decency and concern for others. And his moving into Mr. Smith’s place after that old man dies helps set some of the plot machinations in motion.

L.M. Montgomery starts Anne of Green Gables by showing nosy neighbor Rachel Lynde watching in shock as shy, scruffy old Matthew Cuthbert, who rarely leaves home, rides away in his horse-and-buggy dressed in his best suit. Turns out he’s going to pick up an orphan boy to help with farm work, but an orphan girl appears at the train station instead. We first learn of Anne Shirley’s braininess, originality, and other traits as she talks nonstop to the bewildered Matthew on the ride home. Anne then of course becomes the novel’s star — with the kind/gentle Matthew, his harder-edged sister Marilla Cuthbert, Anne’s best friend Diana Barry, Anne’s future love interest Gilbert Blythe, and others playing crucial supporting roles.

In Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, we first meet Francis Osbaldistone. It’s quite a while until Francis and the novel’s readers encounter Robert “Rob Roy” MacGregor, the leader of a band of Highlanders. (In the 1995 movie starring Liam Neeson, the Rob Roy character is much more front and center.)

Which novels can you think of that don’t open with the main protagonist?

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 nightmare fantasy about Donald Trump possibly becoming mayor of my town — is here.

Fifty Shades of States

I’d like to state that some novels capture a state — the feel, the ambiance, the streets, etc.

That obvious fact occurred to me last week as I read Tom MacDonald’s The Charlestown Connection, a mystery set in Massachusetts — mostly Boston’s Charlestown section (pictured above). The novel has interesting characters, but just as interesting is its you-are-there descriptions of various places in Beantown.

Many other novels, of course, do the same with other states in the U.S. I won’t give examples from all 50 states, but will mention one or more books from more than 20 states — listed alphabetically. They might or might not be the ultimate novels set in those states, but they’re in the discussion. And my apologies to non-U.S. readers of this blog for today’s U.S.-centric post. ūüôā

Alabama: Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Caf√© contains a double bonus — great evocations of The Yellowhammer State’s present (as of the novel’s 1980s publishing date) and past.

Arizona: Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale is the story of four women who live in Phoenix.

Arkansas: Charles Portis’ True Grit has an 1870s setting in places such as the rural Dardanelle area and the more citified Fort Smith.

California: Way too many novels to name are set in The Golden State, but, to offer just some examples, there are various John Steinbeck books (East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, and so on). Also, the crime fiction of Walter Mosley (such as Devil in a Blue Dress) and Sue Grafton (her alphabet mysteries) expertly conveys the vibe of Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Santa Barbara (the city that Grafton’s Santa Teresa is based on), and other California locales.

Florida: Also set in the 1870s, The Yearling captures the atmosphere of a rural/backwoods part of The Sunshine State as author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings focuses on a boy and his fawn.

Georgia: Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye — a hypnotic 1941 novel that includes an unusual (for its time) look at homosexuality — takes places at an Army base in The Peach State.

Hawaii: David Lodge’s Paradise News is initially set in the United Kingdom but then moves to Hawaii — with the state’s many charms depicted amid the plot involving an ill relative and a romance.

Indiana: Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which has a strong theme of “old money” vs. “new money,” is set in Indianapolis.

Louisiana: Anne Rice’s multigenerational The Witching Hour spends many chapters in New Orleans — an evocative place for a spooky novel.

Maine: Many of Stephen King’s intense works are of course set here, and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge also unspool in The Pine Tree State. Strout’s title character is…flinty.

Maryland: A number of Anne Tyler novels, including The Accidental Tourist and Ladder of Years, are set in or near Baltimore.

Michigan: Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex stars the gender-confused Cal/Calliope, but a major supporting “character” is Detroit.

Minnesota: Sinclair Lewis placed many of his memorable novels in the Midwest, with Main Street set in The North Star State.

Mississippi: The setting of many a William Faulkner novel, including As I Lay Dying and Light in August.

Missouri: The adventures in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer happen in The Show-Me State.

New Jersey: Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao toggles between the Dominican Republic and a well-described Garden State.

New York: Like California, New York (and especially New York City) is the locale for countless novels. Just five examples from different times would be Adam Langer’s Ellington Boulevard (set in the 21st century), James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (20th century), Jack Finney’s Time and Again (20th and 19th centuries), Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (19th century), and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (18th century). Time and Again‘s superb photos of NYC in the late 1800s add to the effect.

Ohio: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — of course.

Pennsylvania: The Keystone State’s two biggest cities are covered in Lisa Scottoline’s Philadelphia-set mysteries (such as The Vendetta Defense) and in more than one Michael Chabon novel (including Wonder Boys).

Rhode Island: In¬†Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland,¬†Subhash leaves India for graduate studies in Rhode Island and stays there after college as the novel’s dramatic events continue to unfold.

South Dakota: The roamin’ Jack Reacher goes to The Mount Rushmore State in Lee Child’s 61 Hours, and boy is it cold and snowy in that thriller.

Tennessee: Cormac McCarthy’s atmospheric novel Suttree is set in Knoxville.

Washington: Maria Semple’s colorful Where’d You Go, Bernadette includes a satiric look at Seattle.

It of course helps if authors live in/have lived in a state they’re writing about, but there’s always visiting and/or researching the place — as Lee Child did for 61 Hours.

I know I left out many states, authors, and books. Which novels do you associate with certain states? If it’s a state you live or lived in, did the author render things accurately and interestingly?

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 the November 6 election — is here.

Jewish Authors and Characters

The horrific October 27 massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue (shown above) made me think of many things — including the terror the shooting targets felt, the grief of surviving families, the easy access to guns supported by Republican politicians beholden to the far-right National Rifle Association, white-supremacist Trump’s refusal over the years to strongly denounce neo-Nazis, and more.

Given what I blog about each week, I also thought about Jewish authors — and Jewish characters created by Jewish or non-Jewish authors. Characters who are depicted sympathetically and three-dimensionally, as well as characters depicted in stereotypical or even anti-Semitic ways.

Some Jewish authors focus often on Jewish themes, while other Jewish authors are more “generalist,” for lack of a better word. Some, of course, veer between the two approaches in their various novels and stories.

When one thinks of Jewish or partly Jewish authors, among the names that come to mind are Isaac Asimov, Saul Bellow, Judy Blume, Michael Chabon, E.L. Doctorow, Stanley Elkin, Nora Ephron, Nadine Gordimer, Joseph Heller, Erica Jong, Franz Kafka, Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, Elsa Morante, Walter Mosley, Jodi Picoult, Marcel Proust, Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, and Isaac Bashevis Singer, to name just a few.

I’ve read some or a lot of each writer mentioned above, and wanted to mention several of their works with Jewish protagonists.

Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay stars two Jewish cartoonist cousins who have echoes of real-life “Superman” creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, while E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel is a novel loosely based on the 1950s case that saw Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executed for allegedly spying for the Soviet Union. Among Doctorow’s other books is his novel/memoir-hybrid World’s Fair.

One of Stanley Elkin’s novels is The Rabbi of Lud — enough said. Erica Jong’s sexually frank¬†Fear of Flying stars Jewish journalist Isadora Wing.

Among Bernard Malamud’s novels are The Assistant and The Fixer — with the first featuring Morris Bober, an aging Jewish refugee who operates a struggling grocery store in a working-class neighborhood of Brookyn, NY; and the second focusing on Yakov Bok, a Jewish handyman unjustly imprisoned in Czarist Russia.

Elsa Morante’s most famous work is History — a tremendous novel, set in fascist Italy during the World War II era, about the struggles of a timid half-Jewish woman (Ida) and her two sons (Nino and the precocious Useppe — the latter born after Ida was raped by a German soldier).

Walter Mosley is more known as an African-American writer, but he’s half-Jewish. One of the notable supporting characters in his popular Easy Rawlins mystery series is union organizer Chaim Wenzler of A Red Death. Who reminds me of the liberal politics of a good percentage of American Jews.

Philip Roth burst into major literary celebrity with Portnoy’s Complaint — starring Alexander Portnoy, a lust-ridden Jewish guy who is quite interested in non-Jewish females and has some mother issues. Goodbye, Columbus and a number of other Roth novels also have strong Jewish themes.

Mordecai Richler’s multi-generational Solomon Gursky Was Here might be the only fictional work that includes a section starring a Jewish Eskimo! Considered by some a candidate for “The Great Canadian Novel,” the book is loosely based on the Canadian-Jewish Bronfman family of liquor renown.

I’ve read many of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories (none of his novels yet), and they of course wonderfully chronicle Jewish life.

Then there are non-Jewish writers with prominent Jewish characters.

For instance, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda features the memorable Daniel (a wealthy ward who initially doesn’t know he’s Jewish), the kind/beleaguered Mirah Lapidoth (who crosses paths with Daniel), and Mirah’s visionary brother Ezra Mordecai Cohen — along with various equally memorable non-Jewish characters. It’s one of my very favorite novels.

William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice has Nathan Landau, the Jewish lover of the Catholic Sophie years after her devastating Holocaust trauma.

One character in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is Simon Rosedale, a Jewish businessman interested in marrying Lily Bart for the social prestige she could bring him. Simon is sort of stereotypical in a way, but he does have a kinder element or two.

And among Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe cast are the Jewish characters of Rebecca (non-stereotypical) and her father Isaac of York (a rather stereotypical merchant and money-lender).

Yes, there are of course some troubling depictions of Jewish people in literature — also including the miserly villain Fagin in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the money-lender Shylock in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. Also, the great Fyodor Dostoevsky has occasional bits in his novels that can be considered anti-Semitic.

Who are your favorite Jewish authors and characters? Your thoughts about them?

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 the upcoming November 6 election and more — is here.