The Pleasures of Reading Novels from Long Ago

I don’t read as many old novels — pre-1900 ones — as I used to. Not that I still don’t love lots of long-ago books. A number of my very favorite novels are 19th-century ones: Jane Eyre, Crime and Punishment, Daniel Deronda, Moby-Dick, Germinal, Persuasion, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Woman in White, The Portrait of a Lady, The Last Man, etc., etc. But I’ve already read many old novels (though far from all) I’ve wanted to read, and no more old novels can be produced because it’s…um…no longer pre-1900. Whereas, from what I hear, new books are continually being published.

That said, I still like to read pre-1900 novels once in a while. It can be such a pleasure, partly because those books chronicle a significantly different time in terms of culture, societal norms, and so on — though human emotions were of course pretty similar. Plus the writing itself back then tended to be different than modern fiction writing: novels were often longer, often took their time letting the plot unfold, often had richer prose, and often were more descriptive. Heck, they had to be — it made sense to minutely describe places and vistas most readers of that time never visited and obviously couldn’t google in pre-airplane, pre-digital days. On the negative side, sometimes the prose got TOO wordy and convoluted, and pre-1900 was sadly a more patriarchal, more racist time — though things today are hardly hunky-dory.

Anyway, this is a long way of arriving at the fact that I’m currently reading and enjoying a 1869 novel: Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore. The sprawling tale by an author with a sprawling name is by no means my favorite 19th-century work of fiction, but it’s pretty darn good as it tells the story of young John Ridd’s love for Lorna — an exemplary person living amid the Doone clan of mostly criminal types who had killed John’s father. Plenty of political machinations and other stuff also go on in the book, which is set in the latter 1600s but is recounted many years later by an elderly Ridd. (He and Lorna are pictured atop this blog post in one of the screen adaptations of Blackmore’s novel, which of course also inspired the name of a cookie introduced in 1912.)

John is a bit unusual as a narrator. Not especially smart, which he often humbly admits as he recounts his life in the novel, but possessing plenty of common sense and courage and decency. Plus his descriptions of nature — John works on and oversees his family’s farm in England — are exquisite and partly explain the book’s typical-of-the-19th-century length: 646 pages of small type. I have a couple-hundred pages to go.

Blackmore died exactly in 1900 — my arbitrary dividing line between older and newer novels.

Are you someone who likes to occasionally read pre-1900 novels? Why or why not?

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 includes more on my school district’s unfortunate lawsuit against the local teachers union — is here.

The Solace of Crime Fiction

As I followed the Trump impeachment trial this past week, I felt fury. Fury at the way Trump incited a far-right white mob (shown above) to storm the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, fury at Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen from him, and fury that the U.S. Senate did not convict him despite his undeniable guilt — caught on video and in tweets — because most Republican members of that “august” body are gutlessly terrified of, or want to cater to, Trump’s base.

The trial also made me think that crime fiction is comforting in a way. I know that sounds strange given all the mayhem and pathologies in such novels, but at least the reader can count on seeing wrongdoers punished — either through the court system or vigilante justice. Not always, of course, but usually. A contrast to real life, where wealthy, powerful, Caucasian bad guys like Trump almost never get the punishment they deserve. So, the conclusions of most crime novels are wish-fulfillment that soothes our psyches a bit.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but we all know examples of novels that leave readers with a “crime didn’t ultimately pay” message — even if the punishment is sometimes rather delayed, as in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. (Both of which are not crime, thriller, mystery, or detective fiction per se, but other kinds of fiction can of course have some of those elements.) Heck, it would be hard to sustain a successful series of crime novels if there were little or no consequences for the wrongdoing characters. It would just be too depressing for readers who get enough of that when following real-life news.

Yes, the offenders almost always eventually get their comeuppance in novels by the likes of Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, Agatha Christie, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, John Grisham, Dashiell Hammett, P.D. James, Stieg Larsson, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lisa Scottoline, etc. — though often not before some good people get killed or badly hurt.

If you read crime fiction, do you find it somewhat comforting for the reason I mentioned?

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 supports my town’s teachers in their reluctance to return to in-person instruction before being vaccinated — is here.

‘Boring’ Protagonists Don’t Have to Mean Boring Books

The past week was a rare seven days of being way too busy with various things to write my usual Sunday literature post. So, I’m re-publishing a piece I wrote nearly eight years ago, with some revisions. Here it is:

When a key character in a novel is passive and/or modest, that spells trouble for the book — right? Not necessarily.

A seemingly boring protagonist might have emotional and intellectual depth beyond what first meets a reader’s eye. And we frequently feel empathy for a shy character, who often has a good reason for being bashful. Even if a low-key protagonist doesn’t have much dimension, more charismatic characters can pick up the slack in a Seinfeld sort of way: Jerry wasn’t always interesting on that sitcom, but his eccentric buddies Elaine, George, and Kramer certainly were.

Among the novels starring an uncharismatic character is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. We understand why Fanny Price is timid — she’s a “poor cousin” treated in a subservient way after moving into the affluent home of her uncle and aunt. Fanny also has to bear the constant gibes of another aunt — the ultra-annoying Mrs. Norris, who later inspired the name of a cat in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. And Fanny (pictured above in 1999’s Mansfield Park film) is mostly devoid of the wit Austen gave many of her characters. But she is kind and ethical, and, as the novel goes on, we realize Fanny is also wiser and smarter than we might have initially thought. Indeed, at least one edition of Mansfield Park has back-cover copy saying Fanny “was Austen’s own favorite among her heroines.” Hard to believe, but…

Lena Grove of William Faulkner’s Light in August is a different story. She shows some gumption by traveling alone to find the man who got her pregnant, but she’s mostly clueless — thinking Lucas Burch will welcome her arrival when in fact the jerk fled because he wanted no part of fatherhood. Lena dully and placidly lets events unfold, and the guy (Byron Bunch) who falls in love with her is semi-comatose as well. Much of the novel’s excitement is provided by livelier characters such as Joe Christmas, a mill worker/bootlegger haunted by his probable African-American ancestry in a racist South and by his surreptitious affair with an eccentric older woman (Joanna Burden).

Another thing that makes Light in August, Mansfield Park, and other novels with uncharismatic major characters potentially compelling is when the authors (such as Faulkner and Austen) are stellar writers. As the cliche goes, they could make a grocery list sound interesting.

Then there’s Being There, which may be better known as a movie than novel. Chance the gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s book is a simple man who somehow gains the ill-deserved reputation as a sage of great wisdom. Chance may be boring, but the premise of the novel is not.

Another short novel, Billy Budd, features a title character who’s almost spookily passive — except for the one fateful instant when the goaded sailor lashes out. But the almost-biblical drama of the book, and Herman Melville’s superb writing, carry the reader along.

The much more recent Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver includes the indecisive Cub, who’s way too accommodating to his bossy parents despite being an adult. He’s married to the livelier, brainy Dellarobia, who wishes Cub would think for himself. Dellarobia’s frustration with her husband’s passivity is a key component of the book and its conclusion.

Then there are characters who, because of social norms, are passive in some situations but not in others. In The God of Small Things, the otherwise capable Mammachi docilely accepts physical abuse from her nasty husband Pappachi, but is later far from meek when going ballistic over her daughter Ammu’s involvement with the kind and admirable “Untouchable” Velutha. Meanwhile, Velutha has to act meekly among the people “above” him in India’s class structure, but is friendly and engaging with Ammu’s twin children Rahel and Estha, who love him in Arundhati Roy’s powerful novel.

Can you name some fictional works with protagonists or co-protagonists who are docile, shy, and/or boring?

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 whether-to-return-to-school-during-COVID debate that sparked an unfortunate lawsuit against my town’s teacher union — is here.

A Guest Literature Post By My Cat

Those of you who are Facebook friends of mine know that I post a short video most mornings of my cat Misty (above) taking his daily leashed/harnessed walk on the grounds of my garden-apartment complex. Misty’s strolling expeditions have helped make him a very smart cat, and now he’s asking to take over my literature blog for this week. So, here goes…

“After my human read the latest Jack Reacher novel last week, I read it, too, and let me tell you the impressive Reacher clearly has more than nine lives after again surviving many fights. That book — The Sentinel — is the first of the 20-plus Reacher novels co-written by Lee Child’s brother Andrew Child, and it was interesting to see how it differed from Lee’s solo efforts. Jack seems more talkative, and there aren’t any of the romantic interludes found in many other Reacher books, but The Sentinel is certainly still satisfying. (< That’s a-litter-ation.) The novel does lack cats, but, heck, even Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye isn’t feline-focused – and there isn’t an ophthalmologist in…ahem…sight.

“I’ve also read Of Human Bondage, which I figured would have something to say about the small subset of humans who put harnesses on their cats for outdoor walks. But, no-o-o, W. Somerset Maugham’s novel was about a guy who wanted to become a doctor — not a veterinary doctor! — while finding himself embarrassedly enamored with an abrasive waitress who didn’t even serve Fussie Cat wet food to her restaurant patrons.

“Jane Austen? Her decision to write Persuasion rather than Purrsuasion is troubling, but it’s more believable for humans rather than cats to get married at the end of a novel. The expectation is that Austen’s more appealing humans will live ‘happily ever after,’ which is not always the case when one coughs up hairballs.

“I’ve read All Quiet on the Western Front, too, and found it rang true until things got noisy on the western front of my apartment complex. Now I’m having doubts about the believability of Erich Maria Remarque’s book title, even though I myself created the western-front-of-my-apartment-complex noise by pawing around a dumpster.

Steppenwolf? Well, I did see a fox step in (my line of vision). I Hesse-d…um…hissed at it.

“When not spotting foxes, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, and birds during my walks, I like to munch on grass. Ironweed was a problem until I decided to use it as floss. Thanks, William Kennedy.

“The titles of A Tale of Two Cities and The Tale of Genji both misspell “tail,” but Charles Dickens and Murasaki Shikibu didn’t have the benefit of online dictionaries. I’m amazed that Shikibu’s novel was written a thousand years ago — that’s almost as long as it’s been since I was last fed. Or maybe it just seems that way; I was actually fed about five minutes ago.

“Windows are like TV for cats, which is why I’m always happy when novels are turned into TV miniseries. Alex Haley’s Roots, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Garfield the Lasagna-Loving Cartoon Cat

“My human is telling me that the Proust title I just cited doesn’t exist, but you gotta admit lasagna is a more substantial meal than madeleines.

“I will now step off my human’s laptop keyboard and let a bunch of monkeys try to write a Shakespeare sonnet. Bananas are on the house.”

Misty’s musings were a bit disjointed, but…

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 — in which school buildings (the brick-and-cement structures themselves) talk about when they should reopen during COVID — is here.

Ate Is Enough

Food in fiction! It’s fun, it’s relatable, and it can tell readers something about the novels’ characters and settings.

I previously discussed food in fiction in 2012, when writing about books for The Huffington Post. Yes, that piece was published more than eight years ago — a span of time during which a person can build quite an appetite…for writing about food in fiction again. This post will mention some of the novels I talked about back then, along with various books I’ve read since.

On Friday, I finished The Hundred-Foot Journey, a compelling novel whose India-born protagonist Hassan Haji (seen above in the 2014 movie version) eventually becomes a top chef in Paris. Author Richard C. Morais’ word pictures of Indian cuisine (which Hassan first cooks) and French cuisine (which Hassan shifts to and becomes even more expert at) are intensely vivid, reflect all kinds of cross-cultural currents, and depict the conviviality of sharing excellent restaurant meals. Heck, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more food-focused novel. One caveat: As someone who doesn’t eat meat, I found the descriptions of killing animals, and preparing carnivorous dishes, off-putting.

Another recent novel with a food element is Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, set at a health resort where things take a disturbing turn. But the resort’s food is quite good, making for an interesting juxtaposition.

The title character in Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is admirable in various ways, with one of them being her expertise as a cook and cooking teacher.

Tita de la Garza in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is stymied in love by her mother, and is only able to truly express herself when she cooks.

Food also lends itself to humorous scenarios, as when large/buffoonish protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces operates a hot dog cart in New Orleans and ends up eating much of the product himself.

Some novels with restaurant settings don’t focus a huge amount on the food but more on the eateries as hubs where people gather and certain dramas might play out. That’s the case in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, where hungry hobos are always welcome; and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, whose protagonist Miles Roby runs a far-from-chic grill in Maine. Diner-type eateries also pop up in various Jack Reacher thrillers, illustrating Jack’s “everyman” preference for basic food. (I’m currently absorbed in 2020’s The Sentinel, the first Reacher novel Lee Child co-wrote with his brother Andrew.)

Lack of food can be a riveting aspect of some novels for an obvious reason: People can’t survive without eating. One powerful aspect of Andy Weir’s The Martian is Mark Watney’s struggle to create enough food to stay alive when stranded on Mars.

Going way back to 1749, Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones accentuated the potentially sensuous aspects of a meal by conflating food with sex.

In the short-story realm, Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast” is a culinary extravaganza better known for its movie version.

Books with strong food elements I mentioned in my 2012 post? Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, among others. Plus Darryl Brock’s baseball novel If I Never Get Back, which has one of my favorite food scenes: Born-in-the-20th-century time traveler Sam Fowler gets so bored with mediocre 19th-century American “cuisine” that he goes to a home in a Chinese neighborhood and pays a total stranger to cook him a delicious meal.

Your favorite novels with food content?

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 major rent-control victory in my town — is here.

Feminism in Fiction

This look at feminism in post-1900 literature has two timely inspirations: Margaret Atwood and…Donald Trump.

I just read The Testaments, Ms. Atwood’s excellent 2019 sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And sore loser Trump is about to (hopefully) leave the White House this Wednesday, January 20.

Trump has been rightly criticized for many things during his dumpster fire of a presidency. The lies, the criminality, the incompetence, the cruelty, the blatant racism, the homophobia, and more. So, it can get a bit lost just how misogynist Trump and his ilk have also been.

There are the more than 20 credible pre-presidency rape and other sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, the crudely sexist remarks, the pathetically few women he named to top administration positions, etc. Of course, amid Trump’s toxic machismo, the females in Trump’s mostly male orbit have been awful in their own right — including wife Melania, daughter Ivanka, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, former education secretary Betsy DeVos, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and others. Complicit, complicit, complicit.

The fictional Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments feels like an extreme (?) version of the far-right Trump/far-right Republican/far-right evangelical vision for America. Atwood’s authoritarian fictional republic has made women second-class citizens — stripping the older ones of their former professions, not allowing the younger ones to have intellectual jobs, forcing teen girls into marriages with much older men, and other patriarchal outrages that of course include Gilead’s handmaid system of child-bearers with no rights. There’s also all kinds of corruption and violence. One of Atwood’s accomplishments in both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments is creating unforgettable women characters who either fight against the system (overtly or subtly) or come to grudgingly accept it (under duress). Also impressive is that Atwood is near the top of her writing game in the sequel despite her turning 80 the year it was published. My only significant criticism of The Testaments is that its nail-biting conclusion is too short.

Anyway, I’m limiting this piece to post-1900 literature with feminist elements because I covered many earlier novels with such elements in this 2018 post. There are many novels I can discuss, but I’ll focus on just a few.

The title alone of Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen tells the reader that the 1974 novel will have feminist aspects. Its protagonist, Adah, is a smart and resourceful woman who battles sexism from society and her husband in an effort to get the education she desires and do the work she wants to do. She moves from Nigeria to England, but both places are frequently not hospitable for ambitious women. Racism is in the mix as well.

Both sexism and racism are also faced by characters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).

Women taking leadership roles is obviously a feminist thing, and we see that in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. That novel’s leader is Lauren Oya Olamina, whose take-charge personality is sorely needed in a society that has crumbled due to climate change, huge economic inequality, and corporate greed. (Do those three mega-problems ring a bell? This prescient science-fiction book was published in 1993.) Lauren even founds a new religion of sorts!

Eliza Sommers, the Chilean protagonist in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, goes to mid-19th-century California against her parents’ wishes and even spends much of the 1998 novel disguised as a man in order to live more freely.

Looking back at a 1910-published novel, Colette’s The Vagabond features music-hall dancer Renee Nere and the very familiar push-and-pull on her life between work and romance.

There are also feminist novels that at least partly focus on the right of women to make independent decisions about sexual matters — with two examples being Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian-focused Rubyfruit Jungle. Both, coincidentally, published in 1973. Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) also deals compellingly with a lesbian relationship, albeit more-closeted in this case.

Women working in traditionally “male” professions is another mark of feminist novels, with Ms. Flagg offering a great example of that with the women World War II pilots in 2013’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. (I wish “Women” rather than “Girl” was in that title, but “Girl” might have been used ironically.) There’s also a memorable Russian female WWII pilot in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress (2019).

Plus Claire Fraser of Diana Gabaldon’s 1991-launched Outlander series of time-travel novels is a medical doctor in both the 1960s (when that was relatively unusual for a woman) and during the 1700s (when that virtually never happened).

Women having control over their own bodies is certainly an aspect of feminism, meaning novels that sympathetically look at abortion fit this post’s theme. One example is John Irving’s The Cider House Rules from 1985 — the same publication year as The Handmaid’s Tale.

Your favorite 20th- or 21st-century novels with feminist elements?

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 my town’s reaction to the Trump-incited white riot at the U.S. Capitol building — is here.

The ’21 Club of Anniversaries for Famous Novels

Some well-known novels are reaching round-number anniversaries in 2021 — as in 25 years (published in 1996), 50 years (1971), 75 years (1946), 100 years (1921), 150 years (1871), and 200 years (1821).

I’ll mostly mention novels I’ve read, and a few I haven’t. Let’s begin…

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s rare foray into historical fiction, came out in 1996. It takes a gripping look at a 19th-century double murder in Canada — and how guilty or not the sentenced-to-life-in-prison Grace Marks was as an accomplice.

Hard to believe it was that long ago, but also published in 1996 was A Game of Thrones — the first installment of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series that later became a TV phenomenon. It’s the only novel I’ve read in the series, and I found it compelling after struggling a bit to get into it.

Among the notable ’96 novels I haven’t read are David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary.

A half-century ago, we had William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel The Exorcist — a widely read book turned into a smash-hit movie. Also Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which covers nearly a century of history through the eyes of an African-American woman — and also inspired a highly popular film, in that case for TV. Plus, E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, a thinly veiled retelling of the Rosenberg case from the vantage point of the couple’s children; Hunter S. Thompson’s riotous, semi-autobiographical Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Erich Maria Remarque’s posthumously published Shadows in Paradise.

Also in ’71 were John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, the first sequel to the Rabbit, Run novel I had mixed feelings about (a bit too much toxic masculinity); and Herman Wouk’s epic The Winds of War, which I haven’t read but I sure did like that author’s earlier The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar.

Memorable releases in 1946 — the birth year of despicable white-riot inciter Trump — included Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a novel about a Huey Long-like politician, rampant corruption, and more; Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, starring a 12-year-old tomboy; and Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. I’ve read the first two, not the third.

In 1921, parts of Marcel Proust’s opus In Search of Lost Time were released — as were L.M. Montgomery’s World War I-themed Rilla of Ingleside, one of the best Anne of Green Gables sequels; Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley’s somewhat-interesting debut novel; and Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Adams.

It was in 1871, 150 years ago, that George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch was published. Clearly her best book in terms of scope, characterizations, and social analysis — and you’ll rarely read a better dissection of troubled marriages. But I do think several of Eliot’s slightly less masterpiece-y novels — including The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda — pack an equal or greater emotional wallop.

Also released in 1871 were Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the memorable sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Henry James’ debut novel Watch and Ward (published by a magazine in 1871 but not in book form until 1878); and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men.

I haven’t read any 1821 novels, which included Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott and The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper — two authors whose other books I’ve liked a lot. But, hey, Fyodor Dostoevsky was born that year — and Madame Bovary writer Gustave Flaubert, too.

Any novels with round-number 2021 anniversaries you’d like to discuss? (Including those I mentioned and those I didn’t.)

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 parking, leaf blowers, the Georgia runoffs, Trump, and more — is here.

My Fiction-Blog Stats in a Stranger-Than-Fiction Year

Thanks so much, everyone, for reading my literature blog and posting thousands of interesting comments in 2020! 🙂 As the devastating months of COVID hopefully start to fade in the rearview mirror, I thought I’d do a statistical look-back today before returning to my usual fare next Sunday.

Last year, this 2014-launched blog had 28,825 views, 14,124 visitors (the most ever), 4,530 comments, and 3,401 likes. The number of followers reached 4,930.

The top-15 places where views came from were 1) the United States (15,845), 2) the United Kingdom (4,008), 3) India (1,661), 4) Australia (1,436), 5) Canada (912), 6) Spain (361), 7) Germany (348), 8) Kuwait (297), 9) China (270), 10) the Philippines (268), 11) France (227), 12) Finland (199), 13) Nigeria (153), 14) Italy (151), and 15) Pakistan (127). Plus 125 other countries, thanks in large part to the worldwide reach of the WordPress blog platform.

Surprisingly, the most-read post in 2020 was from 2018 — “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction.” Or maybe not so surprising, given the endless fascination with novels by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, Wilkie Collins, and others who created women protagonists who overtly or subtly defied the patriarchal norms of the 1800s.

Four of my five most-read 2020 posts had a sociopolitical bent: “Writers Who’ve Rightly Criticized the Far-Right Trump,” “When Novelists Display Intolerance,” “Wishing Trump’s Assault on the Post Office Were Fictional,” and “Racist Characters Bring the Hate to Some Literature.” Even though the majority of my lit posts are not sociopolitical.

The most-read 2020 piece that wasn’t sociopolitical? “The ’60s Live On. The 1860s, That Is” — which looked at the amazing group of novels published during that long-ago decade. War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Great Expectations, and various other classics.

Lastly, even though this week’s piece is not my usual thematic post, I did want to mention that I just read and enjoyed Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared — recommended by two regular commenters here (Susan and Martina Ramsauer) and three people I know from outside this blog (Allia Zobel Nolan, LJ Anderson, and Larry Esteves). It’s an offbeat novel with a lots of humor and suspense, and it was eye-opening to see which real-life famous leaders centenarian protagonist Allan Karlsson encountered while in various countries during his younger years.

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 — a 2020 year-in-review — is here.

Many ‘First World’ Characters Are Not Secondary in the ‘Third World’

One problematic literary trope over the centuries involves “first world” characters spending time in “third world” countries and having much bigger roles than the residents, who often serve as little more than “colorful” background.

It can be frustrating seeing white Americans or white Europeans star in those novels, get fleshed out more three-dimensionally than the people they’re amid, and too often act in patronizing or even racist ways toward the visited countries’ citizens — although novels of the past few decades, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s masterful The Poisonwood Bible, are thankfully likelier to take a critical view of, or satirize, this alleged “superiority.”

That said, some “first world in the third world” novels can of course still be damn good, and some of their European or American protagonists are decent people who at least treat the residents somewhat respectfully.

I thought about this subject the past few days while reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — an often-compelling, emotional, melancholy novel containing wonderfully rich prose. But dampening my pleasure a bit was the white-people-in-Mexico thing (with several “first world” bases covered by Lowry’s major characters: mopey alcoholic Geoffrey from England, his adventurous half-brother Hugh from England, former film actress/Geoffrey’s ex-wife Yvonne from the United States, and film director Jacques from France). Still, one can acknowledge that the 1947-published/1930s-set book was “of its time” and that Lowry (pictured above) gave some Mexican characters, such as physician Arturo Diaz Vigil, secondary roles a bit beyond the bare minimum.

There’s also the American-south-of-the-border trope in such novels as Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, featuring Texas teen John Grady Cole and his dramatic experiences in Mexico; James Michener’s Mexico, in which American journalist Norman Clay at least has some Hispanic blood; and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, starring the rather nutso U.S. dad Allie Fox who yanks his family from Massachusetts to Honduras. All excellent books, but…

American or European characters in Africa? We have nasty Georgia evangelical Nathan Price, in the aforementioned The Poisonwood Bible, dragging his wife and four daughters to what was then the Belgian Congo to try to arrogantly convert the populace to Christianity; troubled New York couple Kit and Port enduring some disquieting experiences in North Africa in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky; three Englishmen traveling to East Africa to meet the imposing 2,000-plus-year-old (white) title character in H. Rider Haggard’s mesmerizing She; and that voyage along the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that would inspire the movie Apocalypse Now (in which the setting was transferred to Vietnam). On the part-fictional (?) memoir front, there’s Out of Africa by Danish author Karen Blixen.

Asian countries such as China and Japan are obviously now among the planet’s most developed nations, and China is a superpower, but those places used to be considered “third world” by the West. So, novels such as W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (set in 1920s Hong Kong and China) and James Clavell’s Shogun (circa-1600 Japan) fit this blog post’s theme. Both of those compelling books have English protagonists.

Of course, many African and Latin American countries are also more industrialized today than at the time books such as She (1886) and Heart of Darkness (1902) were published.

Any “first world in the third world” novels you’d like to mention? And you’re of course welcome to discuss this blog post’s general theme. 🙂

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which eases up on the satire for a week to take a positive look at various things in my town — is here.

The Wordplay’s the Thing

Some novels are full of puns, quips, humorous asides, made-up words, generally weird language, etc. All of that can be overdone, but it can also be fun. And those books can have serious moments, too.

One novel with a wordplay bonanza is Ali Smith’s There But For The, which I read last week. It’s a quirky book that opens with a dinner guest locking himself in a room for what will be weeks and weeks — angering the homeowner who hosted the meal — before the novel spins into depicting various people who knew the interloper. The turns of phrase come fast and furious, but there are also poignant sections — most notably one focusing on a very sick women in her 80s. Not sure I can strongly recommend the novel — it was a trial to read at times — but the author certainly deserves props for originality.

Another novel with plenty of wordplay is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a speculative-fiction work that combines laugh-out-loud humor, eco-consciousness, genetic engineering, and the post-apocalypse in an unusual but heady mix. The book includes an online game called Extinctathon, a company with the name AnooYoo, etc.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (pen name of Brian O’Nolan) not only has a wacky plot but also some offbeat language flourishes. Two examples: “I am completely half-afraid to think” and “It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter.”

Quite a “snorter” (whatever the heck that means) is Jasper Fforde’s novel The Eyre Affair, in which a “literary detective” uses a “Prose Portal” to pursue a criminal inside the pages of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The detective’s name — Thursday Next — gives you an idea of Fforde’s enjoyable language shenanigans.

Among the many other novels with dazzling wordplay are Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, and Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals (one of the books in that author’s Discworld series), to name just a few.

Last but not least, there are the Lewis Carroll classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Language fun galore, and the latter book includes the iconic poem “Jabberwocky” — which starts and ends with this nonsensical verse:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe”

Your favorite novels with lots of wordplay?

A note: Last week, in my comedic literary version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” one of my poetic couplets read:

“The children are nestled all snug in their beds
Too young for Dostoyevsky to mess with their heads”

I’m feeling a little guilty about that turn of phrase. I was trying to be funny, and the poem’s structure didn’t leave much room for nuance, so I wanted to reaffirm here that I LOVE Dostoyevsky’s brilliant, often disturbing work — even if it’s not exactly children’s fare. Heck, Crime and Punishment is one of my three or four favorite novels ever, and much of The Brothers Karamazov is also amazing — to name his two most famous titles.

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 contains FAIL and SAFE but has nothing to do with the “Fail Safe” novel and film 🙂 — is here.