When One Finally Reads a Famous Writer

My cat Misty leaves John
le Carré’s name uncovered

Because we can only read so much, it might take years to try the work of some bold-faced names in the fiction realm. And when we ARE ready, we wonder if those authors will live up to the hype.

Or, if we for some reason have a negative impression of not-yet-read writers, we wonder if we’ll like their work after all.

In short, many people love the novels of famous authors, but, given that everyone’s tastes are of course different, we don’t know if WE’LL love their books.

All that was on my mind as I prepared to finally read a novel by John le Carré — who I’ve heard about for years (including in comments on this blog) and is considered a master of what might be called the international spy thriller.

The le Carré novel I chose at random was The Russia House, which I read much of last week (not finished yet). Well, le Carré delivered. He obviously knows his stuff — having worked in secret intelligence himself — and the characters are nicely fleshed out, the plot page-turning, the prose smooth, and the occasional touches of humor welcome.

Moving to other authors, many commenters in the early days of this 2014-launched blog raved about Liane Moriarty — whose first novel was published in 2004. So I belatedly started reading her books, and they totally lived up to the hype. Among her terrific titles are The Hypnotist’s Love Story, The Husband’s Secret, and especially Big Little Lies.

I also waited a long time to read Edith Wharton. I had the impression that the born-from-wealth Wharton focused mostly on high-society rich people in her books, something I didn’t find particularly appealing. But the first novel I read of hers, the riveting Ethan Frome, features non-affluent characters. And the Wharton books that DO focus a lot on the rich — such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence — look at many of the wealthy characters with a jaundiced eye that partly stemmed from Wharton’s insider knowledge of her class.

Miguel de Cervantes? His Don Quixote was much more readable and funny than I expected from a 400-year-old novel when I finally got to it about a decade ago. Hermann Hesse? His Steppenwolf was depressingly entertaining in a way I hadn’t expected from a writer with such a “deep,” intellectual reputation.

Taking a brief detour into the short-story realm, there’s Anton Chekhov (also a playwright, of course). I finally grabbed two collections of his stories from the library five or so years ago, and was very impressed. Chekhov’s superb tales are not especially plot-driven, but are notable for their subtlety and psychological nuance.

John Grisham has been writing novels for more than three decades, but I didn’t read him until the 2010s — starting with The Client. I was hooked, and he’s never disappointed since. (Except for Calico Joe being so-so, don’t you know.)

Then there are super-popular series writers in the thriller/mystery/detective/crime realms. I was late to the party in trying Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, Sue Grafton’s alphabet novels, Janet Evanovich’s numbered-title offerings, and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins saga. All as good as I expected. Maybe not great literature, but written really well and hard to stop reading once you start.

Of course there are going to be mixed feelings or disappointments, too. When I finally read William Faulkner, there were novels I liked a lot (especially Light in August) and others I found near-incomprehensible (The Sound and the Fury). Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is beautifully written, but tedious enough for me at times to eventually stop reading it. James Patterson? Not impressed. Kate Atkinson’s work? Didn’t grab me, either. But of course the writers and novels mentioned in this paragraph are loved by many other readers.

Your experiences finally reading famous authors years later than you could have?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which laments that a young participant in the Trump-incited Capitol riot was from my town — is here.

Problematic Parents in Literature

Author Amy Tan

Many of us have or had them: problematic parents. (I’ve been there.) Then we add insult to injury by voluntarily reading the depictions of problematic parents in more than a few novels. Of course, that can be also be cathartic, depending on the book — and great novels are worth reading even when they, and because they, push our emotional buttons.

There was certainly a less-than-stellar parent in the San Francisco-set first half of Amy Tan’s excellent The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which I read last week. Ruth’s elderly mother LuLing is pushy and embarrassing — and has undermined, and not respected the privacy of, the now-40-something Ruth since Ruth was a kid. We cheer for Ruth when she pushes back at least somewhat against this exasperating parent.

Then things get more complex in the novel’s second half, which chronicles LuLing’s life in China as a girl and young woman. LuLing goes through so much trauma that we understand why she became so neurotic — neuroticism that ends up coloring Ruth’s personality, too.

Will LuLing and Ruth reach some sort of reconciliation when things return to San Francisco near the book’s conclusion?

Relationships with problematic parents can improve (as is the case between daughter Anne and her adoptive mother Marilla in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables) or they can remain bad or worsen (think daughter Bela and her mother Gauri who abandons Bela in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland). Another abandoning parent, the evil Cathy in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, is no peach, either.

The novel I read before The Bonesetter’s Daughter — Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I discussed last week in a different context — also features parents with some issues. Johnny the dad and Katie the mom are basically good-hearted people, but the former is an often-irresponsible alcoholic and the latter favors son Neeley over her bright daughter Francie — the book’s appealing young protagonist.

Echoes of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, in which the parents favor son Tom Tulliver over their smarter and more likable daughter Maggie.

The bad choice to play favorites not only involves male vs. female children but can also have an orphan angle. The titular character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is treated badly by her Aunt Sarah in a household where Sarah’s children (Jane’s cousins) fare much better. Also the situation for Harry Potter in the home of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, both of whom dote on their thuggish son Dudley while behaving abominably toward Harry.

Returning to hard-drinking dads in fiction, among the many examples is Huck Finn’s father in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Pap” Finn is a drifter who resents Huck bettering himself even as he begs his son for booze money.

Many other 19th-century novels also have irksome parents. For instance, the father of the three brothers in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a vile guy who took little interest in his trio of boys when they were growing up. Things are no better after they reach adulthood — with dirty-old-man dad even competing with eldest son Dmitri for the affections of the young woman Grushenka.

One last nod to recent literature: daughter Jordan is suspicious of her stepmother in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. Could the new wife of Jordan’s American father be an escaped Nazi with a murderous past? That’s a LOT more than problematic.

Some annoying (and worse) fictional parents you’d like to mention?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a councilor in my town criticizing scandal-plagued New York Gov. Cuomo, for whom he used to work — is here.

Fiction With COVID Frisson

This past Thursday, March 11, was the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and various countries went into COVID lockdown. It’s also the one-year anniversary of COVID coloring my reaction to the content of non-pandemic novels — at least a little.

No surprise there. One’s life can affect how we react to literature, and COVID has had a huge impact on our lives. When reading fiction in 2020 and 2021, I sometimes overtly and sometime subconsciously thought of the pandemic.

The latest instance for me, this past week, involved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Betty Smith’s poignant, memorable, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel may have been published in 1943, but parts of it really resonated in this time of coronavirus.

How? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘s young, bright, impoverished, early-20th-century protagonist Francie Nolan has vivid school experiences as a preteen/teen that reminded me that my similarly aged younger daughter has been doing remote instruction since March 2020. The requirement that Francie get the smallpox vaccine before starting school reminded me of the COVID-vaccine shots now sweeping the planet. Francie living in a city neighborhood of tenements reminded me how crowded milieus are unfortunately conducive to spreading disease. And the novel’s Brooklyn setting reminded me that, despite my living just 12 miles west of New York City (where I worked for several decades and continued to visit fairly often), I haven’t traveled there for over a year.

(The photo atop this blog post is from 1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn movie.)

When reading other novels last year such as Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s Americanah, I thought once again of COVID’s racial and economic disparities — with people of color and people of lower incomes much more affected.

Heidi? As I finally got to Johanna Spyri’s classic last year, all that fresh air in the mountains of Switzerland sure sounded non-pandemic-y — though the novel included a major secondary character who was ill.

Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine? Many haven’t been able to say the same during the pandemic, though that novel’s title was mostly meant to be ironic.

While enjoying Lee Child’s/Andrew Child’s Jack Reacher novel The Sentinel this year, I fantasized about the powerful Reacher punching out COVID.

And during the pandemic’s early days of March 2020, I read Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers — about nine imperfect guests at a health resort. I was lamenting at the time that my wife and I had just canceled an April 2020 family vacation, but, then again, there was the silver lining of there being no chance of staying in lodgings as weird and scary as the one Moriarty depicted. 🙂

Every novel I mentioned in this post was published before COVID, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t spur pandemic-related feelings. And in coming years, of course, a not-insignificant chunk of literature will undoubtedly reference this time of coronavirus.

Has some of the fiction you’ve read during the past year made you think of COVID? Any examples you’d like to offer?

Then there is fiction directly about pandemics and such, which I covered last year.

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a settlement that will bring some of my town’s teachers back into schools next month — is here.

Authors and Readers Throw Their ‘Wait’ Around

One great but also frustrating aspect of loving literature is anticipating the next novel in a series. Or anticipating an author’s next standalone novel. Or, back in the golden age of serialization, anticipating the next chapters of a novel.

After finishing the eighth Outlander book during a 2020 binge-reading of Diana Gabaldon’s riveting series, I wanted so badly to continue with the ninth novel. Unfortunately, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone wasn’t out yet (it might appear later this year). I don’t blame Ms. Gabaldon — authors work at their own pace, she’s very busy with various projects, and her Outlander romance/adventure novels are long and carefully researched and thus take years to write. Plus I was lucky in a way to discover the series late — meaning I could read the first eight books (published between 1991 and 2014) without waiting for the next one to be written.

(Pictured above are Caitriona Balfe as time-traveling 20th-century English physician Claire and Sam Heughan as 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie in the popular Outlander TV series.)

There’s also plenty of anticipation, but more publishing-date certainty, for the addictive Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child (now being co-written by his brother Andrew). A new Reacher thriller arrives every fall like Halloween — with both having treat appeal. Book number 26 expected this autumn.

Of course, probably the most famous modern book-anticipation phenomenon involved J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels published from 1997 to 2007. I and my 1989-born older daughter — like millions of others — COULD NOT WAIT for each new installment to appear. As many people reading this will remember, quite a few bookstores even opened at midnight the day a new Potter novel was first available.

We also look forward to new stand-alone novels written by authors we love. Depending on how prolific the writer is, the wait might be long or short. We know that someone like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates will churn out one novel after another, so there’s not TOO much waiting. But in other cases…

Take Marilynne Robinson. I loved her first novel, Housekeeping, which came out in 1980. Then there wasn’t another, Gilead, until 2004 — nearly a quarter-century later. Unfortunately, I found Gilead rather boring, though it somehow won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Then Robinson wrote three more novels between 2008 and 2020. Didn’t see THAT coming.

There are also authors known for long, often-literary works that take many years to write. For example, Donna Tartt has authored only one stand-alone novel per decade — in 1992, 2002, and 2013; the third the excellent The Goldfinch. Could there be a fourth novel in two or three years? Maybe. Hope so.

Then there’s the serialization phenomenon most associated with the 19th century, as readers eagerly anticipated the next installment from novelists such as Charles Dickens. Even excitedly meeting ships as new chapters arrived. And if readers suddenly became less eager, authors could adjust. A famous instance of that was when Dickens, after about a half-dozen years of enormous popularity, found interest lagging in his being-serialized Martin Chuzzlewit novel. So the English author changed the plot on a dime to send Martin to the United States, and 1840s readers were hooked once again.

Which authors, series, and novels have you greatly anticipated?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about teachers finally getting the okay for COVID vaccinations, and about new luxury apartments in my town even though it desperately needs more affordable housing — is here.