Grandparents in Literature Can Be Grand…or Not

RacingWhen I read novels, themes for blog posts occur to me. So, after finishing Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain last week, the logical theme would have been to write about memorable dogs in literature. But I already did that two weeks ago, which led to several commenters recommending I read…The Art of Racing in the Rain.

(Those recommenders are credited at the bottom of the comments section.)

Anyway, I tried to think of another theme inspired by Stein’s poignant, inventive, narrated-by-amazing-dog-Enzo novel and came up with…grandparents in literature. The 2008 book’s grandparents Maxwell and Trish are significant secondary characters, and they’re horrible people — especially Maxwell. They’re nasty from the start to son-in-law Denny — the novel’s race-car-driving human star (shown above with Enzo) — and then things escalate as the older couple wrongly/sickeningly seek custody of grandchild Zoe: the daughter of Denny and his cancer-stricken wife Eve, whose parents are Trish and Maxwell. The blatant lying and depravity of the rich, entitled Maxwell reminded me of Trump.

Of course, many other grandparents — whether in fiction or real life — are good people who frequently dote on their grandchildren. (And are happy to again have kinship with kids minus the day-to-day responsibility.) Some examples of admirable grandparents include Penelope Keeling of Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, Lechuza Blanca (aka “White Owl”) of Isabel Allende’s Zorro, and Claire and Jamie of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. Brief summaries of those four characters:

Despite some major disappointments in life, the independent/young-at-heart/makes-the-best-of-things Penelope treats her not-all-nice extended family well.

The Native-American Lechuza is a spiritual mentor to her part-Spanish grandson Diego de la Vega. “White Owl” helps Diego discover that his guardian animal is a fox (“zorro” in Spanish), and he becomes a masked, sword-wielding vigilante under that name.

Claire is a 20th-century doctor who meets 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie when she goes back in time, and the two have quite an eclectic grandchildren situation several decades later. Their biological grandkids (Jem and Mandy) are the children of a couple (Claire and Jamie’s daughter Brianna and her husband Roger) who toggle between the 1900s and 1700s. Plus Claire and Jamie are the adopted grandparents/step-grandparents of several other kids (the children of Fergus and Marsali) who always live in the 18th century.

More mixed on the good/not-so-good spectrum are the Greek-immigrant grandparents in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. Eleutherios and Desdemona aren’t bad people, but happen to be…brother and sister. (Yes, they married despite being siblings.) This eventually has major genetic consequences for their grandchild Callie, the novel’s main protagonist.

There’s also Sully of the Richard Russo novel Nobody’s Fool. He’s a flawed, not-always-responsible, somewhat-decent guy who develops a cordial relationship with his grandson Will despite the fact that Sully was not an always-there father to Will’s dad Peter.

And how about having a grandmother as strong-minded and eccentric as Frieda Haxby Palmer in Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor? Never a dull moment, for better or for worse.

Rebecca and Isaac are also rather quirky grandparents in Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, which partly fictionalizes the lives of some major and minor Biblical characters. The novel stars Dinah, who’s the granddaughter of Rebecca and Isaac (and daughter of Jacob and Leah).

Some grandparents are middle-aged or not much older, while others are quite advanced in years — meaning the death of grandparents is definitely a thing in many novels. For instance, the two Joad grandparents pass away relatively early in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, but they’re around long enough for us to see how their feisty personalities have been passed on to some extent to the next generations.

Grandparents in literature you’ve found memorable?

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 — which discusses topics such as my town’s proposed hybrid school model this fall — is here.

Back to Library Borrowing Again! (And a Nancy Drew Interlude)

Library curbside pickup 7-25-20

After my pandemic-time Outlander reading marathon (eight purchased books of nearly 10,000 pages), thoughts again turned to my local library this past week.

Fortunately, curbside pickup is now available, so I dove into a process that you might also be experiencing in your own town. I visited the library website this past Wednesday, searched for books I wanted, and set up a Friday appointment to pick them up at a table under an open-sided tent in front of the still-closed building in Montclair, New Jersey. (See the above photo I took.)

The process wasn’t totally seamless; the novels I chose Wednesday were no longer listed for me when I checked my online library account Thursday, so I had to contact a staffer to re-reserve them. The time lag resulted in me losing one book that had apparently been reserved by someone else in the meantime, but the rest of the novels were there Friday in a big paper bag when I drove up and parked in one of three dedicated curbside spaces.

Based on recommendations from readers of this blog, I borrowed Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I’ll discuss all of them during the next few weeks; I suppose I should read them first. 🙂 (I’ll mention who specifically recommended each novel at those points.) The book I missed out on in the reserving snafu was Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, but I’ll get to it eventually.

Prior to my future reading of the four novels I did snag, I finally tried a Nancy Drew mystery thanks to mentions of the series by my wife Laurel Cummins and frequent commenters Clanmother (Rebecca Budd) and Liz Gauffreau. It was The Secret of the Old Clock (1930), the first of MANY installments of the Nancy Drew series and a book my wife owns in a 1987 edition. I thought the novel was very good — in it, Nancy is quite brave and smart and inventive, albeit almost weirdly saint-like. And the interaction between her and her widowed attorney dad had a bit of a Scout Finch/Atticus Finch feel from To Kill a Mockingbird. (Did Harper Lee read Nancy Drew as a kid?)

Speaking of kids, I quickly realized The Secret of the Old Clock was more a children’s novel than the young-adult novel I had expected, so it was quite a change-of-pace after reading Diana Gabaldon’s mature, complex Outlander books — which I had received as a late-March birthday present from my wife. As I mentioned on my Facebook page last Thursday: “I loved this story about the 20th-century doctor Claire who ends up in the 18th century and falls in love with charismatic Scottish warrior Jamie. Plus many other characters — as well as frequent plot twists, plenty of humor, and lots of social commentary (including accurate depictions of how difficult, sexist, racist, and homophobic life could be in the 1700s). Two more not-yet-published novels to go in the planned 10-book series…”

Anyway, back to libraries and curbside pickup. Are you using your local library again? Or did you never stop — borrowing eBooks and such? As I’ve said before, I look at screens so much (my laptop and phone) that I’ve stuck with old-fashioned print novels to give my eyes a break. Plus it’s a longtime habit thing, I love the idea as well as the feel of physical books, and I really enjoy library visits. I’m greatly looking forward to when my local library lets people inside again.

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 — which includes what my town might do about schools this fall during the pandemic — is here.

‘Ruff’! Rating Dogs in Literature

Rollo and IanI’ve never lived with a dog, though I’ve gratefully shared my household with seven wonderful cats over the years. 🙂 I developed an appreciation of canines by meeting those who’ve lived with people I know and via…literature.

Yes, literature features many dogs — who are often great characters in of themselves and who also help reveal things about their fictional human companions. Are they nice to dogs? Then they’re almost always good people. Mean to dogs? Almost always villains.

I’m going to name my 15 favorite dogs in literature. My list contains 14 numbers, but, as you’ll see, one novel features two equally great dogs. And before beginning, I’ll offer this pair of disclaimers: 1. I’ve obviously read only some of the countless novels that include dogs — which is why Lassie, for instance, isn’t on my list. 2. I might’ve forgotten about some excellent canines in novels I HAVE read.

14. Hector the hunting dog is a constant companion to woodsman Natty Bumppo in James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels, which include The Last of the Mohicans.

13. The title character in William H. Armstrong’s Sounder is a dog who’s part of a poor African-American sharecropper family. Sounder lives a difficult life — including being shot and badly wounded by a racist white sheriff’s deputy — but he is much loved.

12. Fang of the Harry Potter books is a cowardly but appealing animal — one of the less-exotic “pets” in Hagrid’s menagerie. And Fluffy the dog in J.K. Rowling’s series deserves an honorable mention for having three heads. 🙂 (He’s the 16th dog on this list.)

11. Barabbas is a big, clumsy canine who overeats and has a tendency to knock things over in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.

10. Benedico is also a memorable dog in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, but it’s not until after he’s long dead that he has an unforgettable final moment at novel’s end.

9. Dorothy’s tiny Toto appears in the L. Frank Baum books that start with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A pooch who became iconic with a big assist from The Wizard of Oz film. “And Toto, too?”

8. There’s almost no fictional canine more loyal than “Dog Monday,” who sits at a Canadian train station for many, MANY months waiting for his person Jem to (hopefully) return from the World War I front in Rilla of Ingleside — one of L.M. Montgomery’s many Anne of Green Gables sequels.

7. The young Luath and the old Bodger are the determined dogs who, along with equally determined cat Tao, arduously travel approximately 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to try to return home in Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey.

6. Tee Tucker is an intellectual corgi who, along with two cats and a human, solves crimes in Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries. Hard to top a detective dog!

5. Bella the dog is the lovable constant companion of the lonely, highly precocious boy Useppe in Elsa Morante’s novel History.

4. Rollo is the big, part-wolf, scary-with-a-heart-of-gold canine from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. He and the Scot-with-a-Native-American-connection “Young Ian” are fiercely loyal to each other and face a good deal of danger in the 1760s and ’70s. (Pictured atop this blog post are Rollo and Ian in the Outlander TV series.)

3. The charismatic, also-part-wolf title character of Jack London’s White Fang is born in the frozen North American wild but eventually ends up in California where he embraces domestic life after some initial puzzlement and reluctance.

2. Buck in Jack London’s earlier The Call of the Wild has an opposite destiny — from pampered California domestication to a tough sled-pulling life in the Yukon after he’s stolen. The very smart/adaptable canine retains some connection with humans for a while, but…

1. Chum of Albert Payson Terhune’s heartwarming novel His Dog is an elite collie show dog who, through a twist of fate, becomes a working canine who transforms the life of depressed, impoverished farmer Link Ferris. (A Terhune novel less known than Lad: a Dog, but I found it much more compelling.)

Your favorite dogs in literature?

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 my state’s primary elections — is here.

When the Digital Age Invades Old Novels

Haim swiping

The plots of novels written before the digital age might have been quite different if smartphones, texting, websites, blogs, social media, etc., existed many decades or centuries ago. Let’s examine this, shall we?

After a thwarted engagement, made-for-each-other Anne Elliot and Capt. Wentworth have no contact for seven long years in Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817). If only they had known each other’s cell numbers in order to text. (Messaging rates may have applied.)

Edmond Dantes was framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and jailed in the miserable Chateau d’If island prison in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). If Edmond had been able to email the media from a dungeon computer…

Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel knows something fishy is going on in the Thornfield Hall attic. She could’ve learned the true story sooner if she had had a “nanny cam.”

The person who murdered two women in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) is not known to the authorities for a long time. But what if Raskolnikov, during a late-night bout of self-confessional depression, posted about his guilt on Facebook?

In George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871), there are two problematic marriages: that of Dorothea Brooke and Edward Casaubon, and Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. If TMZ.com reported on those unfortunate unions, maybe the couples would’ve soon divorced from embarrassment.

Claude Lantier was a frustrated artist in Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece (1886). He might have felt better if he posted his paintings on Instagram.

Things would have been better for Edna Pontellier if she made a TikTok video rather than doing what she did (I’m avoiding a spoiler here) at the end of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899).

In Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), the title character has a hard time becoming a published writer. It would have helped to gain some exposure by starting a blog.

In W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915), the foolishly enamored Philip Carey is stuck in an atrocious relationship with the unkind Mildred that goes on and on. If Philip had access to online dating apps, chances are he would’ve met someone more compatible many chapters earlier.

The trial in Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) was dramatic enough. Picture it trending on Twitter, with retweets galore!

Things would have been a lot less crazy in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950) if a different piece of wardrobe furniture had been purchased on Craigslist.

Books burned in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451? Replace ’em with an Amazon order…

Sal Paradise and other characters drive all over the place in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). A good GPS might have kept them in Jersey or something.

Any scenarios you’d like to create by placing modern technology in old novels?

Here’s a 2020 song called “I Know Alone” by the three-sister band Haim. Why is it relevant to this blog post? Well, in the quirky dance the siblings do in this video, one of their moves is swiping on the screens of imaginary smartphones. 🙂 An image taken from the video is atop this blog post.

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. My latest piece — about a misleading anti-rent-control campaign and more — is here.

Protests in Fiction Show Societal Friction

Invisible ManThere have been countless protests around the world in recent weeks against the evils of racism and police brutality. Many of the admirable participants have been young people of all colors, providing hope for a future where…Black Lives Matter.

Protests also happen in books — often nonfiction ones, but novels, too. Think about it enough, and a person can remember rallies, marches, strikes, and other actions in a number of novels — along with nasty pushback by cops, the military, politicians, and the owner class.

In American literature, memorable protest actions include the narrator in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man rousing a crowd to confront cops evicting an elderly black couple in New York City. Later, that narrator speaks at rallies on behalf of the “Brotherhood” group. And further on in the 1952 novel, riots break out in Harlem over grievances African-Americans face in the U.S. — grievances that in many cases haven’t gone away nearly seven decades later.

There’s also William Styron’s historical novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, about the man who led the real-life 1831 rebellion against the moral travesty of American slavery.

Moving to another country, the French mining strike that’s the centerpiece of Germinal helps make Emile Zola’s novel as dramatic — and heartbreaking — as can be.

Also heartbreaking is the Colombian army’s mass-murder of striking workers in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The horrific event, like the real-life “Banana Massacre” of 1928 it was based on, was virtually wiped out of the history books. Also the case with a white mob’s slightly earlier 1921 massacre of African-American residents in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s “Black Wall Street” neighborhood.

Then there’s the fruit workers’ strike in In Dubious Battle, one of the few John Steinbeck novels I haven’t read (yet). And an Oregon loggers’ strike plays a prominent role in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion.

In Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, one secondary character (Joshua Chalfens) becomes an animal-rights activist.

Protesters are not always admirable. For instance, doomed revolutionary Udayan Mitra of India is not the nicest or most responsible guy in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, though he’s certainly brave like most people who oppose “the powers that be.” Another part-problematic guy is Sonny, a courageous anti-apartheid activist who cheats on his wife in My Son’s Story by Nadine Gordimer. Sonny’s more-principled family also joins the fight against the oppressive white South African regime.

I’m now on the eighth of Diana Gabaldon’s eight Outlander novels as my pandemic reading marathon continues (most of the books are over 1,000 pages). The 1770s section of the series partly focuses on one of history’s ultimate protests: the thirteen colonies’ successful uprising against monarchical British rule that was commemorated yesterday, July 4th. Of course, the resulting United States became a democracy mainly for monied white males while African-Americans and Native-Americans were treated horribly and women had few rights…

Novels you’d like to mention that include protesters and protest scenes?

Here’s “March March,” a new song by The Chicks — formerly The Dixie Chicks.

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 new Township Council sworn in after an election that saw many votes not counted — is here.

Authors Affecting Authors

Austen - BurneyAll authors are influenced by other authors, whether that influence is conscious or unconscious. Most writers are not plagiarists, of course, but their reading of other writers has an impact — often manifested in their early work before developing a more original voice.

One of the most famous quotes about authorial influence was Dostoyevsky supposedly saying, “We all come out from Gogol’s Overcoat.” Fyodor was referring to Nikolai Gogol’s nightmarishly great 1842 short story “The Overcoat,” which had an effect on some of the legendary 19th-century Russian authors whose prime writing days would follow. A group that of course included Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov.

Gogol (1809-1852) was a contemporary — albeit a geographically distant one — of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), who was also a major influence on a number of later writers. Poe managed to do this in at least three genres, being a horror-story pioneer who helped inspire the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and others; a detective-story pioneer (with tales such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) who influenced subsequent sleuth writing by Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone), Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), etc.; and a producer of sea fiction (including The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket) that helped inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Staying with 19th-century influencers for a while, Mary Shelley, then Jules Verne, and then H.G. Wells were science-fiction trailblazers who paved the way for Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Octavia E. Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others in the 20th century.

Charles Dickens’ funny, sprawling, socially conscious novels have some ancestral elements to what we see in John Irving’s books.

One 19th-century author influencing another was Honore de Balzac, whose realism and the placing of the same characters in different novels helped inspire Emile Zola.

Going back further in time, 18th-century novelist Fanny Burney was a favorite of Jane Austen, who even found her Pride and Prejudice title in a sentence from Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia. (Austen is pictured with that book atop this blog post.)

Moving to more recent authors, a young Toni Morrison was an avid reader of Austen and Tolstoy — and it shows in her work, along with influences from such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (magic realism), Zora Neale Hurston (rural/folklore elements), and James Baldwin (a finely tuned radar on racism).

Hurston was also one of the influences on Alice Walker, who found what was believed to be Hurston’s unmarked Florida grave in 1973 and then wrote an influential 1975 Ms. magazine article about Zora that helped revive Hurston’s unfairly faded reputation.

Again mentioning Marquez, his One Hundred Years of Solitude was clearly a partial template for Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Both are multigenerational sagas with plenty of magic realism and political awareness.

A keen political/feminist sensibility, while almost never getting preachy, makes the 1955-born Barbara Kingsolver somewhat a literary descendant of the 1939-born Margaret Atwood.

Atwood’s canon of course includes several dystopian/speculative-fiction novels, which reminds me that George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four was obviously influenced by Aldous Huxley’s earlier Brave New World — if only to take a different approach to the future in having a society controlled by terror rather than through “pleasurable” distraction. Heck, Huxley was even briefly one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton.

Back in the USA, there’s a direct line of dark antiwar humor running from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

America’s Southern Gothic genre also has its connections. Cormac McCarthy, with his rich prose and unsettling situations, is a literary heir to William Faulkner. In the more humorous Southern Gothic realm, Erskine Caldwell kind of led to Charles Portis.

Ernest Hemingway’s terse prose influenced numerous writers — with one of my current favorites being Lee Child of Jack Reacher series renown.

And when it comes to modernist, often-nonlinear fiction, contemporaries James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (both with 1882-1941 life spans) had some major literary similarities.

I realize I’ve just scratched the surface here. Any authors influencing other authors you’d like to discuss — including ones I mentioned or didn’t?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about a high school graduating class that went through a lot — is here.

A Few Favorite Fathers in Fiction

Silas MarnerToday is Father’s Day, so, in an effort to write a blog post with the most unoriginal theme ever, I’m going to discuss some of my favorite dads in literature — seven to be exact. I’ll go backward in time, starting with the most recent releases.

Subhash Mitra of Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2013 novel The Lowland marries Gauri, the pregnant wife of his revolutionary brother Udayan after the charismatic-but-irresponsible Udayan is killed. The uncharismatic Subhash becomes a devoted father to Bela even as Gauri turns out to be a distracted mother who eventually abandons the family.

Arthur Weasley of the Harry Potter series is fun, brave, and a bit spacey. That last quality is not surprising given how large the Weasley family is and how much he and other sympathetic characters in J.K. Rowling’s 1997-2007 books have to deal with the havoc-wreaking Lord Voldemort.

A secondary character in Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 post-apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower is the wise and kind (but prone to wishful thinking) minister/professor father of protagonist Lauren Olamina, who calls him “the best man I know.” Enough said.

There’s of course Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). The widowed dad of Scout and her brother Jem is warm to his children, disciplines them some but not too much, and is of course a highly principled attorney who defends an innocent African-American man. The white Atticus doesn’t comes off as well in the early TKAM draft Go Set a Watchman, but…

Adoptive father Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables (1908) is shy, quiet, and far from confident, but is a gentle, kind farmer who develops a wonderful relationship with the precocious Anne.

Then there’s Silas Marner (pictured at the top of this blog post). He’s a bitter, lonely miser in the first part of George Eliot’s 1861 novel, so I didn’t see his heartwarming adoption of Eppie coming — and how effective (albeit somewhat bumbling) his parenting would be.

Finally, I’ll mention Bob Cratchit of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). Cratchit lives a difficult life as Ebenezer Scrooge’s underpaid/overworked clerk, but has a positive outlook on life and is a devoted dad to his six children — including the physically challenged Tiny Tim.

Your favorite fathers in literature?

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 — which has a dual election theme — is here.

When Novelists Display Intolerance

Cormoran and Robin

J.K. Rowling is one of my favorite living authors. Her Harry Potter series is amazing, of course, but I also like her downbeat The Casual Vacancy novel and love her compelling crime series (written under the Robert Galbraith pen name) starring the pictured-above private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.

So it was especially disappointing to learn that the mostly liberal, very philanthropic Rowling — almost always tolerant and humanistic in her novels — seemingly has some backward views about transgender people. Here’s a story from two days ago:

That once again brings up the subject — which I’ve covered before — of reading authors we might disagree with on some very important issues. Do we want to spend time with writers who have views that are racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and/or whatever?

It’s a good question, partly answered by the fact that some authors with backward views keep those views out of their novels while other authors intentionally or subconsciously include those views in their fiction. Also, whether or not one keeps reading those writers can depend on how much you like their work. And of course there are few authors out there whose opinions any particular reader will 100% share. (I did reach that 100% threshold when proofreading my own two books before they were published. 🙂 )

Anyway, if I like a novelist’s work enough, I’ll keep reading them even if one or some of their views bother me. For instance, Rowling’s fifth Cormoran/Robin crime novel — Troubled Blood — is due out this September and I eagerly plan to read it. But I’ll feel some guilt doing so that I never felt before when enjoying Rowling’s superb writing.

I made a different decision with Orson Scott Card. I read one of his novels, which I liked but didn’t love, before learning that he was virulently/publicly anti-gay. Even though there was little indication of that in Lost Boys, I figured why bother reading more of Card’s books — there are countless other authors out there to try.

I reached a similar conclusion regarding the sexist Norman Mailer and John Updike — I just didn’t like their work enough to keep reading them after one book apiece. Ernest Hemingway’s sexism is also off-putting, though my feelings are mixed enough about him and his novels that I’ve read three of them.

Authors such as Jack London and H.P. Lovecraft are well-known for their racism (quite a lot of it in their personal views and some in their fiction), but I like their novels and stories enough to have read many of them despite my dismay over their bigotry.

I’ve also kept reading iconic 19th-century novelists such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott despite some anti-Semitism in their work. It helps a bit to remember that they were “of their time” — anti-Semitism was pretty blatant in the 1800s, though the great George Eliot broke that mold with the memorable Jewish characters in her fabulous Daniel Deronda. It also helps that Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Scott were masterful novelists whose anti-Semitic moments in their writing were nowhere near constant. With Dostoyevsky, it was basically some occasional asides in his novels. With Dickens, it was mostly the Fagin character in Oliver Twist, which the author later revised to make less objectionable. And Scott’s painfully stereotypical depiction of the money-lender Isaac in Ivanhoe was counterbalanced by the sympathetic, three-dimensional depiction of Isaac’s daughter Rebecca.

The “of their time” factor is of course also in the debate mix when seeing racism, sexism, and homophobia in older novels. Also, we should always think about whether authors are bigoted people themselves or are not-bigoted people periodically depicting bigotry in their fiction.

Finally, I have a little more tolerance for intolerance from novelists than from politicians, who have such direct lawmaking control over our lives. If those pols are very intolerant people, they won’t get my vote.

How do you feel about authors who espouse prejudiced views in real life and/or in their novels? Do you continue to read them or not?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about two huge Black Lives Matter rallies/marches in my town — is here.

Racist Characters Bring the Hate to Some Literature

Go Tell It

During a time when the media is full of news about America’s two most infamous racists — the depraved Donald Trump and Derek Chauvin (the hateful white cop who murdered black Minneapolis resident George Floyd) — I’m depressingly reminded of virulent racists in literature.

Some of those repugnant characters are in great novels, making those books both must-reads and exceedingly painful reads. But also at times inspiring reads as that racism might be opposed or avenged, individually and collectively.

Among fiction’s awful racists? We have the white New York City cops who arrest Richard, the brainy African-American father of protagonist John Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, for a crime he did not commit. Richard is beaten and jailed, and eventually commits suicide in despair — before John is born.

Another vicious white-supremacist cop is Norman Daniels, who raped a black woman in the backstory of Stephen King’s novel Rose Madder.

There are of course plenty of racist white characters who aren’t cops. One of them is Bob Ewell, who falsely accuses a black man — Tom Robinson — of raping his daughter Mayella in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Disastrous consequences follow.

Then there’s the racist white mob that kills Sam (a black man) because he and Katherine (a white woman) fall in love in Louis Sachar’s Holes.

Going back to 19th-century literature, we have the racist Henri in Georges — the only novel the partly black French author Alexandre Dumas wrote that focuses on characters of color.

There are plenty of cruel white slaveowners in fiction, too. Among the better-known ones are Rufus Weylin of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Simon Legree of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Tom Lea of Alex Haley’s Roots.

All of the above characters are overtly racist. There are of course countless other white people in literature more subtly racist — some of them quite wealthy, like Trump allegedly is.

Any fictional racist characters 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about the police murder of George Floyd and various news that’s local to my town — is here.

Author Clips on YouTube! (The Sequel)

BuchiLast week’s post featuring author videos received a nice response, so I thought I’d do a second column spotlighting some other authors. As before, I made sure all the clips were short — and again started with living writers and concluded with deceased ones.

Fannie Flagg, whose warmly compelling novels include Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, discusses topics such as how she got her pen name:

Rita Mae Brown, who first rose to literary fame with her great lesbian-themed classic Rubyfruit Jungle, talks about her mystery series co-starring human and animal detectives:

Terry McMillan focuses on how she writes her novels (Waiting to Exhale, etc.) and the unhealthiness of staying angry:

Khaled Hosseini, author of books such as The Kite Runner, recalls his transition from physician to novelist and discusses how refugees make the U.S. a better place. Hosseini himself was a refugee, from Afghanistan:

Kazuo Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize-winning writer of novels such as The Remains of the Day, talks about how restrictive it is for authors to be pigeon-holed by genre:

Walter Mosley — author of the Easy Rawlins mysteries and more — discusses reading as a kid, classic writers, and the often solitary/unglamorous life of authors:

Moving on to authors who are no longer with us…

Brief footage of Harper Lee, before she became very reclusive, at the 1962 premiere of the great movie based on her even greater novel To Kill a Mockingbird:

Iconic science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (Kindred, The Parable of the Sower, etc.) discusses how watching a bad movie inspired her to start writing, how the future is not always easily predictable, and more:

W. Somerset Maugham, who penned Of Human Bondage and other classics, answers several questions during a 1950 shipboard interview — including one about the impossibility of writing “the perfect novel”:

Ray Bradbury is quite engaging as he references The Martian Chronicles and more. He even reads a poem! (Thanks to Brian Bess for alerting me to this clip.)

Sue Grafton, author of the “Alphabet Mysteries” series, hilariously riffs about murderous thoughts:

Nigerian-born author Buchi Emecheta discusses living in England, her novel Second Class Citizen, and juggling parenthood and writing. (She’s in the screen shot atop this blog post, on the left.)

H.G. Wells — one of the most famous sci-fi authors to put words to paper (The Time Machine, etc.), discusses economics in his distinctive high-pitched voice:

Brief footage of Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak:

Any author videos 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — a comedic look at what families might do during a pandemic summer with many pools and camps closed — is here.