An Appreciation of Erich Maria Remarque

When I learned late last month that there was a new movie version of Erich Maria Remarque’s iconic 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front, it occurred to me to write an appreciation of the author.

I’ve read many of Remarque’s books, and as riveting as the war-themed/antiwar-themed All Quiet is, it’s not even my favorite work by the German-born writer. The novels of his that most bowled me over are Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die — not necessarily in that order.

Like most of Remarque’s works, those three books are set in or near wartime; paint a memorable sociopolitical picture; offer smooth, superb writing; feature three-dimensional protagonists with flaws; and often (though not always) break your heart. Yes, the horror, brutality, and dislocation of war is hell on so many individuals.

Arch of Triumph (1945) is about a surgeon who has escaped Nazi Germany for Paris, where he experiences all kinds of things — including an intense romance. The Night in Lisbon (1962) also has a refugee motif, with Portugal the setting in this case. A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1954) is about a German soldier (who does not have Nazi beliefs) living a lifetime during a short leave.

Yes, several terrific novels written over multiple decades.

Remarque was a firm antifascist, but had empathy for ordinary Germans caught up in the Nazi nightmare — and admiration for the people and countries fighting the monstrous Hitler regime.

Born in 1898, Remarque was a World War I draftee — which obviously gave him firsthand experience that would help inspire All Quiet on the Western Front. The future novelist was wounded during his military stint.

He went on to become a teacher, theater critic, ad copywriter, and more before writing All Quiet. It became an international bestseller — and earned him the ire of Nazis for the novel’s pacifism. Those fascists also hated 1930’s acclaimed All Quiet film, with storm troopers harassing moviegoers.

Remarque was forced to flee Germany for Switzerland in 1933. Several months later, pro-Nazi students publicly burned his books, and police removed his novels from German bookstores and libraries. The author moved to the United States in 1939. Four years later, his younger sister Elfriede was shockingly beheaded by the Nazis. Remarque spent the rest of his life exposing Nazi crimes in his writing and in other ways.

On the personal front, Remarque in 1958 married American actress Paulette Goddard (who had previously been wed to Charlie Chaplin). Earlier in his life, Remarque had a long relationship with famed German-born actress Marlene Dietrich.

Among Remarque’s other novels were 1952’s Spark of Life, set in a concentration camp; and 1956’s The Black Obelisk, set during the 1920s rise of Nazism. Both books are depressingly good, but in my opinion not quite at the level of the four I previously mentioned. There was also the so-so Shadows in Paradise, about German refugees in the U.S., published a year after Remarque’s 1970 death.

Any thoughts on the author and/or any of his works?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a November 8 bond referendum to fund much-needed repairs and upgrades to my town’s aging school buildings — is here.

When Genre Novels and Historical Fiction Meet

From The Alienist miniseries. (Photo by Kata Vermes/TNT.)

Many of us enjoy thrillers, mysteries, detective novels, and other genre fiction as an occasional part of our reading mix. And many of us consider it a bonus when those books are set many years earlier than when they’re written.

Yes, that gives us not only the genre fiction experience but the kind of interesting history lesson that “general” historical fiction can offer. We see major real-life events that occurred before we were born, perhaps get some cameos from actual historical figures, and learn about the “primitive” tools used years ago to investigate crime. Shockingly, computers and smartphones were hard to find before 1900. 🙂

I thought about all this as I’m currently reading Caleb Carr’s excellent The Alienist, published in 1994 and mostly set in 1896. It’s a mystery about the gruesome murders of children from New York City’s underclass, and how the novel’s alienist (psychiatrist) and others covertly investigate those killings by using approaches modern for the time. Future president Theodore Roosevelt has a strong secondary role as NYC’s police commissioner, and there are also characters who are the first woman and Jewish people in the NYC police department. Last but not least, it’s fascinating to take in the novel’s many well-researched period details about Manhattan.

Jack Finney’s riveting novel Time and Again partly unfolds in 1970 — the year the book was published — but mostly takes place in 1882 Manhattan as protagonist Simon Morley goes back in time 88 years to find the meaning of a provocatively phrased, partially burned letter. Adventure and romance ensue as we learn (like we do in The Alienist) a lot about latter-1800s NYC — helped by the terrific vintage photos Finney includes.

Walter Mosley’s first two compelling Easy Rawlins mysteries — 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress and 1991’s A Red Death — are set in late-1940s and early-1950s Los Angeles. We learn a lot about what that city and California were like in the years soon after World War II — and, in the second novel, we also get some education about America’s shameful McCarthy era.

Umberto Eco’s memorable 1980 novel The Name of the Rose is an intellectual murder mystery set way back in 1327 Italy. Readers are schooled about the 14th century and religious matters at the time (the novel is set in a monastery), plus there are plenty of philosophical ruminations.

Daphne du Maurier’s gripping 1969 time-travel novel The House on the Strand is also largely set in the 14th century, and we get the opportunity to see the same English town six centuries apart. It’s engrossing to experience an identical burg both as a barely developed rural area in the 1300s and as a much more populated 20th-century community. The book includes mystery elements.

Jean M. Auel’s six absorbing “Earth’s Children’s” novels — the first of which was The Clan of the Cave Bear — include thriller moments even as the books are more general fiction than genre fiction. They were published from 1980 to 2011, and set more than 25,000 years ago. It’s eye-opening to learn, via Auel’s mix of speculation and deep research, how humans lived back then.

Any genre novels you’d like to discuss that are set years before they were published?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s manager being sued for hostile workplace behavior to women employees — is here.

Characters Who Are More Famous Than the Authors Who Created Them

Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (right) with Mary Poppins actress Julie Andrews and Walt Disney.

A prime goal of most novelists is to create memorable characters. Sometimes, those characters become more famous than the novelists — often with the help of movie adaptations of their books.

I got the idea for today’s post from a reader who comments on this blog as “Anonymous.” That person and I were having a conversation a week or so ago under an old 2016 piece of mine when the subject arose of protagonists who outstripped their creators in renown. I’ll name some of the characters we came up with in that thread, and also mention several others.

In some cases, the characters are way more famous than the authors. In other cases, it’s a closer call.

One example in the first category is Forrest Gump, who skyrocketed to fame in the 1994 movie starring Tom Hanks. Who’s the novelist who first featured Forrest in a 1986 book? The nowhere-near-as-well-known Winston Groom.

A film released 30 years earlier — in 1964 — skyrocketed another book character into wider fame. That character was Mary Poppins, whose creator, P.L. Travers, is not a household name like the magical nanny she thought up.

The kind-of-magical Peter Pan is also much better known than his creator, J.M. Barrie.

Several characters in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became more famous than the author, in large part due to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz film. They of course include The Wizard himself, The Wicked Witch, Dorothy, Toto, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Cowardly Lion.

Toto reminds me that Lassie the dog originated in a 1940 novel by someone whose name is barely remembered today — Eric Knight.

Also, James Bond is a bigger celebrity than spy novelist Ian Fleming, as is Dracula compared to author Bram Stoker. And Lorna Doone, with an assist from her becoming the name of a cookie, is more known than novelist R.D. Blackmore. The girl Heidi, too, is higher on the recognition scale than her creator, Johanna Spyri.

Some examples of characters and authors being closer in fame, with the characters perhaps a little more famous:

There’s of course Sherlock Holmes, the detective who’s so iconic he has a somewhat higher profile than much-remembered author Arthur Conan Doyle.

Also, Gigi — the fictional figure from the 1944 novel that spawned the 1958 movie starring Leslie Caron — might be a tad better known than her creator, Colette.

A few other cases where the character might be slightly more famous than the author include Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak), Tom Jones (Henry Fielding), Jo March (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women), Anne Shirley (from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), and Scarlett O’Hara (from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind).

Anything you’d like to say about this topic, including more examples?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — a fantasy about my town getting duped by a neighboring town for eons — is here.

More Premium Prose Practitioners

Back in 2015, I wrote a post spotlighting novelists with especially impressive writing skills. Among the wordsmiths I cited were A.S. Byatt, Fyodor Dostoevsky, George Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Hilton, Henry James, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Marcel Proust, Erich Maria Remarque, Mary Shelley, and Edith Wharton.

Seven years later, I’ve of course read various other authors for the first time, so I wanted to mention some additional prose masters in a follow-up post.

I’ll start with Viet Thanh Nguyen (pictured above), whose wonderfully written 2015 debut novel The Sympathizer I’m currently reading. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book’s narrator — a half-Vietnamese, half-French sleeper agent who leaves war-torn Saigon for California in 1975 — has a top-notch facility with the English language that’s exemplified by this paragraph I excerpted:

“America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl!…(W)as there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful, that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation in the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?”

Another author I recently tried for the first time is Amor Towles, whose novel A Gentleman in Moscow tells the tale of a person under decades of house arrest in a Russian hotel. The prisoner, Count Alexander Rostov, actually leads a pretty interesting and satisfying life within the confines of that building — and Towles’ exquisite writing helps take us along for the ride.

Yet another eloquent author I’ve read since 2015 is Zadie Smith. The two novels of hers I’ve gotten to — White Teeth and On Beauty — mix eye-catching prose, comedic elements, and social commentary in a great multicultural blend.

I’ve also liked the novels Freedom and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, who can put words together as well or better than most contemporary authors.

Alexander Pushkin is hardly a contemporary author, but I finally read his 1833 novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin last year. The poetry is off-the-charts good.

I was also bowled over by the prose of another 1833 novel — George Sand’s Lelia, which I read in 2018.

Moving from the 19th to 20th century, I finally started reading various works by W. Somerset Maugham. It’s hard to beat the writing style in novels such as Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Sixpence, The Razor’s Edge, and The Painted Veil.

In today’s popular-fiction realm, I love the writing talent of Liane Moriarty. She offers a real insight into relationships and women — along with humor and surprising plot developments — in novels such as Big Little Lies, The Husband’s Secret, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, Nine Perfect Strangers, and Apples Never Fall.

I have similar feelings about Fannie Flagg — whose novelistic career spans the 1980s to recent years — after reading works like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion, and A Redbird Christmas.

Herman Wouk offers exceptionally smooth writing about dramatic topics in 20th-century classics The Caine Mutiny, Marjorie Morningstar, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance.

And a concluding shout-out to Rosamunde Pilcher, whose novels The Shell Seekers (1987) and Winter Solstice (2000) approach prose perfection.

Some of the authors you feel write REALLY well?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local pro-choice rally, a water crisis, and more — is here.

Novels With Novel Premises

Donald E. Westlake. (Photo by David Jennings for The New York Times.)

What are the elements of memorable novels? Great writing and compelling characters, of course, as well as interesting plots. Then there are books with VERY interesting and/or offbeat and/or original premises — and that will be my theme today.

I just read Donald E. Westlake’s Brothers Keepers, and its premise is certainly different: a 200-year-old monastery in midtown Manhattan is threatened with demolition by greedy developers, and the monks who live there have to reluctantly go out in the world to try to save their home. The 1975 novel is a bit of a thriller, a bit of a mystery, and periodically comic. Plus there’s a surprise romantic angle.

A 2004 Jodi Picoult novel with a somewhat similar title — My Sister’s Keeper — tells the unusual story of a girl (Anna) whose parents conceived her to be an involuntary medical donor to an older sibling (Kate) with major health problems.

Wilkie Collins’ 1862 novel No Name also focuses on two sisters. In this case, Magdalen and Norah Vanstone learn that their just-deceased parents weren’t married at the time of their birth — resulting in disinheritance and social stigma for the daughters. Hardly a typical novel for its time.

Two decades earlier, Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 satirical novel Dead Souls featured a whopping premise: Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov travels in Russia to try to enrich himself by “purchasing” deceased serfs.

The word “dead” reminds me that among the Stephen King novels with out-of-the-ordinary premises is The Dead Zone (1979), in which former schoolteacher Johnny Smith wakes up from a long coma to discover that he can see into the future.

How about H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She, whose unforgettable Africa-based title character is 2,000 years old. Not many books with a protagonist eligible to collect Social Security for that long a time. 🙂

Novels with ghosts can of course offer weird plot lines for which we suspend disbelief. One example is Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (1966), in which Dona Flor’s irresponsible but charismatic first spouse returns after his death.

Any novel-premised novels 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — again about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.

Secondary Characters of Color Can Be First in Reader Hearts

On October 2, 1967 — 55 years ago today — Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African American chosen for that prestigious position following a long career as a prominent civil-rights advocate. Still, though Marshall had more smarts, accomplishments, and moral stature than virtually anyone to ever serve on the Supreme Court, he was always an Associate Justice — never Chief Justice — before retiring in 1991.

The anniversary of Marshall’s 1967 elevation made me think of supporting characters of color in novels, so I’m going to do a post about that after having written about various lead characters of color in a number of previous posts over the years.

I just read The Judge’s List, another ultra-compelling legal thriller by John Grisham, and a memorable supporting character — the 2021 novel’s co-star, really, to Florida Board on Judicial Conduct investigator Lacy Stoltz — is an African-American woman named Jeri Crosby. Her professor father was murdered by a serial killer who’s also a sitting judge (!), and she’s spent over two decades trying to out that psychopath — slowly making more progress in her brilliant amateur investigation than any police department in the various states where the crimes were committed. It’s noteworthy that Grisham makes Crosby’s color almost irrelevant; some white authors focus too hard on a “minority” character’s race and/or ethnicity. Ms. Crosby is basically depicted as a fascinating person dealing with lots of trauma, which definitely gets upped when the serial killer starts pursuing HER.

Speaking of thrillers, a key Black supporting character in Lee Child’s riveting Jack Reacher debut novel Killing Floor is Oscar Finlay, the intellectual chief of detectives in a southern town. (By the way, he’s played to perfection by Malcolm Goodwin in the Reacher TV series that began earlier this year. I haven’t watched any episodes in their entirety, but HAVE seen many clips on YouTube, and the show is absolute catnip for fans of Child’s books — with Alan Ritchson totally embodying Reacher himself.)

Sticking with crime fiction for one more example, we have J.K. Rowling’s first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. The two major supporting characters of color in that excellent book are supermodel Lulu Landry and fashion designer Guy Somé.

In the general-fiction realm, the parents of teen-girl protagonist Starr Carter are quite well-drawn in Angie Thomas’ intense The Hate U Give. Lisa is Starr’s strict but loving mom who works as a nurse, while dad Maverick is an outspoken grocery store owner with a striking past.

Turning to more literary fiction, we have the eccentric, independent Pilate Dead in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; the feisty and rebellious but insecure biracial teen Irie Jones in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; the saddened-by-life-and-marriage Elizabeth Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain; and Queequeg the charismatic harpooner in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Among the many other supporting characters of color who leave a strong impression are scientist/professor Ovid Byron of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Brenda Peoples the real-estate partner with political aspirations in Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, and — to circle back to the courtroom and a Grisham novel — the memorable Judge Harry Roosevelt in The Client.

Any thoughts or examples related to 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.

How the West Was Done

Zane Grey (Oregon Historical Society Research Library).

I’m not a big fan of western novels, movies, and TV series — those book and screen creations set in the American West, often during the 1800s, often populated with outlaws, sheriffs, cowboys, gunfights, horses, saloons, etc. — and of course more than a few times featuring lone, laconic strangers riding into town. Sure, such creations frequently offer excitement, courage, the pioneering spirit, and so on, but they can also be off-putting.

Why? A predominant focus on white men, even though there were many cowboys of color in the real 19th-century American West. Brutality toward, and repulsive stereotyping of, Native Americans. Rampant sexism — whether in the form of condescending chivalry or macho viciousness. Also, many western creations can be rather formulaic.

But there have been some western novels I’ve found compelling, and usually it was because they were sort of anti-westerns satirizing/criticizing the genre or turning some conventions on their head.

Among the novels I’ve liked a lot are Charles Portis’ True Grit and Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune. They attracted me for several reasons — including the fact that they both star female characters: teen Mattie Ross in the first novel and Eliza Sommers in the second. The half-Chilean Eliza is also not a totally white heroine.

In the young-adult-fiction realm, the 19th-century portion of Louis Sachar’s Holes novel features a white Texan named Kate Barlow who becomes a deadly and charismatic outlaw after the Black farmer she loves is killed by racists.

Then there’s Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, one of the most violent literary novels ever written as it depicts the homicidal barbarity of a gang of white men in the 19th-century West who ruthlessly slaughter male and female Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and others. No whitewashing of white misdeeds here, and the writing is amazing, but it’s an ultra-painful read.

There are also some nasty goings-on in McCarthy’s absorbing Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) — but not at the carnage level of Blood Meridian.

Among other western books I’ve enjoyed is The Prairie — the 1827 installment of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels quintet best known for The Last of the Mohicans. Protagonist Natty Bumppo is a mostly likable guy whose attributes include having relatively tolerant views about Native Americans for a man of his time.

I also enjoyed some of The Virginian, Owen Wister’s influential 1902 novel responsible for a number of the tropes that would later appear in other western novels (including many written by the ultra-prolific Zane Grey) as well as in western movies and TV series. Derivative in those later creations, kind of original in Wister’s book.

The idea for this post occurred to me while reading Zane Grey for the first time last week. I looked for his most famous work — Riders of the Purple Sage — at my local library, but, after not finding it there, chose another Grey novel at random: the Nevada-based Boulder Dam. Turned out to be set in the post-frontier 1930s, so not a classic western, but it was quite a page-turner. Still, it had some of the disturbing flaws of certain western novels — disdain for Native Americans (Grey vilely called them “savage red-skinned tribes” in the prologue), racial slurs against African Americans, and false insinuations that only white men are capable of doing great things. Also, to repeat a word from my second paragraph, the novel was rather formulaic and featured a young male protagonist (Lynn Weston) who, while appealing, perodically didn’t seem believable as a character creation.

I haven’t read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Jack Schaefer’s Shane, or Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, but saw the compelling movie versions of the latter two.

Which reminds me that film icon John Wayne of course appeared in various westerns (including the first movie version of the aforementioned True Grit) while usually playing brave, “manly” characters even as he didn’t serve in World War II in real life. There is some dispute about whether the right-wing Wayne deliberately avoided enlisting or made an attempt to do so but wasn’t selected because of his age (over 30 at the time), his movie stardom, and his having a family. Yup, the actors who played fictional cowboys were often not so courageous in real life.

Your thoughts on the western genre? Novels in that realm you’ve liked or not liked?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about the tone-deaf hiring of a communications person by my town’s school district — is here.

Doubling Down on Double Meanings of Book Titles

Titles of novels can be interesting for various reasons, including occasionally having more than one meaning.

Take the book I’m currently reading — Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars. Its main character, Elma York, is a brilliant mathematician who’s among the novel’s “calculating stars.” The apocalyptic work’s story line is also about sending rockets into outer space, where I hear there are stars. Perhaps “calculating stars,” if those heavenly bodies had anything to do with sending a meteorite crashing down at the start of Kowal’s book — obliterating much of America’s East Coast and setting off a cascade of climate change that could imperil the entire planet.

Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Remarkable Creatures stars Mary Anning, a 19th-century amateur British paleontologist expert at finding and identifying fossils of dinosaurs (remarkable creatures indeed). This brilliant working-class woman and her friend Elizabeth are themselves remarkable creatures (humans) for the work they do and how they deal with sexist, condescending male scientists.

Elma York also deals with plenty of infuriating sexism in the 1950s as she attempts to become an astronaut in The Calculating Stars.

Then we have Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, which features Dellarobia Turnbow’s attempted flight from an unsatisfying marriage and is also about climate change affecting the flight behavior of monarch butterflies. But no space flight here. 🙂

The title of (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That is of course a phrase referencing a feeling of resignation. Given the novel’s strong focus on the problematic U.S. medical system, the title can also refer to how expensive health care often is for individual Americans (yes, “so much for that” care).

Walter Mosley’s mystery A Red Death has a title that evokes both bloodshed and the era it’s set in — the “Red Scare” time when vile right-wing Senator Joe McCarthy targeted communists, alleged communists, and other innocent liberal-leaning people.

Colleen McCullough’s 18th-century-set Morgan’s Run has a title that evokes both a place and Richard Morgan’s dismaying run of bad luck that included being slammed with bogus criminal charges and shipped to an Australian penal colony. But his run of dramatic experiences has positive moments, too.

Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris is about a French race horse named Perestroika who roams the City of Light after getting loose from her stable. The adventurous animal is aptly named because she ends up “restructuring” her life and the lives of several other critters and humans. The Russian word “perestroika,” which became well known under the leadership of the late Mikhail Gorbachev, means “restructuring.”

Philippa Gregory’s novel Earthly Joys has a title that refers to gardening/landscaping and…sex.

Lisa Genova’s Still Alice stars brilliant Harvard professor Dr. Alice Howland, who is STILL Alice even after her mind is devastated by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Another title interpretation might be a bit of a stretch, but, as the disease advances, parts of Alice’s once-active mind become increasingly dormant (as in still).

And, in a different form of titular double meaning, Jack London gave the semi-autobiographical protagonist in his novel Martin Eden that name so it would have the initials “me.”

Any other multiple-meaning titles 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a large, welcome promise of state money to help fix my town’s old school buildings — is here.

Dislike the Protagonist, Like the Novel

From the miniseries based on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair novel.

When we dislike or have mixed feelings about a novel’s protagonist, the author usually has to work harder to attract and keep the reader’s interest. Obviously, it’s easier for the public to love a book whose main character is a great human being. Yet there are many cases where novels with less-than-admirable lead players are well worth our attention. Why? Let’s offer some examples that show some of the ways.

The latest example for me is The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (which I’ve read 90% of so far). Swiss writer Joel Dicker’s translated-from-the-French, U.S.-set novel stars Marcus Goldman — a brash, abrasive, egotistical, rabidly ambitious, at-times-mean young author. But the book remains appealing for the most part, because the mystery plot is wrenchingly compelling and the majority of secondary characters are well-drawn, with some likable. Plus Goldman himself has some positive qualities — including doggedness, a measure of courage, and a measure of integrity as he demonstrates his loyalty to Quebert when that novel’s second-most-prominent character is accused of a long-ago murder in a small New England town hardly as idyllic as it first seems. Also, Goldman has some insecurity beneath his obnoxious exterior.

Of course, there are often reasons why a person develops into someone less than likable. In the case of Marcus, his pushy nutcase of a mother might have had something to do with it. The fictional Goldman family is from…Montclair — the New Jersey town where I live! 😲

Speaking of murder, Crime and Punishment protagonist Raskolnikov is undeniably guilty of a double homicide. But Fyodor Dostoevsky’s iconic novel is compulsively readable because it’s brilliantly written, has a riveting hallucinatory vibe, and contains tons of psychological nuance. Plus we feel at least somewhat sympathetic to Raskolnikov because he becomes guilt-ridden, depressed, and haunted.

The title of the novel I read immediately before Dicker’s book — The Brethren by John Grisham — refers to three former judges who are less-than-savory men. They’re all in the same prison for serious crimes, and are running a nasty scam from inside jail to try to get hush money from prominent closeted gay men in various parts of the U.S. — a scheme helped by a low-life lawyer on the outside. While the corrupt “Brethren” have a good quality or two, they’re jerks overall. But the book has Grisham’s usual page-turning allure, helped by a separate yet interrelated story line involving a Central Intelligence Agency-backed presidential candidate.

More memorable novels with unlikable main characters? Among them are The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. In that last book, protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly is buffoonishly hilarious enough for a reader to feel better about him than he might deserve.

Any novels you’d like to mention that fit this 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci visiting my town before it even existed 🙂 — is here.

Characters Who Are Among Literature’s Laboring Luminaries

Upton Sinclair

Tomorrow, September 5, is Labor Day in the United States. (Workers are also celebrated in many other countries on May 1 each year.) I thought I’d mark the American occasion by mentioning just a few of the many memorable workers in literature.

One of the most famous is Jurgis Rudkus — because he and other characters in The Jungle, and the descriptions of horrid workplace conditions in that 1906 Upton Sinclair novel, spurred President Theodore Roosevelt to push Congress to improve sanitary conditions in meat-packing plants. Of course, the better-than-nothing-but-inadequate legislation was more about making food safer for consumers than about also improving things for workers toiling under greedy/rotten bosses, but… The beleaguered Rudkus is a first-generation immigrant, representing how some of the most exploited employees are new to the country.

Speaking of people doing very difficult jobs under very difficult conditions, we have the French mineworkers Etienne Lantier and Catherine Maheu in Emile Zola’s novel Germinal (1885). A strike against bad ownership, a tragic mine disaster, and more place the admirable, likable characters in dramatic situations.

The titular English carpenter of another 19th-century novel, George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), is hardworking, strong, smart, stoic, and moral — but a bit holier-than-thou and not always the best judge of character.

Philippa Gregory’s Earthly Joys, a 20th-century (1998) historical novel set in the 17th century, stars another hard worker: royal gardener John Tradescant — partly based on a real person.

When you’re a 20th-century physician in the 18th century, the work is often much more challenging given the primitive state of medicine. Such is the case with Dr. Claire Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling Outlander series (the first novel published in 1991 and the ninth in 2021, with one more to come).

Being a waiter/waitress is usually a demanding job, and one example of such a character is Samad Miah Iqbal of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000).

Then there’s Violet Brown — the delightful, brainy, resourceful, ultra-efficient secretary to the novel’s main character in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009).

I’d like to conclude by thanking labor unions, which — while not always perfect — have done so much for employees in the face of too many less-than-caring supervisors and companies.

Any memorable workers in literature 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about the start of school and a wasteful planned hiring — is here.