Book Selections Come From All Directions

With all the novels out there, how do we decide which ones to read?

Throwing darts in the general direction of library or bookstore shelves is one way, but not recommended. If you want a novel with holes, you don’t need darts to end up with Louis Sachar’s…Holes.

Anyway, several factors affect what I choose to read. For one thing, I’ve mostly given up nonfiction books for the time being in order to concentrate on fiction. That helps me read as many novels as possible, and feed this blog! Still, I miss nonfiction books — especially the biographies I used to relish — and eventually might return to them when the U.S. Congress passes a law expanding days to 48 hours.

But how do I pick which novels to read? Many are recommended by family, friends, and of course the literature aficionados who post great comments on this blog. 🙂 Also, if I like one novel by an author, I’m sure to immediately or eventually try others — whether it’s another stand-alone book or the next installment of a series. Familiarity breeds content(ment).

Selecting what I read also takes variety into account — making sure I mix literary and mass-audience fiction, different genres (mustn’t miss the occasional thriller), old classics and contemporary novels, long and short novels, fiction by women and men, fiction by authors of color and white authors, fiction by LGBTQ and straight writers, novels by authors from various countries, novels by authors from various planets… Well, maybe not the last category, but if Ray Bradbury could write The Martian Chronicles, why can’t a Martian wordsmith write The Earthly Chronicles?

Another factor behind what I read involves which titles my local library happens to have on its shelves when I visit. If certain novels on my list aren’t there that day, I immediately move on to others. And sometimes I see a book I had no plans to read (or never heard of) that intrigues me. I think that’s called serendipity; I hope to serendipitously stumble on an online dictionary to know for sure.

Other times, I read about a book or an author in a review or article and become interested. Or I receive a novel as a gift. Also, there are occasions where what I select to read is just kind of random and not really explainable. Finally, there are book-choosing methods that I’ve probably forgotten and thus don’t appear in this blog post. Agatha Christie wrote Elephants Can Remember, but that doesn’t mean human bloggers always do.

How do you choose which books to read?

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 The latest piece — which opposes an unpopular annual standardized test — is here.

COVID Causes Comical Fiction Revision

Is that a big syringe rather than a harpoon Queequeg is holding?

We’re sure to see many future novels that are about COVID or at least mention COVID. Until then, we’ll have to make do with revising the plots of classics…

Moby-Dick, pandemic edition: Captain Ahab learns that M-D the whale has contracted the coronavirus, and embarks on an obsessive sea voyage that enables harpooner Queequeg to hurl a huge Moderna-vaccine-filled syringe into the flipper of said whale.

Middlemarch, pandemic edition: Dorothea Brooke gets her first Pfizer shot in February, and, in an effort to remember that her second shot is scheduled for the 15th of the following month, successfully lobbies local leaders to change the name of her town from Earlyapril to…

Bleak House, pandemic edition: Things get kind of…bleak when characters from every Dickens novel have to quarantine together in a…house after an ill-advised American tour led by Martin Chuzzlewit. When the group orders food online from FreshDirect, Oliver Twist tells the deliverer: “Please, sir, I want some more.”

Crime and Punishment, pandemic edition: Raskolnikov denies killing two people, claiming they died of the coronavirus after flying Anachronism Airlines from St. Petersburg to Trump’s COVID-protocol-ignoring White House. Sonya starts to wonder if Raskolnikov is capable of redemption.

A Farewell to Arms, pandemic edition: After Hemingway’s protagonists say goodbye to their upper limbs, they have no arms left for getting jabbed with the COVID vaccine. But they still have legs to run with the bulls in Pamplona, where one never-stationary bull earns the nickname “A Moveable Beast.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God, pandemic edition. But their noses and mouths weren’t doing much of anything behind those light-blue disposable masks.

Of Human Bondage, pandemic edition: Philip and Mildred get tangled in one of the aforementioned masks and live unhappily ever after.

Far from the Madding Crowd, pandemic edition: Being far from ANY crowd makes it easier for Thomas Hardy’s characters to social-distance, even as the mayor of Casterbridge allows restaurants and fitness centers to reopen too soon.

One Hundred Years of Solitude, pandemic edition: The ultimate in social-distancing, lasting a century.

The Yearling, pandemic edition: Life in 1870s Florida gets more exciting for young Jody Baxter and his fawn when the National Basketball Association moves its COVID-truncated season to a “bubble” near Orlando, after which LeBron James and the fawn shoot a beer commercial.

Anne of Avonlea, pandemic edition: In the first Anne of Green Gables sequel, Anne Shirley experiences some frustration teaching online after her school closes due to COVID. Anne lives in the 19th century, so barely half of her students have WiFi.

The Count of Monte Cristo, pandemic edition: Edmond Dantès escapes the Chateau d’If island prison and sets out to wreak vengeance against the men who framed him for the theft of Napoleon’s laminated vaccination card.

Any pandemic-related revisions you’d like to suggest for famous novels?

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 The latest piece — which has an April Fools theme befitting its April 1 publishing date — is here.

When One Finally Reads a Famous Writer

My cat Misty leaves John
le CarrĂ©’s name uncovered

Because we can only read so much, it might take years to try the work of some bold-faced names in the fiction realm. And when we ARE ready, we wonder if those authors will live up to the hype.

Or, if we for some reason have a negative impression of not-yet-read writers, we wonder if we’ll like their work after all.

In short, many people love the novels of famous authors, but, given that everyone’s tastes are of course different, we don’t know if WE’LL love their books.

All that was on my mind as I prepared to finally read a novel by John le CarrĂ© — who I’ve heard about for years (including in comments on this blog) and is considered a master of what might be called the international spy thriller.

The le CarrĂ© novel I chose at random was The Russia House, which I read much of last week (not finished yet). Well, le CarrĂ© delivered. He obviously knows his stuff — having worked in secret intelligence himself — and the characters are nicely fleshed out, the plot page-turning, the prose smooth, and the occasional touches of humor welcome.

Moving to other authors, many commenters in the early days of this 2014-launched blog raved about Liane Moriarty — whose first novel was published in 2004. So I belatedly started reading her books, and they totally lived up to the hype. Among her terrific titles are The Hypnotist’s Love Story, The Husband’s Secret, and especially Big Little Lies.

I also waited a long time to read Edith Wharton. I had the impression that the born-from-wealth Wharton focused mostly on high-society rich people in her books, something I didn’t find particularly appealing. But the first novel I read of hers, the riveting Ethan Frome, features non-affluent characters. And the Wharton books that DO focus a lot on the rich — such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence — look at many of the wealthy characters with a jaundiced eye that partly stemmed from Wharton’s insider knowledge of her class.

Miguel de Cervantes? His Don Quixote was much more readable and funny than I expected from a 400-year-old novel when I finally got to it about a decade ago. Hermann Hesse? His Steppenwolf was depressingly entertaining in a way I hadn’t expected from a writer with such a “deep,” intellectual reputation.

Taking a brief detour into the short-story realm, there’s Anton Chekhov (also a playwright, of course). I finally grabbed two collections of his stories from the library five or so years ago, and was very impressed. Chekhov’s superb tales are not especially plot-driven, but are notable for their subtlety and psychological nuance.

John Grisham has been writing novels for more than three decades, but I didn’t read him until the 2010s — starting with The Client. I was hooked, and he’s never disappointed since. (Except for Calico Joe being so-so, don’t you know.)

Then there are super-popular series writers in the thriller/mystery/detective/crime realms. I was late to the party in trying Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, Sue Grafton’s alphabet novels, Janet Evanovich’s numbered-title offerings, and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins saga. All as good as I expected. Maybe not great literature, but written really well and hard to stop reading once you start.

Of course there are going to be mixed feelings or disappointments, too. When I finally read William Faulkner, there were novels I liked a lot (especially Light in August) and others I found near-incomprehensible (The Sound and the Fury). Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is beautifully written, but tedious enough for me at times to eventually stop reading it. James Patterson? Not impressed. Kate Atkinson’s work? Didn’t grab me, either. But of course the writers and novels mentioned in this paragraph are loved by many other readers.

Your experiences finally reading famous authors years later than you could have?

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 The latest piece — which laments that a young participant in the Trump-incited Capitol riot was from my town — is here.

Problematic Parents in Literature

Author Amy Tan

Many of us have or had them: problematic parents. (I’ve been there.) Then we add insult to injury by voluntarily reading the depictions of problematic parents in more than a few novels. Of course, that can be also be cathartic, depending on the book — and great novels are worth reading even when they, and because they, push our emotional buttons.

There was certainly a less-than-stellar parent in the San Francisco-set first half of Amy Tan’s excellent The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which I read last week. Ruth’s elderly mother LuLing is pushy and embarrassing — and has undermined, and not respected the privacy of, the now-40-something Ruth since Ruth was a kid. We cheer for Ruth when she pushes back at least somewhat against this exasperating parent.

Then things get more complex in the novel’s second half, which chronicles LuLing’s life in China as a girl and young woman. LuLing goes through so much trauma that we understand why she became so neurotic — neuroticism that ends up coloring Ruth’s personality, too.

Will LuLing and Ruth reach some sort of reconciliation when things return to San Francisco near the book’s conclusion?

Relationships with problematic parents can improve (as is the case between daughter Anne and her adoptive mother Marilla in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables) or they can remain bad or worsen (think daughter Bela and her mother Gauri who abandons Bela in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland). Another abandoning parent, the evil Cathy in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, is no peach, either.

The novel I read before The Bonesetter’s Daughter — Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I discussed last week in a different context — also features parents with some issues. Johnny the dad and Katie the mom are basically good-hearted people, but the former is an often-irresponsible alcoholic and the latter favors son Neeley over her bright daughter Francie — the book’s appealing young protagonist.

Echoes of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, in which the parents favor son Tom Tulliver over their smarter and more likable daughter Maggie.

The bad choice to play favorites not only involves male vs. female children but can also have an orphan angle. The titular character in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is treated badly by her Aunt Sarah in a household where Sarah’s children (Jane’s cousins) fare much better. Also the situation for Harry Potter in the home of his Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon, both of whom dote on their thuggish son Dudley while behaving abominably toward Harry.

Returning to hard-drinking dads in fiction, among the many examples is Huck Finn’s father in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. “Pap” Finn is a drifter who resents Huck bettering himself even as he begs his son for booze money.

Many other 19th-century novels also have irksome parents. For instance, the father of the three brothers in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a vile guy who took little interest in his trio of boys when they were growing up. Things are no better after they reach adulthood — with dirty-old-man dad even competing with eldest son Dmitri for the affections of the young woman Grushenka.

One last nod to recent literature: daughter Jordan is suspicious of her stepmother in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. Could the new wife of Jordan’s American father be an escaped Nazi with a murderous past? That’s a LOT more than problematic.

Some annoying (and worse) fictional parents 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 The latest piece — about a councilor in my town criticizing scandal-plagued New York Gov. Cuomo, for whom he used to work — is here.

Fiction With COVID Frisson

This past Thursday, March 11, was the one-year anniversary of when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and various countries went into COVID lockdown. It’s also the one-year anniversary of COVID coloring my reaction to the content of non-pandemic novels — at least a little.

No surprise there. One’s life can affect how we react to literature, and COVID has had a huge impact on our lives. When reading fiction in 2020 and 2021, I sometimes overtly and sometime subconsciously thought of the pandemic.

The latest instance for me, this past week, involved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Betty Smith’s poignant, memorable, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel may have been published in 1943, but parts of it really resonated in this time of coronavirus.

How? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘s young, bright, impoverished, early-20th-century protagonist Francie Nolan has vivid school experiences as a preteen/teen that reminded me that my similarly aged younger daughter has been doing remote instruction since March 2020. The requirement that Francie get the smallpox vaccine before starting school reminded me of the COVID-vaccine shots now sweeping the planet. Francie living in a city neighborhood of tenements reminded me how crowded milieus are unfortunately conducive to spreading disease. And the novel’s Brooklyn setting reminded me that, despite my living just 12 miles west of New York City (where I worked for several decades and continued to visit fairly often), I haven’t traveled there for over a year.

(The photo atop this blog post is from 1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn movie.)

When reading other novels last year such as Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie’s Americanah, I thought once again of COVID’s racial and economic disparities — with people of color and people of lower incomes much more affected.

Heidi? As I finally got to Johanna Spyri’s classic last year, all that fresh air in the mountains of Switzerland sure sounded non-pandemic-y — though the novel included a major secondary character who was ill.

Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine? Many haven’t been able to say the same during the pandemic, though that novel’s title was mostly meant to be ironic.

While enjoying Lee Child’s/Andrew Child’s Jack Reacher novel The Sentinel this year, I fantasized about the powerful Reacher punching out COVID.

And during the pandemic’s early days of March 2020, I read Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers — about nine imperfect guests at a health resort. I was lamenting at the time that my wife and I had just canceled an April 2020 family vacation, but, then again, there was the silver lining of there being no chance of staying in lodgings as weird and scary as the one Moriarty depicted. 🙂

Every novel I mentioned in this post was published before COVID, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t spur pandemic-related feelings. And in coming years, of course, a not-insignificant chunk of literature will undoubtedly reference this time of coronavirus.

Has some of the fiction you’ve read during the past year made you think of COVID? Any examples you’d like to offer?

Then there is fiction directly about pandemics and such, which I covered last year.

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 The latest piece — about a settlement that will bring some of my town’s teachers back into schools next month — is here.

Authors and Readers Throw Their ‘Wait’ Around

One great but also frustrating aspect of loving literature is anticipating the next novel in a series. Or anticipating an author’s next standalone novel. Or, back in the golden age of serialization, anticipating the next chapters of a novel.

After finishing the eighth Outlander book during a 2020 binge-reading of Diana Gabaldon’s riveting series, I wanted so badly to continue with the ninth novel. Unfortunately, Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone wasn’t out yet (it might appear later this year). I don’t blame Ms. Gabaldon — authors work at their own pace, she’s very busy with various projects, and her Outlander romance/adventure novels are long and carefully researched and thus take years to write. Plus I was lucky in a way to discover the series late — meaning I could read the first eight books (published between 1991 and 2014) without waiting for the next one to be written.

(Pictured above are Caitriona Balfe as time-traveling 20th-century English physician Claire and Sam Heughan as 18th-century Scottish warrior Jamie in the popular Outlander TV series.)

There’s also plenty of anticipation, but more publishing-date certainty, for the addictive Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child (now being co-written by his brother Andrew). A new Reacher thriller arrives every fall like Halloween — with both having treat appeal. Book number 26 expected this autumn.

Of course, probably the most famous modern book-anticipation phenomenon involved J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels published from 1997 to 2007. I and my 1989-born older daughter — like millions of others — COULD NOT WAIT for each new installment to appear. As many people reading this will remember, quite a few bookstores even opened at midnight the day a new Potter novel was first available.

We also look forward to new stand-alone novels written by authors we love. Depending on how prolific the writer is, the wait might be long or short. We know that someone like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates will churn out one novel after another, so there’s not TOO much waiting. But in other cases…

Take Marilynne Robinson. I loved her first novel, Housekeeping, which came out in 1980. Then there wasn’t another, Gilead, until 2004 — nearly a quarter-century later. Unfortunately, I found Gilead rather boring, though it somehow won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Then Robinson wrote three more novels between 2008 and 2020. Didn’t see THAT coming.

There are also authors known for long, often-literary works that take many years to write. For example, Donna Tartt has authored only one stand-alone novel per decade — in 1992, 2002, and 2013; the third the excellent The Goldfinch. Could there be a fourth novel in two or three years? Maybe. Hope so.

Then there’s the serialization phenomenon most associated with the 19th century, as readers eagerly anticipated the next installment from novelists such as Charles Dickens. Even excitedly meeting ships as new chapters arrived. And if readers suddenly became less eager, authors could adjust. A famous instance of that was when Dickens, after about a half-dozen years of enormous popularity, found interest lagging in his being-serialized Martin Chuzzlewit novel. So the English author changed the plot on a dime to send Martin to the United States, and 1840s readers were hooked once again.

Which authors, series, and novels have you greatly anticipated?

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 The latest piece — about teachers finally getting the okay for COVID vaccinations, and about new luxury apartments in my town even though it desperately needs more affordable housing — is here.

The Beginning of Literary Wisdom

How does the habit of reading “grown-up” novels start? One might have parents with a love of literature that gets passed on to the next generation. Or one might have teachers who spark an interest in fiction. Or one might latch onto literature on one’s own. In most cases, the progression is children’s books to YA novels to more adult stuff.

I’m going to tell you how I became an avid reader of novels, and then ask how a bent for fiction came about for you.

My parents seldom read books — there were only a handful in the house, and they almost never visited the local library. So it was my own intrinsic love of reading, and some teacher influence, that led me to a love of literature. When very young, I not only enjoyed kid-oriented novels but short biographies of historical figures and baseball players. Many of those books were quite nice, albeit not totally riveting. It wasn’t until 10th and 11th grade that “grown-up” fiction became a revelation for me, and I owe it all to three novels.

During those two high school years, English teachers assigned Jane Eyre, The Grapes of Wrath, and Native Son. I first read those novels because they were required, and then reread them on my own during holiday breaks and the summer — reveling in unforgettable characters, plots, and prose.

(Jane Eyre is pictured above in one of the many screen adaptations.)

Those terrific books were also painful — dealing with depressing subjects such as the effects on people of misogyny, racism, class differences, mental illness, fraught family relations, and more. The three novels helped me truly realize for the first time just how powerful stories and the written word could be, and that combining sad and inspirational subject matter could pack an emotional wallop.

Among the uplifting aspects of those often-downbeat novels were Jane Eyre’s independent streak during a highly patriarchal time, the Joad family’s stick-to-itiveness in the face of personal tragedy and social injustice in The Grapes of Wrath, and the possibility of interracial cooperation in a deeply bigoted United States that could be envisioned in the long conversations between criminal defendant Bigger Thomas and his lawyer Boris Max in Native Son.

I’m very appreciative of Charlotte Bronte’s, John Steinbeck’s, and Richard Wright’s work — and of the way that work helped create a hunger to read hundreds of other novelists during ensuing years and decades.

How did “grown-up” fiction become a major thing for you? Did any particular novels seal the deal?

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 The latest piece — about a judge’s shocking rent-control-reversal ruling — is here.

The Pleasures of Reading Novels from Long Ago

I don’t read as many old novels — pre-1900 ones — as I used to. Not that I still don’t love lots of long-ago books. A number of my very favorite novels are 19th-century ones: Jane Eyre, Crime and Punishment, Daniel Deronda, Moby-Dick, Germinal, Persuasion, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Woman in White, The Portrait of a Lady, The Last Man, etc., etc. But I’ve already read many old novels (though far from all) I’ve wanted to read, and no more old novels can be produced because it’s…um…no longer pre-1900. Whereas, from what I hear, new books are continually being published.

That said, I still like to read pre-1900 novels once in a while. It can be such a pleasure, partly because those books chronicle a significantly different time in terms of culture, societal norms, and so on — though human emotions were of course pretty similar. Plus the writing itself back then tended to be different than modern fiction writing: novels were often longer, often took their time letting the plot unfold, often had richer prose, and often were more descriptive. Heck, they had to be — it made sense to minutely describe places and vistas most readers of that time never visited and obviously couldn’t google in pre-airplane, pre-digital days. On the negative side, sometimes the prose got TOO wordy and convoluted, and pre-1900 was sadly a more patriarchal, more racist time — though things today are hardly hunky-dory.

Anyway, this is a long way of arriving at the fact that I’m currently reading and enjoying a 1869 novel: Lorna Doone by Richard Doddridge Blackmore. The sprawling tale by an author with a sprawling name is by no means my favorite 19th-century work of fiction, but it’s pretty darn good as it tells the story of young John Ridd’s love for Lorna — an exemplary person living amid the Doone clan of mostly criminal types who had killed John’s father. Plenty of political machinations and other stuff also go on in the book, which is set in the latter 1600s but is recounted many years later by an elderly Ridd. (He and Lorna are pictured atop this blog post in one of the screen adaptations of Blackmore’s novel, which of course also inspired the name of a cookie introduced in 1912.)

John is a bit unusual as a narrator. Not especially smart, which he often humbly admits as he recounts his life in the novel, but possessing plenty of common sense and courage and decency. Plus his descriptions of nature — John works on and oversees his family’s farm in England — are exquisite and partly explain the book’s typical-of-the-19th-century length: 646 pages of small type. I have a couple-hundred pages to go.

Blackmore died exactly in 1900 — my arbitrary dividing line between older and newer novels.

Are you someone who likes to occasionally read pre-1900 novels? Why or why not?

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 The latest piece — which includes more on my school district’s unfortunate lawsuit against the local teachers union — is here.

The Solace of Crime Fiction

As I followed the Trump impeachment trial this past week, I felt fury. Fury at the way Trump incited a far-right white mob (shown above) to storm the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, fury at Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen from him, and fury that the U.S. Senate did not convict him despite his undeniable guilt — caught on video and in tweets — because most Republican members of that “august” body are gutlessly terrified of, or want to cater to, Trump’s base.

The trial also made me think that crime fiction is comforting in a way. I know that sounds strange given all the mayhem and pathologies in such novels, but at least the reader can count on seeing wrongdoers punished — either through the court system or vigilante justice. Not always, of course, but usually. A contrast to real life, where wealthy, powerful, Caucasian bad guys like Trump almost never get the punishment they deserve. So, the conclusions of most crime novels are wish-fulfillment that soothes our psyches a bit.

I don’t want to give spoilers, but we all know examples of novels that leave readers with a “crime didn’t ultimately pay” message — even if the punishment is sometimes rather delayed, as in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. (Both of which are not crime, thriller, mystery, or detective fiction per se, but other kinds of fiction can of course have some of those elements.) Heck, it would be hard to sustain a successful series of crime novels if there were little or no consequences for the wrongdoing characters. It would just be too depressing for readers who get enough of that when following real-life news.

Yes, the offenders almost always eventually get their comeuppance in novels by the likes of Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, Agatha Christie, Wilkie Collins, Arthur Conan Doyle, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, John Grisham, Dashiell Hammett, P.D. James, Stieg Larsson, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, Dorothy L. Sayers, Lisa Scottoline, etc. — though often not before some good people get killed or badly hurt.

If you read crime fiction, do you find it somewhat comforting for the reason I mentioned?

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 The latest piece — which supports my town’s teachers in their reluctance to return to in-person instruction before being vaccinated — is here.

‘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 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.