Comparing the Not So Comparable

Do you ever play intellectual games with books? For me, this sometimes involves trying to find the similarities between two very different novels I’ve read consecutively or fairly close together. Why do I do this? I don’t know — it’s sort of fun.

For instance, the last two novels I read were Lisa Scottoline’s The Vendetta Defense and Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus. The first is a start-of-the-21st-century legal thriller about a long-delayed revenge killing, while the other is a 1950s class-differences story with nothing more violent than a hard-fought tennis match.

So what possible connections are there between those two books? Well, both focus on a certain group of people — Italian-Americans in The Vendetta Defense and Jewish characters in Goodbye, Columbus. Each features a romantic couple who seem somewhat mismatched — lawyer Judy Carrier and stonemason Frank Lucia in Scottoline’s novel, and lower-middle-class Neil Klugman and upper-class Brenda Patimkin in Roth’s novel. Both books are essentially serious but have plenty of humor. And they share a palpable sense of place — Philadelphia and its environs in The Vendetta Defense and Essex County, N.J.’s gritty Newark and affluent Short Hills in Goodbye, Columbus. Heck, my Essex County town of Montclair is mentioned and disparaged twice in Roth’s book. Thanks, Philip!

Last year, I reread George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov back-to-back. (How did I remember it was back-to-back? I keep a list! 🙂 ) What those books share is length (lots of it!), some slow pages that are more than made up for by many brilliant pages, and authors with virtually concurrent life spans (Eliot 1819-1880 and Dostoyevsky 1821-1881). On a deeper level, both novels depict interesting sibling relationships, bad marriages, some questionable moral choices, profound thoughts about religion and religious hypocrisy, etc. Yet the books are also as disparate as disparate can be: England vs. Russia, female vs. male perspective, and much more.

Several years ago, I consecutively read T.C. Boyle’s The Road to Wellville, a part-comic historical novel set in corn flakes inventor John Harvey Kellogg’s Michigan sanitarium more than a century ago; and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, a deadly serious dystopian trilogy set in the future. What in the world could those two works have in common?

On a surface level, the title of Collins’ trilogy and first trilogy book obviously remind one of food — even as Will Lightbody in Boyle’s novel is desperate for some unhealthy grub while reluctantly staying with his wife Eleanor at Kellogg’s health-oriented sanitarium. More seriously, there is a LOT of death in The Hunger Games but also some weirdly unexpected dying in The Road to Wellville. And both novels depict abuse of power — of course on a much smaller scale in Boyle’s book.

Do you have two very different novels you’d like to contrast here to see if they have some commonalities?

And here’s a 2013 post I wrote that looks at similarities in novels that might not be so different from each other. You’re welcome to discuss those types of books, too!

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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.