Characters With Special Powers

Reading literature can be a magical experience — sometimes literally.

Yes, some novels feature protagonists with powers beyond that of mere mortals. An obvious example includes the witches and wizards in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, but many other fictional works and genres also include characters who do astounding things.

One such genre is magic realism. So we have someone like Clara in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits who’s clairvoyant and telekinetic, and Remedios in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude who eventually ascends into the sky…without boarding an airplane.

Which reminds me of how Margarita in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita flies with some help from the devil. Certainly, special powers can be used for good or for evil — or some combination of the two, because Margarita is a sympathetic character in Bulgakov’s book while the devil unsurprisingly isn’t.

Sci-fi is also well-represented when it comes to characters possessing unusual abilities, as with the “hyperempathetic” Lauren in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower who can literally feel the pain of others.

Which reminds me of Matty in Lois Lowry’s Messenger who can heal others without the least bit of medicine — albeit at some danger to himself. Indeed, having special powers can be a double-edged sword that might make readers feel uneasy about a character’s future in addition to reveling in the wish-fulfullment of seeing those powers in action.

We also have Johnny in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone who wakes up psychic after being in a coma.

Living for an incredibly long time is also kind of magical. The vampires and other characters in various Anne Rice novels, the more-than-2,000-year-old Lazarus Long in various Robert A. Heinlein sci-fi books, the 250-year-old High Lama in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, the nearly 300-year-old Cormac in Pete Hamill’s Forever, and so on.

And, getting back to wizards, we can’t forget the powers of Gandalf (pictured atop this blog post) in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Your favorite characters who fit this topic?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an ugly hotel and some election issues — is here.

Women Written as Wicked and Warped

The majority of novels I read are by women, and many of my favorite authors are female. Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Colette, Willa Cather, L.M. Montgomery, Daphne du Maurier, Elsa Morante, Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, A.S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, Isabel Allende, Octavia E. Butler, Barbara Kingsolver, Donna Tartt, J.K. Rowling, Liane Moriarty, Jhumpa Lahiri, Zadie Smith, etc., etc.

So it is with some reluctance that I’m about to discuss female villains in fiction. One reason for this week’s choice of topic is recently reading a novel (The Shipping News) with a rather nasty woman in its cast. Also on my mind is U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who is among the Trump administration cabinet members almost as awful as Trump himself — which is saying something.

(Heck, just a few of billionaire Betsy’s evil stances include trying to financially gut America’s public-education system, her support of guns in schools, her attempt to end government funding of the Special Olympics, her weakening of protections for victims of sexual assault, her weakening of protections for transgender students, her backing of for-profit colleges that have defrauded countless students, and so on.)

While I don’t have the numbers to prove it (if they even exist), there seem to be many more male villains than female villains in literature — not surprising given the personalities of too many men. For instance, E. Annie Proulx’s compelling Accordion Crimes — which I just read — focuses on the various players of that musical instrument over many decades, and many of them are brutish males.

But there are certainly enough female villains in various novels to do a blog post about them, so here goes…

Another Proulx novel — her appealingly quirky The Shipping News — has a secondary character (Petal) who’s as mean as can be. She resumes sleeping with many men a month after marrying the book’s awkward-but-well-meaning protagonist Quoyle (even doing that in the marital home while her husband is in the next room) and then ups the depravity by sneaking off with their two young daughters AND SELLING THEM. No wonder Quoyle leaves the U.S. for Newfoundland after Petal’s early-in-the-book death…

Another fictional woman from hell is Cathy Ames of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. She abandons the children she had with the hapless Adam Trask (though there’s some question of whether the father is Adam’s half-brother Charles) and gives Adam the good-bye present of shooting him. Cathy then becomes a prostitute before opening her own brothel known for sexual sadism. Too bad she lived too long ago to become a welcomed member of Trump’s cabinet.

There’s also the emotionally distant, self-centered, daughter-abandoning Gauri in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland — though I should add right here that MANY more fathers than mothers abandon their children in fiction, and in real life.

Going back to 19th-century novels, we have Sarah Reed — the aunt of the title character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Sarah is abusive toward her orphaned niece when Jane comes to live in the Reed household, and she eventually ships Jane off to the hellish Lowood school after first falsely maligning her character to the despicable religious hypocrite of a director there (who’s a male — the wealthy Mr. Brocklehurst).

There’s also the criminal Lydia Gwilt in Wilkie Collins’ 1866 novel Armadale. But like a number of “villainesses” in literature, the brainy Lydia has some good in her. We’re left with the certainty that if life had given her some breaks, she would have become a much better person.

Returning to 20th-century literature, we have The Wicked Witch of the West in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (there might have been a movie version of that novel 🙂 ), the cruel/amoral social climber Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, the tyrannically passive-aggressive Nurse Ratched in Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the sadistic/psychotic/author-capturing Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s Misery, the tries-to-wreck-the-lives-of-her-friends Zenia in Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, the very problematic Cersei Lannister in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and its sequels, and the fake-sweet-on-the-outside-but-sadistic-to-the-core Dolores Umbridge (pictured atop this blog post) in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Who are some of your “favorite” malicious female characters in literature?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s mixed record as an “arts destination” — is here.

Admiration for Novels With Isolation

One way fiction authors can create drama is to put characters who often don’t initially know each other in an isolated place.

I just read Michael Ondaatje’s eloquently written novel The English Patient, which does the isolation thing — and does it well. As World War II draws to a close, the emotionally exhausted nurse Hana is caring for the mysterious, badly burned title character in a remote Italian villa. Eventually she’s joined by her father’s old friend Caravaggio (a maimed, charismatic scoundrel) and the brilliant, methodical, decent bomb-disarmer Kip. Interesting, intense, and romantic scenarios ensue — with secrets revealed, a love affair between two of the characters, and a conclusion heavily influenced by Kip being the one person of color among the four.

Or how about Agatha Christie’s chillingly claustrophobic And Then There Were None? A group of guilty-but-never-convicted people are invited to an island and subsequently killed off one by one. It’s Christie’s most famous novel, the best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of any genre (more than 100 million copies purchased).

Also (partly) set on an island — the rocky If, off the coast of Marseille — is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. When Edmond Dantes is falsely imprisoned there, he eventually meets fellow inmate Abbe Faria — with whom Dantes develops a deep bond. Faria restores Edmond’s will to live and changes Dantes’ whole future by telling him where to find treasure that will fund his transformation into The Count of Monte Cristo and also fund Dantes’ righteous revenge against the men who framed him. (The photo atop this blog post is of me last year next to Dumas’ tomb in the Paris-based Pantheon.)

There are also the luxury-ocean-liner passengers thrown together in Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, which chronicles the capsizing of that big boat and the struggle for survival. Heck, any ship-set novel — such as Herman Melville’s Redburn, Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, etc., etc. — jams a crew together in one place, for better or (often) for worse.

Back on land, we have partygoers taken hostage in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, residents stuck in a quarantined city in Albert Camus’ The Plague, and three initial strangers (including a house-sitter) losing their sense of reality while living in a mansion not theirs in Morag Joss’ Half Broken Things.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about part of my town’s high school being disastrously closed for repairs — is here.

Multitudes of Milieus

Many novels are mainly set in one or two locales, but some have three, four, or more.

Books that literally jump all over the place can be quite fascinating — offering lots of varied cultural immersion. But they can also feel scattered — and authors of such novels might have to do a lot of (too much?) time-consuming research and travel to get things right.

A plethora-of-places novel I recently read was Eduardo Halfon’s Mourning, a partly Holocaust-themed book that bounces (via present and past scenes) from Italy to Poland to Guatemala to the U.S. — all in just 157 pages. A well-written semi-autobiographical book, but rather dizzying to read.

Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner also goes country-hopping — from Afghanistan to Pakistan to the U.S. back to Pakistan and Afghanistan and the U.S.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s compelling anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin opens in Kentucky before shifting to New Orleans (after Tom is sold to another slave owner) and rural Louisiana. Meanwhile, the book’s Eliza character escapes the South into Ohio, and eventually ends up in Canada with her husband George before they later go to France and then Liberia.

Of course, sea literature often features many places. For instance, Herman Wouk’s World War II novel The Caine Mutiny starts off in New York City, voyages to various parts of the world (including Okinawa), makes a mid-book stop in San Francisco, and then ends back in NYC.

Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket begins in…Nantucket…and later moves to the South Seas, the tip of South Africa, and then Antarctica near the South Pole.

Speaking of Antarctica, part of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes place on that frigid continent. There’s also plenty of time spent in Seattle — even as Bernadette’s “personal assistant” Manjula lives in India.

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is mostly “limited” to one country (the U.S), but protagonist Sal really gets around. San Francisco, Denver, New York City, Virginia, New Orleans, Chicago, Detroit, Texas, Mexico City, etc. Road-trip novels can do that — with another example being Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance, in which protagonist Jim Nashe drives back and forth across America for a year.

By no means a road-trip novel, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom does put its characters in places such as Minnesota, West Virginia, Virginia, New York City, and Washington, DC.

There’s also Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — in which the settings include New York City, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam before protagonist Theo Decker travels all over the U.S.

Maybe the ultimate example of a saturated-with-settings novel is Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days — which moves from England to Egypt to India to Hong Kong to Japan to San Francisco to New York City and then back to London.

Finally, if you look at book series, the roaming Jack Reacher visits many places in Lee Child’s 23 novels. States such as California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, and Virginia, as well as Washington, DC, and England, France, and Germany.

Of course, some novels and series with geographic gyrations have one character visit various places, while others might have different characters in different places.

Your favorite novels that 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about everything from local litigation to a lucrative liquor license — is here.

Doubling Down on Twoness in Fiction

Two is often a significant number in literature. There can be duality (such as good vs. evil) in a pair of characters, there can be protagonists who are twins, and so on. All this can be fascinating, helping to give a novel a theme and a certain framework.

I read Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale last week, and her absorbing gothic novel has a strong focus on twins. In that bookish book (which mentions various classic novels), Margaret Lea is summoned by famed author Vida Winter to write the dying Winter’s biography, and a mystery unspools that includes intrigue about Vida’s twin sister. As we learn early, Lea also had a twin sister — who died young and continually haunts Margaret’s psyche.

Among the other novels with twins, whether they’re major or secondary characters, are Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (Estha and Rahel), Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (the Segundo brothers), Ian McEwan’s Atonement (Jackson and Pierrot), William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (Sam and Eric), J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (Fred and George Weasley — a delightful pair, but one is ill-fated), George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (Cersei and Jaime Lannister, who are also — eek — lovers), and even Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (Tweedledum and Tweedledee). Fred and George are shown with Rowling in the photo above this blog post.

Then there are the also-memorable pairings that don’t involve twins. Mentioning Rowling characters again, there is of course the good-vs.-evil duo of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, who are as different as can be yet have a strong underlying connection.

Mark Twain did the pairings thing twice with the dramatic life switches/role reversals in his novels The Prince and the Pauper and Pudd’nhead Wilson.

In Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, there are actually two sets of linked Allan Armadales — four people total!

And although its protagonist is actually one man with a split personality, among the most famous duality depictions in literature is in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

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

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

The Depiction of Disability and Disease in Fiction

Way back in 2012, I wrote a column for The Huffington Post about disability and disease in literature. I thought I’d revisit that topic today with some relevant novels I’ve read during the seven years since then.

In that blog post for the later-went-downhill HP, I mentioned characters with bodily challenges in novels such as Jane Eyre, Moby-Dick, A Christmas Carol, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Roots, Misery, Treasure Island, Johnny Got His Gun, and the Harry Potter series. I also had this to say about the topic:

“Protagonists with physical issues can be admirable, inspirational, pitiable, embittered, etc. — or a mix of all those things. It’s fascinating for readers to see how a disability affects a character’s psyche and actions, for better or worse. Readers also might wonder what they’d do if they were disabled themselves.”

And of course readers who are disabled themselves may very well identify with protagonists in a similar situation.

I added in the 2012 post that such characters might be “underrepresented in literature for various reasons — including the discomfort some authors and readers might have with (them), and the fear of other authors that they might not depict physically challenged protagonists in an adequate way.”

Yet plenty of novels include very or somewhat disabled characters, who are often sympathetic — but not always.

The most recent novel of this type I read was Still Alice, just last week. Also known for the movie version that won Julianne Moore (pictured above) an Oscar, Lisa Genova’s haunting book chronicles Dr. Alice Howland’s descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s — with the story poignantly told from Alice’s point of view. The brilliant Harvard professor is only 49 when diagnosed, and her bout with dementia of course shows that no one — successful or not, affluent or not — is immune from disability. The novel also skillfully depicts the mix of courage and self-pity many people feel when their brains or bodies betray them, and shows that family members are not always totally supportive; for instance, Alice’s very upset husband acts rather boorish at times.

The novel I read before Still Alice was Lois Lowry’s compelling young-adult book Gathering BlueThe Giver sequel that stars a girl (Kira) whose deformed leg makes her an outcast in her harsh community. Kira’s skill at embroidery saves her from a certain death she would’ve faced if she had no stand-out skills, but she ends up living a sort of gilded-cage existence.

Also in the YA realm is John Green’s powerful The Fault in Our Stars, which tells the story of a teen girl (Hazel) with thyroid cancer who meets a teen boy (Augustus) with bone cancer that caused him to lose a leg. Their very challenging lives are made better by their romantic relationship — obviously, almost everyone wants love no matter what their condition. But as is often the case with disabilities in literature or real life, we don’t get a “happy ever after.”

Then there are J.K. Rowling’s four terrific Cormoran Strike novels (The Cuckoo’s Calling, etc.) written under the pen name Robert Galbraith. Cormoran is a super-smart private investigator who lost part of a leg while in the British military in Afghanistan, and the resulting pain and walking difficulty often exhausts him. But the charismatic Strike is stoic in the face of all that, and his disability both increases his sympathy for the underdog and the sympathy readers feel for him. Cormoran’s assistant (at first) and business partner (later) — the appealing and admirable investigator Robin Ellacott — has some scars of her own, mainly of a psychological nature.

Dana in Kindred is psychologically stressed though able-bodied in most of Octavia E. Butler’s memorable novel. But then comes the book’s shocking conclusion — with Dana’s new physical disability depicted as both real and symbolic after she had been pulled back and forth several times from 20th-century California to slavery times in America’s pre-Civil War south.

In Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool, the late-middle-aged “Sully” drags himself around with a bum knee while still doing very physical blue-collar work and avoiding medical treatment. Yes, some characters with a disability partly have themselves to blame by not taking better care of themselves.

Then there are novels featuring multiple characters with physical issues. (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s terrific So Much for That has four — including protagonist Shep Knacker’s wife, father, best friend, and best friend’s daughter. There’s lots of humor among the depressing subject matter (which can soften the downbeat-ness of a novel with disability and disease); plenty of understandable rage against America’s money-draining, soul-sapping, for-profit medical system; and an amazing ending I didn’t see coming.

Another novel starring multiple sick or injured characters is Edith Wharton’s riveting Ethan Frome, with its tragic triangle of Ethan, his wife Zeena, and Zeena’s cousin Mattie. Two of those three characters are involved in a horrific (but intentional) accident that leaves them disabled to varying degrees, while the other is sickly (yet perhaps only psychosomatically so).

Going back to another early-20th-century classic, we have medical student Philip in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage born with a clubfoot that contributes to lowering his self-esteem enough to seek a disastrous relationship with the cold/unaffectionate Mildred.

Last but not least, it almost goes without saying that people — whether fictional or real — are not their disability. The disability is part of who they are, but not all of who they are.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an appalling Republican dinner invitation — is here.

Day’s In: Novels With Very Short Time Spans

Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about novels with long time spans. Today’s column will cover novels with short time spans — in most cases, no more than a day. Yet a lot of drama can be crammed into that brief period, often with the help of some back story interspersed among the day’s depiction.

Two of the more famous examples of novels limited to a 24-hour time period are James Joyce’s Ulysses and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Unfortunately, I’ve read neither (though I did see the latter’s movie version), so there’s not much I can say about them.

I have read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and that compelling novel packs a lot in one day. Clarissa Dalloway prepares for a party, muses about her past and her life’s choices, and then holds the party — whose attendees include some people from that referenced past. Meanwhile, the novel also focuses on the doings of shell-shocked World War I veteran Septimus Smith. Obviously, Mrs. Dalloway covers a number of years within a day’s framework. (Virginia Woolf is pictured atop this blog post.)

It’s not a coincidence that the title of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day reflects how that novel is another less-than-24-hour-time-span book. But, again, we learn a lot about the life of the title character — in this case, Wilhelm Adler, a failed 40-something actor separated from his wife and estranged from his children and father.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a very famous novel, but readers don’t always remember that the book unspools during a very short period — from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. Enough time for miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge to be transformed with the help of some ghostly visits.

Then we have Haruki Murakami’s After Dark, which is set in Tokyo over the course of a single night. It stars 19-year-old student Mari Asai (who we first see reading in a restaurant) and other characters she meets.

And Lee Child’s 61 Hours takes place over (surprise, surprise) a bit more than two-and-a-half days — with lots of intrigue and mayhem during Jack Reacher’s brief stay in snowy and bitterly cold South Dakota.

Short stories of course often focus on a relatively brief period. One particularly memorable one is Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” in which Louise Mallard feels liberated when her husband dies, happily envisions life without him, and then…

What are your favorite fictional works with short time spans?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — partly about my town’s high school students joining the global walkout to draw attention to climate change — is here.