Author Clips on YouTube!

WoukAvid fiction readers aren’t seeing any authors live during the pandemic, but we can watch clips of them on YouTube. Here are some short videos, with the first group featuring some great living writers followed by several clips showing famous novelists who are no longer with us. Most speak as skillfully as they write, though you can’t tell in the silent, pre-1910 footage of Mark Twain and Leo Tolstoy that ends this post.

(Above is a screen shot I took from a 2017 interview given by the then-102-year-old Herman Wouk of The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance fame. Video can be seen a few paragraphs down.)

This first video stars the fabulous author Liane Moriarty discussing her 2018 Nine Perfect Strangers book, the mega-success of her 2014 Big Little Lies novel that spawned a hit TV series, etc.

Alice Walker (The Color Purple) eloquently talks about Zora Neale Hurston and Hurston’s writing — the most famous example being the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Isabel Allende on how her debut-novel masterpiece The House of the Spirits happened, the number of hours a day she spends writing, and more.

Zadie Smith, known for vivid/often-hilarious multicultural novels such as White Teeth, speaks about why there aren’t more published authors with working-class backgrounds.

Margaret Atwood (author of the iconic The Handmaid’s Tale and many other works) discusses feminism in this frequently funny 1997 clip.

Lee Child, author of the riveting Jack Reacher series, talks about why it’s good to wait until one is older to start writing novels.

Donna Tartt talks about her writing process, her sweeping Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch, and more.

Stephen King, interviewed by George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame, answers a question about how he’s able to write so much — and also mentions Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

Historical-fiction author Kate Quinn discusses The Huntress, about a woman who marries an American who doesn’t know about her Nazi-war-criminal past. Among Quinn’s other compelling novels is The Alice Network.

Moving to deceased writers, this video shows James Baldwin (Go Tell It On the Mountain, etc.) dissecting the hyper-difficult black experience in America.

The aforementioned 2017 interview Herman Wouk gave at the age of 102!

J.R.R. Tolkien on his iconic The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Lastly, film footage of Mark Twain a year before his death, alone and then with his daughters…

…and footage of Leo Tolstoy near the end of his life.

Author videos you’d recommend?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about my town’s contested, unequally funded election — is here.

An Author Can Excel and Falter When Writing About Relationships

Jane Eyre VilletteWhen it comes to depicting relationships, great novelists are not machines. That means the relationships — whether good, bad, unrequited, potential, etc. — are sometimes believable and sometimes not as much.

I thought about this while continuing my pandemic-time reading of Diana Gabaldon’s compelling 9,073-page Outlander series (I’m now on the fifth of eight books). The relationship between 20th-century doctor Claire Fraser and 18th-century Scotsman Jamie Fraser totally works. Equal partners, both smart, both charismatic, superb chemistry, lots of passion, flowing dialogue, plausible occasional fights. But the relationship between Claire/Jamie’s daughter Brianna and historian/musician Roger periodically feels kind of forced and clunky, partly because Roger is a rather annoying guy at times.

Lightning also doesn’t strike twice in two Charlotte Bronte novels. The relationship between Jane and Rochester in Jane Eyre is one of literature’s great love stories, even though the characters are quite different in certain ways. But the interaction between Lucy Snowe and the partly unlikable M. Paul Emanuel doesn’t light many sparks in Bronte’s Villette.

The interaction between Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott — co-workers who are a possible future couple after four of J.K. Rowling’s crime novels — is satisfying for readers. The characters share a knack for private investigating, have a mutual respect, both have difficult pasts, and there’s that aforementioned “c” word: chemistry. On the other hand, the eventual love relationship between Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley of Rowling’s Harry Potter series seems off. Hermione and Ron are very good friends and both very nice people, but Hermione is just so much smarter than Ron to make for an equal couple.

In Isabel Allende’s 1840s-set Daughter of Fortune, Eliza Sommers and Joaquin Andieta become enamored with each other, and there’s an intense young-love passion to their affair even as the depiction of it doesn’t click on all cylinders. But the novel’s later relationship between Eliza and Tao Chi’en feels right, even if it’s more a friendship because of the strictures of the time against interracial relationships. (Eliza is of Chilean and English descent; Tao of Chinese ancestry.)

Depicting romance in his fiction wasn’t Mark Twain’s thing, but, when he did, the results were mixed. The puppy love of the young Tom and Becky in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer comes off as very plausible, while the relationship between Hank and Sandy in Twain’s scathingly hilarious A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court seems kind of cardboard and one-dimensional.

But the five terrific George Eliot novels I’ve read never disappoint in depicting romantic relationships with skill and psychological nuance — whether the relationships are happy, disastrous, or somewhere in between. For instance, Middlemarch masterfully dissects the depressing marriages of admirable Dorothea Brooke and sour Rev. Edward Casaubon, and idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate and shallow Rosamond Vincy; and Daniel Deronda includes the awful union of spoiled Gwendolen Harleth and sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt. Eliot also excels at happier relationships, such as those between Daniel Deronda and Mirah Lapidoth and, in Adam Bede, Adam and minister Dinah Morris.

Still, Eliot is rare in never faltering in the romantic-depiction realm. Heck, even a novelist as accomplished as Liane Moriarty in creating good and bad fictional relationships included the not-that-believable pairing of romance author Frances and oft-crude retired footballer Tony in her great novel Nine Perfect Strangers.

Any examples you’d like to offer of other novelists who did well and also not so well in depicting relationships?

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

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

Bored Fictional Characters Are Acting Out in Closed Libraries

LibraryWith libraries shuttered during the pandemic, fictional characters in those book-filled buildings are bored enough to be doing some interesting things the public is not seeing. I’m going to give you some examples, based on reports I received from private investigators Kinsey Millhone (of Sue Grafton’s “alphabet mysteries”) and Easy Rawlins (of the Walter Mosley novels that often have a color in their titles). In return for the inside info from those sleuths, I purchased their co-authored thriller D Is For Devil in a Blue Dress.

Anyway, in my town’s closed-since-mid-March library (pictured above), Jane Eyre steps out from between the covers of Charlotte Bronte’s novel and discovers a “madwoman” roaming the building’s top floor. Turns out to be the Harry Potter witch Bellatrix Lestrange, who zaps gentle Beth March of Little Women with her wand. Middlemarch‘s Dr. Lydgate treats Beth via a Zoom “telehealth” appointment so they can maintain social distancing. Ove from Fredrik Backman’s novel likes the social-distancing thing.

Meanwhile, Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter receives remote instruction from a local university on a library computer, and changes to an outfit embroidered with a “B” after not quite acing a test. Anna Karenina also has some difficulties when she throws herself under a toy train in the children’s-book section. But the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude are pleased, figuring a few months of pandemic aloneness in the fiction section is better than a century of it.

Then Alice returns to the library’s shelves from her adventures in Wonderland and is asked if she’s “Still Alice” by the Howland family of Lisa Genova’s Alzheimer’s-themed novel. Kate Quinn’s young-woman protagonist Charlie St. Clair films it all for The Alice Network.

Don Quixote tilts at a rotating fan in the library director’s office. Huck Finn and Jim put their raft in the water, but can’t get far atop the drinking fountain next to the men’s room. Captain Ahab searches every floor for Moby-Dick, aka “The Great White Whale,” but only finds a large bottle of “Wite-Out” behind the checkout desk. (Queequeg harpoons it.)

Speaking of the checkout desk, miserly fictional dad Felix Grandet refuses to pay a fine after returning Eugenie Grandet several weeks late. “Old Goriot is a better Balzac book,” he huffs.

Sully from Nobody’s Fool decides to put his handyman skills to work by tightening a loose display case, but Flora and Miles of The Turn of the Screw push him away. “Henry James trained us to do that,” they say.

Former stockbroker Charles Strickland leaves the pages of The Moon and Sixpence to show off his Gauguin-like artistic prowess, but ends up only painting the bannisters between library floors. The Poisonwood Bible missionary Nathan Price tries to convert those drying bannisters to Christianity. Death Comes for the Archbishop when he inhales paint fumes.

On a happier note, Proust’s characters from In Search of Lost Time successfully find that newsweekly in the library’s magazine racks.

Dorothy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz returns to the farm, only it’s a LEGO pasture in the aforementioned children’s section. Fortunately, she doesn’t join the cast of War and Peace — avoiding the need to repeatedly say “There’s no place like tome.”

As noted, fictional characters are feeling rather bored and unhappy with no people visiting the library. So when Lily Bart dubs the book-filled building The House of Mirth, she is shushed. Seems the ill-fated Lily can’t catch a break.

Would you like to add any scenarios of fictional characters acting out in empty libraries?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about an educational war of words connected with my town’s upcoming election — is here.

Dreams Are Among Literature’s Themes

Alice

My goal: to discuss dreams in fiction before I go to sleep tonight.

This topic is not my idea. I was reading Elisabeth van der Meer’s great “A Russian Affair” literature blog a week or so ago when she brought up a memorable dream sequence in Alexander Pushkin’s “novel in verse” Eugene Onegin (a work, serialized between 1825 and 1832, that I haven’t read). I commented under Elisabeth’s post, and she said dreams in fiction might perhaps be a good subject for me.

So, I decided it would be sort of a nightmare to ignore a fascinating topic like that. After all, dreams can reveal a lot about a character, can help drive a plot, can be very interesting in of themselves, and can give writers a chance to show off some impressive prose pyrotechnics.

Of course, dreams in novels may or may not be literal dreams (as in the character being asleep). They might be hallucinations, visions, fantasy sequences, etc.

Staying with Russian literature, there’s the famous scene in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan Karamazov meets the devil. Perhaps more an hallucination than a dream, what Fyodor Dostoyevsky conjured up is harrowing and hilarious.

Fictional works with ghostly visitations can certainly fit this topic, with the assumption that the visitations are dreamed or imagined — maybe. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, in which Ebenezer Scrooge encounters various ghosts, is one of literature’s most famous examples of this.

Dream or ghost? We wonder about that near the start of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights when Mr. Lockwood stays in the room of the late Catherine and sees the child version of Catherine try to get in the window. Lockwood experiences this as a terrifying dream, while Heathcliff wonders if Mr. L has seen the actual ghost of his deceased love.

Also in the 19th century, we have Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, in which Alice might be dreaming or imagining various quirky characters and situations. Or perhaps it’s more a fantasy approach on the part of Lewis Carroll. (One of John Tenniel’s famous Alice illustrations is on top of this blog post.)

Moving to the 20th century, Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf ends with an eye-popping scene in “The Magic Theatre” — a place that seems both real and dream-like at the same time.

There are a number of visions in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, most notably when Harry’s mind involuntarily focuses on Lord Voldemort and that uber-villain’s thoughts.

One of modern literature’s most shocking uses of dreams — or imagined scenarios — is revealed at the controversial conclusion of (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s novel Big Brother. To avoid any spoiler risks, I’ll leave it at that.

Some characters in time-travel novels do the time-traveling in a way that’s almost a dream. For instance, the protagonist of Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand uses a powerful drug to transport himself from a 20th-century town to the same town in the 14th century. Is he sort of dreaming those experiences in the 1300s? And the protagonist in Jack Finney’s Time and Again goes from 20th- to 19th-century New York City via self-hypnosis, a dream state of sorts.

Novels you remember with elements of dreams, hallucinations, and such?

And now for a famous “Dreams” song:

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about my town’s upcoming election and (alliteration alert!) somewhat-secretive schools superintendent search — is here.

Reading in the Time of Pandemic

OutlanderWith life changing so much during the current pandemic, reading can obviously change, too. The content of what we read, of course, but also our reading routines. I’m going to describe what has been different for me, and then ask what has been different for you. If your reading life has not changed during the coronavirus crisis, well, that’s okay! 🙂

Most novels I read pre-pandemic came from my local library. Armed with a list that mostly consists of your book recommendations from this blog’s weekly comments area, I’d drive two-plus miles each month to the library’s main branch and take out 4-6 novels. I loved those visits for many reasons — the look of the library’s interior, seeing people I knew, the relative quiet, the occasional serendipity of finding a novel I hadn’t had on my list…

But, like many other places, the library closed in mid-March for an unknown amount of time. I finished the novels I had borrowed during my February visit, and then tried to figure out what to do. I could have purchased a Kindle to download library books, but was not enthusiastic about going that route because I already spend so much time on screens. I constantly use my laptop or phone to do this blog, write other things, text, read news, keep up on social media (mostly Facebook), etc. Also, I just like reading novels in the old-fashioned print format.

Buying print novels wasn’t a great option, either, because my apartment is already jammed with my books, my wife’s books, and my younger daughter’s books. One possible solution was to reread some favorites already on my shelves, but I need new material to feed this blog and there are so many novels I want to read for the first time.

Anyway, purchased novels was the option I chose. By an accident of timing, my birthday was coming up in late March, my wife conveniently asked me what I wanted, and I said…books! She asked me which ones, and I made a list. While I waited for those novels to arrive, I had three other not-yet-read books on hand, and more time to read two of them (so far). Heck, as I “sheltered at home,” I wasn’t spending non-writing hours seeing friends and attending my younger daughter’s many sports practices and games — all indefinitely suspended.

Which is among the reasons that one book-gift request I made of my wife was the set of Diana Gabaldon’s eight Outlander novels despite most of them being 1,000 pages or longer. I’m loving the ambitious/compulsively readable series about a woman who goes back in time. After having read the first book (Outlander) several months ago, I finished the second book (Dragonfly in Amber) last week and am now immersed in the third book (Voyager).

If not for the pandemic, reading many long books in a short amount of time wouldn’t have been my choice or even possible. Plus, it’s comforting during such a sobering period to read a lot of somewhat-escapist fare — as time-travel novels tend to be for me. It helps to counterbalance all the depressing news I read each day about the coronavirus — and about the latest appalling statements from the incompetent, devoid-of-empathy, only-cares-about-himself President Trump.

Another change in routine of course involves now doing virtually all my reading at home.

Eventually, things will open up again and I’ll resume my monthly library visits. When I do, I’ll start catching up on some of the novels you’ve recommended in the comments area since mid-March. 🙂

How has your reading changed during the pandemic — content-wise and/or routine-wise?

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

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

An Examination of Eccentric Characters

Mr. MicawberOne great thing about reading novels is enjoying some very eccentric characters. You might only find them once in a while, but they’re worth the wait.

The latest quirky fictional person I stumbled upon is the father in Polish author Bruno Schulz’s memorable, melancholy, lushly prosed The Street of Crocodiles (1934). This odd dad houses a huge number of live birds in the family attic, is convinced that mannequins feel imprisoned in their lifeless bodies, etc.

Clearly, some eccentric characters have psychological issues, though that’s not always the case. Some are quite sane, albeit…different.

Quite different is health resort owner Masha, briefly mentioned in last week’s blog post when I discussed Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers. That Australian immigrant from Russia is highly intelligent, driven, ruthless, voyeuristic, an outside-the-box thinker, a fitness fanatic after suffering a massive heart attack, and…weird.

There are some authors — including Charles Dickens and John Irving — we associate with quirky characters in multiple books. One of Dickens’s best-known eccentrics is David Copperfield supporting player Mr. Micawber (standing in the image above), who’s partly ridiculous and partly hilarious in his perpetual unrealistic optimism. One of Irving’s quirkiest creations is A Prayer for Owen Meany‘s title character — an obsessive fellow who speaks in a high-pitched voice, feels he’s God’s instrument, and believes he can predict the date of his own death (correctly, as it turns out).

It’s a bonus when an appealingly odd character appears more than once — as is the case with “Sully” in Richard Russo’s Nobody’s Fool and later in Everybody’s Fool. Donald Sullivan is a brainy, funny blue-collar guy who’s comically unambitious.

There are of course eccentric types who appear in way more than two novels, aka series. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are certainly peopled with many a quirky cast member — including the spacey Luna Lovegood, to name just one. And, when you think about it, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher is a rather peculiar guy who roams from place to place meting out justice. No permanent home, carries little more than a toothbrush, and can even tell time to the minute without a watch.

Getting back to appeared-in-just-one-book characters, notable eccentrics include the silly/likable/delusional star of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the clairvoyant/telekinectic/distracted Clara del Valle Trueba of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, the strange/cruel/passionate Heathcliff of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the slobby/antisocial/uproarious Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, the overeating/clownish/sympathetic Samson-Aaron of Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, the brilliant/offbeat/anxiety-ridden architect title character of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and Sylvie Fisher of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. The calm/independent Sylvie has wanderlust, eats dinner only in the dark, hoards magazine and newspapers…

I’ve barely scratched the surface in naming eccentric characters. Some of your favorites?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about silver linings in the time of coronavirus — is here.

Moriarty and Martin and Mastery

Liane MoriartySome novels FOAC. Some don’t.

By FOAC, I mean “fire on all cylinders.” Yes, some novels get all or most things right — excellent prose, believable dialogue, three-dimensional characters, interesting plot, maybe a memorable surprise or two, etc. Those books just flow. Other novels? Not so much.

Obviously without planning to, I consecutively read two novels during the past week that exemplified each extreme.

Yesterday, I finished 2018’s Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. At 53, the Australian author is at the peak of her writing powers, and Nine Perfect Strangers is among the best of her eight novels — maybe second only to 2014’s Big Little Lies.

The newer book is set in a health resort where nine guests experience MUCH more than they bargained for, and Moriarty expertly makes all 12 major characters memorable, very human individuals. (The main cast also includes has-a-screw-loose resort owner Masha and two staffers.) The nine guests are to some degree “types” — a romance novelist (perhaps partly based on Moriarty?), a former athlete, a depressed divorcee, an extremely handsome gay lawyer, a young couple who won the lottery, and a teacher and a midwife and their Generation Z daughter — yet they all feel like real people.

Moriarty’s prose in Nine Perfect Strangers is, well, perfect — plus there’s intense drama, heartbreaking backstories, plenty of humor, always-smooth transitions, and more. The length of the book is also, well, perfect — 450 pages in the paperback edition I read.

A bonus is that Nine Perfect Strangers evokes other great novels — such as T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville (set in a sanitarium) and Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (about 10 people stuck together in an isolated place) — while still feeling totally original.

Then there’s the novel I read immediately before the Moriarty one: Martin Cruz Smith’s The Siberian Dilemma (2019) — the ninth installment of the suspenseful crime series starring weary, principled, sympathetic Russian investigator Arkady Renko that began nearly 40 years ago with 1981’s Gorky Park. The first eight books all ranged from excellent to enthralling as Smith transitioned from Brezhnev’s to Gorbachev’s to Yeltsin’s to Putin’s Russia — with side trips to the U.S., Cuba, and a ship. Then the series fell off a literary cliff with The Siberian Dilemma. Too short, blah plot, very disjointed, strained dialogue, and underdeveloped secondary characters — plus the novel quickly dissipated whatever little suspense it occasionally built.

Things happen, of course, and I would definitely try Smith again if he wrote another novel. (He’s also authored several great non-Renko books, including Rose.) In Smith’s case, The Siberian Dilemma may have been a clunker at least partly because of his advancing age (he’s 77) and health issues (he has Parkinson’s disease). And many a notable author of ANY age can occasionally write a bad book — whether that happens in early career (such as the great Jack London’s laughable A Daughter of the Snows), mid-career (such as the great Stephen King’s disappointing Cell), or late career.

The wonderful author Willa Cather’s last novel Sapphira and the Slave Girl was atrocious, and the also-wonderful author Richard Russo’s most recent novel Chances Are was so-so. In the case of those authors, reading their peak works — such as Cather’s My Antonia and Russo’s Empire Falls — is the way to go.

Of course, late-career novels don’t always have to be clunkers. While I haven’t read it yet, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments (2019) — The Handmaid’s Tale sequel released just before the author’s 80th birthday — got excellent reviews. And Billy Budd, begun three years before the author’s death and published posthumously, is one of Herman Melville’s best works. Last but not least, how about Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov for an author’s final novel?

Among other living authors still firing on all cylinders are J.K. Rowling and Lee Child. Rowling’s four recent crime novels starring investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are fantastic — just a small step below the author’s iconic Harry Potter series in quality and appeal. And Child’s Jack Reacher thriller series, which dates back to the 1997 debut novel Killing Floor, is now well past 20 books yet the recent ones are as good as the early ones.

Some novels you’d like to mention that do or do not “fire on all cylinders”?

The terrific Canadian podcaster Rebecca Budd once again interviewed me about literature and writing. In this 15-minute segment, we discussed the comfort of books during a difficult time, how people become authors, how great authors were often not great at first, the need for authors to read books, how to deal with writers’ block, and the growth of indie publishing.

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

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

The ’80s Had Big Hair and Big Novels. (The 1880s, That Is)

SheEvery decade has its share of memorable novels. Today I’m going to focus on the 1880s.

Why? Because I recently finished a spellbinding 1887 book called She. An imperfect novel — author H. Rider Haggard has some troubling views on race, gender, and class even as he can be relatively enlightened for his time — but also a book that offers an eerie take on mortality and immortality (the ruthless but at times sympathetic title character, shown above, is 2,200 years old!). A thrilling adventure tale that contains many philosophical ruminations and impressive writing flourishes.

The 1880s were semi-dominated by multiple great novels from Henry James, Mark Twain, and Emile Zola, but that long-ago decade essentially began in a literary sense with the 1880 classic The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book is more sprawling and uneven than his 1866 masterpiece Crime and Punishment, but when Brothers is good it’s amazing. Dostoyevsky reportedly intended the novel to be the first of a trilogy, but he died in early 1881.

Another 19th-century Russian writing legend, Leo Tolstoy, sort of ended the decade’s literary output with one of his best short novels — 1889’s gripping and controversial The Kreutzer Sonata.

But back to the three authors who semi-dominated the decade. Henry James started things off with the compelling Washington Square (1880), about a not-nice doctor and his sweet-but-dull daughter; and then wrote what is my favorite novel of his, the heartbreaking classic The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Among James’ many other works during those productive years was The Aspern Papers (1888), about an obsessed man trying to get his hands on the letters and such of a famous dead poet by ingratiating himself with that poet’s aged lover.

Mark Twain? There was The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Huckleberry Finn, of course, is considered Twain’s best novel — and it totally deserves that designation despite faltering a bit in the last third when Tom Sawyer makes an annoying and unwelcome appearance. Connecticut Yankee, an early time-travel work, is fiercely antiwar amid the frequent hilarity.

Zola zoomed through the 1880s with eight novels in his famous Rougon-Macquart series. My four favorites are Nana (1880), about a prostitute; The Ladies’ Delight (1883), about a Paris department store that wreaks havoc on small retailers; Zola’s masterpiece Germinal (1885), about a mining town that experiences a dramatic strike; and The Masterpiece (1886), about a prototypical tortured artist.

Taking the time-travel route a year before Twain was Edward Bellamy and his utopian Looking Backward (1888), set in the year 2000. It was one of the 19th century’s three bestselling novels — after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880), the latter of which I haven’t read so I can’t discuss it in this post. One of the many interesting things about Looking Backward (whose author was a cousin of “Pledge of Allegiance” creator Francis Bellamy) is that an early debit card appears in it!

Other notable novels of that decade included Thomas Hardy’s depressingly excellent The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson’s very influential Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (also 1886), and William Dean Howells’ rags-to-riches-themed The Rise of Silas Lapham (1884).

An honorable mention goes to Billy Budd — which was started by Herman Melville in 1886, left unfinished at the time of his 1891 death, and finally published in 1924. Many consider it Melville’s second-best novel behind Moby-Dick.

Your favorite novels of the 1880s, including those I didn’t name?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which again looks at the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on my town — is here.

The Ages of Those We Read on Pages

birthdayI don’t think I’ve ever published a blog post on my birthday before, so I’ll “celebrate” by listing some novelists I love or like and how old they are. Why? Because it’s easier to make a list than to write a regular blog post of the kind I’ll resume next week. 🙂

Anyway, here goes — with a great or very good book by each author included:

Alison Lurie, born September 3, 1926 (93 years old), Foreign Affairs.

Cormac McCarthy, July 20, 1933 (86), Blood Meridian.

Wole Soyinka, July 13, 1934 (85), The Interpreters.

Mario Vargas Llosa, March 28, 1936 (84), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

A.S. Byatt, August 24, 1936 (83), Possession.

Lois Lowry, March 20, 1937 (83), The Giver.

Margaret Drabble, June 5, 1939 (80), The Witch of Exmoor.

Margaret Atwood, November 18, 1939 (80), The Handmaid’s Tale.

J.M.G. Le Clezio, April 13, 1940 (79), Desert.

Anne Tyler, October 25, 1941 (78), The Accidental Tourist.

John Irving, March 2, 1942 (78), The Cider House Rules.

Isabel Allende, August 2, 1942 (77), The House of the Spirits.

Martin Cruz Smith, November 3, 1942 (77), Gorky Park.

Peter Straub, March 2, 1943 (77), Ghost Story.

Janet Evanovich, April 22, 1943 (76), One for the Money.

Michael Ondaatje, September 12, 1943 (76), The English Patient.

Marilynne Robinson, November 26, 1943 (76), Housekeeping.

Alice Walker, February 9, 1944 (76), The Color Purple.

Fannie Flagg, September 21, 1944 (75), Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Rita Mae Brown, November 28, 1944 (75), Rubyfruit Jungle.

Stephen King, September 21, 1947 (72), From a Buick 8.

Richard Russo, July 15, 1949 (70), Empire Falls.

Julia Alvarez, March 27, 1950 (70), In the Time of the Butterflies.

Laura Esquivel, September 30, 1950 (69), Like Water for Chocolate.

Terry McMillan, October 18, 1951 (68), Waiting to Exhale.

Walter Mosley, January 12, 1952 (68), Devil in a Blue Dress.

Amy Tan, February 19, 1952 (68), The Joy Luck Club.

Philippa Gregory, January 9, 1954 (66), Earthly Joys.

Lee Child, October 29, 1954 (65), 61 Hours.

John Grisham, February 8, 1955 (65), The Client.

Barbara Kingsolver, April 8, 1955 (64), The Poisonwood Bible.

Colm Toibin, May 30, 1955 (64), Brooklyn.

Lisa Scottoline, July 1, 1955 (64), The Vendetta Defense.

Geraldine Brooks, September 14, 1955 (64), March.

Peter Hoeg, May 17, 1957 (62), Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

Lionel Shriver, May 18, 1957 (62), So Much for That.

Louise Penny, July 1, 1958 (61), How the Light Gets in.

Jonathan Franzen, August 17, 1959 (60), The Corrections.

Neil Gaiman, November 10, 1960 (59), American Gods.

Arundhati Roy, November 24, 1961 (58), The God of Small Things.

Suzanne Collins, August 10, 1962 (57), The Hunger Games.

Michael Chabon, May 24, 1963 (56), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Donna Tartt, December 23, 1963 (56), The Goldfinch.

J.K. Rowling, July 31, 1965 (54), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Liane Moriarty, November 15, 1966 (53), Big Little Lies.

Jhumpa Lahiri, July 11, 1967 (52), The Lowland.

Lisa Genova, November 22, 1970 (49), Still Alice.

Zadie Smith, October 25, 1975 (44), White Teeth.

John Green, August 24, 1977 (42), The Fault in Our Stars.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, September 15, 1977 (42), Half of a Yellow Sun.

Fredrik Backman, June 2, 1981 (38), A Man Called Ove.

Kate Quinn, November 30, 1981 (38), The Huntress.

Eleanor Catton, September 24, 1985 (34), The Luminaries.

Some favorite living authors you’d like to mention who I didn’t list?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which gives local plots to novels that my town’s residents could read during the coronavirus pandemic — is here.

War as Seen Through the Eyes of Fictional Characters

Chimamanda Ngpzi Adichie“War is hell,” but it can also be almost an abstraction. Unless you’re directly affected, it might not seem quite as horrible as it actually is or as senseless as it usually is. Novels and other kinds of fiction can help.

By that I mean they introduce us to characters we might grow to love and admire. So if those characters end up affected by war — possibly forced from their homes, possibly terrified, possibly injured, possibly killed — we really feel for them, and are reminded once again of how disgusting war is. Of course we already knew that, but there’s something visceral about seeing characters go through humankind’s periodic carnage. Obviously not as visceral as real life, yet still emotionally wrenching.

Many novels with warfare — such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers — place fictional characters in fictional battles. (That kind of book is often in the sci-fi, fantasy, or dystopian genres.) Many other novels place fictional characters against the backdrop of real wars, and this post will focus on those scenarios.

I just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent Half of a Yellow Sun, which takes a classic approach to characters swept up in war — allowing readers to get to know them before all hell breaks loose. We first meet professor Odenigbo, teacher Olanna, servant Ugwu, businesswoman Kainene, British writer Richard, and others in the early 1960s — a time of relative peace in Nigeria — and find them appealing or at least interesting. Then the novel jumps to the start of the Nigerian Civil War later that decade, and we hold our breath to see how those characters will be impacted. How traumatized will they be? Will they survive? (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is pictured above.)

Moving back in time, there are of course many novels that place characters in the World War II era, and help us understand how soldiers and civilians felt back then. Willie Keith and May Wynn in Herman Wouk’s compelling The Caine Mutiny, Ida Ramundo in Elsa Morante’s devastating Italy-set History, lovers Ernst and Elisabeth in Erich Maria Remarque’s shattering Germany-set A Time to Love and a Time to Die, etc.

The authors of the three above books all had personal wartime experiences, which undoubtedly added to the power and accuracy of what they wrote.

That was also the case with Ernest Hemingway, a World War I veteran whose time in Spain during the 1930s Spanish Civil War inspired the creation of his memorable For Whom the Bell Tolls and its protagonist Robert Jordan.

Among WWI-era-set novels that grip readers through their characters are Willa Cather’s Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours, about farmer’s son Claude Wheeler and his brutal battlefield experiences; and L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, perhaps the best Anne of Green Gables sequel, which features the family of now-middle-aged/now-a-parent Anne Shirley and their experiences when some young Canadians are sent overseas.

Civil War-set novels that evoke the horrors of battle through their characters include Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, whose protagonist is soldier Henry Fleming; and Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-winning March, which focuses on the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Several Sir Walter Scott novels feature intense warfare. For instance, the riveting Old Mortality includes Scotland’s Battle of Bothwell Bridge and its impact on several major characters.

I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Which novels have brought home the stomach-turning nature of war for you?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about how the coronavirus is impacting my town, about a local Facebook group, and about a lawsuit — is here.