Some Novels Are Built on Characters Feeling Guilt

Guilt. It’s a five-letter word that feels like a four-letter word.

Many fictional protagonists suffer from guilt, which can make their lives difficult and give a novel plenty of drama. Those characters often evoke our sympathy, mainly because someone who feels guilt has a conscience. Of course, the action or actions that cause people to feel guilt range from deliberate to accidental, which can affect what we think of those erring folk.

I just read William Kennedy’s mesmerizing/melancholy Ironweed, whose main character’s entire life changes because of guilt. Once a very good turn-of-the-20th-century Major League baseball player, Francis Phelan has become a homeless alcoholic wandering the streets of Albany, New York, in 1938. Things went downhill after a perhaps-drunk-that-day Francis accidentally dropped and killed his infant son. The young father, who also killed a strikebreaker around that time, never forgave himself and proceeded to leave his wife Annie and two other kids and allow his life to go to hell. One feels a mix of pity and “why didn’t you try to deal with things better?” for Francis — who was forgiven by Annie, their son, and (to an extent) their daughter.

Phelan’s companion in homelessness, former singer Helen Archer, began her downward spiral after an awful betrayal by her mother. But that mom feels no guilt, even on her deathbed.

(Above are Meryl Streep as Helen and Jack Nicholson as Francis in the 1987 Ironweed movie.)

Moving to other novels and characters, Raskolnikov experiences a huge amount of guilt after committing murder in Crime and Punishment — even as he had delusional hopes he wouldn’t feel that way. Few authors have ever depicted guilt as feverishly as Fyodor Dostoyevsky did via his classic novel’s nerve-wracked protagonist.

Like Francis, a haunted Eve Gardiner becomes a guilt-ridden alcoholic in Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network. Eve was an adept English spy during World War I who thought — upon regaining consciousness after being tortured — that she had betrayed a fellow spy. She believes this for decades, until…

In Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, the title character felt guilt about the bus accident that left his late wife Sonja paralyzed from the waist down. Ove didn’t cause the accident (revealed in the novel’s back story); he had noticed that the bus driver had alcohol on his breath when he and Sonja first boarded but didn’t say anything. Unlike Francis (whose guilt was of course more direct), Ove stuck loyally and lovingly with his wife until Sonja died years after making the best of her radically changed life by becoming a beloved teacher.

Sophie of Sophie’s Choice lives for years with almost unbearable guilt over a choice she made while in Nazi captivity. There is also plenty of survivor’s guilt in William Styron’s novel, or virtually any Holocaust/post-Holocaust novel.

Obviously, there can be guilt over adultery or other kinds of problematic romantic affairs — as felt, for instance, by Christabel LaMotte in A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

And what about parental guilt when a mom or dad (more often the mom) feels they are not spending enough time with their kids because of career-related responsibilities? One example is Claire in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series going through long days of intensive medical training while her daughter Brianna is young.

There can also be guilt over shabbily treating a friend. That’s the case for the young Amir, in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, who does not do right by faithful childhood pal Hassan. There is some measure of atonement, though hardly enough, for Amir later in the novel.

Finally, there’s of course guilt over acting cowardly — as in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. In some cases, the protagonists might at least partly make up for that by behaving bravely later on.

Novels you’ve read with characters feeling guilt?

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. The latest piece — about the effect of Covid on my town — is here.

It’s Hard to Err in the Decade of ‘Eyre’

Last week, I discussed the 1940s as a stellar decade for novels. This week, I’ll jump back a century to perhaps an even more stellar literary period: the 1840s. The Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Alexandre Dumas, Honore de Balzac, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Nikolai Gogol, early Fyodor Dostoevsky…

The novel as a medium truly came into its own in the 1840s — no previous decade had such a large and varied array of what would become fiction classics.

Let’s start with the astonishing two-year run by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. Charlotte’s 1847 Jane Eyre — my favorite novel — is of course the gripping story of an independent-minded orphan who becomes a governess and falls mutually in love with her employer Edward Rochester. Published later that same year was Emily’s Wuthering Heights — a highly original and tempestuous tale of romance, obsession, and cruelty. Following in 1848 was Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the compelling early feminist novel chronicling a woman’s escape from a bad marriage. Anne (Agnes Grey/1847) and Charlotte (Shirley/1849) also wrote other, not-as-memorable novels in that decade.

(Pictured above are Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 Wuthering Heights movie.)

For Charles Dickens, the 1840s was his most productive decade — churning out one absorbing novel after another — even as several of his most-admired books (including A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) would come later. My Dickens favorites from the ’40s include The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), A Christmas Carol (1843), Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), and Dombey and Son (1848).

Another English author, Willam Thackeray, wrote 1848’s Vanity Fair — starring the smart, witty, manipulative, unforgettable Becky Sharp.

Over in France, Alexandre Dumas blazed through the 1840s with novels such as his highly entertaining The Three Musketeers and the riveting revenge saga The Count of Monte Cristo. Both books were finished in 1844 — how’s that for an authorial year? There was also his less-known-but-great Georges (1843), the one Dumas novel that reflected the author’s part-African heritage; and Twenty Years After (1845), the satisfying first sequel to The Three Musketeers.

Another French author, Balzac, penned most of his best novels in the 1830s, but the excellent Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep came out in 1846 and 1842, respectively.

Over in the U.S., Herman Melville wrote several very good semi-autobiographical sea novels in the 1840s before authoring 1851’s extremely good Moby-Dick. They included Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Redburn (1849).

Two of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” quintet came out early in that decade: The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). Cooper did not write the five novels chronologically; for instance, The Deerslayer — which I think is the best of the series — is set from 1740 to 1755 while the previously written The Last of the Mohicans (1826) takes place later (in 1757).

In Russia, Nikolai Gogol’s eye-opening Dead Souls came out in 1842. Fyodor Dostoevsky started his novel-writing career with 1846’s Poor Folk; the masterpieces Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) would arrive quite a few years later. I haven’t yet read Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1840).

Don’t worry, next week’s post won’t focus on the 1740s — though Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Joseph Andrews (1742) were pretty darn good. 🙂

Your favorite novels of the 1840s?

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. The latest piece — about the election and more — is here.

Great Novels and Not-Always-Great Politicians Were Born in the 1940s

When one looks at U.S. politics these days, one can’t help but think of the 1940s. Joe Biden, the centrist President-elect, was born in 1942. His far-right Republican opponent Donald Trump (who makes Lord Voldemort seem like a choir boy) arrived in 1946. Another far-right Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was born in 1942. Another centrist Democrat, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was born in 1940. And 1941 was the birth year of progressive Bernie Sanders, the runner-up to Biden in the Democratic primaries. Yes, the U.S. has some older leaders.

Anyway, you probably know where this is heading: I’m going to discuss the 1940s as another memorable decade for novels — mentioning only ones I’ve read until the next-to-last paragraph. The content in many of those books was of course affected by World War II and its aftermath, with anti-Nazi themes unsurprisingly part of the mix.

The decade began with a bang as three 20th-century classics were published in 1940. The trio: Native Son by Richard Wright (pictured above), who took a searing look at how racism shaped the lives and perspectives of his African-American and white characters; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the amazing debut novel written when Carson McCullers was in her early 20s; and For Whom the Bell Tolls, the gripping novel set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. (It’s my favorite book by Ernest Hemingway, who I have mixed feelings about.) Graham Greene’s 1940 The Power and the Glory, which focuses on a not-very-priestly priest, gets an honorable mention.

In 1941, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished The Last Tycoon was posthumously published. This compelling Hollywood novel would have been quite something if completed.

The year 1942 saw Albert Camus’ memorable/existential The Stranger and John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, the latter about a Northern European town occupied by the Nazis (though the Nazis aren’t named per se). A rare Steinbeck novel set outside California and the U.S.

Nineteen forty-three? I got nothing. 🙂

Two of the most interesting novels of 1944 were written by authors who were older, but not quite as old as the politicians mentioned in this blog post’s first paragraph. One book was The Razor’s Edge — among W. Somerset Maugham’s top works despite the author being 70 — about a World War I veteran trying to find some meaning in life. The other was Gigi, published when Colette was 71. A rather frothy, lightweight novella that doesn’t measure up to Colette’s many deeper works, but her most famous book.

In 1945, Erich Maria Remarque came out with one of his very best novels: Arch of Triumph, about a German surgeon in Paris who had fled the Nazis, and his tempestuous romance while in the French city. There was also Animal Farm, George Orwell’s renowned allegorical look at authoritarianism; and Cannery Row, John Steinbeck’s expert blend of social commentary and humor.

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men was probably the most important 1946 novel with its take on American politics, corruption, and more.

Albert Camus appeared again in 1947 with The Plague, his riveting novel about a disease-devastated Algerian city. That year also saw the publication of James Michener’s debut novel Tales of the South Pacific, which consists of interrelated stories set during World War II. It of course inspired the musical South Pacific, but the book is more substantial.

A highlight of 1948 was Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country — set in apartheid South Africa.

The most famous 1949 book was indisputably George Orwell’s iconic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. That year also saw the release of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, about an American couple who don’t fare well in North Africa.

Among the well-known ’40s novels I haven’t read are James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce (1941), Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano (1944), Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (1945), Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947), and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1948).

Your favorite novels from that decade?

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. The latest piece — about the election and more — is here.

As Election Nears, Novels Get ‘Trump-ified’ Again

Soon after Trump took office in 2017, I wrote a post changing the plots of famous novels to make them about the despicable new U.S. president (aka Liar-in-Chief, Racist-in-Chief, Misogynist-in-Chief…). Today, as Election Day nears on November 3, I’ll do something similar — using titles of some of the novels I’ve read since 2017. I’ll go backwards chronologically, starting with books I’ve finished most recently.

Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry: for voting for Trump in 2016.

Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets: in which the Trump family recites “Roses are red/money is green/our corruption and greed/are worse than obscene.”

Wilkie Collins’ No Name: about the impossibility of deciphering Trump’s scrawl of a signature.

Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: because she moved to Canada after Trump was elected.

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give: Trump never stops giving it. Who says he isn’t philanthropic?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah: America hopefully says “nah” to a second Trump term.

Carolyn Keene’s The Secret of the Old Clock: Nancy Drew investigates why the clock in Trump’s White House is turned back 60 years rather than 60 minutes every November.

Diana Gabaldon’s The Fiery Cross: Non-reader Trump was eager to start this Outlander novel before realizing it didn’t glorify the white-supremacist, cross-burning Ku Klux Klan.

Martin Cruz Smith’s The Siberian Dilemma: which asks whether Trump adores Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin or ADORES Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin.

Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers: if Trump steals a second term and makes all nine Supreme Court justices far-right-wingers, this novel would be renamed Nine Perfect Strangers to Decency.

H. Rider Haggard’s She: the story of a woman almost unimaginably evil. About time there was a novelization of Ivanka Trump’s life.

Lee Child’s Blue Moon: Jack Reacher hopes enough Americans are “good to go” vote “blue” to defeat Trump.

Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network: would’ve been about Fox News if the book were titled The Malice Network.

Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune: what — a second novelization of Ivanka’s life?

Lisa Genova’s Left Neglected: shows Trump and other non-liberal U.S. politicians doing their anti-progressive thing.

John Grisham’s The Racketeer: an alternate history of Trump being a criminal-minded tennis player rather than a criminal-minded golfer.

Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues: about Trump and his fellow Republicans suppressing the vote on Native-American land, among other places.

Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers: Trump and his fellow Republicans do everything they can to seek the continued support of Shell and other oil companies.

James Houston’s The White Dawn: Trump likes it that color any time of the day.

Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool: anyone who sees through swamp increaser Trump’s fake promise to “drain the swamp.”

Janet Evanovich’s Two for the Dough: a Trump-Mitch McConnell buddy book.

Ivan Turgenev’s A House of Gentlefolk: not about any home in which Trump ever lived.

Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient: ironically titled novel about Brits (among other populations) being impatient with Trump’s pathologies.

Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes: people watching Trump approach a podium.

Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood: what Trump would desperately need if he got a transfusion.

Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking: it sounds like that when Trump never shuts up.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars: when those stars are the Trump family.

Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower: much better than the Trump saga Parable of the Sewer.

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History: about Trump cheating on his taxes for decades. Actually, not a secret.

Sue Grafton’s D Is for Deadbeat: about Donald (Trump) stiffing creditors, contractors, towns where he’s made political appearances, etc.

Walter Mosley’s A Red Death: what will hopefully happen to the red-state-oriented Republican Party that has cynically and spinelessly enabled Trump.

Any novels you’d like to “Trump-ify”?

(Thanks to jhNY for recommending The Financial Lives of the Poets — a novel funny and topical enough to partly make up for its unlikable male protagonist. Also, thanks to Mary Kay Fleming for recommending A Man Called Ove author Fredrik Backman, whose My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is a quirky novel about a loner girl, her unusual grandmother, and their sharing of a fantasy world.)

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. The latest piece — about a planned return to in-person schooling in my town and a reprieve for a group trying to kill needed local rent control — is here.

Back Inside a Library Again!

October 19 was a big day in my town of Montclair, New Jersey. Was it because of the one-week anniversary of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (aka Columbus Day)? Nope. Was it because of the 208th anniversary of Napoleon starting his retreat from Moscow? Not really. It was…the day my town’s library reopened.

Well, partly reopened. Just the first floor was accessible to visitors, but that was still something considering the entire building had been closed since March due to the pandemic. And the first floor features the fiction section…helpful when one is a literature blogger. 🙂

The library had made curbside pickup available beginning this summer, and I borrowed some novels that way — as discussed in this July 26 post. But the online reservation process could be clunky; I would click on desired books and not always find them in my reserved file. Curbside pickup remains available.

Anyway, I visited my library’s first floor this past Friday, October 23, when I took the photo you see above. Yes, the place was almost empty — perhaps because it was a weekday morning and/or perhaps because people were still hesitant to be there. But no appointment was needed!

First I parked on the street, where more spaces were available than usual. On went a mask — required for library entry. Then I walked toward the front door, wondering whether I’d have to wait in line to enter given that only a few visitors were allowed to browse at a time. But I was waved in immediately, clutching a plastic card I’d been handed with the time I arrived (10:30 a.m.) and knowing I was allowed only 30 minutes amid the shelves.

Turned out that half hour was a bit frantic. Arrows on the floor meant I could enter bookshelf aisles only in one direction — so, instead of zig-zagging here and there as was my pre-pandemic habit, I had to time-consumingly keep circling the corridors to obey the arrows. Next time I visit, I’ll carry an alphabetical-by-author list of the novels I want. 🙂

Many of the 25 or so books I had randomly put on my October 23 list weren’t there. (I planned to go home with only four or five novels, but wanted many options.) So when I couldn’t find one I moved to another possibility, eating up those precious minutes. I eventually found Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, William Kennedy’s Ironweed, Ali Smith’s There But For The, and Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. (How’s that for a title from the man who wrote A Man Called Ove?) I’ll discuss those novels in future weeks.

Among the novels on my list not on the shelves were several by James M. Cain, Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Amanda Eyre Ward’s The Same Sky, Tommy Orange’s There There, Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain, P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste, Richard Doddridge Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, Ring Lardner’s You Know Me Al, F. Tennyson Jesse’s A Pin to See the Peep Show, and Yaniv Iczkovits’ The Slaughterman’s Daughter.

“Where Have All the (Novels) Gone”? Actually, my local library is excellent; it was just one of those days.

I was only on the hunt for fiction, but patrons seeking nonfiction (on the second floor) or children’s books (third floor) could ask staffers to retrieve specific items.

At the 25-minute mark, I decided to leave with my four novels. But first I wandered around looking for the self-checkout machines — which, like a few other things, had been relocated since March. Then my library card, which I hadn’t pulled from my wallet for more than seven months, wouldn’t work until I finally realized some tape I had on the card to keep it together had folded over and partly obscured the bar code — so I remedied that.

At 29 minutes, I was ready to go outside. I dropped the time-limit plastic card in a tray, and exited from a different door than I had entered. (That was a requirement.) As I did that, I wondered what the penalty might’ve been if I had exceeded the 30 minutes. Would I have had to write this blog post on my smartphone from a secret jail in the library basement? Would I have received three prison meals a day, or just three books that mention food?

Speaking of digital devices, the library’s computers are not yet available for patron use. Also, no meetings or events are allowed in the building for the time being. And people browsing for books can’t sit down. But using the hand-sanitizer stations was allowed. 🙂

Yes, what’s being offered is somewhat minimal, but it was great to be back inside a library again, even for a short time. Sort of my home away from home — whether or not there’s an exceed-the-time-limit jail there.

What’s the reopening status of your local library? What has been your experience if you’ve been able to enter the building again?

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. The latest piece — about school reopenings, rent control, my daughter’s travel softball team, and more — is here.

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