The Ages of Those We Read on Pages

birthdayI don’t think I’ve ever published a blog post on my birthday before, so I’ll “celebrate” by listing some novelists I love or like and how old they are. Why? Because it’s easier to make a list than to write a regular blog post of the kind I’ll resume next week. 🙂

Anyway, here goes — with a great or very good book by each author included:

Alison Lurie, born September 3, 1926 (93 years old), Foreign Affairs.

Cormac McCarthy, July 20, 1933 (86), Blood Meridian.

Wole Soyinka, July 13, 1934 (85), The Interpreters.

Mario Vargas Llosa, March 28, 1936 (84), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

A.S. Byatt, August 24, 1936 (83), Possession.

Lois Lowry, March 20, 1937 (83), The Giver.

Margaret Drabble, June 5, 1939 (80), The Witch of Exmoor.

Margaret Atwood, November 18, 1939 (80), The Handmaid’s Tale.

J.M.G. Le Clezio, April 13, 1940 (79), Desert.

Anne Tyler, October 25, 1941 (78), The Accidental Tourist.

John Irving, March 2, 1942 (78), The Cider House Rules.

Isabel Allende, August 2, 1942 (77), The House of the Spirits.

Martin Cruz Smith, November 3, 1942 (77), Gorky Park.

Peter Straub, March 2, 1943 (77), Ghost Story.

Janet Evanovich, April 22, 1943 (76), One for the Money.

Michael Ondaatje, September 12, 1943 (76), The English Patient.

Marilynne Robinson, November 26, 1943 (76), Housekeeping.

Alice Walker, February 9, 1944 (76), The Color Purple.

Fannie Flagg, September 21, 1944 (75), Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Rita Mae Brown, November 28, 1944 (75), Rubyfruit Jungle.

Stephen King, September 21, 1947 (72), From a Buick 8.

Richard Russo, July 15, 1949 (70), Empire Falls.

Julia Alvarez, March 27, 1950 (70), In the Time of the Butterflies.

Laura Esquivel, September 30, 1950 (69), Like Water for Chocolate.

Terry McMillan, October 18, 1951 (68), Waiting to Exhale.

Walter Mosley, January 12, 1952 (68), Devil in a Blue Dress.

Amy Tan, February 19, 1952 (68), The Joy Luck Club.

Philippa Gregory, January 9, 1954 (66), Earthly Joys.

Lee Child, October 29, 1954 (65), 61 Hours.

John Grisham, February 8, 1955 (65), The Client.

Barbara Kingsolver, April 8, 1955 (64), The Poisonwood Bible.

Colm Toibin, May 30, 1955 (64), Brooklyn.

Lisa Scottoline, July 1, 1955 (64), The Vendetta Defense.

Geraldine Brooks, September 14, 1955 (64), March.

Peter Hoeg, May 17, 1957 (62), Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

Lionel Shriver, May 18, 1957 (62), So Much for That.

Louise Penny, July 1, 1958 (61), How the Light Gets in.

Jonathan Franzen, August 17, 1959 (60), The Corrections.

Neil Gaiman, November 10, 1960 (59), American Gods.

Arundhati Roy, November 24, 1961 (58), The God of Small Things.

Suzanne Collins, August 10, 1962 (57), The Hunger Games.

Michael Chabon, May 24, 1963 (56), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Donna Tartt, December 23, 1963 (56), The Goldfinch.

J.K. Rowling, July 31, 1965 (54), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Liane Moriarty, November 15, 1966 (53), Big Little Lies.

Jhumpa Lahiri, July 11, 1967 (52), The Lowland.

Lisa Genova, November 22, 1970 (49), Still Alice.

Zadie Smith, October 25, 1975 (44), White Teeth.

John Green, August 24, 1977 (42), The Fault in Our Stars.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, September 15, 1977 (42), Half of a Yellow Sun.

Fredrik Backman, June 2, 1981 (38), A Man Called Ove.

Kate Quinn, November 30, 1981 (38), The Huntress.

Eleanor Catton, September 24, 1985 (34), The Luminaries.

Some favorite living authors you’d like to mention who I didn’t list?

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 piece — which gives local plots to novels that my town’s residents could read during the coronavirus pandemic — is here.

War as Seen Through the Eyes of Fictional Characters

Chimamanda Ngpzi Adichie“War is hell,” but it can also be almost an abstraction. Unless you’re directly affected, it might not seem quite as horrible as it actually is or as senseless as it usually is. Novels and other kinds of fiction can help.

By that I mean they introduce us to characters we might grow to love and admire. So if those characters end up affected by war — possibly forced from their homes, possibly terrified, possibly injured, possibly killed — we really feel for them, and are reminded once again of how disgusting war is. Of course we already knew that, but there’s something visceral about seeing characters go through humankind’s periodic carnage. Obviously not as visceral as real life, yet still emotionally wrenching.

Many novels with warfare — such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers — place fictional characters in fictional battles. (That kind of book is often in the sci-fi, fantasy, or dystopian genres.) Many other novels place fictional characters against the backdrop of real wars, and this post will focus on those scenarios.

I just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent Half of a Yellow Sun, which takes a classic approach to characters swept up in war — allowing readers to get to know them before all hell breaks loose. We first meet professor Odenigbo, teacher Olanna, servant Ugwu, businesswoman Kainene, British writer Richard, and others in the early 1960s — a time of relative peace in Nigeria — and find them appealing or at least interesting. Then the novel jumps to the start of the Nigerian Civil War later that decade, and we hold our breath to see how those characters will be impacted. How traumatized will they be? Will they survive? (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is pictured above.)

Moving back in time, there are of course many novels that place characters in the World War II era, and help us understand how soldiers and civilians felt back then. Willie Keith and May Wynn in Herman Wouk’s compelling The Caine Mutiny, Ida Ramundo in Elsa Morante’s devastating Italy-set History, lovers Ernst and Elisabeth in Erich Maria Remarque’s shattering Germany-set A Time to Love and a Time to Die, etc.

The authors of the three above books all had personal wartime experiences, which undoubtedly added to the power and accuracy of what they wrote.

That was also the case with Ernest Hemingway, a World War I veteran whose time in Spain during the 1930s Spanish Civil War inspired the creation of his memorable For Whom the Bell Tolls and its protagonist Robert Jordan.

Among WWI-era-set novels that grip readers through their characters are Willa Cather’s Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours, about farmer’s son Claude Wheeler and his brutal battlefield experiences; and L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, perhaps the best Anne of Green Gables sequel, which features the family of now-middle-aged/now-a-parent Anne Shirley and their experiences when some young Canadians are sent overseas.

Civil War-set novels that evoke the horrors of battle through their characters include Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, whose protagonist is soldier Henry Fleming; and Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-winning March, which focuses on the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Several Sir Walter Scott novels feature intense warfare. For instance, the riveting Old Mortality includes Scotland’s Battle of Bothwell Bridge and its impact on several major characters.

I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Which novels have brought home the stomach-turning nature of war for you?

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 piece — about how the coronavirus is impacting my town, about a local Facebook group, and about a lawsuit — is here.

The Publishing World is ‘Plagued’ With These Books

CoronavirusWith the coronavirus wreaking havoc throughout the world — and American “leader” Donald Trump predictably responding to that pandemic in the most incompetent, empathy-lacking, and self-serving way imaginable — it would be understandable if book lovers would want to read only escapist fiction for a while. But if you’re a glutton for punishment, there are some very compelling novels out there with pandemic themes — many pessimistic about the situation and the reaction to it, others a bit more optimistic.

The first book that comes to mind is Albert Camus’ riveting The Plague (1947), about a pandemic sweeping Algeria when it was a French colony. An excellent novel that includes existential and allegorical elements.

More than 100 years earlier, there was Mary Shelley’s tremendous The Last Man (1826) — not well-received at the time but now considered a classic. Set in the late 21st century, the plague-ridden novel includes three major characters based on the author herself (albeit in a male role), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary’s poet husband who died in 1822), and Lord Byron.

The pandemic in Margaret Atwood’s absorbing, depressing, yet often surprisingly funny Oryx and Crake (2003) is caused by genetic experimentation and pharmaceutical engineering. There are two sequels, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.

Among other novels in the pandemic-fiction category are Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

In the short-story realm, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s best tales, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), looks at how the reveling rich think they can escape the plague. They can’t.

At its tragic peak, the AIDS crisis was a massive pandemic, and among the novels that have skillfully dealt with it are John Irving’s In One Person (2012) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998).

Your “favorite” pandemic fiction?

And if you want to discuss how the coronavirus crisis is affecting you, please do. In my case, my professor wife is teaching online instead of in person for the rest of the semester, my younger daughter and her classmates will be home for at least the next two weeks getting remote instruction from her middle school, we postponed an April family trip to that daughter’s native Guatemala, and my local library is closed until at least the end of March. (Yikes — I might run out of novels to read!)

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 piece — about my town’s upcoming election, its response to the coronavirus, and more — is here.

Gollum Converses With Elizabeth Bennet?! Tell Me More…

RaskolnikovBook lovers have a problem: The fictional people in the many novels we’ve read over the years can blur together in our memories. So, theoretically, there might be false recollections of characters interacting with each other across different books…

Sherlock Holmes: “Yikes! Two people have been murdered in Crime and Punishment! I need Jack Reacher to help me investigate. Are you ready, Jack?”

Reacher: “Good to go.”

Captain Ahab: “Jack and Sherlock, unless Moby-Dick visits the Hermitage Museum, I’m not transporting you along the Neva River to St. Petersburg.”

Ishmael: “Call me…not surprised.”

Huck and Jim: “We’ll take anyone anywhere on our raft!”

Maggie and Tom Tulliver: “Not interested, H and J, in ‘the Twain shall meet.’ After what happened in The Mill on the Floss, we’re steering clear of water.”

The Joad Family: “We got rather soaked walking one day near the end of The Grapes of Wrath.”

Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

Scout Finch: “Jane, I don’t walk sometimes because I’m scared of Boo, though it was even scarier that the actress who played me on screen didn’t have much of a film career.”

Binx Bolling: “As the moviegoer in The Moviegoer, I noticed that.”

Ignatius J. Reilly: “But, Binx, that Walker Percy novel you starred in was published before To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed!”

The Time Traveler’s Wife: “So?”

Hermione Granger: “I used a time-turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

Gollum: “My preciousssss.”

Elizabeth Bennet: “Your ‘preciousssss’ was a ring, not a time-turner, you Tolkien-created idiot.”

Lily Bart: “Damn, a Jane Austen character doesn’t talk like that.”

Anne Shirley: “Damn, an Edith Wharton character doesn’t talk like that.”

Pip: “Damn, an L.M. Montgomery character doesn’t…oh, the hell with it.”

Ursula Iguaran: “The punishment for all of you is one hundred nanoseconds of solitude.”

Edmond Dantes: “Ursula, I was imprisoned a lot longer than that in the early 1800s.”

Lisbeth Salander: “Did you have a computer in your cell, Edmond?”

Dorian Gray: “The selfie I took on my smartphone is looking rather strange…”

Harry Haller aka Steppenwolf: “Born to be W-i-i-i-i-ilde!”

Jay Gatsby: “Better than listening to ‘The Wreck of the F. Scott Fitzgerald.'”

Offred: “The author who created me in The Handmaid’s Tale is Canadian like Gordon Lightfoot, but I prefer the less-patriarchal Joni Mitchell.”

Ove: “Discussing music makes me even grumpier.”

Olanna: “Wow — two names that start with ‘O’? I’m in a relationship with Odenigbo in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.”

Hester Prynne: “Speaking of letters, Olanna, imagine having an ‘A’ on your clothes rather than on your report card.”

Don Quixote: “Hi, Hester! I’m the protagonist of a book written during the same century Hawthorne put you in.”

Sethe: “Don, my story begins in 1873.”

Isabel Archer: “Sethe from Beloved? I’m from 1881’s The Portrait of a Lady. Probably would’ve been better for us to live in the 20th or 21st century, don’t you think?”

Big Brother: “Careful what you wish for.”

Jo March: “I wish I wasn’t named after the third month of the year. Jo June has a nicer ring to it.”

Tyrion Lannister: “Jo, you little woman, can you write rings around the guy who authored A Game of Thrones?”

Anna Karenina: “She can hold her own, Tyrion, you little man.”

Madame Bovary: “That doesn’t sound like something a Tolstoy character would say. Or a Dostoyevsky character, for the matter.”

Scarlett O’Hara: “Emma, I think Sherlock and Reacher will catch Raskolnikov tonight. After that, well, tomorrow is another day.”

(Raskolnikov is pictured atop this blog post.)

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 piece — about a continuing Board of Education controversy, Super Tuesday, and more — is here.

Skipping Through Several Scandinavian Writers

Lisbeth SalanderI’ve blogged about fiction written by women of color, Hispanic authors, Jewish authors, Irish authors, Canadians, etc. Now it’s time for a look at some works by…Scandinavians.

(Speaking of Canadians, Vancouver-based blogger Rebecca Budd interviewed me again for her great podcast. See the link near the end of this post.)

Anyway…fiction by Scandinavian writers. I won’t revisit Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, because I discussed that wonderful novel last week. Instead I’ll start with the late Stieg Larsson, whose posthumously published Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) is not only ultra-page-turning but has much to say about his native Sweden. That social-democratic country is humanistic in many ways, but is by no means immune from corporate corruption, some problematic government bureaucracy, and other ills that dot Larsson’s books. And the trilogy’s brave, brilliant, beleaguered, abrasive computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (pictured above) is a complex character for the ages.

Another Swedish writer of note is John Ajvide Lindquist, whose eerie Harbour is the one novel of his I’ve read. That book is about a girl who goes missing one winter day, and the mystery behind that is quite absorbing.

Also from Sweden is the late Par Lagerkvist, whose works included the quirky, symbolic, biblically tinged The Death of Ahasuerus. Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1951.

Turning to Denmark, there’s the late Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen), who’s best known for the memoir Out of Africa that inspired the Meryl Streep/Robert Redford movie. Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast” spawned another well-known film. Her most prominent fiction work might be Seven Gothic Tales, a collection that includes several memorable short stories.

And there’s of course Hans Christian Andersen, the Dane who did all kinds of fiction writing but is most remembered for his fairy tales and other stories — including “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Red Shoes,” “Thumbelina,” and the heartbreaking “The Little Match Girl.” (Check out his interesting relationship with Charles Dickens.)

From Denmark, too, is Peter Hoeg, whose works include Smilla’s Sense of Snow. That novel — whose protagonist is the daughter of an indigenous Greenlandic mother and Danish physician father — is a detective thriller that also contains plenty of cultural commentary.

Scandinavian writers often put their characters in snowy, wintry settings. I wonder why? 🙂

Norway’s most internationally known wordsmith is probably playwright Henrik Ibsen, who penned Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, Peer Gynt, An Enemy of the People, and more.

Obviously, I’ve only read a handful of Scandinavian works, so this is a rather shallow overview that I hope your comments will flesh out. Which writers would you like to mention — whether ones I named or didn’t name?

Here’s the link to the aforementioned podcast: In the just-under-13-minute segment, Rebecca Budd and I discuss libraries, indie publishing, how parents can help get their kids interested in books, the fact that many millennials are avid readers, how literature affects creativity (in areas such as music), and novels that had a major impact on us when we were teens — in my case, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

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 piece — partly about a controversial police presence at a local Board of Education meeting — is here.