When Fictional Characters Do the Unexpected

During the next two weeks, I’m attending a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Manchester, New Hampshire, and also dealing with some other responsibilities. So I decided to save my next new blog post for Sunday, June 18.

Today and on June 11, I’m reprinting (with slight changes) previously posted literature pieces. The column below is one I wrote for The Huffington Post five years ago — two years before I fled the site (after finally growing disgusted with the lack of pay and other problems there) to start this blog in July 2014.

Here’s that half-decade-old post from June 7, 2012:

Stereotypes can contain a grain of truth, but they’re often pernicious. So, it’s refreshing when some novels feature a character who breaks ethnic or gender molds.

For instance, Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here includes a 19th-century Jewish character named Ephraim who’s a macho, hard-bitten, frontier type of guy. When he makes his first dramatic appearance in the bitter Canadian cold throwing bear meat to his sled dogs, one thinks more of Jack London than Woody Allen.

Then there’s the title character of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an American nerd of Dominican descent. Perhaps not the ethnicity you’d expect to be out in force at the next Star Trek convention.

And there’s the Chinese-American housekeeper Lee in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, which is set in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Many servants from that era were of course smarter than they were allowed to show their alleged “betters,” but the depth of Lee’s intellect and philosophical musings is off the charts.

How about the bold, holds-her-own-with-the-guys Marian Halcombe in Wilkie Collins’ mystery The Woman in White? She’s hardly the stereotypical female one sees in many other male-authored novels published during the Victorian Age.

And Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews flips a gender stereotype by having a male title character who protects his virginity against female seducers as he overcomes obstacles to be with his true love.

Then there’s Colette’s Cheri and Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, in which women are in relationships with men half their age. That’s not unheard of, but it certainly shows up less often than the older-male/much-younger-female dynamic in many novels — including classics such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and modern fiction such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead.

Breaking stereotypes doesn’t just involve gender or ethnicity.

In Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, for example, the protagonist is a smart but physically weak man named Humphrey van Weyden who is picked up by the brutish Capt. Wolf Larsen after a collision at sea. By the time the book concludes, Humphrey ends up being far from the stereotype of a soft intellectual.

Set at around the same time that London’s novel was written, E.R. Greenberg’s baseball novel The Celebrant features an ardent New York Giants fan who becomes friendly with early-1900s pitching great Christy Mathewson. But unlike the typical besotted sports lover, this immigrant jeweler doesn’t fawn over Mathewson, try to pal around him, or exploit the relationship in any other way.

And how about wealthy literary creations who do the right thing rather than behave like spoiled brats? One such non-stereotypical character is the star of Honoré de Balzac’s César Birotteau who acts with rock-solid integrity after falling into debt. Unlike today’s bankers who privatize the gain and socialize the loss, Birotteau wouldn’t dream of being bailed out.

Of course, if authors deliberately avoid stereotypes enough times, that can become stereotypical…  🙂

Who are your favorite non-stereotypical literary characters?

(Some days this week, I’ll be slower than usual replying to comments, but will answer eventually!)

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book 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, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — which includes made-up quotes “from” Trump and other objectionable politicians — is here.

The Wars in the World of Literature

With tomorrow being America’s Memorial Day, I want to mention some of the most memorable novels set in wartime.

Many of those books show the awfulness of war, while some glorify it. A good number of fictional works focus on the people doing the fighting; others focus on civilians and how they’re affected — whether those civilians are in/near the carnage or far away on the home front. Some wartime novels are written by military veterans and might even be semi-autobiographical, while others are by writers who get their battle “experience” via research. Many wartime books are of course dramatic, visceral, and heartbreaking — and sometimes darkly humorous.

One great novelist who turned to wartime scenarios again and again was Erich Maria Remarque. His World War I-focused All Quiet on the Western Front is justly famous, but Remarque also authored several exquisitely written WWII-set novels that pack an immense emotional wallop — including Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

Then there was Remarque’s Nazi-concentration-camp-placed Spark of Life — one of a number of novels, such as William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice and Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, with a Holocaust theme.

Other compelling wartime novels include (to name a few) Elsa Morante’s History, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare, and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific (all WWII); Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (Spanish Civil War); L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside and Willa Cather’s One of Ours (WWI); Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Geraldine Brooks’ March, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (America’s Civil War); Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Napoleon’s invasion of Russia); and Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality (Scotland’s 1679 Battle of Bothwell Bridge).

As one can see from the above paragraph, plenty of women have written riveting wartime novels.

Then there’s fiction that includes main or supporting characters dealing with war-caused physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, survivor’s guilt, and more. Among those novels are Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress, and M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.

Which war-related novels have you found most memorable?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book 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, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Russian Fiction Is Much Better Than Trump’s Diction

With the corrupt Trump administration’s ties to Russia all over the news, I’d like to offer a different Russia-related topic this week: Russian literature.

Which includes an amazing array of dark/compelling/unforgettable fiction, particularly in the 19th century. Even Trump would be impressed reading Crime and Punishment — as long as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel was shortened to a one-paragraph memo.

Crime and Punishment is my favorite Russian novel, and one of my favorites from any country. Riveting, feverish, psychological (it was said to have influenced Sigmund Freud). The high points of The Brothers Karamazov may be even better, but there are some slog-through pages and chapters that the never-a-dull-moment Crime and Punishment doesn’t suffer from. Dostoyevsky reportedly planned to make The Brothers Karamazov the first of a trilogy, but death intervened.

There are several other Dostoyevsky works well worth discussing, so please have at it in the comments section! But now I’ll turn to Leo Tolstoy, whose War and Peace and Anna Karenina are as famous as novels can be. I was impressed with those two classics (though I’m more a fan of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov) as well as with several of Tolstoy’s magnificent short stories, some almost novella length. “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “Master and Man” — wow!

Speaking of short stories, you can’t go wrong with Tolstoy’s pal Anton Chekhov. A pioneering writer of tales that are more character-oriented and human-emotion-focused than plot-oriented, plus Chekhov of course was also a master playwright.

Earlier-in-the-19th-century Russian authors can also knock your socks off (though I wouldn’t advise that during a Moscow or St. Petersburg winter). Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter novel is a great read, as is Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls novel and his “The Overcoat” short story. Dostoyevsky contemporary Ivan Turgenev wrote a really good novel, too, with Fathers and Sons.

Moving near/into the 20th century (experienced by the 1910-deceased Tolstoy for a decade), we have socialist-realist writers such as Maxim Gorky and Nikolai Ostrovsky. The latter’s How the Steel Was Tempered (a novel I purchased during a 1980s trip to Russia) is quite gripping for a while before getting a bit tedious.

Then there was Boris Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago novel drew the ire of Soviet officials despite it being somewhat nuanced about socialism; and the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was adept at both fiction and nonfiction (and the subject of this “Mother Russia” song by Renaissance). I’m not fond of the way Solzhenitsyn’s politics turned very right-wing, but he did go through imprisonment hell.

Renaissance has a lead female singer and a female lyricist, but Russian literature (unlike fiction from a number of other nations) has been dominated by men. Unfortunately, lots of patriarchy, machismo, and sexism in that country — which might be one reason why Trump is so attracted to Putin and Russia’s oligarchs.

Russia’s history of authoritarianism and oppression certainly has had an effect on its writers, as has that country’s politics, poverty, income inequality, geographic size, high rate of alcoholism, aforementioned machismo, and huge war casualties — including the carnage resulting from Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions. But the most famous Russian writers would most likely be literary geniuses no matter where they had lived.

Obviously I’ve left some writers out, so please fill in some of those blanks in your comments. Who are your favorite Russian authors, either ones I mentioned or didn’t mention?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book 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, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — set in the year 4034 AD! — is here.

Reading Gaps: Mine, and Yours?

Because of all the time I spent trying to promote my new literary-trivia book during the past six weeks, I ironically managed to read only one novel (Jorge Amado’s interesting Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands).

That’s not a good thing for a literature blogger. 🙂 Also, the near-total absence of fiction negatively affected my mood (as did the various new outrages from America’s mean-spirited Republican leaders). Novels can be fun, relaxing, exciting, educational, and/or take you to “another place.” Suddenly, for the first time since a previous reading gap a couple of decades ago, I wasn’t getting much of that.

You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, to quote Joni Mitchell.

But I’m now getting back to reading more fiction again — starting with Fanny Burney’s 1778 novel Evelina, which I’m in the middle of. One highlight of that often-funny book is the hilarious way English and French characters fling insults at each other. But there’s also deeper stuff about a woman’s place in society, the complexity of relationships, family, country life vs. London life, and more.

It’s fascinating to experience any kind of life at that time through the eyes of a female author. I’ve read and enjoyed a number of 18th-century novels — Voltaire’s Candide, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, etc. — but, up until now, none by women, for the simple reason that there weren’t a whole of published books by them back then. Rigid gender roles, sexism, patriarchy, and all that — which of course persisted into the 19th century, yet we thankfully still got Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, and other revered 1800s female authors.

One can definitely see the 1752-born Burney’s influence on Austen, who took her Pride and Prejudice title from a phrase in Fanny’s Cecilia novel. Other interesting facts (outlined in a chapter of my literary-trivia book): Burney wrote four novels and eight plays, kept a journal for 72 years (from 1768 until her death in 1840), worked in the court of King George III from 1786 to 1790, and underwent a harrowing mastectomy in 1811.

The next novels in my queue: Donna Tartt’s first book The Secret History (I loved her third novel The Goldfinch and mostly loved her second novel The Little Friend) and then Dream Palace by Amanda Moores, who happens to be the wife of a very well-read regular commenter here — jhNY.

What have been your experiences (if any) with reading gaps? Why did you read little or no fiction for a period of time? How you did you feel about that? What got you back to reading fiction?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

Speaking of books, fellow WordPress blogger M.C. Tuggle has written a new “modern fantasy” novel titled The Genie Hunt. I haven’t read it myself, but if you want to learn more about it, click here.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column, about my congressman’s awful vote for Trumpcare, is here.

Do the Republicans Trashing Your Health Care Also Root for Literature’s Villains?

Most fiction readers root for the characters who are nice and admirable, not the villains. But after America’s far-right Republicans voted May 4 for a Trumpcare bill that would heartlessly yank medical insurance from millions of non-rich citizens, I’m thinking the majority of those soulless GOP scoundrels might identify with literature’s “bad guys.” So…

— When Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, etc., read Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, they love them some Mr. Brocklehurst — the wealthy “religious” hypocrite who cruelly allows Jane and the other girls at the Lowood institution to freeze, be badly fed, and more. Some of the girls die as a result, as would many Americans “thanks” to Trumpcare.

— Many far-right Republicans perusing John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath would undoubtedly cheer when a thug murders compassionate fighter against injustice Jim Casy — whose sharing of initials with the humane (not the GOP version of) Jesus Christ is no coincidence.

— A good number of GOP ghouls are most likely thrilled when brutal slave-owner Simon Legree viciously abuses the brave/kindly Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

— In George Eliot’s Silas Marner, William Dane frames the sympathetic title character and steals his fiancee — making Dane a hero to many a far-right Republican.

— Nathan Price of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is a sexist and racist missionary, earning him the undying love of countless reactionary GOPers — including various Christian-evangelical leaders.

— The despicable, patriarchal men ruling the roost in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale? Thousands of Republican ultraconservatives want to party with them.

— In Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Delight, department store owner Octave Mouret is a ruthless capitalist who drives mom-and-pop shops out of business — a Walmart approach that sends numerous right-wing Republicans into ecstasy. But Mouret does have a bit of humanity, so that’s troublesome to the Paul Ryan crowd.

— The far-right GOP also has mixed feelings about Samad Iqbal. That character in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth is obnoxious, overbearing, sexist, and not as smart as he thinks — all catnip for Trump and his ilk. But Samad is Muslim, which mostly disqualifies him from Republican admiration.

— The husband of the title character in Stephen King’s Rose Madder is a policeman who’s a racist and a wife abuser — two qualities very endearing to Trump and other lowlife GOP leaders.

— Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life? Many far-right Republicans may feel a kinship to that novel’s Nazi concentration-camp guards. (And Trumpcare’s motto should be the second half of the title of Remarque’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die.)

— Finally, pathological right-wingers pull for Lord Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Role model!

Of course, who knows how much literature America’s reactionary GOP bigwigs actually read? Maybe the occasional Ayn Rand novel…

Any novels you’d like to mention featuring villains far-right Republicans would adore?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book 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, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Even the Plots of Past Novels Change in the Disruptive Era of Trump

With President Trump and America’s far-right-Republican-controlled Congress changing everything for the worse (trying to yank away medical insurance, gut environmental regulations, lower taxes on the rich, etc.), it’s only a matter of time before the content of past novels changes to more accurately reflect what’s currently going on. Here’s what we might see:

— John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces becomes the story of today’s vile GOP politicians.

— Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls becomes the biography of House and Senate leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell.

— Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping becomes the saga of Republicans trying to retain control of the House via gerrymandering and suppression of Democratic votes.

— Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness becomes the story of Vice President Mike Pence.

— Robin McKinley’s Rose Daughter becomes the tale of dad-enabler Ivanka Trump’s rise.

— Toni Morrison’s Beloved becomes about the admirable people who oppose Trump, Ryan, McConnell, and their GOP ilk.

— Henry James’ Washington Square becomes a confirmation that the far right now in DC is just plain un-hip.

— Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country becomes a description of the custom of many lower-income whites in rural areas (“the country”) to vote against their self-interest for the cater-to-the-rich Trump.

— George Orwell’s 1984 becomes about the IQ Trump thinks he has (but doesn’t).

— (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s Big Brother becomes an Orwellian novel rather than a book about an obese sibling.

— Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses becomes Trump’s self-published book of bawdy limericks.

— Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood becomes a list of all the lies flowing out of Trump’s mouth in 2017. Annual sequels to follow.

— Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things becomes an anatomical look at Trump’s small fingers and his small…

— Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock becomes the story of how Trump and his expanding waistline loom over Melania’s huge wedding ring.

— Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 becomes about the first 22 law-abiding, hard-working undocumented immigrants the Trump administration cruelly nabs and deports.

— Colette’s The Shackle becomes the description of a prison device Trump wants to use on innocent Muslims.

— Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind becomes about climate change melting polar ice and causing various species to become extinct.

— Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano becomes about the coolest place to huddle after climate change worsens.

— Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire becomes the story of the all-white, cross-burning Ku Klux Klan that enthusiastically supports Trump and other GOP leaders.

— Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude becomes a treatise on the length and type of prison sentence deserved by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

— James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain becomes the story of Mount Rushmore’s four sculpted heads getting so disgusted with Trump that they actually speak.

— Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale becomes speculative fiction about anticipating the day Trump leaves or gets kicked out of the White House.

— Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea and Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy become the go-to collections of our physiological and verbal reactions to today’s far-right GOP rule.

Any novels with new meanings you’d like to add to my list? Would love to see them!

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

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

It’s Earth Day in Some Parts of Planet Literature

Yesterday, April 22, was Earth Day. Our planet is in deep ecological trouble, and America’s Predator-in-Chief is making things worse with his profoundly anti-environment policies. I guess he’s also the Polluter-in-Chief.

Anyway, I began to think about novels that have directly or indirectly focused on the environment, and the first one that came to mind was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

That book is many things — including a compelling portrayal of a rural Tennessean’s dissatisfaction with her life and marriage, and what she does about it. But Flight Behavior is also a novel about climate change — including how butterflies are devastatingly affected by it.

Kingsolver addresses ecological matters in Prodigal Summer, too.

One of the ultimate environmental catastrophes takes place in Nevil Shute’s On the Beach when nuclear radiation bears down on Australia after ruining much of the world.

Then there are novels in which environmentalism is perhaps not the biggest theme, but an important theme. For instance, the harming of Oklahoma land by greedy agribusiness is a big reason why the Joad family of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is forced to uproot themselves to try their luck in California. The evil forces in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings certainly lay waste to a lot of Middle-earth land. And Anne Shirley’s keen appreciation of nature is one of the endearing elements in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

Also, the shrinking of the American wilderness is a poignant backdrop in James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels (The Last of the Mohicans, etc.). Heck, protagonist Natty Bumppo is more comfortable with the eco-friendlier ways of Native Americans (such as his close friend Chingachgook) than he is with the eco-destructive ways of his fellow whites.

Of course, sci-fi, speculative fiction, dystopian novels, and post-apocalypse books often address environmental issues in direct or indirect fashion — as when they show the Earth abused by corporations and humankind in general. Examples include Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and various other books. There are also the death throes of Earth at the end of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

In the children’s-book area, The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is considered a fable about how corporate greed does a number on nature.

What are some of your favorite fictional works that touch on environmental issues?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time  — which earned a “Best Seller” tag on Amazon for a time this weekend.

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