Important Novels With 2019 Anniversaries

Margaret Atwoods in the 1960sWhile there are still a few months left in 2019, I thought I’d write a post about this year’s round-number anniversaries of some major novels I’ve read.

A number of significant works of fiction came out 50 years ago, in 1969, with one of the most prominent Kurt Vonnegut’s searing/darkly humorous anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

That half-century-ago year also saw the appearance of Margaret Atwood’s debut novel — The Edible Woman, a good-not-great book that kicked off Atwood’s amazing prose-fiction run that would include The Handmaid’s Tale; and the release of Daphne du Maurier’s gripping time-travel work The House on the Strand, the next-to-last novel of a long/distinguished career perhaps best known for Rebecca.

Atwood (pictured above during the 1960s) is of course still in the thick of the literary discussion in 2019 with the September 10 release of The Testaments, her blockbuster sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Other memorable ’69 works included Philip Roth’s hilarious/scathing Portnoy’s Complaint, Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness, and Mario Puzo’s mass-audience smash The Godfather. There was also Maya Angelou’s iconic memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which almost reads like a novel.

Going back a century, to 1919, readers were introduced to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio — a pioneer in the mini-genre of novels consisting of interrelated short stories. Also released that year was one of W. Somerset Maugham’s best works — The Moon and Sixpence, about an intense stockbroker-turned-painter who was somewhat modeled on Paul Gauguin. And then there was Free Air, the last NOT-well-known novel Sinclair Lewis would write before going on an impressive run starting with Main Street in 1920.

The century-and-a-half-ago year of 1869 saw the publication of Leo Tolstoy’s immortal War and Peace as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky’s perhaps-third-best novel The Idiot. Honorable mention goes to Mark Twain’s hysterically funny nonfiction travel saga The Innocents Abroad — more entertaining than most novels.

Two centuries ago, in 1819? Not an extraordinary 12 months for novels when they were just starting to gain wider popularity as a genre, but that year did see the release of books such as Sir Walter Scott’s feverish The Bride of Lammermoor.

I’ll end by mentioning several 25th- and 75th-anniversary books.

Among 1994’s most notable releases were Julia Alvarez’s heartbreaking historical novel In the Time of the Butterflies, which tells the story of four sisters (three martyred) living under the brutal Dominican Republic dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo; and Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, an emotionally riveting work set on a Greek Island during World War II.

And 1944 saw the publication of another memorable WWII novel, John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano; the aforementioned Maugham’s last great creation, The Razor’s Edge, set soon after World War I; and Colette’s Gigi, that author’s most famous work but hardly her best.

Your thoughts on the books I discussed? Any other novels you’d like to mention from 1994, 1969, 1944, 1919, 1869, or 1819?

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 a county meeting that featured heated audience discussion about a controversial immigrant jail — is here.

A Child’s Perspective Can Be Effective

ScoutAs an adult who reads fiction, it’s interesting to occasionally encounter a novel in which the goings-on are viewed from a child character’s perspective.

That approach can bring readers’ memories back to their own younger years, and inspire analysis of whether the author successfully captured the kid perspective or instead created a character who sounds like a mini-adult.

Child narrators in fiction convey the process of learning about life, sound innocent or not so innocent, and don’t understand certain things or are precocious enough to understand more than might be expected. Also, some fictional kids THINK they don’t understand certain things but understand more than they realize — or might not grasp certain things yet telegraph that lack of grasp in a way that helps the readers to understand those things.

It’s not easy for adult novelists to narrate from a child’s perspective. The writers can’t be TOO knowing, and might have to navigate the difficult process of yanking themselves back to the mindset of their own childhood as fodder for taking a younger approach in a book. In fact, some novels told from a child’s perspective feature adult characters looking back and telling the stories from the vantage points of their kid selves.

When successfully created, child narrators can be memorable/poignant protagonists, can grab the sympathy of readers, and more.

Among the examples of this kind of novel is Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, which I read last week. It’s a coming-of-age story, set on Antigua in the Caribbean, starring a brainy girl who’s at first rather innocent and then becomes more calculating and angry. From Annie’s perspective, we learn a lot about her, her friends and classmates, her love-hate relationship with her parents, and Antiguan life in general.

One of the most famous novels featuring a kid’s-eye view is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout Finch takes the reader through a journey that includes how she views her upstanding lawyer father Atticus and learning about the harsh realities of the world — most notably the virulent racism in 1930s Alabama. (Photo is of Scout and Atticus in the To Kill a Mockingbird movie.)

Some novels told from a child’s perspective take the young protagonists up to the start of adulthood or even well into adulthood, but have many early chapters chronicling the kid years. That’s certainly the case with Ms. Kincaid’s book (which ends with Annie leaving Antigua for a job in England at age 17) and with the stars of the English novels David Copperfield and Jane Eyre.

Charles Dickens’ semi-autobiographical classic chronicles David Copperfield’s mixed bag of a childhood, his school experiences, and eventually his two marriages — with many vivid supporting players (including Mr. Micawber) along the way.

Jane Eyre’s child perspective in the early chapters of Charlotte Brontë’s novel is fascinating as she recounts her difficulties living in the household of her cruel aunt and then her time in a harsh school for orphans. The young Jane is often unhappy, yet displays plenty of mental strength and a kind of fierce confidence that helps her as she grows from girl to woman.

There are also novels that unfold via a third-person/omniscient/adult narrator yet feature child or teen protagonists so memorable that it almost seems like the books are told from their perspectives. L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain are among the notable examples.

Your favorite novels told from a child’s point of view?

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 back to school and more — is here.

Characters Who Hate Each Other

Celeste and PerryLast week’s post focused on characters who miss each other. This week, the focus will be on those who HATE each other.

The hate might be full-blown or have some nuance, be mutual or mostly one-sided, be never-ending or come and go. It can feature jealousy, fury over harm done, or other elements. But it’s almost always visceral, and visceral can make for riveting reading.

There’s of course plenty of hate in the good vs. evil world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series — with the prime example being Harry vs. Voldemort. This is a case where Voldemort is guilty of starting all the hate, forcing Harry to respond.

In the non-wizard realm, there’s much venom from the manipulative Zenia — who makes life hellish for three women (Tony, Charis, and Roz) who thought Zenia was their friend in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. The trio eventually react to her hate with their own disdain.

Among the cast of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty are two professors — Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps. Howard dislikes the more successful Monty from a place of professional jealousy, and things get thoroughly unpleasant.

Hate can obviously lead to some justified revenge. In the 19th-century back story of Louis Sachar’s young-adult novel Holes, for instance, white teacher Kate and African-American onion seller Sam fall in love, and local racists subsequently murder Sam. The furious Kate kills one of those involved in the murder (a white sheriff), and becomes a justice-dispensing outlaw.

Speaking of rotten law-enforcement people, the title character in Stephen King’s Rose Madder understandably hates and fears her abusive police-officer husband Norman. After Rose escapes the marriage, a magical painting she discovers helps her after Norman finds and tries to kill Rose.

And speaking of domestic abuse, Celeste loathes and fears her violent rich banker husband Perry — who puts on a good front to the rest of the world — in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. (The two characters are pictured above this post in the HBO version of the novel.)

And speaking of stone-cold racist characters hated by those whose lives he has made miserable, there’s Bob Ewell in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle features the beleaguered working-class couple Jurgis and Ona Rutkus, who have many reasons to hate Ona’s factory boss Phil Connor. Connor, like other employers in the novel, treats his laborers horribly — and is also sexually abusing Ona.

Sibling dislike can be intense, and there’s plenty of that between half-brothers Hank and the more intellectual/physically weaker Leland in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Things come to a head when Leland returns to Oregon after years on the East Coast.

There’s also a more intellectual/physically weaker motif in Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, in which muscled brute Captain Wolf Larsen picks up the brainy/”soft” Humphrey van Weyden from a sinking ferry and forces him to stay on his ship. Things do become more equal as Humphrey gains strength and courage, and the strong dislike between him and Wolf is a key driver of the book’s climax.

Your favorite novels with characters who hate each other?

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 a ghoulish Republican plan for a pro-gun mural to counter an anti-gun-violence mural in my town 😦 — is here.