In Praise of Pre-19th-Century Literature

This is an edited and updated version of a post I wrote in 2013:

The novel “came of age” in the 1800s, but that of course doesn’t mean there weren’t excellent literary works before then.

Among fiction’s memorable quite-old titles is The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe’s 1774 novel — about a sensitive, self-involved guy pining after an unattainable woman — is surprising in certain ways. Some of the best 18th-century novels are long and kind of clunky, but Werther is short, smoothly written, and seemingly simple while packing a lot of wisdom per square inch.

And Goethe wrote Werther at the quite-young age of 24!

Other quite readable 18th-century novels include Voltaire’s incandescent Candide (1759) and Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Both are satirical works and adventure stories, meaning a reader can of course enjoy them on one or both levels.

Also quite readable is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Not surprising given how compelling the tale of a shipwrecked character can be.

Defoe, with Moll Flanders (1722), also proved that 18th-century novels can be satisfying despite prose that might be rather long-winded, plots that might be a bit creaky, and/or narrative that might be kind of awkward. I also put in this category Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (which, like much of Werther, is in the form of letters) and Henry Fielding’s somewhat choppy but very entertaining Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. Those three books are from 1740, 1742, and 1749, respectively.

Also humorous is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), but, for whatever reason, I found parts of it rather tedious.

Another book I liked a lot was Fanny Burney’s excellent 1778 novel Evelina about a memorable young woman. (The memorable Burney’s portrait is on top of this post.)

And I shouldn’t forget to mention Miguel de Cervantes’ earlier Don Quixote (1605-1615), which many consider the first modern novel. It’s deep, engaging, and often comic.

Then there’s Murasaki Shikibu’s 1,000-year-old novel The Tale of Genji, which ranges from interesting to somewhat boring.

Some pre-19th-century writers of course excelled at plays and/or poetry. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Moliere, to name a few.

Great pre-1800s literature is interesting for reasons besides the quality of the work itself. We see the roots of — and influences on — later fiction. We also get a fascinating sense of long-ago life. And we feel gratitude that more recent fiction is no longer mostly written by a bunch of white guys. 🙂

What are your favorite literary works from before the 19th century?

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 July 4th and more — is here.

Six Justices, Unfit, Talk Lit

Two-thirds of this group are ultra-conservative zealots.

The six far-right Republican justices on the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court have made dreadful ruling after dreadful ruling — gutting abortion rights, gun safety, environmental protections, limits on corporate power, and more. All against the wishes of the vast majority of Americans. Now those rogue wreckers of democracy have turned their narrow minds to literature, and it ain’t pretty.

Justice #1: “I heard John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules has a pro-choice theme. We need to ban it, burn it, or both.”

Justice #2: “Yes! Didn’t Irving also create Rip Van Winkle?”

Justice #3: “That was Washington Irving, brother of basketball player Kyrie Irving, who refused to get vaccinated against COVID — thus standing up for freedom.” 

One of the three liberal, decent-minded Supreme Court justices: “Freedom to be a selfish idiot.”

Justice #4: “Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom includes a character who played basketball in her youth, but, more importantly, that novel is thick enough to stop a bullet.”

Justice #5: “True! ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a…book.'”

Justice #6: “I love Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged Because He Was Packing Heat.”

Justice #1: “Speaking of heat, climate change is over-warming the planet — among other disastrous effects — so I’m very proud that our Court’s recent ruling will make things even worse.” 

Justice #2: “Yay! If the Earth dies, liberals die — while conservatives get raptured into Heaven, aka a Trump rally. Each rally featuring the man who picked three of us for the Court is appropriately held at least 25,000 miles from a public library.”

Justice #3: “I do have one climate-change regret. As noted in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior, Monarch butterflies are being hurt. My sympathies go to any species with an authoritarian name.”

Justice #4: “Mine, too! But I wish King Solomon’s Mimes would say something.”

Justice #5: “H. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’s MINES!”

Justice #6: “Oh. Anyway, as a proud racist I love the title of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White even though it’s unfortunately not a racist novel. I was also disappointed with W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Turned out to be a fiction classic when I thought it was a how-to for men wanting to rob women of their rights.”

Justice #1: “That reminds me that we need to sue Margaret Atwood for plagiarizing our 2022 views in The Handmaid’s Tale.”

One of the three liberal, decent-minded Supreme Court justices: “Um…that novel was published in 1985, when Republicans were already far right but didn’t yet need to hold War and Peace in their left hands to keep from toppling over.”

Justice #2: “Coming before Tolstoy’s opus was Gogol’s Dead Souls. We six on the Court resemble that title!”

Justice #3: “We actually have souls?”

Justice #4: “Don’t forget The Big Sleep!”

Justice #5: “The Raymond Chandler novel that uses a colorful phrase for death? We on the Court are doing our part by condemning women to die from botched back-alley abortions, condemning more children to die in school massacres, condemning many to die from worsening climate change…”

Justice #6: “Yes, the future is bright! Perhaps we can next end same-sex marriage, which would thrill our fellow anti-gay citizen, novelist Orson Scott Card. And when we ruin the economy, Orson can lay off one of his three names.”

Justice #1: “What about also ending interracial marriage? I didn’t like seeing that kind of union in Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred.”

Justice #2: “An excellent idea if it weren’t for the fact that one of us six Supreme Court fanatics is a Black man married to a white woman.”

Justice #3: “Surely H.G. Wells can write a sequel to The Time Machine to undo that 1987 marriage.”

Justice #4: “The author of that 1895 novel died in 1946, so his writing days are over. Our Court has turned the clock back many decades for Americans, but we can’t make Wells alive again.”

Justice #5: “You have a point there, as do the first and third words of Aldous Huxley’s novel Point Counter Point.”

Justice #6: “But there are many Wells Fargo banks alive in 2022!”

One of the three liberal, decent-minded Supreme Court justices: “We serve with A Confederacy of Dunces.”

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 U.S. Supreme Court’s appalling anti-women abortion decision, Independence Day, and my local high school’s commencement — is here.

When Rich Protagonists Aren’t Entitled Jerks

When I see wealthy people depicted in novels, my first impulse is to dislike them. After all, while some people make their own fortunes and don’t hurt others doing so, many other people are rich because they inherited money or because they’re ruthless employers. But occasionally my defenses are beaten down and I really like a very affluent character.

An example — in a novel I’m currently reading — is Count Alexander Rostov of Amor Towles’ superb A Gentleman in Moscow. Rostov evokes our sympathy not only because he’s under house arrest in a Moscow hotel after the Russian Revolution but because he’s also smart, talented, patient, charming, good-natured, and nice to everyone in all walks of life. Plus Rostov has a history of not being a total apologist for Russia’s pre-revolution aristocracy — which is why he was sentenced to house arrest rather than execution at the hands of the newly empowered Bolsheviks.

Other upper-class protagonists impossible to hate? Bertie Wooster of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves novels and stories is an idle sort but often rather endearing — as well as funny and loyal. Also likable is financially comfortable son-of-a-judge Archie Weir in Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished novel Weir of Hermiston.

It helps us feel sympathy for wealthy characters when they go through difficulties that money can’t solve or completely solve. One example is the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ Dodsworth who’s an automobile magnate but also going through later-in-life marital troubles. Newland Archer of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a wealthy young lawyer engaged to bland socialite May Welland before becoming conflicted by getting romantically interested in the unconventional countess Ellen Oleska. Isabel Archer (hmm…that last name again) of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady is an heiress but seems like a genuinely nice person who makes a very bad marital choice.

Oh, and Edmond Dantes becomes super-rich in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo but had to endure enormous suffering before a chance meeting in prison eventually made him a non-blood-related heir to a fortune — which he put to good use getting revenge on the people who framed him.

There are also novels featuring moneyed queens and kings whose behavior is often nasty but sometimes decent. For instance, King Louis XI of Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward is Machiavellian and King Louis XIII of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers is petty but the eventual king Aragorn in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is brave and admirable. Of course, Aragorn wasn’t rich and not living the royal life during most of the trilogy. 🙂

Wealthy fictional characters you’ve liked?

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 expanded library hours in my town and other topics — is here.

The Middle Ages in Novels Not Set in The Middle Ages

Andrew Sean Greer

In today’s post, MLC means more literature content and…mid-life crisis.

Yes, many of us of a certain age have gone through that crisis, as have many characters in novels. Whether middle-aged people are real or fictional, they often wonder if they’ve accomplished enough…and they lament some decisions made when younger…and they worry about what the upcoming years will be like…and they perhaps make a major change or three.

Such is the case in Andrew Sean Greer’s Less, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 novel that focuses on Arthur Less as he nears his 50th birthday. Arthur is a novelist — with only modest sales, partly because he’s an out gay man — whose long-time partner is about to marry someone else. Arthur decides to escape the wedding and the United States by taking a low-budget trip around the world. Definitely mid-life crisis stuff, yet with plenty of comic moments.

Then there’s John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) starring Ethan Hawley, a married dad whose family members wish they were richer. The straight-arrow Ethan, who works in a job clearly beneath his education and abilities, starts to consider doing some unethical things. Clearly, a rather dramatic mid-life crisis.

In Cat’s Eye, the 1988 novel by Margaret Atwood, protagonist Elaine Risley returns to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her paintings — after which she wrestles with painful memories from her childhood and young adulthood. Looking back with regret, and perhaps making peace with some aspects of that, can be one manifestation of a mid-life crisis.  

Having an affair, or contemplating one, is another possible MLC manifestation. One example is in Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome, whose title character feels miserable about his marriage (with good reason) and falls in love with someone who happens to be his wife’s cousin. Then…

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (2001) has a trifecta of mid-life crises — with one sibling (Denise) recently divorced, another (Gary) dealing with depression, and a third (Chip) working in a sketchy job.

Among the other novels I’ve read with MLC aspects are Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, to name a few.

Novels you’ve liked with characters experiencing the crisis thing?

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 huge local Pride festival and more — is here.

A Mix of Funny and Not Funny Might Be On the Money

Anne Tyler (photo by Eamonn McCabe).

There can be a balancing act with novels. One such act is making sure the top book on a towering to-read pile doesn’t fall off — 🙂 — but what I’m actually referring to is how some novels find the sweet spot between serious and comic. Dare they be called “seriocomic”?

When done right, seriocomic novels offer readers the best of both worlds. Gravitas leavened by humor, but not so much humor that the book is perhaps perceived as insubstantial. Also, earnest fiction with a jokey edge can feel like real life — which, as we know, periodically combines the consequential with the farcical.

One such novel is Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1988 book I read for the first time last week. It’s partly a sober, nuanced look at the complexities of marriage — in this case, the marriage of middle-aged couple Maggie and Ira Moran — but also funny. That’s because the good-hearted Maggie is hilariously spacey, awkward, annoying, and intrusive, while the stoic Ira is basically the straight man: his George Burns to her Gracie Allen, or, to keep gender out of it, his Zeppo Marx to her Groucho/Harpo/Chico. And Breathing Lessons features extended scenes — including one at a funeral service — that elicit many uncomfortable chuckles. 

Tyler is also quite seriocomic in The Accidental Tourist, among other novels.

Another author who often takes a funny/not-funny approach is Tyler contemporary John Irving (they’re both 80 years old) in such works as The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Nineteenth-century literary giants Charles Dickens and Mark Twain also offer a seriocomic blend in most of their novels. Think of the memorably amusing Mr. Micawber in Dickens’ semi-autobiographical David Copperfield, and the mix of laugh-out-loud humor and grave anti-war sentiment in Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Speaking of Twain, The Gilded Age features a clear divide between uproariously satirical chapters written by Mark T. and okay romantic chapters from Charles Dudley Warner. 

Staying with the 1800s for a minute, Herman Melville doesn’t have a reputation for comedy but was VERY amusing in parts of Moby-Dick and Pierre.

The same can be said for 20th-century author John Steinbeck, who was 99% serious in The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent but quite funny in much of Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday.

Getting back to contemporary writers, Zadie Smith is both highly humorous and dead-on serious in novels such as White Teeth. Margaret Atwood makes the post-apocalypse both devastating and devastatingly funny in Oryx and Crake, which includes some REALLY clever wordplay.

Other authors over the centuries who expertly placed a few or many comic moments in at least some of their novels include Miguel de Cervantes, Voltaire, Henry Fielding, Fanny Burney, Jane Austen, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Colette, L.M. Montgomery, Jaroslav Hasek, J.R.R. Tolkien, Bel Kaufman, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, Fannie Flagg, Richard Russo, Terry McMillan, Lee Child, Maria Semple, J.K. Rowling, and Liane Moriarty, to name just a few.

Your thoughts on this topic? Seriocomic authors and novels you like?

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 — which has a Muppets theme 🙂 — is here.

More Than a Slice of Life 

It’s not a genre per se, but a type of novel I find interesting is “The Whole Life in One Book” book. Yes, while many novels span a few years or less, some span the main character’s entire existence — whether she or he dies relatively young or in old age.

Of course a multigenerational saga can do that for a number of lives, but for this post I’m focusing on novels that concentrate the majority of their contents on one person — showing a complete life in a sometimes surprisingly small number of pages. It can be fascinating and poignant to see decades of a character’s family relationships, romantic relationships, jobs, right decisions or wrong decisions, good luck or bad luck, etc. — as well as the real-world news events that swirled around her or him. All while we’re reminded of our own mortality and that life — even if lengthy — is quite short in the great scheme of things.

A whole-life novel I just read is The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields (pictured above) — who depicts her protagonist, Daisy Goodwill Flett, from birth in 1905 to death in the early 1990s. Daisy is often rather passive (partly explained by being young and then middle-aged before the modern feminist era) and experiences more disappointments than good times. Yet she actually has a pretty interesting life.

Shields’ melancholy, beautifully written 1993 novel is medium-length, so, like most books that span a protagonist’s entire life, some literary shorthand has to be used. After all, if we had a comprehensive chronicle of a character’s existence, it could run thousands of pages. In the case of The Stone Diaries, each chapter of the  Pulitzer Prize-winning book jumps roughly a decade forward in time, though there’s some back story describing the intervening years. This approach works quite well. 

Among the other excellent “Whole Life in One Book” novels (or “Most or Much of a Life in One Book” novels) are John Williams’ Stoner, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Jack London’s Martin Eden, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (the title is a bit of a giveaway there 🙂 ). All feature their protagonist’s name in the title other than The Mill on the Floss, which stars the memorable Maggie Tulliver.

Any thoughts on this topic?

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 local anti-gun-violence gathering and more — is here.

If Gun Ghouls Messed With Literature

America’s ghastly Republican politicians and ghastly gun makers continue to support the proliferation of military-style weapons repeatedly used to massacre people, and continue to oppose common-sense measures such as universal background checks. But they won’t be completely satisfied until the world’s great novels are rewritten to reflect their sick preference for gun “rights” over human lives.

For instance, they might argue that Jane Austen really meant Pride and Prejudice‘s first line to be “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an AR-15.” 

I guess early-19th-century publishers who avoided positive assault-rifle mentions in their books were “woke” liberal commies who backed banning Trump from Twitter.

The far-right death cult also believes the opening of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre would be much improved if it read “There was a strong possibility of an elementary-school shooting that day.”

If there were no shooting, it would be a disappointment for that cult far exceeding Jane and Rochester’s regret about not having met on The Dating Game TV show.

Moby-Dick? America’s “pro-life” weapon worshippers feel Herman Melville would have had much higher initial sales if his masterpiece started with “Call me Rambo” rather than “Call me Ishmael.” 

Heck, if that novel’s narrator had been packing enough heat to dispatch Pequod first mate Starbuck, perhaps a certain coffee chain wouldn’t be seeing all that “socialist-icky” unionization. (A 2022 development I’m thrilled about.)

Many U.S. bullet bros tend to be fans of Russia’s murderous leader Putin, but are miffed at Russia’s Leo Tolstoy for not starting Anna Karenina with a different first line. The NRA’s literary pros have that prose fixed: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy because it doesn’t have as many guns as Tolstoy had children.”

If inquiring minds want to know, Leo and Sophia had 13 kids — but only two were manufactured by Smith & Wesson.

America’s gun ghouls are doubly mad at Charles Dickens for not using his immortal first and last A Tale of Two Cities passages to mention hardware that inflicts maximum 21st-century carnage. The revisions: “It was the best of body armor; it was the bestest of body armor” and “It is a far, far bigger stash of ammo that I have than I ever had before.” 

Our Mutual Friend might be the undertaker. Or, rather, one of many undertakers. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a prose master, but the Republican killer cadre would want the last passage of The Great Gatsby to be even more sublime: “So we bleat on, a minority against a gun-safety majority, putting U.S. citizens ceaselessly into their graves.”

Actually, the ultra-conservative sickos who think gun “rights” are more important than human lives wouldn’t like the way I rewrote Fitzgerald’s famous closing line. They can all go to hell — though Satan might consider them too evil to welcome.

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 — which also discusses guns, as well as some landlords ignoring my town’s new rent-control law — is here.

A Tree Grows in…Various Novels

Some memorable characters branch out in novels. Yes, I’m talking about trees.

The Overstory, the masterfully written and researched novel I haven’t quite finished yet, features a wide-ranging cast that comes together to try to save centuries-old trees on America’s West Coast. The amazing descriptions of those trees and other trees in Richard Powers’ heartfelt, heartbreaking, monumental book make them feel almost as human as the humans.

There’s also the titular tree in Betty Smith’s poignant and compelling A Tree Grows in Brooklyn that survives in a tough urban environment, illustrating not only its own tenacity but symbolizing the tenacity of many of the neighborhood’s residents.

Another book with “tree” in its title — in this case plural — is Barbara Kingsolver’s very good debut novel The Bean Trees.

Many decades earlier, Edith Wharton wrote Ethan Frome with a story line that hinges around a tree-related occurrence — as we find out late in the emotionally wrenching novel.

What happens to a tree during a storm portends what will happen with the relationship of Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s classic work. 

A 20th-century classic, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s brilliant One Hundred Years of Solitude, has its gone-mad character Jose Arcadio Buendia tied to a tree in the later years of his life. A weird metaphor for being the patriarch of the Buendia family tree?

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s celebrated The Lord of the Rings, major supporting characters include the tree-like Ents. Those delightful beings are a major force for good as the trilogy’s climax nears.

Anne Shirley’s love of beautiful trees is among the traits that make her endearing in L.M. Montgomery’s beloved Anne of Green Gables. For instance, the precocious Anne — when first brought to Green Gables in a horse-drawn wagon — is driven under a canopy of blossoming apple trees and memorably names that road “The White Way of Delight.”

Children’s books also fit this week’s theme, with Shel Silverstein’s much-read The Giving Tree one of them.

Any novels with prominent trees that grew on you?

“One Tree Hill” by U2:

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 — which discusses an appalling number of teacher layoffs in my town — is here.

Favorite Pulitzer-Winning Books

With the recent naming of a new Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, I thought of past winners and wondered how many of those American-authored books I had read. So I looked at the Pulitzer website and counted 35 perused-by-me titles honored from 1918 to 1947 (when the category was for novels only) and 1948 to now (when the category became “fiction” to include short-story collections).

Then I decided to rank my favorites. Why? Because I needed a blog idea for this week. 🙂 I’ll note before I offer my in-descending-order list that I liked most of the 35 books — including the lower-ranked ones, so there were definitely many deserving victors. Yes, I liked most, but not all. 🙂

35. Gilead, Marilynne Robinson (2005 Pulitzer winner): Some consider this novel a subtle gem, but I found it boring. I was also put off by the old man/young woman marriage. I much prefer Ms. Robinson’s novel Housekeeping.

34. The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron (1968 winner): I wanted to like this historical novel — Nat Turner was a hero — but the writing annoyed me. Maybe it was partly because a white author was not-so-successfully trying to get inside the head of the insurgent African-American slave.

33. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway (1953 winner): A short classic in the eyes of many, but I thought it was so-so. Give me Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls any day of the week.

32. The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx (1994 winner): Appealingly quirky and unappealingly quirky.

31. One of Ours, Willa Cather (1923 winner): Hardly Ms. Cather’s best work, yet a pretty absorbing World War I novel.

30. Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (2000 winner): I’m more a fan of novels (including Ms. Lahiri’s) than short stories, but this collection has a nice ratio of excellent tales vs. good tales.

29. The Fixer, Bernard Malamud (1967 winner): Compelling story of an unjustly imprisoned Jewish man in Czarist Russia.

28. Tales of the South Pacific, James Michener (1948 winner): A novel comprised of interrelated short stories is usually not my cup of tea. Still, this is quite good — and it of course inspired the musical South Pacific.

27. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout (2009 winner): Similar short-stories-as-novel format as the above Michener work. The acerbic Olive is an abrasive “hoot.”

26. Tinkers, Paul Harding (2010 winner): A mesmerizing blend of the past and present through the eyes of a dying man.

25. March, Geraldine Brooks (2006 winner): Interesting concept of focusing on the American Civil War experiences of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

24. The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2007 winner): A post-apocalyptic novel that doesn’t match the author’s best work (such as Blood Meridian) while still being memorable.

23. The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson (2013 winner): A strange but very readable novel set in North Korea.

22. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (1937 winner): I’d rank this higher if the troubling racial dynamics weren’t so painful.

21. The Magnificent Ambersons, Booth Tarkington (1919 winner): Progress vs. tradition, and some disturbing family relationships. 

20. The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder (1928 winner): Very poignant novel.

19. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1932 winner): Classic set in China.

18. Arrowsmith, Sinclair Lewis (1926 winner): A doctor indelibly depicted.

17. A Confederacy of Dunces, William Kennedy (1981 winner): Weird and absolutely hilarious.

16. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren (1947 winner): One of the best political novels.

15. Ironweed, William Kennedy (1984 winner): Masterfully sad look at characters on the street.

14. Foreign Affairs, Alison Lurie (1985 winner): The affairs are of the romantic variety, and the professor protagonist is very original.

13. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (2008 winner): A novel about a nerd, the United States, and the Dominican Republic — with amazing footnotes.

12. The Yearling, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1939 winner): A boy and his fawn. Among the greatest young-adult novels ever written. 

11. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Michael Chabon (2001 winner): About two cartoonists roughly based on the co-creators of Superman.

10. The Caine Mutiny, Herman Wouk (1952 winner): Gripping shipboard saga.

9. The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1983 winner): A powerful look at racism, sexism, and more via letters.

8. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides (2003 winner): An eye-opening story featuring gender confusion, immigration, and other elements.

7. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1988 winner): The iconic work set after the American Civil War.

6. The Overstory, Richard Powers (2019 winner): A tour de force starring people and trees that I’m currently reading, so its rank might change by the time I finish. Will discuss it more in a future blog post.

5. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (1921 winner): Unforgettable novel about (among other things) choosing between the conventional and the unconventional in a relationship.

4. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2014 winner): Wide-ranging book about the impact a priceless painting has on the protagonist’s life. 

3. Empire Falls, Richard Russo (2002 winner): Enthralling novel that’s sort of low-key until the emotional fireworks arrive.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1961 winner): There’s nothing I can say about this book that hasn’t been said before.

1. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (1940 winner): The uprooted, beleaguered Joad family in a riveting novel that brims with outrage against injustice.

Your favorite Pulitzer-winning books (including those I mentioned and those I haven’t read)? Anything you’d like to say about them?

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 — which discusses an “event horizon” of sorts — is here.

Alternate Paths

The top of the 2011 blog post that changed the direction of my writing life.

I just read The Midnight Library, and Matt Haig’s thought-provoking 2020 novel is one of those books that make you contemplate how life’s voluntary choices and involuntary occurrences can set us on alternate paths we might not have expected.

The Midnight Library stars a suicidal 30-something woman named Nora Seed, who, when in a sort of limbo between life and death, experiences various personal timelines that might have been. She’s a rock star in one existence, a scientist in another, an Olympic swimmer in yet another, unhappily married in one life, happily married in another, and so on.

Readers of novels like that could be reminded of previous books in which the fate of the protagonist turns in a pivotal way. We might ask: What if the title character in George Eliot’s Silas Marner hadn’t been betrayed by his best friend? What if the title character in Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin hadn’t rejected Tatyana Larin? What if the unjustly jailed Edmond Dantes of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo hadn’t met Abbe Faria in prison? What if young Anne Shirley of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables hadn’t been allowed to stay with the Cuthberts, who were expecting a male orphan? What if Guitar hadn’t misinterpreted what his friend Milkman was doing when the former spotted the latter helping someone with a crate in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon? What if Magdalen Vanstone’s parents hadn’t been disgraced in Wilkie Collins’ No Name? What if the family in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner hadn’t fled Afghanistan for the United States?

I could keep naming novels, but thought I’d diverge into how I became a weekly book blogger without really planning to — an example of an alternate path that happened to happen.

After losing my full-time magazine job in The Great Recession of 2008, I tried to make ends meet with freelance gigs while also contributing humor pieces to The Huffington Post — which scandalously didn’t pay its guest bloggers but idiots like me reluctantly went along with that because of the large audience. Anyway, one of my freelance gigs was proofreading for a service that helped polish the work of writers. The service did pay, but little enough for me to also write pieces for its blog for extra cash.

That group blog was mainly a place for how-to writing content, but I decided on one occasion in 2011 to go the how-to route under the guise of an appreciation of Margaret Atwood’s well-crafted novels — several of which I had just read. But the service wasn’t interested in that idea, so, what to do with a piece I had already written? It occurred to me to stray from The Huffington Post’s comedy section and submit the Atwood piece to the site’s book page. I did that, and suddenly got many more readers and comments than I was getting for my humor columns. So, I kept submitting literature posts and soon built a pretty large following — “meeting” a number of wonderful commenters along the way.

Although I’ve always read lots of fiction, it had never occurred to me until then to regularly write about literature.

Things eventually went downhill at HP — often-unresponsive staff (probably overworked) if bloggers had a question, problematic and slow moderation of comments (some killed for no reason and some not appearing for days), my tiring of the no-pay-for-bloggers exploitation even as I was bringing lots of visitors to the site, etc. In 2014, I finally stopped contributing and took an alternate path from my alternate path — starting this book blog on WordPress. There I “met” another wonderful community of people (all of you) who love literature and love discussing it, even as some commenters followed me from HP. 

My town’s library isn’t open at midnight, but it’s always great spending time there looking for books (many recommended by you) to enjoy and feed this blog.

Which novels have you read that made you wonder about alternate paths the characters traveled or might have taken? You’re also welcome to discuss that same question about your own life.

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 — which includes thoughts on the U.S. Supreme Court’s awful draft decision to end Roe v. Wade — is here.