The Wait Show

I did a lot of waiting this past week.

Why? I was called for jury duty on July 17, when I waited six hours in a Newark, New Jersey, courthouse before my name was called to be a possible juror for a trial. A few minutes later, myself and about 50 others crowded into a courtroom, where people were picked in random order to be questioned by the judge as well as by lawyers for the plaintiff and defendant in a car-accident case. Five of the eight needed jurors were chosen before the process was suspended until the following morning. Then came an overnight wait for everyone at their respective homes.

The next day, more jurors were chosen, some were dismissed, and I became perhaps the 13th or 14th person questioned. I ended up being picked for the trial, which took place on July 18 and 19 — with many waiting moments amid the proceedings, such as when the judge periodically called the lawyers to the front for sidebar discussions when an objection was made. Our congenial, diverse jury ended up voting 7-1 in favor of the defendant.

Anyway, with all that waiting, I had plenty of time to try to think of a new blog post for today. My first thought of course was to discuss lawyers and court cases in literature, but I had done that already, in 2015.

Then it occurred to me to write about WAITING in literature, and I don’t mean what fictional servers do at restaurant tables.

Depicting characters waiting for something is not necessarily boring in the right authorial hands. It can mean slow-building, compelling drama — drama that has the reader asking questions such as: How long will the wait be? Will the wait result in something positive or negative? How will the characters react to/handle the wait? That can show a lot about them.

I first thought of The White Dawn, because I had finished that novel the night before my jury duty started. James Houston’s absorbing book is set in Eskimo territory in the 1890s, when three lost white men end up joining the native camp. There’s subsequently a LOT of waiting: for a ship looking for the white men to possibly arrive, for Eskimo hunters to hopefully return with food when everyone is almost starving, for warmer weather to come, for colder weather to come back, etc. (One thing I liked about The White Dawn was that it was told completely from the Eskimos’ perspective; Houston had lived among them for nine years — many decades after the time in which the novel is set.)

Obviously, any novel starring a castaway — such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe — is going to have the stranded character do a lot of waiting.

Another novel with intense waiting is Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, in which the Australian characters wait for deadly radiation from a nuclear blast to eventually reach their country.

And there’s Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov agonizingly waits to see if he’ll get caught for the two murders he committed. (Of course, the second part of the novel’s title offers a clue about that. 🙂 )

Or how about the innocent Edmond Dantes of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo waiting years in an island prison for either death or a chance to escape?

In Geraldine Brooks’ novel March, the wife and daughters from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women wait for their husband/father to return from the Civil War.

Lily Bart of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth does a different kind of waiting — for the right guy to marry. She is financially desperate, but wants to wed for love, not just for money.

In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, African-American writer Dana Franklin waits to return to the 20th century after being yanked to the 19th century’s horrific slave-owning South. Then Ms. Franklin waits to be yanked to the 19th century again, to the 20th century again, and for her 20th-century husband to return from the 19th century.

Twentieth-century guy Sam Fowler of Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back sequel Two in the Field WANTS to return to the 19th century to reunite with the woman he fell in love with in the first novel. But it’s a long wait.

Oh, and there’s Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot

Those are just a few examples of waiting in literature; do you have some others? (I’m sure you do. 🙂 )

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 The latest weekly piece — which mentions the World Cup, among other things — is here.

Some Stories Behind the Writing of Storied Novels

Novels containing great stories sometimes have great stories behind the writing of the novels.

I learned a new example of that after reading Rosamunde Pilcher’s moving/masterful/multigenerational The Shell Seekers earlier this month. In the introduction to the 10th-anniversary edition of that 1987 novel, Pilcher recalled her publisher visiting her in Scotland in 1984, and her children rebuking him for not making their mother more famous (she had written 11 modest-selling books at that point). The publisher replied that Pilcher “hadn’t produced a novel that would justify huge advance publicity and global promotion,” and challenged her to do so.

“No novel had ever taken me more than three months to produce,” Pilcher wrote. “Thinking about the mammoth task ahead, I quailed slightly. I was sixty…”

But she wrote The Shell Seekers — taking more than two years to do so — and it deservedly went on to sell more than five million copies.

(The novel’s protagonist is Penelope Keeling — a sixty-something woman who lives a difficult, at times tragic life with charm and little complaint. She was played by Vanessa Redgrave, shown in the photo atop this blog post, in a screen adaptation.)

Other authors’ memorable writing experiences? Well, there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who was mostly known as a journalist when he had a brainstorm about a novel and began writing One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1965. He single-mindedly worked on the magic-realism-infused book for eighteen months while he and his wife ran up a huge amount of debt. The end result was a novel considered one of the best of the 20th century — and it made enough money to eradicate that debt many times over.

In the late 1890s, Colette was handling correspondence for her prominent publisher husband Henry Gauthier-Villars, who put his “Willy” alias on the cover of books actually authored by a stable of ghostwriters. A bored Colette wrote a novel herself — Claudine at School, initially released in 1900 under the “Willy” name — that became wildly popular.

Going further back in the 19th century, we have memorable writing experiences from authors such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Sir Walter Scott.

After a run of best-selling novels that first came out in serialized form, Dickens was not doing as well with Martin Chuzzlewit. So, in the middle of writing it, he changed the planned plot by sending Martin to America — and readership took off.

Twain began Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1876, and later put it aside for several years as he wrestled with the plot (including whether to bring Huck into adulthood) and the prose (which he ended up famously filling with pitch-perfect dialect). The novel finally came out in late 1884, and is considered one of the best of the 19th century.

Hawthorne initially envisioned The House of the Seven Gables as having a relatively sad ending. But he was convinced by his wife Sophia to make the conclusion more hopeful, even though it didn’t fit the gloomy novel quite as well.

Melville was writing Pierre while his previous novel, the masterpiece Moby-Dick, was tanking in sales and getting scathing reviews from many critics. Stung by that reaction, Melville shifted gears to have his Pierre title character obsessively write a book that no one seemed to like or understand.

Scott was ill when writing The Bride of Lammermoor, and consequently dictated the novel rather than hand-write it himself — all of which might have contributed to the plot’s downbeat nature. When Scott read the completed novel, he had been so out of it during the writing process that he “did not recollect one single incident, character, or conversation it contained.” That may or may not have been apocryphal.

What are some interesting stories you’ve heard about the writing of particular novels?

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 The latest weekly piece — which takes a rare all-positive approach 🙂 — is here.

Novelists Who Go All Epic All the Time, Or Not

Some authors write almost nothing but epic fiction — long, intricate, challenging, ambitious books that take years to complete. Think Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time); Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji); Donna Tartt (just three novels — including The Goldfinch — since 1992); Jonathan Franzen (Freedom, etc.); James Clavell (Shogun, etc.); Samuel Richardson (Clarissa, etc.); and a few others.

But most authors — including those known for doorstop books — occasionally change things up with shorter novels. Even Charles “The Tome King” Dickens wrote the occasional modest-length work such as A Christmas Carol and Hard Times.

As did Leo Tolstoy, whose canon includes not only the lengthy Anna Karenina and the very lengthy War and Peace, but novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Hadji Murat.

The same can be said for George Eliot, whose Silas Marner is quite brief compared to her hefty novels such as Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda; Wilkie Collins, whose A Rogue’s Life is many fewer pages than The Woman in White and Armadale; John Steinbeck, who mixed sweeping novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden with shorter fare such as Cannery Row; and James Michener, who wrote many huge fictional works (think Hawaii) but also relatively quick-to-read novels such as Caravans.

And though those books are barely remembered now, Miguel de Cervantes penned a number of shorter novels in addition to his lengthy masterpiece Don Quixote.

Heck, most authors need a change of pace (writing one epic after another can lead to burnout). And sometimes writers just require 200 pages or so to say what they want to say in a particular book.

The idea for this post occurred to me last month when I was reading Neil Gaiman’s interesting fantasy novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane — a shorter and simpler (but not simple) novel than his deep, complex American Gods.

Your favorite authors who go the mostly epic route or the change-of-pace route?

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 The latest weekly piece — which covers everything from a July 4th parade to commemorating a lost African-American landmark — is here.

These Novelists Are Not Just Their Most Famous Novels

Many a novelist is known mostly for a particular series. But those authors often have other books in their canons — whether they’re a different series or stand-alone novels. And those other novels can be somewhat similar or quite different from the works that the writers are most famous for.

This thought popped into my brain last week when reading the Rose novel by Martin Cruz Smith. That author is most known for Gorky Park and its seven sequels, but the stand-alone Rose is just as good. It’s set in a 19th-century British coal-mining town rather than the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union, but Rose stars an investigative character (Jonathan Blair) who reminded me more than a bit of investigator Arkady Renko of the eight books that started with Gorky Park. Blair and Renko are both smart, brave, world-weary, more ethical than most, and liable to get into interesting romantic entanglements. They also smoke or drink too much, are not in great health, and get beat up a lot by the bad guys.

Then there’s of course J.K. Rowling, who wrote the iconic Harry Potter series but also The Casual Vacancy — an adult, non-magical novel that’s almost totally unlike the HP books, even as there are some similarities in terms of complex social interactions, dysfunctional families, tragedy, etc. Plus Rowling has written a detective-fiction series under the alias Robert Galbraith.

Walter Mosley is most famous for his mysteries starring Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins (Devil in a Blue Dress and thirteen others). But he has also written three Fearless Jones mysteries, five Leonid McGill mysteries, science fiction, etc.

L.M. Montgomery is best known for Anne of Green Gables and its many sequels, but she also wrote the semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy, the stand-alone novel The Blue Castle, and more. Very different books, but they tend to star brainy, feisty girls or young women who overcome significant obstacles.

Arthur Conan Doyle is almost synonymous with his Sherlock Holmes novels and stories, but he also penned The Lost World and plenty of other books — partly in an effort to not be typecast as “only” a writer of Sherlockian tales.

Changing things up can keep novelists fresh and interested as they exercise different writing muscles. The same can be said about those authors’ audiences, who have the opportunity to exercise different reading muscles. Of course, some people prefer that their favorite novelists remain predictable and stick with one series.

Then there are authors who write other novels before creating a popular series that they stick with. One example is Sue Grafton; she had two published novels before penning her “Alphabet Mysteries” (A Is for Alibi and 24 others) starring investigator Kinsey Millhone.

Which authors who fit this topic would you like to mention?

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 The latest weekly piece — which covers everything from summer camps to girls’ softball — is here.

Characters We Might Not Hate Despite Disturbing Affiliations or Histories

A good novelist can make a character appealing even when that character is on the less-than-moral side of things — though it helps if there are extenuating circumstances.

That came to mind last week when reading Charles Frazier’s absorbing, melancholy novel Cold Mountain — which co-stars Confederate soldier Inman. He’s brave and likable, but fighting for the South in defense of the abhorrent institution of slavery clearly places him on the wrong side of history. (The actual Cold Mountain is pictured at the top of this blog post.)

Then there’s Ernst Graeber, a World War II soldier for the genocidal Nazis in Erich Maria Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

One thing helping to make those two men sympathetic is that they were basically forced to join the military — for geographic reasons (Inman is a southerner and Ernst is German) and for survival reasons (they probably would be shunned, jailed, or killed if they didn’t). Of course, they could try to flee — and a wounded Inman does desert in an effort to make his way back to Cold Mountain and the woman he loves, Ada Monroe. Also, Inman is not a raving racist and is clear-eyed about the evil plantation owners and other rich people he had gone to war for — as this passage during his long flight indicates:

“Inman looked at the lights in the big houses at night and knew he had been fighting battles for such men as lived in them, and it made him sick.”

Meanwhile, Ernst cares nothing about Nazi ideology and just wants to live a happy life. He falls in love with Elizabeth Cruse while on furlough, and the last thing he wants to do is return to the front. When Ernst is on his way back there, he tries to help a soldier captured by the Nazis and…

Then there are characters who are murderers or possible murderers. Raskolnikov of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment is certainly one of them, but somehow maintains some reader sympathy. Perhaps it’s because one of his victims was so unlikable, and/or because Raskolnikov has such an agonized outlook on life, and/or because he murdered as almost a philosophical experiment. Plus there’s some redemption ahead. Still, the two victims obviously weren’t happy about things.

Grace Marks is one of two people convicted of murder in Margaret Atwood’s historical novel Alias Grace, but it’s uncertain if she actually was an accomplice to the act. Readers develop some sympathy for her during and because of her long imprisonment.

In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, protagonist Theo Decker takes home the hugely valuable painting of the novel’s title. But the theft is sort of understandable — it happens when a terrorist bomb hits New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art while a young Theo is there with his beloved mother, killing her and leaving Theo traumatized. Once he takes the painting, returning it seems out of the question.

Then there are characters who start off nasty but later become more mellow and nicer as the novels go on. For instance, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables includes Anne’s adoptive mother Marilla Cuthbert, who’s initially cold and mean to the desperate-for-love orphan; and Rachel Lynde, the at-first nosy, judgmental, busybody neighbor.

Of course, many characters are clearly villains from start to finish, yet have enough charm and fascination for readers to kind of/sort of root for them — or at least not want them to fail for a while. One example is Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

Some characters you remember who fit this topic?

I unfortunately will again be skipping a blog post — next Sunday, June 24 — because I’m traveling to Florida to continue dealing with my late mother’s estate. As always, I’ll reply to comments when I can, and will return with a new piece on July 1!

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a creative solution for a too-small commencement setting — is here.

Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction

We look back on the 1800s as a time of rampant sexism, patriarchy, male dominance, gender inequality — whatever you want to call it. And it was indeed that sort of time. But a number of 19th-century female novelists, and a few male ones, managed to directly or indirect speak against that in some of their books.

I thought of this last week while reading Lelia by George Sand (born Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin). In that fascinating 1833 novel, the independent, intellectual, skeptical, cynical, depressed, world-weary, God-doubting title character in some ways sounds like she could be living in 2018 — if the eloquent language used in Sand’s philosophical book were more casual and not densely rich like a lot of 19th-century prose was. Lelia is not always an easy book to read, but you’ll rarely see better writing than penned by Sand (whose image accompanies this blog post).

Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) is another strong heroine. The capable Anne is in love with Captain Frederick Wentworth, but lives a very useful life even as the relationship between her and Wentworth is thwarted for years.

The star of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) has strong feminist leanings that come out in various ways — including her pride in being smart, her need to work, and her insistence that she be an equal in marriage.

Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) courageously leaves her abusive/alcoholic husband to save both her son and her own self-worth. It’s a novel so feminist that Anne’s not-quite-as-feminist sister Charlotte unfortunately helped prevent wider distribution of it after Anne’s death.

Of course, many of the 19th century’s male critics and readers slammed works that dared depict women as equal to men. Undoubtedly one of the reasons fewer women back then tried to write novels — and a number of those who did write them used male or gender-neutral aliases.

Another author with a George pseudonym, George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans), created a number of strong women — including lay preacher Dinah Morris of Adam Bede (1859). And Eliot lamented the second-class citizenry of female characters in novels such as The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which Maggie Tulliver’s less-brainy brother is treated much better than her by their parents and society as a whole.

Jo March, who thirsts to be a writer, is another nonstereotypical 19th-century female — in Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women.

And Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) depicts Edna Pontellier’s memorable rebellion against her constricted role as a wife and mother.

Can 1900 be considered the last year of the 19th century? If so, Colette’s Claudine at School belongs in this discussion with its assertive, mischievous, hilarious protagonist.

Some male novelists of the 1800s also created female protagonists who didn’t act like stereotypical women of their time. Examples include Jeanie Deans in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Judith Hutter of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), Becky Sharp of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847), Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Marian Halcombe of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), the title character in Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), journalist Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and the martyred protagonist in Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).

Of course, there were also strong women in pre-1800s novels, with just two examples being the very different stars of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). Moll has a tougher exterior than Evelina, but the latter protagonist also has lots of inner strength.

Your favorite 19th-century novels with strong women?

In keeping with this post’s feminist theme, here’s a live performance of The Cranberries’ “Free to Decide.”

Because of a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference I’ll be attending, I won’t be posting a book piece next Sunday, June 10. But I’ll respond to comments when I can. 🙂 Back with a new piece on June 17!

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses a high-school amphitheater now too small for graduations — is here.

Later-in-Life Love in Literature

Many of literature’s memorable romances — whether happy or ill-fated — are between young or relatively young characters. Think Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Doctor Zhivago, Gone With the Wind, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, A Walk to Remember, and various other novels.

Then there are fiction’s not-as-frequent romances that begin when the couples are older, which will be the subject of today’s blog post. Those single, divorced, or widowed characters may not be as hormonally driven or as beautiful or handsome as younger lovers in literature, but their stories can be quite compelling. They’re often more mature and interesting than their youthful counterparts, and we may find ourselves seriously rooting for them as they try to surmount world-weariness and longer romantic odds for a chance at love.

In Jennifer Ryan’s excellent The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, which I finished last week, one plot thread focuses on two middle-aged people in World War II England. One is Margaret Tilling, a respected widow (she takes over as the town’s choir leader, nurses wounded soldiers, and more) whose son is away fighting. The other is Colonel Mallard, a widowed officer assigned to stay in the Tilling son’s room. Will Margaret and Mallard fall in love?

Then there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera — in which Florentino and Fermina meet when young but, after their relationship is thwarted, Fermina ends up marrying another man. Florentino, though hardly chaste, waits for Fermina until her husband dies more than fifty years later and then tries to rekindle the romance. (The older versions of Florentino and Fermina are pictured in the photo with this blog post.)

Or how about the supporting characters Lavendar Lewis and Mr. Irving in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea (the first sequel to Anne of Green Gables)? Lewis and Irving also met while younger and reunite decades (though not a half-century) later.

Speaking of Lewises, there’s Sinclair Lewis’ novel Dodsworth. When middle-aged American auto magnate Sam Dodsworth retires, he and his wife Fran take an extended trip to Europe — during which their marriage basically dissolves and each meets other people.

In So Much for That, the (Ms.) Lionel Shriver novel that combines a hard-hitting takedown of America’s profit-driven medical system with a cast of all-too-human characters, a pair of families deal with huge health crises that result in several deaths. Shep is the middle-aged husband in one couple, Carol is the middle-aged wife in the other household, and…

David Balducci’s One Summer features a terminally ill father of three. But after the ailing Jack’s healthy wife Lizzie dies in a car accident, he miraculously survives and later meets someone.

What are some of the romances you most remember between fictional characters who fall in love when older?

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 The latest weekly piece — which discusses rain, redevelopment, and Republicans — is here.