This Gap Is Not a Clothing Chain

The economic chasm between the wealthy and the rest of us is sadly quite pronounced in the U.S. and various other countries — and of course reflected in some literature.

Reading such fare can raise our blood pressure but be quite revealing of how the rich get rich (often by inheriting a fortune and/or exploiting workers) and stay rich (often by “buying” political clout and paying less than their fair share of taxes). Meanwhile, the non-affluent see their wages rise slower than inflation (if they rise at all), face many barriers to forming unions, etc.

Sometimes fiction has ruthless wealthy characters and corporations deservedly get their comeuppance — a wish-fulfillment scenario that happens more in books than in real life. In those cases, authors are thankfully the ones “rigging the game.” 🙂 But there is not always a happy ending.

I just finished John Grisham’s The Appeal, and I’ve seldom read a novel that more strongly depicts the obscene economic gap between the haves and have-nots. Grisham’s book might be a bit heavy-handed at times, but readers can’t help but fume as a huge chemical company deliberately dumps tons of toxic waste (to save money on disposal) that pollutes a small Mississippi town’s water supply to the point where dozens of low-income people die of cancer. One resident who lost her husband and young child manages to win a $41-million verdict against the company with the help of an admirable local mom-and-pop law firm that goes broke fighting the case.

The company appeals, of course, and its merciless billionaire owner secretly pays millions to a shady firm that will try to elect a right-wing, corporate-friendly judge who would be the potential deciding vote overturning the verdict. That plucked-from-obscurity candidate is supported by a blitzkrieg, vicious, lie-filled ad campaign painting his incumbent-judge opponent as an ultra-liberal despite her being a moderate. Meanwhile, the loathsome chemical exec enjoys a jet-set lifestyle that even includes spending $18 million on a piece of art.

While economic inequality is rampant in the 21st century, it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath really makes us feel the 1930s version via the Joad family — who were sharecroppers on Oklahoma land they used to own before being forced to go to California, where they are again victimized by agribusiness and other wealthy forces.

Also taking place in the 20th century, Arundhati Roy’s India-set The God of Small Things features an affluent family and an impoverished “Untouchable” as major characters. Meanwhile, socialist forces are at work trying to make income distribution a little more fair. The police, almost always more deferential to the rich than the poor, take the “Untouchable” into custody and…

There’s also quite a financial contrast in Richard Wright’s Native Son, in which the low-income Black protagonist is offered a job as a chauffeur for a white millionaire. Disaster ensues.

Going further back, into the 19th century, we have rich mine ownership and underpaid/overworked miners in Emile Zola’s Germinal. A strike happens, and…

Or how about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist? It stars an abused orphan near/in a city (London) where some are very wealthy, and many of us know the famous “please, sir, I want some more” line uttered by the hungry boy when he wants more food. (Oliver doesn’t get it.) When there’s so much poverty, some turn to crime — and Dickens’ book certainly has its share of colorful lawbreakers.

I’ve cited just a few examples. Any novels you’d like to mention in which the income gap is pretty pronounced?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a very delayed bridge, a local Starbucks union action, and Thanksgiving — is here.

They Put the Fib in Fiction

Seven years ago, I posted a piece about “Liars in Literature.” Now, with “The Lyin’ King” Donald Trump having announced another presidential run last week, I thought it would be timely to write a follow-up featuring some lying characters I’ve “met” since 2015.

Those fictional fibbers may not be admirable, but they sure can be interesting. We wonder why they lie, if they believe their own lies, whether others believe their lies, whether lying will help them or hurt them, etc. But there’s no wondering about whether truth-averse hater Trump’s “Truth Social” social-media platform has the most hilariously Orwellian name ever. 🙂

Among literature’s liars mentioned in my 2015 post were the despotic rulers in George Orwell’s 1984, the men who framed Edmond Dantes in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, the murderer in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the aristocratic Godrey Cass in George Eliot’s Silas Marner, young Briony Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and the impoverished Mayella Ewell (who lies under pressure from her brutal/racist father) in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Some fibbers in novels I’ve read since 2015? Lawrence Osborne’s creepily compelling The Glass Kingdom, which I just finished, stars a young American woman who’s a liar and thief — though she’s partly sympathetic due to her social awkwardness, the way she’s victimized by several people even more unethical than she is, and the fact that her secrets are not as secret as she thinks. Sarah Mullins is living in Bangkok (pictured above) — the huge, new-and-old, multicultural capital city of Thailand that Osborne describes so minutely and evocatively that it’s no lie to say it’s a co-star of his 2020 thriller.

Another untruth-teller, in Liane Moriarty’s aptly titled Big Little Lies, is brutal abuser Perry Wright — who has a respectable public reputation as a hedge-fund manager. (Perhaps being a hedge-fund manager should’ve been a giveaway.)

Also possessing vicious traits beneath an upright public facade is Nils Bjurman, the lying state-appointed guardian of Lisbeth Salander in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.).

In addition, there’s the Nazi murderer who forges a false identity as an American wife in Kate Quinn’s thriller The Huntress.

And the unnamed narrator of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers who’s guilty of using subterfuge to try to get his hands on the letters of a famous deceased poet.

Law-enforcement officials in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give? Quite willing to lie to protect a white police officer who murdered a young Black man.

The three Joy Fielding novels I’ve read all prominently include liars — in some cases close family members who might seem loving but are actually kind of psycho. That trio of suspenseful books includes Grand Avenue, Don’t Cry Now, and Lost.

Of course there’s also Jay Gatsby, who lies about many things in The Great Gatsby. Oops, I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel before 2015, but forgot to mention it in my seven-years-ago post. 🙂

Your favorite (or not-so-favorite) liars 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s secretive Council and a parking deck finally opening — is here.

Returning to a Canon Can Be a Blast

Have you ever read many or most of an author’s works, then moved on to other authors, and then years later returned to read one of the few works you missed in the canon of that first author?

(Also, did you ever start a blog post with an overly long question? 🙂 )

I’ve done the return-to-canon thing for various reasons. Often, I binge-read a certain author only to stop when I realized my local library didn’t have the rest of her or his books…until it did. Or I didn’t want to read an author’s so-called “lesser” efforts but later changed my mind. Or, as much as I might have liked an author, I wanted some variety, so I moved on to other authors rather than complete the first author’s canon…until I decided otherwise. Or I returned to an author for a newer work that had yet to be published at the time of my original reading binge.

It can be very interesting doing the return thing — enjoying a favorite writer’s novel or story you never read before, perhaps being disappointed, seeing the similarities and differences in the newly read vs. previously read work, etc. And of course reading an author when one is older can affect our reaction to a book.

Anyway, I just returned to Herman Melville. Years ago I read most of his novels, novellas, and short stories: Moby-Dick, Billy Budd, Pierre, Typee, Omoo, Redburn, White-Jacket, Benito Cereno, “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and so on. Then, when I was at the library last month, I saw Mardi on the shelves when it hadn’t been there before. Hmm…

I’m in the middle of that 1849 novel now, and it’s quite a tale of the sea — where most but not all of Melville’s writing was set. We follow the sometimes-bizarre adventures and meet-ups of two sailors who abandon ship far from any shore, and watch the story line move from realistic to allegorical. It’s also interesting to see how the author’s rich prose, memorable characterizations, fascinating philosophical ruminations, and detailed ocean-life descriptions were maturing two years before everything came together with Moby-Dick — the 1851 classic that unfortunately did not sell well or get much critical love until decades after Melville’s 1891 death. So far I’m not finding Mardi to be one of Melville’s best works — it’s over-long, eventually rambles, and there’s a disturbingly sexist depiction of a Samoan woman — but the first part at least is worth the time.

George Eliot? I read four of her five most famous novels — Middlemarch, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss, and Adam Bede — almost consecutively a decade ago before turning my attention again to other authors. Left in the lurch until a couple years later was Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda, which turned out to be as good or better than her stellar earlier efforts.

For whatever reason, it took me many a moon to get to Charlotte Bronte’s Villette after reading the author’s other work — including at least five rereads of her exceptional Jane Eyre. I found the semi-autobiographical Villette to be very good but often missing the powerful emotional impact of Bronte’s more famous novel.

I loved reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina as a young man, but didn’t get back to Leo Tolstoy for many years. I finally read a number of Tolstoy’s novellas and short stories not long ago — Hadji Murat, The Kreutzer Sonata, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “Master and Man,” etc. — and they were all outstanding, too.

Edith Wharton? I read her four best-known novels — Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence, and The Custom of the Country — nearly in a row, along with two of her earliest books not at the level of that compelling quartet. Then, much later, I was urged to read her ghost stories — which turned out to be as good as that genre gets.

It was the opposite format scenario with Edgar Allan Poe. I read most of his riveting short stories as a kid and teen — decades before trying his only novel: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which was not bad at all.

There’s also the case of reading all or most of an author’s work and then, years later, returning when she or he writes something new. I did that with The Handmaid’s Tale sequel The Testaments (excellent) after reading a dozen of Margaret Atwood’s great novels years earlier, and with J.K. Rowling’s addictive Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott crime series penned well after the seven Harry Potter books. I slipped Rowling’s absorbing standalone novel The Casual Vacancy in there, too.

Your reading experiences related to this week’s 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about the overwhelming approval of a bond referendum to fund much-needed upgrades to my town’s aging school buildings — is here.

An Appreciation of Erich Maria Remarque

When I learned late last month that there was a new movie version of Erich Maria Remarque’s iconic 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front, it occurred to me to write an appreciation of the author.

I’ve read many of Remarque’s books, and as riveting as the war-themed/antiwar-themed All Quiet is, it’s not even my favorite work by the German-born writer. The novels of his that most bowled me over are Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die — not necessarily in that order.

Like most of Remarque’s works, those three books are set in or near wartime; paint a memorable sociopolitical picture; offer smooth, superb writing; feature three-dimensional protagonists with flaws; and often (though not always) break your heart. Yes, the horror, brutality, and dislocation of war is hell on so many individuals.

Arch of Triumph (1945) is about a surgeon who has escaped Nazi Germany for Paris, where he experiences all kinds of things — including an intense romance. The Night in Lisbon (1962) also has a refugee motif, with Portugal the setting in this case. A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954) is about a German soldier (who does not have Nazi beliefs) living a lifetime during a short leave.

Yes, several terrific novels written over multiple decades.

Remarque was a firm antifascist, but had empathy for ordinary Germans caught up in the Nazi nightmare — and admiration for the people and countries fighting the monstrous Hitler regime.

Born in 1898, Remarque was a World War I draftee — which obviously gave him firsthand experience that would help inspire All Quiet on the Western Front. The future novelist was wounded during his military stint.

He went on to become a teacher, theater critic, ad copywriter, and more before writing All Quiet. It became an international bestseller — and earned him the ire of Nazis for the novel’s pacifism. Those fascists also hated 1930’s acclaimed All Quiet film, with storm troopers harassing moviegoers.

Remarque was forced to flee Germany for Switzerland in 1933. Several months later, pro-Nazi students publicly burned his books, and police removed his novels from German bookstores and libraries. The author moved to the United States in 1939. Four years later, his younger sister Elfriede was shockingly beheaded by the Nazis. Remarque spent the rest of his life exposing Nazi crimes in his writing and in other ways.

On the personal front, Remarque in 1958 married American actress Paulette Goddard (who had previously been wed to Charlie Chaplin). Earlier in his life, Remarque had a long relationship with famed German-born actress Marlene Dietrich.

Among Remarque’s other novels were 1952’s Spark of Life, set in a concentration camp; and 1956’s The Black Obelisk, set during the 1920s rise of Nazism. Both books are depressingly good, but in my opinion not quite at the level of the four I previously mentioned. There was also the so-so Shadows in Paradise, about German refugees in the U.S., published a year after Remarque’s 1970 death.

Any thoughts on the author and/or any of his works?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a November 8 bond referendum to fund much-needed repairs and upgrades to my town’s aging school buildings — is here.