A Short Post About Long Novels

Don Quixote with a lance less lengthy than the book in which he stars.

I mentioned The Winds of War in last week’s post but will mention it again today because it’s a long novel that I’m still reading. But what theme can I think of that would warrant giving that 885-page book a second consecutive mention? Hmm…how about a post discussing long novels I’ve read and liked? 🙂

Herman Wouk’s World War II-themed novel is certainly holding my interest — and part of the reason is its length. All those hundreds of pages are helping me get to really “know” the characters and see how they mature and react to things as time goes by. Plus it can be wonderful to get totally absorbed in a novel’s world for a couple weeks — and a reader can’t help but be impressed by the time, research, and prodigious effort that go into writing a doorstop book.

Of course, there are also downsides to long novels. They can drag in spots (though this is not always the case) and they take time away from other books. You’ll spend about the same number of hours reading a 1,000-page novel as four 250-page novels, if my math is correct. 🙂

The title that most comes to mind when thinking of fiction “tomes” is Leo Tolstoy’s iconic War and Peace, which clocks in at 1,440 pages in at least one edition. Fortunately, it’s a very readable novel.

Also very readable, and often quite funny, is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote — 1,056 pages in an edition I saw listed online. Victor Hugo’s mesmerizing Les Miserables? 1,232 pages. Stephen King’s apocalyptic The Stand? 1,152 pages.

Among other in-the-vicinity-of-1,000-page novels I’ve read are Alexandre Dumas’ scintillating The Count of Monte Cristo and James Clavell’s breathtaking Shogun.

In the 700-plus or 800-plus-page realm? Fyodor Dostoevsky’s tour de force The Brothers Karamazov, George Eliot’s masterful Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’ compelling David Copperfield, Herman Melville’s whale of a book Moby-Dick, W. Somerset Maugham’s memorable Of Human Bondage, William Thackeray’s vivid Vanity Fair, Donna Tartt’s riveting The Goldfinch, Eleanor Catton’s eye-opening The Luminaries, Henry Fielding’s colorful Tom Jones, Don DeLillo’s uneven Underworld, etc.

Of course, trilogies (such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) and longer series (such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books) can stretch over a thousand or several thousand pages, but I’m focusing on stand-alone novels in this blog post. There ARE individual novels within a series — such as Diana Gabaldon’s eight-volume-soon-to-be-nine-volume Outlander saga — that are each 1,000-plus pages.

Then there’s Marcel Proust’s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, which goes on for a whopping 4,000-plus pages. I only read part of it before giving up, so I really shouldn’t discuss it much here. I found the writing beautiful but also kind of tedious at times.

This blog post has mentioned only a short list of long books. Your favorite doorstop novels?

Speaking of long, here’s my favorite song by the hugely underrated band Renaissance. The “Ashes Are Burning” version I linked to is 12 minutes, but the band extended it to about 30 minutes (!) at some concerts.

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an impressive women’s march for reproductive rights, a raise for teachers, and more — is here.

The Important Human Factor During Important Events

Characters from “The Winds of War” miniseries.

When novelists write about war and other major events, a way to build maximum reader interest is to focus on a limited number of characters. That approach personalizes those major events as they get filtered through the characters’ eyes. Very effective and very relatable.

The limited number of characters can be one person, one family, a few families, a few other people — that sort of thing. And the novels they appear in are of course usually in the historical-fiction genre.

One great example of this approach is The Winds of War, which I’m currently reading. Herman Wouk’s massive/impressive novel periodically offers a wide focus on World War II, including the lead-up to that huge conflagration. But Wouk mainly concentrates on how WWII affects the Henry family: stoic U.S. Navy officer Victor, his oft-dissatisfied wife Rhoda, and their three young-adult children: high-achieving Warren, less-driven Byron, and feisty Madeline. A handful of prominent secondary characters are also featured.

The fictional Victor “Pug” Henry ends up meeting and observing many major real-life WWII players: FDR, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, etc. 

Another WWII novel that takes the small-scale/large-scale approach is Elsa Morante’s Rome-set History, which tells the memorable story of the hapless Ida and her two charismatic sons as they navigate the horrors of war and fascism. Each of the book’s sections starts with a detailed list of a year’s real-life events — some of which are then experienced by the fictional characters. Hence the novel’s title, and a literal way of combining the personal and the universal.

The latter-1930s Spanish Civil War was humanized by Ernest Hemingway in his Spain-set For Whom the Bell Tolls via American dynamiter Robert Jordan and other characters in what is my favorite Hemingway novel. (My wife’s Michigan father was a volunteer fighting the fascists in Spain as a member of what’s often called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s absorbing Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of the late-1960s Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War) from the perspective of a small number of characters such as Olanna, Ugwu, and Richard. They are individuals, but also represent the way different classes, genders, nationalities, etc., experienced the heartbreaking conflict.

Geraldine Brooks’ intense novel March views the U.S. Civil War from an interesting angle — that of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women. He goes through a LOT while trying to aid the Union cause, and his harrowing experiences shed lots of light on war, slavery, and more.

Speaking of war novels, Erich Maria Remarque masterfully did the humanizing thing in a number of books — including All Quiet on the Western Front, Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

The hellishness of American slavery is brought home on a personal level in novels such as Alex Haley’s Roots — subtitled “The Saga of an American Family.” The famous book starts with a focus on the captured-from-Africa Kunta Kinte, and a number of the other major characters are his descendants. Yet there’s also a wider lens on the brutal system of slavery.

Julia Alvarez’s compelling In the Time of the Butterflies looks at the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship through the eyes of four sisters — Minerva, Patria, MarĂ­a Teresa, and DedĂ© — who oppose the murderous regime. A very risky proposition for three of them.

John Steinbeck set The Grapes of Wrath during the days of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and mass migration to California — and has the sympathetic Joad family go through it all. Meanwhile, the riveting book includes a number of Joad-less chapters focusing on the social conditions of that 1930s time.

Your favorite novels that fit this post’s theme?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about four community organizations that may sadly lose their free office space when their building is sold — is here.

Multigenerational Novels Contain Multitudes

Rachel Ward as Meggie and Richard Chamberlain as Ralph in “The Thorn Birds” miniseries.

When I think of sweeping, two things come to mind: brooms, and multigenerational novels in which a number of decades pass.

Many of those literary works are ambitious, impressive, and poignant. Characters grow older, many good and bad things happen, we see how similar or different their children and grandchildren turn out to be, we see those family members interact, we see settings change as characters relocate, we see societal and cultural norms shift, etc.

All of which can be challenging for authors — who obviously have to do lots of research, thread real-life events into story lines, juggle many characters, make those characters speak differently at different ages and during different eras, and so on. When novelists pull all that off, it’s a thing to behold.

I beheld The Thorn Birds last week, and found that novel riveting and often heartbreaking. Among the most memorable things about Colleen McCullough’s book was the way she took her characters from 1915 to 1969 and from New Zealand to Australia to Europe — mixing in then-current events along the way. But the most fascinating element was seeing Meggie Cleary depicted as a kid, then as a teen, then as a young adult, and then as a middle-aged woman — including her interactions with her parents, her many brothers, her two out-of-the-ordinary children, and her nasty, conniving, ultra-rich aunt. Plus Meggie’s compelling, complicated relationship with charismatic priest Ralph de Bricassart. 

Other multigenerational novels of note?

John Steinbeck’s East of Eden covers a time span from roughly America’s Civil War to the end of World War I. Parts of the book are semi-autobiographical, with a young Steinbeck himself even making a cameo. The novel might not be quite as famous as The Grapes of Wrath, but in some ways is even more ambitious — certainly occupying a much longer stretch of years than Steinbeck’s 1930s-set tale of the Joad family.

Even more ambitious is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which chronicles SEVEN generations of the Buendia family amid much magical realism. Here, the book’s title obviously provides a sense of the story’s decades-long scope.

While One Hundred Years of Solitude is mostly set in one place, many other multigenerational novels take readers to far-flung locales — with immigration often an element. For instance, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex starts in 1922 near the border of Greece and Turkey with the grandparents of protagonist Cal/Calliope before things eventually move to the U.S. and Michigan. There, the novel’s story of complex gender identity unfolds.

In many cases, it requires a series of novels for a multigenerational saga to be chronicled. One example is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander books, the first of which begins the time-travel love story of 20th-century nurse (later doctor) Claire and 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie. Eventually, their daughter and grandchildren are among those added to the family/extended-family mix. 

Your favorite multigenerational novels and series that take place over a number of decades?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town being a welcoming place for LGBTQ people — is here.

Puzzling Star Billing in Some Fiction Titles

The Three…um…Four Musketeers.

When a novel’s title features names of people, they’re sure to be the stars of the book, right? Think Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Ethan Frome, Eugenie Grandet, Evelina, Lelia, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Bridge, Agnes Grey, Life of Pi, Emma, Heidi, Carrie, Camille, Suttree, Pierre, Lord Jim, Sister Carrie, Hadji Murat, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, etc.

But this is not always the case. Occasionally, the people in a title are secondary (albeit significant) characters, or they share top billing. Why? Maybe the titular secondary character is particular charismatic or mysterious. Maybe the chosen title just has a nicer ring to it. Maybe the author intends a bit of misdirection or surprise.

One example is Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Rob Roy. While the Scottish outlaw has a major role in the 1817 book, the most prominent character is narrator Frank Osbaldistone. Rob Roy is of course a more interesting fella, and who would want to read a novel called Frank Osbaldistone? 🙂 Anyway, it’s logical that those behind the 1995 film version of Scott’s novel made Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) the main guy.

Four years after Scott’s novel was published, James Fenimore Cooper came out with The Spy. But Revolutionary War agent Harvey Birch is not the main player in the book; he’s part of an ensemble of about a half-dozen characters who get roughly equal time. Still, Birch is the novel’s most intriguing creation, and faces some memorably dangerous situations.

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers? Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are of course a big part of that swashbuckling 1844 novel, but the younger D’Artagnan — who becomes essentially the fourth musketeer — is really the star of the show.

The true star of R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel Lorna Doone is John Ridd. But John falls in love with Lorna, much of the story stems from that romance, and Lorna IS a major player in the book, so the title is understandable. Plus who would want to eat a cookie called “John Ridd”? 🙂

Daniel Deronda is the linchpin of George Eliot’s 1876 novel of that name, but a case can be made that the fascinating arc of Gwendolen Harleth’s life makes her at least equal as a character in that book.

Jumping nearly a century, we have Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, whose protagonist is actually Sula’s best friend Nel. But Sula — while occupying less of the book than Nel — drives the plot with her charisma, her unconventionality, and (at times) her selfishness and not-niceness.

Any other novel titles that might fit 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town belatedly becoming eligible for federal disaster relief after Hurricane Ida — is here.

Educators Give Fiction Lots of Class

Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus

My wife’s latest semester as a French professor has begun, and my younger daughter started high school this past Thursday — meaning I have education on my mind. So I thought I’d offer an updated, edited amalgam of my 2015 post about teachers in literature and my 2012 post about professors in literature.

Many educators in fiction are smart, hardworking, and compassionate — like most real-life educators we and our children have had.

One of my favorite classroom characters is Anne Shirley in Anne of Avonlea, the first sequel to L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Anne becomes a teacher while still a pre-college teen — and predictably things don’t always go smoothly. But she is kind and imaginative, and earns the love and respect of her Canadian students.

Another beloved teacher is Charles Chipping — of James Hilton’s novel Goodbye, Mr. Chips — who’s a rather rigid, conventional educator until he warms up over the course of a many-decade career at an English public boarding school.

Also in England, innovative teacher Ricky Braithwaite wins over his at-first-unmotivated students in E.R. Braithwaite’s autobiographical novel To Sir, With Love — later made into the famous movie starring Sidney Poitier.

Jane Eyre was briefly a teacher, and a good one, after fleeing Thornfield Hall in Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. (Previously, she instructed one kid — Edward Rochester’s ward Adele — while governess at Thornfield.) Jane’s teaching approach was undoubtedly inspired by the wonderful Maria Temple at the initially miserable Lowood institution Jane was forced to attend as a girl.

In American fiction, among the many excellent educators is drama teacher Dan Needham of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Great teachers abound in children’s books, too, with one of the most memorable the ingenious, enthusiastic Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus series written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen. Also a popular animated TV series.

Of course, not all teachers are terrific. In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, for instance, educators range from admirable (think Minerva McGonagall) to incompetent (think Gilderoy Lockhart).

Then there are teachers somewhere in the middle of the competence spectrum. Ida Ramundo means well in Elsa Morante’s novel History, but her classroom performance deteriorates as she becomes overwhelmed by various disasters while trying to survive in Nazi-occupied Rome.

The teacher title character in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is charismatic but unfortunately has fascist sympathies.

On the irresponsible side is young teacher Aimee Lanthenay, who has an affair with the student star of Claudine at School. But almost everything is played for laughs in Colette’s first novel, so the major ethical breach seems somewhat muted.

Moving to higher education, we have professor protagonists — a number of them quirky. There can be drama in their interactions with students, in their competitive relationships with fellow profs, in their sometimes-fraught encounters with university administrators, in their quests for tenure, and in the whole publish-or-perish thing. All that makes up for the fact they are (usually) not the heroic, adventurous sorts who make readers turn pages faster than tuition payments drain a bank account.

Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs tells the alternating stories of a professor (Virginia Miner) and junior faculty member (Fred Turner) from the same Ivy League university. Both Americans are (separately) in London, where they do research and soon find themselves in opposites-attract liaisons — i.e., “foreign affairs.” But the highlight of this Pulitzer-winning novel is “Vinnie” Miner herself — a 54-year-old specialist in children’s lit who Lurie describes as “small, plain, and unmarried.” She’s polite, reserved, resentful, self-deprecating, and REALLY smart.

There’s also Tony Fremont in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Robber Bride, which focuses on three middle-aged friends dealing with the reappearance of a scheming, supposedly dead woman who had wreaked havoc on their lives. One thing that makes Tony such an original character is that she’s a somewhat timid woman whose academic specialty is…the macho history of warfare!

Marine biology is Professor Humphrey Clark’s specialty in Margaret Drabble’s novel The Sea Lady, which co-stars Clark’s ex-wife Ailsa Kelman. One interesting thing about this novel is the contrast between the low-key, scholarly Humphrey and the flamboyant Ailsa, who’s a TV personality (among other things).

Then there’s Michael Chabon’s seriocomic Wonder Boys, about a Pittsburgh prof with a rather chaotic life. Grady Tripp’s wife walks out on him, his lover (the college chancellor!) is pregnant, one of his students commits a weird crime, and he’s writing a way-too-long mess of a book after enjoying success with a novel. That last situation is sort of a goof on how some academics don’t write with the average reader in mind.

Seventy years earlier, Willa Cather penned one of her lesser-known novels, The Professor’s House — which focuses on history prof Godfrey St. Peter’s midlife crisis as he moves into a new home, becomes an empty-nester, and worries about where society is heading.

Also, there are the unlikable academic rivals Howard Belsey and Monty Kipps in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and the unsympathetic prof Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.

In May of this year, you might remember me raving about John Williams’ bleak novel Stoner starring a Missouri farm boy-turned-professor who endures a mostly heartbreaking life but finds some solace in a love of learning and literature.

Who are the fictional educators you remember most?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about Hurricane Ida’s remnants slamming my town — is here.

Less-Famous Works By Famous Writers

Top-tier authors are often known mostly for certain novels, and some people read only those books without delving into the writers’ lesser-known work…unless they do.

If they do, they might find gems or disappointment or a combination thereof. But, not surprisingly, it’s frequently worth the effort.

My latest foray into this realm was with James Fenimore Cooper. Before last week, I had only read the novels with which he is most associated — the five “Leatherstocking” books featuring Natty Bumppo’s wilderness and frontier life, and his memorable interactions with Native Americans (most notably Chingachgook) and other characters. All five novels are excellent, with The Last of the Mohicans the most known and The Deerslayer my favorite.

But Cooper penned about 25 other novels, so I decided to try one of them: The Spy, set during the Revolutionary War. It’s…okay, not much more. Perhaps partly because it’s James F.’s second novel, and not all fiction writers find their footing that early in their careers. Still, The Spy has some anniversary cred — it was published in 1821, exactly 200 years ago.

I’ve usually had more positive experiences trying the lesser-known novels of notable authors. One example is L.M. Montgomery, who’s of course most remembered for Anne of Green Gables. But some of the Anne sequels are also quite good (especially Anne’s House of Dreams and Rilla of Ingleside), Montgomery’s semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy is excellent, and her standalone novel The Blue Castle is fabulous. All set in Canada, of course.

Speaking of that country, Willa Cather’s Quebec City-set Shadows on the Rock is an under-appreciated gem by an author who’s remembered primarily for Death Comes for the Archbishop and secondarily for My Antonia. Her The Song of the Lark is pretty compelling, too.

The six words most associated with Erich Maria Remarque are those in the title of All Quiet on the Western Front — his antiwar masterpiece. The riveting Arch of Triumph is probably his second-highest-profile novel. (As with All Quiet, it didn’t hurt that the book inspired a major movie.) But equally good or perhaps even better books in Remarque’s canon are his less-famous The Night in Lisbon and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

Indeed, an author’s best-known novel is not always his or her best novel. Consider Colette, whose supposedly signature work is her late-career Gigi even as quite a few of her earlier books are better than that rather slight concoction. The Vagabond, for example, and even her debut novel Claudine at School — one a semi-autobiographical look at a music-hall performer who values her independence and the second…well…just plain hilarious.

Edith Wharton is most remembered for her novels The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome — all stellar — but her ghost stories are also as good as that genre gets.

I’ve obviously only scratched the surface here. What are some of your favorite novels that are not as known as other novels in the canons of famous 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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a leaf-blower ruling and some COVID-related matters — is here.

‘The Garden State’ Grows Writers

Toni Morrison

Last week I posted about renowned author Sir Walter Scott of Scotland — a country far from my country of the United States. This week my focus will be much closer to home: novelists and other fiction writers I’ve read who were born and/or spent some years in the state of New Jersey.

I’ve lived in NJ much of my life — except for 16 years in New York City and one year near Chicago — and I can see why many successful writers have called the state their home. For one thing, it’s the law of averages — NJ has nearly nine million residents, so some of them were bound to become excellent producers of fiction.

Also, “The Garden State” has NYC near its northeast section and Philadelphia near its southwest section, a mix of cities and suburbs and rural areas, lots of racial and ethnic diversity, a large immigrant population, several respected universities, and plenty of what’s been called “Jersey attitude.” All that and more can directly or indirectly help writers write interesting stuff.

I should add that, like anyone who reads anything anywhere, it can be nice to see how writers handle settings one knows from personal experience. Do they render New Jersey accurately? Stereotypically? Evocatively? If NJ is their focus, of course; one can live somewhere but not write about that somewhere.

Perhaps the greatest novelist with a Jersey affiliation was Toni Morrison, who taught at Rutgers University in New Brunswick and was later a longtime humanities chair at Princeton University — where a building was named for her in 2017.

Joyce Carol Oates also taught at Princeton for many years.

Philip Roth was born and raised in Newark, NJ, and referred to that city in some of his novels. I have mixed feelings about sharing time in the same state as the late Roth — an often-masterful writer, but one whose sexism and misogyny were off-putting parts of his work and personal life.

Junot Diaz, who has also been accused of bad behavior toward women, moved with his family from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey when he was six. He worked his way through college at Kean and Rutgers, and eventually wrote the compelling Pulitzer-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that includes various Jersey settings.

Janet Evanovich — born and raised in South River, NJ — created the popular series of novels starring bounty hunter Stephanie Plum of Jersey’s capital city of Trenton.

Crime novelist Harlan Coben was born in Newark, raised a dozen or so miles away in Livingston, and still lives in the state.

Tom Perrotta was also born in Newark and then raised in Garwood, NJ. His first novel, The Wishbones, shows the push-and-pull of New Jersey vs. New York City via a protagonist who’s engaged to a Jersey woman but becomes enamored with a NYC woman.

I’ll alphabetically add a few more authors with Jersey connections: Paul Auster was born in Newark and grew up there and in South Orange, Peter Benchley of Jaws fame lived for a time in Princeton, Judy Blume was born in Elizabeth, James Fenimore Cooper (The Last of the Mohicans) was born in Burlington, Dorothy Gilman (the Mrs. Pollifax spy novels) was born in New Brunswick, Norman Mailer and Dorothy Parker were both from Long Branch, and George R.R. Martin (A Game of Thrones) was born in Bayonne.

Susan Meddaugh lived in my town of Montclair — the setting of her Martha Speaks children’s books and the Martha Speaks TV series about a talking dog.

New Jersey was also a stomping ground for poets Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and William Carlos Williams; poets/playwrights Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange; and playwright Christopher Durang.

Any writers you’d like to mention with a New Jersey connection? Your favorite writers with a connection to YOUR state, region, or country? 🙂

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about famous music and musicians supposedly relevant to my town — is here.

An Appreciation of Sir Walter Scott After a Big Anniversary

Sir Walter Scott

At the end of my August 15 post last Sunday, I mentioned that it was the 75th birthday of acclaimed songwriter Jimmy Webb. Well, by the time I got to…not Phoenix, but to thinking of a post for this week, I remembered there was a much more milestone-y birthday on August 15 — the 250th anniversary of Sir Walter Scott’s 1771 birth. So, today I will offer an appreciation of that renowned Scottish novelist and poet.

Some have criticized Scott’s writing for being too sentimental, too romanticized, too elitist, and so on. Mark Twain certainly disliked Scott’s work, but, heck, authors such as Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters were strong admirers. (And Scott admired Austen’s fiction.)

While I “get” some of the criticism, I’m still a big fan of many Scott novels. They’re compelling, well-written, full of memorable characters, and packed with historical information. (Most novels by Scott are historical fiction; he was among the pioneers of that genre.) Scott’s historical takes weren’t always 100% reliable, but he did do lots of research.

Even as they usually looked back, some of Scott’s 25 or so novels were ahead of their time in certain ways. For instance, The Heart of Midlothian — my favorite book of his — features female working-class protagonist Jeanie Deans as she makes an epic journey on foot from Edinburgh to London to seek a royal pardon for her wrongly imprisoned sister. And Scott’s most famous novel — the rousing Ivanhoe, set in 12th-century England — includes surprisingly non-stereotypical-for-the-time Jewish character Rebecca (even as her father, Isaac, is depicted less three-dimensionally).

My second-favorite Scott novel is the 17th-century-set Old Mortality, featuring the author’s most memorable writing about war and its effect on people. Rob Roy (in which the titular Scottish outlaw is not quite the main character) is also great, as are the tragic The Bride of Lammermoor and the underrated Quentin Durward — the last starring an adventurous 15th-century Scottish archer serving under King Louis XI of France.

I can take or leave Scott’s first two books — Waverley and Guy Mannering — which were written when the author was getting his footing as a novelist after achieving huge renown as a poet. I’ve read little of Scott’s verse, though of course know the line that’s one of the most famous in literature: “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” from the long narrative poem Marmion. A line often erroneously attributed to Shakespeare.

Many of Scott’s novels were published without his name on them, though it was an open secret that he was the author. Why the anonymity? One possible reason is that many people at the time considered novels a lesser form of writing than poetry.

The highly productive Scott also penned plenty of nonfiction, including a biography of Napoleon.

Speaking of biographies, Edgar Johnson’s massive study of Scott is a page-turner. Reading it, we see that Scott led quite a life — dealing with a pronounced limp after surviving childhood polio, working in the legal profession in addition to penning fiction, building the massive Abbotsford estate, and, after going bankrupt, refusing all help as he determinedly tried to write his way out of insolvency. He almost did before dying in 1832.

Any thoughts about Sir Walter Scott and his work?

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about trying to raise money to fix my town’s aging school buildings — is here.

The Surprising Non-Literary Jobs of Some Authors

Mark Twain

This is an updated, slightly edited rerun of a book piece I wrote back in 2012:

It’s not a big shock when novelists work as journalists or professors before, during, or after their book-producing years. But some famous writers have held rather unusual non-literary jobs.

On the positive side, stints of atypical-for-authors employment can inspire future books and/or give writers firsthand knowledge of the way non-writers live. On the negative side, need-the-money jobs can take away from precious prose-producing time.

My job is to now give examples of this multi-profession phenomenon, and I’ll start in the 19th century with the career arcs of a famous American literary trio: Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens), Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Twain, from 1857 to 1861, worked as a riverboat pilot — a stint that inspired his pen name as well as the nonfiction book Life on the Mississippi and (to some extent) the novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The Civil War halted riverboat traffic, and one wonders what Twain’s career trajectory might have been if his piloting job hadn’t gotten sunk.

Melville, whose book sales sank as his writing became richer and more complex, made ends meet during the latter part of his life by reluctantly working as a customs inspector in New York City from the mid-1860s to the mid-1880s.

Hawthorne fared much better with atypical-for-authors employment. After penning a puffy campaign biography of his college pal Franklin Pierce, The Scarlet Letter writer was appointed U.S. consul in Liverpool by President Pierce. Hawthorne put his fiction work on hold during that time in government, but being in England made it easier for him to make a post-consulship move to Italy — where The Marble Faun novel took shape.

Also in the 19th century, it’s well known that British author Anthony Trollope did postal-service work for many years while writing books and that Anton Chekhov (who lived a bit into the 20th century) was a physician.

Moving to the 1900s, we have Booth Tarkington (The Magnificent Ambersons) serving a term in the Indiana legislature, French author Colette performing in music halls (which inspired her 1910 novel The Vagabond), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) doing anthropology work with Margaret Mead and on her own, Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five) owning/managing a Saab dealership on Cape Cod, Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner) working as a physician, and Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café) and Thomas Tryon (The Other) doing acting.

A variation on the multi-job life is when an established author gets “undercover” employment for the purpose of writing a book. One famous nonfiction example of that was Barbara Ehrenreich toiling in low-paid menial jobs to show how the working poor can barely survive in America — leading to her powerful exposĂ© Nickel and Dimed.

Meanwhile, here are some authors who hold or held less-surprising positions. Professors: Junot Diaz, Jeffrey Eugenides, Diana Gabaldon, Alison Lurie, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Journalists: Geraldine Brooks, Willa Cather, Charles Dickens, Nora Ephron, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Hiaasen, George Orwell, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Portis, Anna Quindlen, Emile Zola, etc.

Any authors you’d like to mention who held surprising non-literary jobs? And do you think authors are helped or hindered by having non-literary jobs sometime during their adult lives?

Today, August 15, 2021, is the 75th birthday of Jimmy Webb — who wrote memorable hit songs such as “MacArthur Park,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Worst That Could Happen,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “All I Know,” “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress,” “Highwayman,” and “Up, Up, and Away.” Here’s the original 1968 version of “MacArthur Park” (grafted onto a 1972 live performance) sung by Richard Harris — who, among his many other acting roles, would shortly before his death play Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies based on J.K. Rowling’s novels. (Also, “MacArthur Park” was covered by Donna Summer and various others.)

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about COVID and my school district as the 2021-22 academic year nears — is here.

An Alliteration Appreciation

Various elements go into a good book title, with alliteration one of them. It helps (alliteration alert) a novel’s name to flow nicely and can make a title much more memorable (additional alliteration).

Before continuing with today’s theme, I want to mention that the end of this post will feature details about a podcast focusing on my cat Misty! 🙂 There’s a link, too. 🙂

I thought of writing this alliteration article while reading The Plains of Passage, the fourth installment of Jean M. Auel’s compelling “Earth’s Children” series that began with The Clan of the Cave Bear. Not only is the title mellifluously alliterative, but it’s also informatively descriptive — Ayla and Jondalar take a long journey along Europe’s prehistoric plains as they attempt a passage to where Jondalar’s people live.

Of course, some alliterative titles are the names of the protagonists themselves — with notable examples including George Eliot’s dramatic Daniel Deronda, Sir Walter Scott’s rousing Rob Roy, Herman Melville’s brilliant Billy Budd, and Herman Wouk’s masterful Marjorie Morningstar.

Among ultra-famous examples of catchy title alliteration without full character names are Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, and Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, among others.

Somewhat less famous but still well known are Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and Injured, Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point, Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, etc.

More recent general fiction? A few titles that come to mind are Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Genre fiction (crime, sci-fi, and so on) is in the alliteration mix, too. Sue Grafton’s alphabet mysteries such as B Is for Burglar. Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Dorothy Gilman’s Mrs. Pollifax Pursued. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Susan Moore Jordan’s Augusta McKee mysteries starting with The Case of the Slain Soprano. And more.

Any alliterative titles you’d like to name?

About that aforementioned podcast: The great Canadian interviewer/blogger Rebecca Budd, who often comments here under the name Clanmother, talked with me about my cat Misty. That wonderful feline has an interesting history of being walked on a leash every day, living with asthma, etc. The conversation runs about 16 minutes, and is accompanied by a really nice three-minute clip featuring some of the best photos and videos of Misty (outdoors and in) over the years. Put together by Rebecca and her production-wiz husband Don. The link is here.

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” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s mayor overdoing the raising of campaign money — is here.