Puzzling Star Billing in Some Fiction Titles

The Three…um…Four Musketeers.

When a novel’s title features names of people, they’re sure to be the stars of the book, right? Think Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Ethan Frome, Eugenie Grandet, Evelina, Lelia, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Bridge, Agnes Grey, Life of Pi, Emma, Heidi, Carrie, Camille, Suttree, Pierre, Lord Jim, Sister Carrie, Hadji Murat, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, etc.

But this is not always the case. Occasionally, the people in a title are secondary (albeit significant) characters, or they share top billing. Why? Maybe the titular secondary character is particular charismatic or mysterious. Maybe the chosen title just has a nicer ring to it. Maybe the author intends a bit of misdirection or surprise.

One example is Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Rob Roy. While the Scottish outlaw has a major role in the 1817 book, the most prominent character is narrator Frank Osbaldistone. Rob Roy is of course a more interesting fella, and who would want to read a novel called Frank Osbaldistone? 🙂 Anyway, it’s logical that those behind the 1995 film version of Scott’s novel made Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) the main guy.

Four years after Scott’s novel was published, James Fenimore Cooper came out with The Spy. But Revolutionary War agent Harvey Birch is not the main player in the book; he’s part of an ensemble of about a half-dozen characters who get roughly equal time. Still, Birch is the novel’s most intriguing creation, and faces some memorably dangerous situations.

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers? Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are of course a big part of that swashbuckling 1844 novel, but the younger D’Artagnan — who becomes essentially the fourth musketeer — is really the star of the show.

The true star of R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel Lorna Doone is John Ridd. But John falls in love with Lorna, much of the story stems from that romance, and Lorna IS a major player in the book, so the title is understandable. Plus who would want to eat a cookie called “John Ridd”? 🙂

Daniel Deronda is the linchpin of George Eliot’s 1876 novel of that name, but a case can be made that the fascinating arc of Gwendolen Harleth’s life makes her at least equal as a character in that book.

Jumping nearly a century, we have Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, whose protagonist is actually Sula’s best friend Nel. But Sula — while occupying less of the book than Nel — drives the plot with her charisma, her unconventionality, and (at times) her selfishness and not-niceness.

Any other novel titles that might fit this 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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town belatedly becoming eligible for federal disaster relief after Hurricane Ida — is here.

Educators Give Fiction Lots of Class

Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus

My wife’s latest semester as a French professor has begun, and my younger daughter started high school this past Thursday — meaning I have education on my mind. So I thought I’d offer an updated, edited amalgam of my 2015 post about teachers in literature and my 2012 post about professors in literature.

Many educators in fiction are smart, hardworking, and compassionate — like most real-life educators we and our children have had.

One of my favorite classroom characters is Anne Shirley in Anne of Avonlea, the first sequel to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Anne becomes a teacher while still a pre-college teen — and predictably things don’t always go smoothly. But she is kind and imaginative, and earns the love and respect of her Canadian students.

Another beloved teacher is Charles Chipping — of James Hilton’s novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips — who’s a rather rigid, conventional educator until he warms up over the course of a many-decade career at an English public boarding school.

Also in England, innovative teacher Ricky Braithwaite wins over his at-first-unmotivated students in E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love — later made into the famous movie starring Sidney Poitier.

Jane Eyre was briefly a teacher, and a good one, after fleeing Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. (Previously, she instructed one kid — Edward Rochester’s ward Adele — while governess at Thornfield.) Jane’s teaching approach was undoubtedly inspired by the wonderful Maria Temple at the initially miserable Lowood institution Jane was forced to attend as a girl.

In American fiction, among the many excellent educators is drama teacher Dan Needham of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Great teachers abound in children’s books, too, with one of the most memorable the ingenious, enthusiastic Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus series written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen. Also a popular animated TV series.

Of course, not all teachers are terrific. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for instance, educators range from admirable (think Minerva McGonagall) to incompetent (think Gilderoy Lockhart).

Then there are teachers somewhere in the middle of the competence spectrum. Ida Ramundo means well in Elsa Morante’s novel History, but her classroom performance deteriorates as she becomes overwhelmed by various disasters while trying to survive in Nazi-occupied Rome.

The teacher title character in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is charismatic but unfortunately has fascist sympathies.

On the irresponsible side is young teacher Aimee Lanthenay, who has an affair with the student star of Claudine at School. But almost everything is played for laughs in Colette’s first novel, so the major ethical breach seems somewhat muted.

Moving to higher education, we have professor protagonists — a number of them quirky. There can be drama in their interactions with students, in their competitive relationships with fellow profs, in their sometimes-fraught encounters with university administrators, in their quests for tenure, and in the whole publish-or-perish thing. All that makes up for the fact they are (usually) not the heroic, adventurous sorts who make readers turn pages faster than tuition payments drain a bank account.

Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs tells the alternating stories of a professor (Virginia Miner) and junior faculty member (Fred Turner) from the same Ivy League university. Both Americans are (separately) in London, where they do research and soon find themselves in opposites-attract liaisons — i.e., “foreign affairs.” But the highlight of this Pulitzer-winning novel is “Vinnie” Miner herself — a 54-year-old specialist in children’s lit who Lurie describes as “small, plain, and unmarried.” She’s polite, reserved, resentful, self-deprecating, and REALLY smart.

There’s also Tony Fremont in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride, which focuses on three middle-aged friends dealing with the reappearance of a scheming, supposedly dead woman who had wreaked havoc on their lives. One thing that makes Tony such an original character is that she’s a somewhat timid woman whose academic specialty is…the macho history of warfare!

Marine biology is Professor Humphrey Clark’s specialty in Margaret Drabble’s novel The Sea Lady, which co-stars Clark’s ex-wife Ailsa Kelman. One interesting thing about this novel is the contrast between the low-key, scholarly Humphrey and the flamboyant Ailsa, who’s a TV personality (among other things).

Then there’s Michael Chabon’s seriocomic Wonder Boys, about a Pittsburgh prof with a rather chaotic life. Grady Tripp’s wife walks out on him, his lover (the college chancellor!) is pregnant, one of his students commits a weird crime, and he’s writing a way-too-long mess of a book after enjoying success with a novel. That last situation is sort of a goof on how some academics don’t write with the average reader in mind.

Seventy years earlier, Willa Cather penned one of her lesser-known novels, The Professor’s House — which focuses on history prof Godfrey St. Peter’s midlife crisis as he moves into a new home, becomes an empty-nester, and worries about where society is heading.

Also, there are the unlikable academic rivals Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and the unsympathetic prof Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.

In May of this year, you might remember me raving about John Williams’ bleak novel Stoner starring a Missouri farm boy-turned-professor who endures a mostly heartbreaking life but finds some solace in a love of learning and literature.

Who are the fictional educators you remember most?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about Hurricane Ida’s remnants slamming my town — is here.

Less-Famous Works By Famous Writers

Top-tier authors are often known mostly for certain novels, and some people read only those books without delving into the writers’ lesser-known work…unless they do.

If they do, they might find gems or disappointment or a combination thereof. But, not surprisingly, it’s frequently worth the effort.

My latest foray into this realm was with James Fenimore Cooper. Before last week, I had only read the novels with which he is most associated — the five “Leatherstocking” books featuring Natty Bumppo’s wilderness and frontier life, and his memorable interactions with Native Americans (most notably Chingachgook) and other characters. All five novels are excellent, with The Last of the Mohicans the most known and The Deerslayer my favorite.

But Cooper penned about 25 other novels, so I decided to try one of them: The Spy, set during the Revolutionary War. It’s…okay, not much more. Perhaps partly because it’s James F.’s second novel, and not all fiction writers find their footing that early in their careers. Still, The Spy has some anniversary cred — it was published in 1821, exactly 200 years ago.

I’ve usually had more positive experiences trying the lesser-known novels of notable authors. One example is L.M. Montgomery, who’s of course most remembered for Anne of Green Gables. But some of the Anne sequels are also quite good (especially Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside), Montgomery’s semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy is excellent, and her standalone novel The Blue Castle is fabulous. All set in Canada, of course.

Speaking of that country, Willa Cather’s Quebec City-set Shadows on the Rock is an under-appreciated gem by an author who’s remembered primarily for Death Comes for the Archbishop and secondarily for My Antonia. Her The Song of the Lark is pretty compelling, too.

The six words most associated with Erich Maria Remarque are those in the title of All Quiet on the Western Front — his antiwar masterpiece. The riveting Arch of Triumph is probably his second-highest-profile novel. (As with All Quiet, it didn’t hurt that the book inspired a major movie.) But equally good or perhaps even better books in Remarque’s canon are his less-famous The Night in Lisbon and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

Indeed, an author’s best-known novel is not always his or her best novel. Consider Colette, whose supposedly signature work is her late-career Gigi even as quite a few of her earlier books are better than that rather slight concoction. The Vagabond, for example, and even her debut novel Claudine at School — one a semi-autobiographical look at a music-hall performer who values her independence and the second…well…just plain hilarious.

Edith Wharton is most remembered for her novels The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome — all stellar — but her ghost stories are also as good as that genre gets.

I’ve obviously only scratched the surface here. What are some of your favorite novels that are not as known as other novels in the canons of famous authors?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a leaf-blower ruling and some COVID-related matters — is here.

‘The Garden State’ Grows Writers

Toni Morrison

Last week I posted about renowned author Sir Walter Scott of Scotland — a country far from my country of the United States. This week my focus will be much closer to home: novelists and other fiction writers I’ve read who were born and/or spent some years in the state of New Jersey.

I’ve lived in NJ much of my life — except for 16 years in New York City and one year near Chicago — and I can see why many successful writers have called the state their home. For one thing, it’s the law of averages — NJ has nearly nine million residents, so some of them were bound to become excellent producers of fiction.

Also, “The Garden State” has NYC near its northeast section and Philadelphia near its southwest section, a mix of cities and suburbs and rural areas, lots of racial and ethnic diversity, a large immigrant population, several respected universities, and plenty of what’s been called “Jersey attitude.” All that and more can directly or indirectly help writers write interesting stuff.

I should add that, like anyone who reads anything anywhere, it can be nice to see how writers handle settings one knows from personal experience. Do they render New Jersey accurately? Stereotypically? Evocatively? If NJ is their focus, of course; one can live somewhere but not write about that somewhere.

Perhaps the greatest novelist with a Jersey affiliation was Toni Morrison, who taught at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and was later a longtime humanities chair at Princeton University — where a building was named for her in 2017.

Joyce Carol Oates also taught at Princeton for many years.

Philip Roth was born and raised in Newark, NJ, and referred to that city in some of his novels. I have mixed feelings about sharing time in the same state as the late Roth — an often-masterful writer, but one whose sexism and misogyny were off-putting parts of his work and personal life.

Junot Diaz, who has also been accused of bad behavior toward women, moved with his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was six. He worked his way through college at Kean and Rutgers, and eventually wrote the compelling Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that includes various Jersey settings.

Janet Evanovich — born and raised in South River, NJ — created the popular series of novels starring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum of Jersey’s capital city of Trenton.

Crime novelist Harlan Coben was born in Newark, raised a dozen or so miles away in Livingston, and still lives in the state.

Tom Perrotta was also born in Newark and then raised in Garwood, NJ. His first novel, The Wishbones, shows the push-and-pull of New Jersey vs. New York City via a protagonist who’s engaged to a Jersey woman but becomes enamored with a NYC woman.

I’ll alphabetically add a few more authors with Jersey connections: Paul Auster was born in Newark and grew up there and in South Orange, Peter Benchley of Jaws fame lived for a time in Princeton, Judy Blume was born in Elizabeth, James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) was born in Burlington, Dorothy Gilman (the Mrs. Pollifax spy novels) was born in New Brunswick, Norman Mailer and Dorothy Parker were both from Long Branch, and George R.R. Martin (A Game of Thrones) was born in Bayonne.

Susan Meddaugh lived in my town of Montclair — the setting of her Martha Speaks children’s books and the Martha Speaks TV series about a talking dog.

New Jersey was also a stomping ground for poets Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and William Carlos Williams; poets/playwrights Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange; and playwright Christopher Durang.

Any writers you’d like to mention with a New Jersey connection? Your favorite writers with a connection to YOUR state, region, or country? 🙂

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about famous music and musicians supposedly relevant to my town — is here.

An Appreciation of Sir Walter Scott After a Big Anniversary

Sir Walter Scott

At the end of my August 15 post last Sunday, I mentioned that it was the 75th birthday of acclaimed songwriter Jimmy Webb. Well, by the time I got to…not Phoenix, but to thinking of a post for this week, I remembered there was a much more milestone-y birthday on August 15 — the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s 1771 birth. So, today I will offer an appreciation of that renowned Scottish novelist and poet.

Some have criticized Scott’s writing for being too sentimental, too romanticized, too elitist, and so on. Mark Twain certainly disliked Scott’s work, but, heck, authors such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters were strong admirers. (And Scott admired Austen’s fiction.)

While I “get” some of the criticism, I’m still a big fan of many Scott novels. They’re compelling, well-written, full of memorable characters, and packed with historical information. (Most novels by Scott are historical fiction; he was among the pioneers of that genre.) Scott’s historical takes weren’t always 100% reliable, but he did do lots of research.

Even as they usually looked back, some of Scott’s 25 or so novels were ahead of their time in certain ways. For instance, The Heart of Midlothian — my favorite book of his — features female working-class protagonist Jeanie Deans as she makes an epic journey on foot from Edinburgh to London to seek a royal pardon for her wrongly imprisoned sister. And Scott’s most famous novel — the rousing Ivanhoe, set in 12th-century England — includes surprisingly non-stereotypical-for-the-time Jewish character Rebecca (even as her father, Isaac, is depicted less three-dimensionally).

My second-favorite Scott novel is the 17th-century-set Old Mortality, featuring the author’s most memorable writing about war and its effect on people. Rob Roy (in which the titular Scottish outlaw is not quite the main character) is also great, as are the tragic The Bride of Lammermoor and the underrated Quentin Durward — the last starring an adventurous 15th-century Scottish archer serving under King Louis XI of France.

I can take or leave Scott’s first two books — Waverley and Guy Mannering — which were written when the author was getting his footing as a novelist after achieving huge renown as a poet. I’ve read little of Scott’s verse, though of course know the line that’s one of the most famous in literature: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” from the long narrative poem Marmion. A line often erroneously attributed to Shakespeare.

Many of Scott’s novels were published without his name on them, though it was an open secret that he was the author. Why the anonymity? One possible reason is that many people at the time considered novels a lesser form of writing than poetry.

The highly productive Scott also penned plenty of nonfiction, including a biography of Napoleon.

Speaking of biographies, Edgar Johnson’s massive study of Scott is a page-turner. Reading it, we see that Scott led quite a life — dealing with a pronounced limp after surviving childhood polio, working in the legal profession in addition to penning fiction, building the massive Abbotsford estate, and, after going bankrupt, refusing all help as he determinedly tried to write his way out of insolvency. He almost did before dying in 1832.

Any thoughts about Sir Walter Scott and his work?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about trying to raise money to fix my town’s aging school buildings — is here.

The Surprising Non-Literary Jobs of Some Authors

Mark Twain

This is an updated, slightly edited rerun of a book piece I wrote back in 2012:

It’s not a big shock when novelists work as journalists or professors before, during, or after their book-producing years. But some famous writers have held rather unusual non-literary jobs.

On the positive side, stints of atypical-for-authors employment can inspire future books and/or give writers firsthand knowledge of the way non-writers live. On the negative side, need-the-money jobs can take away from precious prose-producing time.

My job is to now give examples of this multi-profession phenomenon, and I’ll start in the 19th century with the career arcs of a famous American literary trio: Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens), Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Twain, from 1857 to 1861, worked as a riverboat pilot — a stint that inspired his pen name as well as the nonfiction book Life on the Mississippi and (to some extent) the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Civil War halted riverboat traffic, and one wonders what Twain’s career trajectory might have been if his piloting job hadn’t gotten sunk.

Melville, whose book sales sank as his writing became richer and more complex, made ends meet during the latter part of his life by reluctantly working as a customs inspector in New York City from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s.

Hawthorne fared much better with atypical-for-authors employment. After penning a puffy campaign biography of his college pal Franklin Pierce, The Scarlet Letter writer was appointed U.S. consul in Liverpool by President Pierce. Hawthorne put his fiction work on hold during that time in government, but being in England made it easier for him to make a post-consulship move to Italy — where The Marble Faun novel took shape.

Also in the 19th century, it’s well known that British author Anthony Trollope did postal-service work for many years while writing books and that Anton Chekhov (who lived a bit into the 20th century) was a physician.

Moving to the 1900s, we have Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons) serving a term in the Indiana legislature, French author Colette performing in music halls (which inspired her 1910 novel The Vagabond), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) doing anthropology work with Margaret Mead and on her own, Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) owning/managing a Saab dealership on Cape Cod, Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) working as a physician, and Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café) and Thomas Tryon (The Other) doing acting.

A variation on the multi-job life is when an established author gets “undercover” employment for the purpose of writing a book. One famous nonfiction example of that was Barbara Ehrenreich toiling in low-paid menial jobs to show how the working poor can barely survive in America — leading to her powerful exposé Nickel and Dimed.

Meanwhile, here are some authors who hold or held less-surprising positions. Professors: Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Diana Gabaldon, Alison Lurie, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Journalists: Geraldine Brooks, Willa Cather, Charles Dickens, Nora Ephron, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Hiaasen, George Orwell, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Portis, Anna Quindlen, Emile Zola, etc.

Any authors you’d like to mention who held surprising non-literary jobs? And do you think authors are helped or hindered by having non-literary jobs sometime during their adult lives?

Today, August 15, 2021, is the 75th birthday of Jimmy Webb — who wrote memorable hit songs such as “MacArthur Park,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Worst That Could Happen,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “All I Know,” “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” “Highwayman,” and “Up, Up, and Away.” Here’s the original 1968 version of “MacArthur Park” (grafted onto a 1972 live performance) sung by Richard Harris — who, among his many other acting roles, would shortly before his death play Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies based on J.K. Rowling’s novels. (Also, “MacArthur Park” was covered by Donna Summer and various others.)

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about COVID and my school district as the 2021-22 academic year nears — is here.

An Alliteration Appreciation

Various elements go into a good book title, with alliteration one of them. It helps (alliteration alert) a novel’s name to flow nicely and can make a title much more memorable (additional alliteration).

Before continuing with today’s theme, I want to mention that the end of this post will feature details about a podcast focusing on my cat Misty! 🙂 There’s a link, too. 🙂

I thought of writing this alliteration article while reading The Plains of Passage, the fourth installment of Jean M. Auel’s compelling “Earth’s Children” series that began with The Clan of the Cave Bear. Not only is the title mellifluously alliterative, but it’s also informatively descriptive — Ayla and Jondalar take a long journey along Europe’s prehistoric plains as they attempt a passage to where Jondalar’s people live.

Of course, some alliterative titles are the names of the protagonists themselves — with notable examples including George Eliot’s dramatic Daniel Deronda, Sir Walter Scott’s rousing Rob Roy, Herman Melville’s brilliant Billy Budd, and Herman Wouk’s masterful Marjorie Morningstar.

Among ultra-famous examples of catchy title alliteration without full character names are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, among others.

Somewhat less famous but still well known are Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and Injured, Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, etc.

More recent general fiction? A few titles that come to mind are Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Genre fiction (crime, sci-fi, and so on) is in the alliteration mix, too. Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries such as B Is for Burglar. Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax Pursued. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Susan Moore Jordan’s Augusta McKee mysteries starting with The Case of the Slain Soprano. And more.

Any alliterative titles you’d like to name?

About that aforementioned podcast: The great Canadian interviewer/blogger Rebecca Budd, who often comments here under the name Clanmother, talked with me about my cat Misty. That wonderful feline has an interesting history of being walked on a leash every day, living with asthma, etc. The conversation runs about 16 minutes, and is accompanied by a really nice three-minute clip featuring some of the best photos and videos of Misty (outdoors and in) over the years. Put together by Rebecca and her production-wiz husband Don. The link is here.

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s mayor overdoing the raising of campaign money — is here.

Republicans Can Turn Literary Heartbreak into Positive Pablum

Trump supporters scaling the Capitol wall on January 6. (Photo by Jose Luis Magana, Associated Press.)

This summer’s congressional hearings on the Trump-incited Capitol Riot of January 6 remind us once again that most Republicans have tried to minimize how awful things were that day. The far-right white mob was violent and racist as they parroted Trump’s “Stop the Steal” lie that he won the 2020 presidential election, yet most Republicans have since made it seem like those January 6 actions were mostly benign. They know in their heart of hearts that there was no excuse for what was done in the Capitol building that day, but those spineless/unprincipled GOP politicians are more concerned about staying in office by not angering the vile Trump and his base.

Anyway, what would happen if Republicans tried to revise some famous novels as much as they’ve tried to revise the history of January 6 in an effort to make villainous characters and negative scenes seem more positive?

Let’s start with an early segment of Jane Eyre. The “pious” hypocrite Mr. Brocklehurst nearly starves Jane and the other hungry, freezing girls in his Lowood institution, even as he and his family live the wealthy high life. But in a 2021 Republican retelling of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel, Mr. B would be a hero — keeping the orphan girls fashionably slim and creating jobs (for undertakers).

In The Grapes of Wrath, the Joads are evicted from their farm in drought-stricken Oklahoma by heartless bankers and then try for a better life in 1930s California — only to face one daunting ordeal after another. In a 2021 Republican retelling of John Steinbeck’s novel, the eviction-happy bankers would be lauded for maximizing profits, for further enriching real-estate interests by buying themselves more vacation homes, and for helping oil companies become even more profitable as ousted farm families buy lots of gas to drive their jalopies to the West Coast. There, California employers pay the Joads and other new arrivals such low wages for arduous work (if they find work) that those beleaguered employees can’t afford to see The Grapes of Wrath movie and get populist ideas.

The Handmaid’s Tale depicts a patriarchal society in which women are brutalized and discriminated against in all kinds of appalling ways. But the Republican spin on Margaret Atwood’s novel would be that women are still in the top two when it comes to how the two genders are treated. Better than the top three, no?

Speaking of dystopian novels, Republicans could also soften 1984 by saying the book’s evil totalitarian government makes a reader think of Total cereal — which has all kinds of vitamins and minerals. And they’d add that it’s only fair for the rat to get a star turn near the end of George Orwell’s novel after Winston Smith was featured so much in the book. Who said most Republicans oppose animal rights?

A major character in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is Professor Woland, who also happens to be Satan. Republicans usually hate profs — they’re liberal academics, after all — but Woland is THE DEVIL. So, to the GOP, he’s more beloved than Anne Shirley, Jo March, Dorothy Gale, Madeline, and Bilbo Baggins combined. And why read six books (including those with all the aforementioned characters) when one book will do? Leaves more time to destroy democracy.

Moving on to Kurt Vonnegut’s most-famous novel, Republicans would simply change the name of Slaughterhouse-Five to Slaughter House Six to reference the House of Representatives and January 6. And they’d say the book was mostly a comedy, a la The House of Mirth. (Of course, Edith Wharton’s novel was far from funny.)

Most readers know that the abusive Bob Ewell is a virulent racist who ruins the life of Black man Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s 1930s-set To Kill a Mockingbird. But to Republicans, Ewell is “good people” and “our base.” Sure, they’re disappointed that he didn’t participate in the January 6 riot, but, then again, Ewell would be over 130 years old if he lived until 2021. Not an ideal age for scaling a Capitol wall.

Any other novels with heartbreaking moments you’d like to mention that Republicans could cynically make more benign?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an election controversy, required COVID vaccinations, and more — is here.

Vacation Reading: Go Easy or Difficult?

The beach where I did NOT read Mother Goose last week. (Photo by my wife, Laurel Cummins.)

Vacation reading! If you’re not constantly sightseeing, you might have more time to read than when you’re home. There might be long hours to fill on plane rides, too.

So, what’s the strategy? Tackle a challenging novel or two? Go for the “comfort food” of escapist reading? A combination of the two?

I vividly remember a Cape Cod vacation four years ago sitting on a pond beach wading through Henry James’ The Ambassadors, day after day. Ultimately a subtly interesting novel in many ways, but difficult and at times boring. Some of the convoluted sentences were longer than the vacation. 🙂

The next year, I switched reading approaches by enjoying two escapist Gorky Park sequels on the plane rides to and from France and during non-sightseeing moments amid two weeks in La Rochelle and Paris. “We’ll always have…Martin Cruz Smith.”

I also “did” escapist during a family-vacation return to Cape Cod this past week, July 17-24. I finished Colleen McCullough’s stellar historical novel Morgan’s Run (which I wrote about last week) and then read much of The Mammoth Hunters — the lengthy third installment of Jean M. Auel’s always-compelling “Earth’s Children” series. (I had recently read the first two novels: The Clan of the Cave Bear and The Valley of Horses.) There’s something very soothing about continuing a book series on vacation; one already has a comfort level with a particular author’s storytelling and characters, even as there’s the excitement of new plot developments.

Of course, few escapist novels are totally escapist. Auel’s series and Morgan’s Run and Martin Cruz Smith’s books have quite a few distressing moments. But they’re escapist in the sense of being very readable and very absorbing, with little mental strain involved in following the plot (even as the novels can also have a good amount of literary value). After all, vacations are for relaxing — at least in part.

Then there’s the comfort of rereading. I haven’t done that on vacation for a while, but remember rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix while on a train from Paris to Venice in 2004. That rail ride sure seemed to go fast, but a drawback was concentrating more on J.K. Rowling’s riveting fifth Potter book than on the amazing scenery outside the train window. 🙂 But I did look up from the pages fairly often.

What are your vacation-reading preferences? Challenging, “comfort food,” or both?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about children’s book characters coming to life in the reopened children’s section of my local library 🙂 — is here.

The League of Extraordinary Beleaguerment

Colleen McCullough

When I read another novel, it often sparks an idea for a thematic blog post that includes elements from that book mixed with similar elements from novels I’ve read in the past. It’s not always a “Eureka!” moment, but sometimes it is.

As was the case this past week. I’m currently reading Colleen McCullough for the first time — her riveting novel Morgan’s Run — and, about a quarter of the way through the 600-page book, I came across this line about 18th-century protagonist Richard Morgan: “He is six-and-thirty, and God is trying him as He tried Job.”

Eureka! That gave me the idea for a blog post about beleaguered characters who are hit with one gut-punch after another — whether it be deaths of loved ones, ill health, loss of jobs, unjust imprisonment, etc.

How do these characters deal with all that? Do they cope to some extent, or succumb to despair? Are the gut-punches partly their fault, or mainly instances of bad luck? Do things get better eventually — or never?

Basically, novels with this type of scenario can be heartbreaking or inspiring or some combination of the two. And we of course usually feel a great deal of sympathy for the beleaguered protagonists, unless they’re villainous.

To avoid spoilers, I won’t get specific about the travails of Robert Morgan as his life morphs from England to the early settling of white people in Australia, but that decent/moral/capable man is absolutely pummeled by life in a good chunk of the book by McCullough, who’s best known for The Thorn Birds.

Among the many other compelling novels in which the main characters don’t catch a break — until sometimes they do — are George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, Lisa Genova’s Still Alice, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Stephen King’s Rose Madder, and Martin Cruz’s Smith’s first Gorky Park sequel Polar Star, to name just a few.

Any novel you’d like to mention with beleaguered protagonists?

Note: I’ll be slower with my replies at times this week, but will reply eventually! 🙂

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about everything from a proposed nature trail to an overpriced new apartment building — is here.