A Christmas Wrapping Up of My Year in Reading

The Waitresses new-wave band, pictured in the early 1980s. (Photo by George DuBose.)
It’s Christmas Day, and time for my annual holiday verse with a literary twist. This year I’m rewriting The Waitresses’ 1981 song “Christmas Wrapping” to mention many of the novels I read in 2022.
First, a lyrics video of the Chris Butler-composed song:
Now, my version:
“Bah humbug” doesn’t feel near
I read Scrooge’s tale long before this year
Started 2022 with Herman Wouk
“War and Remembrance” by “The Caine Mutiny” bloke
Lengthy, epic, heartbreaking novel
Good to finally see the Nazis grovel
Then “Up the Down Staircase” by Kaufman, Bel
That book’s high school – like war – is hell
Next “A Gentleman in Moscow,” stuck in hotel
Under house arrest, not in prison cell
Amor Towles’ Russia-set story is riveting
But to other novels I now will be pivoting
“Apples Never Fall” by Liane Moriarty
Who writes with brilliant authority
Followed by the latest from Jack Reacher’s sphere
A page-turner I received for Christmas last year.
After finishing Lee Child’s “Better Off Dead”
Diana Gabaldon’s ninth “Outlander” book I read
What a saga with Jamie and Claire
The very best in time-travel fare
On to the “Tinkers” novel by Paul Harding
His dying protagonist, soon departing
Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” came next
Why I waited so long to read it…I’m perplexed
Same for “The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone
About Michelangelo, not Sylvester Stallone
Then to “The Stone Diaries” I swerve
Carol Shields wrote it, not Stone, Irv
Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” brings thoughts of life
Many alternate timelines come with strife
Then John Grisham, not one of fiction’s rookies
“A Time for Mercy” from those Christmas cookies!
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year.
“Breathing Lessons” inhaled soon enough
Nicely quirky, like most Anne Tyler stuff
“The Overstory” – epic! – by Richard Powers
With astonishing trees, and so-so flowers
“The General in His Labyrinth” didn’t require
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” to read, entire
After Gabriel Garcia Marquez…Joy Fielding
Her “Lost” has suspense she’s expert at wielding
The landscape turned to Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”
An intense family drama, albeit lacking Quakers
Switching genres, “The Calculating Stars”
About female astronauts steering more than cars
By Mary Robinette Kowal, years after Zane Grey
Wrote “Boulder Dam” about harnessed river spray
Followed by Melville’s “Mardi,” a sea saga longer
Than Santa’s risky sleigh ride – make your roofs stronger!
On to “Brothers Keepers,” let’s not tarry
Donald Westlake’s setting: a monastery
Louis Auchincloss’ “The Lady of Situations”
An interesting take on a woman’s ambitions
“The Sympathizer” and “The Committed” are connected
The first won a Pulitzer; Viet Thanh Nguyen was selected
Then “The Glass Kingdom” by Lawrence Osborne
Excellent but disturbing, I’m obliged to warn
Same with “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr
Crime fiction par excellence, or excellence par
Includes real figures like Teddy Roosevelt
The killer no teddy bear; left more than a welt
Now 16th-century-immersed in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”
Her tour de force about a man who’s “on the ball”
His name’s Thomas Cromwell and he really existed
But just like Santa his phone number’s unlisted.
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year.
The fictional works you most enjoyed in 2022?
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 is light but not light — is here.

From Known to Less Known to More Known Again

Octavia E. Butler (photo credit: Curious Fictions)

Sometimes, a novel falls into obscurity or semi-obscurity before returning to wider public consciousness many years later. This leap might happen because of a new screen or stage adaptation of the book or a change in societal conditions, or for both reasons, or for other reasons.

A current example is Octavia E. Butler’s mind-boggling 1979 novel Kindred, which inspired a 2022 TV series that just began streaming on Hulu. New York Times critic Mike Hale expressed mixed feelings about the production (which I haven’t seen), saying it only did partial justice to Butler’s book (which I found riveting). But it’s hard for even a so-so screen adaptation to totally ruin a searing, compelling, intricate story — in the case of Kindred, about a 20th-century Black woman repeatedly yanked back in time to the plantation where her ancestors lived in the slave-holding American South.

Turning Kindred into a TV series is timely this year because of the recent rise in overt racism in the U.S., partly “thanks” to white supremacists such as Donald Trump (who still has the support of about a third of Americans) and other prominent Republicans. Also in the news have been the efforts by U.S. conservatives to try to prevent schools from teaching the country’s disturbing racial history, the harrowing murders of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality, the protests against those killings, and more.

There’s renewed interest, too, in Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, with its prescient theme of climate change’s disastrous effects.

Butler (1947-2006) was considered a science-fiction writer but her novels are wider in scope — offering more social commentary (including anti-racist and pro-feminist elements) and more diverse casts of characters than many other sci-fi authors. She grew up in a low-income family, and became an avid reader with the help of her mother, who, as a housemaid, would bring home her employers’ discarded books and magazines for young Octavia to read.

Another novel that recently saw revived interest was Sinclair Lewis’ gripping It Can’t Happen Here (1935), about the rise of an American dictator. That dystopian political novel was never a totally obscure part of the Lewis canon, but for decades was not as well known as the author’s 1920s classics such as Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry. Then, when the authoritarian/admirer-of-authoritarians Trump became president in 2016, It Can’t Happen Here suddenly felt prescient — and jumped up best-seller lists again. Trump of course went on to embellish his fascistic credentials by never conceding the 2020 election he convincingly lost and encouraging his followers to storm the U.S. Capitol in early 2021.

Zora Neale Hurston achieved some renown for books such as her excellent 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but was mostly forgotten in her later years and after her 1960 death — with one reason being the difficulty for an African-American woman of that era to maintain a high profile in a mostly white-male publishing world. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her other books were eventually “rediscovered” largely thanks to another author, Alice Walker, finding Hurston’s unmarked Florida grave in 1973 and writing an influential article about her for Ms. magazine in 1975 (seven years before the release of Walker’s The Color Purple). Obviously, Black authors had a somewhat better chance of attaining prominence in the 1970s and beyond than they did decades earlier.

After some early-career 1840s writing fame, Herman Melville also become largely unknown by the time of his death in 1891 — the year Hurston was born. Nearly three decades later, the 1919 centennial of Melville’s birth moved some scholars to revisit his life and his Moby-Dick opus — which had garnered notice when published in 1851 but mostly for negative reasons: the novel was given a thumb’s down by many critics and sold poorly. Those 20th-century scholars helped turn the profound saga of Captain Ahab and crew into a belated sensation in the 1920s and after. Also, the manuscript for Billy Budd was found among the keepsakes of Melville’s descendants and published for the first time in 1924, to great acclaim.

Part of Melville’s “problem” was being so ahead of his time. A 2019 Columbia magazine article by Paul Hond contained this quote: “Melville was a nineteenth-century author writing for a twentieth-century audience,” explains Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, author of the 2005 biography Melville: His World and Work. “He used stream of consciousness long before Stein or Joyce; he acknowledged America’s predatory power as well as its great promise; he defied convention in writing about sex; and perhaps most shocking of all, he took seriously the possibility of a godless universe. In his time, there was a limited market for these insights and innovations.”

Miguel de Cervantes’ iconic 1605 novel Don Quixote has nearly always been famous, but it jumped even more into public consciousness after inspiring the hit Broadway musical Man of La Mancha that made its debut in 1965. An appropriate decade for that to happen, because Don Quixote’s idealism and unconventionality made him a 1960s-type character of sorts.

I’ll conclude with a strange tale involving Colleen McCullough, whose novels include the terrific The Thorn Birds and the nearly as good Morgan’s Run. She also wrote The Ladies of Missalonghi, which, when published in 1987, turned out to be a blatant rip-off of L.M. Montgomery’s exquisite 1926 novel The Blue Castle. McCullough said this one blot in an exemplary career was not intended — she called it a case of “subconscious recollection” — but the situation did have the positive result of reviving interest in The Blue Castle, an underrated part of the wonderful Montgomery canon best known for Anne of Green Gables.

Any thoughts or examples relating to this week’s blog 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 — about an imagined tour of my town by a cynical fake Santa — is here.

My French Fiction Favorites

Me in front of Alexandre Dumas’ crypt at the Pantheon in Paris in 2018. (Photo by Laurel Cummins.)

Today is the birthday of my wife, Laurel Cummins, who’s a French professor. One way I decided to mark the occasion was by ranking my favorite novels by French authors. Thirty-three made the list (chosen from among the 50 or so I’ve read), meaning some great works I’ve never gotten to are of course missing. 😦 Here goes…

33. Nausea (1938) by Jean-Paul Sartre: A thought-provoking, philosophical novel that stars a self-loathing protagonist, but the near-total lack of plot makes it a tough read.

32. Therese Raquin (1868) by Emile Zola: This early EZ novel is a potboiler nowhere near as good as the author’s more mature later work, but its depiction of scandalous behavior holds one’s interest.

31. Alien Hearts (1890) by Guy de Maupassant: About a young aristocratic “nobody” infatuated with a popular, conceited, wealthy young widow.

30. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) by Jules Verne: In which we’re “finding Nemo” (Captain Nemo) and a Nautilus that’s a submarine rather than an exercise machine. Great science fiction.

29. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) by Jules Verne: Not about the travels of the rock band Journey. More great sci-fi.

28. The Charterhouse of Parma (1839) by Stendhal: The memorable saga of an Italian nobleman in the Napoleonic era.

27. Nana (1880) by Emile Zola: This sexually frank-for-its-time novel chronicles the life of an initially impoverished woman who becomes a “high-class prostitute.”

26. Cesar Birotteau (1837) by Honore de Balzac: The struggles of an honest middle-class merchant who’s lured into financially overextending himself.

25. The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: A heartwarming, partly sad book ostensibly for younger readers that’s more a book for adults.

24. Around the World in Eighty Days (1872) by Jules Verne: The classic adventure novel about a trip for the ages.

23. Swann’s Way (1913) by Marcel Proust: The first volume of In Search of Lost Time is gorgeously written but not exactly a page-turner. (I haven’t read the later volumes.)

22. The Masterpiece (1886) by Emile Zola: A compelling look at an intense, unhappy artist.

21. The Magic Skin (1831) by Honore de Balzac: Mixes the fantastical with the debauched.

20. The Black Tulip (1850) by Alexandre Dumas: Flower contest! (Actually, there’s other stuff, too.)

19. The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus: As existential as the aforementioned Nausea, but a more gripping read.

18. The Ladies’ Delight (1883) by Emile Zola: A huge department store wreaks havoc on mom-and-pop retailers in Paris. The novel co-stars an admirable shopgirl.

17. Eugenie Grandet (1833) by Honore de Balzac: About the sympathetic daughter of a rich, miserly man.

16. Desert (1980) by J.M.G. Le Clezio: This fascinating take on colonialism and more focuses on a young North African woman who travels to France.

15. Lelia (1833) by George Sand: A richly written work starring an intellectual woman.

14. The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas: Delightful swashbuckler that was followed by a number of pretty good sequels.

13. The Beast in Man (1890) by Emile Zola: About a train and a tempestuous romance.

12. Georges (1843) by Alexandre Dumas: The only novel the biracial Dumas wrote featuring a Black protagonist, and it’s terrific.

11. Claudine at School (1900) by Colette: The funniest book on this list. (Colette would go on to write a number of other excellent novels in a more serious vein.)

10. Old Goriot (1835) by Honore de Balzac: Features the once-wealthy title character, an ambitious young law student, and plenty of intrigue.

9. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert: One of literature’s most famous stories of adultery.

8. Candide (1759) by Voltaire: There are few pre-1800 novels more readable than this satirical work.

7. The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus: A riveting saga of characters living through an epidemic that feels both real and metaphorical.

6. Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo: The Broadway hit that was a pre-Broadway classic novel.

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo: The iconic tale of Quasimodo and the iconic Parisian cathedral.

4. The Vagabond (1910) by Colette: A semi-autobiographical work about an independent woman dancer resisting a pull toward conventionality.

3. The Drinking Den (1877) by Emile Zola: An unforgettable look at the devastating alcoholic decline of a couple. (The parents of the aforementioned Nana.)

2. Germinal (1885) by Emile Zola: Miners in one of the major novels of the 19th century.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas: A sweeping revenge tale that might boast the best payback plot ever.

Your favorite novels by French authors?

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 — about my town getting a high LGBTQ+ rating and other topics — is here.

A Look-see at Sequels

Margaret Atwood photo by Liam Sharp.

How is a sequel to a novel different from the next installment of a series (such as the Harry Potter and Jack Reacher books) or another installment of a trilogy (like The Lord of the Rings)? One difference is that an author often waits at least a few years before producing a sequel, while usually writing unrelated books in between.

This post will mostly ignore series to focus on the sequel, which of course can be just as good or better than the first novel or not quite as good or even a dud.

I’m currently reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed (2021) not long after having read his The Sympathizer (2015), and it’s another superbly crafted, political-minded, part-humorous look at the mind-boggling life of a half-Vietnamese/half-French man — now living in Paris after the Vietnam War. During the years between those equally excellent 2015 and 2021 novels, the author’s published output included unrelated works (that I haven’t read) such as The Refugees short-story collection, a children’s book, and two nonfiction books.

Margaret Atwood did the sequel thing when she wrote The Testaments (2019) as a long-time-in-coming follow to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The later book is not at the level of the earlier speculative-fiction classic about a brutally patriarchal society, but it’s quite good in its own right. During that lengthy Tale-to-Testaments time span, Atwood authored a number of other great novels — including Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake, to name a few.

I’ll say something similar about John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) and its Sweet Thursday sequel (1954): first one excellent, the second a shade less so — with both socially observant and frequently funny. The highlight of Steinbeck’s post-Cannery/pre-Sweet work was of course East of Eden (1952).

Anne of Green Gables (1908) spawned many sequels through 1939, even as L.M. Montgomery wrote other memorable novels — such as The Blue Castle and the Emily trilogy — during those three decades. None of the Anne sequels match the Green Gables original, but all are well worth reading, with Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside my favorites.

Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970) is one of my very favorite time-travel novels, but its From Time to Time sequel (1995) is mostly a clunker. Finney did die in ’95, so he was probably not in the best of health when writing that follow-up book. Between ’70 and ’95, Finney authored several better works, though Time and Again remains his standout accomplishment.

Also in the time-travel realm, Darryl Brock’s baseball-themed If I Never Get Back (1990) is an ultra-page-turner, while the sequel Two in the Field (2002) is basically just okay.

Rabbit, Run (1960) was followed by a sequel every decade or so — amid plenty of other John Updike writing — but I wasn’t a fan of the original Rabbit and never read the subsequent installments.

I’ll end by noting that Fyodor Dostoevsky reportedly planned a sequel or two to his amazing The Brothers Karamazov (1880), but the author’s early-1881 death intervened. 😦

Any sequels 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about the holiday season, shopping local, and more — is here.