More Than One ‘Eave of Destruction’ in the Literary World

I’ve had historic preservation, or lack of, on my mind this past week.

As my “Montclairvoyant” column link at the end of this post describes, my town’s Planning Board sadly voted February 11 to approve a redo of a former train station that will wreck some historic elements of the vintage site. Elsewhere in town, two beautiful mansions — one dating back to 1865, the other to 1907 — were demolished several days ago to make way for a future obscenely large single-family compound with a spa, an indoor pool, a movie theater, a bowling alley, a basketball court, seven guest rooms, a staff wing, etc.

So, naturally my thoughts turned to building destruction in the literary world.

For instance, some of you may remember that the Los Angeles house author extraordinaire Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) lived in for more than 50 years was torn down in 2015 by a heartless architect who wanted to put a fancy new house on the site.

Then there was the New York City apartment building Willa Cather lived in with her friend/life partner Edith Lewis starting in 1913. The two of them had to leave the place in 1927 — the year Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop came out — when their Manhattan building was condemned to make way for a subway line. (The photo atop this blog post shows Cather — sitting left, on the bench — in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park in 1924.)

Of course, fictional works also feature plenty of ill-fated homes and other structures — surely a dramatic plot element.

For instance, the devastating fire that ruined Edward Rochester’s Thornfield Hall mansion is a pivotal occurrence in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

There’s also a key house fire near the end of Lee Child’s Echo Burning — a Jack Reacher novel whose title sounds rather surreal/metaphysical/philosophical but literally refers to a climactic blaze on a ranch in fictional Echo County, Texas.

And a fire at the New York World building is a major element in Jack Finney’s time-travel novel Time and Again.

Or how about Anthony Burgess’ historical novel The Kingdom of the Wicked, which ends with the burying of Pompeii? Unimaginable destruction there.

And in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” that titular abode ends up disintegrating.

Of course, war novels and apocalyptic novels — Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is one example of the latter — are filled with buildings bombed-out or otherwise destroyed.

Your most-remembered examples of structural destruction — of real-life author homes or fictional buildings?

My 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 — which comments on what’s mentioned in the second paragraph of this blog post — is here.

We’ve Got Their Number: Our Most-Read Novelists

When I recently finished Past Tense, the latest page-turner starring Jack Reacher, I realized that I had now read 20 of Lee Child’s 23 great Reacher books. Which made me wonder, have I ever read that many novels by any other author?

So I scoured my list of books read, and my memory, to try to figure out which authors I had spent the most time with during my life. Of course, some writers pen longer novels than others, but I was looking strictly for number of books.

My first thought turned to Charles Dickens, because I took a college literature course in which the students read nothing but him. It turned out that I’ve read 14 Dickens novels, with a few of them perused pre- and post-college. Among my favorites? David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers.

But I’ve actually read more books by Stephen King, not surprising given how prolific a writer he is. Fifteen of his novels, with my favorites Misery and From a Buick 8, among others. Actually, Misery might go under the category of “most intense” rather than a number-one favorite.

John Steinbeck? Thirteen of his novels read, with The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden the ones I liked best. Also 13 for Colette, with my favorites The Vagabond and Claudine at School.

I’ve read all 12 of Willa Cather’s novels, enjoying My Antonia and The Song of the Lark the most. Twelve for Margaret Atwood, too, with my preferences including The Robber Bride and Alias Grace. And 12 for L.M. Montgomery, including my favorite-ever YA novel — Anne of Green Gables — as well as various Anne sequels and the sublime stand-alone novel The Blue Castle.

With 12 a popular number here, I’ll add J.K. Rowling. I’ve read her seven Harry Potter books as well as The Casual Vacancy, and am now in the middle of the fourth title (Lethal White) in her excellent crime series written under the Robert Galbraith alias. I’ve also read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but that’s a theater piece. I’m just doing novels here, not plays, short-story collections, nonfiction, etc.

Some of my other most-read authors (and some of my favorite novels of theirs) include Alexandre Dumas, 10 books (The Count of Monte Cristo and Georges); Sir Walter Scott, 10 (Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian); Martin Cruz Smith, 10 (Gorky Park and Rose); Jack London, 9 (Martin Eden and The Sea-Wolf); Cormac McCarthy, 9 (Suttree and Blood Meridian); Fannie Flagg, 8 (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion); and six authors with seven apiece: Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady and The American), Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer), Herman Melville (Moby-Dick and Pierre), Erich Maria Remarque (Arch of Triumph and The Night in Lisbon), Mark Twain (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), and Emile Zola (Germinal and The Beast in Man).

Then there’s Jane Austen, 6 (Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice); and these novelists with five apiece: Honoré de Balzac (Old Goriot and Eugenie Grandet), James Fenimore Cooper (The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov), George Eliot (Daniel Deronda and The Mill on the Floss), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World and Point Counter Point), W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge), Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace and Anna Karenina), Jules Verne (Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth), H.G. Wells (The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon), and Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence).

Looking over my list so far, I’m embarrassed that there are no authors of color listed, though Dumas and Colette had some black ancestry. But I’ve read anywhere from one to four novels apiece by writers (my favorite books of theirs in parentheses) such as Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits), James Baldwin (Go Tell It On the Mountain), David Bradley (The Chaneysville Incident), Octavia Butler (Kindred), Junot Diaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Buchi Emecheta (Second Class Citizen), Alex Haley (Roots), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Jhumpa Lahiri (The Lowland), Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale), Toni Morrison (Beloved), Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Wole Soyinka (The Interpreters), Alice Walker (The Color Purple), and Richard Wright (Native Son), among various others.

Well, I guess I’ve never read more books by a writer other than Lee Child. He and has Jack Reacher character are highly addicting.

Which novelists have you read the most, in number of books?

My 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 2020 Democratic presidential field and a hometown astronaut’s unfortunate association with Trump at the State of the Union address — is here.

Novelists With Short Fiction in Their Jurisdiction

Many famous authors known mostly for their novels also penned a number of short stories.

They may have started their writing careers with brief fiction, and may have continued to compose stories after turning to novels. They wrote stories for the money, to try different genres, to explore themes they felt wouldn’t work as well in the longer novel format, to take a “breather” from novels, etc.

All this came to mind last week while reading a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories. Fitzgerald is of course best known for his small canon of novels — The Great Gatsby obviously being the most famous — but he also sold about 160 pieces of short fiction to magazines during his 44-year life. Fitzgerald even used some of his stories — such as the compelling “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” about a “baby” born old who grows younger — to delve into fantasy or supernatural themes almost entirely absent from his novels.

Fitzgerald’s stories include those, such as the poignant “Babylon Revisited” and the barbed “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” with themes (spoiled/rich characters, troubled relationships, social competition, lots of drinking, etc.) reminiscent of his long fiction. Then there’s the eye-opening “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” about the world’s wealthiest family trying to keep their existence secret in a remote area of Montana. It’s a creepy/fascinating/memorable tale, unfortunately lessened by blatant racism that can’t be excused by Fitzgerald’s somewhat-satiric approach.

Leo Tolstoy, author of the classic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, also wrote some amazing short fiction — some of it just long enough to edge into novella territory. The snowy “Master and Man,” the melancholy “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” the dramatic “The Kreutzer Sonata,” the history-tinged “Hadji Murat,” etc.

Herman Melville’s main claim to fame is the iconic Moby-Dick and other novels, but he also penned memorable/wide-ranging short fiction — including the slavery saga “Benito Cereno,” the sublimely disturbing office tale “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and the droll “I and My Chimney.”

In addition to writing terrific novels such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton penned some very absorbing short stories that included a number of excellent ghost tales.

Other deceased novelists who wrote excellent short fiction include James Baldwin, Honoré de Balzac, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, George Eliot, Graham Greene, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Jack London, Gabriel García Márquez, W. Somerset Maugham, Carson McCullers, Rabindranath Tagore, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, and Richard Wright, among many others.

Prominent living novelists who have successfully gone down the short-story road include Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Lee Child, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Alice Walker, to name just a few. Lahiri hit the Pulitzer Prize jackpot with her Interpreter of Maladies story collection, which preceded her novels The Namesake and The Lowland. I love Kingsolver’s Homeland and Other Stories and Atwood’s Wilderness Tips collection. And the title tale of Atwood’s Stone Mattress collection is a gripping piece of fiction.

Of course, there are also authors who have produced novels that are basically an assemblage of related stories: Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), Isaac Asimov (I, Robot), Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles), Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford), Amanda Moores (Grail Nights), Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge)…

Some of your favorite writers known mainly for novels but who’ve also done plenty of short stories?

My 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 my town’s mixed environmental record — is here.