Illustrations in Novels

When kids graduate from picture books to eventually read grown-up fiction, they don’t always have to give up visual images. As we all know, some adult novels include illustrations.

I thought about this while currently reading Czech author Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, which has drawings every few pages that add to the satiric feel of that hilarious antiwar novel. Josef Lada’s illustrations seem as simple as Svejk himself, but both have more depth than immediately meets the eye.

British writer George Monbiot said of The Good Soldier Svejk: “Perhaps the funniest novel ever written, and a brilliant study in how to get one up on the authorities while seeming to cooperate. Svejk appears to be the most loyal soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, yet all his energies are dedicated to trying to desert.”

Among the novels most associated with pictures are those written by Lewis Carroll (whose Alice books were illustrated by John Tenniel) and Charles Dickens (whose work was illustrated by “Phiz,” George Cruikshank, and others during the author’s lifetime). Masterful art.

Also, the illustrators of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote over the centuries have fixed a memorable image in our minds of that ultra-thin, tilt-at-windmills title character.

Some novelists, such as Kurt Vonnegut, have illustrated their own books. And, in the poetry area, William Blake created astoundingly great illustrations to go along with his verse.

Speaking of artists with the first name William, my friend Kathy Eliscu’s great, quirky, seriocomic novel Not Even Dark Chocolate Can Fix This Mess includes illustrations by William D. Eldridge.

Then there are novels with photos, such as the evocative 19th-century New York City shots in Jack Finney’s time-travel tour de force Time and Again.

There’s also the “Great Illustrated Classics” series — which has included novels such as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, to name a few.

Young-adult (YA) novels of course tend to have more images than adult books. But even some grown-up novels that don’t include illustrations within their chapters might have little sketches at the start of chapters — as is the case with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Then there are drawing-heavy graphic novels (which have been described as large, literary comic books), but that’s a whole other story.

The positives of images in novels? We get to admire the skill of accomplished artists, their drawings help break up hundreds of pages of text, we find out what characters look like, and more.

Negatives? Many readers would rather imagine what characters and scenes look like than be shown. (Some of those readers might try to avoid screen adaptations of fictional works for the same reason.) Of course, many novels without inside illustrations do picture the protagonists on the cover.

What are some of your favorite novels you’ve read in illustrated editions? The pros and cons of pictures accompanying fictional prose?

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 overdevelopment, is here.

Domestic Violence in Literature

Novels featuring abusive men are painful to get through, but there is something to be said for reading them.

When treated fictionally, one sees the horrible abuse problem on a visceral, dramatic level — whether the problem is physical abuse, sexual abuse, verbal abuse, or all three. We might see why it happens (though there’s never a legitimate excuse), how the victim is affected, whether the legal system gets involved, and more. And if the abuser gets his comeuppance, that can be very satisfying.

Heck, fictional abusers get that comeuppance more often than real-life abusers (though not always). After all, some novels are partly vehicles for wish fulfillment.

This is a topic I have some personal experience with, given that my late father unfortunately was often verbally abusive and sometimes physically abusive. So I bring those memories into the reading of certain novels, as do many other people with their own painful memories.

Last week I finished Amanda Moores’ Dream Palace, and central to that 1994 novel is a young woman who becomes infatuated with a macho, handsome, charismatic diver (when he works). Though the warning signs of abuse are there (as is often the case) and Laurie barely knows Jim, she impulsively agrees to his offer of marriage.

Then the verbal harassment and physical blows begin, along with ultra-controlling behavior. How the initially meek Laurie finds some backbone to deal with all that is a major focus of the eloquently written book by Ms. Moores, who happens to be the wife of this blog’s regular commenter jhNY.

(Some of you may recall a 2015 post in which I discussed Ms. Moores’ later fictional work, the emotionally riveting Grail Nights, which focuses on a New Orleans bartender named Sheila who has a small role in Dream Palace.)

Another compelling novel featuring domestic violence is Stephen King’s Rose Madder — in which low-life abuser Norman is scarily a police officer. The oft-beaten Rose Daniels escapes the house and boards a bus to a new place — after which husband Norman seeks her out. Will Rose fight back? You’ll see if she does as the novel turns into a mix of realism and the supernatural.

The Jack Reacher character is a human fighting machine but also feminist in his way, so it’s no surprise that some of Lee Child’s novels — including Echo Burning and Worthy Dying For — include vile abusive men who draw Reacher’s wrath. Readers will cheer when Jack socks the (rich) abuser in the latter book.

Buchi Emecheta’s novel Second Class Citizen stars Adah, who maintains her ambition and resilience despite various obstacles that include being physically abused by a husband who also cheats on her.

In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Celie is abused by her father — a parental outrage that probably also happens to the Mayella character in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

And Margaret Atwood’s iconic dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale — now a TV phenomenon — is of course about domestic violence writ large as women are denied their rights and the fertile ones are forced to bear children.

Here’s a list of many other fiction books that apparently contain domestic-violence content.

What are the some of the most memorable novels you’ve read on this topic?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be bought here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a Harry Potter theme! — is here.

You Too (U2) Can Enjoy Irish Literature!

On June 28, I and perhaps 60,000 other people saw a great U2 concert in New Jersey. The world-famous rock band is of course from Ireland, so I naturally thought of writing a blog post about Irish or Irish-born authors.  🙂 That means if you ever said “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” and what you were looking for was a piece about Irish literature, look no more.  🙂

Is there some underlying theme or “feel” to Irish literature? I’m not expert enough to say, so I thought I’d just discuss some of the fictional works I’ve read with an authorial connection to Ireland.

When one thinks of Irish literature, James Joyce is often the first writer who comes to mind. I haven’t read a lot of Joyce’s work; for instance, I’ve yet to tackle Ulysses or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But I did read the Dubliners collection that ends with the iconic short story “The Dead.” That haunting, almost-novella-length tale features a woman who hears a song that triggers a melancholy memory of her youth — and also triggers a sort of stunned reaction from her husband.

Another legendary Irish writer (some think of him as English) is Oscar Wilde — who’s known for short stories such as the hilarious “The Canterville Ghost” and the striking novel The Picture of Dorian Gray but is most remembered for his witty plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest.

Speaking of theater, other notable Irish or Irish-born playwrights have included George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Oliver Goldsmith.

Going back even further in the 18th-century than Goldsmith, we have Jonathan Swift — author of the amazing novel Gulliver’s Travels.

Speaking of amazing novelists, Dracula writer Bram Stoker was Irish. Which reminds me that the title of U2’s song “Sunday Bloody Sunday” omits six days of vampire feasting each week…

C.S. Lewis of The Chronicles of Narnia fame was born in Ireland, too. As was Brian O’Nolan (pen name: Flann O’Brien), who, in the James Joyce tradition, wrote extremely enigmatic novels such as The Third Policeman.

A more straightforward wordsmith is Colm Toibin, who has perfected a blend of literary and popular fiction with such novels as The Master (about Henry James) and Brooklyn (about a young Irish woman who comes to America — and which was turned into a 2015 major motion picture of the same name).

Then there’s John Banville, who, under the pen name Benjamin Black, has written absorbing crime novels starring Dublin pathologist Quirke. Some of that fiction has a very jaded view of the corruption and child abuse of which some Catholic Church leaders have been guilty.

Among other past and present Irish or Irish-born writers of note: Brendan Behan, Maeve Binchy, Elizabeth Bowen, Clare Boylan, Maeve Brennan, Frank Delaney, Roddy Doyle, Maria Edgeworth, Anne Enright, Molly Keane, Claire Keegan, Marian Keyes, Brian Moore, Iris Murdoch, Edna O’Brien, Frank O’Connor, and William Trevor.

I can’t end this blog post without noting that there have of course been great Irish or Irish-born poets (such as William Butler Yeats) and nonfiction writers (such as Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame). Also, the father of literary icons Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Bronte was born in Ireland as Patrick Brunty.

Who/what are your favorite Irish authors and fictional works?

Here’s a song performed at the U2 concert I attended. Nope, not “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” but “Where the Streets Have No Name.”

I’ll be away much of this week — with less time (and perhaps less WiFi access) to quickly reply to comments. But I’ll answer when I can!

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be bought 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 is here.

The Fiction Format of Flitting From One Character to Another

There are two kinds of novels! Good ones and bad ones? Well, yes. But the novels I’m talking about this week are those that flit from character to character rather than mostly focus on one protagonist — as do books such as Jane Eyre and Crime and Punishment.

The advantages of the flit approach of course include getting to know, in-depth, a number of main characters rather than perhaps one or two protagonists per book. Readers get a wider, more panoramic view of humanity — and become curious about how much of a connection the various characters will have with each other before the novel ends. Also, it can be impressive to see the way an author juggles various fictional people and plot lines.

Disadvantages include the potential of not getting as absorbed with the lives of multiple characters as one might with a single compelling protagonist. And when flit-fiction readers do get absorbed, a character might disappear for several or quite a few chapters — requiring repeated efforts to become interested in totally different cast members.

I’m currently reading Louis de Bernieres’ Corelli’s Mandolin — which jumps from character to character, circles back to each one, and then jumps again. We get to know a soldier devastated by war, a doctor, his daughter, the daughter’s Greek fiance, an Italian officer who falls in love with the daughter, a dictator, and others. Takes a while to get used to, and to get interested, in those various people, but we eventually do in this wonderfully written, harrowing, funny novel.

Other novels that move from character to character (with certain people disappearing for many pages or chapters) include George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Glass’s Three Junes, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, to name a few.

What are some of your favorite novels that move from character to character? (Either books I named or didn’t name.) Your thoughts on the pros and cons of focusing on multiple characters vs. following the doings of mostly one protagonist?

This three-year-old blog reached 1,000 followers last week. Thank you, everyone!

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 is here.

Novels We Like Can Have an Unlikable Cast

Can we like novels filled with unlikable characters?

Yes, though it’s kind of depressing when there’s not even one main player to sympathize with or admire. Instead, we hope the story line is compelling enough and the writing impressive enough to make up for the absence of congenial characters.

This topic came to mind after I finished Donna Tartt’s The Secret History earlier this month. Many of the novel’s Vermont college students and other characters are cold, spoiled, whiny, annoying, entitled, users of drugs, heavy drinkers, and/or other negative things. Heck, some of them are killers, too. Still, I mostly liked the book overall for its originality and excellent writing. But I liked Tartt’s later The Goldfinch a lot more — it’s a masterpiece of fiction with a very satisfying conclusion, AND its flawed Theo Decker protagonist has some positive qualities.

Another excellent novel with virtually all unlikable characters is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. That book’s white gang members sweep their way through the mid-1800s American West slaughtering innocent Native Americans, Hispanics, and others. Even “the kid,” Blood Meridian‘s nameless teen character, is only somewhat less despicable than the men he falls in with. But this novel is often considered McCarthy’s best, for its powerful prose and truth-telling. Indeed, many white men in that time and place were a brutal bunch — exemplifying how a novel filled with unlikable characters can be quite realistic given the many hateful real-life people of the past and present.

In Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, former Iran military man Massoud, the drug-using/irresponsible Kathy, and the adulterous/takes-sides deputy sheriff Lester are all unlikable protagonists and/or do dumb, nasty things as they fight over ownership of a California home — though the novel does have a sympathetic secondary character in Massoud’s wife Nadi. But the feverishly intense House of Sand and Fog is a riveting read.

Then there’s Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin, in which one can sympathize somewhat with the title character’s difficult lot in life yet not like her that much. And the major characters surrounding her — including her husband Camille, her lover Laurent, and Therese’s mother-in-law — are far from admirable, with Laurent joining Therese in becoming murderers. Yet Zola’s early-career novel is quite readable, though much less accomplished than his later classics such as Germinal.

Humor also helps to make a novel appealing despite unappealing characters. For instance, the buffoonish Ignatius J. Reilly and most of the other people in A Confederacy of Dunces are either unlikable or very weird (which actually can be welcome in a novel). But John Kennedy Toole’s book is hilarious, and quite different, so it’s okay that there’s no character who readers would particularly want to meet in real life.

What are your favorite novels with few or no likable characters?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my 2017 literary-trivia book 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, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column, about a graduation and parks, is here.

It Takes Two to Write a Novel (Sometimes)

When I attended another great National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference this month, it struck me yet again how nice it is be with other columnists and bloggers. Can that extend to writing novels?

Not much, it seems. A very small percentage of fiction books are co-authored, and it’s easy to see why. Novel-writing is meant to be a solitary thing, writing with another person can be difficult logistically and emotionally, and a book usually needs to have a certain narrative “voice” from only one person. There’s a reason why the phrase “writing by committee” has negative connotations — including the frequent result of things being watered down. (Nonfiction is a somewhat different animal with more collaborations, though not that many.)

Still, two authors can occasionally be a positive — with a duo bringing two perspectives, two kinds of expertise, and two of various other attributes to one book.

Perhaps the most famous co-authored novel is The Gilded Age by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, who didn’t write each chapter together. Instead, Twain penned some sections of the book while Warner wrote other sections. Twain’s parts of The Gilded Age are of course vivid and satirical while Warner’s are more conventional (including a romance) yet still pretty good.

Stephen King and Peter Straub, best known as horror/suspense writers, collaborated on The Talisman and its sequel Black House. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman co-wrote Good Omens, Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford co-penned Romance, Dave Barry co-authored Peter and the Starcatchers and other novels with Ridley Pearson and Lunatics with Alan Zweibel, Carl Hiaasen did three early-career novels with William Montalbano, and Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk co-created Ciao Bella.

Of course, there are a number of novel collaborations that are at least partly hidden — as when certain famous authors have assistants do some of the work. And then there are novels finished by another person after the original author dies; one example of that was The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., started by Jack London (based on an idea by Sinclair Lewis!) and completed by Robert L. Fish.

What do you think of novels being co-authored — the pros and the cons? Do you have any favorites in that small genre?

(Speaking of double-bylined works, last night I saw a community-theater production of The Twentieth Century by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who are best known for their newspaper play The Front Page.)

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my 2017 literary-trivia book 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, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column is here.

Hooray for Historical Fiction!

As I mentioned last week, I’ll be posting one more blog rerun today as I cope with a busy month that included attending a GREAT June 8-11 National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Manchester, New Hampshire. I’ll return to doing all-new posts next Sunday, June 18, but, until then, here’s a slightly revised piece from November 3, 2011:

It’s a current fact that I love historical fiction. No, not the kind that wrongly said Barack Obama was born outside the U.S., but the kind in novels.

Why is historical fiction great? For one thing, it enables you to learn about the past in a way that goes down easily and entertainingly.

I realize it might be better to read nonfiction history books than historical fiction. After all, historical fiction can idealize, over-dramatize, and “error-ize” the past. But this fun and absorbing novel genre is better than reading no history at all — especially when the author does plenty of research.

Books of total fiction are wonderful, but there’s something about partly factual novels that excite readers. Knowing that the made-up characters you’re bonding with are experiencing real events, living through real times of societal progress or regress, and meeting real celebrities of their era can help make a novel fascinating.

Want to know more about U.S. history? There’s Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which takes its title from the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Or try E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex — two books that happen to share a real-life character by the name of Henry Ford. Or William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner and David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident — a pair of novels that address America’s brutal system of slavery. Or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which includes Mexican as well as U.S. history; Gore Vidal’s Burr, Lincoln, and 1876; and many other titles by many other authors.

Almost everything I know about pre-1800 Scottish history I learned from Sir Walter Scott’s excellent novels, including Rob Roy and Old Mortality. I picked up some French history by reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (the French Revolution), Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and its sequels (in which Louis XIV appears), Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock (French immigrants in 17th-century Quebec), and Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (perhaps you’ve heard of her).

Care for a baseball book that mixes fact and fiction? Try Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back (about a time traveler from the 20th century who hooks up with baseball’s 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings as well as Mark Twain — before he wrote that Joan of Arc novel).

The 1800s are also the time of Alias Grace, in which Margaret Atwood brilliantly reconstructs a Canadian double-murder case and makes an engrossing character out of Grace Marks — who may or may not have participated in the killings.

Whether the real-life people in novels are obscure (Ms. Marks) or famous (Mr. Twain), historical fiction can humanize them — moving them from cardboard cutouts to flesh-and-blood protagonists who seem as three-dimensional as the made-up characters with whom they interact.

That, if you’ll excuse the hackneyed phrase, makes history come alive.

What are some of your favorite works of historical fiction?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book 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, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — which discusses such topics as Trump’s pulling out of the Paris climate accord — is here.