‘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?ย  ๐Ÿ™‚

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…ย  ๐Ÿ™‚

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 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…ย  ๐Ÿ™‚

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.

Authors as Landscapers

The most crucial elements of most literary works are the characters, plot, and quality of prose. But another important element is the landscape: where things happen, what that place looks like, the mood that locale might create, and how that place might affect what’s going on with the characters and plot.

And when some of that aforementioned prose is used to describe “the scenery,” the description can be quite evocative in the right authorial hands.

Landscape is a key part of Lee Child’s 61 Hours, a Jack Reacher crime thriller I just read. Reacher unexpectedly finds himself stuck in a bone-chillingly cold South Dakota town — and the bleak, wide-open spaces in and near that town help establish the novel’s spare, tense, scary, lonely, downbeat vibe.

South of South Dakota — in Oklahoma — is where John Steinbeck depicts the parched, dust storm-decimated farm country the impoverished Joads are forced to leave in The Grapes of Wrath. When they finally arrive in California after an arduous journey, they are struck by the Golden State’s lushness and beauty — only to find that the oppressive rich control just about everything.

That contrast of beauty and misery also crops up in Herman Melville’s first novel Typee, in which the protagonist is stranded on a gorgeous South Seas island where some ensuing events turn ugly. (Another contrast is the fact that the good but not great Typee sold many more copies than Moby-Dick during Melville’s lifetime.)

Then there are the rolling, moonlit, windswept moors in Wuthering Heights that do so much to help create the novel’s wild, eerie mood. When Emily Bronte’s characters trudge through that terrain, their destinations usually aren’t happy ones.

Rivers? Literature has a few, with perhaps the most famous being the mighty Mississippi in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Also memorable is the Tennessee River in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, whose titular protagonist lives in a houseboat. The Tennessee is lovely in parts, but also speaks to the poverty and despair of some characters — as when a suicide victim is pulled from the water.

Mountains? Glad you asked! In Lost Horizon, various characters are flown to (the fictional) Shangri-La amid Tibet’s majestic peaks. That towering, remote, dream-like setting is a big reason why many readers find James Hilton’s novel so mesmerizing. Even more towering are the peaks in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

Swamps? Mentioned in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Jungles? Parts of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast. The desert? Um…Desert by J.M.G. Le Clezio.

Changes in scenery when traveling? A good example, in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, is when Brit-living-near-Boston Howard revels in the no-snow look of England when he goes there during the winter.

A landscape can of course be urban, too. In The Marble Faun, Rome is almost a living, breathing character as Nathaniel Hawthorne describes its beautiful but hectic 19th-century present and its beautiful but spooky ancient past. The excitement and claustrophobia of a big city like Chicago comes through in Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife. An amazing visual image in Jack Finney’s Time and Again is the Statue of Liberty’s torch-holding arm in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park, where that arm was actually displayed from 1876 to 1882 — before the full statue arose in New York Harbor.

Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand shows an English town’s landscape in both the populated 1900s and less-populated 1300s, depending on the century protagonist Dick Young mentally occupies in his drugged mind.

Other time-travel novels, such as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, hauntingly picture future civilizations with architecture in partial or full ruin.

Science-fiction books, such as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, feature the unfamiliar yet at times sort of familiar landscapes of other worlds besides Earth.

There are also devastating views of battlefields — during and after the fighting — in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality, and many other novels.

Landscapes in literature can also convey a strong sense of nostalgia, as with James Fenimore Cooper’s descriptions of New York’s unspoiled 18th-century woods in novels such as The Deerslayer. Some of those forests were already getting cut down when Cooper was writing in the 19th century — and undeveloped areas are of course much more scarce today.

What are some of your favorite fictional works featuring memorable landscapes?

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For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also 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, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net 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.