‘No Book Panic Syndrome’ Is a Novel Problem

Do you occasionally suffer from NBPS? Yes, I’m talking about No Book Panic Syndrome.

Let me explain. You’re a literature lover, and you’ve finished all the not-read novels in your home. You need to go to the library or bookstore, but you can’t get there quite yet — maybe the next day. Or you’ve ordered a title or two online, and it won’t be arriving in the mail until, say, the weekend. And (this is important!) you read books the old-fashioned way, not on a Kindle.

What to do? You can of course click on some free short stories online, and read them there. But you crave print.

I suffered from NBPS this past week. On Tuesday, I finished Louise Penny’s excellent mystery How the Light Gets In — mostly set in a small Canadian town filled with memorable characters. Two other library books I borrowed in August — Octavia Butler’s sci-fi novel Parable of the Sower and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher adventure Night School — had already been read, admired, and put aside. But I couldn’t get to the library until Thursday because of chores and car availability.

(Yes, Car Availability would make a great name for a rock band.)

Why not go a couple days without reading, I asked myself? Yeah, right, I answered — ain’t happening.

Perusing the back of cereal boxes was not a tempting option, and I had already read too much about Hurricane Irma and What a Pain Donald Trump in the print and online New York Times. So, although I’ve promised myself the past few years not to reread books I own (too many never-tried novels and authors out there), I was desperate enough to start scanning my living-room shelves. There I spotted Ray Bradbury’s R Is For Rocket, a yellowing paperback collection of 17 short stories I hadn’t read since I was a teen. Just 184 pages — the perfect length for a bridge to that Thursday library visit.

And what evocative, exquisitely written tales — about kids (as well as adults) longing to travel in space, and the occasional pitfalls of doing so; about a huge, ancient sea creature falling in love with a lighthouse and foghorn; and the classic “A Sound of Thunder” that depicts how the killing of a tiny butterfly during a trip back in time revises the present the travelers return to just enough to have a nightmarish result.

After Bradbury filled that two-day gap, I found reinforcements on Thursday when my library visit got me Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking, Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Kind Words Saloon, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. I’ll undoubtedly mention all those fictional works in future posts.

What do you do when you temporarily have no book you want to read? Do you reread something? Do extra non-reading things? Sob uncontrollably?  🙂

Or maybe the crying will happen when I get to the above-mentioned John Green novel…

I’ll end today’s post with this video of a 2017 U2 song called “The Little Things That Give You Away.” Such as suffering from No Book Panic Syndrome…  🙂

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, about a way-way-too-big project that became way too big, is here.

In the Time of Trump, a Look at Latin-American Lit

Donald Trump this month cruelly and disgracefully decided to deport nearly 800,000 law-abiding children of undocumented immigrants. Those “Dreamers” were brought to the U.S. at a young age by parents mostly from Latin America — where the rich cultures include many examples of amazing literature.

So I thought I’d make today’s blog post about some of that literature, which is perhaps most known for magic realism (portraying fantastical events in a down-to-earth way) but obviously includes works written in all kinds of styles. I’ll also mention U.S. authors of Hispanic descent (some “Dreamers” could eventually be among them if allowed to stay) and even mention Spain’s Miguel de Cervantes, whose Don Quixote was of course written in Spanish.

Today’s blog topic is a bit ironic because the incurious Trump is notorious for (among other things) not reading novels or nonfiction books — though the word “Don” in the name Don Quixote might interest America’s narcissist-in-chief for a New York minute.

I have some personal interest in this because my younger daughter was born in Guatemala. But I’m hardly an expert on Latin-American literature, or an expert on Spanish- or Portuguese-language literature from anywhere, or an expert on literature by U.S. writers of Hispanic descent. Still, I’ll mention some of the fictional works I’ve read — including those by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia), Isabel Allende (U.S. resident of Chilean descent), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peru), Jorge Amado (Brazil), Laura Esquivel (Mexico), Junot Diaz (U.S. resident born in the Dominican Republic), Julia Alvarez (U.S. resident of Dominican descent), and others.

Garcia Marquez’s magic-realism-infused One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) is rather challenging but often mesmerizing — and is deservedly considered one of the 20th century’s greatest novels. The 2014 New York Times obituary of the author observed: “In following the rise and fall of the Buendia family through several generations of war and peace, affluence, and poverty, the novel seemed to many critics and readers the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history.” Garcia Marquez, who put his journalism career on hold to work on One Hundred Years of Solitude for 18 months as his family went deeply into debt, later authored various other novels — including the more straightforward Love in the Time of Cholera depicting one great romance and various other less-enduring liaisons.

Allende’s also-magic-realism-infused The House of the Spirits (1982) was obviously influenced by One Hundred Years of Solitude, yet is quite different in many ways — more female-centered, and more readable while still satisfyingly deep and sweeping.

Other excellent novels worth mentioning include, among others: Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands (not “Don, a Trump, and His Three Wives”), Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (set in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic), and Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (about sisters opposing the DR’s brutal mid-20th-century Trujillo dictatorship).

Then there are memorable works in forms other than novels — the superb short stories (such as “The Aleph”) of Argentina’s Jorge Luis Borges (who did magic realism decades before Garcia Marquez), the masterful poetry of Chile’s Pablo Neruda and Spain’s Federico Garcia Lorca, and so on.

And there are Anglo writers who include Hispanic characters or settings in some of their novels — as did Marge Piercy with her Connie Ramos protagonist in Woman on the Edge of Time; Cormac McCarthy with the Mexican segments of his Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain); Graham Greene with his Mexico-placed The Power and the Glory; Paul Theroux with his mostly Honduras-set The Mosquito Coast; Ernest Hemingway with his The Old Man and the Sea starring a Cuban fisherman and his For Whom the Bell Tolls taking place during the Spanish Civil War; and so on. Also, one can’t forget John Steinbeck, who included Hispanic-American characters in several novels such as Tortilla Flat and The Wayward Bus.

Your favorite authors and fictional works with a Latin-American connection (those I’ve mentioned and/or the many I didn’t mention)? Other thoughts on today’s topic? Whether they end up numbering eight or 800,000, no comments will be kicked out.  🙂 😦

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, with a back-to-school theme, is here.

Hurricane Harvey and Happenings in Novels

Major real-life events can make fans of literature think of…literature. Such is the case with Hurricane Harvey — the catastrophic storm that has people focusing on lives lost, lives drastically disrupted, immense property damage, overdevelopment that eliminates water-absorbing open space, and…certain books.

I thought of novels that depict the devastating consequences of human-caused climate change, as do Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. I also remembered fictional works in which water-related disasters are prominently featured — with those books including George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (huge flood), John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (epic rains near the novel’s end), Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Jack London’s Martin Eden (drowning scenarios), etc. And one can’t ignore a novel titled The Year of the Flood — the second installment of Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic/eco-drenched trilogy that starts with Oryx and Crake and ends with MaddAddam.

Parable of the Sower, a 1993 dystopian sci-fi novel I finished this morning, is also prescient about several other things besides climate change — including the evils of profit-driven privatization of public entities. Heck, the horrific Hurricane Katrina, which happened twelve years after Butler’s book came out, resulted in charter school operators taking over the public school system in New Orleans and worsening education there as they monetized it. Parable also has a lot to say about race, gender, religion, and nasty/soulless corporations — topics Donald Trump has helped turn into disasters of another sort in 2017.

Of course, novels featuring ship voyages are often going to have water-related disasters. Two examples — one from literary lit and one from popular lit — include Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick with its ill-fated Pequod vessel and Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure with its capsizing ocean liner that turns upside down.

I haven’t read this novel, but Julie Barnes’ All Flavors includes a Florida hurricane as a significant presence.

For you, what fictional works (if any) came to mind after Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Texas, and surrounding areas?

You’re also welcome to mention novels you were reminded of by non-hurricane tragedies of any era. Examples include Albert Camus’ The Plague, Mary Shelley’s plague-filled The Last Man, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (cyclone), and books that use real-life disasters in a fictional setting — such as Pete Hamill’s Forever (the 9/11 attacks) and Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked (which ends with Pompeii’s 79 AD volcanic eruption).

Trump’s unwelcome Twitter storms don’t count…

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, about going back to school but not about going back to school, is here.

In Praise of (Some) Prequels

I once wrote a post about sequels. Today, the sequel to that piece is about…prequels.

Many prequels are by the same authors who previously wrote the set-later-in-time novels, while some are by writers who penned their books after the original writers died.

Prequels have the positives of offering readers more insight into characters (by seeing them again, in their younger years). Readers also get the chance to have their curiosity about those characters further sated. And prequels have other advantages I’ll bring up as I offer some specific examples — now.

I recently finished the latest Jack Reacher novel, 2016’s excellent Night School, and, as in The Affair, author Lee Child goes back in time to show Reacher in the 1990s. We learn more about the charismatic Jack’s military career before he became a roaming vigilante loner without a permanent home. And we see Reacher once again in his mid-30s, when most other recent Child novels have depicted Jack in his 50s. Obviously, when you fight bad guys with not only your brain but lots of physicality, it helps to be two decades younger…  🙂

Wide Sargasso Sea
is an example of a prequel — to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre — written by a different person. That would be Jean Rhys, who penned the novel long after Bronte died. Rhys’ idea was to give Jane Eyre‘s “madwoman in the attic” her due — showing her earlier life before and after meeting Rochester, and showing that she was a more complex character than portrayed by Bronte. Wide Sargasso Sea is a compelling, richly written book, but nothing beats the riveting Jane Eyre.

The Deerslayer was the last written of James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels, yet it shows white woodsman Natty Bumppo and his equally impressive Native American friend Chingachgook at their youngest. Nineteenth-century readers were undoubtedly thrilled to finally learn about the early years of those two memorable characters, and to “see” New York’s wilderness in a mostly undeveloped form. Plus I think The Deerslayer is the best of those five Cooper novels — including much more famous The Last of the Mohicans.

Another advantage of prequels is that they give authors a creative change of pace that can help them keep things fresh. Heck, maybe they don’t have many more things to say or plot variations to offer about their protagonists in those characters’ present day.

Disadvantages of prequels? In some cases, they might be written mostly to make money. Or perhaps we’re getting too much of the characters. Or maybe we’d rather leave their earlier lives to our imagination.

What are your favorite prequels? What do you think of the idea of prequels?

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, partly about August 21’s major eclipse, is here.

A Literary-Trivia Roundup

I’m away this week, but still wanted to post something new, so I thought I’d offer some highlights from my 2017 literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

Dorothy Parker willed her estate to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (who she had never met).

Jane Austen got the title of Pride and Prejudice from a line in Fanny Burney’s novel Cecilia.

The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originally referred to the wealthy family in which Edith Wharton (nee Jones) grew up.

The Starbuck character in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick inspired the name of a certain coffee chain.

O. Henry coined the term “banana republic” (when on the lam in Latin America after being charged with embezzlement).

George Orwell popularized the term “cold war.”

Orwell was briefly Aldous Huxley’s student at England’s Eton school (years before they respectively authored two of the 20th century’s most famous dystopian novels: Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World).

The title of Huxley’s nonfiction book The Doors of Perception inspired the name of The Doors rock band.

Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes died on nearly the same day in 1616.

The first modern novel? Not Cervantes’ Don Quixote, but perhaps Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji. She wrote it 1,000 years ago.

Isaac Asimov wrote and edited more than 500 books!

Agatha Christie’s greatest mystery? She disappeared for 10 days in 1926.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ancestors include Francis Scott Key (writer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” words) and Mary Surratt (who was executed for her part in the plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln).

Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Mark Twain were longtime neighbors in Hartford, Conn.

Twain was a huge fan of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, comparing Anne to Alice (of Wonderland fame).

Richard Wright starred as his Native Son novel’s teen protagonist Bigger Thomas in a 1950 movie. Wright was 42 at the time!

Daphne du Maurier may have been the favorite writer of Alfred Hitchcock, who made three films — including The Birds — based on her work.

H.G. Wells and Orson Welles (each of The War of the Worlds fame) appeared together on the same San Antonio radio show in 1940.

The Group author Mary McCarthy’s brother was actor Kevin McCarthy and a cousin was politician Eugene McCarthy.

The Jungle author Upton Sinclair received nearly 900,000 votes when he ran for governor of California in 1934.

Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God) worked as an anthropologist with Margaret Mead.

What do Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Beatles have in common? Liverpool! Hawthorne was U.S. consul there.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling is the only YA (young adult) novel to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Patricia Highsmith, Flannery O’Connor, John Updike, and Kurt Vonnegut were among the writers who were also cartoonists.

“Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz’s favorite novels included The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina.

Dr. Seuss partly based the look of his Cat in the Hat character on the Uncle Sam he drew for his editorial cartoons about 15 years earlier.

You can read many more facts if you buy the book!

Any interesting literary trivia you’d like to mention?

I might reply to comments more slowly this week (spotty wifi isn’t helping), but I will reply!

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about rampant overdevelopment in my town, is here.

The Talent and Relevance of Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale television series based on Margaret Atwood’s iconic 1985 novel is a smash hit — helped by the fact that this screen adaptation is very relevant during the time of a Trump administration that’s profoundly mean, sexist, macho, misogynist, anti-women, and patriarchal. Also, I just finished reading Atwood’s 2013 novel MaddAddam — the great third installment of the speculative-fiction trilogy whose first two books were Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.

So I thought I’d write an Atwood appreciation — one that combines new material with some material from the first literature blog post I ever published, on June 2, 2011. That post was an Atwood appreciation, too.

MaddAddam is one of those novels that has it all: memorable characters, adventure, scares, intrigue, humor, satire, snappy dialogue, romance of a sort, non-preachy social commentary (ranging from the environment to gender relations), and more. The postapocalyptic story of a small group of people who survived the almost total eradication of Earth’s population shows that Atwood is still a terrific novelist in her 70s — and that she has a way of sounding so current and up-to-date that one could mistake her for a writer in her 20s or 30s.

The 1939-born Canadian author is well known for bestselling fiction set in a dismal near-future. Heck, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the 20th century’s great dystopian novels — up there with Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four — about a U.S. society in which women have lost their rights and the relatively small number of fertile ones are forced to become “handmaids” basically raped for reproductive purposes.

But there’s an astonishing variety to Atwood’s canon. She has also written gripping historical fiction (the well-researched Alias Grace about a 19th-century double murder), many contemporary novels (such as Cat’s Eye about a middle-aged Canadian artist and The Robber Bride about three longtime friends dealing with a nemesis), and even a book from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife Penelope as her legendary hubby is off adventuring (The Penelopiad). Other Atwood novels contain elements of mystery (Surfacing) and surrealism (The Edible Woman). And the ultra-prolific author has penned short stories, children’s books, nonfiction books, poetry, and more. In fact, Atwood was a widely published poet for several years before her first novel was released — a career arc like Sir Walter Scott’s.

Atwood’s fiction is also quite layered. She often shifts scenes from the present to the past to the present — MaddAddam does this quite a bit — while managing not to confuse her readers. The Blind Assassin even includes a novel within that Booker Prize-winning novel. And several of Atwood’s novels contain poems, letters, newspaper stories, and other devices. Plus her characters are complex, three-dimensional people — with the “good” ones usually having some negative traits and the “bad” ones usually having some positive attributes.

No appreciation of Atwood would be complete without an example of her wonderful prose. In the “Hairball” story that’s part of her 1991 short-story collection Wilderness Tips, Atwood describes a character’s name this way: “During her childhood, she was a romanticized Katherine, dressed by her misty-eyed, fussy mother in dresses that looked like ruffled pillowcases. By high school she’d shed the frills and emerged as bouncy, round-faced Kathy, with gleaming freshly washed hair and enviable teeth, eager to please and no more interesting than a health-food ad. At university she was Kath, blunt and no-bullshit in her Take-Back-the-Night jeans and checked shirt and her bricklayer-style striped-denim peaked hat. When she ran away to England, she sliced herself down to Kat. It was economical, street feline, and pointed as a nail.”

Give this author a much-deserved Nobel Prize!

If you’ve read Atwood, what do you think of her work? And, in your opinion, what other living authors deserve a future Nobel for literature? A list of past winners can be seen here.

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, with a silly focus on the date August 10 through the centuries, is here.

Characters Who Make a Big Impression in a Small Amount of Time

The very weird Anthony Scaramucci lasted only 10 days as Donald Trump’s communications director — a brief and memorable White House cameo for that minor cast member in “Trumpland.”

Which reminds me of the many fictional people who appear for a short or relatively short time in novels, yet are unforgettable — whether they’re good or evil, funny or not funny, etc. They’re not as important as the protagonists and the top-tier secondary characters, but they leave their mark.

A few examples (chronologically by the novels’ publication date):

The gentle/ill-fated Helen of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre becomes friends with Jane when they’re both girls at the Lowood institution. Helen shows the young Jane that there’s some kindness in the world, and her (Helen’s) death helps spark changes at the unhealthy Lowood — cheaply run by wealthy “religious” hypocrite Mr. Brocklehurst — that probably save the lives of Jane and others.

Moby-Dick‘s Starbuck doesn’t appear a lot in Herman Melville’s novel, but the calm/earnest first mate is quite a contrast to the crazed Captain Ahab — and the only person on the Pequod ship who tries to talk Ahab out of continuing his obsessive quest to revenge himself on the white whale who bit off Ahab’s leg. But the not-brave-enough Starbuck (who inspired the name of a certain coffee chain) ultimately goes along with Ahab’s doomed mission.

In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, the mother Daniel has never really known turns up late, and only briefly, but she is a crucial piece in the puzzle as the title character discovers his secret Jewish identity. The mother-son scene is dramatic, heightened by the fact that she’s terminally ill.

A highlight of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is the devil cameo in an amazing scene that’s philosophical, hilarious, and more. Satan (a hallucination?) appears in the guise of an amiable elderly man and proceeds to tell a bunch of silly — or perhaps not so silly — stories.

In Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, there are many minor characters with cameos that will have you rolling on the floor. My favorite of those people might be Baloun, who’s always so hungry and food-obsessed that he can’t help scarfing down the edibles he’s supposed to be saving for his commanding officer.

Readers of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon only get to see the leader of Shangri-La for a short time, but that leader’s life is long: he’s 250 years old! Not easy to forget that

Eowyn has a minor part in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but it’s a memorable one as she disguises herself as a man to fight in battle. She stands out even more given that most of Tolkien’s characters are male and his trilogy has quite a bit of gender stereotyping. Yet The Lord of the Rings is still great.

Which is more than one can say about anybody who was or is part of the Trump administration.

Who are some of the minor characters in literature you’ve found majorly memorable?

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, with education and health themes, is here.