A Look at Fictional Characters With Disabilities

Canadian novelist Joy Fielding (theglobeandmail.com).

This post combines new material with content from a post I wrote in 2012.

Characters in literature are compelling for various reasons, one of which can involve having a disability.

Of course, a disability is only one of a person’s many aspects. But, partly depending on the severity of the condition, it can be a very important aspect — helping to make the character admirable and/or inspirational and/or depressed and/or embittered and/or stoic, etc. It’s fascinating for readers to see how a disability affects a character’s psyche and actions, and readers who are not disabled might wonder what they’d do if they were in that situation themselves.

I recently read Joy Fielding’s excellent novel Still Life about a woman who seemingly “has it all” — happily married, good-looking, rich even before she starts a successful company, etc. — until she becomes comatose after being hit by a speeding SUV. Casey Marshall can’t move or see, but she can hear — and what she hears is shocking: the hit-and-run “accident” might have been deliberate, the various suspects include people she knows, and one of them wants to murder her before she has a chance to possibly recover. All told from Casey’s point of view. As the novel’s feverish suspense builds, will Casey in her grievous condition be able to do anything to try to save her life?

In the latest Jack Reacher novel, Better Off Dead, a major supporting character is U.S. Army veteran Michaela Fenton, who has a prosthetic leg. But she remains a force to be reckoned with — even managing to kill two bad guys in self-defense at the beginning of the Lee Child/Andrew Child book.

Lisa Genova often features characters with major physical or mental challenges. Her best-known novel is Still Alice, about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Two other works of hers I’ve read are Inside the O’Briens, about a man with Huntington’s disease (the same condition that killed Woody Guthrie); and Left Neglected, about a woman who suffers a severe brain injury in a car crash. Genova is expert at not only showing how her characters attempt to cope with their devastating diseases but also at depicting the seismic effect on their families.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars features two young protagonists — Hazel and August — who fall in love as they deal with major medical challenges. An example of the totally obvious fact that romance is potentially for everyone.

Impaired protagonists of course don’t just appear in 21st-century novels. One example is Captain Ahab, who lost part of a leg to the big white whale of Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick. The result is a single-minded, almost crazed desire for revenge. 

The caustic personalities of two other fictional seamen — Long John Silver and Captain Hook — also weren’t mellowed by the loss of a leg and a hand, respectively. Silver is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Hook in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

Other disabled characters attract more of our sympathy. Among them is Joe Bonham in Dalton Trumbo’s searing antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun. As a soldier, Joe loses his arms, legs, and face in a horrific explosion, but retains all his mental faculties. Amid his despair, he comes up with an idea for how his life could have some meaning and…

In Heidi, a major secondary character is the wheelchair-bound girl Clara. Disabilities can of course be permanent or temporary, and Johanna Spyri’s classic novel addresses that in a memorable way.

There’s also Creb, the shaman in Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear who lost an arm and an eye during an attack by a…cave bear. 

In Alex Haley’s Roots, Kunta Kinte — renamed Toby Waller after he was enslaved — is brutally punished for trying to escape by having part of his foot chopped off. (If he had chosen the other punishment option, he wouldn’t have had descendants.) This heartbreaking scene symbolizes the survival skills African-Americans needed in a heartless system of servitude.

Also drawing our sympathy are “Mad-Eye” Moody in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Tiny Tim in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Quasimodo in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Moody exhibits an appealing swagger despite all the injuries his body has absorbed over the years, Tiny Tim is an invalid kid with an upbeat attitude, and Quasimodo — while having every reason to feel hateful because of the bad hand life dealt him — is capable of acting in a noble way.

Characters with disabilities can obviously be good people…or not. 

Rowling later created British private investigator Cormoran Strike for her series of five (and counting) crime novels. Strike lost part of his leg while in the military in Afghanistan, and the prosthetic replacement often gives him problems as he doggedly tries to solve mysteries with his detective agency partner Robin Ellacott.

There are also Colette’s autobiographical novels My Mother’s House and Sido, which are mostly about a memorable mother (Sido) but also feature a devoted father (“The Captain”) who lost a leg during his military career.

Literature features numerous other characters with disabilities, yet I’m guessing they’re underrepresented in fiction. The reasons for that include the discomfort some authors (and readers) might have with those characters, and the fear of non-disabled novelists that they might not depict physically challenged protagonists in an adequate, three-dimensional way.

Your favorite characters and novels that fit this blog post’s theme?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s controversial, first-ever Board of Education election on March 8 — is here.

News Events Get Novelized

A sobering recent scene in Ukraine. (AFP via Getty Images.)

With Ukraine in the news, we know that the Russian invasion is appalling, that the carnage is dismaying, and that Ukrainian resistance is inspiring. We also know that many nonfiction books will eventually be written about the Putin-ordered attack — and that some future novels will incorporate the situation into their story lines.

It’s an interesting experience seeing major 21st-century events referenced in novels months or years after we followed those events in real time via the Internet, social media, TV, newspapers, and so on. We’re curious how novelists will depict things after time has passed, and how they will humanize the events via the characters they create. Also, our own memories will be stirred.

I recently finished Liane Moriarty’s compelling 2021 novel Apples Never Fall, which expertly mixes family dynamics with a mysterious disappearance. Near the end of the book, in the year 2020, the Australian characters experience the onset of COVID in their country. It’s hardly the main element of Apples Never Fall, but Moriarty makes it work. The very first novel I’ve read that includes the still-ongoing pandemic.

One part of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2013 novel Americanah focuses on when Democratic candidate Barack Obama becomes America’s first Black president in 2008. We interestingly see this through the eyes of an “outsider” protagonist: Ifemelu, a young Nigerian woman living in the U.S. There is pride and hope felt by her and others, even as Obama would eventually disappoint some of them due to the combination of his not-as-liberal-as-expected politics and the vicious obstruction from right-wing Republicans.

Among the novels referencing 9/11 is Pete Hamill’s Forever (2003) — about an Irishman who arrives in New York City in 1740 and is still around when planes smash into the World Trade Center in 2001. (Yes, Cormac O’Connor is rather long-lived.) Readers get a fascinating perspective from a character who has obviously “seen it all” in Manhattan.

Then there’s The Kite Runner (also 2003), Khaled Hosseini’s novel that spans several decades in the late 20th century and early 2000s, with scenes in Afghanistan depicting the brutality of the Taliban via one man in particular. Afghanistan of course has a 9/11 relevance given that the U.S. sent troops into that country despite 15 of the 19 plane hijackers being Saudis (and none Afghans).

Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior doesn’t focus on one 21st-century event per se but rather on sort of an ongoing event: worsening climate change. The devastating effects of that are seen through the eyes of characters Dellarobia Turnbow (a young Tennessean) and Ovid Byron (a visiting scientist).

The 21st century is also known for an ongoing development of a positive nature: the rapidly growing acceptance, in many places, of same-gender partnerships and marriage — much of that codified in various pieces of legislation. So, for instance, when we meet the couple Anna Phipps and Dr. Kim Sullivan in J.K. Rowling’s 2020 novel Troubled Blood, the very normality of their relationship is a given. We see Anna as a woman seeking answers about her mother’s long-ago murder; her sexual orientation is irrelevant.

Any novels you’d like to mention that incorporate real-life events of the 21st century? You can also go pre-2000 if you’d like, but I avoided that in my blog post to keep it fairly short. 🙂

Speaking of Ukraine and Russia, writer Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in Kiev (aka Kyiv) in 1887 and died in Moscow in 1950. I’m currently reading a story collection of his titled Memories of the Future, and it’s compelling and weird and fantastical — a tiny room expanding, the Eiffel Tower tromping through Paris, characters becoming detached from novels, a beggar offering deep philosophical nuggets in return for small change, etc. Krzhizhanovsky’s wonderfully crafted fiction was sadly not published until decades after he died due to economic problems and Soviet censorship; his writing at times obliquely criticized the Soviet state under Stalin — or at least didn’t glorify it. Putin would not have liked Krzhizhanovsky, either.

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about local reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the end of local mask mandates, and more — is here.

Notables in Novels: When Real People Have Cameos

Early-1900s pitching great Christy Mathewson.

What do Winston Churchill, Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Hitler, Houdini, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, King Louis XIII and Queen Anne, Christy Mathewson, Franklin Roosevelt, Stalin, Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, and George Washington have in common?

They are among the many real-life famous people who’ve had cameos — or more substantial supporting roles — in novels starring fictional characters.

It’s fun to see actual notables pop up in historical fiction, and sometimes in fiction that’s not that historical. We’re curious to see how the authors will portray them, and we hopefully get a sense of what those VIPs were like as living, breathing people rather than cardboard-cutout personages. Often, they’re depicted with various quirks and flaws that help make them feel at least somewhat three-dimensional. 

Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, both of which I read recently, are brimming with World War II-era officials. Of them, President Franklin Roosevelt gets the most page time because fictional U.S. Navy man Victor “Pug” Henry periodically serves under him as a roving military/diplomatic assistant. But we’re also in the room with a fair number of other leaders such as Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin — the last of whom pops up as well in Kate Quinn’s WWII-era novel The Huntress.

Much of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna is set just before WWII — in 1930s Mexico — and features extended appearances by three famous people encountered by made-up protagonist Harrison Shepherd. They are artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Russian-revolutionary-in-exile Leon Trotsky (who was murdered in 1940 on orders from the aforementioned Stalin).

Set earlier in the 20th century, E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime is well-known for mixing fictional characters with actual notables such as Henry Ford, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, and Booker T. Washington.

Also set mostly in NYC around that time is E.R. Greenberg’s The Celebrant — about fictional immigrant Jackie Kapp and his friendship with real-life Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants.

Continuing my reverse chronology, another baseball-themed book — Darryl Brock’s time-travel novel If I Never Get Back — has its fictional 20th-century-born main character Sam Fowler meet Mark Twain in 1869 and conduct a secret mission for the iconic author. In Brock’s Two in the Field sequel, Fowler meets General Custer, who is portrayed as negatively as he deserves.

A far-better general, George Washington, turns up in the part of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series set in the American colonies during the 1770s. Fictional protagonist Jamie Fraser briefly serves as an officer under Washington during the war with Great Britain.

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, which unfolds in the 1600s, includes real-life personages such as King Louis XIII and Queen Anne.

Getting back to the 20th century, an interesting cameo occurs in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden when we briefly meet…John Steinbeck, as a boy.

Any real-life “notables in novels” 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about an upcoming local Board of Education election and more — is here.

A Sampling of Fiction with an Australian or New Zealand Disposition

Liane Moriarty (center) with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon of the “Big Little Lies” TV series based on Moriarty’s novel. (Getty Images.)

Australia and New Zealand are not that close geographically, but they ARE in the same general region of the world. So, I’m going to include them both in a post about the literature I’ve enjoyed from past and present writers who’ve spent all or some of their lives in those two countries.

I’m doing this as I’m about to read Apples Never Fall, the latest book by Australian author Liane Moriarty — one of my favorite contemporary novelists. I think her Big Little Lies is among the top books of the 21st century, and I also enjoyed her Nine Perfect Strangers, The Husband’s Secret, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, and Truly Madly Guilty. Moriarty expertly mixes readability, social consciousness, and humor as she spotlights three-dimensional women, their friendships (and rivalries) with other women, their oft-complicated relationships with men, and family dynamics. Often with some elements of mystery.

Perhaps Moriarty’s most famous Australian author predecessor was Colleen McCullough, writer of the widely read The Thorn Birds (which inspired a widely watched miniseries) and other compelling novels such as Morgan’s Run. A superb author.

Over in New Zealand, that country’s best-known past author might be Janet Frame. I particularly like her Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room — a disturbing novel about a seemingly dead man who ends up alive, and what happens after that.

More recently in New Zealand, Eleanor Catton wrote the impressively ambitious novel The Luminaries set during her country’s 1860s gold rush. Catton, who was born in Canada but came to New Zealand as a girl, authored The Luminaries while still in her 20s — and won the Booker Prize for that 848-page work.

Nevil Shute was an Englishman but spent his later years in Australia, where he set his most famous novel — the gripping, apocalyptic On the Beach.

Geraldine Brooks grew up in Australia, became a journalist, and ended up in the U.S. Her intense novel March — which focuses on the American Civil War experiences of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women — won the Pulitzer Prize.

James Clavell also did the Australia-to-U.S. thing during a life in which he wrote novels such as the riveting Japan-based epic Shogun and worked in the movie business.

Worth mentioning, too, is Australian writer Frank Moorhouse, whose interesting Grand Days novel focuses on a young Australian woman working for the League of Nations in 1920s Switzerland.

There was also New Zealand’s masterful short-story writer Katherine Mansfield.

Of course, many novels with an Australian or New Zealand setting have been written by authors who didn’t live in either country. Among them is A Rogue’s Life — a brief, good-not-great work by English writer Wilkie Collins of The Woman in White and The Moonstone renown.

I’ve only named novels and authors I’ve read. Any thoughts on them? Any thoughts on other novels and authors with an Australian or New Zealand connection?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about a mass resignation of committee members after Township Council interference — is here.

Taking a Look at the Banning of Books

Angie Thomas with her compelling novel. (Teen Vogue photo.)

When a Tennessee school district last month removed from its curriculum Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic novel Maus, book banning was once again in the news.

I, like most avid readers, oppose book banning. (No surprise there.) If you don’t like a book, don’t read it. Nothing would make me read, say, an Ayn Rand novel, but others are welcome to do so. Some will even survive the experience. 🙂

Then there’s the matter of book banning often making the banned book more popular — as exemplified by Maus climbing current best-seller lists despite it dating back to 1980 (when it started to be serialized). It’s not a banner day for a book banner when there’s a sales spike caused by curiosity and/or people wanting to push back against narrow-mindedness.

Of course, the vast majority of book banning is perpetrated by people and groups on the right. Many conservatives don’t like books that feature anti-racist elements, sexual candor, LGBTQ themes, criticism of negative aspects of organized religion, “bad” language, anti-war sentiment, the depiction of violence that’s unfortunately so prevalent in real life, etc.

But liberals are occasionally in the book-banning camp as well, with one example being past efforts against Adventures of Huckleberry Finn spurred by discomfort with its many uses of the “n-word.” I hate that facet of Mark Twain’s iconic novel, too, even as the issue is complicated by knowing that the book showed “of their time” attitudes and that Twain was mostly anti-racist in Huckleberry Finn as well as in his personal views.

Why did Tennessee’s McMinn County school board ban Maus? Reportedly because the graphic novel contains some swear words, nudity, and suicide. Disturbing to some, sure, but, as Art Spiegelman has noted, the Holocaust was disturbing. Way, way beyond disturbing. If anything, Spiegelman often underplayed things in Maus, from my memory of reading it many years ago. I much more recently read Herman Wouk’s superb War and Remembrance, and the explicit concentration camp and gas chamber scenes in that novel will haunt me for the rest of my life.

The Nazis, of course, banned various books and burned enough copies of them to make the doings in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 look like a picnic. Among the Third Reich’s targets were All Quiet on the Western Front and other writings by German author Erich Maria Remarque, who was disdained by the Nazis for his admirable anti-fascist and anti-war views. Remarque had to flee Germany, and lived the rest of his life elsewhere.

Many other excellent novels have been banned anywhere from once to often. In some cases, banning happened to books that were sexually frank at a time when that was especially frowned upon — with D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) two prime examples. LGBTQ-themed novels, including James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), have also been “cancel-cultured.”

Race can of course be a very fraught topic, as we’ve seen recently with conservatives pushing for students to be taught only history and current events that sanitize America’s virulent racism. One novel banned periodically since its 2017 publication is Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give because of its uncompromising depiction of racism and spotlight on an unjustified shooting of a young Black man by a white police officer. It’s a compelling book, and one really relates to its teen girl protagonist who witnesses the murder by cop.

Even the modern classic To Kill a Mockingbird has seen some challenges from people on the right who don’t like its lens on American racism and also (less frequently) from people on the left who don’t like the idea of a “white savior” (Atticus Finch) being the star of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel. Well, maybe the co-star with his daughter Scout.

The Handmaid’s Tale has also had bouts with banning. Not a shock given that Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel depicts an nth-degree level of patriarchy and oppression of woman. Plus it’s clear that the author’s target is at least partly America’s far-right Christian evangelicals, who like to think they’re ultra-moral but are anything but.

Surprisingly, there’s also been some banning of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books because of their depiction of magic. Gee, as if young readers would take all that witchcraft literally rather than literature-ly.

I’ve read every novel I mentioned in this post, and they were all well worth the time. I learned a lot, I felt rage for and sympathy with victims of social injustice, and I was entertained. What a loss to be prevented from reading such works — although determined people can usually get their hands on banned books, whether in print or digital format.

Thoughts on this topic? Some of your favorite novels that have been banned?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about masks in schools and more — is here.

Supporting Characters: Why We Like Them

Outlander novelist Diana Gabaldon between Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan — who, in their roles as born-two-centuries-apart couple Claire and Jamie, interact with many memorable supporting characters in the Outlander TV series. (Photo by Todd Williamson/Getty Images.)

I support the idea that supporting characters are important. 

They’re a big part of the world authors build in their novels; they’re needed for the protagonists to interact with; and they’re frequently quite interesting in their own right.

What they’re often NOT is super-three-dimensional. Why? In most novels, of course, less space is devoted to a supporting character than to a book’s star, so there’s less space to really flesh out secondary players. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because somewhat-one-dimensional characters can be quite memorable in their somewhat-one-dimensional-ness. 

I noticed this while currently reading the ninth Outlander novel, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone. Diana Gabaldon’s riveting series with time-travel elements is chock-full of distinctive supporting characters, with a notable Bees example the strict, stiff, religious, judgmental Elspeth Cunningham — a woman in her 60s or 70s who’s among the settlers living near the Fraser family in 18th-century North Carolina.

Actually, Elspeth becomes a bit more nuanced as the novel goes on. That can happen with supporting characters, as is the case with nosy neighbor Rachel Lynde of L.M. Montgomery’s wonderful Anne of Green Gables and several of its sequels. She morphs from a gossiping busybody to kind of likable.

Very likable yet mostly one-note — as supporting characters often are — is Helen Burns of Charlotte Bronte’s iconic Jane Eyre. That suffering young friend of Jane’s at the miserable Lowood institution is kind, patient, forgiving, and near-saintly. She almost feels more like a symbol than a human being, but stays in the reader’s mind.

Much less saintly is Flintwinch in Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, who ruthlessly uses the secrets he knows to gain power over people and get ahead in life.

Not quite so evil but definitely fraudulent are “the duke” and “the dauphin” — the colorful conmen encountered by Mississippi River travelers Huck and Jim in Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Speaking of on-the-water novels, the cast of Herman Melville’s epic Moby-Dick includes Starbuck — the Quaker first mate who’s a “voice of reason” on the Pequod ship. (It’s a small role, but Captain Ahab’s underling would become the novel’s star of stars of sorts as the namesake for the Starbucks coffee chain.)

Another minor character who makes a major splash is Flicka, a teen girl suffering from a serious disease. She is fatalistic, funny, and charismatic in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That — a compelling novel that takes a well-deserved smack at America’s profit-driven medical system.

Death is even more pronounced in Nikolai Gogol’s ultra-quirky Dead Souls, whose supporting characters include the glib, rakish, lying Nozdryov.

And it’s hard to forget Otto Katz — a Jewish-born Catholic priest who’s an atheist (and a drunk) in Jaroslav Hasek’s hilarious The Good Soldier Svejk.

I realize I’ve only scratched the surface here. Any supporting characters you’d like to mention? Anything you’d like to say about the role of secondary players in 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about an alternate universe of tiny development — is here.

Recalling and Not Recalling Novels We’ve Read

Those of us who love novels have read hundreds or thousands of them during our lifetimes. Why do we vividly remember the content of some of those books while the vast majority become a sort of blur?

(Brief interlude: See the end of this post for a link to a great podcast on what makes a novel a classic novel. Hosted by Rebecca Budd, with guests Shehanne Moore and me!)

Of course, part of the reason we strongly recall the content of a relatively small percentage of books is that there’s only so much room in our brains. But there are other remembrance or forgetfulness factors to contemplate.

Obviously, novels that are our personal favorites have the potential to stick around in our brains. For me, those books include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, among others. But if we like a novel without it being one of our very favorites, the book’s details can fade as recently read titles fill our minds — and as months, years, or decades pass. Yes, when it comes to remembering, it helps to have read something not very long ago.

The best novels ever written, even if not among our personal top 10, can also be memorable — as are, say, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (subject of a terrific current “readalong” led by blogger Liz Humphreys of Scotland along with blogger Elisabeth van der Meer of Finland and the aforementioned podcaster/blogger Rebecca Budd of Canada); Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet I read each of those three masterpieces long enough ago to have forgotten much of their content. 

It almost goes without saying that rereading a novel keeps it fresh in our memory banks. My reading the three above-named classics just once apiece surely has helped lead to not having clear recollections of their stories and characters. In contrast, I’ve returned to Jane Eyre and The Grapes of Wrath several times.

I’ve also reread and re-reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But that’s not the only reason why I remember the content of those J.R.R. Tolkien works so well; it’s also because those four books are quite original. That kind of fantasy fiction wasn’t a big thing when Tolkien’s pioneering creations were published, though they’ve certainly been much-imitated since.

Among the other factors helping us recall the details of certain novels are adaptations into movies (the Harry Potter films, anyone?); the presence of especially indelible protagonists (think Atticus and Scout Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird); masterful prose (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an obvious example); unusual levels of violence (as in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian); etc.

The mention of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter saga reminds me that various series enter into this discussion, too. When a series has quite a few books, each novel might blend with another in our memories. 

I’ve found this to be the case with Lee Child’s 20-plus Jack Reacher novels (now co-written with Andrew Child). Every time I read a new Reacher installment — as I did last week with 2021’s Better Off Dead — I’m absolutely enthralled. Each novel is so page-turning that I read it in a day or two. But, looking back, I can barely remember what each book was about. Did that one feature such and such a crime? Or was that in a different adventure of the roaming Reacher? Heck, where WAS the setting of a particular Child novel?

Maybe the confusion is partly because the Reacher novels all have some similarities. Maybe it’s also because the books are not super-deep, though far from frivolous. But I sure enjoy the reading experience before things go down the memory hole.

Of course, Wikipedia and other online sources are quite valuable in fishing fiction facts out of that memory hole. I use them often. 🙂

To conclude, maybe it’s not super important to recall many details of lots of novels. Even if those details are mostly forgotten on the top of our minds, the best books are still part of us — having enriched us and shaped our consciousness in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. 

Any thoughts on this topic?

Re that aforementioned podcast, brilliant host Rebecca Budd brought together three distant places — her home city of Vancouver, Canada; Dundee, Scotland; and Montclair, New Jersey — when she spoke with brilliant novelist/blogger Shehanne Moore and myself about what makes a novel a classic novel. (As you know, Rebecca and Shehanne are frequent commenters here, as are the aforementioned Liz Humphreys and Elisabeth van der Meer.) Thanks, also, to Rebecca’s husband Don for his production expertise in making the tri-country connection happen. You can click on this link to listen:

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about contradictory words and actions by my town’s mayor and League of Women Voters — is here.

The Art of Putting Artists in Literature

This is an edited/updated version of a Huffington Post piece I wrote in 2013:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how worthy are thousands of words about literary characters who draw pictures?

Yes, some fiction features protagonists who are painters, cartoonists, or other kinds of artists. It can be a tricky proposition for authors, because the works artist characters create can only be described, not seen — unless the book is illustrated, or a graphic novel.

But there are advantages to having artists in literary roles. Those characters are of course creative, and they can also be quirky, bohemian, groundbreaking, pretentious, frustrated, low on money, etc. — traits and situations that all have strong dramatic potential.

The idea for this post occurred to me when I read Don DeLillo’s Underworld, an ambitious novel covering the second half of the 20th century whose large cast of characters includes artist Klara Sax. Parenthood and other things make it hard for Klara to reach her full artistic potential until she becomes famous in her 70s for decorating former warplanes. Underworld also features an African-American artist named Acey who has some success navigating the “white” art world.

Then there’s Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which focuses on middle-aged feminist painter Elaine Risley looking back at her life when she returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work.

Also worth mentioning is Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, whose protagonist Tod Hackett is frustrated because he considers himself to be a “serious artist” but works in Hollywood painting movie backgrounds and designing costumes. (Which can of course be serious art, too.)

Back in the 19th century, one of the quintessential artist novels was Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece. It stars Claude Lantier, whose attempt to be a nontraditional painter partly explains why popular success eludes him. So he ends up as one of those obsessed “tortured” artists seemingly losing his mind. Does he recover with the help of — sexist stereotype alert — his ever-patient wife Christine?

Lantier was said to be partly based on Zola’s pal-from-childhood Paul Cezanne, though Cezanne was a much more successful painter and much more “together” person than Lantier. Whatever the similarities or differences, The Masterpiece ended that long Zola-Cezanne friendship.

Another novel featuring artists loosely based on real-life people is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, whose cartoonist protagonists Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay were inspired by the lives of “Superman” creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

In Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, a painting by the fictional artist father of protagonist Penelope Keeling figures prominently. The painting is called…”The Shell Seekers.”

Another novel with the title of a painting — a real one in this case — is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The painting’s 17th-century creator, Carel Fabritius, is not a character in the novel but his bird picture is central to the book.

There ARE novels that include real artists as actual characters under their actual names. One is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which contains extended scenes with painter Frida Kahlo (pictured above) and her painter husband Diego Rivera.

Michael Gruber’s The Forgery of Venus features a fictional modern-day painter named Chaz Wilmot who seemingly inhabits the body of real 17th-century master Diego Velazquez.

Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue is more about a (fictional) Vermeer painting than about Vermeer himself, but the painting is practically a character as readers follow it back in time to its inception.

And there’s Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which co-stars paper-sculpting artist Clare Abshire.

There are also many novels featuring characters who aren’t artists per se, but draw and paint on the side. Those books include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, whose title character has some artistic talent; and Pete Hamill’s Forever, whose VERY long-lived protagonist Cormac O’Connor spots a sketch in 2001 that he himself drew during New York City’s Great Fire of 1835!

What are your favorite novels with artist characters in lead or supporting roles?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — featuring a Martin Luther King theme — is here.

Black and Biracial Characters in Books

Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) and Shug (Margaret Avery) in The Color Purple movie.

With tomorrow Martin Luther King Day and yesterday the actual birthday of the great civil-rights leader, it occurred to me to write a post about memorable Black or biracial characters in fiction. Adding to that inspiration were the recent deaths of magnificent actor Sidney Poitier and wonderful singer Ronnie Spector, and the announcement that renowned memoirist Maya Angelou is appearing on U.S. quarters — even as we wait for the promised picturing of courageous slave liberator Harriet Tubman on $20 bills.

I’ll focus on characters created by Black and biracial authors, while also mentioning — near the end of the post — several created by white authors. And I’ll mostly concentrate on three-dimensional characters, not the stereotyped ones we’ve too often seen — frequently in older fiction.

Where to begin? I guess I’ll go chronologically by the novel’s publication date.

Alexandre Dumas — whose father, an officer under Napoleon, was half-Black — was best known for novels with white protagonists. Most notably The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. But Dumas did write the compelling Georges (1843) featuring a biracial title character who leads a dramatic slave uprising.

Ninety-four years later, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937-published Their Eyes Were Watching God starred Janie Crawford — who resiliently navigates racism, sexism, multiple marriages, and more.

Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) protagonist is Bigger Thomas, an impoverished young man who makes very wrong choices due to inexperience and living in an ultra-bigoted society, yet is in some ways a sympathetic character.

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) stars John Grimes, a smart teen torn between a religious and secular future in a New York City as racist as Chicago was for Bigger Thomas.   

Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1965) focuses on a group of five young Nigerian intellectuals — Bandele, a professor; Egbo, a foreign ministry clerk; Sagoe, a journalist; Kola, an artist; and Sekoni, an engineer-turned-sculptor.

Another Nigerian-born author, Buchi Emecheta, came out with Second Class Citizen in 1974. Its protagonist is the ambitious Adah Ofili — who deals with racism, sexism, a bad marriage, and time constraints (she’s a parent) while trying to get an education and do satisfying paid work.

Octavia E. Butler’s searing Kindred (1979) tells the story of a young woman — Dana Franklin — repeatedly yanked back in time from 1970s California to the brutal, pre-Civil War, slave-holding South.

The most memorable characters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) are Celie, whose life starts off quite miserably; and blues singer Shug, who helps her. 

There’s also the proud, independent, haunted Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987); laborer-turned-detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) and subsequent books; friends Savannah Jackson, Bernadine Harris, Robin Stokes, and Gloria Matthews in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale (1992); the two admirable women — Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps — married to less-than-admirable rival professors in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005); Ifemelu, the young Nigerian woman who goes through major changes after moving to the U.S. in Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah (2013); and Starr Carter, the brave teen girl who witnesses a racist shooting by police in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (2017).

Among the compelling Black or biracial characters in novels written by white authors are harpooner Queequeq in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851); escaped slaves Eliza and George Harris in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); the conflicted Ozias Midwinter in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale (1864); the troubled Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932); the kind, wrongly accused Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960); scientist Ovid Byron in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012); and convicted-but-not-guilty attorney Malcolm Bannister in John Grisham’s The Racketeer (also 2012).

I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. Anything you’d like to say about characters of color I mentioned or did not 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about the impact of COVID’s Omicron variant on my town — is here.

When Novelistic Brilliance Jumps Many Years

Herman Wouk in the 1980s. (ABC/Getty Images.)

If authors have two or more great novels in them, those books might be written within a relatively short period of time before the creative well dries up a bit or a lot. But other authors have written great novels many years apart; this post will focus on several instances involving a more-than-quarter-century gap.

I’m currently reading War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk’s devastatingly superb 1,039-page opus about World War II and the Holocaust. That 1978 novel — which frequently focuses on the lives of the fictional Henry family: U.S. Navy man Victor, his never-boring wife Rhoda, their pilot son Warren, their go-getter daughter Madeline, and their submariner son Byron (married to a Jewish woman, Natalie, trapped in Europe) — was published 27 years after Wouk’s terrific The Caine Mutiny (1951). A fairly large gap for brilliant books.

Published exactly a century before The Caine Mutiny was Herman Melville’s iconic Moby-Dick (1851), which predated Melville’s final stellar novel, Billy Budd, by nearly 40 years. Billy Budd was written shortly before the author’s 1891 death, and finally published posthumously in 1924.

Speaking of posthumous publication, Leo Tolstoy’s excellent short novel Hadji Murat came out in 1912 — two years after the author’s death and 45 years after the release of his legendary War and Peace (1867). Hadji Murat was written between 1896 and 1904 — still a long time after 1867.

Erich Maria Remarque’s memorable All Quiet on the Western Front came out in 1929, and his even-better-in-some ways The Night in Lisbon in 1962.

Just two years shorter than that impressive 33-year span was the time between Victor Hugo’s classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Miserables (1862). 

Also clocking in at 31 years apart were Daphne du Maurier’s renowned Rebecca (1938) and her compelling time-travel novel The House on the Strand (1969).

How about a 44-year gap? Colette’s hilarious debut novel Claudine at School came out in 1900 and her most famous work, Gigi, in 1944. What I consider her best novel, The Vagabond, was published in 1910 — still 34 years before Gigi.

Also published in 1944 was W. Somerset Maugham’s gripping The Razor’s Edge — 29 years after his magnum opus Of Human Bondage (1915).

While they weren’t Charles Dickens’ best books, his very funny debut novel The Pickwick Papers (1836) and his very good Our Mutual Friend (1864) came out 28 years apart — with of course quite a few ultra-famous works in between: David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, etc. 

Margaret Atwood? Her depressingly terrific The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and its mostly excellent sequel The Testaments 34 years later in 2019 — with, a la Dickens, some wonderful novels in between: Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, etc.

John Steinbeck’s first major novelistic success was Tortilla Flat (1935) and his last was The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) — a healthy 26 years apart. Twenty-six years that saw iconic works such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.

Any other large gaps between great novels you’d like to discuss? Any thoughts on the ones 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about such topics as COVID’s latest impact on my town’s schools — is here.