The Decade That Started in 1920 Had Great Novels Aplenty

Last month, I posted a piece about how impressive the 1860s were for famous novels: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Great Expectations, Silas Marner, Les Miserables, Little Women, The Woman in White, etc.

Now picture renowned writer Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) reading some of those iconic 1860s novels as a young man and then later enjoying another blockbuster decade of novels during the last eight years of his life. Yes, this post will be about how the 1920s — which of course started a century ago this year — became an especially memorable time for fiction.

It was the decade when F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway saw the publishing of their early novels, including The Great Gatsby (1925) and The Sun Also Rises (1926). There was also Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920), the first novel by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

The ’20s also featured hit after hit from Sinclair Lewis — who produced Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929).

Modernists such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce also had quite a writing period with works such as Ulysses (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and To the Lighthouse (1927). And several volumes of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time were published that decade.

Meanwhile, L.M. Montgomery produced Rilla of Ingleside (a 1921 sequel to Anne of Green Gables), her three semi-autobiographical Emily novels (1923/1925/1927), and the stand-alone adult classic The Blue Castle (1926).

Also: Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Rabindranath Tagore’s Shesher Kobita (1929), Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928), Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem (1928), Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927), Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf (1927), Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (1926), W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (1925), Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925), Booth Tarkington’s Alice Adams (1921), Colette’s Cheri (1920), D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), and Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) — that author’s very first mystery.

While John Steinbeck’s work didn’t achieve greatness until the 1930s, his Cup of Gold debut novel appeared in 1929 — the same year of William Faulkner’s incomprehensible (to me) The Sound and the Fury.

Oh, and P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and stories began coming out in the 1920s.

Last but not least, Billy Budd — Herman Melville’s final novel, and one of his best — was posthumously published in 1924. Like Thomas Hardy, he was around to read great 1860s novels when they first came out.

Was there something about the 1920s that made that decade such an excellent one for fiction? Maybe living through a brutal world war had a major subsequent impact on writers. Perhaps it had something to do with the excitement and cultural loosening of The Roaring Twenties. Maybe it was all just a fluke.

Some of your favorite 1920s novels?

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 The latest piece — about whether or not in-person schooling will resume in my town next month in this time of Covid — is here.

Trivia About Far-From-Trivial Authors

When I researched and wrote my 2017-published book on literary trivia, I decided to focus on interesting facts about deceased novelists. Figured I needed to narrow down my subject area somewhat. 🙂 But there are of course many interesting facts about living authors, and this post will focus on some of them — in alphabetical order by last name.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of novels such as Americanah) did a widely viewed TED talk called “We Should All Be Feminists” that was sampled in Beyonce’s 2013 song “Flawless.”

Isabel Allende always starts writing a new book on January 8 — the date she sent a letter to her dying 99-year-old grandfather that she expanded to create her widely read debut novel, The House of the Spirits.

Margaret Atwood, while primarily known for The Handmaid’s Tale and other novels, has written just as many books of poetry.

Lee Child (born James Grant) chose the Child pen name so his Jack Reacher novels would appear on bookstore and library shelves between the works of crime-fiction greats Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie.

Suzanne Collins was a writer for a number of relatively upbeat children’s TV shows before writing the much darker, widely popular The Hunger Games trilogy.

Louise Erdrich is not only an author but the owner of an independent Minneapolis bookstore called Birchbark that focuses on Native-American literature.

Jeffrey Eugenides, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Middlesex, took time off from college to volunteer with Mother Teresa.

Diana Gabaldon of Outlander series fame holds three science degrees — in Zoology, Marine Biology, and Quantitative Behavioral Ecology — and was a university professor before starting to write fiction.

Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist, self-published Still Alice before Simon & Schuster acquired the debut novel about a woman suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. It became a bestseller and film that won an Oscar for Julianne Moore in the title role.

John Grisham was not only a lawyer but served as a Democratic member of the Mississippi House of Representatives (from 1984 to 1990) before becoming a renowned novelist.

Stephen King, while a student at the University of Maine, wrote a column for the campus newspaper called…”Steve King’s Garbage Truck”!

Cormac McCarthy, whose work has been compared to William Faulkner’s, sent the manuscript of his first novel to Random House having no idea the man who had been Faulkner’s editor still worked there and would become Cormac’s editor.

Liane Moriarty is the first Australian author to have a novel (Big Little Lies) debut at number one on The New York Times bestseller list.

Arundhati Roy wrote her second novel a whopping 20 years after her Man Booker Prize-winning first novel The God of Small Things. She devoted much of those two decades to political activism in India.

Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist, etc.) didn’t attend public school or use a telephone until she was 11 years old, because her family lived in a Quaker commune.

Alice Walker, another activist author who’s best known for her Pulitzer-winning novel The Color Purple, was in a romantic relationship with Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Tracy Chapman in the 1990s.

Any trivia about living novelists 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 The latest piece — which envisions new construction sinking my town’s downtown — is here.

Some Intersections Between Literature and Cartooning

This past Thursday, October 2, was the 70th anniversary of the 1950 debut of Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts.” The comic strip’s initial success was modest, but it grew to become a cultural phenomenon that appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers and spawned many TV specials, books, licensed products, and more.

I was privileged to meet and interview Schulz (1922-2000) many times when I covered cartoonists and columnists for a magazine.

Anyway, with that 70th-anniversary milestone in mind, I thought I would devote this piece to some intersections between cartooning and literature. Schulz himself was an avid reader of novels — among his favorites were Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby — and of course the cartoonist’s famed Snoopy character was a frustrated author often banging away on his typewriter atop his doghouse.

Speaking of novels, one of the most cartooning-imbued is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, published in 2000 — the year Schulz died. That Pulitzer Prize-winning book stars two men modeled on the creators of Superman (who first appeared in comic books) and also mentions various newspaper-strip legends such as “Terry and the Pirates” and “Steve Canyon” creator Milton Caniff (1907-1988), who I got to meet and interview as well.

John Steinbeck was among the millions of people who admired Caniff’s stunningly drawn and plotted story strips, and even wrote him a fan letter in 1942.

Then there are renowned authors who did some cartooning — either in their youth and then stopping, or continuing into their authorial careers. Among them were Flannery O’Connor (whose art is atop this blog post), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Wolfe, James Thurber, and John Updike.

I was there when Updike received an award at a 1990 National Cartoonists Society dinner in New York City. One thing Updike (jokingly?) said was that doing a comic strip was harder than writing books. “A cartoonist needs seven ideas a week; as a novelist, I only need one idea every two years,” he quipped.

And some artists known mostly for their cartooning have written novels. Among them: editorial cartoonists/comic creators Doug Marlette and Jeff Danziger, and The New Yorker cartoonist Peter Steiner.

Then there are graphic novelists/graphic memoirists — with the most famous ones including Art Spiegelman (Maus) and Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), among others. Bechdel first became known for her compelling and comedic “Dykes to Watch Out For” comic strip.

Any literature-cartooning connections you’d like to discuss?

My next blog post will appear on either the usual Sunday (October 11) or next Monday (October 12). Not sure yet. 🙂

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 The latest piece — about such topics as the welcome launch of a group opposing gas-powered leaf blowers — is here.

Writers Who’ve Rightly Criticized the Far-Right Trump

Some authors make political points in their novels, but an increasing number are also doing so on social media, in interviews, and in other public forums since Donald Trump was “elected” president in 2016. Hard not to given the never-ending cruelty, racism, misogyny, authoritarianism, and anti-intellectualism of Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and most other prominent Republicans. They’ve become existential threats to decency and democracy.

I thought about this after seeing a video on Facebook this week in which Maine-based author Stephen King (above) supports U.S. Senate candidate Sara Gideon in her effort to unseat Susan Collins in Maine. The renowned King says in the campaign ad that Collins is notorious for posturing as a bipartisan “moderate” while almost always backing what the far-right Trump and McConnell want. When Collins does say no, it’s only when it’s safe to do so — as with her being one of two Republican senators to say she’s against McConnell’s ultra-hypocritical push to replace late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during an election year after the monstrous Mitch refused a 2016 court confirmation vote during Democrat Barack Obama’s last full presidential year. Undoubtedly, McConnell gave Collins permission to take her allegedly brave stand because four Republican votes are needed to block a court vote.

Other authors who’ve made their political feelings known, specifically about Trump?

In 2019, Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits, etc.) labeled Trump “a fool” for denying climate change.

Also that year, Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things, etc.) called Trump “out of control.”

John Grisham (The Firm, etc.) said of Trump in 2018: “Around our house, my wife and I, we try not to say his name. He knows nothing, he reads nothing, he listens to no one. Nothing he says is clever or smart. Him, the people around him, his crooked friends: each day brings a new embarrassment… I wake up every morning embarrassed to be an American.”

Also in 2018, Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible, etc.) noted with disgust that Trump “is an avowed perpetrator of sexual assault.”

In 2018, too, Alice Walker (The Color Purple, etc.) said Trump “has an inferiority complex” that drives much of his repugnant bluster and boasting.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Americanah, etc.) stated in 2018 that Trump’s election was like “giving a toddler the keys to a very expensive and complicated car.”

Zadie Smith (White Teeth, etc.) had a similar take in 2016 — calling Trump “reminiscent of a six-year-old child” as well as “fact-free.” Then, this year, Zadie’s actor brother Ben said Smith left the U.S. to return to London at least partly because of “racist idiot” Trump.

Also using the “i” word, in 2017, was Neil Gaiman (American Gods, etc.) when he called Trump “an out-of-his-depth idiot.”

Back again to 2016, Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress, etc.) labeled Trump “a lazy, spoilt guy.”

And Philip Roth, speaking in a New York Times interview five months before his 2018 death, called Trump “a massive fraud” who is “the evil sum of his deficiencies.”

Any other examples you’d like to mention of authors speaking about Trump and other political matters outside their novels since 2016? Is it okay for authors to discuss politics outside their novels? Is it okay for authors to write about politics in their novels?

I’ll be posting my next book piece next Monday (October 5) rather than the usual Sunday (October 4).

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 The latest piece — about another too-big building approved by my town’s spineless Planning Board — is here.

Serious 2020 News About Several Fiction Series

For fiction readers who are into popular series, this has been an interesting year.

One major development was Lee Child announcing that he would gradually step away from writing his mega-selling Jack Reacher thrillers because of his age (a not-that-old 65). Child and his younger brother Andrew are co-authoring a few more Reacher books — including next month’s The Sentinel — before Andrew takes over completely. That’s the plan after Child, starting with 1997’s Killing Floor, churned out roughly one novel per year starring the wandering/charismatic/justice-seeking loner Jack.

I’ve read most of the Reacher books, and found them riveting. But will I continue to read them after Lee Child bows out? Unsure. I’m not a big fan of a series being passed on to a different author. Heck, I loved Stieg Larsson’s page-turning Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) but decided not to read the new installments by David Lagercrantz. The late Stieg certainly had no say in picking that successor.

Then we have J.K. Rowling. Once absolutely beloved as the author of the stellar Harry Potter series, Rowling has recently gotten into hot water with intolerant views about transgender people. Which brings us to her newer series — written under the Robert Galbraith pen name — starring the fascinating private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. I was a huge fan of the first four books, released between 2013 and 2018, and the fifth one came out this month. But Troubled Blood includes the character of a male serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing — making it almost seem like Rowling is rubbing her transphobia in readers’ faces. So I might not read the new book, even as I contemplate the irony of Rowling writing her crime series under a man’s name…

During the first part of the pandemic this year, I continued Diana Gabaldon’s mesmerizing Outlander series by reading the second-through-eighth books, which average 1,000-plus pages apiece. The eighth novel (Written in My Own Heart’s Blood) came out in 2014, and the eagerly awaited ninth one (Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone) is expected late this December. As the time-travel-laced story continues, I can’t wait to see what happens with 20th-century doctor Claire, her 18th-century Scottish warrior husband Jamie, their daughter Brianna, their son-in-law Roger, and other memorable characters in a series that began in 1991.

Back in May, a prequel to Suzanne Collins’ massively popular The Hunger Games trilogy was released. While I haven’t yet read The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (dystopian fiction is not at the top of my list during this dystopian year), I did feel the 2008-10 trilogy was depressingly terrific.

Coming in November is Fortune and Glory, Janet Evanovich’s 27th novel starring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.

In early February 2021, we’ll see Walter Mosley’s Blood Grove, the 15th book starring private investigator Easy Rawlins. (If 2020 had 14 months — it does seem like a lonngg year — Blood Grove would be out in time to be a legitimate part of this post. 🙂 )

Any thoughts on fiction series and their 2020 aspects?

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 The latest piece — about a wretched election ruling — is here.

The ’60s Live On. The 1860s, That Is

Tolstoy and Dost

As Trump attempts to stir up a civil war in the U.S. to try to get reelected, thoughts turn to…the 1860s. But unlike America’s ghastly president, I’m going to keep things positive by mentioning novels I admire from that long-ago decade.

This theme occurred to me as I continue to read Wilkie Collins’ No Name, published in 1862. It’s a tribute to Collins’ writing ability that one of his lesser-known novels — about two daughters disinherited by law after it’s discovered that their wealthy late parents weren’t married at the time of those sisters’ births — is so good. The author is of course most famous for the scintillating mystery The Woman in White (1860) and the early detective classic The Moonstone (1868) — plus he also penned Armadale (1866), which features one of 19th-century literature’s most intriguing female villains. Quite a decade for Collins.

Collins’ friend Charles Dickens saw one of his most memorable novels — Great Expectations — published in 1861.

Another iconic English writer, George Eliot, started the decade with two of her four best books: The Mill on the Floss (1860), about the complex relationship between a sister and brother; and Silas Marner (1861), about an embittered miser who turns his life around after becoming a surprise parent.

Two masterpieces of 1860s literature, and of literature from any time, came out of Russia: Crime and Punishment (1866) and War and Peace (1869). Written, of course, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy (pictured right and left above). You may have heard of them. 🙂

Another excellent Russian novel from that time period was Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862), which will fill your quota of nihilism.

Also published in 1862 was Les Miserables, the widely popular classic by French author Victor Hugo.

His countryman Emile Zola came out with the early-career potboiler Therese Raquin in 1868. Not one of Zola’s best novels, but his first good one and his first to attract a lot of interest.

In the science-fiction realm, French novelist Jules Verne wrote Journey to the Center of the Earth (without a GPS) for an 1864 release.

American author Nathaniel Hawthorne penned his last completed novel in Europe — the Italy-set The Marble Faun (1860). Unusual considering that so much of his previous work featured a New England milieu, but Hawthorne had remained in Europe for several more years after serving as U.S. consul in Liverpool during the 1853-1857 presidential term of his college friend Franklin Pierce.

Another American author, Louisa May Alcott, saw her beloved novel Little Women released in 1868.

Oh, and back in England, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland stepped through the looking-glass in 1865.

Your favorite 1860s novels?

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 The latest piece — about a greedy bunch of property owners (including at one least one mega-millionaire) trying to kill rent control in my town — is here.

The Times of Their Lifetimes Were Similar

HeidiMany well-known authors were almost exact contemporaries of other well-known authors. In some cases, that was just a meaningless coincidence. In other cases, they had some things in common.

I thought about this yesterday after FINALLY reading Johanna Spyri’s Heidi, which I greatly enjoyed. Then I tried to think of a blog topic that beloved 1881 book evoked, but I had seemingly written them all before. Novels starring children — check. Orphans in literature — check. (Mostly) upbeat fiction — check. Etc. So, out of desperation, I eventually came up with the similar-time-alive thing.

Spyri lived from 1827 to 1901, making her a somewhat-older contemporary of Mark Twain (1835-1910). Not much in common between a sort-of-famous writer (Spyri) and a VERY famous writer (the brilliant Twain). Heck, Heidi is a heartwarming novel — complete with its plucky protagonist and friendly goats (see above image) — while the often-funny/often-scathing Twain didn’t really “do” heartwarming. 🙂 But both authors created memorable young characters (of course Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in Twain’s case), and Spyri’s home country of Switzerland was among the many places the U.S.-based Twain visited.

Having almost the same 19th-century birth and death years were George Eliot (1819-1880) and Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881). Both are among the very greatest novelists of all time, with their books’ many attributes including immense psychological insight. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Eliot’s Daniel Deronda are among my five favorite novels.

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) and Honore de Balzac (1799-1850) were near-contemporaries, too, but they didn’t have much in common I can think of other than both being extraordinary writers. One English, one French; one best-known for speculative fiction, the other best-known for naturalist fiction…

Also few similarities between French author Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864). The former is best known for his rousing adventure novels (that were also literary in their way), while the latter often focused on moral issues and the like in a more subtle fashion. (If they had somehow collaborated, I suppose “The House of the Seven Musketeers” might have resulted. 🙂 )

On the other hand, there were these exact contemporaries with a lot in common in their writing: Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and James Joyce (also 1882-1941). Both are known for their modernist, nonlinear fiction — and they undoubtedly had some influence on each other’s work.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) died within days of each other, but Cervantes was obviously quite a bit older. Both are among literature’s most-iconic writers in different genres.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) and Toni Morrison (1931-2019) both wrote multi-layered novels featuring memorable relationships and strong social-justice elements — relating to race, ethnicity, gender, class, etc. Also, both didn’t see their first novels published until they were around 40, with Marquez working as a journalist and Morrison as a book editor before that.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and John Steinbeck (1902-1968) were both 27 when their first novels appeared, and each mostly spotlighted male characters in their fiction — though Hemingway had a more macho/misogynist attitude. Together, they were married seven times (Hemingway four, Steinbeck three). Also, both did war reporting during their lives.

Science-fiction connections? Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) and Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) were approximate contemporaries. Frank Herbert (Dune) and Isaac Asimov were also born in 1920, but didn’t live nearly as long as Bradbury — Herbert until 1985 and Asimov until 1992.

Then there’s this trio born within a year of each other: Colette (1873-1954), Willa Cather (1873-1947), and L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942). The first two are known for adult fiction, the third mostly for young-adult fiction — though Montgomery also wrote excellent “grown-up” novels such as The Blue Castle. Montgomery and Colette could be very funny in their books; Cather much less so. Cather and Montgomery both wrote powerful World War I novels (One of Ours and Rilla of Ingleside) — illustrating that the time period when authors are alive can lead to similarly themed content. Cather was gay (something only obliquely referenced in her fiction) while Colette was bisexual (more directly referenced in some of her novels).

Any other authors you’d like to mention who were roughly contemporaries?

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 The latest piece — about a controversial school principal incident and a supermarket that may or may not come to town — is here.

Must-Read Literature That Hurts

The Hate U GiveHave you ever read a novel you really like, but at the same time found it painful to read? Such is the case with The Hate U Give.

Brief interlude: I appeared once again on the “Tea, Toast & Trivia” show hosted by Rebecca Budd (aka “Clanmother”), the great and engaging Canadian podcaster/blogger. We discussed libraries! Link near the end of this post.

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give offers a riveting story, superb writing, crackling dialogue, a strong feeling of authenticity, and more. But the 2017 novel — which Ms. Thomas (pictured above) wrote while still in her 20s — is very upsetting because it hinges around a white police officer shooting an unarmed African-American teen in the back, killing him. Eerily similar to this month’s tragedy of an actual white Wisconsin cop criminally putting seven bullets into the back of Black dad Jacob Blake, who is now paralyzed from the waist down. Not an isolated incident, of course, as it’s heartbreakingly, infuriatingly common for racist white American cops to do that sort of thing.

We hear about those incidents often in the news and on social media, so also getting immersed in such a situation in fiction is not easy to take. But it’s necessary — partly because fictional victims of police violence are usually humanized even as real-life media coverage often reduces real-life victims to cardboard caricatures. One of The Hate U Give‘s many strong points is that the story is told from the perspective of its three-dimensional Black characters. Plus the writing and story are steeped in African-American culture (as well as being steeped in the digital age — a lot of texting and social media going on!).

The uncalled-for police murder of Khalil is the novel’s pivotal moment, but the book really focuses on Starr, the teen girl who was with Khalil when he’s shot multiple times. We see her anguished reaction, the community response, the nasty smearing of Khalil’s character, and what Starr does and doesn’t do amid zero interest from the police and other authorities in seeking any kind of punishment for the guilty cop. They want the truth covered up.

Other novels can be painful but important to read for other reasons.

For instance, any novel with American slavery as an element is going to leave any decent person seething and shaken. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Alex Haley’s Roots, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident are just five must-read examples.

Or novels with Holocaust themes such as Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (a graphic novel).

It’s also hard to experience the difficult lives and miserable working conditions of exploited fictional employees — such as the miners in Emile Zola’s Germinal and the characters in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (the latter book did lead to some reforms in the meatpacking industry). Two deservedly classic books, and Germinal is Zola’s masterpiece.

Then there are novels in which certain characters suffer from devastating diseases. We read those books because they can be compelling, informative, and inspiring, but they can also be damn depressing. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper

Expand misery to almost an entire society, and you have dystopian or apocalyptic novels that are gripping but exceedingly downbeat. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Neil Shute’s On the Beach, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and so on.

And then there are painful love affairs in fiction. One example is the aforementioned Erich Maria Remarque’s mesmerizing A Time to Love and a Time to Die — about a romance between a woman and an on-leave soldier that you just know will end badly.

Heck, Remarque is among the authors who had or have a history of writing melancholy novels, so the reader usually knows something sad’s coming. But if the writers are good enough — and Remarque is fabulous — the books are well worth the time.

Some novels you like or love while finding painful to read?

Here’s the podcast link.

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 The latest piece — which comedically gives fake origins to local street names — is here.

We Give a Damn About Fictional Couples Not Glam

Gail HoneymanSome memorable couples in literature aren’t gorgeous, charismatic, socially adept, etc. That can be a good thing, because those couples seem more realistic, often evoke warm feelings, and perhaps have a better chance of staying together because there’s more than surface attraction.

Of course, glamorous romantic duos — the opposite of what I described above — don’t always jointly lead charmed lives. Cases in point include pairings such as Scarlett and Rhett in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Tertius and Rosamond in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, etc. Maybe we’re not as upset when things go south for those “beautiful people.”

A novel I read last week contains a great example of a relationship between two people who aren’t exactly movie-star-like. The title character in Gail Honeyman’s absorbing/sad/funny Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine was psychologically abused as a child by her horror of a mother, and has facial scars from a fire. She’s a smart woman who’s getting by as a nearly 30-year-old adult, but is lonely, depressed, and (mostly) awkward in social settings — which makes it a bit of a surprise when goodhearted coworker Raymond takes an interest in her. He’s more socially adept, but has also had some tough times in life and is a slob, a smoker, and not in great physical shape. Plus the two hold less-than-“prestigious” jobs: finance clerk (she), IT person (he). Anyway, it’s really nice to see the potential for something to work out between two people who’ve had significant struggles.

Honeyman’s novel reminded me a bit of Fredrik Backman’s compellingly quirky A Man Called Ove. One difference is that the odd Ove marries a much more outgoing, “together” person than himself — meaning this was a loving couple in which one member was kind of glam while the other wasn’t. But tragedy later strikes Sonja, which puts a big dent in her favored-by-fate life — and devastates Ove to the point where he becomes a morose recluse for quite a while.

One of the most famous fictional couples not blessed with great looks is Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s iconic novel. But of course the two have other things going for them: Jane is an intelligent, independent-minded “survivor” while Rochester is wealthy and quite charismatic in his rough-hewn way. They fall in love with each other’s minds/personalities. Unfortunately, makers of various Jane Eyre movies couldn’t help themselves — they partly ruined the story by casting actresses and actors much better-looking than Jane and Rochester are in the novel.

Another far-from-chic pair are Raskolnikov and Sofya in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is an impoverished, angst-ridden man — and a murderer to boot — while the admirable Sofya is forced into prostitution (before meeting Raskolnikov) to support herself and her family. She’s religious, he’s in need of redemption, and…

Getting back to more recent literature, the appealing teen couple from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars are both dealing with major physical issues that make for a challenging life — and relationship. Hazel has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs, while Augustus had a tumor that caused him to lose his right leg.

I realize I’ve just scratched the surface here. Your favorite fictional couples that fit this blog post’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 The latest piece — about my school district’s switch to all-remote learning this fall, and local pushback against the Trump administration’s sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service — is here.

A Look at Some African Literature

AmericanahI was reminded once again of Africa’s rich literary tradition when I recently read…Americanah.

Though much of the novel is set in the United States, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 book tells a story that starts and ends in Nigeria. And the author splits her time between Nigeria (where she was born in 1977) and the U.S.

Americanah stars Ifemelu — who comes to the U.S. to study, becomes a widely read blogger on race after working in a variety of more-menial jobs, and gets into diverse romantic relationships even as she remains drawn to Nigeria and her former lover there (Obinze). So we get a fascinating look at Nigerian society (its culture, class divisions, etc.) through the eyes of someone from that nation as well as a fascinating look at American society (its culture, racism, etc.) from that same character — who’s initially a total outsider in the U.S. and rarely feels truly comfortable even after more than a decade in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and New Jersey.

Among Adichie’s other novels are Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), a compelling chronicle of how various characters are affected by Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war.

Obinze’s daughter in Americanah is named Buchi — possibly a nod to renowned Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta (1944-2017), who moved to the United Kingdom in her late teens. Emecheta’s excellent second novel is the semi-autobiographical Second Class Citizen, about a young woman who relocates to the UK and deals with a difficult marriage, exhausting parenthood, racism, and sexism as she tries to become a writer.

Adichie’s inspirations included Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) and his classic 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, which chronicles pre-colonial life and the arrival of Europeans in Nigeria.

Another renowned Nigerian writer is 1934-born Wole Soyinka, recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Soyinka has written many more plays and poems than novels, but his The Interpreters (1964) is a memorable book starring five middle-class characters who live and work in early-1960s Lagos.

Yes, all four writers mentioned so far are/were from Nigeria.

There are of course also native African novelists who are white — among them the 1991 Nobel-winning Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014) and Cry, the Beloved Country author Alan Paton (1903-1988). Both were South Africa residents with anti-apartheid views. I have not yet tried the work of 1940-born J.M. Coetzee of that same country; I’ve read every other author mentioned in this post.

Also, 2007 Nobel winner Doris Lessing (1919-2013) spent much of her early life in what’s now Zimbabwe before moving to England.

Non-African authors who wrote novels with African settings include — among others — 2008 Nobel winner J.M.G. Le Clezio, whose Desert is partly set in Morocco; Paul Bowles, whose The Sheltering Sky also has a North African milieu; Joseph Conrad, whose Heart of Darkness unfolds in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; and H. Rider Haggard, whose fantastical She takes place in “a lost African kingdom.”

Of course, a number of Africa-set novels by non-Africans suffer from some stereotyping and patronizing attitudes on the part of their writers.

Any authors and novels you’d like to mention that fit the theme of this post?

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 The latest piece — which discusses topics such as the damage done by Tropical Storm Isaias — is here.