Bad Bosses in Books

With Donald Trump in the White House, Americans have the bad boss from hell. Not only have his actions been a disaster for the U.S. and the world, but his “leadership” style has driven out a record number of almost-as-abysmal people from his administration.

Trump embodies the worst qualities of a bad boss. Mean, lazy, corrupt, cowardly, erratic, untruthful, incompetent, racist, sexist, homophobic, a sexual harasser, etc. So let’s take a look at some fictional bosses who, while mostly not as awful as Trump, are pretty darn substandard.

How about Captain Queeg of Herman Wouk’s enthralling Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny, which I just read? Queeg is a second-rate captain — not that skilled, cowardly, sadistic, a harsh disciplinarian on trivial matters, has the hypocritical philosophy of “do as I say not as I do,” just friendly enough at times to keep his crew off-balance, and, like Trump, blames underlings for his own mistakes. (Pictured at the top of this column is Humphrey Bogart as Queeg.)

Staying at sea for another paragraph, we of course have Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick, who deliberately puts the Pequod crew in danger as he seeks his irrational revenge on Herman Melville’s titular white whale.

Then there’s the faux-sweet Dolores Umbridge, of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, who temporarily becomes high inquisitor and then headmistress at Hogwarts. She rules the wizardry school in an unfair and ruthless manner (which includes vicious harassment of Harry), and is basically on the side of arch-villain Lord Voldemort.

Umbridge eventually gets her comeuppance — exemplifying a satisfying potential plot rationale for having bad-boss characters in literature. Plus readers empathize with and root for the beleaguered underlings. But good doesn’t always triumph over evil in nasty fictional workplaces.

Of course, novels with workplaces that are depicted at least somewhat realistically will feature plenty of bad bosses. If not, they’re fantasy novels of a sort. 🙂

A boss doesn’t have to be on-the-scene to be crummy. In Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, wealthy widow Francine Whiting almost never visits the Empire Grill she owns, but makes life hell for the eatery’s mild-mannered manager Miles Roby. Why does Francine treat Miles that way? She’s a nasty control-freak, and the rich Whiting family and not-rich Roby family have a complicated intertwined history.

Another bad boss is Vinnie Plum, cousin of bounty-hunter protagonist Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s mysteries. Vinnie is lazy, a gambler, a sexual pervert, and contemptuous of his employees — despite those employees being much better workers and much better people than he is.

Then there’s the bank boss in Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century who fires protagonist Michel DufrĂ©noy and his co-worker after they make just one mistake.

Also in the bad-boss club are — among others — Nurse Ratched of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, and Ebenezer Scrooge (until he’s transformed) of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Which bad bosses in fiction are most memorable to you?

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 dance vs. gym, an unauthorized hotel addition, and more — is here.

Novels Set Long Ago

There are many dichotomies in novel reading — including books by women or men, books by authors of color or white writers, books that are literary or more mass-market, books that are long or short, books with third-person or first-person narratives, and books set in recent times or long ago.

I was thinking about that last dichotomy when I recently read, back-to-back, Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. Russo’s 2016 novel, an excellent sequel to Nobody’s Fool, takes place in near-contemporary times. Diamant’s absorbing 1997 novel — told from the viewpoint of Dinah (daughter of Jacob/Leah, granddaughter of Isaac/Rebecca, great-granddaughter of Abraham/Sarah) — is set in biblical times thousands of years ago.

This blog post will focus on novels set many centuries in the past, whether written recently or…many centuries in the past. It’s fascinating to get a taste of what life was like long ago — seeing the differences and similarities from the way we live today. And — what do you know! — human emotions were pretty much the same, even as smartphone use was 50% less in ancient times.

Set VERY long ago is Jack London’s Before Adam, in which a man dreams he’s living in the era when apes were evolving into humans. (This was well before U.S. Republican leaders began devolving.) Part of Arthur C. Clarke’s mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey takes place during roughly the same period.

Another far-back novel with a not-quite-so-old milieu is Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked — which unfolds during the time of Christianity’s birth 2,000 years ago. There are of course numerous fictional works featuring or referencing Jesus Christ during the time he lived (if you believe he lived).

Taking place roughly during that same time period is Robert Graves’ I, Claudius — set during the Roman Empire.

Moving ahead several hundred years, we have Mark Twain’s pointed/hilarious A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which the 19th-century protagonist travels back to the late-5th/early-6th-century days of Camelot.

Then there’s Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s famous historical novel set in 12th-century England.

Plus The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s intellectual murder mystery that takes place in 14th-century Italy; and The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier’s gripping novel that features time travel back to that 1300s period in England.

The iconic Don Quixote is set in the 1500s, or perhaps the early 1600s — when Miguel de Cervantes wrote it.

And James Clavell’s compelling Shogun takes place in the feudal Japan of 1600.

Speaking of Japan, there’s Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, which takes place about a thousand years ago — and was written by Ms. Shikibu about a thousand years ago! (A scene from that early novel is shown atop this blog post.)

What are some of your favorite novels set many centuries in the past? I realize there are countless titles I didn’t name.

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 structural problems in three old schools, the possible reopening of a historic movie theater, and my town’s new congresswoman — is here.

A Statistical Interlude

Bloggers who use WordPress get a statistics-laden “backstage” area telling them how their readership is going. So I thought I’d skip writing about literature for just one week in order to offer some 2018 statistics, along with one overall number that began growing when I launched this blog in mid-2014.

Last year, this blog had 21,249 views, 10,674 visitors, 3,365 comments, and 2,508 likes.

The four most widely read 2018 posts were: “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction” (by far!), followed by “Love-Hate Relationships in Lit,” “Some of the Saddest Novels Ever,” and “Literature’s Unlikely Heroines and Heroes.”

Of the aforementioned 21,249 views, about 65% came from the United States. The next nine in the top ten of viewership by nation were, in order: Australia, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, the Philippines, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Readership last year came from 132 countries total — also including Finland, Ireland, Kenya, China, Mexico, Japan, Jordan, Jamaica, etc.

This four-and-one-half-year-old blog now has 2,306 followers.

Back to a more interesting literary topic next week!

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 an expensive hotel, busing equity, and a great decision about a not-great standardized test — is here.