Literary Works With Ambiguous Endings

There are novels with happy endings, which most readers love if the happiness doesn’t feel forced. Then there are novels with sad endings, which readers tolerate if those conclusions seem appropriate. And there are novels with endings somewhere in between — the subject of this blog post.

I kind of like ambiguous endings. Life is often like that, and those conclusions make you think — wondering about the fate of characters beyond a book’s last pages.

Of course, novels in a series often have non-closure endings — cliffhangers perhaps — to increase your desire to read the next book installment. But there are also stand-alone novels with far-from-definitive conclusions.

Take Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which I also discussed last week in a different context. While that novel has a mostly shipboard setting, there’s a relationship subplot between U.S. Navy guy Willie Keith and modestly successful nightclub singer May Wynn (born Marie Minotti). May grows to love Willie, and he’s enamored with her, but the Ivy League-educated/from-an-affluent-family Willie is snobbishly uncomfortable with May’s working-class origins, Italian-American ethnicity, and Catholicism. He eventually breaks up with May and then, after a near-death military experience on his boat, realizes how compatible they are. But May is in another relationship back home in New York City, and perhaps still not totally trusting of Willie’s feelings, so the book ends unresolved about whether they’ll have a future together. I was satisfied with that finish.

Another novel that interestingly dashes closure expectations is Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, in which a boy’s murder radically affects the lives of his surviving family — most notably his sister Harriet. Readers assume that Robin’s mystery death will be solved at the end, but it never is. I found that intriguing, and realistic in its way.

Then there’s John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which has a poignantly beautiful conclusion — yet it’s uncertain what will happen to the remnants of the Joad family as they try to survive broke, homeless, and weather-beaten in the 1930s California they had traveled to with high hopes.

Set just a few years after Steinbeck’s American masterpiece, Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph features surgeon Ravic — who has fled the Nazis for Paris, where he ekes out a living, falls in love, and seeks revenge against a Gestapo man. As the heartbreaking novel concludes, it looks like Ravic might end up a German prisoner. Will he survive World War II? A reader has no idea.

The ending of Zadie Smith’s scintillating novel White Teeth is deliberately confusing and uncertain, with various scenarios posited for the future lives of its majority-immigrant cast. (Ms. Smith is pictured atop this blog post.)

Then there are novels with endings that are kind of ambiguous, but one figures things out on a closer reading or rereading. That’s the case with Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, in which one is initially uncertain if Civil War soldier Inman dies or doesn’t die after his long, arduous journey to return to Ada.

Short stories can of course also have non-definitive endings. A prime example is Frank Stockton’s much-anthologized 1882 tale “The Lady or the Tiger?” — in which the on-trial lover of a king’s daughter has to choose between two doors: one with a ferocious tiger behind it and the other with a woman (not the king’s daughter) he would have to marry. He reaches for the door the (jealous?) daughter imperceptibly tells him to open, and the story ends there.

I’ll finish with a mention of the famous final scene from The Sopranos TV series in which the screen cuts to black as we wonder what happened or didn’t happen at the restaurant that Tony S. and other characters were in. (That restaurant — Holsten’s in Bloomfield, New Jersey — happens to be about a mile from my apartment in nearby Montclair.)

Your favorite fictional works with ambiguous endings?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s African-American population unfortunately decreasing — is here.

Bad Bosses in Books

With Donald Trump in the White House, Americans have the bad boss from hell. Not only have his actions been a disaster for the U.S. and the world, but his “leadership” style has driven out a record number of almost-as-abysmal people from his administration.

Trump embodies the worst qualities of a bad boss. Mean, lazy, corrupt, cowardly, erratic, untruthful, incompetent, racist, sexist, homophobic, a sexual harasser, etc. So let’s take a look at some fictional bosses who, while mostly not as awful as Trump, are pretty darn substandard.

How about Captain Queeg of Herman Wouk’s enthralling Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny, which I just read? Queeg is a second-rate captain — not that skilled, cowardly, sadistic, a harsh disciplinarian on trivial matters, has the hypocritical philosophy of “do as I say not as I do,” just friendly enough at times to keep his crew off-balance, and, like Trump, blames underlings for his own mistakes. (Pictured at the top of this column is Humphrey Bogart as Queeg.)

Staying at sea for another paragraph, we of course have Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick, who deliberately puts the Pequod crew in danger as he seeks his irrational revenge on Herman Melville’s titular white whale.

Then there’s the faux-sweet Dolores Umbridge, of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, who temporarily becomes high inquisitor and then headmistress at Hogwarts. She rules the wizardry school in an unfair and ruthless manner (which includes vicious harassment of Harry), and is basically on the side of arch-villain Lord Voldemort.

Umbridge eventually gets her comeuppance — exemplifying a satisfying potential plot rationale for having bad-boss characters in literature. Plus readers empathize with and root for the beleaguered underlings. But good doesn’t always triumph over evil in nasty fictional workplaces.

Of course, novels with workplaces that are depicted at least somewhat realistically will feature plenty of bad bosses. If not, they’re fantasy novels of a sort. 🙂

A boss doesn’t have to be on-the-scene to be crummy. In Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, wealthy widow Francine Whiting almost never visits the Empire Grill she owns, but makes life hell for the eatery’s mild-mannered manager Miles Roby. Why does Francine treat Miles that way? She’s a nasty control-freak, and the rich Whiting family and not-rich Roby family have a complicated intertwined history.

Another bad boss is Vinnie Plum, cousin of bounty-hunter protagonist Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s mysteries. Vinnie is lazy, a gambler, a sexual pervert, and contemptuous of his employees — despite those employees being much better workers and much better people than he is.

Then there’s the bank boss in Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century who fires protagonist Michel DufrĂ©noy and his co-worker after they make just one mistake.

Also in the bad-boss club are — among others — Nurse Ratched of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, and Ebenezer Scrooge (until he’s transformed) of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Which bad bosses in fiction are most memorable to you?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about dance vs. gym, an unauthorized hotel addition, and more — is here.

Novels Set Long Ago

There are many dichotomies in novel reading — including books by women or men, books by authors of color or white writers, books that are literary or more mass-market, books that are long or short, books with third-person or first-person narratives, and books set in recent times or long ago.

I was thinking about that last dichotomy when I recently read, back-to-back, Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. Russo’s 2016 novel, an excellent sequel to Nobody’s Fool, takes place in near-contemporary times. Diamant’s absorbing 1997 novel — told from the viewpoint of Dinah (daughter of Jacob/Leah, granddaughter of Isaac/Rebecca, great-granddaughter of Abraham/Sarah) — is set in biblical times thousands of years ago.

This blog post will focus on novels set many centuries in the past, whether written recently or…many centuries in the past. It’s fascinating to get a taste of what life was like long ago — seeing the differences and similarities from the way we live today. And — what do you know! — human emotions were pretty much the same, even as smartphone use was 50% less in ancient times.

Set VERY long ago is Jack London’s Before Adam, in which a man dreams he’s living in the era when apes were evolving into humans. (This was well before U.S. Republican leaders began devolving.) Part of Arthur C. Clarke’s mind-blowing 2001: A Space Odyssey takes place during roughly the same period.

Another far-back novel with a not-quite-so-old milieu is Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked — which unfolds during the time of Christianity’s birth 2,000 years ago. There are of course numerous fictional works featuring or referencing Jesus Christ during the time he lived (if you believe he lived).

Taking place roughly during that same time period is Robert Graves’ I, Claudius — set during the Roman Empire.

Moving ahead several hundred years, we have Mark Twain’s pointed/hilarious A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which the 19th-century protagonist travels back to the late-5th/early-6th-century days of Camelot.

Then there’s Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s famous historical novel set in 12th-century England.

Plus The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s intellectual murder mystery that takes place in 14th-century Italy; and The House on the Strand, Daphne du Maurier’s gripping novel that features time travel back to that 1300s period in England.

The iconic Don Quixote is set in the 1500s, or perhaps the early 1600s — when Miguel de Cervantes wrote it.

And James Clavell’s compelling Shogun takes place in the feudal Japan of 1600.

Speaking of Japan, there’s Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, which takes place about a thousand years ago — and was written by Ms. Shikibu about a thousand years ago! (A scene from that early novel is shown atop this blog post.)

What are some of your favorite novels set many centuries in the past? I realize there are countless titles I didn’t name.

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about structural problems in three old schools, the possible reopening of a historic movie theater, and my town’s new congresswoman — is here.

A Statistical Interlude

Bloggers who use WordPress get a statistics-laden “backstage” area telling them how their readership is going. So I thought I’d skip writing about literature for just one week in order to offer some 2018 statistics, along with one overall number that began growing when I launched this blog in mid-2014.

Last year, this blog had 21,249 views, 10,674 visitors, 3,365 comments, and 2,508 likes.

The four most widely read 2018 posts were: “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction” (by far!), followed by “Love-Hate Relationships in Lit,” “Some of the Saddest Novels Ever,” and “Literature’s Unlikely Heroines and Heroes.”

Of the aforementioned 21,249 views, about 65% came from the United States. The next nine in the top ten of viewership by nation were, in order: Australia, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, the Philippines, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Readership last year came from 132 countries total — also including Finland, Ireland, Kenya, China, Mexico, Japan, Jordan, Jamaica, etc.

This four-and-one-half-year-old blog now has 2,306 followers.

Back to a more interesting literary topic next week!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an expensive hotel, busing equity, and a great decision about a not-great standardized test — is here.

Long-Lived Literary Lions and Lionesses

Last week, I wrote about famous writers who died young. This week — you guessed it! — I’ll discuss famous writers who lived into old age, 85 or more.

The only way to start this is by mentioning Herman Wouk, who’s still alive at…103! He’s the author of modern classics such as The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance; I need to read at least one of them! And To Sir, With Love novelist E.R. Braithwaite was 104 when he died two years ago.

Many writers who lived many decades did their best work in their 20s and 30s, many others peaked in mid-career, and some finally put it all together only when approaching senior-citizen status. For those in the latter two groups, we’d never have gotten to enjoy their A+ efforts if they had died young.

For instance, the now-94-year-old Rosamunde Pilcher wrote 22 novels before The Shell Seekers — her masterpiece — came out when she was 63. Maybe the author had to be that age to depict 60-something protagonist Penelope Keeling so convincingly and wonderfully? Pilcher went on to pen five more novels before retiring in 2000.

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, a novel I read this month, was written by Dorothy Gilman in her 40s — so she’s an example of an author who peaked mid-career, decades before dying at age 88. The book, which stars a widowed New Jersey homemaker in her 60s who becomes a CIA operative, is both hilarious and action-packed — a tough combination to pull off. (A scene from a screen version is pictured above.)

A prime example of a long-lived author who peaked early is of course Harper Lee, who was in her mid-30s when To Kill a Mockingbird rocketed to fame; she died at 89. Upton Sinclair was still in his 20s when The Jungle was published — though, unlike Lee, he wrote dozens of subsequent (albeit lesser-known) novels into his 80s. He passed away at 90.

Other authors who were with us for many decades? Renowned mystery writers P.D. James and Agatha Christie lived to 94 and 85, respectively, while sci-fi greats Ray Bradbury and Ursula K. Le Guin died at 91 and 88. (Yes, I know those authors sometimes worked outside the genres I mentioned; Le Guin, for instance, was also known for her fantasy fiction.) Comedic writer P.G. Wodehouse, creator of the iconic Jeeves, lasted until 93.

Long-lived authors known more for “general fiction” included Eudora Welty, Robert Serling, Harriet Doerr, and the still-living Alison Lurie, all 92; W. Somerset Maugham and J.D. Salinger, both 91; Nadine Gordimer and James Michener, both 90; Saul Bellow and Janet Frame, both 89; Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jean Rhys, and Muriel Spark, all 88; Gabriel GarcĂ­a Márquez, Thomas Hardy, Fanny Burney, the still-living Toni Morrison, and the still-living Alice Munro, all 87; Jorge Luis Borges, Graham Greene, and Gore Vidal, all 86; and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hermann Hesse, Philip Roth, the still-living Cormac McCarthy, and the still-living Charles Portis, all 85.

Then there’s poet Robert Frost (88) and poet/memoirist Maya Angelou (86). And while known mostly for his nonfiction, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote several novels during his 95 years.

Among my favorite novels and short stories by some of the writers in the above three paragraphs? And Then There Were None (Christie), Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury), Stones for Ibarra (Doerr), Foreign Affairs (Lurie), Of Human Bondage (Maugham), Caravans (Michener), Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room (Frame), “Gimpel the Fool” (Singer), Wide Sargasso Sea (Rhys), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Márquez), Jude the Obscure (Hardy), Evelina (Burney), Beloved (Morrison), “The Aleph” (Borges), “Proof Positive” (Greene), Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe), Steppenwolf (Hesse), Suttree (McCarthy), True Grit (Portis), “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (Frost), and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Angelou).

Your favorite writers (ones I mentioned or didn’t mention) who lived to 85 or older? You’re also welcome to name some slightly younger ones. 🙂

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — a comedic year in review — is here.

Writers of Worth Who Spent a Short Time on Earth

Among literature’s “writers for the ages” are many who died at a young or relatively young age. They packed memorable works into their short time on Earth — in some cases, just one or several works; in other cases, quite a few. Pretty impressive.

It’s poignant to think of what else they might have produced if they hadn’t died well before their senior-citizen days because of suicide, disease, alcoholism, hard living, an accident, etc. Some might have never surpassed the “A” quality of their early output, but even “B” work would have been welcome.

In this post, I’m going to focus on writers who never reached the age of 45.

The first I’ll mention is died-at-44 Joseph Roth (1894-1939), an Austrian writer who’s not that well known today but should be. This month I read his novel Right and Left, and was impressed. Not his best or most-remembered work — that’s probably The Radetzky March, which I haven’t read — but Right and Left is a fascinating look at several not particularly appealing characters living in 1920s Germany, just a few years before the Nazis rose to power. Roth conveys what it’s like for Jewish or part-Jewish people to live at that time and place, and we see plenty of politics, wealth, poverty, unhappy relationships, self-hatred, shallowness, melancholy, and more.

Also 44 when they died were four much more famous writers: Anton Chekhov, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Louis Stevenson, and D.H. Lawrence.

Chekhov is of course known for his terrific, subtle short stories as well as his plays. Fitzgerald is obviously most associated with his great The Great Gatsby, but one can also find a lot to like in his novels Tender Is the Night and (the unfinished) The Last Tycoon. This Side of Paradise? Meh. I plan to eventually read Fitzgerald’s short stories.

The novels Stevenson is most remembered for include Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — but, as I’ve written before, I think his last book was his best: the exquisite Weir of Hermiston, unfortunately also not completed. Lawrence made his mark with novels such as Sons and Lovers and Women in Love.

I’ll take a brief break here from writers known mostly for novels or short stories to mention some known mainly for poetry during their short lives: Countee Cullen (who lived to 42), Arthur Rimbaud (37), Lord Byron (36), Phillis Wheatley (31), Percy Bysshe Shelley (29), and John Keats (25). In the theatrical realm, we have A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry (34).

Nikolai Gogol, who lived to 42, was a playwright, novelist (Dead Souls), and more. Guy de Maupassant, also 42, made his name with short stories and some novels. Jane Austen of course wrote six now-classic novels (including Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion) before dying at 41. Jack London churned out a large number of works in his 40 short years on Earth, with my four favorite novels of his The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Sea-Wolf, and Martin Eden. Edgar Allan Poe produced many works of horror and some non-horror before dying at age 40. And Franz Kafka (40), is perhaps best known for his surreal novella The Metamorphosis.

There are also Flannery O’Connor (39), most famous for her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and her novel Wise Blood; Alexander Pushkin (37), the Russian poet, playwright, and novelist; Nathanael West (37) of The Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts renown; John Kennedy Toole (31), whose Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces was published posthumously through the efforts of his mother and author Walker Percy; Sylvia Plath (30), who wrote The Bell Jar and more; and Stephen Crane (28), who penned The Red Badge of Courage and more.

Before concluding, I obviously also have to mention the BrontĂ« sisters: Charlotte, 38; Emily, 30; and Anne, 29 (all pictured in the painting atop this blog post). Charlotte lived long enough to pen several novels, including the iconic Jane Eyre. Emily’s one novel was of course the tempestuous Wuthering Heights, and the best of Anne’s two novels was The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. There was more than a little BrontĂ« poetry, too.

Who are some of your favorite writers (ones I mentioned or didn’t) who died young or relatively young? You can go a few years over 45 if you’d like (as did George Orwell, O. Henry, Henry Fielding, H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, Margaret Mitchell, Edward Bellamy, Carson McCullers, Stieg Larsson, HonorĂ© de Balzac, William Shakespeare, Richard Wright, Mary Shelley, Kate Chopin, Emily Dickinson, James Hilton, etc.)!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a heartwarming fundraiser and not-heartwarming overdevelopment — is here.

The Many-Decade Spans of Some Sequels and Series

After reading last week that Margaret Atwood is writing a follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, I thought about which sequels — and series — spanned the most time.

Atwood’s famous, feminist, dystopian novel came out in 1985, and The Testaments will be published in 2019 — making for a gap of 34 years. Not quite the 36-year-period between Stephen King’s The Shining (1977) and its sequel Doctor Sleep (2013), but plenty long.

Why gaps like that? Authors such as King and Atwood (pictured above) are of course busy writing many other books, and may not want to revisit the same characters — at least until several decades go by. In Atwood’s case, one spur for the coming sequel is the high popularity of the current The Handmaid’s Tale television series. Also, the Republican Party’s current far-right/misogynist politics make her 1985 novel prescient and very relevant to today.

The Testaments will reportedly begin 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale ends. Other sequels can of course be set closer or farther away in time from the original novel.

Can many-years-later sequels be better? Sometimes. Heck, the authors have often become more mature writers. But they might also be past their prime, a bit tired, and not have as many new ideas. Still, numerous fans don’t mind if a sequel isn’t as good; they’re just happy it exists. Plus there’s money to be made for the authors — not that superstar writers like Atwood and King need it. 🙂

Other one-sequel, multiple-sequel, or series scenarios spanning many a decade?

P.G. Wodehouse wrote his Jeeves novels and stories over a stunning period of nearly 60 years — 1915 to 1974!

Agatha Christie featured Hercule Poirot in 40-plus novels and short-story collections for more than a half-century — from 1920’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles into the 1970s. And Christie’s Miss Marple character starred in more than 10 books from 1930 (The Murder at the Vicarage) into the ’70s.

John Updike’s four Rabbit novels were published over a period of 30 years (1960, 1971, 1981, 1990) — with a novella added to the mix in 2001. So, 41 years total.

Other large spans include 35 years between Sue Grafton’s first and 25th “alphabet mysteries” starring Kinsey Millhone (“A” Is for Alibi, 1982/“Y” Is for Yesterday, 2017); 32 years between Martin Cruz Smith’s first and eighth Arkady Renko novels (Gorky Park, 1981/Tatiana, 2013); 26 years between Walter Mosley’s first and 14th Easy Rawlins novels (Devil in a Blue Dress, 1990/Charcoal Joe, 2016); 25 years between Jack Finney’s Time and Again (1970) and From Time to Time (1995); 24 years between Janet Evanovich’s first and 25th Stephanie Plum novels (One for the Money, 1994/Look Alive Twenty-Five, 2018); and 23 years between Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool (1993) and Everybody’s Fool (2016).

Then there are Honore de Balzac’s and Emile Zola’s many-book sagas containing stand-alone but interlinked novels featuring characters who pop in and out, sometimes as lead protagonists and sometimes as supporting players. Balzac wrote his La Comedie Humaine works from 1830 to the late 1840s — not that long a period because of his relatively early death, but an extraordinarily prolific period that produced a whopping 90-plus novels (such as Old Goriot and Cousin Bette) and stories! Zola penned his 20 Rougon-Macquart novels (The Drinking Den, Germinal, etc.) from 1871 to 1893.

Other sequels and series you can name with many-year publishing spans? And/or any comments about the ones I mentioned?

I will not be posting columns on December 9 and 16 (because of another trip to Florida to deal with my late mother’s estate and some other reasons). Back on December 23! I’ll still reply to comments under already-published columns. 🙂

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — written by my cat! — is here.