Past Novels That Were Kind of Prescient About Our Present

When it comes to years-ago literature with a lot to say about our current times, sci-fi, speculative fiction, and dystopian novels are certainly at the top of the list — and I’ll mention some titles from those genres later in this post.

But the main focus of this piece will be “general” novels of decades or centuries ago that are relevant to events in the 2000s, proving that some authors — whether their predictive powers were conscious, subconscious, or accidental — were pretty prescient.

For instance, I just read James Michener’s riveting Caravans — a 1963 novel set in 1946 Afghanistan — and it has tons of things to say about Islam, racism, gender relations, conformity vs. non-conformity, and other matters very germane to the 21st century.

Being married to an abusive/alcoholic husband in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) causes Helen to leave Arthur — an unusual decision for the time that made Anne Bronte’s novel a proto-feminist book that positively anticipated the increased independence of many women today.

George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda was published in 1876, but it was already talking about Zionism. That’s very much an issue in 2017, as are related matters such as Israeli-Palestinian relations and Trump’s disturbing decision to call Jerusalem the capital of Israel (and move the U.S. embassy there) despite that city being sacred to three religions.

By being sexually frank (to varying degrees for their times), novels such as Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), Emile Zola’s Nana (1880), and D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) presaged the 1960s sexual revolution that continues to this day. Also, Colette’s Claudine at School (1900) was among the long-ago novels to address same-gender love with some candor.

Edward Bellamy’s utopian time-travel novel Looking Backward (1888) predicted the debit card — the use of which says plenty about our 21st-century society today. In fact, Bellamy’s book was set in the year 2000.

Then there are sci-fi, speculative fiction, and dystopian novels that ended up commenting about our present time — including the repulsive words, beliefs, and actions of Donald Trump and his Republican ilk. Here are just a few of those books (most of them obvious), listed in reverse chronological order: Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower (climate change/privatization), Margaret Atwood’s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale (onerous male domination/sexual predation), George Orwell’s 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four (authoritarianism/lie-filled propaganda), Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 All the King’s Men (corrupt politicians), Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 It Can’t Happen Here (fascism in America), Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World (citizens kept in line more by diversion than by brute force), H.G. Wells’ 1901 The First Men in the Moon (space exploration), and Jules Verne’s 1873 Around the World in Eighty Days (rapid travel between countries).

Your favorite novels that seemed to know something about the future that’s now our present?

Happy New Year!

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 New Year’s Day theme, is here.

This Weight-in-Literature Post Doesn’t Mention Ezra Pound

As we move through the holiday season, our thoughts turn to…weight.

Yes, many people put on some pounds each December. More generally, what people weigh any time of the year can be a personal and/or societal issue — with all the pernicious bias and judgmental-ness against those who are bigger than average.

This of course not only plays out in real life but in various novels. For instance, I just read The Husband’s Secret, and one of the three interconnected storylines in Liane Moriarty’s terrific book involves a woman (Tess) whose husband (Will) and cousin (Felicity) seemingly fall in love after the cousin loses a lot of weight.

Weight is an even “larger” theme in (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s punningly titled Big Brother, which has a plot focusing on a sister doing what she can to help her obese male sibling lose weight. The ending will surprise the heck out of you (it certainly surprised me).

Then there’s John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, in which Ignatius J. Reilly’s immensity is one reason why he’s a social outcast. Or maybe the social outcast-ness came first…

The nerdish title character in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is also overweight and not as funny as the hilarious Ignatius, but he’s much more good-hearted than Toole’s eccentric protagonist.

Weight is sometimes (unfairly) used to emphasize the villainous nature of a character — as with the menacing, albeit sort of charming, Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.

Or lots of heft can stereotypically convey a Santa-like joviality; Friar Tuck of the Robin Hood stories is one example.

Related to that is the contrast of intimidating size with a not-intimidating personality; “gentle giant” Hagrid of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books fits that description. On the other hand, the unkind-to-Harry kid Dudley Dursley is quite overweight but also unsympathetic until showing a bit of humanity late in the series.

Overweight characters of student age can certainly suffer the slings and arrows of unkind reactions from classmates. That’s what Irie faces in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. And in Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, Joan as a child gets criticized by her own mother for being overweight. It’s one of several reasons we sympathize with Irie and Joan — weight issues can evoke reader compassion. Yet, on this sexist planet of ours, females often bear much more of the brunt of body-size bias than males.

It’s nice when the heavyset nature of a character (such as Ma Joad of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) is basically irrelevant. The weight just is.

But it’s not nice when a character’s size plays into nasty racial stereotypes, as with Mammy in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

What are some of your favorite works with elements of body weight?

To those who celebrate it, Merry Christmas!

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? 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. It’s not only for literature lovers but also for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles. 🙂

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 weird holiday theme, is here.

Literature’s Lines That Linger

Many of us know about literature’s memorable first lines (in A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, Moby-Dick, Jane Eyre, etc.) and even famous last lines in novels (such as The Great Gatsby). But what about notable/revealing phrases and quotes somewhere between those initial and final lines? Lines so striking, dramatic, profound, well-written, perhaps funny, etc., that they make you stop for a moment and go…”wow”!

I thought about that last week when reading Henry James’ superb novella The Aspern Papers, in which the first-person narrator sneakily tries to get the papers of renowned, long-dead poet Jeffrey Aspern by infiltrating the Venice residence of an aged woman admired by Aspern many decades earlier. When Miss Bordereau catches the papers-coveting literary scholar snooping in her quarters, she hisses: “Ah, you publishing scoundrel!”

In the aforementioned Jane Eyre, few fans of that book can forget Jane’s “Reader, I married him” line near the end of the Charlotte Bronte-authored saga. A quote that, among other things, is phrased in a way that shows Ms. Eyre being an independent woman for that era.

From another iconic 19th-century British author — the always-wise George Eliot — we have the memorable Middlemarch sentence “It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from different points of view.”

An also-wise line, from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, is “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

And from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “To go wrong in one’s own way is better than to go right in someone else’s.”

Plus this quip from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Often clever, that Oscar Wilde.

Then there’s “Definitions belong to the definers — not the defined,” from Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Or how about the line “You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget” in Cormac McCarthy’s downbeat, post-apocalyptic The Road?

Then there’s the recurring, grudging-acceptance-of-fate lament “So it goes” from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, in which there’s a lot to lament.

And this immortal line from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: “But if I ask to be grounded, that means I’m not crazy anymore, and I have to keep flying.”

Heck, even just two words can be memorable when they have a certain quirkiness or poignancy — as in Gollum’s use of “my precious” to describe the ultra-important ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Your favorite lines in novels that are not the first or last lines in those novels? If you want to also mention first and last lines you love, please do!  🙂

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? 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. It’s not only for literature lovers but also for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles. 🙂

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which again slams an ice cream place’s crudely sexist logo, is here.

Some Novels Put the Dramatic in the Bureaucratic

With my 91-year-old mother going through a difficult health period the past few months, I’ve been thinking about bureaucracy. I’ve sent dozens of forms and other stuff to home-health-aide agencies, hospitals, and an insurance company. I’ve exchanged countless phone calls, emails, and texts. I’ve been put on hold and shunted to other people. Etc.

Which of course means I’ve also been thinking about depictions of bureaucracy in literature — whether it be medical bureaucracy, legal bureaucracy, military bureaucracy, corporate bureaucracy, governmental bureaucracy, or other versions of the “b” word.

It can be a fraught topic for a novel, because just the thought of bureaucracy can induce feelings in readers ranging from boredom to frustration to fury. So, when an author makes something compelling and perhaps funny out of all that, well, it’s pretty impressive. And it doesn’t hurt that characters slammed by bureaucracy almost always have our sympathy.

Of course, a certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary, but there almost always seems to be too much of it! I guess it creates jobs, and gives some bureaucrats a feeling of power as they make life difficult for others. Plus lower bureaucrats are basically forced to be too bureaucratic by higher bureaucrats. (I added this paragraph after seeing and responding to J.J. McGrath’s thoughts in the comments section.)

So Much For That is among the novels that belong in this post. (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s book touches many bases, with one of them the agony of dealing with America’s medical system. A system so inhumane, convoluted, and costly/profit-driven that it can easily make sick people even sicker.

In the legal area, we have Franz Kafka’s The Trial surreally showing just how opaque, inscrutable, and unfair the “justice” system and its bureaucracy can be. There’s also Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, in which a court case grinds on for years and years.

Military bureaucracy? You’ll find that in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk. Those books mercilessly/hilariously satirize that bureaucracy, and readers feel grateful during the occasional moments they stop laughing.

Corporate bureaucracy? Certainly a strong element in such novels as Margaret Atwood’s trilogy of Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. In those three books, we see the horrible results when corporate bureaucracy and corporate malfeasance run amok.

There’s also governmental bureaucracy, as in Dickens’ Little Dorrit, Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (of course), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time. In Piercy’s novel, Connie Ramos unfortunately struggles with the trifecta of welfare, child-custody, and mental health systems. All of which are needed by any humane society, but give Ms. Ramos more grief than help.

Last but not least: It’s not one of the Balzac novels I’ve gotten to, but that author wrote…The Bureaucrats.

What novels have you read that contain strong bureaucratic elements?

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? 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. It’s not only for literature lovers but also for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles.  🙂

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which slams an ice-cream place’s sexualized logo, is here.

Don’t Think Twice About Enjoying First-Person Novels

Today I’m going to talk about first-person books. Not novels starring Adam or Eve, but those with protagonists who tell their own stories.

Among the advantages of that approach? Emotions feel more intimate when viewed through the eyes of one character rather than an omniscient narrator, and a first-person novel reminds readers of how they see life. After all, everyone witnesses the world through their own eyes.

A couple of disadvantages? A first-person protagonist can’t be everywhere in a novel like an omniscient narrator can, so the story is told from only one perspective. And a book dominated by one character’s “voice” might have a little too much sameness after a while.

One important feature of first-person fiction is that the story-telling protagonist tends to be sympathetic. Readers obviously trust, believe in, and relate more to a likable/admirable character, and there can always be villains amid the rest of a novel’s cast.

There are some not-as-sympathetic exceptions — such as Holden Caulfield, who I found annoying in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Also, Leda in Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter is very unlikable (heck, she even steals a girl’s beloved doll) even as we sort of understand why Leda is the way she is and enjoy the exquisite writing in the book — which I read this past week.

Other appealing or mostly appealing protagonists who tell their own stories? The title character of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is my favorite, but there’s also Scout Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a child’s view of adult life can be quite interesting), Ishmael of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Huck in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Nick Carraway of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Offred of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Dana Franklin of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Katniss Everdeen of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, Hazel Grace Lancaster of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, and Mark Watney of Andy Weir’s The Martian, to name just a few.

The above novels’ first-person approaches accentuate the fears, sorrows, happiness, growing awareness, and other feelings the protagonists experience.

Your favorite novels told in the first person? The pros and cons of that approach compared to the omniscient narrator?

Looking for a holiday gift for family and friends? 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. It’s for literature lovers and for people who couldn’t care less about literature but like books with ridiculously long titles. 🙂

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, which slams football, is here.

When Novels Have a Lot in Common

Reading literature can sometimes be a serendipitous experience. With no particular plan in mind — the novels I was interested in just happened to be available at my local library at the same time — I read two books back-to-back and found they featured many similarities amid their differences. Heck, even the authors have some things in common.

The novels? Big Little Lies (2014) and Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012). The authors? Liane Moriarty and Maria Semple. The similarities? First I’ll discuss a few commonalities in the writers’ lives, then I’ll dive deeper into the two books.

Moriarty is Australian and Semple is American, but they’re both in their early 50s. Semple now lives in Seattle, but is a California native associated with that state’s entertainment biz from her years as a TV producer and TV writer. Meanwhile, Moriarty’s Big Little Lies was turned into a TV miniseries that switched the book’s setting from Australia to…California.

On to the novels. Both feature a variety of affluent characters, with some not-affluent ones sprinkled in. Both have school settings (Big Little Lies more so). Both include a number of entitled parents. Both have some parents too involved in their kids’ lives. Both have several of those parents — usually the mothers — battling each other in various ways. Both novels, despite those battling moms, have good things to say against sexism. Both books, being published this decade, are full of tech references. Both address social issues in major or minor ways — for instance, domestic violence in Big Little Lies and homelessness in Where’d You Go, Bernadette. Both have mystery elements — a parent’s death in Big Little Lies and, well, where did the brilliant/beleaguered/damaged Bernadette go?

Yet there are of course some differences in the two novels’ content and approach. The riveting Big Little Lies contains a very nice amount of humor and satire, but seriousness is pretty prominent and many of the expertly drawn characters are as three-dimensional as can be. The lampoon-laced Where’d You Go, Bernadette is ultra-clever (sometimes too clever?) and absolutely hilarious, but the book didn’t feel as “deep” or as full of genuine emotion as Big Little Lies — until Semple’s novel showed a lot more heart in its second half.

I’d give the intricately constructed (emails, flashbacks, etc.!) Where’d You Go, Bernadette an A next to an A+ for Big Little Lies. I’ve so far read just two novels (also The Hypnotist’s Love Story) by Moriarty, and she’s astoundingly good — one of the very best contemporary authors.

Have you read Big Little Lies, Where’d You Go, Bernadette, or other novels by Moriarty and Semple? If so, what did you think? More generally, are there novels (perused consecutively or not, and by any authors — not just Moriarty and Semple) that struck you as having an unusual number of similarities?

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 the death of a movie theater and threats to several stately old homes, is here.

When It Comes to Character Names in Fiction, These Monikers Have Meaning

A character name can be any name, but sometimes it’s a very significant name.

Take Christopher Newman in Henry James’ The American. He’s depicted as seemingly a new type of man — unlike the supposed old type of men in the Europe visited by U.S. citizen Christopher.

In a later novel, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, we have 19th-century character Newland Archer — who lives in the “new land” of the U.S.

The idea for this blog post was suggested by my friend and National Society of Newspaper Columnists colleague Suzette Martinez Standring, who mentioned the Gogol character in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Gogol’s father gave his son that name after the father’s life was saved in a train accident by a collection of Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s short stories.

How about Roger Chillingworth of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter? That malevolent husband of Hester Prynne is…chilling.

On a more positive note, the first name of majestic attorney Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird just sounds so…majestic.

And Valancy Stirling of L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle has a character that’s…sterling.

Also, we have the “Plain Jane” trope, embodied by Jane Chapman before she undergoes a change in Liane Moriarty’s superb Big Little Lies (which I read this past week) and the iconic star of  Jane Eyre (though Charlotte Bronte’s novel predates that trope’s origins).

In Wuthering Heights by Charlotte’s sister Emily Bronte, the name Heathcliff has a raw, wild, earthy quality befitting that force-of-nature character.

Then there’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, of Walter Mosley’s mystery novels, whose first and last names juxtapose that character’s traits of having a prophetic, almost-biblical sense of justice combined with a relatively casual nature.

And the long-living Lazarus Long in a number of Robert A. Heinlein’s science-fiction works.

How about all the meaningful names in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? Among them are the spacey/kindhearted Luna Lovegood, the tricky and weird Bellatrix Lestrange, the always-takes-umbrage Dolores Umbridge, the snake-like yet not-snake-like Severus Snape, and the mostly villainous Malfoy family — whose last name alludes to the French term for bad faith.

Then there’s the initials method of giving characters significant names. The semi-autobiographical protagonist in David Copperfield has the same-but-flipped initials of that novel’s author Charles Dickens — who of course also created many colorful/quirky characters with colorful/quirky names such as Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, Wilkins Micawber, Martin Chuzzlewit, Betsey Trotwood, Cornelia Blimber, Kit Nubbles, Polly Toodle, Thomas Gradgrind, Fanny Squeers, and Newman Noggs.

Other initials-meaningful protagonists include Edith Wharton’s greedy/materialistic Undine Spragg (same opening letters as the United States) from The Custom of the Country; Jack London’s semi-autobiographical Martin Eden title character (“me,” i.e. London); and John Steinbeck’s righteous/injustice-fighting Jim Casy, the ex-preacher in The Grapes of Wrath with the same initials as Jesus Christ.

What names in literature strike you as being significant to the characters?

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 the death of an historic movie theater and a very much alive development travesty near my local library, is here.