When Good Novels Are Good Enough

You absolutely love an author and then read a novel by her or him that’s good but not great. A problem? Not for me.

It’s unreasonable to expect a masterpiece every time — though some writers (George Eliot is one) have produced A+ novels many times in each of their careers. I’m just grateful that my favorite authors, dead or living, came up with multiple books I really liked even if I didn’t fall head over heels for every title. Heck, books that are good often have at least some great moments.

I thought about this while reading the last three novels I borrowed from the library. First up was Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, whose nine-year-old protagonist gets lost in the Maine woods. Trisha’s struggle for survival is at times gripping and at times tedious for the reader, with the less riveting portions partly caused by the fact that Trisha can talk to nobody but herself. The book is ultimately worth reading, but it doesn’t have the wallop of King novels such as Carrie, The Dead Zone, Misery, From a Buick 8, and a number of others.

Then came Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty — which has the author’s signature elements of all-too-human characters, deep insight into female friendships, many psychological nuances, lots of humor and pathos, and more. But the novel is more a B+ than an A+, and its focus on a fateful barbecue seems less consequential than the storylines in Moriarty works such as the masterful Big Little Lies and powerful The Husband’s Secret. Yet I’m glad I read Truly Madly Guilty. Heck, what happened at that barbecue is rather consequential.

The third novel was Zadie Smith’s The Auto-Graph Man, which has the author’s dead-on depictions of ethnic similarities and differences as well as many hilarious moments (I think Smith might be the funniest living author). But her novels On Beauty and especially White Teeth are far superior works.

Donna Tartt? I’d rank her tour de force The Goldfinch one of the very best novels of the 21st century. Memorable characters, a terrific plot concerning the painting that gives the book its title, well-handled settings ranging from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, and a completely satisfying conclusion. Tartt’s first two novels — The Secret History and The Little Friend — are quite good, but have flaws such as being too long for their subject matter and less-accomplished conclusions.

Among past authors, there are so many who offer readers immense enjoyment with novels that are not fantastic but are still plenty good. I’ll list some of those “lesser” works and then put a sampling of the authors’ masterpieces in parentheses.

There’s Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice); Alexandre Dumas’ Georges (The Count of Monte Cristo); Charlotte Bronte’s Villette (Jane Eyre); Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall); Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov); Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (Jude the Obscure); Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence); Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (My Antonia); John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent (The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden); Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (One Hundred Years of Solitude); Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Kindred); and so on!

Some novels you like by favorite authors that are not those authors’ masterpieces?

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 — which discusses a battling Board of Education and a congressional candidate unfortunately disinvited from my town’s high school — is here.

A New Person in Town Drives the Plot of Many Novels

Most of us know what it’s like to move to a new town or city — whether it’s to start college, begin a job, escape a bad marriage, retire, or for other reasons. So we really relate to fictional characters who also do that. We watch as they find a home or apartment, deal with initial loneliness and homesickness, navigate different cultural norms, try to make friends, become an object of curiosity to new neighbors and coworkers, etc.

Numerous novels have that “new person in town” element, and I’ll discuss a few of those books today.

I recently read John Grisham’s Camino Island, which describes the theft of the original manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s five novels and then focuses mostly on two characters who move to the Florida isle of the title. One, Bruce Cable, had settled on Camino two decades earlier and opened a very successful bookstore — yet he still allegedly dabbles in stolen manuscripts despite not needing to financially. The other, struggling author Mercer Mann, is convinced by a certain investigative entity to spend six months on the island (which she visited as a kid) to spy on Cable.

(Grisham’s novel has the added bonus of mentioning many real-life authors and novels.)

Other contemporary best-selling writers — including Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Tyler, Liane Moriarty, and Stephen King — have also been among the many novelists to use the “new person in town” theme in interesting ways.

Oates’ novel Solstice has protagonist Monica Jensen move from New York City to a teaching job in rural Pennsylvania after her marriage ends. Some residents wonder why Monica left an exciting urban life for such a sleepy area, but the calmness of her new locale is something she needs, at least temporarily. Yet things become far from calm as she develops a very intense, problematic friendship with eccentric local artist Sheila Trask.

Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years has protagonist Delia Grinstead walk away from the husband and children who don’t appreciate her, and much of the novel focuses on how Delia adapts to a different locale and her new solitary life — and on whether Delia should return to her family.

In Big Little Lies, the Liane Moriarty novel that inspired the hit TV series gets its page-turning plot going when single mother Jane Chapman moves to an Australian town with her young son and tries to fit in with the wealthier families who also have children in Ziggy’s new school.

Rose Daniels in Stephen King’s Rose Madder leaves home to escape her abusive police officer husband Norman, and then sees her new life (in a city that might be Chicago) become threatened as Norman tries to hunt her down.

Many older novels, of course, also feature characters starting anew in different places. One prime example is George Eliot’s Silas Marner, in which the title character moves from one England town to another after a “friend” frames him for a crime and then marries Marner’s fiancee. The bitter Silas becomes a miser until something almost magical changes his life.

What are some of your favorite novels that fit this topic?

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 — which discusses an old train station, standardized testing, and more — is here.

When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly

Sometimes opposites attract — for a little while, at least — and this is true in literature as well as real life. Today, I’m going to discuss relationships between “bad boys” and admirable women, and between not-so-admirable women and decent men.

Both variations can make for interesting reading. Is it just physical attraction? Are these people masochists? Does their very incompatibility make things (temporarily) exciting? Do those couples have ANYTHING in common? Will the relationship be fairly brief, before too much psychological (and/or physical) damage happens? Or will things go on for far too long? Was the liaison seemingly positive at first before one person started acting badly?

The idea for this post was suggested by “elisabethm,” who writes the excellent literature blog “A Russian Affair.” A recent post of hers mentioned “bad guy” Dolokhov and his marriage proposal to “good girl” Sonya in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

While on the subject of Russian literature, there is of course kind/moral Sonya and tortured soul Raskolnikov, a murderer with some redeeming qualities in Crime and Punishment. The conclusion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel is basically all about the positive impact Sonya has on Raskolnikov.

Other examples of good women who spent some time with not-good men include the wonderful Dorothea Brooke, who’s married to pompous/ineffectual/cold-fish scholar Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the admirable Helen and her alcoholic husband Arthur of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which Helen bravely leaves her abusive spouse; the hardworking Gervaise and her starts-off-decent-but-grows-mean-and-lazy-after-getting-injured husband Coupeau of Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den; the independent-minded-but-deferential (for a while) Orleanna Price and her rotten-to-the-core missionary husband Nathan of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible; the clairvoyant Clara and the nasty but somewhat redeemable right-winger Esteban in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits; Celeste and her violent rich banker husband Perry in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies; and Ruth and her abusive spouse Frank in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Then there are novels in which good guys find themselves in relationships with problematic women. Those include, among others, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, in which the talented but lacking-in-confidence Philip Carey falls hard for the nasty, not-so-smart Mildred Rogers; and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, in which the unlikable Gauri leaves her likable husband Subhash and also abandons her daughter Bela — who Subhash conscientiously raises.

A couple of notes: Obviously, many of the above characters are not all bad or all good. And there can of course be the bad-good dynamic in same-gender relationships, but this blog post is about female-male relationships.

What are your favorite works that fit this column’s topic?

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 — which mixes my recent trip to France with local news — is here.

Where Some Very Famous Writers Are Buried

People can of course feel close to authors when reading their work. We get a sense of how they think, what they like and dislike, and so on. Then there’s getting REALLY close to authors — as in visiting their graves. That’s what I was able to do while in France the past couple of weeks.

A major highlight of the trip was visiting the Pantheon, the striking 18th-century neoclassical Paris structure housing the remains of many prominent French citizens in basement crypts. After walking down stone spiral steps, one first spots the coffin of Voltaire behind a statue of the writer of Candide and other memorable works.

But down a hallway was a room I most wanted to see. As I stepped inside, there were the tombs of Victor Hugo on the left, Emile Zola on the right, and Alexandre Dumas straight ahead. Wow — the 19th-century authors of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Germinal and The Drinking Den, and The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers within several feet of each other!

(For those of you who are my Facebook friends, I’m posting some Pantheon photos on FB tomorrow. I took the picture that appears with this column as I walked toward the building.)

The Pantheon highlight for my daughter was the crypt of a non-novelist: Marie Curie. Maria and her schoolmates recently learned about the famous chemist/physicist.

One can also feel close to late authors by visiting their homes. I’ve been fortunate to see the houses of Charles Dickens (in London), Herman Melville (Pittsfield, Mass.), Mark Twain (Hartford, Conn.), Harriet Beecher Stowe (next door to Twain’s mansion), and others.

What have been your experiences visiting the tombs or homes of famous authors? Also, your favorite French authors and/or your favorite books at least partly set in France?

Next week, a longer column in my usual style!

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 endless superintendent search and more — is here.

Different Approaches to Reading Sequels

When we finish a great novel that’s part of a series or has sequels, it’s a wonderful feeling to know there’s more to come. But how to go about it? Do we focus on those books for weeks or months on end, ignoring the work of other authors? Or do we read the next installments sporadically over a longer period of time while mixing in different writers?

There’s no right answer, of course — it’s whatever the individual reader prefers. And if the next installment hasn’t been written/published yet, obviously fiction fans will read other authors as they eagerly await a serial saga’s continuation.

The pros and cons of each approach? If one reads a series or sequels while ignoring novels by different writers, one can achieve wonderful immersion and momentum, really get to know the characters, more easily remember foreshadowing from previous books, and pick up other kinds of nuances. On the negative side, a bit of sameness can set in. And think of all the literary variety temporarily being missed!

My most memorable experience with both approaches involved J.K. Rowling’s stellar Harry Potter series. Starting in the late 1990s, I waited each year or so for the next installment. A painful wait, but there were plenty of months to read other authors. Then, several years after the seventh and last of the Potter novels was published, I went back and reread them one after another — with no non-Potter book in between. It was a terrific experience, partly for the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph.

I also consecutively read James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels (The Last of the Mohicans, etc.). I don’t care that Mark Twain hated those books; I liked them a lot.

And of course when you have a compelling trilogy, you might as well read all three books in a row — as I did with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and its two sequels, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and its two sequels, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. (For me, there was a gap between reading Tolkien’s trilogy and an earlier reading of The Hobbit prequel.)

Recently, it was Martin Cruz Smith’s work that had me wrestling with how to go about reading sequels. I liked his Gorky Park so much last month that I quickly borrowed the first two sequels from the library. Polar Star (claustrophobically set on a fishing ship) was almost as good, as was Red Square. But I did manage to squeeze another author’s book — Philippa Gregory’s very good historical novel Earthly Joys — between Gorky Park and Polar Star. Which made me want to read the Earthly Joys sequel Virgin Earth. 🙂 But when I visited my local library this past Friday, Virgin Earth wasn’t there, so I borrowed the five other Gorky Park sequels! (Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, Stalin’s Ghost, Three Stations, and Tatiana.)

Other times, months or even years go by before I get to the next installment. That was the case with John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday.

Or it can be a little of both approaches. For instance, I read L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its first three sequels consecutively, and then later got back to the other sequels.

There’s also the case of reading some sequels but not all of them. I enjoyed Walter Mosley’s first two Easy Rawlins mysteries and Sue Grafton’s first four Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries, but not quite enough to immediately continue with more. But I might get back to them!

And how about reading a series mostly out of order? I’ve done that with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, partly because some of the books were at my local library only some of the time.

How do you read series and sequels?

Because of some travel, I will not be posting columns March 25 and April 1. I look forward to returning with a new piece on April 8! I’ll still respond when I can to any 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 — about topics such as a mayor’s interference in the search for a schools superintendent — is here.

The Bicentennial of a Great Year for Literature

We’re living in the bicentennial anniversary of 1818 — a very consequential 12 months in the early days of the modern novel.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came out that year. One of the most important novels ever written when you think of its impact on science fiction, the horror genre, movies, women writing fiction, and more. Published when Shelley was barely in her 20s, it’s a philosophical, page-turning, poignant work about hubris, human cruelty, the meaning of life, and other weighty issues.

Shelley followed Frankenstein with such books as The Last Man (1826), published when the 1797-born author was in her late 20s. That apocalyptic, set-in-the-future novel was also a pioneering tale — as well as a time capsule thanks to the three main characters being based on Mary, her famous poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their famous poet friend Lord Byron.

Getting back to 1818, that was also when Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were released posthumously.

Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel and stars my favorite Austen heroine (Anne Elliot). It has a lot less cachet than Pride and Prejudice, and somewhat less cachet than Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park, but I think the lean Persuasion is the brightest gem in Austen’s six-novel canon.

Northanger Abbey is my least favorite Austen work, though that love story and satire of Gothic fiction is still an absorbing read.

Austen, of course, is as popular as ever 200 years after 1818. Actually, much more popular given that she had only modest celebrity and sales success before her 1817 death at age 41.

And 1818 saw the publication of The Heart of Midlothian — Sir Walter Scott’s first novel to star a woman, and the first of his to star a protagonist from the “lower classes.” It compellingly chronicles the Jeanie Deans character’s long trek on foot from Scotland to London to try to clear her sister’s name.

The Heart of Midlothian is my favorite Scott novel, though he also authored a number of other excellent ones — including Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Old Mortality, and Quentin Durward, to name just four. All were written after the 1771-born Scott turned 40; the first part of his writing career was spent as a very widely read poet. (“Oh what a tangled web we weave/when first we practise to deceive.”)

I’ll end this post by also mentioning two great 1918 novels: Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons.

Any thoughts on the work of Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, and/or Sir Walter Scott?

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 topics such as school tours and March 14’s national student walkout for better gun control — is here.

Mother and Child Reunion. Dads, Too

Seeing characters see their parents again after a somewhat or very long time can be interesting for novel readers. There’s a lot of emotion involved, whether the reunion is joyful or reluctant. And anyone who has parents (that’s quite a few people 🙂 ) can relate.

It so happened that I just coincidentally read three consecutive novels containing parent/child meet-ups as strong elements — Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, and Philippa Gregory’s Earthly Joys. All very different books, all excellent books.

Mearsault’s mother has just passed away as The Stranger begins, but the “reunion” of dead mom and living son is still fraught — and will have a huge impact on Mearsault’s fate in the second half of Camus’ famous absurdist novel.

In the riveting Gorky Park, there’s a pivotal scene between Russian investigator Arkady Renko and his father — a famous World War II general who Arkady hadn’t visited in years. The meeting is uncomfortable — the dad is seemingly near death and far from friendly, and the long-ago suicide of the father’s wife/Arkady’s mother hangs between the two men. But the meeting is an important part of Smith’s intricate plot.

The absorbing historical-fiction book Earthly Joys includes an awkward encounter between 17th-century royal gardener John Tradescant and the mother and stepfather of Elizabeth — the woman John promised to marry six years earlier and hadn’t seen during that time because he was to return only when able to financially support a wife. John’s willingness to accept delayed gratification and the patient way he talks to the mom and stepdad say a lot about his personality. Then, as the novel goes on, John’s months-long trips in the service of the masters he serves so devotedly (too devotedly?) make for resentment from John Jr. whenever dad returns.

Belated parent/child meet-ups are also in various novels I read in years past rather than this winter. For instance, there’s a very dramatic meeting between the title character of George Eliot’s masterful Daniel Deronda and the mother Daniel never knew while raised in another household.

Fanny Burney’s entertaining 18th-century novel Evelina includes the scenarios of the raised-in-the-country title character meeting her not-nice biological father Sir John Belmont after many years and then, following Evelina’s long stays in places like London, her again seeing the kind Rev. Arthur Villars who raised her.

Then there’s Jhumpa Lahiri’s excellent The Lowland, in which Bela has a very resentful reunion with the mother (Gauri) who abandoned her years earlier. (A scene that commenter bebe mentioned under my previous post.)

In Geraldine Brooks’ intense March, the family from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women sees their father again when he returns home traumatized by his harrowing Civil War experiences.

And L.M. Montgomery’s superb The Blue Castle has Valancy Stirling reluctantly coming back to the house of her mother after Valancy’s wonderful relationship with Barney Snaith hits an eye-opening snag. The narrow-minded mom soon treats her daughter with more respect for all the wrong reasons.

Novels you remember in which children see their parents again after a period of time?

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 topics such as March 14’s national student walkout to protest loose gun laws — is here.