A Passage to Interestingness

From the 1984 film version of A Passage to India.

Have you ever read a novel you contemplated not finishing but then things picked up? Such was the case last week with me and A Passage to India.

The first part of E.M. Forster’s 1924 novel was actually pretty good: beautifully/subtly written — with mostly non-stereotypical depictions of India’s citizens and interesting cross-cultural interactions between those citizens and characters from Great Britain, the colonial ruler over India back then. But there was endless talking and little happening in the way of plot, and I found my attention straying. Then — pow! — an unfair arrest happened and things got really compelling.

Of course, a plot development that dramatic is not always needed to make a book more interesting.

It also took me a while to warm to A Game of Thrones, the first installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. It wasn’t that the writing wasn’t good — it was — but I was rather bewildered by the array of characters being introduced, the connections between those characters, and the fictional world being depicted. Then it came together, and I was hooked.

In short, the buffet had to be laid out and studied before the eating was enjoyed.

With Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the structure of the novel made me consider throwing in the towel. Early on, the book was in the form of a long, at-times tedious poem. Then, Nabokov started using prose to offer clues about what was going on as he unraveled some of the puzzle he had set up. A novel almost totally devoid of warmth, but immensely clever.

Sometimes novels start with pages and pages of over-long descriptions of landscapes and buildings before characters are introduced and the plot begins to unfold. This is especially the case in older novels written during a pre-air-travel/pre-Internet time when most readers hadn’t actually or virtually seen most places, so authors had to fill in the blanks.

I’ll conclude by saying I HAVE abandoned some novels before finishing them — with few regrets. So many other fictional works to read instead. 🙂

Any novels you’d like to mention that started slow but picked up?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about some interesting early-summer events — is here.

Why Men Should Read Women-Centered Novels

The Secret Life of Bees movies main cast.

I have two daughters and my wife has four sisters, so I’ve heard plenty of conversations among women. But I’ve obviously never heard them speak when a male isn’t around, which is one of many reasons why women-centered novels written by female authors appeal to me. A person can learn a lot while “eavesdropping” on female characters interacting with each other, whether those fictional women are mostly feeling camaraderie or things are more fraught. 

Female-only interactions can of course be between friends, sisters, mothers and daughters, grandmothers and grandchildren, cousins, couples in same-gender relationships, co-workers, sports teammates, etc.

Not surprisingly, this post was partly inspired by novels I’ve recently read. One was Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and the other was Joy Fielding’s Grand Avenue. Both very compelling books that are well worth the time.

Bees is narrated by 14-year-old Lily — a white girl who, with her household’s Black maid Rosaleen, leaves home in 1960s South Carolina to escape her abusive father and search for information about her late mother. They end up in the household of three Black sisters: wise/friendly beekeeper August, not-so-friendly teacher June, and emotionally sensitive May. The conversations of these five characters are something to behold — reflecting the bonds between females, racial dynamics, and more. Meanwhile, there’s the threat of Lily’s (bigoted) father looking for her…

It almost goes without saying that most women-centered novels feature men in some scenes, but they are scarce in many other scenes.

The Ohio-set Grand Avenue, which spans the late 1970s through the early 2000s, starts with an irresistible premise: four mothers who live on the street of the book’s title hit it off immediately while watching their young daughters play in a local park. The mutual loyalty of high-powered attorney Vicki, magazine editor Susan, former beauty queen Barbara, and homemaker Chris is a delight until the quartet’s many differences — as well as the vicissitudes of life (an abusive husband, a shocking murder, etc.) — put major stress on their four-way friendship.

Other women-written, women-centered novels that offer memorable, believable characters and meaningful female conversations and relationships include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, Jennifer Ryan’s The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, to name just a few of many.

Any women-centered novels you’d like to discuss?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — in which both George Washington and Yogi Berra get comedic mentions — is here.

A Tribute to 1820s and 1830s Fiction, Including ‘Eugene Onegin’

From the cover of the Eugene Onegin edition I read.

When we look at literature from the first half of the 19th century, the 1810s and the 1840s first come to mind.

The 1810s of course saw the publication of all six classic Jane Austen novels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and well-known Sir Walter Scott works such as Rob Roy and Ivanhoe (the latter released in very late 1819), to name nine memorable books. The 1840s offered a bonanza of famous novels such as those by the Bronte sisters (including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights), Charles Dickens (including David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol), Alexandre Dumas (including The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers), Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls), William Thackeray (Vanity Fair), and Herman Melville (Typee, etc.).

The in-between 1820s and 1830s stand out less in the fiction realm, but it was still an important literary time — partly a transition period, perhaps, as novels became a more and more prominent genre.

Among the great books of those two decades were Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward (1823), Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (also 1826), Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (1830) and The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), George Sand’s Lelia (1833), Honore de Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet (also 1833) and Old Goriot (1835), Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, and Nicholas Nickleby (spanning 1836 to 1839), and Edgar Allan Poe’s only finished novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).

But today I want to focus the most on Eugene Onegin, which I read last week. Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse was serialized from 1825 to 1832 and released as a book in 1833. The story is compelling — the rich/bored/cynical title character, a fateful duel, and two people enamored with each other but not at the same time. Still, what impressed me even more was the writing itself: absolutely magnificent poetry that ranges from witty to dead serious, with narration from a very interesting perspective. It’s no surprise that Eugene Onegin and Pushkin had quite an influence on subsequent 19th-century Russian literature — and we all know how amazing THAT turned out to be…with works by Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, etc.

One last note: While I’m no expert on translation, I was super-impressed with the job James E. Falen did turning Eugene Onegin‘s wonderful writing from Russian to English in the edition I read. Falen managed to maintain Pushkin’s vivid, clever, wonderful rhymes in a way I can only describe as…wow!

Your favorite 1820s or 1830s novels? Anything else you’d like to discuss relating to this week’s theme?

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

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about everything from teacher layoffs to the planned reopening of a movie theater — is here.

Literature’s Long and Winding Roads

Journey. I’m talking about a long trip, not the rock band, and specifically talking about long trips in novels.

Those trips, sometimes described as quests, can be in fantasy fiction or more realistic fiction. Journey novels of course have the potential to be quite exciting and compelling — with the characters fleeing something and/or searching for something, seeing new places, encountering great danger, testing their courage, testing their stamina, and successfully completing the journey, or not.

If the journey IS completed, is the result triumphant or at least satisfying? Often. But sometimes there is tragedy, mixed feelings, and/or results that are unexpected.

The last point is one of the interesting things about a book I just read: Tailchaser’s Song, the compelling Tad Williams fantasy novel featuring cats. (Yes, journey fiction can star animals.) Tailchaser the kitty character takes a long, arduous, harrowing trip for a very specific reason, and then…

Another novel about animals on a lengthy trek is Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey. In it, two dogs and a cat travel 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to try to find their beloved humans.

Getting back to fantasy fiction, perhaps the journey novels that most come to mind are J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The stakes could not be higher in the latter trilogy; the characters leave their homes to literally try to save their world. (Tailchaser’s Song obviously takes some inspiration from The Lord of the Rings in that and several other ways.) There’s also L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its story we all know so well.

Science-fiction writers of course also offer journey motifs, whether the setting is Earth or outer space. Among the many examples are Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in Eighty Days, and H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon and The Time Machine (time travel is obviously an epic journey of sorts, even if many miles are not traversed).

Epic sea voyages that can last for many months or years? Edgar Allan Poe’s only finished novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket; Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, White-Jacket, and Redburn; and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi — to name just a few.

Lengthy trips via motor vehicle? John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance are three of many examples.

Other novels that are quite different from each other but share long journeys: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Voltaire’s Candide, Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles, H. Rider Haggard’s She, H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, to name just a few.

I’ve only mentioned books I’ve read, so I missed plenty of trek-heavy novels. Any you’d like to mention and/or discuss?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which looks at fictitious graduation ceremonies of the past 🙂 — is here.

All the World’s a Stage, But Only Some Novels Become Plays

Jeff Daniels as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes.)

We purchased Broadway tickets a few days ago to see a December performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, which led me to think about novels that have become plays or musicals.

Plenty of novels inspire movie adaptations, but fewer such books are turned into plays — with one reason being that there are of course more major films made than major plays staged. Also, certain elements are needed for a novel-to-play transition to have a chance to work: It helps if the novels are well-known, well-written, filled with great dialogue, dramatic, plot-oriented, and graced with memorable protagonists; and it also helps if theatrical productions feature high-profile actresses and actors. Some luck doesn’t hurt, either.

The acclaimed To Kill a Mockingbird production, which will reopen this fall along with various other Broadway plays after the long COVID shutdown, first featured movie notable Jeff Daniels as attorney Atticus Finch. Daniels will return to that role when the play resumes October 5, and is scheduled to stay until January 2. Harper Lee’s iconic novel had previously been performed as a play for several decades in Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Alabama — an example of how a number of fiction books have inspired local or regional theater productions.

A sampling of other novels turned into successful plays performed in large venues? Alice Walker’s The Color Purple inspired a popular Broadway production and then a popular Broadway revival during our 21st century. In the 1980s, Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables became a hit musical, Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby was turned into a massive play of more than eight hours, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn spawned Big River. Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote was major source material for The Man of La Mancha musical that opened on Broadway in 1965. Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding was adapted for Broadway in the 1950s. James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific inspired the famous South Pacific musical that premiered in 1949. Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road was on stage for eight years starting in 1933. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are among the many other novels that have been adapted for live theater.

There have also been theatrical duds, such as the 1988 Carrie production based on the novel by Stephen King, who of course has fared better with various movie and TV adaptations of his works.

Any novel-to-play transitions you’d like to mention and/or talk about?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which offers a fake graduation speech 🙂 — is here.

Siblings in Fiction Get Along or Have Friction

The sisters from We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Seven years ago, I wrote a blog post about some of literature’s memorable sibling relationships — including those in The Mill on the Floss, Crime and Punishment, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath, Go Tell It On the Mountain, The Poisonwood Bible, and The Blind Assassin, among other novels.

I thought I would update that today by discussing siblings in several books I’ve read since 2014, starting with two recently finished novels: Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Mary Renault’s The Praise Singer.

Why are literature’s sibling relationships potentially compelling? We like when fictional sisters and/or brothers get along, lament when they don’t, feel uneasy when they’re super-competitive with each other, see the unfairness if one sibling is much more intelligent/popular/successful/better-looking, hate if the parents blatantly favor one child over another, etc. Those of us with siblings can certainly relate to some or all of the above.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a quirky, disturbing novel (no surprise with Ms. Jackson) that often centers on the interactions between main character Mary Katherine and her decade-older sister Constance — who’s almost like a mother to “Merricat.” They live an isolated life, and…is one of those two young women guilty of having mass-murdered several of their family members?

The Praise Singer is a well-crafted historical novel focusing on ancient Greek poet Simonides. One interesting aspect of the book is the relationship between the protagonist and his older brother Theas when they’re both living at home as boys. Their father blatantly favors Theas — who’s more handsome, charismatic, and confident than Simonides. But Theas treats Simonides affectionately, encourages him, and defends him. Theas goes on to become a successful adult, even as his poet brother becomes widely famous.

Another historical novel is Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies — in which three of the four Mirabel sisters become revolutionaries opposing the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship at great risk to their lives. The trio (Patria, Minerva, and Maria Teresa) have quite different personalities, and don’t always get along, but share a hatred of the brutal regime. The fourth sister (Dede) is less revolutionary, and takes a somewhat divergent path in life.

As in The Praise Singer, there is unfortunate parental favoritism in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brookyn. Katie Nolan prefers her son Neeley over her daughter Francie, yet Francie (the novel’s protagonist) and her younger brother get along well for the most part — taking some psychological comfort in their companionship as they deal with a charming but often-irresponsible alcoholic father.

Also getting along well are Jemmy and Mandy — the young son and younger daughter of Brianna and Roger, who bounce around in time more than once in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. The two kids (the grandchildren of Brianna’s 20th-century-born mother Claire and 18th-century-born father Jamie) are a familar touchstone for each other during their unorthodox lives.

An example of a dysfunctional sibling relationship is the one between Hank and Leland in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Hank is more confident and physically stronger than his more intellectual half-brother Leland, and the oil-and-water mix between the two helps fuel a lot of the drama in the novel.

Any novels you’d like to mention with memorable sibling characters?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town’s bus service resuming, LGBTQ news, and COVID’s effect on two parades — is here.

Long-Remembered Books Released Within a Short Time

Creative bursts! They can happen at the start of novelists’ careers, or after they become established enough to quit time-consuming day jobs, or after they become parental empty-nesters with more writing hours, or near the end of careers when authors know their remaining years are limited, or because they’re creating series rather than stand-alone books, or for momentum reasons, or for other reasons, or for no discernible reasons at all. Readers are the beneficiaries.

One memorable burst occurred when George Eliot wrote her first, second, and third novels in rapid succession — all classics. Adam Bede in 1859, The Mill on the Floss in 1860, and Silas Marner in 1861. Eliot’s novel-writing career began relatively late — she turned 40 in 1859 — so there was plenty of pent-up literary energy and ideas.

During the same 1859-61 period in England, the prolific-for-more-than-two-decades Charles Dickens penned a pair of novels that were unquestionably among his best: A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.

In the U.S. a decade earlier, Nathaniel Hawthorne produced The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851) back-to-back.

Hawthorne’s friend Herman Melville churned out seven novels between 1846 and 1852. Only one all-time classic (1851’s Moby-Dick), but all very good — and the last the underappreciated near-classic Pierre (1852). Then came 1853’s extraordinary short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

Also impressively prolific for a long time was Alexandre Dumas — but his two most-famous novels, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, were both completed in a single year! That was 1844.

Still earlier in the 19th century, between 1811 and 1818, Jane Austen’s classics Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey*, and Persuasion were all published — the last two titles posthumously. (*Well, I’m not sure Northanger Abbey is a classic. 🙂 ) Work on some of those novels began well before 1811, but it was still an amazing few years of productivity.

Austen contemporary Sir Walter Scott was 43 in 1814 when he finally became a published novelist after achieving fame as a poet, and proceeded to write a barrage of novels — about 25 — before his 1832 death 18 years later. His two best-known titles, Rob Roy and Ivanhoe, were released three years apart (1817 and 1820).

Moving forward in time, the also-very-prolific Henry James had some creative bursts with his more notable novels — for instance, Washington Square in 1880 and The Portrait of a Lady in 1881. But perhaps his most impressive feat was writing The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904) in three consecutive later-career years. All highly ambitious (some might say overwritten) novels.

Later in the 20th century and into the 21st, some novelists have created canons so copious it seems like much of their respective writing careers have been one creative burst — with some books better than others, of course. Among those fertile “fictioneers” were/are Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Lee Child, and John Grisham, to name just a few.

Finally, we have famous familial fiction frenzies. In that realm, it’s hard to top the three Bronte sisters — with Charlotte’s classic Jane Eyre, Emily’s classic Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s good Agnes Grey all released in 1847. Then came Anne’s excellent The Tenant of Wildfell Hall in 1848.

Any authorial creative bursts you’d like to mention?

The great Canadian podcaster Rebecca Budd, who often comments here under the name Clanmother, invited Russian-literature blogger Elisabeth van der Meer of Finland and myself in Montclair, New Jersey, to a long-distance, three-way conversation about enduring themes in fiction. Among the works we discussed were Pride and Prejudice, The Handmaid’s Tale, All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Farm, Lorna Doone, Eugene Onegin, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Lord of the Rings. The podcast can be heard here.

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an upcoming referendum for an elected school board — is here.

The 1960s: a Novel Decade

After writing about Stoner a couple weeks ago, I thought about how the 1960s were a very interesting time for literature.

Actually, John Williams’ superb 1965 novel — a character study of an academic who lived and died before the ’60s began — was somewhat atypical for a decade known for Vietnam War protests; the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements; “the sexual revolution”; the counterculture; defiance of authority; and more. Some of the decade’s best-known novels included lots of sociopolitical elements along with memorable characters. I’m thinking of titanic titles such as Harper Lee’s 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird (which addressed racism), Joseph Heller’s 1961 Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 Slaughterhouse-Five (both with war/antiwar themes), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude (which addressed just about everything).

Other excellent but not masterpiece-quality ’60s novels also referenced topical issues in addition to depicting characters that stick in one’s mind. Among them were Margaret Atwood’s feminist debut novel The Edible Woman (1969), Philip Roth’s sexually candid Portnoy’s Complaint (also 1969), and Ken Kesey’s authority-defying One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

Meanwhile, the decade saw notable late-career works by several literary giants. They included John Steinbeck’s 1961 The Winter of Our Discontent (with its interesting take on ethics and materialism), Erich Maria Remarque’s 1962 The Night in Lisbon (a mesmerizing World War II novel), Aldous Huxley’s 1962 Island (a utopian counterpart to the author’s dystopian Brave New World), and Daphne du Maurier’s 1969 The House on the Strand (a fascinating time-travel novel).

Other highly regarded novels of the decade (as in the rest of this post, I’m just naming ones I’ve read) included John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey (1960); Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961); Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962); Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and James Michener’s Caravans (1963); Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, and Dorothy Gilman’s The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966); S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare (1967); Charles Portis’ True Grit (1968); and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). That last work was a memoir, of course, but almost feels like a novel.

The book I just started reading is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

Your favorite novels published during the 1960s? Any other thoughts on literature in that decade?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the planned reopening of a historic movie theater — is here.

Very Much Alone

I’ve written about loners in novels before, but what about characters who are literally alone — cut off from all contact with other humans?

Though that situation might seem like a possible recipe for reader boredom, there is actually plenty of potential drama of a tense and poignant nature. How does the alone person handle that dire situation? How does she or he pass the time? How does she or he get out of the situation, if that happens? Etc. We certainly feel sympathy for those without companionship.

All that occurred to me last week as I read The Valley of Horses, the very good first sequel to Jean M. Auel’s great The Clan of the Cave Bear. Cro-Magnon protagonist Ayla is no longer living with the Neanderthal group with which she spent much of her childhood, and is now seeking people of her own kind in sparsely populated prehistoric Europe. The resourceful/proto-feminist young woman ends up being solo for quite a long time, just trying to survive — though, as is the case with some novels of this type, she does find some memorable animal companionship.

Then there are novels in which a character is stranded alone on an island — with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe probably the most famous example.

There are also fictional prisoners in solitary confinement — with one of the most famous Edmond Dantes, unjustly incarcerated for years in an island jail in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

Characters can be stranded in outer space, too; one recent example is Mark Watney of Andy Weir’s The Martian. The astro-botanist/engineer becomes The Martian of the title when stuck on The Red Planet.

In the above categories, sometimes rescue or self-rescue will happen and sometimes it won’t. Hope for a happy ending can certainly encourage readers to stick with a grim story line.

Apocalyptic novels in which millions devastatingly die can also find surviving characters alone; the title of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man clearly offers more than a clue to THAT scenario.

Of course, a novel starring a completely isolated character might or might not juxtapose scenes with people living more normal social existences. That’s the case in The Valley of Horses, which alternates chapters spotlighting Ayla with chapters featuring two journeying Cro-Magnon brothers who fall in with a Cro-Magnon clan different than their own. When charismatic “ladies’ man” Jondalar tells brother Thonolan that he doesn’t want to settle down yet because of a desire to hold out for an extraordinary woman, we sense he and Ayla might eventually meet…

Any “aloner” fiction you’d like to mention?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about school and pool reopenings, and a welcome new ordinance banning gas-powered leaf blowers for part of each year — is here.

An Appreciation of Underappreciated Novels

The image on the cover of Stoner.

Real life isn’t fair, and the same goes for fiction. Some stellar novels deserve more reader love, but remain relatively obscure.

Among the many books that should be much better known is one I just read after it was enthusiastically recommended by several of this blog’s frequent visitors (credited in the comments section). The novel is John Williams’ Stoner, and it left me absolutely gobsmacked with admiration. It’s exquisitely written, with a near-perfect authorial voice. Plus one feels such sympathy for the beleaguered, achingly three-dimensional protagonist William Stoner (yes, the 1965 novel’s title is the last name of its lead character, not a reference to being stoned).

So the question is why Stoner didn’t become as famous as other exceptional 1960s novels such as One Hundred Years of Solitude, To Kill a Mockingbird, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Catch-22. I’ll offer several theories, while first noting that the reasons for a novel not achieving widespread recognition can be inexplicable — bad luck or something. Or perhaps inadequate initial marketing in certain cases.

Speaking specifically of Stoner, its bleakness might be a turnoff to a portion of potential readers; the book is heartbreaking. Yet I couldn’t put it down; devouring it in a day.

Also, some readers might feel the novel isn’t sweeping enough. William Stoner is a farm boy-turned-English professor who seldom leaves Missouri. Fictional works with that kind of narrow lens, or that are set in academia, are not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, a focus on mostly one life can “contain multitudes,” and the novel does glance at outside events: World War I, the Depression, World War II.

In addition, William is not a particularly charismatic protagonist — indeed, he’s often rather passive. But he’s a decent sort many readers can relate to, and we’re devastated as bad things happen to him (even as his life does have some happy moments). The novel is still inspiring at times as we admire William’s stoicism in the face of what fate metes out, and appreciate his unbending love of learning and literature.

Another novel that doesn’t receive nearly its due is Elsa Morante’s stunning History (1974), whose title conveys how it’s partly a chronicle of the World War II era in Rome even as it focuses on one woman (Ida Ramundo) and her two sons (Antonio and Giuseppe). It sold pretty well in Italy during its decade of publication, but never became very well known outside that country, then or now.

Why? There could be some bias against a female author writing a novel set in wartime. Also, like William Stoner, Ida is a passive character who has bad things happen to her. But Giuseppe is one of the most precocious kids you’ll find in literature, and there’s a memorable dog, too.

L.M. Montgomery’s novel The Blue Castle has periodically enjoyed a modest level of popularity since its 1926 release, but it’s much less famous than the author’s Anne of Green Gables — even as The Blue Castle is just as compelling, poignant, and funny as it focuses on what the feisty Valancy Stirling does after receiving a shocking medical diagnosis. Perhaps part of the reason The Blue Castle is somewhat obscure is that it’s an adult novel and Montgomery is pigeon-holed as a writer for younger readers.

Sometimes a novel is grossly underappreciated when it’s first published, before later capturing the public imagination. Such is the case with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), which initially sold poorly and was dismissed by many critics. Perhaps it was just too deep (pun not intended) for its time — plus people who had read Melville’s earlier, less-complex sea sagas may not have been prepared for the author’s leap into masterpiece territory. It wasn’t until decades after Melville’s 1891 death that Moby-Dick deservedly became a phenomenon.

Any great novels you’d like to mention that aren’t as known as they should be? (Not an easy question to answer, of course, because there’s less chance we’d have heard of a book if it’s underappreciated. 🙂 😦 )

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a return to school, an immigrant jail, and library funding — is here.