When the Good and the Bad Get Ugly

Sometimes opposites attract — for a little while, at least — and this is true in literature as well as real life. Today, I’m going to discuss relationships between “bad boys” and admirable women, and between not-so-admirable women and decent men.

Both variations can make for interesting reading. Is it just physical attraction? Are these people masochists? Does their very incompatibility make things (temporarily) exciting? Do those couples have ANYTHING in common? Will the relationship be fairly brief, before too much psychological (and/or physical) damage happens? Or will things go on for far too long? Was the liaison seemingly positive at first before one person started acting badly?

The idea for this post was suggested by “elisabethm,” who writes the excellent literature blog “A Russian Affair.” A recent post of hers mentioned “bad guy” Dolokhov and his marriage proposal to “good girl” Sonya in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

While on the subject of Russian literature, there is of course kind/moral Sonya and tortured soul Raskolnikov, a murderer with some redeeming qualities in Crime and Punishment. The conclusion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel is basically all about the positive impact Sonya has on Raskolnikov.

Other examples of good women who spent some time with not-good men include the wonderful Dorothea Brooke, who’s married to pompous/ineffectual/cold-fish scholar Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; the admirable Helen and her alcoholic husband Arthur of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which Helen bravely leaves her abusive spouse; the hardworking Gervaise and her starts-off-decent-but-grows-mean-and-lazy-after-getting-injured husband Coupeau of Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den; the independent-minded-but-deferential (for a while) Orleanna Price and her rotten-to-the-core missionary husband Nathan of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible; the clairvoyant Clara and the nasty but somewhat redeemable right-winger Esteban in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits; Celeste and her violent rich banker husband Perry in Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies; and Ruth and her abusive spouse Frank in Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

Then there are novels in which good guys find themselves in relationships with problematic women. Those include, among others, W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, in which the talented but lacking-in-confidence Philip Carey falls hard for the nasty, not-so-smart Mildred Rogers; and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, in which the unlikable Gauri leaves her likable husband Subhash and also abandons her daughter Bela — who Subhash conscientiously raises.

A couple of notes: Obviously, many of the above characters are not all bad or all good. And there can of course be the bad-good dynamic in same-gender relationships, but this blog post is about female-male relationships.

What are your favorite works that fit this column’s topic?

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 — which mixes my recent trip to France with local news — is here.

Where Some Very Famous Writers Are Buried

People can of course feel close to authors when reading their work. We get a sense of how they think, what they like and dislike, and so on. Then there’s getting REALLY close to authors — as in visiting their graves. That’s what I was able to do while in France the past couple of weeks.

A major highlight of the trip was visiting the Pantheon, the striking 18th-century neoclassical Paris structure housing the remains of many prominent French citizens in basement crypts. After walking down stone spiral steps, one first spots the coffin of Voltaire behind a statue of the writer of Candide and other memorable works.

But down a hallway was a room I most wanted to see. As I stepped inside, there were the tombs of Victor Hugo on the left, Emile Zola on the right, and Alexandre Dumas straight ahead. Wow — the 19th-century authors of Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Germinal and The Drinking Den, and The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers within several feet of each other!

(For those of you who are my Facebook friends, I’m posting some Pantheon photos on FB tomorrow. I took the picture that appears with this column as I walked toward the building.)

The Pantheon highlight for my daughter was the crypt of a non-novelist: Marie Curie. Maria and her schoolmates recently learned about the famous chemist/physicist.

One can also feel close to late authors by visiting their homes. I’ve been fortunate to see the houses of Charles Dickens (in London), Herman Melville (Pittsfield, Mass.), Mark Twain (Hartford, Conn.), Harriet Beecher Stowe (next door to Twain’s mansion), and others.

What have been your experiences visiting the tombs or homes of famous authors? Also, your favorite French authors and/or your favorite books at least partly set in France?

Next week, a longer column in my usual style!

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 an endless superintendent search and more — is here.

Different Approaches to Reading Sequels

When we finish a great novel that’s part of a series or has sequels, it’s a wonderful feeling to know there’s more to come. But how to go about it? Do we focus on those books for weeks or months on end, ignoring the work of other authors? Or do we read the next installments sporadically over a longer period of time while mixing in different writers?

There’s no right answer, of course — it’s whatever the individual reader prefers. And if the next installment hasn’t been written/published yet, obviously fiction fans will read other authors as they eagerly await a serial saga’s continuation.

The pros and cons of each approach? If one reads a series or sequels while ignoring novels by different writers, one can achieve wonderful immersion and momentum, really get to know the characters, more easily remember foreshadowing from previous books, and pick up other kinds of nuances. On the negative side, a bit of sameness can set in. And think of all the literary variety temporarily being missed!

My most memorable experience with both approaches involved J.K. Rowling’s stellar Harry Potter series. Starting in the late 1990s, I waited each year or so for the next installment. A painful wait, but there were plenty of months to read other authors. Then, several years after the seventh and last of the Potter novels was published, I went back and reread them one after another — with no non-Potter book in between. It was a terrific experience, partly for the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph.

I also consecutively read James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels (The Last of the Mohicans, etc.). I don’t care that Mark Twain hated those books; I liked them a lot.

And of course when you have a compelling trilogy, you might as well read all three books in a row — as I did with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and its two sequels, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and its two sequels, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. (For me, there was a gap between reading Tolkien’s trilogy and an earlier reading of The Hobbit prequel.)

Recently, it was Martin Cruz Smith’s work that had me wrestling with how to go about reading sequels. I liked his Gorky Park so much last month that I quickly borrowed the first two sequels from the library. Polar Star (claustrophobically set on a fishing ship) was almost as good, as was Red Square. But I did manage to squeeze another author’s book — Philippa Gregory’s very good historical novel Earthly Joys — between Gorky Park and Polar Star. Which made me want to read the Earthly Joys sequel Virgin Earth. 🙂 But when I visited my local library this past Friday, Virgin Earth wasn’t there, so I borrowed the five other Gorky Park sequels! (Havana Bay, Wolves Eat Dogs, Stalin’s Ghost, Three Stations, and Tatiana.)

Other times, months or even years go by before I get to the next installment. That was the case with John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and its sequel Sweet Thursday.

Or it can be a little of both approaches. For instance, I read L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables and its first three sequels consecutively, and then later got back to the other sequels.

There’s also the case of reading some sequels but not all of them. I enjoyed Walter Mosley’s first two Easy Rawlins mysteries and Sue Grafton’s first four Kinsey Millhone alphabet mysteries, but not quite enough to immediately continue with more. But I might get back to them!

And how about reading a series mostly out of order? I’ve done that with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels, partly because some of the books were at my local library only some of the time.

How do you read series and sequels?

Because of some travel, I will not be posting columns March 25 and April 1. I look forward to returning with a new piece on April 8! I’ll still respond when I can to any comments under already-published columns.

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 topics such as a mayor’s interference in the search for a schools superintendent — is here.

The Bicentennial of a Great Year for Literature

We’re living in the bicentennial anniversary of 1818 — a very consequential 12 months in the early days of the modern novel.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came out that year. One of the most important novels ever written when you think of its impact on science fiction, the horror genre, movies, women writing fiction, and more. Published when Shelley was barely in her 20s, it’s a philosophical, page-turning, poignant work about hubris, human cruelty, the meaning of life, and other weighty issues.

Shelley followed Frankenstein with such books as The Last Man (1826), published when the 1797-born author was in her late 20s. That apocalyptic, set-in-the-future novel was also a pioneering tale — as well as a time capsule thanks to the three main characters being based on Mary, her famous poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, and their famous poet friend Lord Byron.

Getting back to 1818, that was also when Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were released posthumously.

Persuasion is my favorite Austen novel and stars my favorite Austen heroine (Anne Elliot). It has a lot less cachet than Pride and Prejudice, and somewhat less cachet than Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Mansfield Park, but I think the lean Persuasion is the brightest gem in Austen’s six-novel canon.

Northanger Abbey is my least favorite Austen work, though that love story and satire of Gothic fiction is still an absorbing read.

Austen, of course, is as popular as ever 200 years after 1818. Actually, much more popular given that she had only modest celebrity and sales success before her 1817 death at age 41.

And 1818 saw the publication of The Heart of Midlothian — Sir Walter Scott’s first novel to star a woman, and the first of his to star a protagonist from the “lower classes.” It compellingly chronicles the Jeanie Deans character’s long trek on foot from Scotland to London to try to clear her sister’s name.

The Heart of Midlothian is my favorite Scott novel, though he also authored a number of other excellent ones — including Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Old Mortality, and Quentin Durward, to name just four. All were written after the 1771-born Scott turned 40; the first part of his writing career was spent as a very widely read poet. (“Oh what a tangled web we weave/when first we practise to deceive.”)

I’ll end this post by also mentioning two great 1918 novels: Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons.

Any thoughts on the work of Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, and/or Sir Walter Scott?

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 topics such as school tours and March 14’s national student walkout for better gun control — is here.

Donald Trump Meets Jack Reacher

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Donald Trump’s disastrous time in the White House. Also, I finished reading Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel last week. The Trump-Reacher connection? There is no connection. But I’m going to make a connection. “Fake news” and all that.

First my brief review of 2017’s The Midnight Line, Child’s 22nd Reacher novel. (I’ve read 20 of them, and will eventually get to the two I missed! As Jack says, “Good to go.”)

The Midnight Line has some of the visceral action Reacher fans love — various villains get battered by Jack in innovatively choreographed ways. But this book also features a more mature, reflective Reacher — the big guy is now 57, after all — and there are poignant passages amid the page-turning excitement. Plus plenty of social commentary about America’s drug scourge and grievously wounded veterans — with the roaming Reacher getting a firsthand look at both problems while trying to locate a woman whose West Point ring he finds in a Wisconsin pawn shop. Last but not least, Child’s writing is as lean and impressive as ever, and includes the usual touches of humor.

My “fake news” connection between Jack (a good-hearted man of integrity) and Trump (a heartless man of no integrity)? I’m going to seriocomically discuss America’s Predator-in-Chief using the titles of all 22 Reacher novels. As I do that, I’ll keep in mind that Trump has boasted about sexually assaulting women, called majority-black countries “shitholes,” made life hell for immigrants, pushed awful tax “reform” that benefits only the ultra-rich, tried to yank away health care from millions, removed environmental protections, and more.

Killing Floor: Trump’s words and actions are so low there’s no floor to them. He killed the floor.

Die Trying: What happened to the woman in Charlottesville, Virginia, who bravely tried to counter Neo-Nazis the white-supremacist Trump would then praise.

Tripwire: What might keep Trump’s hair in place when he exits Air Force One after flying on a windy day.

Running Blind: If the didn’t-protect-his-eyes Trump had looked longer at last year’s major eclipse, this book title would have described his reelection effort in 2020.

Echo Burning: Sort of like Eco Burning — Trump has hurt the U.S. ecology in many ways.

Without Fail: The almost-always-wrong Trump never admits he’s almost always wrong.

Persuader: Trump has expertly persuaded everyone he’s a jerk.

The Enemy: Today’s GOP — including Trump, Paul Ryan, and other cruel far-right Republicans.

One Shot: All the out-of-shape Trump would manage to heave up on a basketball court.

The Hard Way: Democrats trying to win elections despite Republican voter suppression, gerrymandering, big corporate money, and biased right-wing media.

Bad Luck and Trouble: Nicknames for Trump’s two adult sons.

Nothing to Lose: Trump figured that was the case when claiming bone spurs to avoid the Vietnam War draft, even though he was healthy enough back then to play intense sports. His scam worked.

Gone Tomorrow: We wish. But then there would be Mike Pence. 😦

61 Hours: How long it takes Trump to read a paragraph.

Worth Dying For: No war that Trump might start with his reckless words.

The Affair: Not just one adulterous relationship for Trump while he has been married.

A Wanted Man: How law enforcement should label the corrupt Trump.

Never Go Back: The current White House occupant cowardly avoids visiting his posh Trump Tower home in New York City, where he’s loathed.

Personal: Trump takes criticism very personally.

Make Me: What Trump told his father, who bankrolled his not-self-made son’s real-estate career.

Night School: The incurious/ignorant Trump could use some schooling any time of the day.

The Midnight Line: Any repugnant sentence Trump spews out on Twitter when most of us are asleep.

Conclusion: Reacher would know what to do with someone like Trump.

I’m sure you could come up with other ways to discuss Trump via those Lee Child titles! Try if you’d like!  🙂

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 the complicity of my town’s Republicans re the vile Trump — is here.

Frigid Fiction

Much of the U.S. last week experienced record cold temperatures — including a painful 8 degrees Fahrenheit in my town as I wrote this blog post. At least that single-digit number had the silver lining of being 443 degrees short of the burn threshold of books, according to Ray Bradbury.

Of course, the bitter weather made me think of novels in which characters face low temperatures rather than the heat that consumed books in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. And I’m aware of having penned a somewhat similar piece about wintry literature five years ago for The Huffington Post (which treated its bloggers and commenters…coldly), but this piece has lots of new material and was written from scratch.

Among other literary attributes, cold weather and its often-accompanying dose of snow help create drama — with sheer survival sometimes at stake. Wintry fiction also makes us lament that the non-affluent are affected more by the elements than the rich. And for those reading cold-filled novels in warm homes or warm climes, it’s all vicarious — we’re not the ones freezing.

Russian novels are obviously among the first books that come to mind when thinking of fictional works with bone-chilling scenes in some or all their pages. These novels include, among many others, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (just ask Napoleon), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The House of the Dead, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — with the second and fourth of those books set in Siberian prison camps.

Then there are Scandinavian novels (a number of them mysteries) with teeth-chattering locales — for instance, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbor.

And Canadian literature has plenty of shivering scenarios in novels ranging from Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In to Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Is Dead (Jewish guy among the Eskimos!), to cite just two examples.

But authors from many other countries have obviously also tackled the cold — including Jack London in The Call of the Wild and White Fang, Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, Herman Melville in Pierre, Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome, Willa Cather in My Antonia, Erich Maria Remarque in Spark of Life, L.M. Montgomery in The Blue Castle, Rita Mae Brown in Rubyfruit Jungle, Donna Tartt in The Secret History, Fannie Flagg in A Redbird Christmas, Jhumpa Lahiri in The Namesake, Audrey Niffenegger in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Maria Semple in Where’d You Go, Bernadette (which actually takes its characters to Antarctica), Joyce Carol Oates in Solstice, Alistair MacLean in Where Eagles Dare, Stephen King in The Shining, Lee Child in the Jack Reacher novel 61 Hours, and Andy Weir in The Martian.

Short stories with cold and snow? Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” (freezing was never so tragically poignant), James Joyce’s “The Dead,” Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” London’s “To Build a Fire,” etc.!

What are your favorite fictional works with wintry elements?

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 — guest-written by my cat 🙂 — is here.

Past Novels That Were Kind of Prescient About Our Present

When it comes to years-ago literature with a lot to say about our current times, sci-fi, speculative fiction, and dystopian novels are certainly at the top of the list — and I’ll mention some titles from those genres later in this post.

But the main focus of this piece will be “general” novels of decades or centuries ago that are relevant to events in the 2000s, proving that some authors — whether their predictive powers were conscious, subconscious, or accidental — were pretty prescient.

For instance, I just read James Michener’s riveting Caravans — a 1963 novel set in 1946 Afghanistan — and it has tons of things to say about Islam, racism, gender relations, conformity vs. non-conformity, and other matters very germane to the 21st century.

Being married to an abusive/alcoholic husband in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) causes Helen to leave Arthur — an unusual decision for the time that made Anne Bronte’s novel a proto-feminist book that positively anticipated the increased independence of many women today.

George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda was published in 1876, but it was already talking about Zionism. That’s very much an issue in 2017, as are related matters such as Israeli-Palestinian relations and Trump’s disturbing decision to call Jerusalem the capital of Israel (and move the U.S. embassy there) despite that city being sacred to three religions.

By being sexually frank (to varying degrees for their times), novels such as Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), Emile Zola’s Nana (1880), and D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) presaged the 1960s sexual revolution that continues to this day. Also, Colette’s Claudine at School (1900) was among the long-ago novels to address same-gender love with some candor.

Edward Bellamy’s utopian time-travel novel Looking Backward (1888) predicted the debit card — the use of which says plenty about our 21st-century society today. In fact, Bellamy’s book was set in the year 2000.

Then there are sci-fi, speculative fiction, and dystopian novels that ended up commenting about our present time — including the repulsive words, beliefs, and actions of Donald Trump and his Republican ilk. Here are just a few of those books (most of them obvious), listed in reverse chronological order: Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 Parable of the Sower (climate change/privatization), Margaret Atwood’s 1985 The Handmaid’s Tale (onerous male domination/sexual predation), George Orwell’s 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four (authoritarianism/lie-filled propaganda), Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 All the King’s Men (corrupt politicians), Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 It Can’t Happen Here (fascism in America), Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World (citizens kept in line more by diversion than by brute force), H.G. Wells’ 1901 The First Men in the Moon (space exploration), and Jules Verne’s 1873 Around the World in Eighty Days (rapid travel between countries).

Your favorite novels that seemed to know something about the future that’s now our present?

Happy New Year!

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, which has a New Year’s Day theme, is here.