Back to Library Borrowing Again! (And a Nancy Drew Interlude)

Library curbside pickup 7-25-20

After my pandemic-time Outlander reading marathon (eight purchased books of nearly 10,000 pages), thoughts again turned to my local library this past week.

Fortunately, curbside pickup is now available, so I dove into a process that you might also be experiencing in your own town. I visited the library website this past Wednesday, searched for books I wanted, and set up a Friday appointment to pick them up at a table under an open-sided tent in front of the still-closed building in Montclair, New Jersey. (See the above photo I took.)

The process wasn’t totally seamless; the novels I chose Wednesday were no longer listed for me when I checked my online library account Thursday, so I had to contact a staffer to re-reserve them. The time lag resulted in me losing one book that had apparently been reserved by someone else in the meantime, but the rest of the novels were there Friday in a big paper bag when I drove up and parked in one of three dedicated curbside spaces.

Based on recommendations from readers of this blog, I borrowed Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I’ll discuss all of them during the next few weeks; I suppose I should read them first. 🙂 (I’ll mention who specifically recommended each novel at those points.) The book I missed out on in the reserving snafu was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I’ll get to it eventually.

Prior to my future reading of the four novels I did snag, I finally tried a Nancy Drew mystery thanks to mentions of the series by my wife Laurel Cummins and frequent commenters Clanmother (Rebecca Budd) and Liz Gauffreau. It was The Secret of the Old Clock (1930), the first of MANY installments of the Nancy Drew series and a book my wife owns in a 1987 edition. I thought the novel was very good — in it, Nancy is quite brave and smart and inventive, albeit almost weirdly saint-like. And the interaction between her and her widowed attorney dad had a bit of a Scout Finch/Atticus Finch feel from To Kill a Mockingbird. (Did Harper Lee read Nancy Drew as a kid?)

Speaking of kids, I quickly realized The Secret of the Old Clock was more a children’s novel than the young-adult novel I had expected, so it was quite a change-of-pace after reading Diana Gabaldon’s mature, complex Outlander books — which I had received as a late-March birthday present from my wife. As I mentioned on my Facebook page last Thursday: “I loved this story about the 20th-century doctor Claire who ends up in the 18th century and falls in love with charismatic Scottish warrior Jamie. Plus many other characters — as well as frequent plot twists, plenty of humor, and lots of social commentary (including accurate depictions of how difficult, sexist, racist, and homophobic life could be in the 1700s). Two more not-yet-published novels to go in the planned 10-book series…”

Anyway, back to libraries and curbside pickup. Are you using your local library again? Or did you never stop — borrowing eBooks and such? As I’ve said before, I look at screens so much (my laptop and phone) that I’ve stuck with old-fashioned print novels to give my eyes a break. Plus it’s a longtime habit thing, I love the idea as well as the feel of physical books, and I really enjoy library visits. I’m greatly looking forward to when my local library lets people inside again.

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 includes what my town might do about schools this fall during the pandemic — is here.

‘Ruff’! Rating Dogs in Literature

Rollo and IanI’ve never lived with a dog, though I’ve gratefully shared my household with seven wonderful cats over the years. 🙂 I developed an appreciation of canines by meeting those who’ve lived with people I know and via…literature.

Yes, literature features many dogs — who are often great characters in of themselves and who also help reveal things about their fictional human companions. Are they nice to dogs? Then they’re almost always good people. Mean to dogs? Almost always villains.

I’m going to name my 15 favorite dogs in literature. My list contains 14 numbers, but, as you’ll see, one novel features two equally great dogs. And before beginning, I’ll offer this pair of disclaimers: 1. I’ve obviously read only some of the countless novels that include dogs — which is why Lassie, for instance, isn’t on my list. 2. I might’ve forgotten about some excellent canines in novels I HAVE read.

14. Hector the hunting dog is a constant companion to woodsman Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels, which include The Last of the Mohicans.

13. The title character in William H. Armstrong’s Sounder is a dog who’s part of a poor African-American sharecropper family. Sounder lives a difficult life — including being shot and badly wounded by a racist white sheriff’s deputy — but he is much loved.

12. Fang of the Harry Potter books is a cowardly but appealing animal — one of the less-exotic “pets” in Hagrid’s menagerie. And Fluffy the dog in J.K. Rowling’s series deserves an honorable mention for having three heads. 🙂 (He’s the 16th dog on this list.)

11. Barabbas is a big, clumsy canine who overeats and has a tendency to knock things over in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.

10. Benedico is also a memorable dog in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, but it’s not until after he’s long dead that he has an unforgettable final moment at novel’s end.

9. Dorothy’s tiny Toto appears in the L. Frank Baum books that start with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A pooch who became iconic with a big assist from The Wizard of Oz film. “And Toto, too?”

8. There’s almost no fictional canine more loyal than “Dog Monday,” who sits at a Canadian train station for many, MANY months waiting for his person Jem to (hopefully) return from the World War I front in Rilla of Ingleside — one of L.M. Montgomery’s many Anne of Green Gables sequels.

7. The young Luath and the old Bodger are the determined dogs who, along with equally determined cat Tao, arduously travel approximately 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to try to return home in Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey.

6. Tee Tucker is an intellectual corgi who, along with two cats and a human, solves crimes in Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries. Hard to top a detective dog!

5. Bella the dog is the lovable constant companion of the lonely, highly precocious boy Useppe in Elsa Morante’s novel History.

4. Rollo is the big, part-wolf, scary-with-a-heart-of-gold canine from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. He and the Scot-with-a-Native-American-connection “Young Ian” are fiercely loyal to each other and face a good deal of danger in the 1760s and ’70s. (Pictured atop this blog post are Rollo and Ian in the Outlander TV series.)

3. The charismatic, also-part-wolf title character of Jack London’s White Fang is born in the frozen North American wild but eventually ends up in California where he embraces domestic life after some initial puzzlement and reluctance.

2. Buck in Jack London’s earlier The Call of the Wild has an opposite destiny — from pampered California domestication to a tough sled-pulling life in the Yukon after he’s stolen. The very smart/adaptable canine retains some connection with humans for a while, but…

1. Chum of Albert Payson Terhune’s heartwarming novel His Dog is an elite collie show dog who, through a twist of fate, becomes a working canine who transforms the life of depressed, impoverished farmer Link Ferris. (A Terhune novel less known than Lad: a Dog, but I found it much more compelling.)

Your favorite dogs in literature?

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 state’s primary elections — is here.

When the Digital Age Invades Old Novels

Haim swiping

The plots of novels written before the digital age might have been quite different if smartphones, texting, websites, blogs, social media, etc., existed many decades or centuries ago. Let’s examine this, shall we?

After a thwarted engagement, made-for-each-other Anne Elliot and Capt. Wentworth have no contact for seven long years in Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817). If only they had known each other’s cell numbers in order to text. (Messaging rates may have applied.)

Edmond Dantes was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and jailed in the miserable Chateau d’If island prison in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). If Edmond had been able to email the media from a dungeon computer…

Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel knows something fishy is going on in the Thornfield Hall attic. She could’ve learned the true story sooner if she had had a “nanny cam.”

The person who murdered two women in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) is not known to the authorities for a long time. But what if Raskolnikov, during a late-night bout of self-confessional depression, posted about his guilt on Facebook?

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871), there are two problematic marriages: that of Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon, and Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. If reported on those unfortunate unions, maybe the couples would’ve soon divorced from embarrassment.

Claude Lantier was a frustrated artist in Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (1886). He might have felt better if he posted his paintings on Instagram.

Things would have been better for Edna Pontellier if she made a TikTok video rather than doing what she did (I’m avoiding a spoiler here) at the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899).

In Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), the title character has a hard time becoming a published writer. It would have helped to gain some exposure by starting a blog.

In W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), the foolishly enamored Philip Carey is stuck in an atrocious relationship with the unkind Mildred that goes on and on. If Philip had access to online dating apps, chances are he would’ve met someone more compatible many chapters earlier.

The trial in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was dramatic enough. Picture it trending on Twitter, with retweets galore!

Things would have been a lot less crazy in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) if a different piece of wardrobe furniture had been purchased on Craigslist.

Books burned in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451? Replace ’em with an Amazon order…

Sal Paradise and other characters drive all over the place in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). A good GPS might have kept them in Jersey or something.

Any scenarios you’d like to create by placing modern technology in old novels?

Here’s a 2020 song called “I Know Alone” by the three-sister band Haim. Why is it relevant to this blog post? Well, in the quirky dance the siblings do in this video, one of their moves is swiping on the screens of imaginary smartphones. 🙂 An image taken from the video is 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 My latest piece — about a misleading anti-rent-control campaign and more — is here.

Protests in Fiction Show Societal Friction

Invisible ManThere have been countless protests around the world in recent weeks against the evils of racism and police brutality. Many of the admirable participants have been young people of all colors, providing hope for a future where…Black Lives Matter.

Protests also happen in books — often nonfiction ones, but novels, too. Think about it enough, and a person can remember rallies, marches, strikes, and other actions in a number of novels — along with nasty pushback by cops, the military, politicians, and the owner class.

In American literature, memorable protest actions include the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man rousing a crowd to confront cops evicting an elderly black couple in New York City. Later, that narrator speaks at rallies on behalf of the “Brotherhood” group. And further on in the 1952 novel, riots break out in Harlem over grievances African-Americans face in the U.S. — grievances that in many cases haven’t gone away nearly seven decades later.

There’s also William Styron’s historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, about the man who led the real-life 1831 rebellion against the moral travesty of American slavery.

Moving to another country, the French mining strike that’s the centerpiece of Germinal helps make Emile Zola’s novel as dramatic — and heartbreaking — as can be.

Also heartbreaking is the Colombian army’s mass-murder of striking workers in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The horrific event, like the real-life “Banana Massacre” of 1928 it was based on, was virtually wiped out of the history books. Also the case with a white mob’s slightly earlier 1921 massacre of African-American residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” neighborhood.

Then there’s the fruit workers’ strike in In Dubious Battle, one of the few John Steinbeck novels I haven’t read (yet). And an Oregon loggers’ strike plays a prominent role in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion.

In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, one secondary character (Joshua Chalfens) becomes an animal-rights activist.

Protesters are not always admirable. For instance, doomed revolutionary Udayan Mitra of India is not the nicest or most responsible guy in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, though he’s certainly brave like most people who oppose “the powers that be.” Another part-problematic guy is Sonny, a courageous anti-apartheid activist who cheats on his wife in My Son’s Story by Nadine Gordimer. Sonny’s more-principled family also joins the fight against the oppressive white South African regime.

I’m now on the eighth of Diana Gabaldon’s eight Outlander novels as my pandemic reading marathon continues (most of the books are over 1,000 pages). The 1770s section of the series partly focuses on one of history’s ultimate protests: the thirteen colonies’ successful uprising against monarchical British rule that was commemorated yesterday, July 4th. Of course, the resulting United States became a democracy mainly for monied white males while African-Americans and Native-Americans were treated horribly and women had few rights…

Novels you’d like to mention that include protesters and protest scenes?

Here’s “March March,” a new song by The Chicks — formerly The Dixie Chicks.

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 Township Council sworn in after an election that saw many votes not counted — is here.