‘Prodigal’ Praise for an Author

This appreciation of Barbara Kingsolver combines new material with a partly revised Huffington Post piece I wrote in 2012.

Earlier this month, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2022 novel Demon Copperhead co-won (with Hernan Diaz’s Trust) the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

I’ve yet to get to Kingsolver’s reimagining of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, but I’ve read all her other novels, and she’s definitely a deserving award winner. One of my favorite living authors.

Why? She’s progressive, feminist, and her fiction often puts things in a sociopolitical context. But I think many open-minded people of any ideology would find Kingsolver’s work engaging, because her writing style is so fluid and her characters and plots take precedence over polemics. She can also be quite funny at times.

Kingsolver’s most famous novel is of course 1998’s The Poisonwood Bible, a 1999 Pulitzer finalist that should have been the author’s first Pulitzer win. That book is about colonialism, evangelicalism, and other topics, but it’s mostly about the Price family — arrogant missionary father Nathan, long-suffering but ultimately independent mother Orleanna, and their four fascinating daughters.

Just two years later came another Kingsolver masterpiece, albeit one not quite as ambitious. That was 2000’s Prodigal Summer, which weaves three separate characters/plot lines into a very satisfying, interconnected whole. While ecological concerns infuse the novel, it’s the three protagonists (park ranger Deanna, farm widow Lusa, and tree expert Garnett) who stick in a reader’s mind.

In 2009, Kingsolver’s The Lacuna was published. Again, the author used her fiction to address sociopolitical matters (such as getting smeared during the McCarthy era and being gay), but main characters Harrison William Shepherd (who eventually becomes a novelist) and Violet Brown (his delightful and efficient secretary) are memorable creations. Plus real-life historical figures Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Leon Trotsky, and (briefly) Richard Nixon appear in the book’s pages.

Then came the absorbing Flight Behavior in 2012, about a farm woman (Dellarobia Turnbow) in an unhappy marriage who changes her life even as the climate is changing — a major sub-theme of the book.

In 2018, Kingsolver kept the compelling novels coming with Unsheltered, which I discussed in this blog post a couple months ago.

The 1956-born author’s earlier novels — The Bean Trees (1988), Animal Dreams (1990), and Pigs in Heaven (1993) — are not as multifaceted but still very good, as are her short-story collections such as Homeland.

Kingsolver’s canon also includes nonfiction releases such as Animal, Vegetable, Miracle — about the benefits of eating locally grown, unprocessed foods.

(That skilled 2007 book occasionally goes on interesting tangents, such as when Kingsolver mentions her inclusion in right-winger Bernard Goldberg’s biased 2005 book 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. All 100 of Goldberg’s subjects were left-of-center, and most of them admirable people. Kingsolver was a good sport about that “honor,” writing: “My thrilling new status had no impact on my household position. I still had to wait till the comics were read to get the Sudoku puzzle, and the dog ignored me as usual.”)

If you’ve read Kingsolver, what are your thoughts about her work? Or, if you’d like, you could mention some of your favorite living authors. Among mine, besides Kingsolver, are (in alphabetical order) Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Lee Child, Fannie Flagg, John Grisham, Liane Moriarty, J.K. Rowling, Zadie Smith, and Amor Towles, to name just a few.

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 uses a Wizard of Oz theme to lament school district budget cuts and municipal secrecy — is here.

A Delay in Seeing the Light of Day

Georgette Heyer. (National Portrait Gallery, London.)

When I prepared last week to read a 1979 edition of a 1925 novel by English author Georgette Heyer, I was fascinated by a brief foreword by her son. Richard Rougier said his mother never wanted the book — Simon the Coldheart, written in her early 20s — to be reprinted. Yet here it was being reprinted, and making its U.S. debut, in 1979 — five years after Heyer’s death. Richard said the 15th-century-set novel was not as “mature” as Georgette’s later work, but he approved its reprinting because the book had “a quick eye for historical detail and an ability to paint a scene from another age” that would mark his mother’s peak efforts.

I agree. I enjoyed Simon the Coldheart as Heyer — who I was reading for the first time — depicted the coming of age and life of her stoic, fearless, determined, ambitious, adventurous, antisocial protagonist who’s in for a surprise in the second half of the novel. Meanwhile, the book’s almost-not-reprinted history reminded me that some works of fiction came close to not being published at all.

A few of those situations are well known. Franz Kafka saw some of his writings published while he was alive, but had enough misgivings about his work to ask friend and literary executor Max Brod to destroy the rest. Brod disregarded that wish, and much of Kafka’s masterful writing — including The Trial novel — appeared posthumously.

In the poetry realm, only 10 of Emily Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 creations were published while she was alive. Much of her highly original verse finally first appeared in 1890 — four years after the poet’s death.

The Last Cavalier historical novel by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) was published as a newspaper serial in 1869 but never in book form at the time. The late-career effort was “rediscovered” well over a century later and finally released as a book in France and English-speaking countries in 2005 and 2007, respectively. The novel will not disappoint Dumas fans.

Jules Verne’s 1960-set Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1860, didn’t get published until 1994 — 89 years after the author’s death. The early-career novel was not accepted by the publisher because it was considered too unbelievable, even though Verne’s book turned out to be prescient about a number of things — as the author would also be in his later, more famous novels.

Of course, there are cases of a novel’s publication being delayed deliberately. For instance, Agatha Christie’s wrote Hercule Poirot’s swan song, Curtain, in the early 1940s and had the book locked in a vault for more than 30 years. It was finally released in 1975, not long before the author’s 1976 death.

E.M. Forster wrote Maurice in 1913 and 1914, and revised it somewhat in later years, but didn’t allow publication in his lifetime because of worry about how the public would react to the novel’s gay theme. The book finally appeared posthumously in 1971 — the year after Forster’s 1970 death.

So, in some cases writers had a degree of control over when their novel belatedly got published and in other cases they did not. Your thoughts on this week’s topic, including the question of author consent?

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 devastating budget cuts and teacher layoffs in my school district — is here.

Guilty of Being Not Guilty

Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou in The Da Vinci Code movie.

Do you like “wac”-ky books? By “wac”-ky, I mean novels with “wrongly accused characters.”

It’s a compelling “genre.” The drama and tension are intense as we see people punished and/or put in danger for something they didn’t do. That obviously offends our sense of fairness, and we feel lots of sympathy for protagonists in those dire straits — as well as curiosity about how they’re reacting. Also, we wonder if they’ll get out of their predicament, and, if so, how?

All this is certainly a major motif in Dan Brown’s page-turning The Da Vinci Code, in which Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is falsely implicated in the murder of a curator at The Louvre. Langdon escapes that iconic Paris museum with the help of French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (the curator’s granddaughter), and various cliffhangers ensue as the in-peril pair try to solve a number of mind-bending clues that might lead them to…The Holy Grail!

Caleb Carr’s The Angel of Darkness, a novel I read just before The Da Vinci Code this month, includes a character (criminal psychologist Dr. Laszlo Kreizler) who’s wrongly blamed for a suicide in the facility he runs for troubled young people. While this is not the main plot line of the riveting book, Dr. Kreizler’s placement on leave as the suicide is investigated gives him the time to join a group of other fascinating characters who are trying to catch a woman guilty of a kidnapping and various shocking murders.

A classic in the wrongful-accusation “genre” is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the innocent Edmond Dantes is framed for treason and jailed in the Chateau d’If island prison. That long incarceration sets in motion a series of events that has made that novel one of the great revenge tales ever written.

Sadly, minorities can too often be among the falsely accused. One of literature’s best-known examples of that is Tom Robinson, who is falsely charged with the rape of a white woman in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

There is also a character wrongly accused of rape in Ian McEwan’s Atonement, with profound effects on three lives.

Several of Lee Child’s 27 Jack Reacher books (the last few co-authored by Andrew Child) see the roving title character get falsely accused of a crime soon after entering a new town. Sometimes local law-enforcement officials actually think Reacher is guilty, while other times they arrest him as a distraction to protect the real guilty parties — who tend to be powerful players. Of course, those law-enforcement officials and powerful players get more than they bargain for from the almost-superhuman Jack.

Novels you’ve read that fit this topic? Other thoughts?

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 an offbeat tribute to my town’s terrific teachers — is here.

From Procrastination to Producing Prose

My cat Misty is the star of my in-progress book. (Photo by me.)

This is a tale of why it can take an author a long time to start writing their next book.

Back in early 2017, my Fascinating Facts literary-trivia book was published. I spent more than five years sporadically writing it, with my time limited by being the father of a 2007-born girl my wife and I had adopted despite us not exactly being young parents. 🙂 (I also have an adult daughter, Maggie, from my first marriage.)

I’m aware that many of you who read this blog are authors, so you know the adrenaline rush one feels when your latest book comes out. You’re thrilled, you’re into marketing it, and that energy often translates into eagerly starting another book soon after.

But, for me, some reality set in six years ago — albeit a reality more about time constraints than procrastination. My aforementioned daughter, Maria, had turned out to be quite an athlete (at one point simultaneously doing softball, soccer, and gymnastics), so the driving to practices and games/meets — and watching said games/meets — took up lots of hours.

Then my Florida-based mother Thelma’s health began failing in mid-2017, and there were countless phone calls I made from New Jersey talking with her, with doctors, with hospitals, with home-aide agencies, with the aides themselves, etc. Adding to the stress was that my mother, even when younger and healthy, was not an easy person to get along with. In retrospect, I have to laugh about how, when I gave her a copy of Fascinating Facts a couple months before she got sick, she pronounced it “boring.” Naturally, because the not-boring book was mostly about novelists, and my mother rarely read novels — or nonfiction books, for that matter — during her life.

Still, Thelma was in need, and, while I decided not to travel to Florida because of having a preteen at home and my professor wife Laurel commuting to New York City several days a week, my phone became practically attached to my ear.

Writing a book at that time was not a priority, and not really possible.

My mother died in April 2018, after which I obviously did go to Florida. Five times in fact — first for the funeral and then four more times that year. I did five short trips rather than a couple of long trips mostly to try to work around Laurel’s teaching schedule so one of us would always be home with/for Maria.

Anyway, I and my sister Linda went through lots of stuff at Thelma’s small-but-packed condo and dealt with her rather problematic will/estate. (Long story I won’t get into here.)

Adding to the craziness was Thelma’s modest home sustaining major damage when flooded by its water heater in July 2018. That same month I had jury duty and was picked for a trial. And that same month our cat Misty, who we adopted in December 2017, had a scary asthma flare-up that might have killed him if we hadn’t gotten him to an animal hospital for an overnight stay in an oxygen room. July 2018? #&@&#!

Also making it harder to write a book was spending lots of time with Misty, who we eventually began walking every morning on a leash to help his health and give him a break from our not-large apartment. Pets deserve their humans’ attention, and Misty loves his strolls!

The years went on. Still tons of sports activities for Maria, though she eventually dropped the soccer. And many time-consuming doctor appointments and physical-therapy sessions, because she played so aggressively that she often got injured. Concussions, sprains, and more.

Plus I was of course writing this weekly literature blog, as well as a weekly humor column about my New Jersey town of Montclair. With those deadlines, I never procrastinated. Plus I’m on the board of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, copy-edit its newsletter, and often wrote for that newsletter before cutting back in 2020.

I began to think maybe I wouldn’t start my next book until Maria went to college. I certainly had several ideas in mind, so it was frustrating to have those ideas remain trapped in my brain.

In October 2022, during Maria’s second season on Montclair High’s gymnastics team, she tore her ACL during a class at a private gym — throwing a big wrench in her life and her parents’ lives. She was in a lot of pain, and needed to be driven everywhere; her trusty bike was out of the question for a while. And she was devastated and quite grumpy about not being able to do competitive sports until at least September 2023 — nine months after the reconstructive surgery she had on her right knee in December 2022.

Then I myself had a major operation in January of this year. As I dealt with constant bleeding for about six weeks, I began to think of mortality and how I really, really wanted to write a third book sooner rather than later. (My Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir had come out in 2012, preceding Fascinating Facts by five years.) So I resolved to start a book, buoyed by the knowledge that I would have some extra time to do so. Because while Maria still needed to be driven to post-surgery physical therapy three days a week, there would be no high school softball season for her this spring and all the driving to practice and game-watching that entailed. While I would greatly miss the games…many more hours to write!

But fate has a way with things. Maria learned that Montclair High’s crew team was looking for a coxswain, which doesn’t require strenuous exercise and thus could be done while Maria recovered from her ACL tear. But the time devoted to crew would make softball seem like a picnic, because, in addition to the three PT sessions a week, Laurel or I are now driving Maria almost every day to and from practices at a river that’s not very close and involves navigating an often-crowded highway (Route 3, which New Jersey motorists use to get to nearby New York City). Maria joined the team too late for us to join a parent carpool. Ugh.

I resolved to continue the book, though, even though it means less sleep and less relaxation time — other than reading novels, of course. 🙂 The book, with the working title of Misty the Cat’s (Partly True) Memoir, is written by me in the voice of my beloved feline as the kitty relates his life, chronicles his daily walks, tells jokes, offers information about his species, etc., in an effort to pass the time while stuck in a dangerous situation. Nearly 26,000 words so far, and I hope it will come out sometime in 2024.

Any thoughts on time constraints, procrastination, and more?

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’s poor-performing township manager FINALLY getting fired after being credibly accused of misogynistic and racist actions — is here.