‘Boring’ Protagonists Don’t Have to Mean Boring Books

The past week was a rare seven days of being way too busy with various things to write my usual Sunday literature post. So, I’m re-publishing a piece I wrote nearly eight years ago, with some revisions. Here it is:

When a key character in a novel is passive and/or modest, that spells trouble for the book — right? Not necessarily.

A seemingly boring protagonist might have emotional and intellectual depth beyond what first meets a reader’s eye. And we frequently feel empathy for a shy character, who often has a good reason for being bashful. Even if a low-key protagonist doesn’t have much dimension, more charismatic characters can pick up the slack in a Seinfeld sort of way: Jerry wasn’t always interesting on that sitcom, but his eccentric buddies Elaine, George, and Kramer certainly were.

Among the novels starring an uncharismatic character is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. We understand why Fanny Price is timid — she’s a “poor cousin” treated in a subservient way after moving into the affluent home of her uncle and aunt. Fanny also has to bear the constant gibes of another aunt — the ultra-annoying Mrs. Norris, who later inspired the name of a cat in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. And Fanny (pictured above in 1999’s Mansfield Park film) is mostly devoid of the wit Austen gave many of her characters. But she is kind and ethical, and, as the novel goes on, we realize Fanny is also wiser and smarter than we might have initially thought. Indeed, at least one edition of Mansfield Park has back-cover copy saying Fanny “was Austen’s own favorite among her heroines.” Hard to believe, but…

Lena Grove of William Faulkner’s Light in August is a different story. She shows some gumption by traveling alone to find the man who got her pregnant, but she’s mostly clueless — thinking Lucas Burch will welcome her arrival when in fact the jerk fled because he wanted no part of fatherhood. Lena dully and placidly lets events unfold, and the guy (Byron Bunch) who falls in love with her is semi-comatose as well. Much of the novel’s excitement is provided by livelier characters such as Joe Christmas, a mill worker/bootlegger haunted by his probable African-American ancestry in a racist South and by his surreptitious affair with an eccentric older woman (Joanna Burden).

Another thing that makes Light in August, Mansfield Park, and other novels with uncharismatic major characters potentially compelling is when the authors (such as Faulkner and Austen) are stellar writers. As the cliche goes, they could make a grocery list sound interesting.

Then there’s Being There, which may be better known as a movie than novel. Chance the gardener in Jerzy Kosinski’s book is a simple man who somehow gains the ill-deserved reputation as a sage of great wisdom. Chance may be boring, but the premise of the novel is not.

Another short novel, Billy Budd, features a title character who’s almost spookily passive — except for the one fateful instant when the goaded sailor lashes out. But the almost-biblical drama of the book, and Herman Melville’s superb writing, carry the reader along.

The much more recent Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver includes the indecisive Cub, who’s way too accommodating to his bossy parents despite being an adult. He’s married to the livelier, brainy Dellarobia, who wishes Cub would think for himself. Dellarobia’s frustration with her husband’s passivity is a key component of the book and its conclusion.

Then there are characters who, because of social norms, are passive in some situations but not in others. In The God of Small Things, the otherwise capable Mammachi docilely accepts physical abuse from her nasty husband Pappachi, but is later far from meek when going ballistic over her daughter Ammu’s involvement with the kind and admirable “Untouchable” Velutha. Meanwhile, Velutha has to act meekly among the people “above” him in India’s class structure, but is friendly and engaging with Ammu’s twin children Rahel and Estha, who love him in Arundhati Roy’s powerful novel.

Can you name some fictional works with protagonists or co-protagonists who are docile, shy, and/or boring?

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 piece — about a whether-to-return-to-school-during-COVID debate that sparked an unfortunate lawsuit against my town’s teacher union — is here.

A Guest Literature Post By My Cat

Those of you who are Facebook friends of mine know that I post a short video most mornings of my cat Misty (above) taking his daily leashed/harnessed walk on the grounds of my garden-apartment complex. Misty’s strolling expeditions have helped make him a very smart cat, and now he’s asking to take over my literature blog for this week. So, here goes…

“After my human read the latest Jack Reacher novel last week, I read it, too, and let me tell you the impressive Reacher clearly has more than nine lives after again surviving many fights. That book — The Sentinel — is the first of the 20-plus Reacher novels co-written by Lee Child’s brother Andrew Child, and it was interesting to see how it differed from Lee’s solo efforts. Jack seems more talkative, and there aren’t any of the romantic interludes found in many other Reacher books, but The Sentinel is certainly still satisfying. (< That’s a-litter-ation.) The novel does lack cats, but, heck, even Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye isn’t feline-focused – and there isn’t an ophthalmologist in…ahem…sight.

“I’ve also read Of Human Bondage, which I figured would have something to say about the small subset of humans who put harnesses on their cats for outdoor walks. But, no-o-o, W. Somerset Maugham’s novel was about a guy who wanted to become a doctor — not a veterinary doctor! — while finding himself embarrassedly enamored with an abrasive waitress who didn’t even serve Fussie Cat wet food to her restaurant patrons.

“Jane Austen? Her decision to write Persuasion rather than Purrsuasion is troubling, but it’s more believable for humans rather than cats to get married at the end of a novel. The expectation is that Austen’s more appealing humans will live ‘happily ever after,’ which is not always the case when one coughs up hairballs.

“I’ve read All Quiet on the Western Front, too, and found it rang true until things got noisy on the western front of my apartment complex. Now I’m having doubts about the believability of Erich Maria Remarque’s book title, even though I myself created the western-front-of-my-apartment-complex noise by pawing around a dumpster.

Steppenwolf? Well, I did see a fox step in (my line of vision). I Hesse-d…um…hissed at it.

“When not spotting foxes, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, and birds during my walks, I like to munch on grass. Ironweed was a problem until I decided to use it as floss. Thanks, William Kennedy.

“The titles of A Tale of Two Cities and The Tale of Genji both misspell “tail,” but Charles Dickens and Murasaki Shikibu didn’t have the benefit of online dictionaries. I’m amazed that Shikibu’s novel was written a thousand years ago — that’s almost as long as it’s been since I was last fed. Or maybe it just seems that way; I was actually fed about five minutes ago.

“Windows are like TV for cats, which is why I’m always happy when novels are turned into TV miniseries. Alex Haley’s Roots, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Garfield the Lasagna-Loving Cartoon Cat

“My human is telling me that the Proust title I just cited doesn’t exist, but you gotta admit lasagna is a more substantial meal than madeleines.

“I will now step off my human’s laptop keyboard and let a bunch of monkeys try to write a Shakespeare sonnet. Bananas are on the house.”

Misty’s musings were a bit disjointed, but…

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 piece — in which school buildings (the brick-and-cement structures themselves) talk about when they should reopen during COVID — is here.

Ate Is Enough

Food in fiction! It’s fun, it’s relatable, and it can tell readers something about the novels’ characters and settings.

I previously discussed food in fiction in 2012, when writing about books for The Huffington Post. Yes, that piece was published more than eight years ago — a span of time during which a person can build quite an appetite…for writing about food in fiction again. This post will mention some of the novels I talked about back then, along with various books I’ve read since.

On Friday, I finished The Hundred-Foot Journey, a compelling novel whose India-born protagonist Hassan Haji (seen above in the 2014 movie version) eventually becomes a top chef in Paris. Author Richard C. Morais’ word pictures of Indian cuisine (which Hassan first cooks) and French cuisine (which Hassan shifts to and becomes even more expert at) are intensely vivid, reflect all kinds of cross-cultural currents, and depict the conviviality of sharing excellent restaurant meals. Heck, I’m not sure I’ve ever read a more food-focused novel. One caveat: As someone who doesn’t eat meat, I found the descriptions of killing animals, and preparing carnivorous dishes, off-putting.

Another recent novel with a food element is Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, set at a health resort where things take a disturbing turn. But the resort’s food is quite good, making for an interesting juxtaposition.

The title character in Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is admirable in various ways, with one of them being her expertise as a cook and cooking teacher.

Tita de la Garza in Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate is stymied in love by her mother, and is only able to truly express herself when she cooks.

Food also lends itself to humorous scenarios, as when large/buffoonish protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces operates a hot dog cart in New Orleans and ends up eating much of the product himself.

Some novels with restaurant settings don’t focus a huge amount on the food but more on the eateries as hubs where people gather and certain dramas might play out. That’s the case in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, where hungry hobos are always welcome; and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, whose protagonist Miles Roby runs a far-from-chic grill in Maine. Diner-type eateries also pop up in various Jack Reacher thrillers, illustrating Jack’s “everyman” preference for basic food. (I’m currently absorbed in 2020’s The Sentinel, the first Reacher novel Lee Child co-wrote with his brother Andrew.)

Lack of food can be a riveting aspect of some novels for an obvious reason: People can’t survive without eating. One powerful aspect of Andy Weir’s The Martian is Mark Watney’s struggle to create enough food to stay alive when stranded on Mars.

Going way back to 1749, Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones accentuated the potentially sensuous aspects of a meal by conflating food with sex.

In the short-story realm, Isak Dinesen’s “Babette’s Feast” is a culinary extravaganza better known for its movie version.

Books with strong food elements I mentioned in my 2012 post? Joanne Harris’ Chocolat, T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, Emile Zola’s The Belly of Paris, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, among others. Plus Darryl Brock’s baseball novel If I Never Get Back, which has one of my favorite food scenes: Born-in-the-20th-century time traveler Sam Fowler gets so bored with mediocre 19th-century American “cuisine” that he goes to a home in a Chinese neighborhood and pays a total stranger to cook him a delicious meal.

Your favorite novels with food content?

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 piece — about a major rent-control victory in my town — is here.

Feminism in Fiction

This look at feminism in post-1900 literature has two timely inspirations: Margaret Atwood and…Donald Trump.

I just read The Testaments, Ms. Atwood’s excellent 2019 sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And sore loser Trump is about to (hopefully) leave the White House this Wednesday, January 20.

Trump has been rightly criticized for many things during his dumpster fire of a presidency. The lies, the criminality, the incompetence, the cruelty, the blatant racism, the homophobia, and more. So, it can get a bit lost just how misogynist Trump and his ilk have also been.

There are the more than 20 credible pre-presidency rape and other sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, the crudely sexist remarks, the pathetically few women he named to top administration positions, etc. Of course, amid Trump’s toxic machismo, the females in Trump’s mostly male orbit have been awful in their own right — including wife Melania, daughter Ivanka, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, former education secretary Betsy DeVos, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and others. Complicit, complicit, complicit.

The fictional Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments feels like an extreme (?) version of the far-right Trump/far-right Republican/far-right evangelical vision for America. Atwood’s authoritarian fictional republic has made women second-class citizens — stripping the older ones of their former professions, not allowing the younger ones to have intellectual jobs, forcing teen girls into marriages with much older men, and other patriarchal outrages that of course include Gilead’s handmaid system of child-bearers with no rights. There’s also all kinds of corruption and violence. One of Atwood’s accomplishments in both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments is creating unforgettable women characters who either fight against the system (overtly or subtly) or come to grudgingly accept it (under duress). Also impressive is that Atwood is near the top of her writing game in the sequel despite her turning 80 the year it was published. My only significant criticism of The Testaments is that its nail-biting conclusion is too short.

Anyway, I’m limiting this piece to post-1900 literature with feminist elements because I covered many earlier novels with such elements in this 2018 post. There are many novels I can discuss, but I’ll focus on just a few.

The title alone of Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen tells the reader that the 1974 novel will have feminist aspects. Its protagonist, Adah, is a smart and resourceful woman who battles sexism from society and her husband in an effort to get the education she desires and do the work she wants to do. She moves from Nigeria to England, but both places are frequently not hospitable for ambitious women. Racism is in the mix as well.

Both sexism and racism are also faced by characters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).

Women taking leadership roles is obviously a feminist thing, and we see that in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. That novel’s leader is Lauren Oya Olamina, whose take-charge personality is sorely needed in a society that has crumbled due to climate change, huge economic inequality, and corporate greed. (Do those three mega-problems ring a bell? This prescient science-fiction book was published in 1993.) Lauren even founds a new religion of sorts!

Eliza Sommers, the Chilean protagonist in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, goes to mid-19th-century California against her parents’ wishes and even spends much of the 1998 novel disguised as a man in order to live more freely.

Looking back at a 1910-published novel, Colette’s The Vagabond features music-hall dancer Renee Nere and the very familiar push-and-pull on her life between work and romance.

There are also feminist novels that at least partly focus on the right of women to make independent decisions about sexual matters — with two examples being Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian-focused Rubyfruit Jungle. Both, coincidentally, published in 1973. Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) also deals compellingly with a lesbian relationship, albeit more-closeted in this case.

Women working in traditionally “male” professions is another mark of feminist novels, with Ms. Flagg offering a great example of that with the women World War II pilots in 2013’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. (I wish “Women” rather than “Girl” was in that title, but “Girl” might have been used ironically.) There’s also a memorable Russian female WWII pilot in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress (2019).

Plus Claire Fraser of Diana Gabaldon’s 1991-launched Outlander series of time-travel novels is a medical doctor in both the 1960s (when that was relatively unusual for a woman) and during the 1700s (when that virtually never happened).

Women having control over their own bodies is certainly an aspect of feminism, meaning novels that sympathetically look at abortion fit this post’s theme. One example is John Irving’s The Cider House Rules from 1985 — the same publication year as The Handmaid’s Tale.

Your favorite 20th- or 21st-century novels with feminist elements?

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 piece — about my town’s reaction to the Trump-incited white riot at the U.S. Capitol building — is here.

The ’21 Club of Anniversaries for Famous Novels

Some well-known novels are reaching round-number anniversaries in 2021 — as in 25 years (published in 1996), 50 years (1971), 75 years (1946), 100 years (1921), 150 years (1871), and 200 years (1821).

I’ll mostly mention novels I’ve read, and a few I haven’t. Let’s begin…

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s rare foray into historical fiction, came out in 1996. It takes a gripping look at a 19th-century double murder in Canada — and how guilty or not the sentenced-to-life-in-prison Grace Marks was as an accomplice.

Hard to believe it was that long ago, but also published in 1996 was A Game of Thrones — the first installment of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series that later became a TV phenomenon. It’s the only novel I’ve read in the series, and I found it compelling after struggling a bit to get into it.

Among the notable ’96 novels I haven’t read are David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary.

A half-century ago, we had William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel The Exorcist — a widely read book turned into a smash-hit movie. Also Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which covers nearly a century of history through the eyes of an African-American woman — and also inspired a highly popular film, in that case for TV. Plus, E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, a thinly veiled retelling of the Rosenberg case from the vantage point of the couple’s children; Hunter S. Thompson’s riotous, semi-autobiographical Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Erich Maria Remarque’s posthumously published Shadows in Paradise.

Also in ’71 were John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, the first sequel to the Rabbit, Run novel I had mixed feelings about (a bit too much toxic masculinity); and Herman Wouk’s epic The Winds of War, which I haven’t read but I sure did like that author’s earlier The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar.

Memorable releases in 1946 — the birth year of despicable white-riot inciter Trump — included Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a novel about a Huey Long-like politician, rampant corruption, and more; Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, starring a 12-year-old tomboy; and Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. I’ve read the first two, not the third.

In 1921, parts of Marcel Proust’s opus In Search of Lost Time were released — as were L.M. Montgomery’s World War I-themed Rilla of Ingleside, one of the best Anne of Green Gables sequels; Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley’s somewhat-interesting debut novel; and Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Adams.

It was in 1871, 150 years ago, that George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch was published. Clearly her best book in terms of scope, characterizations, and social analysis — and you’ll rarely read a better dissection of troubled marriages. But I do think several of Eliot’s slightly less masterpiece-y novels — including The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda — pack an equal or greater emotional wallop.

Also released in 1871 were Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the memorable sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Henry James’ debut novel Watch and Ward (published by a magazine in 1871 but not in book form until 1878); and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men.

I haven’t read any 1821 novels, which included Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott and The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper — two authors whose other books I’ve liked a lot. But, hey, Fyodor Dostoevsky was born that year — and Madame Bovary writer Gustave Flaubert, too.

Any novels with round-number 2021 anniversaries you’d like to discuss? (Including those I mentioned and those I didn’t.)

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 piece — about parking, leaf blowers, the Georgia runoffs, Trump, and more — is here.

My Fiction-Blog Stats in a Stranger-Than-Fiction Year

Thanks so much, everyone, for reading my literature blog and posting thousands of interesting comments in 2020! 🙂 As the devastating months of COVID hopefully start to fade in the rearview mirror, I thought I’d do a statistical look-back today before returning to my usual fare next Sunday.

Last year, this 2014-launched blog had 28,825 views, 14,124 visitors (the most ever), 4,530 comments, and 3,401 likes. The number of followers reached 4,930.

The top-15 places where views came from were 1) the United States (15,845), 2) the United Kingdom (4,008), 3) India (1,661), 4) Australia (1,436), 5) Canada (912), 6) Spain (361), 7) Germany (348), 8) Kuwait (297), 9) China (270), 10) the Philippines (268), 11) France (227), 12) Finland (199), 13) Nigeria (153), 14) Italy (151), and 15) Pakistan (127). Plus 125 other countries, thanks in large part to the worldwide reach of the WordPress blog platform.

Surprisingly, the most-read post in 2020 was from 2018 — “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction.” Or maybe not so surprising, given the endless fascination with novels by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, Wilkie Collins, and others who created women protagonists who overtly or subtly defied the patriarchal norms of the 1800s.

Four of my five most-read 2020 posts had a sociopolitical bent: “Writers Who’ve Rightly Criticized the Far-Right Trump,” “When Novelists Display Intolerance,” “Wishing Trump’s Assault on the Post Office Were Fictional,” and “Racist Characters Bring the Hate to Some Literature.” Even though the majority of my lit posts are not sociopolitical.

The most-read 2020 piece that wasn’t sociopolitical? “The ’60s Live On. The 1860s, That Is” — which looked at the amazing group of novels published during that long-ago decade. War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Great Expectations, and various other classics.

Lastly, even though this week’s piece is not my usual thematic post, I did want to mention that I just read and enjoyed Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared — recommended by two regular commenters here (Susan and Martina Ramsauer) and three people I know from outside this blog (Allia Zobel Nolan, LJ Anderson, and Larry Esteves). It’s an offbeat novel with a lots of humor and suspense, and it was eye-opening to see which real-life famous leaders centenarian protagonist Allan Karlsson encountered while in various countries during his younger years.

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 piece — a 2020 year-in-review — is here.

Many ‘First World’ Characters Are Not Secondary in the ‘Third World’

One problematic literary trope over the centuries involves “first world” characters spending time in “third world” countries and having much bigger roles than the residents, who often serve as little more than “colorful” background.

It can be frustrating seeing white Americans or white Europeans star in those novels, get fleshed out more three-dimensionally than the people they’re amid, and too often act in patronizing or even racist ways toward the visited countries’ citizens — although novels of the past few decades, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s masterful The Poisonwood Bible, are thankfully likelier to take a critical view of, or satirize, this alleged “superiority.”

That said, some “first world in the third world” novels can of course still be damn good, and some of their European or American protagonists are decent people who at least treat the residents somewhat respectfully.

I thought about this subject the past few days while reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — an often-compelling, emotional, melancholy novel containing wonderfully rich prose. But dampening my pleasure a bit was the white-people-in-Mexico thing (with several “first world” bases covered by Lowry’s major characters: mopey alcoholic Geoffrey from England, his adventurous half-brother Hugh from England, former film actress/Geoffrey’s ex-wife Yvonne from the United States, and film director Jacques from France). Still, one can acknowledge that the 1947-published/1930s-set book was “of its time” and that Lowry (pictured above) gave some Mexican characters, such as physician Arturo Diaz Vigil, secondary roles a bit beyond the bare minimum.

There’s also the American-south-of-the-border trope in such novels as Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, featuring Texas teen John Grady Cole and his dramatic experiences in Mexico; James Michener’s Mexico, in which American journalist Norman Clay at least has some Hispanic blood; and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, starring the rather nutso U.S. dad Allie Fox who yanks his family from Massachusetts to Honduras. All excellent books, but…

American or European characters in Africa? We have nasty Georgia evangelical Nathan Price, in the aforementioned The Poisonwood Bible, dragging his wife and four daughters to what was then the Belgian Congo to try to arrogantly convert the populace to Christianity; troubled New York couple Kit and Port enduring some disquieting experiences in North Africa in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky; three Englishmen traveling to East Africa to meet the imposing 2,000-plus-year-old (white) title character in H. Rider Haggard’s mesmerizing She; and that voyage along the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that would inspire the movie Apocalypse Now (in which the setting was transferred to Vietnam). On the part-fictional (?) memoir front, there’s Out of Africa by Danish author Karen Blixen.

Asian countries such as China and Japan are obviously now among the planet’s most developed nations, and China is a superpower, but those places used to be considered “third world” by the West. So, novels such as W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (set in 1920s Hong Kong and China) and James Clavell’s Shogun (circa-1600 Japan) fit this blog post’s theme. Both of those compelling books have English protagonists.

Of course, many African and Latin American countries are also more industrialized today than at the time books such as She (1886) and Heart of Darkness (1902) were published.

Any “first world in the third world” novels you’d like to mention? And you’re of course welcome to discuss this blog post’s general 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” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which eases up on the satire for a week to take a positive look at various things in my town — is here.

The Wordplay’s the Thing

Some novels are full of puns, quips, humorous asides, made-up words, generally weird language, etc. All of that can be overdone, but it can also be fun. And those books can have serious moments, too.

One novel with a wordplay bonanza is Ali Smith’s There But For The, which I read last week. It’s a quirky book that opens with a dinner guest locking himself in a room for what will be weeks and weeks — angering the homeowner who hosted the meal — before the novel spins into depicting various people who knew the interloper. The turns of phrase come fast and furious, but there are also poignant sections — most notably one focusing on a very sick women in her 80s. Not sure I can strongly recommend the novel — it was a trial to read at times — but the author certainly deserves props for originality.

Another novel with plenty of wordplay is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a speculative-fiction work that combines laugh-out-loud humor, eco-consciousness, genetic engineering, and the post-apocalypse in an unusual but heady mix. The book includes an online game called Extinctathon, a company with the name AnooYoo, etc.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (pen name of Brian O’Nolan) not only has a wacky plot but also some offbeat language flourishes. Two examples: “I am completely half-afraid to think” and “It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter.”

Quite a “snorter” (whatever the heck that means) is Jasper Fforde’s novel The Eyre Affair, in which a “literary detective” uses a “Prose Portal” to pursue a criminal inside the pages of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The detective’s name — Thursday Next — gives you an idea of Fforde’s enjoyable language shenanigans.

Among the many other novels with dazzling wordplay are Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, and Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals (one of the books in that author’s Discworld series), to name just a few.

Last but not least, there are the Lewis Carroll classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Language fun galore, and the latter book includes the iconic poem “Jabberwocky” — which starts and ends with this nonsensical verse:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe”

Your favorite novels with lots of wordplay?

A note: Last week, in my comedic literary version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” one of my poetic couplets read:

“The children are nestled all snug in their beds
Too young for Dostoyevsky to mess with their heads”

I’m feeling a little guilty about that turn of phrase. I was trying to be funny, and the poem’s structure didn’t leave much room for nuance, so I wanted to reaffirm here that I LOVE Dostoyevsky’s brilliant, often disturbing work — even if it’s not exactly children’s fare. Heck, Crime and Punishment is one of my three or four favorite novels ever, and much of The Brothers Karamazov is also amazing — to name his two most famous titles.

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 piece — which contains FAIL and SAFE but has nothing to do with the “Fail Safe” novel and film 🙂 — is here.

Twas the Write Before Christmas

My literary version of Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”:

Twas 12 days before Christmas, and all through the nook
Few things are more stirring than reading a book
The novels are stacked by the chimney with care
To read or reread, like the stellar Jane Eyre
The children are nestled all snug in their beds
Too young for Dostoyevsky to mess with their heads
My wife at her desk and the cat in my lap
To read George Eliot beats taking a nap

Then outside the window there arose such a clatter
As if Jack Reacher had made all the bad guys scatter
To that window I raced (I did not totter)
As fast as Voldemort chased Harry Potter

The moon shone down on Outlander-ish snow
Evoking ghostly visions of Edgar A. Poe

When what to my wondering eyes’ insistence
Appeared Ruth the librarian and eight assistants
Ruth read Tolstoy’s novels so lively and quick
I knew in a moment she wasn’t St. Nick
Her book faves came faster than Zadie Smith quips
She laughed and she shouted and said with her lips:

“Now, Hobbit! Now, Huck Finn! Now, Rob Roy and Moby!
On, Zora! On, Liane! On, Jhumpa and Toni!
To the top of to-read lists! Best-seller lists, too!
Whether dead or alive, they belong in your queue!”

The wind took book pages and made them fly
Up into the air: The Sheltering Sky
On top of the house the library team rose
Their cart full of fiction: Remarque-able prose

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
“Colette’s Claudine at School is such a fun goof”
As I drew in my head, and spun all around,
Down the chimney plunged Ruth, not Ezra Pound
Sue Grafton mysteries that had come in the mail
Stephen King novels streaked with ashes and hail
Even more books that Ruth had flung on her back
Including The Scarlet Letter in “A” big Nat-pack

Those books, how they twinkled! The titles so many!
Atwood and Baldwin and Louise (last name Penny)
Marquez magic realism and valet Jeeves
And Lily Bart in Mirth — any reader grieves

Ruth knows William Faulkner put a pipe in his mouth
And To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the South
And Winnie the Pooh has a little round belly
And Don Quixote “lived” before Mary Shelley
And Thomas Hardy was hardly a jolly old elf
And Of Human Bondage was based on Maugham himself

But don’t read Agatha Christie prior to bed
To avoid waking up feeling nothing but dread

Ruth, as The Pathfinder, decides on a path
Fills stockings with novels, like The Grapes of Wrath
She then mutters Vonnegut’s phrase “So it goes”
And back up the chimney the librarian rose
She sprang again on the cart, and gave a whistle
And away that crew flew like a sci-fi missile

But I heard Ruth exclaim, before she soared out of sight
The Great Gatsby is better than Tender Is the Night”

Apologies for omitting many authors (and novels by those authors) I’ve read. I ran out of Clement Clarke Moore poem lines to change. 🙂 Among those I wish I could have included: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Louisa May Alcott, Isabel Allende, Isaac Asimov, Jane Austen, Fredrik Backman, Honore de Balzac, Ray Bradbury, Rita Mae Brown, Fanny Burney, Octavia Butler, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Ralph Ellison, Buchi Emecheta, Louise Erdrich, Henry Fielding, Jack Finney, Fannie Flagg, Jonathan Franzen, Lisa Genova, Nikolai Gogol, John Grisham, Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hesse, James Hilton, Khaled Hosseini, Victor Hugo, Aldous Huxley, John Irving, Shirley Jackson, Henry James, James Joyce, Barbara Kingsolver, Stieg Larsson, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Daphne du Maurier, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, James Michener, L.M. Montgomery, Elsa Morante, Walter Mosley, Haruki Murakami, George Orwell, Kate Quinn, Rosamunde Pilcher, Alexander Pushkin, Anne Rice, Philip Roth, Arundhati Roy, Richard Russo, Dorothy Sayers, Lionel Shriver, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Martin Cruz Smith, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rabindranath Tagore, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt, Angie Thomas, Anne Tyler, Jules Verne, Alice Walker, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Herman Wouk, Richard Wright, Emile Zola, etc., etc.!

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 piece — about such topics as my town’s delay in reopening schools amid the COVID resurgence — is here.

Novels That Seem Like the ‘Children’ of Previous Novels

This will be a post about “literary parentage.”

Have you ever read a novel and felt it was sort of the child of two other books or two other authors? Not that the novel was plagiarized by any means, but that it was seemingly influenced by — or at least reminded you of — a previous pair of works or writers. And I realize that the authors of the more recent novels may not have even read the earlier novels.

All this occurred to me last week while reading the low-key but absorbing Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (pictured above). The Nobel Prize winner — best known for his also-subtle The Remains of the Day — is a very original author whose sci-fi-ish Never Let Me Go is a very original novel, so it’s not a criticism when I say I felt I was reading an interesting amalgam of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the fiction of Henry James.

Naturally, I then thought of the “literary parentage” other novels evoke. For instance, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules — with its orphanage, its sweep, its social consciousness, its feminist aspects, etc. — feels a bit like the child of books by Charles Dickens and Margaret Atwood. How’s that for DNA? (With the D being Dickens and the A being Atwood.)

A.S. (Antonia Susan) Byatt’s fabulous novel Possession reminds a reader of the poetry/stalking elements of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and the academic-gets-into-an-unexpected-romance theme of Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs. (Ms. Lurie died at age 94 this past Thursday, December 3 — a day after I finished writing this post.)

Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress? With its depiction of living in a racist society and its California detective-noir vibe, it at times seems like an amalgam of novels by James Baldwin and Raymond Chandler.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, full of hilariously cutting anti-war/anti-military satire, brings to mind Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which features deeply humanized characters with grave illnesses/disabilities, evokes earlier novels such as Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember.

And the child-of-a-traumatizing-mother, emerging-from-her-loner-shell Eleanor of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine feels like a cross between Ove of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and Ms. Valancy Stirling of L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle.

Any “literary parentage” examples 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 piece — my 200th since moving the column from the newspaper where it started — is here.