Reading in the Time of Pandemic

OutlanderWith life changing so much during the current pandemic, reading can obviously change, too. The content of what we read, of course, but also our reading routines. I’m going to describe what has been different for me, and then ask what has been different for you. If your reading life has not changed during the coronavirus crisis, well, that’s okay! 🙂

Most novels I read pre-pandemic came from my local library. Armed with a list that mostly consists of your book recommendations from this blog’s weekly comments area, I’d drive two-plus miles each month to the library’s main branch and take out 4-6 novels. I loved those visits for many reasons — the look of the library’s interior, seeing people I knew, the relative quiet, the occasional serendipity of finding a novel I hadn’t had on my list…

But, like many other places, the library closed in mid-March for an unknown amount of time. I finished the novels I had borrowed during my February visit, and then tried to figure out what to do. I could have purchased a Kindle to download library books, but was not enthusiastic about going that route because I already spend so much time on screens. I constantly use my laptop or phone to do this blog, write other things, text, read news, keep up on social media (mostly Facebook), etc. Also, I just like reading novels in the old-fashioned print format.

Buying print novels wasn’t a great option, either, because my apartment is already jammed with my books, my wife’s books, and my younger daughter’s books. One possible solution was to reread some favorites already on my shelves, but I need new material to feed this blog and there are so many novels I want to read for the first time.

Anyway, purchased novels was the option I chose. By an accident of timing, my birthday was coming up in late March, my wife conveniently asked me what I wanted, and I said…books! She asked me which ones, and I made a list. While I waited for those novels to arrive, I had three other not-yet-read books on hand, and more time to read two of them (so far). Heck, as I “sheltered at home,” I wasn’t spending non-writing hours seeing friends and attending my younger daughter’s many sports practices and games — all indefinitely suspended.

Which is among the reasons that one book-gift request I made of my wife was the set of Diana Gabaldon’s eight Outlander novels despite most of them being 1,000 pages or longer. I’m loving the ambitious/compulsively readable series about a woman who goes back in time. After having read the first book (Outlander) several months ago, I finished the second book (Dragonfly in Amber) last week and am now immersed in the third book (Voyager).

If not for the pandemic, reading many long books in a short amount of time wouldn’t have been my choice or even possible. Plus, it’s comforting during such a sobering period to read a lot of somewhat-escapist fare — as time-travel novels tend to be for me. It helps to counterbalance all the depressing news I read each day about the coronavirus — and about the latest appalling statements from the incompetent, devoid-of-empathy, only-cares-about-himself President Trump.

Another change in routine of course involves now doing virtually all my reading at home.

Eventually, things will open up again and I’ll resume my monthly library visits. When I do, I’ll start catching up on some of the novels you’ve recommended in the comments area since mid-March. 🙂

How has your reading changed during the pandemic — content-wise and/or routine-wise?

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 The latest piece — about my town’s upcoming election — is here.

An Examination of Eccentric Characters

Mr. MicawberOne great thing about reading novels is enjoying some very eccentric characters. You might only find them once in a while, but they’re worth the wait.

The latest quirky fictional person I stumbled upon is the father in Polish author Bruno Schulz’s memorable, melancholy, lushly prosed The Street of Crocodiles (1934). This odd dad houses a huge number of live birds in the family attic, is convinced that mannequins feel imprisoned in their lifeless bodies, etc.

Clearly, some eccentric characters have psychological issues, though that’s not always the case. Some are quite sane, albeit…different.

Quite different is health resort owner Masha, briefly mentioned in last week’s blog post when I discussed Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers. That Australian immigrant from Russia is highly intelligent, driven, ruthless, voyeuristic, an outside-the-box thinker, a fitness fanatic after suffering a massive heart attack, and…weird.

There are some authors — including Charles Dickens and John Irving — we associate with quirky characters in multiple books. One of Dickens’s best-known eccentrics is David Copperfield supporting player Mr. Micawber (standing in the image above), who’s partly ridiculous and partly hilarious in his perpetual unrealistic optimism. One of Irving’s quirkiest creations is A Prayer for Owen Meany‘s title character — an obsessive fellow who speaks in a high-pitched voice, feels he’s God’s instrument, and believes he can predict the date of his own death (correctly, as it turns out).

It’s a bonus when an appealingly odd character appears more than once — as is the case with “Sully” in Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool and later in Everybody’s Fool. Donald Sullivan is a brainy, funny blue-collar guy who’s comically unambitious.

There are of course eccentric types who appear in way more than two novels, aka series. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are certainly peopled with many a quirky cast member — including the spacey Luna Lovegood, to name just one. And, when you think about it, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is a rather peculiar guy who roams from place to place meting out justice. No permanent home, carries little more than a toothbrush, and can even tell time to the minute without a watch.

Getting back to appeared-in-just-one-book characters, notable eccentrics include the silly/likable/delusional star of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the clairvoyant/telekinectic/distracted Clara del Valle Trueba of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, the strange/cruel/passionate Heathcliff of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the slobby/antisocial/uproarious Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, the overeating/clownish/sympathetic Samson-Aaron of Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, the brilliant/offbeat/anxiety-ridden architect title character of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and Sylvie Fisher of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. The calm/independent Sylvie has wanderlust, eats dinner only in the dark, hoards magazine and newspapers…

I’ve barely scratched the surface in naming eccentric characters. Some of your favorites?

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 The latest piece — about silver linings in the time of coronavirus — is here.

Moriarty and Martin and Mastery

Liane MoriartySome novels FOAC. Some don’t.

By FOAC, I mean “fire on all cylinders.” Yes, some novels get all or most things right — excellent prose, believable dialogue, three-dimensional characters, interesting plot, maybe a memorable surprise or two, etc. Those books just flow. Other novels? Not so much.

Obviously without planning to, I consecutively read two novels during the past week that exemplified each extreme.

Yesterday, I finished 2018’s Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. At 53, the Australian author is at the peak of her writing powers, and Nine Perfect Strangers is among the best of her eight novels — maybe second only to 2014’s Big Little Lies.

The newer book is set in a health resort where nine guests experience MUCH more than they bargained for, and Moriarty expertly makes all 12 major characters memorable, very human individuals. (The main cast also includes has-a-screw-loose resort owner Masha and two staffers.) The nine guests are to some degree “types” — a romance novelist (perhaps partly based on Moriarty?), a former athlete, a depressed divorcee, an extremely handsome gay lawyer, a young couple who won the lottery, and a teacher and a midwife and their Generation Z daughter — yet they all feel like real people.

Moriarty’s prose in Nine Perfect Strangers is, well, perfect — plus there’s intense drama, heartbreaking backstories, plenty of humor, always-smooth transitions, and more. The length of the book is also, well, perfect — 450 pages in the paperback edition I read.

A bonus is that Nine Perfect Strangers evokes other great novels — such as T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville (set in a sanitarium) and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (about 10 people stuck together in an isolated place) — while still feeling totally original.

Then there’s the novel I read immediately before the Moriarty one: Martin Cruz Smith’s The Siberian Dilemma (2019) — the ninth installment of the suspenseful crime series starring weary, principled, sympathetic Russian investigator Arkady Renko that began nearly 40 years ago with 1981’s Gorky Park. The first eight books all ranged from excellent to enthralling as Smith transitioned from Brezhnev’s to Gorbachev’s to Yeltsin’s to Putin’s Russia — with side trips to the U.S., Cuba, and a ship. Then the series fell off a literary cliff with The Siberian Dilemma. Too short, blah plot, very disjointed, strained dialogue, and underdeveloped secondary characters — plus the novel quickly dissipated whatever little suspense it occasionally built.

Things happen, of course, and I would definitely try Smith again if he wrote another novel. (He’s also authored several great non-Renko books, including Rose.) In Smith’s case, The Siberian Dilemma may have been a clunker at least partly because of his advancing age (he’s 77) and health issues (he has Parkinson’s disease). And many a notable author of ANY age can occasionally write a bad book — whether that happens in early career (such as the great Jack London’s laughable A Daughter of the Snows), mid-career (such as the great Stephen King’s disappointing Cell), or late career.

The wonderful author Willa Cather’s last novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl was atrocious, and the also-wonderful author Richard Russo’s most recent novel Chances Are was so-so. In the case of those authors, reading their peak works — such as Cather’s My Antonia and Russo’s Empire Falls — is the way to go.

Of course, late-career novels don’t always have to be clunkers. While I haven’t read it yet, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019) — The Handmaid’s Tale sequel released just before the author’s 80th birthday — got excellent reviews. And Billy Budd, begun three years before the author’s death and published posthumously, is one of Herman Melville’s best works. Last but not least, how about Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov for an author’s final novel?

Among other living authors still firing on all cylinders are J.K. Rowling and Lee Child. Rowling’s four recent crime novels starring investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are fantastic — just a small step below the author’s iconic Harry Potter series in quality and appeal. And Child’s Jack Reacher thriller series, which dates back to the 1997 debut novel Killing Floor, is now well past 20 books yet the recent ones are as good as the early ones.

Some novels you’d like to mention that do or do not “fire on all cylinders”?

The terrific Canadian podcaster Rebecca Budd once again interviewed me about literature and writing. In this 15-minute segment, we discussed the comfort of books during a difficult time, how people become authors, how great authors were often not great at first, the need for authors to read books, how to deal with writers’ block, and the growth of indie publishing.

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 The latest piece — about a new rent-regulation measure and more — is here.

The ’80s Had Big Hair and Big Novels. (The 1880s, That Is)

SheEvery decade has its share of memorable novels. Today I’m going to focus on the 1880s.

Why? Because I recently finished a spellbinding 1887 book called She. An imperfect novel — author H. Rider Haggard has some troubling views on race, gender, and class even as he can be relatively enlightened for his time — but also a book that offers an eerie take on mortality and immortality (the ruthless but at times sympathetic title character, shown above, is 2,200 years old!). A thrilling adventure tale that contains many philosophical ruminations and impressive writing flourishes.

The 1880s were semi-dominated by multiple great novels from Henry James, Mark Twain, and Emile Zola, but that long-ago decade essentially began in a literary sense with the 1880 classic The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book is more sprawling and uneven than his 1866 masterpiece Crime and Punishment, but when Brothers is good it’s amazing. Dostoyevsky reportedly intended the novel to be the first of a trilogy, but he died in early 1881.

Another 19th-century Russian writing legend, Leo Tolstoy, sort of ended the decade’s literary output with one of his best short novels — 1889’s gripping and controversial The Kreutzer Sonata.

But back to the three authors who semi-dominated the decade. Henry James started things off with the compelling Washington Square (1880), about a not-nice doctor and his sweet-but-dull daughter; and then wrote what is my favorite novel of his, the heartbreaking classic The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Among James’ many other works during those productive years was The Aspern Papers (1888), about an obsessed man trying to get his hands on the letters and such of a famous dead poet by ingratiating himself with that poet’s aged lover.

Mark Twain? There was The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Huckleberry Finn, of course, is considered Twain’s best novel — and it totally deserves that designation despite faltering a bit in the last third when Tom Sawyer makes an annoying and unwelcome appearance. Connecticut Yankee, an early time-travel work, is fiercely antiwar amid the frequent hilarity.

Zola zoomed through the 1880s with eight novels in his famous Rougon-Macquart series. My four favorites are Nana (1880), about a prostitute; The Ladies’ Delight (1883), about a Paris department store that wreaks havoc on small retailers; Zola’s masterpiece Germinal (1885), about a mining town that experiences a dramatic strike; and The Masterpiece (1886), about a prototypical tortured artist.

Taking the time-travel route a year before Twain was Edward Bellamy and his utopian Looking Backward (1888), set in the year 2000. It was one of the 19th century’s three bestselling novels — after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880), the latter of which I haven’t read so I can’t discuss it in this post. One of the many interesting things about Looking Backward (whose author was a cousin of “Pledge of Allegiance” creator Francis Bellamy) is that an early debit card appears in it!

Other notable novels of that decade included Thomas Hardy’s depressingly excellent The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson’s very influential Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (also 1886), and William Dean Howells’ rags-to-riches-themed The Rise of Silas Lapham (1884).

An honorable mention goes to Billy Budd — which was started by Herman Melville in 1886, left unfinished at the time of his 1891 death, and finally published in 1924. Many consider it Melville’s second-best novel behind Moby-Dick.

Your favorite novels of the 1880s, including those I didn’t name?

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 The latest piece — which again looks at the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on my town — is here.