Opposites Attract Some Authors

Willa CatherBack in 2013, when I was writing about literature for The Huffington Post, I did a piece about female-written novels that star male characters and male-written novels that star female characters. I’d like to expand on that today by discussing novels with other author/character dichotomies: those by writers who create protagonists of another race, ethnicity, sexual preference, religion, etc.

The question remains: Can novelists write well about people who differ from them in a significant way? The answer is yes, of course. Not always as well as authors who are what their characters are, and there’s some risk of stereotyping and “cultural appropriation,” but writers who are not what their characters are can use their imagination, do research, channel their personal knowledge of people they know who are unlike them, and so on. (Heck, human emotions are human emotions.) Plus novelists can also include characters who are in the author’s “group.” Still, writers who’ve “lived” what they write can understandably have an edge — and more of a “right” to the subject matter.

I thought about all this while reading Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover, which I also mentioned in last week’s post. Allende is of Chilean descent, and most of her novels prominently feature Latina characters. But this particular book primarily focuses on Americans of Japanese and Eastern European ancestry.

The sort-of flip side of that is John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat. Steinbeck was white, and that novel (his first major success) includes a number of Mexican-American characters.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by the white Harriet Beecher Stowe includes several crucial African-American characters — such as the titular Tom as well as Eliza and George Harris.

Among the works of African-American writer James Baldwin is Giovanni’s Room, which focuses on white characters. But there’s also an authorial similarity: the novel has a gay theme, and Baldwin was gay.

Willa Cather was also gay, even as the relationships in those Cather novels that contained marital/romantic elements were heterosexual — as was the case with My Antonia. But there’s gay subtext in some of her books if a reader looks closely enough; for instance, the Jim Burden character enamored with Antonia could be a reversed-gender stand-in for Cather. (Pictured atop this blog post is a seated Cather with her domestic partner Edith Lewis.)

As mentioned earlier, some authors kind of split the difference. African-American novelist Octavia Butler’s Kindred, by way of example, stars a 20th-century black woman (Dana) who’s married to a white man (Kevin) when the involuntary time-traveling to the Antebellum South begins.

And the part-black Alexandre Dumas focused on white characters in virtually all his novels — including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers — but changed things up with Georges and its black protagonist.

Getting back to ethnicity, there’s J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert — a novel by a white French author starring the Moroccan woman Lalla.

Some religious crossovers? George Eliot, a Christian, included three major Jewish characters in Daniel Deronda while also featuring several prominent Christian characters. The short historical novel Hadji Murat by sort-of-Christian Leo Tolstoy stars the 19th-century Muslim leader of the book’s title. And White Teeth by British author Zadie Smith, who has described herself as not very religious, co-stars the fairly devout character of Samad.

We can widen this discussion even further with disabled authors writing about not-disabled characters and vice versa. For instance, Daniel Keyes created special-needs protagonist Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, and Lisa Genova has penned Still Alice and several other novels starring characters faced with devastating neurological challenges.

Novels you’ve read that fit this topic?

The great Vancouver-based podcaster Rebecca Budd (aka “Clanmother”), who often comments here, interviewed me again about books. She asked how I get ideas for this blog, how people choose which books to read, how to find time to read, whether to finish a book one doesn’t like, the state of reading in this era of digital devices and shorter attention spans, etc. All in less than 15 minutes! 🙂 (One of my podcast answers includes praise of this blog’s commenters. 🙂 )

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about topics such as another broken developer promise — is here.

No Pride in Prejudice

PrejudiceFor a country that’s supposedly a great democracy, the United States has a breathtaking amount of virulent prejudice in its past and present — making the country a great democracy mostly for (rich) white males.

This comes up often in U.S.-set novels — as it should, given that lots of fiction reflects real life.

As I post this just hours before the holiday celebrating the great Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I’ll first mention that I most recently came across a prejudicial U.S. in Isabel Allende’s The Japanese Lover. Part of that novel shows the grim reality of Japanese-Americans relocated to internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor amid bogus hysteria about their supposed disloyalty to the U.S. — even as many of those rounded up had lived for years, and/or were born, in the States. An awful chapter in the otherwise fairly liberal FDR presidency, which didn’t intern German-Americans or Italian-Americans despite the U.S. also being at war with Germany and Italy. Because those citizens were white, of course.

Obviously, one of the original sins of U.S. prejudice, before and after the Revolutionary War, was the abysmal treatment of Native-Americans. Many novels have addressed that — with just two of them including Diane Glancy’s Pushing the Bear (which takes place during the late-1830s forced removal of the Cherokee from their land) and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (about white marauders slaughtering Native-Americans, among others, about a decade later).

The other original sin was the ghastly system of slavery, which lasted from 1619 (when Africans were first yanked over to the U.S.) until America’s 1861-started Civil War. The many novels addressing that — as well as racism in general, past and present — include Alex Haley’s Roots (partly about the author’s own enslaved ancestors), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which depicted miserable plantation life as well as the possibilities of escape to the North and Canada), Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, etc., etc.

Of course, people of Hispanic descent have also faced discrimination in the U.S. Another Isabel Allende novel — Daughter of Fortune — has Latina and Latino characters (along with every other person of color) the target of harsh bias from whites in Gold Rush-era California. Low-income protagonist Connie Ramos in Marge Piercy’s sci-fi-ish novel Woman on the Edge of Time is also treated badly by white characters who stereotype her.

Then there’s bias against women, whether of color or white (think Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth); bias against LGBTQ people, whether of color or white (think Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle); bias against Jewish people (think Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement); and bias against impoverished whites (think John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath).

Trump’s motto is “Make America Great Again.” Great for whom? Most of us know the answer to that.

Some novels you’d like to name that include depictions of prejudice in the U.S.?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a vicious campaign to oust a Board of Education member — is here.

Odd Couples, Odd Trios, Odd…

Kate QuinnMany novels of course contain character groupings — family members, or friends, or work partners, or other associations. Interesting interactions often result, and things can get even more interesting when the people are very different from each other.

That came to mind last week while reading Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network. Her gripping historical novel — which has parallel World War I and post-World War II story lines that eventually merge in memorable fashion — features the coming together of three characters who at first couldn’t seem more different: bitter, foul-mouthed British/French WWI spy Eve Gardiner, pregnant-American-college-student-in-Europe Charlie St. Clair, and Scottish WWII veteran/ex-convict Finn Kilgore. They not only appear to have few personality traits in common, but Eve treats Charlie worse than dismissively. But eventually the relationships take a turn, and we also find out that Eve and Charlie share something/someone awful in their pasts despite their 35-year age gap. Can that something/someone be exorcised?

Yes, characters who are very different can often (not always) have unexpected similarities that enable them to surprisingly get along. Or maybe that’s not so unexpected and surprising — heck, we’re all human, many of us suffer, and we all want some happiness. Still, when thrust-together disparate characters don’t get along, there’s a huge potential for riveting drama and fireworks: fights, insults, simmering hatred, etc. All of which is frequently more compelling than when people do get along.

Kate Quinn also created an odd grouping in her subsequent, even better novel, The Huntress. Those joining to hunt a Nazi woman (Annaliese) guilty of many murders include Russian aviator Nina, British ex-journalist Ian, American WWII vet Tony, and a Boston-based photographer (Jordan) suspicious of her stepmother: the aforementioned Annaliese, who hid her Nazi identity when fleeing to the U.S. and marrying Jordan’s father. Eve Gardiner even has a cameo!

In Toni Morrison’s Sula, the title character is outgoing, independent, and unconventional, while the novel’s co-star Nel is a quieter, more traditional sort. They are childhood friends despite those differences, but eventually grow far apart — for reasons such as a tragedy they jointly witnessed as kids, and, when they’re adults, Sula gravely betraying Nel.

Then there are the brothers Udayan and Subhash in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. The former is a revolutionary, the latter is content to live a lower-key life pursuing his education. Subhash is also more responsible, eventually marrying Udayan’s pregnant wife Gauri after Udayan is murdered by paramilitary police. Subhash and Gauri end up being a major mismatch as well.

Very different types are frequently placed together in the military (think Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny), the workplace (think Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight), the classroom (think L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), and shared apartments (think Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman). Of course there’s also Neil Simon’s iconic play The Odd Couple, about two complete opposites (neurotic neat-freak Felix Unger and fun-loving slob Oscar Madison) sharing a rental after their respective marriages fall apart.

Disparate groups can also involve different species, especially when one gets into the sci-fi or fantasy realm. For instance, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and his subsequent trilogy The Lord of the Rings feature hobbits, humans, wizards, dwarves, and elves on epic quests. That cross-cultural collaboration creates a good deal of tension, though the characters basically get along enough to do what they need to do.

In the animal world, there are the two dogs and one cat who together try to find their way home through 300 miles of Canadian wilderness in Sheila Branford’s The Incredible Journey. Of course, it’s not unheard of for canines and felines to get along. 🙂

Novels and characters you’d like to mention that/who fit this theme?

Speaking of trios, there was the three-person rock band Rush — whose drummer Neil Peart unfortunately died January 7 at the age of 67. He was widely considered the best rock drummer in history (I agree) and was also an exceptional lyricist — as well as a book author and voracious reader. Some Rush songs contained literary references; one of them was “Xanadu,” inspired by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” poem. Here’s that tune featuring Peart, guitarist Alex Lifeson, and singer/bassist/keyboardist Geddy Lee — all virtuosos on their instruments. I got interested in Rush about five years ago at the urging of former frequent commenter here “Ana,” and then backtracked to listen to the band’s work from the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, and 1970s. “Xanadu” is from 1977, when Rush tended to do longer tracks.

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

Immediate Gratification, Eventual Gratification, No Gratification — and 2019 Stats for This Blog

Richard RussoSome novels grab you from the first page or even first sentence, while others build more slowly. Sometimes so slowly — or so confusingly or so off-puttingly — that one flings the book away. (Hopefully not while reading it on an electronic device. 🙂 )

It’s often thrillers, mysteries, and other genre fiction, along with some mass-audience general fiction, that quickly grab a reader. For instance, I’ve yet to read one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels without being hooked within a paragraph or two. But some literary fiction can do that, too, with a great first sentence certainly helping — as in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye

But this blog post will focus more on novels with less-promising starts, one of which I read last week. That was Richard Russo’s Chances Are…, a 2019 release about three male college buddies who reunite on Martha’s Vineyard when they’re all age 66. Russo is a tremendous author — his Nobody’s Fool (1993) and especially his Empire Falls (2001) are sublime — but he’s 70 and novelists usually don’t do their best work after having been published for decades. Chances Are… feels a bit forced: its starring trio at times seems more like types than three-dimensional people, and I could sense Russo’s authorial puppet strings rather than getting really immersed in the story. But I stuck with the book (when one likes an author’s previous works, that’s more likely to happen) and the novel eventually grew on me — helped by the unspooling of a seemingly unsolvable mystery about a woman the men had been friends with in college while grappling with the threat of the Vietnam draft. Not Russo’s best effort by a long shot, but ultimately a solid “B” novel.

Back in 2018, I finally read the first book in George R.R. Martin’s wildly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series. A Game of Thrones was rather confusing at first — so many characters and details to absorb. But things gradually became much more compelling.

Then there are novels that start so-so and stay so-so. Ones I’ve read recently that fit that template for me include Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (I realize it has many fervent fans, but I found it kind of “meh”) and Tony Hillerman’s The Blessing Way (forgivable in that it was a mediocre first novel in a crime-fiction series that would get better). Among the books I read years ago that also match the starts-and-stays-so-so criteria include Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (which is not bad but nowhere near as good as her other five novels) and Erich Maria Remarque’s Shadows in Paradise (also decent, though it was obvious Remarque was running out of steam in that final, posthumously published novel after an earlier career of All Quiet on the Western Front and other masterpieces). But there was enough in books such as the four in this paragraph that I never seriously considered abandoning them.

Finally, there are novels that a person just gives up on, although which books those are of course often varies with the reader. For instance, I started Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life a couple years ago, and found it so confusing that I abandoned it after a few chapters — yet that novel is well-regarded by many, so maybe it was just me.

As I mentioned before in this weekly blog, I tried William Faulkner’s classic The Sound and the Fury twice (separated by a number of years) and found it incomprehensible. No regrets about giving it up both times after a few-dozen pages — life is too short. I did find the Faulkner novels Light in August and As I Lay Dying to be satisfying reads.

James Patterson is a mega-selling popular author who I tried just once about five years ago. Can’t even remember the novel’s title, but I was so disgusted by an early, kind-of-gratuitous, stomach-churning murder scene that I stopped reading and Alex Cross-ed Patterson off my list. I also don’t like the fact that he has co-written many books in recent years.

Some novels you’ve read that fit the various themes of this post?

As promised in the headline, here are some 2019 statistics for this blog:

— Fifty posts, 27,835 views, 13,133 visitors, 3,332 comments, 2,590 likes, and more than 1,000 followers added for a total of 3,442 at year’s end.

— The most 2019 views by far came from the United States (19,986), followed by Australia (2,386), the United Kingdom (1,510), India (1,392), Canada (677), the Philippines (347), Germany (198), France (179), Spain (177), and Italy (163). Readers from 133 countries total!

— In 2019, the runaway most viewed post was “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Literature,” despite it being first published in 2018.

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — my 800th since 2003! — takes a weird look ahead at 2020.

Novels That Have It All (Or a Whole Lot)


Diana Gabaldon has said that her 1991 novel Outlander contains “history, warfare, medicine, sex, violence, spirituality, honor, betrayal, vengeance, hope and despair, relationships, the building and destruction of families and societies, time travel, moral ambiguity, swords, horses, herbs, gambling (with cards, dice, and lives), voyages of daring, journeys of both body and soul…”

Few authors pack all that into one book, but Gabaldon did, as I found out after reading the terrific Outlander this past week. It of course makes it more likely for a novel to be comprehensive when it’s long (the Outlander edition I read runs 627 small-print pages), but shorter novels can also pack in a lot — even as some “doorstop” books are not especially multifaceted. After a bit of discussion of Outlander, I’ll mention a few other novels that include an unusually large number of elements and themes.

The best-selling Outlander — which has spawned seven sequels, various related written works, and a current TV series — opens with protagonist Claire (pictured above) in 1946 before the independent-minded former World War II nurse is thrust back to 1743 Scotland. All the things mentioned in this blog post’s first paragraph dramatically ensue. Plus there’s humor.

Outlander is exceptionally well-written, but more popular fiction than literary fiction. Yet popular fiction can still touch many bases. Another example from the mass-audience realm is James Clavell’s Shogun — which mixes romance, warfare, history, culture clashes, different kinds of leadership, and much more in its nearly 1,000 pages mostly set in year-1600 Japan. And there’s J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series — though that of course takes seven books to spool out its cornucopia of magic, wizards, humans, friendship, adventure, courage, sacrifice, good vs. evil, comedy, etc.

Then there’s literary fiction or literary/popular fiction hybrids that include a wide variety of events, themes, emotions, and so on. Among them are Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (covering everything from…war to peace); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (family, relationships, patriarchy, crime, philosophy, etc.); George Eliot’s Middlemarch (town life, work life, complicated marriages, scholarship, the medical field, etc.); A.S. Byatt’s Possession (the 19th and 20th centuries, academia, research, romance, poetry, etc.); Elsa Morante’s History (World War II, fascism, parenting, precocious children, etc.); Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (racism, nationalism, Marxism, individualism, city life, etc.); Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (family, relationships, many generations, politics, magic realism, etc.); and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (marriage, politics, the Iraq War, environmentalism, etc.).

Novels you’ve read that tackle a whole lot of things?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — a quirky year-in-review — is here.

When Comeuppance Comes Up

Trump impeachedIt’s always nice when wrongdoers suffer consequences, as was the case last week when the ultra-corrupt Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. Sure, the repellent Republican majority in the U.S. Senate will acquit the Ogre-in-Chief after ignoring the huge trove of proof that he’s a criminal, but at least Trump got some comeuppance.

As in real life, it’s satisfying when literature’s miscreants get punished. This scenario of course often comes up in mysteries, detective novels, and other genre fiction — while also seen fairly often in general fiction. Some fictional malefactors obviously do not get punished, but…you knew that.

Among the most famous examples of bad guys getting their just desserts are the men in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo who framed Edmond Dantes into a many-year prison term that not only took his freedom but his impending marriage. Revenge was sweet and masterful, albeit long delayed.

Rose — an excellent Martin Cruz Smith novel that’s not one of his Russian-oriented Gorky Park sequels — is set in a 19th-century English mining town whose residents include the nasty, brutish Jaxon. Protagonist Jonathan Blair spares Jaxon’s life at one point despite being beaten near to a pulp by him, but Jaxon eventually meets his downfall in a rather interesting way.

The sicko serial killer in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones gets away with things for many years until justice arrives “sort of” accidentally.

In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, there are selfish/tyrannical fathers who drag their American families into difficult situations abroad. It doesn’t end well for either of them, though they cause lots of misery before that.

And there’s the Mafia-type kidnapper in Susan Moore Jordan’s The Case of the Purloined Professor who’s cultured and smart but just careless enough to allow his hostage — music prof Augusta McKee — to give clues of her whereabouts to the people trying to find and free her.

Other characters and novels fitting this theme?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which discusses America’s too-high military budget, impeachment, and more — is here.

‘I Didn’t See That Coming’ in Fiction

Herman MelvilleToday’s theme? Novelists who keep readers off-balance by defying expectations with certain characters.

But before I get into that, I wanted to mention that this weekly blog and my literary-trivia book are the subjects of a roughly 16-minute podcast posted last night. The podcaster is Rebecca Budd, who’s not only a skilled/eloquent interviewer but also an excellent blogger on a variety of topics. It’s always a pleasure to converse with other book lovers — including all the commenters on this blog!

Rebecca is in Vancouver and I’m in New Jersey, so the vagaries of cross-continental WiFi cut off a few of my words here and there. But 99.9% of what I said got through. 🙂

Anyway, back to “‘I Didn’t See That Coming’ in Fiction.” A strong example comes from Harlan Coben’s starts-slow-but-gets-riveting thriller Stay Close, which I read last week. The novel — set in the sordid underbelly of my home state of New Jersey — includes two characters named…ahem…Barbie and Ken who appear to be clean-cut, caring, religious folk. In reality, they’re a scarily sicko couple who delight in working paid assignments to inflict excruciating pain on hapless people. (Although Coben’s novel was published in 2012 — four years before America’s disastrous 2016 presidential election — something about Barbie and Ken reminds me of the many supposedly pious white Christian evangelicals who support the pathologically cruel Trump.)

Another character who turns out to be different than one might initially think is Queequeg from Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby-Dick. That tattooed South Sea-born character looks fierce, and has a fierce job — harpooner on Captain Ahab’s ill-fated Pequod ship. But Queequeg actually has a heart of gold, and he and the book’s American sailor/narrator Ishmael strike up an unlikely cross-cultural friendship. (Melville is pictured above in 1861.)

Staying in the 19th-century, certain novels punctured unfortunate racial and gender tropes of the time. In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, for instance, Jo March is hyper-focused on becoming a professional writer — hardly an expected ambition for a female of that era. The titular protagonist in Alexandre Dumas’ Georges is a brainy/admirable black man stuck with none of the pernicious stereotypes most authors foisted on characters of color at that time, if they included them at all. (It didn’t hurt that Dumas was of part-African descent.) And Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe is a much more three-dimensional Jewish character than seen in the vast majority of novels penned in the 1800s, though the depiction of her money-lender father Isaac is nowhere near as nuanced.

Going back another century, the title character of Henry Fielding’s semi-satirical novel Joseph Andrews (1742) resists temptation as he holds to his intention of remaining a virgin for his true love Fanny. A gender role reversal, especially for long-ago literature.

Speaking of gender surprises, the first book (One for the Money) of Janet Evanovich’s popular crime-novel series has protagonist Stephanie Plum switch from being a lingerie buyer to a…bounty hunter. It’s safe to say that’s a career change not often seen.

In Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Humphrey van Weyden is a “soft” intellectual who’s held against his will and abused by tough-guy-with-a-screw-loose Captain Wolf Larsen when van Weyden is rescued after the ferry he was on sank. Humphrey’s transformation into an equal foe of Larsen is something I didn’t see coming.

I’ll stay with London and end by briefly taking this post into the animal realm. In that author’s The Call of the Wild, a domesticated dog becomes adept at surviving in the wild. And in White Fang, the opposite happens with a part-wolf/part-dog who is moved from the wild to civilization. Not the usual canine story arcs.

It almost goes without saying that any element of surprise is often welcome in a novel. What are some of the books that do that for you?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a food theme — is here.