Long-Lived Literary Lions and Lionesses

Last week, I wrote about famous writers who died young. This week — you guessed it! — I’ll discuss famous writers who lived into old age, 85 or more.

The only way to start this is by mentioning Herman Wouk, who’s still alive at…103! He’s the author of modern classics such as The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance; I need to read at least one of them! And To Sir, With Love novelist E.R. Braithwaite was 104 when he died two years ago.

Many writers who lived many decades did their best work in their 20s and 30s, many others peaked in mid-career, and some finally put it all together only when approaching senior-citizen status. For those in the latter two groups, we’d never have gotten to enjoy their A+ efforts if they had died young.

For instance, the now-94-year-old Rosamunde Pilcher wrote 22 novels before The Shell Seekers — her masterpiece — came out when she was 63. Maybe the author had to be that age to depict 60-something protagonist Penelope Keeling so convincingly and wonderfully? Pilcher went on to pen five more novels before retiring in 2000.

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, a novel I read this month, was written by Dorothy Gilman in her 40s — so she’s an example of an author who peaked mid-career, decades before dying at age 88. The book, which stars a widowed New Jersey homemaker in her 60s who becomes a CIA operative, is both hilarious and action-packed — a tough combination to pull off. (A scene from a screen version is pictured above.)

A prime example of a long-lived author who peaked early is of course Harper Lee, who was in her mid-30s when To Kill a Mockingbird rocketed to fame; she died at 89. Upton Sinclair was still in his 20s when The Jungle was published — though, unlike Lee, he wrote dozens of subsequent (albeit lesser-known) novels into his 80s. He passed away at 90.

Other authors who were with us for many decades? Renowned mystery writers P.D. James and Agatha Christie lived to 94 and 85, respectively, while sci-fi greats Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin died at 91 and 88. (Yes, I know those authors sometimes worked outside the genres I mentioned; Le Guin, for instance, was also known for her fantasy fiction.) Comedic writer P.G. Wodehouse, creator of the iconic Jeeves, lasted until 93.

Long-lived authors known more for “general fiction” included Eudora Welty, Robert Serling, Harriet Doerr, and the still-living Alison Lurie, all 92; W. Somerset Maugham and J.D. Salinger, both 91; Nadine Gordimer and James Michener, both 90; Saul Bellow and Janet Frame, both 89; Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jean Rhys, and Muriel Spark, all 88; Gabriel García Márquez, Thomas Hardy, Fanny Burney, the still-living Toni Morrison, and the still-living Alice Munro, all 87; Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, and Gore Vidal, all 86; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hermann Hesse, Philip Roth, the still-living Cormac McCarthy, and the still-living Charles Portis, all 85.

Then there’s poet Robert Frost (88) and poet/memoirist Maya Angelou (86). And while known mostly for his nonfiction, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote several novels during his 95 years.

Among my favorite novels and short stories by some of the writers in the above three paragraphs? And Then There Were None (Christie), Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury), Stones for Ibarra (Doerr), Foreign Affairs (Lurie), Of Human Bondage (Maugham), Caravans (Michener), Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room (Frame), “Gimpel the Fool” (Singer), Wide Sargasso Sea (Rhys), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Márquez), Jude the Obscure (Hardy), Evelina (Burney), Beloved (Morrison), “The Aleph” (Borges), “Proof Positive” (Greene), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe), Steppenwolf (Hesse), Suttree (McCarthy), True Grit (Portis), “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (Frost), and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Angelou).

Your favorite writers (ones I mentioned or didn’t mention) who lived to 85 or older? You’re also welcome to name some slightly younger ones. 🙂

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 comedic year in review — is here.

88 thoughts on “Long-Lived Literary Lions and Lionesses

  1. Dave, what’s this new column that is showing up in the “Comments” — Winding Up the Week. Is this for real, or is it something that will blow up my laptop? Not this one, but I’ve already had two warnings after I switched over to Google about malware or whatever else sounds bad. I’m ready to go back to Bing. 🙂

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    • Thank you for asking, Kat Lit. Sorry for the late response — I have family over today. The Pingback thing is totally harmless; in this case, it just means that another blogger (a book blogger) linked to this column in her blog. 🙂

      Very sorry about your malware warnings. 😦 They were definitely not caused by the Pingback.

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  2. Pingback: Winding up the Week #51 – Book Jotter

  3. Funny thing, a couple of weeks ago I found a copy, sans cover, of Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie– and now, out of the blue, it’s pertinent to the week’s topic!

    I scanned the first few pages, and thought it might do for a weekend read when the weather was against outdoor activity, but it occurred to me that this was a late work indeed, and now having looked it up on wikipedia, I can report that there is sometimes a downside to such authorial longevity:

    “According to The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English, this novel is one of the “execrable last novels” where Christie “loses her grip altogether”.

    Elephants Can Remember was cited in a study done in 2009 using computer science to compare Christie’s earlier works to her later ones. The sharp drops in vocabulary size and increases in repeated phrases and indefinite nouns suggested Christie may have been suffering from some form of onset dementia, perhaps what later became known as Alzheimer’s disease. The subject of the book being memory may be another clue.”

    On the other hand, PG Wodehouse wrote The Girl In Blue when he was 89, and though it features no recurring characters such as Bertie or Jeeves, still manages to entertain, charmingly, in the Wodehouse manner. Doubt I would have read it had it not been on a shelf in my mother’s room– hardback, no less– but I’m glad for the opportunity to have seen an old master in his old age still up to new things done well.

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    • VERY interesting to hear the story behind that Agatha Christie book, jhNY. Some last or near-last novels are indeed clunkers — off the top of my head, I can also mention Willa Cather’s “Sapphira and the Slave Girl” and Jack Finney’s “From Time to Time,” among others. Yet, as in the case of the Wodehouse work you mentioned, they can be pretty good. For instance, while Melville wasn’t old-old when he wrote his last novel, “Billy Budd” — he was in his late 60s/early 70s — he was in bad enough health to die before it was finished. Yet it was one of his best works.

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      • jhNY, I’ve read so many Christie novels that I can’t separate those from “Elephants Can Remember,” but I will do it someday, thanks to you. I’m now listening to something recorded many years ago (Eric Anderson). I think he’s a very good musician that recorded many pieces that I can still enjoy today! Thanks!

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        • I’m probably telling you something I’ve told you before, but I spent an afternoon near Woodstock NY at a roadside hotel/bistro named La Duchesse Ann in the mid-80’s with Eric Andersen, playing guitars, singing and talking. Also, eating, as the folks who ran the place were French and cooked up a storm. A lovely memory!

          Hope it’s possible to find that latter-day Christie enjoyable. I will tackle my copy carefully, as it’s falling apart…someday also.

          Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed. One of the most magical nights in my life– the Festival of the Boats, 1970– took place along the Grand Canal.

        Also: see Thomas Mann for a more complicated take on the place as a place of departure. The Dirk Bogarde film does good things with this material…

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        • That must have been amazing, jhNY!

          I visited in 1979 and 2004 — a lot more crowded during the latter stay.

          One novel I read recently with an interesting take on that city (circa 1945) is Martin Cruz Smith’s “The Girl from Venice.” And there’s “The Aspern Papers” by Henry James…

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  4. On the music side, there is one of my heroes, Pete Seeger, who lived to be 94. I saw a memorial concert for him held at Lincoln Center on the lawn perhaps a few years ago, which was really quite wonderful and moving. He wrote so many great songs in his long life, and I have a CD of a two-disc set that celebrates many of his best recordings. He was also in the vanguard of environmental issues, especially on behalf of his great love for the Hudson River. I think there’s supposed to be another tribute album coming out this year, which would commemorate what would be his 100th birthday.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for mentioning Pete Seeger, Kat Lit! Well said!

      As you noted, he was such a talented songwriter/singer/musician — and a friendly, courageous, admirable man who always fought for social justice. I saw him in concert four times, and had the pleasure of meeting him once.

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      • I promised you I was done with best-ever lists, but being New Years Day, I’ll do my final list right now, though you know my promises can be broken. 🙂
        So here’s the best 5 from a list of the best 50 songs ever: 5) Like a Rolling Stone (Dylan); 4) (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Rolling Stones); 3) Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen); 2) Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana); 1) Imagine (John Lennon). This list was based more on ratings, sales, etc. than any aesthetic value, which it should be. But really, why is the Nirvana song on the best 5 list? That’s the only one that is jarring to me. I bought their first album, on which this song appeared, and ended up throwing it out. I suppose music is just like books, movies, art, or any other artistic endeavor. We all have different tastes and likes, which is as it should be, but still…

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        • Yes, Kat Lit, favorite songs (or books, etc.) can be VERY subjective — and rightly so. We all have different tastes, as you said.

          Looking at that top-five list, I’m not sure any of those songs would be on my own top-five list — although “Imagine” is definitely in my top 25. I’d have to think for hours about my favorite rock/pop songs of all time, but some off-the-top-of-my-head candidates would include (not necessarily in order) the long version of “Ashes Are Burning” (Renaissance), “The Garden” (Rush), “Acrobat” (U2), “New Horizons” (The Moody Blues), “Baba O’Riley” (The Who), “London Calling” (The Clash), “Streets of Philadelphia” (Bruce Springsteen), “My Immortal” (Evanescence), “Rainy Day” (10,000 Maniacs), and “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding” (Elvis Costello),

          I liked but didn’t love Nirvana. 🙂

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          • Of course now I have to share my own best songs ever list, so here goes, in no particular order: “Thunder Road” (Bruce Springsteen); “Whiter Shade of Pale” (Procol Harum); “Those Three Are on my Mind” (Pete Seeger), “The Sound of Silence” (Simon and Garfunkel), “What’s That I Hear” (Phil Ochs), “Absolute Beginners” (David Bowie), “Boots of Spanish Leather” (Bob Dylan, as sung by Nanci Griffith), “Catch the Wind” (Donovan), Eleanor Rigby (Lennon/McCartney) and 10) is a tie between “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Who Wants to Live Forever” (Queen). Of course this list is always being changed up in my head. The only constant is “Whiter Shade of Pale,” and whatever I’ve been listening to at the moment. Also I have my list of top five singers/songwriters and will most likely love anything that they’ve written: Lennon/McCartney, Nanci Griffith, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, and Freddie Mercury. The next five are Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Laura Nyro, Pete Seeger, and Leonard Cohen. I guess that’s it for now. Next will be my favorite classical pieces and composers — ha! Sorry Dave, but I’ll spare you that!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Great lists of songs and singers/songwriters, Kat Lit! “Whiter Shade of Pale” IS a classic — I love that church-like organ, among other aspects of that tune. If I’m remembering right, the song references “The Miller’s Tale” from Chaucer?

              Ha — your classical pieces and composers quip. 🙂

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              • As long as we’re working from memory, I recall that a survey among British rock fans found this song to be their favorite– the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones notwithstanding.

                ‘As the miller told his tale’ is the ref, and it must refer to Chaucer somehow– Interestingly, there are verses Keith Reid had written which did not make it onto the recording, but I’m not sure they make the ref or the lyrics we know any clearer. Sex and regret, possibly regrettable sex, seem the most likely themes.
                https://genius.com/Procol-harum-a-whiter-shade-of-pale-lyrics

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                  • Procol Harum’s first lp, which contains A Whiter Shade of Pale, is a late 60’s classic, and has been in my collection since the year it was released. It’s a sorta Bach meets Blonde on Blonde affair, with the excellent Gary Brooker on piano and vocals, Matthew Fisher on organ and Robin Trower (before he became a Hendrix devotee) on guitar. Keith Reid wrote the lyrics to all their songs.

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              • Dave and jhNY, thanks for mentioning that there’s definitely is a reference to Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” but I have to say that I first fell in love with the title and lyric of “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Perhaps it partly has something to do with the fact that I definitely naturally have a pale complexion and do turn to whiter than that if I’m sick or not even eating enough, but I never thought about that until I first heard this song. Dave, I also want to amend my list of favorite singers/songwriters by adding Phil Ochs. I’ve been listening to a lot of his songs over the past few days, and I wonder if my brother was influenced by him. I even love poems he put to music, “The Highwayman” and “The Bells.” I love his songs “Changes,” “When I’m Gone,” “Do What I Have to Do.” and many more, such as “What’s That I Hear,” mentioned above.

                Funny story about my best girlfriend who’s a major fan of Bruce Springsteen and has been since college days. There’s a song that references Bob Dylan, which I don’t remember right now, but she wanted to know about the “Wasabi Range” of Minnesota, but I had to tell her that it was the “Mesabi Iron Range,” where Dylan was born, as well as my parents’ who lived or were born there. 🙂
                We still laugh about that, and goes to show you can’t always figure out the lyrics of songs.

                Liked by 1 person

                • Thank you, Kat Lit!

                  I’m also a big fan of Phil Ochs; I have his “Chords of Fame” greatest hits collection. A wonderful songwriter, singer, and guitarist with an immense social conscience. You mentioned some terrific songs of his. I think he wrote some of the best anti-war songs ever, and of course great music of a more general nature.

                  So true about the words of songs not always being comprehensible! Very funny example you offered. 🙂 I’ve googled lyrics on more than a few occasions!

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      • That he was, Dave, and now I’ve got my favorite song he wrote (w/Frances Taylor) running through my head — “Those Three Are on My Mind,” referencing the three young freedom riders who lost their lives in Mississippi (James, Andrew and Michael) many years ago by the white supremist group that I don’t even want to mention. His version is great, but I also love the version done by Kim Harris and Magpie that appears on the CD I referenced above. What’s awful is that even after hearing this song again, as well as a different song by Mimi & Richard Farina, I still have trouble remembering their names, as well as thinking there were four of them. One really shouldn’t forget these things. It does stay with us through songs and other artistic endeavors, so I want to always remember who these brave young men were. That’s the least we can do for them

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kat Lit, I had to double-check Wikipedia myself: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. Three incredibly brave and principled young men, killed by the type of white men who now support Trump. 😦

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          • Yes, I had in my mind that they were Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, which those three were so much more important than the gospel. Sorry if I offend anyone here, but I’ve read the entire Bible, and it doesn’t have much meaning for me. I’d rather listen to “Those Three Are On My Mind,” as well as many other songs I’ve heard through the years!

            Liked by 1 person

            • Impressive that you’ve read the entire Bible! I’ve only read bits and pieces of it, and have a general sense of some other sections. To me, it’s like some kind of huge novel — or maybe a work of historical fiction, with some facts and plenty of embellishment. Like you, it doesn’t mean a lot to me, and I don’t take much in it literally.

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              • Yes, well, it was a hard slog at times, but I managed to make it through by doing it chapters after chapters for a long time. This was back in the days when I was more interested in religious writings than today, but I suppose I felt that way because of certain disturbing things I read back then. Though if one is being serious about “Bible stories” then one should follow that through the entire writings of Judeo-Christianity, which I’ve failed miserably at.

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                • A hard slog it must indeed have been.

                  I wonder how many Trump-supporting evangelical Christians have read the whole Bible. If they have, they’re certainly missing the meaning of most of it — deliberately so.

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                  • I confess to have done no such thing, though I’ve read swaths of the thing. As Blind Willie Johnson put it:

                    Got a Bible in my home,
                    Got a Bible in my home
                    If I don’t read, my soul be lost
                    It ain’t nobody’s fault but mine.

                    What other book tempts its practitioners to jump from line to line or even phrase to phrase across hundreds of pages and years in order to make a consistency out of a hodge-podge?

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    • Son House and Furry Lewis, blues recording artists, each lived past 80, a hard trick to pull off given hardships and predilections.

      I met Mr. Lewis in 1969– he had been, for his working life, a garbage man in Memphis TN. It was those garbage men, who went on strike in 1968, on whose behalf MLK marched, before he was shot to death in that city.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, it can be surprising how some people living tough lives make it to old age. Of course, they might have lived another decade or so with easier lives.

        Such a famous, consequential, tragic strike in 1968 Memphis. And a memorable meeting you had the following year.

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      • jhNY, I remember your talk of Furry Lewis when I was mentioning something about him being someone associated with a particular song or recording that I particularly loved, but for the life of me I can’t remember, and it’s driving me crazy. I couldn’t find it on Wikipedia — do you know what I’m thinking of? Thanks.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I don’t recall mentioning him here, and when I did a search of the site for Furry Lewis, I got nada. But so far as I can recall, he is most famous for his version of Casey Jones (Kassie Jones) and a version of Stack-O-Lee, which are not blues songs per se. My sense of the man as artist is: mostly a song collector, not so much a writer, and he played in a pretty old-time style even as a young man– sort of a throwback, but an effective entertainer.

          Turn Your Money Green is another popular Lewis song. He also does a version of Shake “Em on Down, originally recorded by Bukka White.

          Doubt this helps, but it’s all I got…

          Liked by 1 person

          • OK, I think you solved it by mentioning “Turn Your Money Green” by Lewis which includes the line “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me,” a novel by Richard Farina mentioned a few times by me, in fact just a few weeks ago for the second time. The only song referred to a Doors song “Been Down So Long” that appeared on their album “L.A. Woman.” I just listened to it and didn’t care for it much, so it was obviously the book title that I remembered. I thank you for helping me with this burning question!

            Liked by 1 person

            • And to further flesh out sources, here’s a line from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s Jack O’ Diamonds Blues (1926):

              Bet the Jack against the Queen
              It’s gonna turn your money green
              Jack O’ Diamonds is a hard card to play

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Pandit Ravi shankar, have written books as well, lived until 92.
    A kind and generous man, a complete vegetarian .
    This is when he was in a rehearsal with young musicians who became well known in their own name recognizance .

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  6. As Tanya mentions Rabindranath Tagore

    On The Seashore

    On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
    The infinite sky is motionless overhead
    And the restless water is boisterous.
    On the seashore of endless worlds
    The children meet with shouts and dances.

    They build their houses with sand,
    And they play with empty shells.
    With withered leaves they weave
    Their boats and smilingly float them
    On the vast deep.
    Children have their play on the
    Seashore of worlds.

    They know not how to swim,
    They know not how to cast nets.
    Pearl-fishers dive for pearls,
    Merchants sail in their ships,
    While children gather pebbles
    And scatter them again.
    They seek not for hidden treasures,
    They know not how to cast nets.

    The sea surges up with laughter,
    And pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.
    Death-dealing waves sing
    Meaningless ballads to the children,
    Even like a mother while rocking her baby’s cradle.
    The sea plays with children,
    And pale gleams the smile of the sea-beach.

    On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
    Tempest roams in the pathless sky,
    Ships are wrecked in the trackless water,
    Death is abroad and children play.
    On the seashore of endless worlds is the
    Great meeting of children.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I could think of LeoTolstoy, W.B Yeats, Harper Lee, Charles Dickens, Nadine Gordimer, Chinua Acebe, Adrienne Rich, Tonny Morrison, Saul Bellow, Agatha Christie, Tagore, ….. list is unending!

    Creative doesn’t always kill!! 🙂

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      • I read many Le Carre books when the Cold War was a thing, and thought, at the time, they were well-done and realistically complex. Haven’t returned to them since, and wonder, minus the pervasively paranoid international atmosphere of those times, if they still hold up. Of course, one could argue that there is a similar atmosphere pervading currently, but I’d counter, some computer tricks notwithstanding, that Russia is not the USSR, in either economic or military power, though the rusting nukes remain pointed here. And the Marxist prediction of a communist millennium, once the basis of the West’s greatest long-term fear is now beyond remote.

        The books involving Smiley, as I recall, are the ones to seek out, if interested.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I thought he maybe older but Nelson DeMille is 75. I had one of his books called “Gold Coast” on my bookshelf. Its about a North Shore of Long Island mob family, hence book title. Was a good read. He had another best seller called “Plum Island.” Gold Coast is the only book I have read of his long catalogue. Looks like his first book came out in 1974 when was he was a young writer. Also listed he writes under pen names. Now that’s for another post, Dave, writers who have published under other names. I know you have mentioned JK Rowling.

    Anyway, Healthy Happy New Year to you and yours. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The first to come to mind for me when I started reading this intriguing essay, Dave, were P.D. James, and Philip Roth – both mentioned as I kept reading. Stephen King is still writing at the young age of 71 and his life could have been cut short in 1999 when he was hit by a car and seriously injured. That reminds me I need to delve into some of his more recent works since I’m way behind. But first I must check out the Mrs. Pollifax series which sounds delightful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Molly!

      It IS hard to keep up with Stephen King’s output. I’ve read maybe 17 or 18 of his books, and that’s probably WAY less than half of what he’s written.

      The first Mrs. Pollifax novel was indeed great — packing a lot of laughs and drama into about 200 pages.

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  10. I am so happy that you’re getting to know Emily Pollifax! I have spent so many delightful hours in her company!!! The 6 ‘ Angela Lansbury was miscast in that role in my opinion. Helen Hayes looked like the Emily Pollifax that my imagination conjured up.

    I can’t believe that Herman Wouk is still with us! I read “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” long before I read “Marjorie Morningstar”. It was difficult to believe they were written by the same man!!!

    Other authors that came to mind were Mark Twain and Dick Francis. One of these days you need to add Mr. Francis to the list of authors you’ve read.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Wow, Becky — that’s an impressive age! Thank you for mentioning her!

      Another children’s writer, Dr. Seuss, whose work of course targeted younger kids than Beverly Cleary did, lived to 87 — old, but nowhere near Cleary’s life span.

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  11. Dave, of course I have to mention my best friend and housemate, Bill, who is still going strong at age 90. I should also mention that he reads much more than I, and he especially loves the Reacher novels. I fervently hope he’ll last as long as some of the writers you’ve mentioned. I’ve been putting together spreadsheets about the budget for next year and beyond, and he’s so far above what most accountants and auditors (both of which he’s been) is that he puts me to shame. The author who comes to mind is Alexander McCall Smith, who is now 70 years old but is juggling at least 4 different series a day, but now I realize I’m his age, so this may not count 🙂

    I’m glad you read the first Mrs. Pollifax novel, because she’s such a delightful character. I think I said before that she made me happy at a very bad time in my life…so there’s something to be said about that! So I get all caught up in whether that’s not intellectual or whatever, but I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that whatever I read from this point on isn’t going to change my life at all, and I should just read whatever I want or to spend time on music that I love above all else. Does this make sense?

    Liked by 4 people

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