The ’80s Had Big Hair and Big Novels. (The 1880s, That Is)

SheEvery decade has its share of memorable novels. Today I’m going to focus on the 1880s.

Why? Because I recently finished a spellbinding 1887 book called She. An imperfect novel — author H. Rider Haggard has some troubling views on race, gender, and class even as he can be relatively enlightened for his time — but also a book that offers an eerie take on mortality and immortality (the ruthless but at times sympathetic title character, shown above, is 2,200 years old!). A thrilling adventure tale that contains many philosophical ruminations and impressive writing flourishes.

The 1880s were semi-dominated by multiple great novels from Henry James, Mark Twain, and Emile Zola, but that long-ago decade essentially began in a literary sense with the 1880 classic The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book is more sprawling and uneven than his 1866 masterpiece Crime and Punishment, but when Brothers is good it’s amazing. Dostoyevsky reportedly intended the novel to be the first of a trilogy, but he died in early 1881.

Another 19th-century Russian writing legend, Leo Tolstoy, sort of ended the decade’s literary output with one of his best short novels — 1889’s gripping and controversial The Kreutzer Sonata.

But back to the three authors who semi-dominated the decade. Henry James started things off with the compelling Washington Square (1880), about a not-nice doctor and his sweet-but-dull daughter; and then wrote what is my favorite novel of his, the heartbreaking classic The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Among James’ many other works during those productive years was The Aspern Papers (1888), about an obsessed man trying to get his hands on the letters and such of a famous dead poet by ingratiating himself with that poet’s aged lover.

Mark Twain? There was The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Huckleberry Finn, of course, is considered Twain’s best novel — and it totally deserves that designation despite faltering a bit in the last third when Tom Sawyer makes an annoying and unwelcome appearance. Connecticut Yankee, an early time-travel work, is fiercely antiwar amid the frequent hilarity.

Zola zoomed through the 1880s with eight novels in his famous Rougon-Macquart series. My four favorites are Nana (1880), about a prostitute; The Ladies’ Delight (1883), about a Paris department store that wreaks havoc on small retailers; Zola’s masterpiece Germinal (1885), about a mining town that experiences a dramatic strike; and The Masterpiece (1886), about a prototypical tortured artist.

Taking the time-travel route a year before Twain was Edward Bellamy and his utopian Looking Backward (1888), set in the year 2000. It was one of the 19th century’s three bestselling novels — after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880), the latter of which I haven’t read so I can’t discuss it in this post. One of the many interesting things about Looking Backward (whose author was a cousin of “Pledge of Allegiance” creator Francis Bellamy) is that an early debit card appears in it!

Other notable novels of that decade included Thomas Hardy’s depressingly excellent The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson’s very influential Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (also 1886), and William Dean Howells’ rags-to-riches-themed The Rise of Silas Lapham (1884).

An honorable mention goes to Billy Budd — which was started by Herman Melville in 1886, left unfinished at the time of his 1891 death, and finally published in 1924. Many consider it Melville’s second-best novel behind Moby-Dick.

Your favorite novels of the 1880s, including those I didn’t name?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which again looks at the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on my town — is here.

The Ages of Those We Read on Pages

birthdayI don’t think I’ve ever published a blog post on my birthday before, so I’ll “celebrate” by listing some novelists I love or like and how old they are. Why? Because it’s easier to make a list than to write a regular blog post of the kind I’ll resume next week. 🙂

Anyway, here goes — with a great or very good book by each author included:

Alison Lurie, born September 3, 1926 (93 years old), Foreign Affairs.

Cormac McCarthy, July 20, 1933 (86), Blood Meridian.

Wole Soyinka, July 13, 1934 (85), The Interpreters.

Mario Vargas Llosa, March 28, 1936 (84), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

A.S. Byatt, August 24, 1936 (83), Possession.

Lois Lowry, March 20, 1937 (83), The Giver.

Margaret Drabble, June 5, 1939 (80), The Witch of Exmoor.

Margaret Atwood, November 18, 1939 (80), The Handmaid’s Tale.

J.M.G. Le Clezio, April 13, 1940 (79), Desert.

Anne Tyler, October 25, 1941 (78), The Accidental Tourist.

John Irving, March 2, 1942 (78), The Cider House Rules.

Isabel Allende, August 2, 1942 (77), The House of the Spirits.

Martin Cruz Smith, November 3, 1942 (77), Gorky Park.

Peter Straub, March 2, 1943 (77), Ghost Story.

Janet Evanovich, April 22, 1943 (76), One for the Money.

Michael Ondaatje, September 12, 1943 (76), The English Patient.

Marilynne Robinson, November 26, 1943 (76), Housekeeping.

Alice Walker, February 9, 1944 (76), The Color Purple.

Fannie Flagg, September 21, 1944 (75), Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Rita Mae Brown, November 28, 1944 (75), Rubyfruit Jungle.

Stephen King, September 21, 1947 (72), From a Buick 8.

Richard Russo, July 15, 1949 (70), Empire Falls.

Julia Alvarez, March 27, 1950 (70), In the Time of the Butterflies.

Laura Esquivel, September 30, 1950 (69), Like Water for Chocolate.

Terry McMillan, October 18, 1951 (68), Waiting to Exhale.

Walter Mosley, January 12, 1952 (68), Devil in a Blue Dress.

Amy Tan, February 19, 1952 (68), The Joy Luck Club.

Philippa Gregory, January 9, 1954 (66), Earthly Joys.

Lee Child, October 29, 1954 (65), 61 Hours.

John Grisham, February 8, 1955 (65), The Client.

Barbara Kingsolver, April 8, 1955 (64), The Poisonwood Bible.

Colm Toibin, May 30, 1955 (64), Brooklyn.

Lisa Scottoline, July 1, 1955 (64), The Vendetta Defense.

Geraldine Brooks, September 14, 1955 (64), March.

Peter Hoeg, May 17, 1957 (62), Smilla’s Sense of Snow.

Lionel Shriver, May 18, 1957 (62), So Much for That.

Louise Penny, July 1, 1958 (61), How the Light Gets in.

Jonathan Franzen, August 17, 1959 (60), The Corrections.

Neil Gaiman, November 10, 1960 (59), American Gods.

Arundhati Roy, November 24, 1961 (58), The God of Small Things.

Suzanne Collins, August 10, 1962 (57), The Hunger Games.

Michael Chabon, May 24, 1963 (56), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Donna Tartt, December 23, 1963 (56), The Goldfinch.

J.K. Rowling, July 31, 1965 (54), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Liane Moriarty, November 15, 1966 (53), Big Little Lies.

Jhumpa Lahiri, July 11, 1967 (52), The Lowland.

Lisa Genova, November 22, 1970 (49), Still Alice.

Zadie Smith, October 25, 1975 (44), White Teeth.

John Green, August 24, 1977 (42), The Fault in Our Stars.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, September 15, 1977 (42), Half of a Yellow Sun.

Fredrik Backman, June 2, 1981 (38), A Man Called Ove.

Kate Quinn, November 30, 1981 (38), The Huntress.

Eleanor Catton, September 24, 1985 (34), The Luminaries.

Some favorite living authors you’d like to mention who I didn’t list?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which gives local plots to novels that my town’s residents could read during the coronavirus pandemic — is here.

War as Seen Through the Eyes of Fictional Characters

Chimamanda Ngpzi Adichie“War is hell,” but it can also be almost an abstraction. Unless you’re directly affected, it might not seem quite as horrible as it actually is or as senseless as it usually is. Novels and other kinds of fiction can help.

By that I mean they introduce us to characters we might grow to love and admire. So if those characters end up affected by war — possibly forced from their homes, possibly terrified, possibly injured, possibly killed — we really feel for them, and are reminded once again of how disgusting war is. Of course we already knew that, but there’s something visceral about seeing characters go through humankind’s periodic carnage. Obviously not as visceral as real life, yet still emotionally wrenching.

Many novels with warfare — such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers — place fictional characters in fictional battles. (That kind of book is often in the sci-fi, fantasy, or dystopian genres.) Many other novels place fictional characters against the backdrop of real wars, and this post will focus on those scenarios.

I just finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent Half of a Yellow Sun, which takes a classic approach to characters swept up in war — allowing readers to get to know them before all hell breaks loose. We first meet professor Odenigbo, teacher Olanna, servant Ugwu, businesswoman Kainene, British writer Richard, and others in the early 1960s — a time of relative peace in Nigeria — and find them appealing or at least interesting. Then the novel jumps to the start of the Nigerian Civil War later that decade, and we hold our breath to see how those characters will be impacted. How traumatized will they be? Will they survive? (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is pictured above.)

Moving back in time, there are of course many novels that place characters in the World War II era, and help us understand how soldiers and civilians felt back then. Willie Keith and May Wynn in Herman Wouk’s compelling The Caine Mutiny, Ida Ramundo in Elsa Morante’s devastating Italy-set History, lovers Ernst and Elisabeth in Erich Maria Remarque’s shattering Germany-set A Time to Love and a Time to Die, etc.

The authors of the three above books all had personal wartime experiences, which undoubtedly added to the power and accuracy of what they wrote.

That was also the case with Ernest Hemingway, a World War I veteran whose time in Spain during the 1930s Spanish Civil War inspired the creation of his memorable For Whom the Bell Tolls and its protagonist Robert Jordan.

Among WWI-era-set novels that grip readers through their characters are Willa Cather’s Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours, about farmer’s son Claude Wheeler and his brutal battlefield experiences; and L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside, perhaps the best Anne of Green Gables sequel, which features the family of now-middle-aged/now-a-parent Anne Shirley and their experiences when some young Canadians are sent overseas.

Civil War-set novels that evoke the horrors of battle through their characters include Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, whose protagonist is soldier Henry Fleming; and Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer-winning March, which focuses on the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Several Sir Walter Scott novels feature intense warfare. For instance, the riveting Old Mortality includes Scotland’s Battle of Bothwell Bridge and its impact on several major characters.

I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Which novels have brought home the stomach-turning nature of war for you?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about how the coronavirus is impacting my town, about a local Facebook group, and about a lawsuit — is here.

The Publishing World is ‘Plagued’ With These Books

CoronavirusWith the coronavirus wreaking havoc throughout the world — and American “leader” Donald Trump predictably responding to that pandemic in the most incompetent, empathy-lacking, and self-serving way imaginable — it would be understandable if book lovers would want to read only escapist fiction for a while. But if you’re a glutton for punishment, there are some very compelling novels out there with pandemic themes — many pessimistic about the situation and the reaction to it, others a bit more optimistic.

The first book that comes to mind is Albert Camus’ riveting The Plague (1947), about a pandemic sweeping Algeria when it was a French colony. An excellent novel that includes existential and allegorical elements.

More than 100 years earlier, there was Mary Shelley’s tremendous The Last Man (1826) — not well-received at the time but now considered a classic. Set in the late 21st century, the plague-ridden novel includes three major characters based on the author herself (albeit in a male role), Percy Bysshe Shelley (Mary’s poet husband who died in 1822), and Lord Byron.

The pandemic in Margaret Atwood’s absorbing, depressing, yet often surprisingly funny Oryx and Crake (2003) is caused by genetic experimentation and pharmaceutical engineering. There are two sequels, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam.

Among other novels in the pandemic-fiction category are Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), Stephen King’s The Stand (1978), Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1969), Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider (1939), and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).

In the short-story realm, one of Edgar Allan Poe’s best tales, “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842), looks at how the reveling rich think they can escape the plague. They can’t.

At its tragic peak, the AIDS crisis was a massive pandemic, and among the novels that have skillfully dealt with it are John Irving’s In One Person (2012) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (1998).

Your “favorite” pandemic fiction?

And if you want to discuss how the coronavirus crisis is affecting you, please do. In my case, my professor wife is teaching online instead of in person for the rest of the semester, my younger daughter and her classmates will be home for at least the next two weeks getting remote instruction from her middle school, we postponed an April family trip to that daughter’s native Guatemala, and my local library is closed until at least the end of March. (Yikes — I might run out of novels 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about my town’s upcoming election, its response to the coronavirus, and more — is here.

Gollum Converses With Elizabeth Bennet?! Tell Me More…

RaskolnikovBook lovers have a problem: The fictional people in the many novels we’ve read over the years can blur together in our memories. So, theoretically, there might be false recollections of characters interacting with each other across different books…

Sherlock Holmes: “Yikes! Two people have been murdered in Crime and Punishment! I need Jack Reacher to help me investigate. Are you ready, Jack?”

Reacher: “Good to go.”

Captain Ahab: “Jack and Sherlock, unless Moby-Dick visits the Hermitage Museum, I’m not transporting you along the Neva River to St. Petersburg.”

Ishmael: “Call me…not surprised.”

Huck and Jim: “We’ll take anyone anywhere on our raft!”

Maggie and Tom Tulliver: “Not interested, H and J, in ‘the Twain shall meet.’ After what happened in The Mill on the Floss, we’re steering clear of water.”

The Joad Family: “We got rather soaked walking one day near the end of The Grapes of Wrath.”

Jane Eyre: “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”

Scout Finch: “Jane, I don’t walk sometimes because I’m scared of Boo, though it was even scarier that the actress who played me on screen didn’t have much of a film career.”

Binx Bolling: “As the moviegoer in The Moviegoer, I noticed that.”

Ignatius J. Reilly: “But, Binx, that Walker Percy novel you starred in was published before To Kill a Mockingbird was filmed!”

The Time Traveler’s Wife: “So?”

Hermione Granger: “I used a time-turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

Gollum: “My preciousssss.”

Elizabeth Bennet: “Your ‘preciousssss’ was a ring, not a time-turner, you Tolkien-created idiot.”

Lily Bart: “Damn, a Jane Austen character doesn’t talk like that.”

Anne Shirley: “Damn, an Edith Wharton character doesn’t talk like that.”

Pip: “Damn, an L.M. Montgomery character doesn’t…oh, the hell with it.”

Ursula Iguaran: “The punishment for all of you is one hundred nanoseconds of solitude.”

Edmond Dantes: “Ursula, I was imprisoned a lot longer than that in the early 1800s.”

Lisbeth Salander: “Did you have a computer in your cell, Edmond?”

Dorian Gray: “The selfie I took on my smartphone is looking rather strange…”

Harry Haller aka Steppenwolf: “Born to be W-i-i-i-i-ilde!”

Jay Gatsby: “Better than listening to ‘The Wreck of the F. Scott Fitzgerald.'”

Offred: “The author who created me in The Handmaid’s Tale is Canadian like Gordon Lightfoot, but I prefer the less-patriarchal Joni Mitchell.”

Ove: “Discussing music makes me even grumpier.”

Olanna: “Wow — two names that start with ‘O’? I’m in a relationship with Odenigbo in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun.”

Hester Prynne: “Speaking of letters, Olanna, imagine having an ‘A’ on your clothes rather than on your report card.”

Don Quixote: “Hi, Hester! I’m the protagonist of a book written during the same century Hawthorne put you in.”

Sethe: “Don, my story begins in 1873.”

Isabel Archer: “Sethe from Beloved? I’m from 1881’s The Portrait of a Lady. Probably would’ve been better for us to live in the 20th or 21st century, don’t you think?”

Big Brother: “Careful what you wish for.”

Jo March: “I wish I wasn’t named after the third month of the year. Jo June has a nicer ring to it.”

Tyrion Lannister: “Jo, you little woman, can you write rings around the guy who authored A Game of Thrones?”

Anna Karenina: “She can hold her own, Tyrion, you little man.”

Madame Bovary: “That doesn’t sound like something a Tolstoy character would say. Or a Dostoyevsky character, for the matter.”

Scarlett O’Hara: “Emma, I think Sherlock and Reacher will catch Raskolnikov tonight. After that, well, tomorrow is another day.”

(Raskolnikov is pictured atop this blog post.)

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about a continuing Board of Education controversy, Super Tuesday, and more — is here.

Skipping Through Several Scandinavian Writers

Lisbeth SalanderI’ve blogged about fiction written by women of color, Hispanic authors, Jewish authors, Irish authors, Canadians, etc. Now it’s time for a look at some works by…Scandinavians.

(Speaking of Canadians, Vancouver-based blogger Rebecca Budd interviewed me again for her great podcast. See the link near the end of this post.)

Anyway…fiction by Scandinavian writers. I won’t revisit Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, because I discussed that wonderful novel last week. Instead I’ll start with the late Stieg Larsson, whose posthumously published Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) is not only ultra-page-turning but has much to say about his native Sweden. That social-democratic country is humanistic in many ways, but is by no means immune from corporate corruption, some problematic government bureaucracy, and other ills that dot Larsson’s books. And the trilogy’s brave, brilliant, beleaguered, abrasive computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (pictured above) is a complex character for the ages.

Another Swedish writer of note is John Ajvide Lindquist, whose eerie Harbour is the one novel of his I’ve read. That book is about a girl who goes missing one winter day, and the mystery behind that is quite absorbing.

Also from Sweden is the late Par Lagerkvist, whose works included the quirky, symbolic, biblically tinged The Death of Ahasuerus. Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1951.

Turning to Denmark, there’s the late Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen), who’s best known for the memoir Out of Africa that inspired the Meryl Streep/Robert Redford movie. Dinesen’s short story “Babette’s Feast” spawned another well-known film. Her most prominent fiction work might be Seven Gothic Tales, a collection that includes several memorable short stories.

And there’s of course Hans Christian Andersen, the Dane who did all kinds of fiction writing but is most remembered for his fairy tales and other stories — including “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Red Shoes,” “Thumbelina,” and the heartbreaking “The Little Match Girl.” (Check out his interesting relationship with Charles Dickens.)

From Denmark, too, is Peter Hoeg, whose works include Smilla’s Sense of Snow. That novel — whose protagonist is the daughter of an indigenous Greenlandic mother and Danish physician father — is a detective thriller that also contains plenty of cultural commentary.

Scandinavian writers often put their characters in snowy, wintry settings. I wonder why? 🙂

Norway’s most internationally known wordsmith is probably playwright Henrik Ibsen, who penned Hedda Gabler, A Doll’s House, Peer Gynt, An Enemy of the People, and more.

Obviously, I’ve only read a handful of Scandinavian works, so this is a rather shallow overview that I hope your comments will flesh out. Which writers would you like to mention — whether ones I named or didn’t name?

Here’s the link to the aforementioned podcast: In the just-under-13-minute segment, Rebecca Budd and I discuss libraries, indie publishing, how parents can help get their kids interested in books, the fact that many millennials are avid readers, how literature affects creativity (in areas such as music), and novels that had a major impact on us when we were teens — in my case, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — partly about a controversial police presence at a local Board of Education meeting — is here.

Low-Key Novels That Are High in Memorability

OveHave you ever read a novel that’s mostly low-key, subtle, understated, and even seemingly simple yet is compelling or charming or funny or emotionally wrenching or all of the above? Sure you have, and I have, too.

The latest for me was A Man Called Ove, which I finished a few days ago. That 2012 novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman initially appears to be a few-frills tale of a very grumpy 59-year-old loner until it sneaks up on the reader — with help from a gradually unfolding back story — to become a wonderfully quirky, romantic, inspiring, humanistic, multicultural, heartbreaking, better-have-tissues-handy book. A novel so good that it powerfully reinforces one of the reasons we read fiction: hoping for that occasional can’t-put-down work. (The above photo, from the movie, shows a young Ove at the time he meets his future wife Sonja.)

Another understated novel is Mrs. Bridge, which is more downbeat overall than A Man Called Ove but shares a certain outward plainness that masks many beneath-the-surface themes: in this case, Evan Connell’s tale of a well-to-do family says a lot about class, conformity, unhappiness, the emptiness of too much materialism, and more.

There’s also Being There, the satirical Jerzy Kosinski novel with a flatness literally embodied in its flat protagonist: the simple-minded gardener Chance who somehow becomes considered an oracle of sorts. The book is far from flat; that’s just its veneer.

Gigi is nowhere near my favorite Colette work — the novel is sort of frivolous and its central relationship doesn’t grab me. But it’s beautifully written in its low-key way, and is more complex than it seems.

How about A Christmas Carol? A short, fairly straightforward morality tale from the usually more intricate Charles Dickens, but there’s a reason why it has endured for more than 175 years: It skillfully depicts many recognizable human (and ghostly 🙂 ) traits.

And The Remains of the Day. Kazuo Ishiguro’s story of a butler is extremely understated, but strong emotions and secrets boil under the surface.

Then there’s James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips — about a gentle, long-tenured boarding school teacher who’s at first conventional and kind of stiff before his brief marriage makes him a looser, more tolerant person and educator.

Many of Fannie Flagg’s novels — including her most recent, The Whole Town’s Talking (2016) — also sort of fit this category. Those books are folksy and sentimental, yet quietly take on issues such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.

And Henry James’ writing (especially in mid- and late-career) is FAR from simple but almost always understated — as in The Ambassadors. Strong passions are repressed, but never totally repressed.

Even in low-key novels, beleaguered protagonists might eventually erupt in some way. That’s the case in Richard Russo’s Empire Falls — and in A Man Called Ove, too.

Your favorite works that fit this topic?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — which includes humorous fake answers to a superintendent-search survey — is here.