Young Characters in Literature

Credit: Amor Towles/Penguin Random House

There are many memorable kids and teens in literature, and I’m going to discuss a few of them in a blog post so young it was born on January 29, 2023. 🙂

A terrific non-adult character I most recently encountered is 8-year-old Billy Watson in Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway, which I read and very much enjoyed last week. The precocious Billy is smart, bookish, lovable, and adventurous while navigating a life that sees his 18-year-old brother spend time in prison, his mother abandon the family, his father die, and more. He often acts like a mini-adult yet is still charmingly boyish in certain ways.

Towles is obviously masterful at creating and depicting young people as supporting characters, because he also featured the unforgettable girls Nina and Sofia in his wonderful novel A Gentleman in Moscow that I read last year. They are mother and daughter, but both appear as children in different parts of a book that spans decades.

Then there’s the charming Giuseppe in Elsa Morante’s novel History (he’s the son of a beleaguered single mother in Italy during World War II); the feisty Maggie Tulliver as a girl in the first part of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss; the brainy, studious, ambitious Francie Nolan of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the conflicted teen John Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain; the brave teen Starr Carter, whose male friend is murdered by police in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give; the wise-beyond-his-years Ponyboy Curtis of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders; and only child Jody Baxter, who co-stars with a fawn in Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ 19th-century-set The Yearling.

Taking place WAY before that, in prehistoric times, is Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear and its amazing young protagonist Ayla. 

Some fictional young people are so iconic that one doesn’t need to say much about them. They include Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane as a girl in the first part of Jane Eyre, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, Harper Lee’s Scout Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Dickens’ Pip (Great Expectations) and Oliver Twist, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland-visiting Alice, L. Frank Baum’s Dorothy Gale of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Hermione Granger, and Louisa May Alcott’s Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy of Little Women.

Obviously, readers of the novels I mentioned and the many kid-or-teen-starring novels I didn’t mention see plenty of great and sometimes fraught interactions between young siblings, between young friends, and between young people and adults. Readers also might remember their own childhoods, or, if they’re still young themselves, currently relate to the characters — providing that the adult authors make those characters believable and interesting enough!

Also, we’re of course interested in what young people in fiction will be like when they grow up. In those novels that span enough years, we find out. 🙂

Your favorite kids and teens 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — which includes the latest about a proposed redevelopment, an expansion of bus service, and more — is here.

The Unexpected in Fiction

I’ve blogged about surprises in literature before, but I’m going to take a somewhat different angle this time.

It’s a good thing when authors — whether their usual writing approach is formulaic or not — offer the unexpected. That helps keep things fresh for the authors…and the readers.

I thought about this last week while enjoying the latest Jack Reacher thriller — No Plan B by Lee Child and Andrew Child. In many ways the 2022 novel is like the previous 26 Reacher books: justice-minded drifter/ex-military cop Jack doesn’t hesitate to get involved in dangerous situations and wreak havoc on the bad guys (while frequenting unpretentious eateries between the action moments 🙂 ). But among the differences in No Plan B is that there’s no significant romantic interlude for Reacher, who’s had many such interludes over the years. When Jack joins forces with Hannah Hampton (who knew two of the book’s murder victims) to travel from Colorado to a very suspicious Mississippi prison, no sleeping together ensues. It’s friendly, but all business.

Just before No Plan B, I read John Grisham’s 2017 novel The Rooster Bar. It contains many Grisham touches: a legal theme, characters in big trouble, lots of suspense, a strong social conscience, etc. Humor is rarely a big part of the Grisham mix, but in this case there were more funny moments than usual — with things getting close to slapstick at times. Even the title is a pun of sorts.

Of course, authors can also surprise readers by writing in an entirely different genre, as when Grisham came out with the 2012 baseball novel Calico Joe after more than two decades of mostly legal thrillers.

Also in 2012, J.K. Rowling radically switched gears from the magic-filled, fantastical, periodically humorous Harry Potter series she had completed in 2007 to write The Casual Vacancy — a bleak, serious, real-world look at a small town and its politics. Turned out to be pretty compelling. Then Rowling pivoted yet again to create (under the Robert Galbraith alias) the wonderful series of crime novels starring private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott. Six of those books so far.

John Steinbeck also kept readers on their toes with a canon that mixed partly comedic efforts (such as Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and CR sequel Sweet Thursday) with earnest classic works (such as The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent). Steinbeck could be VERY funny when he wanted to be.

Margaret Atwood also changed things up. Mostly known for speculative fiction (The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.) and contemporary fiction (Cat’s Eye, etc.), she turned to the past for one book with the historical-fiction novel Alias Grace. Atwood excelled at all three approaches.

Or how about Mark Twain actually focusing on a female character — in Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc — after years of fiction concentrating on Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and various other males? Plus he broke his mold by using virtually no humor in the Joan of Arc historical novel.

Getting back to surprises within specific novels, there’s the hilarious devil scene in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s mostly weighty masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.

Then there’s the way some titles of novels throw readers for a bit of a loop when they read the books. For instance, I’m currently midway through the superb The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles (who previously wrote 2016’s also-superb A Gentleman in Moscow) and I thought from the title it might be largely a car trip “road novel.” But while there’s some cross-country driving in The Lincoln Highway, a train trip, a stay in New York City, and other elements are also quite important to the plot. More on the 1954-set, 2021-published book in next week’s post.

Examples of the unexpected you’ve experienced 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about local celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and more — is here.

Great Novels Revered Not Sooner But Later

Some notable novels don’t catch on at first — taking years, even MANY years, before getting the respect they deserve. Initial sales and critical reaction can range from poor to so-so, with the reverence not coming until later.

Why? The books might have been “before their time,” controversial, out of “the mainstream,” too challenging, or not marketed well. Or maybe there was no discernible reason for the lack of early thriving — just one of those fluky things. Sometimes, “failed” books get noticed more when the authors write later classics, causing readers to look back at their earlier work. Other times, screen adaptations might bring delayed attention to the novels.

The first title that came to mind for this post — the theme of which was suggested by blogger Endless Weekend in a comment under one of my previous posts — is Moby-Dick. As I’ve discussed before, Herman Melville’s classic bombed with readers and critics when first published in 1851. Too deep? Too metaphysical? Too diverse a crew? Too much minutiae about whales? Other reasons? Anyway, Moby-Dick wasn’t “rediscovered” until nearly 30 years Melville after died, when the 1919 centennial of his birth spurred scholarly interest in the author.

Soon after, in 1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby was published to generally favorable reviews — but sales were kind of modest. Hard to know why given how good the novel is, and it’s a fairly short work that has the additional selling point of being a pretty quick read. One way strong interest in the novel finally kicked in was when the Council on Books in Wartime gave free copies of Gatsby to American soldiers during World War II — not long after Fitzgerald died in 1940. The novel’s popularity continued to surge from there, and three more Gatsby movies were released in 1949, 1974, and 2013.

Then there was Jane Austen. Sales of her novels — including Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Emma — were okay during her lifetime and soon after her death in 1817 (when Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously). But Austen’s work didn’t explode in popularity until decades later. One thing that helped was 1869’s A Memoir of Jane Austen by her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh. In our present time, her novels obviously remain widely read, and the subject of various screen adaptations. Why weren’t Austen’s novels not as favored as they should have been two centuries ago? Perhaps one reason is that they were wrongly seen as somewhat “inconsequential” works written by a woman during a very patriarchal era. Hardly inconsequential, of course.

A later-in-the-19th-century author, Alexandre Dumas, saw his compelling Georges novel published in 1843. It wasn’t remotely as popular as his soon-to-come The Count of Monte Cristo (which contains some elements similar to Georges) and The Three Musketeers. One obvious reason is that Georges was the only novel by Dumas that focused on race and racism — with a positive, non-stereotypical protagonist who’s partly Black (as was the author). A revelation during that time. But the long-out-of-print Georges became greatly appreciated in the 21st century — even being reissued by Modern Library in a 2007 edition.

Well, those are just a few examples. Any others you’d like to mention? Any thoughts on the ones I discussed?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a petition against a local over-development and two more harassment accusations against a suspended township manager — is here.

Adaptations That Accrued Appreciably More Acclaim

When writing about the round-number anniversaries of certain novels last week, one title I mentioned was 1973’s The Princess Bride — which is better known for its 1987 movie version (cast pictured above) than for the original William Goldman book of 50 years ago.

Yes, there are screen and theatrical adaptations more famous — in some cases MUCH more famous — than the literary works that inspired them. In fact, many fans of the adaptations might not even know about the existence of the novels or short stories that started it all.

Why? Among the reasons: movie and TV watchers outnumber fiction readers, the adaptations might occasionally be better or at least more “exciting” than the books, etc.

Another prominent example of a film in a different stratosphere than the book is 1994’s blockbuster movie Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks, that was based on Winston Groom’s 1986 novel.

Also VERY different in popularity is 1953’s iconic Shane film vs. Jack Schaefer’s much-less-iconic 1949 novel of the same name.

In the short story realm, Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 tale “The Birds” isn’t nearly as famous as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film — although du Maurier is of course hardly an obscure author.

Not quite as disparate in visibility is 1968’s Charly film based on Daniel Keyes’ 1959 short story (later turned into a novel) Flowers for Algernon, but the movie is more in the public zeitgeist.

Moving to plays, the opened-in-1949 musical South Pacific is at least somewhat more famous than James Michener’s 1947 book Tales of the South Pacific — even as Michener, like du Maurier, is a major name in the world of fiction.

Another musical, the 1955-debuting Damn Yankees, has a significantly higher profile than its inspiration: Douglass Wallop’s 1954 novel The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant.

And, last but not least, the long-running musical Wicked — which opened in 2003 and is still going strong — far exceeds Gregory Maguire’s 1995 Wicked novel in renown.

I realize I’m just scratching the surface here. Other examples you’d like to mention? Any thoughts about this phenomenon?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — containing some of my local wishes for 2023 — is here.

Another Roundup of Round-Number Anniversaries

With the New Year here, it’s time for my annual post focusing on some of the novels that will reach round-number anniversaries in the next 12 months.

I’ll work chronologically backwards, starting with 1998-published books turning 25 in 2023. I’ll only mention novels I’ve read, except for two of which I’ve only seen the movie version.

Not sure this qualifies, but Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was first published in the United States a quarter-century ago, in 1998. That novel initially came out in the United Kingdom the previous year under the title of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone — kicking off J.K. Rowling’s outstanding, wildly popular seven books of wizard world-building. The second novel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, made its page-turning debut everywhere in ’98.

Perhaps the best novel of ’98 was The Poisonwood Bible, about a very problematic American missionary in Africa and his long-suffering/eventually rebelling wife and daughters. Barbara Kingsolver’s masterwork became a Pulitzer Prize finalist, losing out to Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and its Virginia Woolf theme. (I haven’t read the latter book but did see 2002’s excellent movie adaptation.)

In the young-adult realm, Louis Sachar’s quirkily great Holes also arrived in 1998.

Some of the novel notables of 1973, a half-century ago? William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (which I also haven’t read but saw 1987’s famous film version) turns 50 this year. As does Sula, a compelling early Toni Morrison effort about a complicated friendship between two quite different girls-then-women.

Also in ’73 was Rita Mae Brown’s pioneering lesbian-themed Rubyfruit Jungle, a great read; and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, which became a bestseller with its candid take on (hetero) female sexuality.

My favorite novel from 1923: L.M. Montgomery’s wonderful Emily of New Moon, the first in a semi-autobiographical trilogy. Also turning 100 in 2023 is Aldous Huxley’s Antic Hay, a comic novel quite different from his later speculative-fiction classic Brave New World; and Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, one of her lesser-known works but still pretty good.

A notable release 150 years ago, in 1873, was The Gilded Age co-written by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner. Certainly a memorable title, and the portion of the novel Twain wrote is plenty satirical. Also published that year was The Belly of Paris, in which Emile Zola started hitting his stride as a novelist with the story of a wrongly accused man amid the setting of a huge marketplace in France’s capital city.

Two centuries ago, in 1823, saw the release of The Pioneers — the first of James Fenimore Cooper’s top-notch quintet of Leatherstocking novels that would become the fourth book, chronologically, telling Natty Bumppo’s life story.

Also published in 1823 was Quentin Durward, about a Scottish archer in 15th-century France. One of Walter Scott’s best novels even if not as well-known as his Ivanhoe and Rob Roy.

Any comments about the books I mentioned? Other novels you’d like to name with round-number anniversaries this year?

One more thing: Some of this blog’s 2022 statistics are pictured below, including a list of the 12 countries from which posts were viewed the most. Thank you, everyone, for reading my weekly posts and for your MANY terrific comments! 🙂

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about the saving of a historic house and more — is here.

A Christmas Wrapping Up of My Year in Reading

The Waitresses new-wave band, pictured in the early 1980s. (Photo by George DuBose.)
It’s Christmas Day, and time for my annual holiday verse with a literary twist. This year I’m rewriting The Waitresses’ 1981 song “Christmas Wrapping” to mention many of the novels I read in 2022.
First, a lyrics video of the Chris Butler-composed song:
Now, my version:
“Bah humbug” doesn’t feel near
I read Scrooge’s tale long before this year
Started 2022 with Herman Wouk
“War and Remembrance” by “The Caine Mutiny” bloke
Lengthy, epic, heartbreaking novel
Good to finally see the Nazis grovel
Then “Up the Down Staircase” by Kaufman, Bel
That book’s high school – like war – is hell
Next “A Gentleman in Moscow,” stuck in hotel
Under house arrest, not in prison cell
Amor Towles’ Russia-set story is riveting
But to other novels I now will be pivoting
“Apples Never Fall” by Liane Moriarty
Who writes with brilliant authority
Followed by the latest from Jack Reacher’s sphere
A page-turner I received for Christmas last year.
After finishing Lee Child’s “Better Off Dead”
Diana Gabaldon’s ninth “Outlander” book I read
What a saga with Jamie and Claire
The very best in time-travel fare
On to the “Tinkers” novel by Paul Harding
His dying protagonist, soon departing
Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” came next
Why I waited so long to read it…I’m perplexed
Same for “The Agony and the Ecstasy” by Irving Stone
About Michelangelo, not Sylvester Stallone
Then to “The Stone Diaries” I swerve
Carol Shields wrote it, not Stone, Irv
Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library” brings thoughts of life
Many alternate timelines come with strife
Then John Grisham, not one of fiction’s rookies
“A Time for Mercy” from those Christmas cookies!
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year.
“Breathing Lessons” inhaled soon enough
Nicely quirky, like most Anne Tyler stuff
“The Overstory” – epic! – by Richard Powers
With astonishing trees, and so-so flowers
“The General in His Labyrinth” didn’t require
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” to read, entire
After Gabriel Garcia Marquez…Joy Fielding
Her “Lost” has suspense she’s expert at wielding
The landscape turned to Jane Smiley’s “A Thousand Acres”
An intense family drama, albeit lacking Quakers
Switching genres, “The Calculating Stars”
About female astronauts steering more than cars
By Mary Robinette Kowal, years after Zane Grey
Wrote “Boulder Dam” about harnessed river spray
Followed by Melville’s “Mardi,” a sea saga longer
Than Santa’s risky sleigh ride – make your roofs stronger!
On to “Brothers Keepers,” let’s not tarry
Donald Westlake’s setting: a monastery
Louis Auchincloss’ “The Lady of Situations”
An interesting take on a woman’s ambitions
“The Sympathizer” and “The Committed” are connected
The first won a Pulitzer; Viet Thanh Nguyen was selected
Then “The Glass Kingdom” by Lawrence Osborne
Excellent but disturbing, I’m obliged to warn
Same with “The Alienist” by Caleb Carr
Crime fiction par excellence, or excellence par
Includes real figures like Teddy Roosevelt
The killer no teddy bear; left more than a welt
Now 16th-century-immersed in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”
Her tour de force about a man who’s “on the ball”
His name’s Thomas Cromwell and he really existed
But just like Santa his phone number’s unlisted.
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
We read a lot of books this year.
The fictional works you most enjoyed in 2022?
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 every Thursday. The latest piece – which is light but not light — is here.

From Known to Less Known to More Known Again

Octavia E. Butler (photo credit: Curious Fictions)

Sometimes, a novel falls into obscurity or semi-obscurity before returning to wider public consciousness many years later. This leap might happen because of a new screen or stage adaptation of the book or a change in societal conditions, or for both reasons, or for other reasons.

A current example is Octavia E. Butler’s mind-boggling 1979 novel Kindred, which inspired a 2022 TV series that just began streaming on Hulu. New York Times critic Mike Hale expressed mixed feelings about the production (which I haven’t seen), saying it only did partial justice to Butler’s book (which I found riveting). But it’s hard for even a so-so screen adaptation to totally ruin a searing, compelling, intricate story — in the case of Kindred, about a 20th-century Black woman repeatedly yanked back in time to the plantation where her ancestors lived in the slave-holding American South.

Turning Kindred into a TV series is timely this year because of the recent rise in overt racism in the U.S., partly “thanks” to white supremacists such as Donald Trump (who still has the support of about a third of Americans) and other prominent Republicans. Also in the news have been the efforts by U.S. conservatives to try to prevent schools from teaching the country’s disturbing racial history, the harrowing murders of George Floyd and other victims of police brutality, the protests against those killings, and more.

There’s renewed interest, too, in Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, with its prescient theme of climate change’s disastrous effects.

Butler (1947-2006) was considered a science-fiction writer but her novels are wider in scope — offering more social commentary (including anti-racist and pro-feminist elements) and more diverse casts of characters than many other sci-fi authors. She grew up in a low-income family, and became an avid reader with the help of her mother, who, as a housemaid, would bring home her employers’ discarded books and magazines for young Octavia to read.

Another novel that recently saw revived interest was Sinclair Lewis’ gripping It Can’t Happen Here (1935), about the rise of an American dictator. That dystopian political novel was never a totally obscure part of the Lewis canon, but for decades was not as well known as the author’s 1920s classics such as Main Street, Babbitt, and Elmer Gantry. Then, when the authoritarian/admirer-of-authoritarians Trump became president in 2016, It Can’t Happen Here suddenly felt prescient — and jumped up best-seller lists again. Trump of course went on to embellish his fascistic credentials by never conceding the 2020 election he convincingly lost and encouraging his followers to storm the U.S. Capitol in early 2021.

Zora Neale Hurston achieved some renown for books such as her excellent 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but was mostly forgotten in her later years and after her 1960 death — with one reason being the difficulty for an African-American woman of that era to maintain a high profile in a mostly white-male publishing world. Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her other books were eventually “rediscovered” largely thanks to another author, Alice Walker, finding Hurston’s unmarked Florida grave in 1973 and writing an influential article about her for Ms. magazine in 1975 (seven years before the release of Walker’s The Color Purple). Obviously, Black authors had a somewhat better chance of attaining prominence in the 1970s and beyond than they did decades earlier.

After some early-career 1840s writing fame, Herman Melville also become largely unknown by the time of his death in 1891 — the year Hurston was born. Nearly three decades later, the 1919 centennial of Melville’s birth moved some scholars to revisit his life and his Moby-Dick opus — which had garnered notice when published in 1851 but mostly for negative reasons: the novel was given a thumb’s down by many critics and sold poorly. Those 20th-century scholars helped turn the profound saga of Captain Ahab and crew into a belated sensation in the 1920s and after. Also, the manuscript for Billy Budd was found among the keepsakes of Melville’s descendants and published for the first time in 1924, to great acclaim.

Part of Melville’s “problem” was being so ahead of his time. A 2019 Columbia magazine article by Paul Hond contained this quote: “Melville was a nineteenth-century author writing for a twentieth-century audience,” explains Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco, author of the 2005 biography Melville: His World and Work. “He used stream of consciousness long before Stein or Joyce; he acknowledged America’s predatory power as well as its great promise; he defied convention in writing about sex; and perhaps most shocking of all, he took seriously the possibility of a godless universe. In his time, there was a limited market for these insights and innovations.”

Miguel de Cervantes’ iconic 1605 novel Don Quixote has nearly always been famous, but it jumped even more into public consciousness after inspiring the hit Broadway musical Man of La Mancha that made its debut in 1965. An appropriate decade for that to happen, because Don Quixote’s idealism and unconventionality made him a 1960s-type character of sorts.

I’ll conclude with a strange tale involving Colleen McCullough, whose novels include the terrific The Thorn Birds and the nearly as good Morgan’s Run. She also wrote The Ladies of Missalonghi, which, when published in 1987, turned out to be a blatant rip-off of L.M. Montgomery’s exquisite 1926 novel The Blue Castle. McCullough said this one blot in an exemplary career was not intended — she called it a case of “subconscious recollection” — but the situation did have the positive result of reviving interest in The Blue Castle, an underrated part of the wonderful Montgomery canon best known for Anne of Green Gables.

Any thoughts or examples relating to this week’s blog theme?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about an imagined tour of my town by a cynical fake Santa — is here.

My French Fiction Favorites

Me in front of Alexandre Dumas’ crypt at the Pantheon in Paris in 2018. (Photo by Laurel Cummins.)

Today is the birthday of my wife, Laurel Cummins, who’s a French professor. One way I decided to mark the occasion was by ranking my favorite novels by French authors. Thirty-three made the list (chosen from among the 50 or so I’ve read), meaning some great works I’ve never gotten to are of course missing. 😦 Here goes…

33. Nausea (1938) by Jean-Paul Sartre: A thought-provoking, philosophical novel that stars a self-loathing protagonist, but the near-total lack of plot makes it a tough read.

32. Therese Raquin (1868) by Emile Zola: This early EZ novel is a potboiler nowhere near as good as the author’s more mature later work, but its depiction of scandalous behavior holds one’s interest.

31. Alien Hearts (1890) by Guy de Maupassant: About a young aristocratic “nobody” infatuated with a popular, conceited, wealthy young widow.

30. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) by Jules Verne: In which we’re “finding Nemo” (Captain Nemo) and a Nautilus that’s a submarine rather than an exercise machine. Great science fiction.

29. Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) by Jules Verne: Not about the travels of the rock band Journey. More great sci-fi.

28. The Charterhouse of Parma (1839) by Stendhal: The memorable saga of an Italian nobleman in the Napoleonic era.

27. Nana (1880) by Emile Zola: This sexually frank-for-its-time novel chronicles the life of an initially impoverished woman who becomes a “high-class prostitute.”

26. Cesar Birotteau (1837) by Honore de Balzac: The struggles of an honest middle-class merchant who’s lured into financially overextending himself.

25. The Little Prince (1943) by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: A heartwarming, partly sad book ostensibly for younger readers that’s more a book for adults.

24. Around the World in Eighty Days (1872) by Jules Verne: The classic adventure novel about a trip for the ages.

23. Swann’s Way (1913) by Marcel Proust: The first volume of In Search of Lost Time is gorgeously written but not exactly a page-turner. (I haven’t read the later volumes.)

22. The Masterpiece (1886) by Emile Zola: A compelling look at an intense, unhappy artist.

21. The Magic Skin (1831) by Honore de Balzac: Mixes the fantastical with the debauched.

20. The Black Tulip (1850) by Alexandre Dumas: Flower contest! (Actually, there’s other stuff, too.)

19. The Stranger (1942) by Albert Camus: As existential as the aforementioned Nausea, but a more gripping read.

18. The Ladies’ Delight (1883) by Emile Zola: A huge department store wreaks havoc on mom-and-pop retailers in Paris. The novel co-stars an admirable shopgirl.

17. Eugenie Grandet (1833) by Honore de Balzac: About the sympathetic daughter of a rich, miserly man.

16. Desert (1980) by J.M.G. Le Clezio: This fascinating take on colonialism and more focuses on a young North African woman who travels to France.

15. Lelia (1833) by George Sand: A richly written work starring an intellectual woman.

14. The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas: Delightful swashbuckler that was followed by a number of pretty good sequels.

13. The Beast in Man (1890) by Emile Zola: About a train and a tempestuous romance.

12. Georges (1843) by Alexandre Dumas: The only novel the biracial Dumas wrote featuring a Black protagonist, and it’s terrific.

11. Claudine at School (1900) by Colette: The funniest book on this list. (Colette would go on to write a number of other excellent novels in a more serious vein.)

10. Old Goriot (1835) by Honore de Balzac: Features the once-wealthy title character, an ambitious young law student, and plenty of intrigue.

9. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert: One of literature’s most famous stories of adultery.

8. Candide (1759) by Voltaire: There are few pre-1800 novels more readable than this satirical work.

7. The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus: A riveting saga of characters living through an epidemic that feels both real and metaphorical.

6. Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo: The Broadway hit that was a pre-Broadway classic novel.

5. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo: The iconic tale of Quasimodo and the iconic Parisian cathedral.

4. The Vagabond (1910) by Colette: A semi-autobiographical work about an independent woman dancer resisting a pull toward conventionality.

3. The Drinking Den (1877) by Emile Zola: An unforgettable look at the devastating alcoholic decline of a couple. (The parents of the aforementioned Nana.)

2. Germinal (1885) by Emile Zola: Miners in one of the major novels of the 19th century.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas: A sweeping revenge tale that might boast the best payback plot ever.

Your favorite novels by French authors?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town getting a high LGBTQ+ rating and other topics — is here.

A Look-see at Sequels

Margaret Atwood photo by Liam Sharp.

How is a sequel to a novel different from the next installment of a series (such as the Harry Potter and Jack Reacher books) or another installment of a trilogy (like The Lord of the Rings)? One difference is that an author often waits at least a few years before producing a sequel, while usually writing unrelated books in between.

This post will mostly ignore series to focus on the sequel, which of course can be just as good or better than the first novel or not quite as good or even a dud.

I’m currently reading Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Committed (2021) not long after having read his The Sympathizer (2015), and it’s another superbly crafted, political-minded, part-humorous look at the mind-boggling life of a half-Vietnamese/half-French man — now living in Paris after the Vietnam War. During the years between those equally excellent 2015 and 2021 novels, the author’s published output included unrelated works (that I haven’t read) such as The Refugees short-story collection, a children’s book, and two nonfiction books.

Margaret Atwood did the sequel thing when she wrote The Testaments (2019) as a long-time-in-coming follow to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). The later book is not at the level of the earlier speculative-fiction classic about a brutally patriarchal society, but it’s quite good in its own right. During that lengthy Tale-to-Testaments time span, Atwood authored a number of other great novels — including Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake, to name a few.

I’ll say something similar about John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (1945) and its Sweet Thursday sequel (1954): first one excellent, the second a shade less so — with both socially observant and frequently funny. The highlight of Steinbeck’s post-Cannery/pre-Sweet work was of course East of Eden (1952).

Anne of Green Gables (1908) spawned many sequels through 1939, even as L.M. Montgomery wrote other memorable novels — such as The Blue Castle and the Emily trilogy — during those three decades. None of the Anne sequels match the Green Gables original, but all are well worth reading, with Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside my favorites.

Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970) is one of my very favorite time-travel novels, but its From Time to Time sequel (1995) is mostly a clunker. Finney did die in ’95, so he was probably not in the best of health when writing that follow-up book. Between ’70 and ’95, Finney authored several better works, though Time and Again remains his standout accomplishment.

Also in the time-travel realm, Darryl Brock’s baseball-themed If I Never Get Back (1990) is an ultra-page-turner, while the sequel Two in the Field (2002) is basically just okay.

Rabbit, Run (1960) was followed by a sequel every decade or so — amid plenty of other John Updike writing — but I wasn’t a fan of the original Rabbit and never read the subsequent installments.

I’ll end by noting that Fyodor Dostoevsky reportedly planned a sequel or two to his amazing The Brothers Karamazov (1880), but the author’s early-1881 death intervened. 😦

Any sequels you’d like to mention?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about the holiday season, shopping local, and more — is here.

This Gap Is Not a Clothing Chain

The economic chasm between the wealthy and the rest of us is sadly quite pronounced in the U.S. and various other countries — and of course reflected in some literature.

Reading such fare can raise our blood pressure but be quite revealing of how the rich get rich (often by inheriting a fortune and/or exploiting workers) and stay rich (often by “buying” political clout and paying less than their fair share of taxes). Meanwhile, the non-affluent see their wages rise slower than inflation (if they rise at all), face many barriers to forming unions, etc.

Sometimes fiction has ruthless wealthy characters and corporations deservedly get their comeuppance — a wish-fulfillment scenario that happens more in books than in real life. In those cases, authors are thankfully the ones “rigging the game.” 🙂 But there is not always a happy ending.

I just finished John Grisham’s The Appeal, and I’ve seldom read a novel that more strongly depicts the obscene economic gap between the haves and have-nots. Grisham’s book might be a bit heavy-handed at times, but readers can’t help but fume as a huge chemical company deliberately dumps tons of toxic waste (to save money on disposal) that pollutes a small Mississippi town’s water supply to the point where dozens of low-income people die of cancer. One resident who lost her husband and young child manages to win a $41-million verdict against the company with the help of an admirable local mom-and-pop law firm that goes broke fighting the case.

The company appeals, of course, and its merciless billionaire owner secretly pays millions to a shady firm that will try to elect a right-wing, corporate-friendly judge who would be the potential deciding vote overturning the verdict. That plucked-from-obscurity candidate is supported by a blitzkrieg, vicious, lie-filled ad campaign painting his incumbent-judge opponent as an ultra-liberal despite her being a moderate. Meanwhile, the loathsome chemical exec enjoys a jet-set lifestyle that even includes spending $18 million on a piece of art.

While economic inequality is rampant in the 21st century, it’s certainly not a new phenomenon. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath really makes us feel the 1930s version via the Joad family — who were sharecroppers on Oklahoma land they used to own before being forced to go to California, where they are again victimized by agribusiness and other wealthy forces.

Also taking place in the 20th century, Arundhati Roy’s India-set The God of Small Things features an affluent family and an impoverished “Untouchable” as major characters. Meanwhile, socialist forces are at work trying to make income distribution a little more fair. The police, almost always more deferential to the rich than the poor, take the “Untouchable” into custody and…

There’s also quite a financial contrast in Richard Wright’s Native Son, in which the low-income Black protagonist is offered a job as a chauffeur for a white millionaire. Disaster ensues.

Going further back, into the 19th century, we have rich mine ownership and underpaid/overworked miners in Emile Zola’s Germinal. A strike happens, and…

Or how about Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist? It stars an abused orphan near/in a city (London) where some are very wealthy, and many of us know the famous “please, sir, I want some more” line uttered by the hungry boy when he wants more food. (Oliver doesn’t get it.) When there’s so much poverty, some turn to crime — and Dickens’ book certainly has its share of colorful lawbreakers.

I’ve cited just a few examples. Any novels you’d like to mention in which the income gap is pretty pronounced?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a very delayed bridge, a local Starbucks union action, and Thanksgiving — is here.