When the ‘Good’ Are the Bad, It Can Get Ugly

As the Brett Kavanaugh drama unfolded this month, I thought about fictional characters who seem admirable on the surface yet are in reality bad people.

Kavanaugh, of course, is Donald Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. I never felt Kavanaugh was a good guy — he’s an ideologue with nasty, ultra-conservative views on women, the poor, civil rights, guns, the environment, and more. But to at least some people, he seemed like a decent and friendly “family man.” That persona was blown to bits when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford credibly accused him of having sexually assaulted her several decades ago. To me, there was no motive for Dr. Blasey Ford to lie — she knew she would be deluged with hate mail, social-media abuse, death threats, and other horrors from right-wing Republicans. The only coming-forward upside for Dr. Blasey Ford (shown with Kavanaugh in separate photos above) was to tell the truth.

So…some quasi-equivalents of Kavanaugh in literature:

The first character who came to mind was Perry in Liane Moriarty’s fantastic Big Little Lies. In the eyes of society, he’s a charming and respected banker. Under the surface, he has a sordid past and present that includes ugly violence against his wife Celeste and other women.

Then there’s Willie Stark, the Huey Long-like politician in All the King’s Men. He’s charismatic, and seems idealistic and populist. In reality — a reality that grows stronger as Robert Penn Warren’s famous novel goes on — Stark is a corrupt hypocrite.

Another complicated politician is Hamm Sparks of Fannie Flagg’s engaging Standing in the Rainbow. He’s hardworking — raising himself up from poverty — and appears to be admirable in other ways as well. Popular with the electorate, too. But Hamm eventually reveals himself to be too slick, very right wing, and an adulterer (cheating on his shy wife Betty Raye).

In Andre Dubus III’s compelling House of Sand and Fog, the married Lester Burdon is an apparently upstanding law-enforcement guy until he becomes enamored with Kathy Nicolo and starts doing rash and illegal things to try to help her regain the home that’s subject to an epic ownership dispute.

The most recent novel I finished — Susan Moore Jordan’s absorbing mystery The Case of the Slain Soprano — turns out to have a murderer who was thought to be the nicest of guys. An excellent actor, I guess.

Oh…and there’s a complicated version of good but not actually good in J.K. Rowling’s iconic Harry Potter series when the admirable Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody seems to turn bad. But that’s because he was kidnapped and impersonated by another character, Barty Crouch Jr.

I’ll conclude by mentioning Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Which fictional characters fitting this topic do you most remember? And any thoughts on the Kavanaugh situation?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a school stairway collapse in my town — is here.

‘A Game of Thrones’ vs. ‘The Lord of the Rings’

It took me a long time to get to it, but I finally read A Game of Thrones after commenters here recommended it.

The first volume of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” epic fantasy series clocks in at nearly 700 large-size, small-print pages. I almost abandoned the novel after a few chapters, because the author kept jumping to so many different characters that it was hard to get absorbed. But I finally did, and found the book really compelling from then on.

Rather than write a straightforward review of A Game of Thrones — which, along with its sequels, inspired the hit TV series — I thought I’d compare it to the other epic fantasy tour de force read by many people (like me) who usually don’t read fantasy. I’m of course referring to J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings, and its prequel The Hobbit.

Overall, Tolkien’s wonderful classic is more of a page-turner — the storytelling is mostly linear, and the quest to destroy that titular ring is riveting. Martin’s most noticeable plot line — various families striving for power — is also exciting but a bit more diffuse. Yet A Game of Thrones (I haven’t read the sequels) surpasses The Lord of the Rings in certain ways.

Both epics have great writing, memorable characters, and excellent humor (though Tolkien is somewhat funnier — at least in The Hobbit). Each also features all kinds of death and war, but Martin’s depiction of violence is much more graphic and realistic. Perhaps partly a product of our current time.

Martin expertly juggles a somewhat larger cast of principal players, and, to his credit, has far more female protagonists in major roles. That might also be partly a product of a later era, but, heck, plenty of novels in Tolkien’s heyday had prominent female characters.

Perhaps most importantly, Martin’s characters are more three-dimensional than the vast majority of those in Tolkien’s cast. Few of the Game of Thrones denizens are all good or all bad — and that kind of moral ambiguity makes things very interesting.

Another interesting difference between the Martin and Tolkien works is that A Game of Thrones is mostly populated by humans, while The Lord of the Rings features a variety of bipeds: humans, hobbits, wizards, elves, orcs, etc.

Also, both series are set in long-ago, pre-modern-technology times. Martin does a better job of depicting the squalor and difficulties of living in such an era; things are more sanitized in The Lord of the Rings.

Will I read more of “A Song of Ice and Fire”? Not sure. A Game of Thrones was a large investment of time (about two weeks), and I’m not a fantasy buff. But I might. The novel ended on a very intriguing note, and I’m curious about what will happen to such characters as Daenerys Targaryen, the timid teen girl who turns into a ruthless dynamo; Arya Stark, the resourceful “tomboy”; Jon Snow, the outcast “bastard” son who makes something of his life; Joffrey Baratheon, the appalling young prince-turned-king; and Tyrion Lannister, the witty/crafty dwarf with perhaps the biggest personality in the book. (Tyrion, as played by Peter Dinklage in the HBO series, is pictured above.)

If you’ve read them, any thoughts on George R.R. Martin’s and J.R.R. Tolkien’s famous creations? (For those counting, that’s four “R” initials you just saw. 🙂 ) What other fantasy works have you enjoyed?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about climate change, a Board of Education resignation, and a school stairway collapse — is here.

Germane to McCain: Fictional Characters We Have Mixed Feelings About

Many people have mixed feelings about America’s late Republican senator John McCain, who died August 25. On the plus side, he displayed incredible bravery as a prisoner of war, occasionally bucked his party’s far-right orthodoxy, despised Donald Trump, etc. On the minus side, he supported U.S. military overreach, opposed the national holiday for civil-rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., backed 2017’s Republican tax legislation for the rich, and so on.

All of which can lead a literature lover to think about characters we have mixed feelings about. Any of those protagonists can be good, bad, and in-between — and their complexity often makes them more interesting than characters who are mostly admirable or mostly not admirable. But their complexity can also be interpreted as inconsistency, which might make reading about them as frustrating as it is interesting. Meanwhile, it’s impressive when an author can skillfully depict a character who’s both likable and unlikable.

One of literature’s most masterfully depicted good/not-good protagonists is Gwendolen Grandcourt (nee Harleth) of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. She is spoiled, selfish, and makes some bad choices, but she’s also smart, capable of emotional growth, and a decent human being at her core. It’s mesmerizing to read the charged interactions between Gwendolen and the admirable Daniel (both pictured atop this blog post, from a screen adaptation of the novel).

There’s also Mr. Stevens, the dignified/hardworking butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s subtle novel The Remains of the Day. He’s stoic, but too stoic. He’s loyal, yet the loyalty is to his Nazi sympathizer/appeaser employer (Lord Darlington). And Stevens is reflective, yet doesn’t think things through enough at the right time to accept the possibility of a romance with a woman (the housekeeper Ms. Kenton) who’s clearly interested in him.

The title character of Toni Morrison’s Sula is adventurous and fiercely independent — especially impressive traits for a woman of her era and an African-American woman of her era (between the two world wars). But she also has a negative side, including betraying her best friend Nel by having an affair with Nel’s husband.

How about Chuck Mumpson of Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs? He’s crude and loud, smokes and drinks too much, and is clearly no intellectual. But he is curious and has a good heart, and the novel’s professor protagonist Virginia Miner develops a strong regard for him after they meet on a trip.

Then there’s Lisbeth Salander of Stieg Larsson’s riveting Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.). She’s angry, unfriendly, and has poor social skills. She’s also brilliant, brave, and loyal — and, given her history of being abused, one can totally understand why there are some negative aspects to her personality.

Last but not least, I’ll mention Severus Snape of J.K. Rowling’s wonderful Harry Potter novels. As many of you know, he comes off as unsympathetic and mean (especially to Harry) during much of the series. But as readers wonder whether he’s an ally of the evil Voldemort or a double agent, positives emerge as well.

I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. Your favorite characters who you have mixed feelings about?

I won’t be posting a column next Sunday (September 9) because I’ll be in Florida again to deal with my late mother’s estate, but I’ll still reply to comments when I can. New column on September 16!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a start-of-school theme and some thoughts about John McCain similar to those expressed in today’s blog post — is here.

Some of the Saddest Novels Ever

The other day I watched the Johnny Cash video of “Hurt,” the Nine Inch Nails song Cash covered to perfection. That under-four-minute masterpiece, filled with musings on mortality just months before the gravely ailing Cash died, might be the saddest music video ever made.

You probably know where I’m going: After watching “Hurt” — which you can see here, and from which the image atop this blog post was taken — I thought about the saddest novels I’ve read. Many VERY well worth the time, even cathartic in some cases, but heartbreaking nonetheless.

One such book is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. The plot alone is poignant enough, but the beautifully crafted prose — touching on matters such as life’s fleeting moments of happiness — makes a nearby box of tissues an absolute necessity.

There’s also William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, which, as a novel with a Holocaust theme, is naturally going to be devastating. But when Sophie has to make that fateful choice promised by the title, the despair gets almost unbearable on a one-family level, too. Another sorrowful Holocaust novel, Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, takes an even more unsparing look at life in a concentration camp.

Albert Camus’ classic The Stranger, written during World War II, is also an almost total downer.

Going further back in time, I’d add Edith Wharton’s memorable The House of Mirth, which chronicles the dismal descent of a woman (Lily Bart) who is doomed because she has some integrity and is trapped in a patriarchal society. Maggie Tulliver’s limited choices and opportunities as a female make the masterful The Mill on the Floss perhaps George Eliot’s most melancholy novel. And the miserable mining milieu in Emile Zola’s Germinal leaves readers despondent even while admiring the novel’s power.

Obviously, dystopian and/or apocalyptic novels — like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man — can make readers completely disconsolate. I’ll also include George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four here, although that book has a few moments of joy before all hope is crushed.

Other very depressing novels? Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, George Sand’s Lelia, and Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, to name a few.

What are the saddest novels you’ve read?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which looks at signage, a subdivision, spinelessness, and resurfaced streets — is here.

‘The Magnificent Seven’ Continents: a Reading Tale

Many literature lovers have reading goals: Try a particular author for the first time. Finally pick up a classic that’s been on your list forever. Polish off 50 novels a year. Etc.

Me? I recently reached a goal I didn’t even know I was aiming for — just realizing that, since mid-2017, I’ve read fictional works set or partly set on all seven continents. That and a dollar will buy me something at Dollar Tree…

I completed my double-trifecta-and-a-half a couple weeks ago with Ha Jin’s Waiting, which is set in Asia — China to be exact. That absorbing novel is about a doctor, stuck in an unhappy arranged marriage to a traditional woman, who falls in love with a more modern woman — after which things get quite complicated, emotionally and logistically. The author lives in the U.S., but spent his childhood and young adulthood in China, so he knows his native country well.

Obviously, a major appeal of reading literature not set in one’s home nation is learning about other cultures, even while realizing that human emotions are usually not that different from place to place. Of course, one can learn even more about other countries by visiting them (I did get to France for a couple of weeks this spring), but reading certainly costs less — and living-room chairs are roomier than airline seats in coach. 🙂

I also “traveled” to Africa this past year via Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, a compelling novel partly set in Nigeria. Ambitious/resilient protagonist Adah strives for an education and a better life despite sexism, racism, a problematic husband, and other obstacles.

Australia? I’ve recently read several novels by Liane Moriarty, one of my very favorite contemporary authors. Books such as Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret expertly mix three-dimensional characters, mystery, social issues, humor, and other elements to create a page-turning brew.

There was a South America “sojourn,” too, when I read Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. That Brazil-set novel stars the smart and congenial Dona Flor, her charismatic but irresponsible first hubby, her responsible but rather boring second hubby, and a sort of ghost of that deceased first spouse. Quite a threesome, or foursome.

The vast majority of fictional works I read are set in North America or Europe, so I’ll mention just four of my recently perused ones among the dozens I’ve gotten to since mid-2017.

I just finished Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice, which unfolds in England and Scotland (both of which sound like Europe to me 🙂 ). That novel — which is almost as good as Pilcher’s fabulous The Shell Seekers — features related and unrelated people, ranging in age from 14 to 67, who come together around Christmas time amid tragedy and hope. (On top of this blog, my cat Misty poses with the novel.)

This past week, I also read Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Viy,” set in the Ukraine. A masterful horror tale with a lot to say about religion and more.

North America? My favorites of recent months include Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel, The Midnight Line, which addresses matters such as drugs amid interesting character depictions and visceral action sequences; and the always-reliable Fannie Flagg’s touching novel The Whole Town’s Talking. Both books are set in the U.S.

You’re probably wondering how I managed to read a fictional work set in Antarctica. Well, part of Maria Semple’s quirky seriocomic novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes us to that icy continent — and memorably so.

Have you ever done the seven-continent reading thing? Do you have other reading goals you’ve knowingly or unknowingly achieved?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which offers a fake history of my town in this era of alleged “fake news” — is here.

Trump Also Ruins Famous Passages From Novels

America’s Lowlife-in-Chief Donald Trump is notorious for his lies, cruelty, racism, corruption, cowardice, laziness, hypocrisy, narcissism, sexual predation, and more — all of which is praised or tolerated by his far-right Republican enablers in Congress, at Fox “News,” and elsewhere. He’s changed so many things for the worse that I’m sorry to say famous literary passages can also be affected. Read ’em and weep:

“Call me icky male” — if he ever honestly analyzed himself, Trump would adapt the first line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick this way.

“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times” — Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities phrase made relevant to what the current White House occupant has made our era become.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a cad in possession of an inherited fortune must be in want of a porn star” — changing the first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to make it about Trump.

“So it goads” — three words, inspired by the “So it goes” catchphrase in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, that describe every sentence that comes out of Trump’s mouth.

“You are the worst thing” — how billions of people feel about Trump, with apologies to the “You are your best thing” quote from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

“Whatever are souls are made of, his and ours are despicably the same” — Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and other heartless Republicans comparing themselves to Trump in a rare candid moment inspired by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights line.

“It was times like these when I thought Trump, who got multiple deferments from the Vietnam War despite excellent health, was the most cowardly man who ever lived” — an updated quote from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

“For you, a thousand times more” — Trump channeling Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner as his regressive tax law puts lots of not-needed extra money into the pockets of millionaires and billionaires.

“Wealthy families are all alike in raking it in; every non-rich family is getting less rich in its own way” — that tax law again, through the lens of a misquoted passage from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

“So we beat on, rubber duckies against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the countries our parents fled” — a version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final Great Gatsby line alluding to Trump’s repugnant anti-immigrant policies that include deporting kids.

“There was no possibility of taking a walk ANY day” — the first line of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre changed to reflect just how physically unfit Trump is.

“In the souls of the people hurt by far-right Republicans, the grapes of wrath are growing heavy, heavy for the vintage” — with apologies to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

Any revised-for-the-Trump-era literary passages you’d like to offer?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — in which I mention a controversial redevelopment for only the billionth time this year 🙂 — is here.

Love-Hate Relationships in Lit

Almost everyone knows about and has experienced “love-hate” relationships. Not surprisingly, literature is also full of them — or at least full of “like-dislike” relationships.

After all, how much more dramatic can things get, romance-wise, than when a couple is not getting along and then gets along, or gets along and then doesn’t get along, or toggles frequently between those two extremes. How will it all end up? We. Must. Finish (the novel to find out).

One example is a book I read just last week: One for the Money, the first in a long-running crime series starring Stephanie Plum. Janet Evanovich’s fun/exciting novel not only includes lots of law-breaking but a complicated relationship between novice bounty hunter Plum and cop (as well as murder suspect) Joe Morelli, who treats Plum nicely at times and rottenly at other times — with Stephanie both attracted to and repulsed by his bad-boy charisma.

(The photo atop this blog post shows Katherine Heigl as Plum and Jason O’Mara as Morelli in the 2012 movie version of One for the Money.)

In classic literature, there’s obviously Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, who don’t click at first in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. But the two overcome their “pride” and “prejudice”…

Another complicated couple is Jane and Rochester in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. There’s an instant attraction between the two, but, even at first, Jane finds Rochester a bit off-putting. And things definitely get complicated when Rochester’s huge secret is revealed. Jane never hates Rochester, but has quite a bit of mixed feelings for a while.

Then there’s Philip Carey and Mildred in W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, in which the love-hate distribution is unequal. Philip is enamored with the unlikable Mildred, who shows no affection for her groveling suitor and uses him again and again. He finally grows disgusted with the relationship, and…

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford’s third husband is the charismatic Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. He first treats Janie with kindness and respect, later becomes abusive, and still later saves Janie’s life.

How about Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its sequels? Gilbert has a crush on Anne from the start, but makes the mistake of joking about her red hair. Anne, though smitten with Gilbert deep-down, rebuffs him for years after the insult.

Getting back to more recent literature, protagonist Molly Bolt has a sexual relationship in high school with Carolyn Simpson, yet Carolyn rejects the lesbian label in Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. So there’s plenty of love-hate stuff going on there.

In Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, Cecilia Fitzpatrick and her spouse John-Paul get along fine. Then, it becomes all love-hate after Cecilia discovers the awful secret of what John-Paul did as a youth.

And there’s Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Those two certainly have their verbal tussles — with Ron sometimes saying dumb things and the brainy Hermione sometimes acting all superior — yet there’s plenty of affection.

What are some of your favorite examples of love-hate relationships in literature?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a new liquor license, a crummy standardized test, and more — is here.