Nattering About Novel Names

Book titles! They’re important, and the best of them can be quite memorable.

Some titles say a lot about what’s in the novels, as do War and Peace and Crime and Punishment in summarizing Leo Tolstoy’s and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s respective masterpieces. Others tease you with their intriguing nature (many examples a few paragraphs below).

Titles can be funny, serious, long, short, evocative, descriptive, clever, slangy, punny, and more. They can be drawn from unforgettable phrases in the earlier works of other authors. They can just be the name of a place (as with Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, Henry James’ Washington Square, and many of James Michener’s novels). Or they can include the year in which the novel is set (witness George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Stephen King’s 11/22/63, and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). Or the name of the protagonist, or a description of the protagonist (such as The Vagabond by Colette, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison — whose main character is invisible metaphorically rather than in an H.G. Wells-like way). Titles can even tell you the order of a book in a series — as with D is for Deadbeat, the fourth of Sue Grafton’s “alphabet mysteries.”

I finished that excellent Grafton novel late last month, and followed it with Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. I’ve read about a third of Jorge Amado’s book so far, and the title is of course intriguing because one is curious about who the second hubby will be. The first spouse, a charismatic/irresponsible gambler, drops dead early in the masterful/sometimes-humorous/sometimes-erotic work.

Among many other novels with intriguing titles are Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Kathy Eliscu’s Not Even Dark Chocolate Can Fix This Mess, Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe, Amanda Moores’ Grail Nights, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, and Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, to name just a few.

Novels with the name of the protagonist or co-protagonist comprising all or part of the title? Countless examples, including Jane Austen’s Emma, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Willa Cather’s My Antonia, Miguel de Cervantes Don Quixote, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith, Jack London’s Martin Eden, Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, Herman Melville’s Pierre, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway… Titles containing a person AND place? L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables comes immediately to mind.

The aforementioned approach of using memorable phrases of past works? W. Somerset Maugham took the words Of Human Bondage from Benedict de Spinoza’s Ethics. John Steinbeck’s title The Winter of Our Discontent came from Shakespeare’s Richard III. Jane Austen’s naming of Pride and Prejudice may have been inspired by those three words in Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia. The ancestry of Aldous Huxley’s title The Doors of Perception was a line in William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell — with Hell the place Satan sang “Light My Fire” when learning that Huxley’s nonfiction book in turn inspired the name of The Doors rock band. (That last fact is in the Huxley chapter of my new literary-trivia book, linked to at the end of this post.) And Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 created a phrase!

(Ms.) Lionel Shriver has written a book with a slangy title (So Much for That) and a punny title (Big Brother, about an overweight sibling who wasn’t born in 1984).

Then there are titles that I think are misleading or kind of boring. For instance, the titular character in Rob Roy is not the most prominently featured person in that Sir Walter Scott novel. And Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story title is rather “blah.”

The Black Tulip has a title that makes you wonder whether the novel will be a snooze to read, but Alexandre Dumas spins an exciting tale of a contest involving said flower.

What are some of your favorite or least favorite book titles, and why?

By the way, if you’re desperately looking for some laughs in these tough Trump times, I recommend two hilarious new nonfiction humor books by friends of mine — and both have excellent titles. They are Barb Best’s The Misery Manifesto: A Self-Help Parody for the Self-Absorbed and Dawn Weber’s I Love You. Now Go Away: Confessions of a Woman with a Smartphone.

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

My New Literary-Trivia Book — and the Results of That ‘Best Novels of All Time’ Poll!

Did you know that the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originally referred to the wealthy family in which novelist Edith Wharton (nee Jones) grew up? That Jane Austen wrote a differently titled version of Pride and Prejudice more than 15 years before it was published? That Shakespeare and Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes died on almost the same day in 1616? That O. Henry coined the term “banana republic”? That Dorothy Parker bequeathed her money to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? That the 1950s Cat in the Hat character created by Dr. Seuss looks like a feline version of the Uncle Sam character drawn by that same writer/artist for his 1940s editorial cartoons?

I didn’t know most of the above before I started work on my just-published Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia. That was back in 2011 — which means I researched, wrote, and rewrote the book for nearly as long as its title.  🙂

Before continuing to discuss the book and its back story, I wanted to mention that the results of that “Best Novels of All Time” poll is at the end of this column. I also posted the results this past Friday in the comments section under my March 26 piece announcing the poll, but thought I’d post them again today.

Anyway, the Fascinating Facts book is not a collection of my weekly columns from this 2014-launched blog. Rather, it’s new material about authors that I gleaned from reading biographies, reading scholarly introductions to novels, looking at online author sites, etc. — plus I included my recollections of seeing a few authors (such as Isaac Asimov and John Updike) in person. All this in short, easy-to-read chapters (more than 100 of them), with humor here and there.

In the book, every featured author — from Austen and Alcott to Zola and Zora (Neale Hurston) — is deceased, though I mentioned many authors who haven’t passed in passing. (BTW, today is Emile Zola’s birthday — he turns 177.) I should add that a number of novelists in the book were recommended to me by you in your wonderful comments here and on Facebook.

I came up with the idea for Fascinating Facts in mid-2011. At the time, I was blogging about literature for The Huffington Post, and one of the site’s editors asked me to put together a book-related “slideshow” feature (for no pay, of course — meaning I never accepted another of those very-work-intensive assignments). I decided I would focus on interesting author facts, and the feature was so popular that it occurred to me there might be a book in it.

Why did it take nearly six years? Well, I first contacted literary agents with the idea and some sample chapters. A few expressed a bit of interest, but none were willing to represent me and try to sell the book to a major publisher. So I just kept continuing to write it when I could, but life got in the way and made it a slower process than it should have been. My memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional came out in 2012, and I spent a lot of time trying to market that. My French professor wife Laurel Cummins started a three-year term as chair of her department, which meant my (enjoyable!) stay-at-home parenting of Maria took even more hours. I was also busy with this blog, my weekly humor column, my work on the National Society of Newspaper Columnists board, a move to an apartment from a house I had lived in for 21 years, etc.

And of course it took a while to research the lives of more than 100 authors, and to make sure I read at least one (and often several) of the novels they wrote — if I hadn’t read them before I started to work on Fascinating Facts.

I finally finished the book last fall. Given that I was not happy with the small press that published Comic (and Column) Confessional, I decided to go the self-publishing route this time. My friend and exceptional author Cathy Turney (who has commented under blog posts here) recommended the Let’s Write Books company run by Howard VanEs. Howard turned out to be incredibly helpful, talented, knowledgeable, and friendly. He, his copy editor, his designer, and others made the book read and look better than I would have imagined.

Fascinating Facts — available in paperback and Kindle versions — can be ordered here. If you buy it and like it, I’d be grateful for an Amazon review. And if you want to also give it as a gift, please do.  🙂

Now…here are the poll results! I looked at every top-ten-novels list I saw in the comments section under my March 26 column and elsewhere in response to that column (and also factored in my own list; alas, my favorite novel — Jane Eyre — didn’t make the cut). Then I gave first-place picks 10 points, second-place choices 9 points, etc. The overall top ten:

1. Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: 49 points

2. Pride and Prejudice (1813) by Jane Austen and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee: 35 points apiece

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck: 33 points

4. Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller: 23 points

5. The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Dostoyevsky, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain, and The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald: 20 points apiece

6. Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy L. Sayers: 18 points

7. A Hero of Our Time (1840) by Mikhail Lermontov: 17 points

8. The Good Earth (1931) by Pearl S. Buck: 16 points

9. Wuthering Heights
(1847) by Emily Brontë: 14 points

10. Kindred (1979) by Octavia E. Butler: 13 points

As it turned out, most of the above authors and novels are featured or mentioned in my new book.  🙂

Any reaction to the poll results? Any literature-related trivia, anecdotes, oddities, or coincidences you’d like to mention? Any other comments?

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

In addition to doing this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Top-Ten Time! (Our Favorite Novels)

We all like to discuss the novels we love most, so I thought I’d formalize that this week by listing my ten all-time favorite novels and then asking for yours.

To make things more interesting, I’ll tally up everyone’s favorites mentioned in comments here, in comments on Facebook, and in comments on Twitter. Then I’ll rank them and post the results this Friday, March 31. (Ten points for each first-place mention, nine points for each second-place mention, etc.) I realize better-known novels might have an advantage, but, heck, there’s little that’s scientific about this little poll.  🙂

Needless to say, your lists can include everything from literary novels to mass-audience books to genre fiction.

My sometimes-hard-to-rank list, which includes novels by six women and four men – and authors from the United Kingdom (4), Canada (1), France (1), Germany (1), Italy (1), Russia (1), and the United States (1):

10. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Incredible tale of false imprisonment and epic revenge.

9. The Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque. The most gripping World War II novel I’ve ever read focuses on two German refugees.

8. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. A diagnosis of terminal illness changes a young woman’s life for the better. (Not a depressing book, I assure you.)

7. Possession by A.S. Byatt. An intricate tour de force that includes 19th- and 20th-century love affairs with some similarities.

6. History by Elsa Morante. Another riveting World War II novel, about a beleaguered woman and her two very different sons. Each chapter opens with a historical timeline.

5. The seven Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling (series are okay to include in your lists  🙂 ). Wizardry, friendship, cliffhangers, distinctive heroes/heroines/villains, humor, much more.

4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Feverish writing and psychological fireworks that glue you to the page.

3. Daniel Deronda by George Eliot. Magnificent and heartbreaking (and one of the few 19th-century novels with three-dimensional Jewish characters).

2. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Powerful saga of the Joad family in particular and injustice in general.

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte BrontĂ«. A fiercely independent protagonist and one of literature’s great love stories — plus gothic/mystery elements.

And here’s my incomplete list of novels, mentioned alphabetically by author, that would rank somewhere between 11 and 100:

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, The Robber Bride and Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Old Goriot and Eugenie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac, If I Never Get Back by Darryl Brock, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, Kindred by Octavia Butler, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, Shogun by James Clavell, Claudine at School and The Vagabond by Colette, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, The Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, The Pickwick Papers and Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, Silas Marner, and Adam Bede by George Eliot.

Also: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Time and Again by Jack Finney, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Lost Horizon by James Hilton, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels by Stieg Larsson, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Sea-Wolf and Martin Eden by Jack London, Suttree and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, and Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers.

Also: Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque, Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott, The Last Man by Mary Shelley, So Much for That by Lionel Shriver, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, His Dog by Albert Payson Terhune, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, Native Son by Richard Wright, Candide by Voltaire, and Germinal by Emile Zola.

Your top-ten favorites? Of, if you prefer, you could list your top five or just one favorite.

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

Next Sunday (April 2), I’ll be posting a piece about my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to doing this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

A Fond Look at Ten Writers Who Died During the Past Five Years

Earlier this winter, Britain-based Nigerian writer Buchi Emecheta died — making me think of various other great authors who passed away during the past five years.

Among them (in alphabetical order): Maya Angelou, Ray Bradbury, E.L. Doctorow, Umberto Eco, Harper Lee, Billie Letts, P.D. James, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Terry Pratchett. This post will mention several of their books, and offer some interesting information about their lives.

I hadn’t read anything by Emecheta (1944-2017) until I saw an obituary about her Jan. 25 death. I soon found her autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen, and read it last week. A compelling book starring an ambitious, resourceful, resilient protagonist named Adah who is frustrated with the ultra-patriarchal nature of 1960s Nigeria and eventually makes her way to London for a life that ends up still having plenty of challenges — such as dealing with an abusive husband and blatant racism. One interesting/harrowing fact about Emecheta’s Nigerian childhood: she was beaten in front of her class after announcing she wanted to be a writer.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) wasn’t a novelist, but I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and her six other memorable memoirs certainly used literary techniques. Also famous for her verse, Angelou became the first poet to recite her creation at a presidential inauguration (Bill Clinton’s in 1993) since Robert Frost did that in 1961 (when John F. Kennedy took office). In addition to being a writer, Angelou was a civil-rights activist, film director, actress, dancer, singer, cook, streetcar conductor, and more at different times of her life.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) was known for Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and many other terrific works. What you might not be aware of is that he was a descendant of one of the accused (Mary Bradbury) during the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. More than 250 years later, in 1956, Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay for the Moby-Dick movie starring Gregory Peck and appeared on the You Bet Your Life TV show starring Groucho Marx. And the author never learned to drive!

E.L. Doctorow (1931-2015) penned excellent novels such as Ragtime and World’s Fair (the latter a fictionalized memoir) after years as a publishing-company editor who worked with writers such as James Baldwin, Ian Fleming, Norman Mailer, and Ayn Rand. E.L.’s first name was Edgar — after Edgar Allan Poe.

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) was best known for The Name of the Rose, a fascinating detective novel set in the 14th century. He also wrote Foucault’s Pendulum, which has impressive intellectual heft but contains some sections that work better than a sleeping pill for getting a bit of shut-eye. Interesting fact: Umberto’s family name was reportedly an acronym of ex caelis oblatus — Latin for “a gift from the heavens.”

Harper Lee (1926-2016) obviously authored the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird, which also became an iconic movie starring Gregory Peck (second time that actor was mentioned in this post 🙂 ). What’s not as well known is that Lee’s actual first name was Nelle (the backward spelling of her grandmother Ellen’s name) and that Harper worked as an airline reservation agent before achieving literary immortality.

Billie Letts (1938-2014) saw her very appealing debut novel Where the Heart Is published when she was in her mid-50s — during a career teaching creative writing at the college level. Her son? August: Osage County playwright Tracy Letts.

P.D. James (1920-2014) also wrote her first novel relatively late (42) and penned her last one when past 90! That was Death Comes to Pemberley, a sequel of sorts to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The accomplished English mystery writer (full name Phyllis Dorothy James) made her most famous character (Adam Dalgliesh) a detective and a poet.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) was of course best known for his epic masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, which took eighteen months to write between 1965 and 1967 as his family slid into major debt because of that effort. Garcia Marquez, who had been mostly known as a journalist before then, went on to write Love in the Time of Cholera and other exceptional novels.

And Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) was the United Kingdom’s best-selling author of the 1990s! He was most known for his often-hilarious fantasy novels in the 41-book “Discworld” series, and also known for usually not splitting his novels into chapters. He explained that real life doesn’t happen in regular chapters.

Your favorite authors who died during the past five years — either ones I named or others?

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

On April 2, I’ll be writing a blog post about my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to doing this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Reading an Author for the First Time

One of the pleasures of literature is reading authors one hasn’t tried before. Sure, it’s great to read or reread multiple novels by your favorite writers, but the thrill of the new is also a lure for most of us.

In this post, I’m going to discuss four of the authors I read for the first time during the past few weeks — working backwards chronologically — and then ask which authors have been new for you in the not-too-distant past.

I just finished a novel today by Penelope Fitzgerald, an author I wasn’t aware of until she was mentioned a few weeks ago (the “recommender” is credited in the comments section below). Offshore is a short, quirky book about various people living near each other in houseboats on England’s River Thames. One of the things that gives the Booker-winning novel its appeal is the way those different houseboat dwellers comprise an extended family of sorts, with all the positives and negatives that entails.

Last week, The Hypnotist’s Love Story was my introduction to Australian novelist Liane Moriarty (suggested by several people also credited in the comments section below). That Moriarty book is engaging, original, suspenseful, psychologically aware, and written like a dream. It’s about a hypnotherapist (Ellen) who starts dating a guy (Patrick) who’s being stalked by an ex-girlfriend (Saskia) who becomes a patient of Ellen’s without Ellen initially knowing Saskia is the stalker. Pretty clever plot!

Before trying Moriarty’s work, I read Sue Grafton’s first three “alphabet mysteries”: A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, and C is for Corpse. As mystery/thriller/detective novels go, those three books have “whodunit” plots that are very good but not extraordinary. The major appeal is private investigator Kinsey Millhone, who is smart but not drop-dead brilliant, brave but also anxious at times, warm, funny, down-to-earth, and not exactly wealthy. One can really relate to her — in contrast with someone like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher (who I love but who is practically superhuman) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (the ultra-brainy sleuth legend).

Prior to reading Grafton’s third mystery, I enjoyed Alexander Pushkin’s adventure/romance The Captain’s Daughter. I had previously read a good deal of 19th-century Russian literature — including various works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, and Chekhov — and was happy to see firsthand that Pushkin deserved to be in the top ranks along with those other iconic writers. In fact, he was born before those five men, and influenced some of them.

Pushkin (of course) and Penelope Fitzgerald are now-deceased authors, while Sue Grafton and Liane Moriarty are very much with us.

Before Pushkin, I recently read for the first time Benjamin Blake (A Death in Summer), Raymond Chandler (The Big Sleep), Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress and A Red Death), James Michener (Tales of the South Pacific), Patricia Highsmith (Ripley’s Game), Jean-Paul Sartre (Nausea), Evan S. Connell (Mrs. Bridge), Abigail Tarttelin (Golden Boy), and Julia Alvarez (In the Time of the Butterflies), among other authors. All were excellent or at least interesting — and well worth the hours spent.

But I will get back to reading or rereading more authors I’ve read before: Isabel Allende, James Baldwin, Charlotte BrontĂ«, the aforementioned Lee Child and Dostoyevsky (can’t believe I just put those two writers in the same clause 🙂 ), Fannie Flagg, Henry James, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Philip Roth, Lionel Shriver, Donna Tartt, Edith Wharton…

Which authors have you recently read for the first time?

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

On April 2, I’ll be writing a blog post about my new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia.

In addition to doing this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Authors of One Country Who Set Their Novels in Another Country

Because I think internationalism is important in a world where Donald Trump is wedded to “America First” (his fourth marriage?), I’ve mentioned various countries in recent blog posts.

For instance, last month I wrote about “Loving Literature from Other Countries.” The month before, I focused on “Authors Who Do and Don’t Set Their Fiction in One Place.”

I’m going internationalist again today with a somewhat different angle: authors who set a novel in a different country from the one in which they live.

The “pros” of that? Writers can look at a culture from an outside perspective, potentially interest readers in that culture, show how people from different nations are similar or different, get themselves and their readers out of their comfort zones, show the ill effects of things like colonialism, etc.

The “cons”? Authors might not know the other country well and thus might depict it inaccurately or superficially, they might consciously or subconsciously depict the nation as inferior to their own, they might make someone from their own country the most important character, etc.

Of course, it helps if authors — whether they end up portraying another country in a positive or negative light — visited that nation, or, better yet, lived there for several months or years.

Some examples of authors who set novels in countries other than their own? Glad you asked! Sir Walter Scott, who usually placed his novels in his native Scotland, put Quentin Durward in France. English author Charlotte Bronte also turned to France for Villette. Another iconic English author, Charles Dickens, set portions of A Tales of Two Cities and Martin Chuzzlewit in France and the U.S., respectively.

U.S. authors Barbara Kingsolver and Harriet Doerr put The Lacuna and Stones for Ibarra, respectively, partly or mostly in Mexico. Kingsolver used what was then called the Belgian Congo as the milieu for the American family in The Poisonwood Bible. American writer Paul Theroux set most of The Mosquito Coast in Honduras.

Mark Twain, one of the most famous U.S. authors of all, turned to England for A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and to France for Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. New Englander Nathaniel Hawthorne used Italy as the backdrop for The Marble Faun after a several-year sojourn in Europe. American writer James Baldwin, who lived in France for a number of years, set Giovanni’s Room in that country.

American author Willa Cather located Shadows on the Rock in Canada, and Canadian author Margaret Atwood set The Handmaid’s Tale in the U.S.

French authors? Stendhal put The Charterhouse of Parma in Italy, Alexandre Dumas set Georges in what is now called Mauritius, and J.M.G. Le Clezio placed much of Desert in Morocco.

North Africa was also the setting for The Sheltering Sky by American writer Paul Bowles.

Erich Maria Remarque, who was forced to flee his native Germany because of the Nazis, placed Arch of Triumph in France and Shadows in Paradise in America.

Australian-born Brit (and later U.S. resident) James Clavell set Shogun in Japan, and Australian author Frank Moorhouse placed Grand Days in Switzerland.

Last but not least, American author James Michener set novels in many non-U.S. places — including the Caribbean, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Poland, Spain, and the South Pacific.

What are your favorite novels (either those I mentioned or didn’t mention) set in a different country from where the author lives or lived?

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

On April 2, I’ll be writing a blog post about my new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia.

In addition to doing this weekly blog, I also write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column — now with, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Fictional Religious Hypocrites Seem All Too Real These Days

Religious hypocrisy is on my mind at a time when many Christian evangelicals support Donald Trump despite America’s so-called president being an immoral person who has no compassion, cheated on his wives, sexually assaulted women, is racist to the core, is endlessly greedy, is a blatant liar, is pathologically narcissistic, and more. Anything to get their right-wing agenda enacted, I suppose.

Literature includes many hypocrites resembling those evangelicals and the many “religious” Republican politicians who espouse “values” (ha ha). I’ll discuss some of those fictional characters today.

For instance, Benjamin Blake’s Ireland-set A Death in Summer, which I read recently, includes a priest character who runs an institution for troubled boys. Despite his pious exterior, he is well aware that the institution’s rich benefactor is a vile pedophile taking advantage of those boys.

(I followed Blake’s absorbing murder mystery with Alexander Pushkin’s 1836 adventure-romance The Captain’s Daughter, which depicted little religious hypocrisy but is a great novella containing fluid prose and dialogue that seems more 20th century than 19th century.)

The priest in A Death in Summer reminded me a bit of the faux-religious Mr. Brocklehurst, wealthy “benefactor” of the Lowood institution in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The girls at Lowood get crummy/inadequate food, little heat in the winter, and are treated in other awful ways — with some dying as a result. St. John Rivers is a more ethical religious figure in Bronte’s book, yet is a rather coldhearted man who displays a colonialist mentality in his desire to become a third-world missionary.

Nathan Price of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a missionary in Africa — and that American is as hateful, racist, and sexist as many right-wing evangelicals and Republican politicians are today.

Then there’s the unnamed priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory who’s on the run from Mexican authorities. Not a totally bad guy, but he’s an alcoholic who fathered a child he barely sees. Hardly a religious role model.

The cast of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain includes Gabriel Grimes, a mean-spirited minister who also fathered a child out of wedlock and left the mother to fend for herself.

Sinclair Lewis might be best known these days for his It Can’t Happen Here novel about a fascist elected U.S. president (sound familiar?). But another of his novels relevant to our times is Elmer Gantry, whose charismatic preacher title character is a hard-drinking, ambitious womanizer.

Friar Tuck of the Robin Hood stories is a jovial figure who loves his food and wine. Maybe not hypocritical, but certainly not as ascetic as one might expect from someone in a religious position.

In the drama realm, we have the supposedly religious title character in Moliere’s play Tartuffe. He’s actually a two-faced guy who tries to seduce a married woman.

Who are some fictional religious hypocrites you’ve found memorable?

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.

But I’m still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.