A Tree Grows in…Various Novels

Some memorable characters branch out in novels. Yes, I’m talking about trees.

The Overstory, the masterfully written and researched novel I haven’t quite finished yet, features a wide-ranging cast that comes together to try to save centuries-old trees on America’s West Coast. The amazing descriptions of those trees and other trees in Richard Powers’ heartfelt, heartbreaking, monumental book make them feel almost as human as the humans.

There’s also the titular tree in Betty Smith’s poignant and compelling A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that survives in a tough urban environment, illustrating not only its own tenacity but symbolizing the tenacity of many of the neighborhood’s residents.

Another book with “tree” in its title — in this case plural — is Barbara Kingsolver’s very good debut novel The Bean Trees.

Many decades earlier, Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome with a story line that hinges around a tree-related occurrence — as we find out late in the emotionally wrenching novel.

What happens to a tree during a storm portends what will happen with the relationship of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s classic work. 

A 20th-century classic, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant One Hundred Years of Solitude, has its gone-mad character Jose Arcadio Buendia tied to a tree in the later years of his life. A weird metaphor for being the patriarch of the Buendia family tree?

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated The Lord of the Rings, major supporting characters include the tree-like Ents. Those delightful beings are a major force for good as the trilogy’s climax nears.

Anne Shirley’s love of beautiful trees is among the traits that make her endearing in L.M. Montgomery’s beloved Anne of Green Gables. For instance, the precocious Anne — when first brought to Green Gables in a horse-drawn wagon — is driven under a canopy of blossoming apple trees and memorably names that road “The White Way of Delight.”

Children’s books also fit this week’s theme, with Shel Silverstein’s much-read The Giving Tree one of them.

Any novels with prominent trees that grew on you?

“One Tree Hill” by U2:

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — which discusses an appalling number of teacher layoffs in my town — is here.

Favorite Pulitzer-Winning Books

With the recent naming of a new Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, I thought of past winners and wondered how many of those American-authored books I had read. So I looked at the Pulitzer website and counted 35 perused-by-me titles honored from 1918 to 1947 (when the category was for novels only) and 1948 to now (when the category became “fiction” to include short-story collections).

Then I decided to rank my favorites. Why? Because I needed a blog idea for this week. 🙂 I’ll note before I offer my in-descending-order list that I liked most of the 35 books — including the lower-ranked ones, so there were definitely many deserving victors. Yes, I liked most, but not all. 🙂

35. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2005 Pulitzer winner): Some consider this novel a subtle gem, but I found it boring. I was also put off by the old man/young woman marriage. I much prefer Ms. Robinson’s novel Housekeeping.

34. The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron (1968 winner): I wanted to like this historical novel — Nat Turner was a hero — but the writing annoyed me. Maybe it was partly because a white author was not-so-successfully trying to get inside the head of the insurgent African-American slave.

33. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1953 winner): A short classic in the eyes of many, but I thought it was so-so. Give me Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls any day of the week.

32. The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx (1994 winner): Appealingly quirky and unappealingly quirky.

31. One of Ours, Willa Cather (1923 winner): Hardly Ms. Cather’s best work, yet a pretty absorbing World War I novel.

30. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (2000 winner): I’m more a fan of novels (including Ms. Lahiri’s) than short stories, but this collection has a nice ratio of excellent tales vs. good tales.

29. The Fixer, Bernard Malamud (1967 winner): Compelling story of an unjustly imprisoned Jewish man in Czarist Russia.

28. Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener (1948 winner): A novel comprised of interrelated short stories is usually not my cup of tea. Still, this is quite good — and it of course inspired the musical South Pacific.

27. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (2009 winner): Similar short-stories-as-novel format as the above Michener work. The acerbic Olive is an abrasive “hoot.”

26. Tinkers, Paul Harding (2010 winner): A mesmerizing blend of the past and present through the eyes of a dying man.

25. March, Geraldine Brooks (2006 winner): Interesting concept of focusing on the American Civil War experiences of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

24. The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2007 winner): A post-apocalyptic novel that doesn’t match the author’s best work (such as Blood Meridian) while still being memorable.

23. The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson (2013 winner): A strange but very readable novel set in North Korea.

22. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1937 winner): I’d rank this higher if the troubling racial dynamics weren’t so painful.

21. The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington (1919 winner): Progress vs. tradition, and some disturbing family relationships. 

20. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder (1928 winner): Very poignant novel.

19. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1932 winner): Classic set in China.

18. Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis (1926 winner): A doctor indelibly depicted.

17. A Confederacy of Dunces, William Kennedy (1981 winner): Weird and absolutely hilarious.

16. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren (1947 winner): One of the best political novels.

15. Ironweed, William Kennedy (1984 winner): Masterfully sad look at characters on the street.

14. Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie (1985 winner): The affairs are of the romantic variety, and the professor protagonist is very original.

13. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (2008 winner): A novel about a nerd, the United States, and the Dominican Republic — with amazing footnotes.

12. The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1939 winner): A boy and his fawn. Among the greatest young-adult novels ever written. 

11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2001 winner): About two cartoonists roughly based on the co-creators of Superman.

10. The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk (1952 winner): Gripping shipboard saga.

9. The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1983 winner): A powerful look at racism, sexism, and more via letters.

8. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (2003 winner): An eye-opening story featuring gender confusion, immigration, and other elements.

7. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1988 winner): The iconic work set after the American Civil War.

6. The Overstory, Richard Powers (2019 winner): A tour de force starring people and trees that I’m currently reading, so its rank might change by the time I finish. Will discuss it more in a future blog post.

5. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1921 winner): Unforgettable novel about (among other things) choosing between the conventional and the unconventional in a relationship.

4. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2014 winner): Wide-ranging book about the impact a priceless painting has on the protagonist’s life. 

3. Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2002 winner): Enthralling novel that’s sort of low-key until the emotional fireworks arrive.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1961 winner): There’s nothing I can say about this book that hasn’t been said before.

1. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1940 winner): The uprooted, beleaguered Joad family in a riveting novel that brims with outrage against injustice.

Your favorite Pulitzer-winning books (including those I mentioned and those I haven’t read)? Anything you’d like to say about them?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — which discusses an “event horizon” of sorts — is here.

Alternate Paths

The top of the 2011 blog post that changed the direction of my writing life.

I just read The Midnight Library, and Matt Haig’s thought-provoking 2020 novel is one of those books that make you contemplate how life’s voluntary choices and involuntary occurrences can set us on alternate paths we might not have expected.

The Midnight Library stars a suicidal 30-something woman named Nora Seed, who, when in a sort of limbo between life and death, experiences various personal timelines that might have been. She’s a rock star in one existence, a scientist in another, an Olympic swimmer in yet another, unhappily married in one life, happily married in another, and so on.

Readers of novels like that could be reminded of previous books in which the fate of the protagonist turns in a pivotal way. We might ask: What if the title character in George Eliot’s Silas Marner hadn’t been betrayed by his best friend? What if the title character in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin hadn’t rejected Tatyana Larin? What if the unjustly jailed Edmond Dantes of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo hadn’t met Abbe Faria in prison? What if young Anne Shirley of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables hadn’t been allowed to stay with the Cuthberts, who were expecting a male orphan? What if Guitar hadn’t misinterpreted what his friend Milkman was doing when the former spotted the latter helping someone with a crate in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon? What if Magdalen Vanstone’s parents hadn’t been disgraced in Wilkie Collins’ No Name? What if the family in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner hadn’t fled Afghanistan for the United States?

I could keep naming novels, but thought I’d diverge into how I became a weekly book blogger without really planning to — an example of an alternate path that happened to happen.

After losing my full-time magazine job in The Great Recession of 2008, I tried to make ends meet with freelance gigs while also contributing humor pieces to The Huffington Post — which scandalously didn’t pay its guest bloggers but idiots like me reluctantly went along with that because of the large audience. Anyway, one of my freelance gigs was proofreading for a service that helped polish the work of writers. The service did pay, but little enough for me to also write pieces for its blog for extra cash.

That group blog was mainly a place for how-to writing content, but I decided on one occasion in 2011 to go the how-to route under the guise of an appreciation of Margaret Atwood’s well-crafted novels — several of which I had just read. But the service wasn’t interested in that idea, so, what to do with a piece I had already written? It occurred to me to stray from The Huffington Post’s comedy section and submit the Atwood piece to the site’s book page. I did that, and suddenly got many more readers and comments than I was getting for my humor columns. So, I kept submitting literature posts and soon built a pretty large following — “meeting” a number of wonderful commenters along the way.

Although I’ve always read lots of fiction, it had never occurred to me until then to regularly write about literature.

Things eventually went downhill at HP — often-unresponsive staff (probably overworked) if bloggers had a question, problematic and slow moderation of comments (some killed for no reason and some not appearing for days), my tiring of the no-pay-for-bloggers exploitation even as I was bringing lots of visitors to the site, etc. In 2014, I finally stopped contributing and took an alternate path from my alternate path — starting this book blog on WordPress. There I “met” another wonderful community of people (all of you) who love literature and love discussing it, even as some commenters followed me from HP. 

My town’s library isn’t open at midnight, but it’s always great spending time there looking for books (many recommended by you) to enjoy and feed this blog.

Which novels have you read that made you wonder about alternate paths the characters traveled or might have taken? You’re also welcome to discuss that same question about your own life.

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — which includes thoughts on the U.S. Supreme Court’s awful draft decision to end Roe v. Wade — is here.

Police Misconduct in Literature

John Grisham and Stephen King

Many media outlets treat law enforcement positively. Among the reasons? They rely on the police for information, and they know that mostly avoiding negative coverage about law enforcement is the “safe” thing to do given that most of those in power and a significant percentage of the public have positive views of the police. 

Of course, law-enforcement people deserve admiration to an extent, but there are too many instances of cops being untruthful, corrupt, racist, far right in ideology, guilty of using excessive force, etc. Interestingly, a number of novelists haven’t hesitated to take a warts-and-all approach when law enforcement is part of some of their books.

I was struck by this when just reading John Grisham’s page-turning Rogue Lawyer, which is chock-full of police misbehavior that will make your blood boil. The 2015 novel offers some wish-fulfillment of law enforcement not totally getting away with dismaying deeds (justice that rarely happens in real life) yet there is not always punishment in Grisham’s book.

In the early pages of another recent novel, Angie Thomas’ 2017-published The Hate U Give, a white police officer needlessly shoots an unarmed young black male who’s a childhood friend of the book’s teen protagonist Starr Carter. The rest of the excellent novel explores the impact and aftermath of that awful murder.

During the 1990s, among the novels that were no fan of some law-enforcement people were Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, with its very likable “Untouchable” character Velutha being savagely beaten by police; and Stephen King’s Rose Madder, in which Rose’s policeman husband Norman Daniels is viciously abusive to her. King’s 2002 novel From a Buick 8 takes a more positive view of law-enforcement officers.

In the back story of James Baldwin’s 1953 classic Go Tell it On the Mountain, we learn that the biological father of young African-American protagonist John Grimes was brutally beaten by racist police after being wrongfully arrested for stealing and refusing to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. 

Les Miserables? Grimly obsessed Inspector Javert doesn’t exactly leave Jean Valjean alone in Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.

Of course, detectives are frequently the heroes or heroines (albeit often flawed ones) in crime novels. But they tend to be lone-wolf private investigators or amateur sleuths rather than directly aligned with the police. Among the many examples of those characters are Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew, and Lee Child’s former military police guy Jack Reacher. (Reacher is not a detective per se but is certainly great at investigating things.)

Any literary works you’d like to mention that fit this theme?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — which comments on a local hotel with rich ownership not paying what it owes to my town — is here.