Not an Error to Depict Many an Era

A novel that spans a long period of time can be quite impressive and interesting. The author research required, the segueing from century to century, the awe that’s inspired in seeing the sweep of history, the mixed feelings about “civilization” encroaching on nature, etc.

One excellent example of this is a book I’m currently reading. Norah Lofts’ A Wayside Tavern begins in 384 AD with the story of a Roman soldier and a slave woman in Britain, and then chronologically proceeds nearly 1,600 years into the 20th century — all in 376 pages!

Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour takes many more pages (nearly 1,000) to tell the tale of four centuries of witches. That compelling novel’s timeline is not strictly linear — much of the book is set in the 1900s — but there’s plenty of back story spanning those aforementioned centuries.

Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue evocatively proceeds in reverse-chronological order — focusing on the ownership of a painting (possibly a Vermeer) from the 20th century back to the 1600s.

I’m not sure exactly what the time span is in Gabriel García Márquez’s iconic One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it seems like more than a century as it chronicles seven generations of the Buendía family.

Seven generations are also featured in Alex Haley’s semi-autobiographical novel Roots, which depressingly and dramatically goes from the slave trade of the 1700s into the 1900s.

Time-travel and science-fiction novels of course often span many a year, century, or millennium. For instance, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (image atop this blog post) moves from California in 1976 to a Maryland plantation in 1815, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand goes from the 1900s to the 14th century, and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court switches from the 1800s to the time of “Camelot.” H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine begins in the 19th century and brings its traveler first to 802,701 AD and then a mind-boggling 30 million years into the future to witness Earth dying. An author can’t span much more time than that!

Series and sequels obviously allow authors to potentially cover large swaths of time, but I’m focusing on individual books here.

Before ending this post, I did want to mention that there are some drawbacks to long time spans in fiction. For instance, readers aren’t able to enjoy a character for that many chapters before the author moves on to other characters. Meanwhile, we mourn the deaths of the previous characters — unless they’re villains, of course. 🙂

What are some of your favorite novels that cover many, many years?

My 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 focuses on too much standardized testing and other topics — is here.

In Certain Books, Learn, Learn, Learn

Among the many benefits of reading novels is often learning new things while (hopefully) enjoying a great story.

For instance, I just read the Dick Francis crime novel Break In, and, along with being impressed with the thrilling plot and skilled character depictions, received an education about steeplechase horse racing. (It certainly didn’t hurt that Francis was a former steeplechase jockey himself.) In addition, there was plenty of information about the intricacies of 1980s-era TV production and editing.

I also learned a lot about coal mining — the 19th-century French version, at least — in a more literary novel: Emile Zola’s riveting Germinal (see the image atop this blog post). In fact, a number of Zola’s novels have a subject theme: The Masterpiece (art), The Drinking Den (alcoholism), The Beast in Man (trains), The Ladies’ Delight (department stores), Nana (prostitution), etc.

Another 19th-century classic, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, includes sometimes tedious passages on whales and whaling amid the dramatic doings of Ahab, Ishmael, Queequeg, and company. But those passages are quite an education.

When I think about World War II, my mind usually focuses on how it affected the aggressor countries Germany and Japan as well as Allied countries such as the U.S., England, France, and Russia. But reading Elsa Morante’s compelling novel History gave me a real sense of how things played out in Italy, another aggressor country back then.

Novels such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon and Charles Bukowski’s Hollywood provide readers with a strong sense of the glamour and the considerable dark side of the movie business in two different eras.

Getting back to sports, I learned a lot about the rules of pre-modern baseball in Darryl Brock’s immensely entertaining time-travel novel If I Never Get Back — which places its 20th-century protagonist in 1869.

Which novels have given you an education about various topics?

(It’s Oscar night, so here’s an old post of mine on movies and literature!)

My 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 focuses again on overdevelopment and historical desecration in my town — is here.

More Than One ‘Eave of Destruction’ in the Literary World

I’ve had historic preservation, or lack of, on my mind this past week.

As my “Montclairvoyant” column link at the end of this post describes, my town’s Planning Board sadly voted February 11 to approve a redo of a former train station that will wreck some historic elements of the vintage site. Elsewhere in town, two beautiful mansions — one dating back to 1865, the other to 1907 — were demolished several days ago to make way for a future obscenely large single-family compound with a spa, an indoor pool, a movie theater, a bowling alley, a basketball court, seven guest rooms, a staff wing, etc.

So, naturally my thoughts turned to building destruction in the literary world.

For instance, some of you may remember that the Los Angeles house author extraordinaire Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) lived in for more than 50 years was torn down in 2015 by a heartless architect who wanted to put a fancy new house on the site.

Then there was the New York City apartment building Willa Cather lived in with her friend/life partner Edith Lewis starting in 1913. The two of them had to leave the place in 1927 — the year Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop came out — when their Manhattan building was condemned to make way for a subway line. (The photo atop this blog post shows Cather — sitting left, on the bench — in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park in 1924.)

Of course, fictional works also feature plenty of ill-fated homes and other structures — surely a dramatic plot element.

For instance, the devastating fire that ruined Edward Rochester’s Thornfield Hall mansion is a pivotal occurrence in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

There’s also a key house fire near the end of Lee Child’s Echo Burning — a Jack Reacher novel whose title sounds rather surreal/metaphysical/philosophical but literally refers to a climactic blaze on a ranch in fictional Echo County, Texas.

And a fire at the New York World building is a major element in Jack Finney’s time-travel novel Time and Again.

Or how about Anthony Burgess’ historical novel The Kingdom of the Wicked, which ends with the burying of Pompeii? Unimaginable destruction there.

And in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” that titular abode ends up disintegrating.

Of course, war novels and apocalyptic novels — Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is one example of the latter — are filled with buildings bombed-out or otherwise destroyed.

Your most-remembered examples of structural destruction — of real-life author homes or fictional buildings?

My 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 comments on what’s mentioned in the second paragraph of this blog post — is here.

We’ve Got Their Number: Our Most-Read Novelists

When I recently finished Past Tense, the latest page-turner starring Jack Reacher, I realized that I had now read 20 of Lee Child’s 23 great Reacher books. Which made me wonder, have I ever read that many novels by any other author?

So I scoured my list of books read, and my memory, to try to figure out which authors I had spent the most time with during my life. Of course, some writers pen longer novels than others, but I was looking strictly for number of books.

My first thought turned to Charles Dickens, because I took a college literature course in which the students read nothing but him. It turned out that I’ve read 14 Dickens novels, with a few of them perused pre- and post-college. Among my favorites? David Copperfield and The Pickwick Papers.

But I’ve actually read more books by Stephen King, not surprising given how prolific a writer he is. Fifteen of his novels, with my favorites Misery and From a Buick 8, among others. Actually, Misery might go under the category of “most intense” rather than a number-one favorite.

John Steinbeck? Thirteen of his novels read, with The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden the ones I liked best. Also 13 for Colette, with my favorites The Vagabond and Claudine at School.

I’ve read all 12 of Willa Cather’s novels, enjoying My Antonia and The Song of the Lark the most. Twelve for Margaret Atwood, too, with my preferences including The Robber Bride and Alias Grace. And 12 for L.M. Montgomery, including my favorite-ever YA novel — Anne of Green Gables — as well as various Anne sequels and the sublime stand-alone novel The Blue Castle.

With 12 a popular number here, I’ll add J.K. Rowling. I’ve read her seven Harry Potter books as well as The Casual Vacancy, and am now in the middle of the fourth title (Lethal White) in her excellent crime series written under the Robert Galbraith alias. I’ve also read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, but that’s a theater piece. I’m just doing novels here, not plays, short-story collections, nonfiction, etc.

Some of my other most-read authors (and some of my favorite novels of theirs) include Alexandre Dumas, 10 books (The Count of Monte Cristo and Georges); Sir Walter Scott, 10 (Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian); Martin Cruz Smith, 10 (Gorky Park and Rose); Jack London, 9 (Martin Eden and The Sea-Wolf); Cormac McCarthy, 9 (Suttree and Blood Meridian); Fannie Flagg, 8 (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion); and six authors with seven apiece: Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady and The American), Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible and Prodigal Summer), Herman Melville (Moby-Dick and Pierre), Erich Maria Remarque (Arch of Triumph and The Night in Lisbon), Mark Twain (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court), and Emile Zola (Germinal and The Beast in Man).

Then there’s Jane Austen, 6 (Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice); and these novelists with five apiece: Honoré de Balzac (Old Goriot and Eugenie Grandet), James Fenimore Cooper (The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov), George Eliot (Daniel Deronda and The Mill on the Floss), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World and Point Counter Point), W. Somerset Maugham (Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge), Leo Tolstoy (War and Peace and Anna Karenina), Jules Verne (Around the World in Eighty Days and Journey to the Center of the Earth), H.G. Wells (The Time Machine and The First Men in the Moon), and Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence).

Looking over my list so far, I’m embarrassed that there are no authors of color listed, though Dumas and Colette had some black ancestry. But I’ve read anywhere from one to four novels apiece by writers (my favorite books of theirs in parentheses) such as Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits), James Baldwin (Go Tell It On the Mountain), David Bradley (The Chaneysville Incident), Octavia Butler (Kindred), Junot Diaz (The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man), Buchi Emecheta (Second Class Citizen), Alex Haley (Roots), Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes Were Watching God), Jhumpa Lahiri (The Lowland), Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Terry McMillan (Waiting to Exhale), Toni Morrison (Beloved), Walter Mosley (Devil in a Blue Dress), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), Zadie Smith (White Teeth), Wole Soyinka (The Interpreters), Alice Walker (The Color Purple), and Richard Wright (Native Son), among various others.

Well, I guess I’ve never read more books by a writer other than Lee Child. He and has Jack Reacher character are highly addicting.

Which novelists have you read the most, in number of books?

My 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 2020 Democratic presidential field and a hometown astronaut’s unfortunate association with Trump at the State of the Union address — is here.

Novelists With Short Fiction in Their Jurisdiction

Many famous authors known mostly for their novels also penned a number of short stories.

They may have started their writing careers with brief fiction, and may have continued to compose stories after turning to novels. They wrote stories for the money, to try different genres, to explore themes they felt wouldn’t work as well in the longer novel format, to take a “breather” from novels, etc.

All this came to mind last week while reading a collection of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories. Fitzgerald is of course best known for his small canon of novels — The Great Gatsby obviously being the most famous — but he also sold about 160 pieces of short fiction to magazines during his 44-year life. Fitzgerald even used some of his stories — such as the compelling “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” about a “baby” born old who grows younger — to delve into fantasy or supernatural themes almost entirely absent from his novels.

Fitzgerald’s stories include those, such as the poignant “Babylon Revisited” and the barbed “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” with themes (spoiled/rich characters, troubled relationships, social competition, lots of drinking, etc.) reminiscent of his long fiction. Then there’s the eye-opening “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” about the world’s wealthiest family trying to keep their existence secret in a remote area of Montana. It’s a creepy/fascinating/memorable tale, unfortunately lessened by blatant racism that can’t be excused by Fitzgerald’s somewhat-satiric approach.

Leo Tolstoy, author of the classic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, also wrote some amazing short fiction — some of it just long enough to edge into novella territory. The snowy “Master and Man,” the melancholy “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” the dramatic “The Kreutzer Sonata,” the history-tinged “Hadji Murat,” etc.

Herman Melville’s main claim to fame is the iconic Moby-Dick and other novels, but he also penned memorable/wide-ranging short fiction — including the slavery saga “Benito Cereno,” the sublimely disturbing office tale “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” and the droll “I and My Chimney.”

In addition to writing terrific novels such as The House of Mirth and The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton penned some very absorbing short stories that included a number of excellent ghost tales.

Other deceased novelists who wrote excellent short fiction include James Baldwin, Honoré de Balzac, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, George Eliot, Graham Greene, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Zora Neale Hurston, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Jack London, Gabriel García Márquez, W. Somerset Maugham, Carson McCullers, Rabindranath Tagore, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, and Richard Wright, among many others.

Prominent living novelists who have successfully gone down the short-story road include Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Lee Child, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Alice Walker, to name just a few. Lahiri hit the Pulitzer Prize jackpot with her Interpreter of Maladies story collection, which preceded her novels The Namesake and The Lowland. I love Kingsolver’s Homeland and Other Stories and Atwood’s Wilderness Tips collection. And the title tale of Atwood’s Stone Mattress collection is a gripping piece of fiction.

Of course, there are also authors who have produced novels that are basically an assemblage of related stories: Sherwood Anderson (Winesburg, Ohio), Isaac Asimov (I, Robot), Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles), Elizabeth Gaskell (Cranford), Amanda Moores (Grail Nights), Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge)…

Some of your favorite writers known mainly for novels but who’ve also done plenty of short stories?

My 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 my town’s mixed environmental record — is here.

Literary Works With Ambiguous Endings

There are novels with happy endings, which most readers love if the happiness doesn’t feel forced. Then there are novels with sad endings, which readers tolerate if those conclusions seem appropriate. And there are novels with endings somewhere in between — the subject of this blog post.

I kind of like ambiguous endings. Life is often like that, and those conclusions make you think — wondering about the fate of characters beyond a book’s last pages.

Of course, novels in a series often have non-closure endings — cliffhangers perhaps — to increase your desire to read the next book installment. But there are also stand-alone novels with far-from-definitive conclusions.

Take Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, which I also discussed last week in a different context. While that novel has a mostly shipboard setting, there’s a relationship subplot between U.S. Navy guy Willie Keith and modestly successful nightclub singer May Wynn (born Marie Minotti). May grows to love Willie, and he’s enamored with her, but the Ivy League-educated/from-an-affluent-family Willie is snobbishly uncomfortable with May’s working-class origins, Italian-American ethnicity, and Catholicism. He eventually breaks up with May and then, after a near-death military experience on his boat, realizes how compatible they are. But May is in another relationship back home in New York City, and perhaps still not totally trusting of Willie’s feelings, so the book ends unresolved about whether they’ll have a future together. I was satisfied with that finish.

Another novel that interestingly dashes closure expectations is Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, in which a boy’s murder radically affects the lives of his surviving family — most notably his sister Harriet. Readers assume that Robin’s mystery death will be solved at the end, but it never is. I found that intriguing, and realistic in its way.

Then there’s John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which has a poignantly beautiful conclusion — yet it’s uncertain what will happen to the remnants of the Joad family as they try to survive broke, homeless, and weather-beaten in the 1930s California they had traveled to with high hopes.

Set just a few years after Steinbeck’s American masterpiece, Erich Maria Remarque’s Arch of Triumph features surgeon Ravic — who has fled the Nazis for Paris, where he ekes out a living, falls in love, and seeks revenge against a Gestapo man. As the heartbreaking novel concludes, it looks like Ravic might end up a German prisoner. Will he survive World War II? A reader has no idea.

The ending of Zadie Smith’s scintillating novel White Teeth is deliberately confusing and uncertain, with various scenarios posited for the future lives of its majority-immigrant cast. (Ms. Smith is pictured atop this blog post.)

Then there are novels with endings that are kind of ambiguous, but one figures things out on a closer reading or rereading. That’s the case with Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, in which one is initially uncertain if Civil War soldier Inman dies or doesn’t die after his long, arduous journey to return to Ada.

Short stories can of course also have non-definitive endings. A prime example is Frank Stockton’s much-anthologized 1882 tale “The Lady or the Tiger?” — in which the on-trial lover of a king’s daughter has to choose between two doors: one with a ferocious tiger behind it and the other with a woman (not the king’s daughter) he would have to marry. He reaches for the door the (jealous?) daughter imperceptibly tells him to open, and the story ends there.

I’ll finish with a mention of the famous final scene from The Sopranos TV series in which the screen cuts to black as we wonder what happened or didn’t happen at the restaurant that Tony S. and other characters were in. (That restaurant — Holsten’s in Bloomfield, New Jersey — happens to be about a mile from my apartment in nearby Montclair.)

Your favorite fictional works with ambiguous endings?

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 my town’s African-American population unfortunately decreasing — is here.

Bad Bosses in Books

With Donald Trump in the White House, Americans have the bad boss from hell. Not only have his actions been a disaster for the U.S. and the world, but his “leadership” style has driven out a record number of almost-as-abysmal people from his administration.

Trump embodies the worst qualities of a bad boss. Mean, lazy, corrupt, cowardly, erratic, untruthful, incompetent, racist, sexist, homophobic, a sexual harasser, etc. So let’s take a look at some fictional bosses who, while mostly not as awful as Trump, are pretty darn substandard.

How about Captain Queeg of Herman Wouk’s enthralling Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny, which I just read? Queeg is a second-rate captain — not that skilled, cowardly, sadistic, a harsh disciplinarian on trivial matters, has the hypocritical philosophy of “do as I say not as I do,” just friendly enough at times to keep his crew off-balance, and, like Trump, blames underlings for his own mistakes. (Pictured at the top of this column is Humphrey Bogart as Queeg.)

Staying at sea for another paragraph, we of course have Captain Ahab of Moby-Dick, who deliberately puts the Pequod crew in danger as he seeks his irrational revenge on Herman Melville’s titular white whale.

Then there’s the faux-sweet Dolores Umbridge, of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, who temporarily becomes high inquisitor and then headmistress at Hogwarts. She rules the wizardry school in an unfair and ruthless manner (which includes vicious harassment of Harry), and is basically on the side of arch-villain Lord Voldemort.

Umbridge eventually gets her comeuppance — exemplifying a satisfying potential plot rationale for having bad-boss characters in literature. Plus readers empathize with and root for the beleaguered underlings. But good doesn’t always triumph over evil in nasty fictional workplaces.

Of course, novels with workplaces that are depicted at least somewhat realistically will feature plenty of bad bosses. If not, they’re fantasy novels of a sort. 🙂

A boss doesn’t have to be on-the-scene to be crummy. In Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, wealthy widow Francine Whiting almost never visits the Empire Grill she owns, but makes life hell for the eatery’s mild-mannered manager Miles Roby. Why does Francine treat Miles that way? She’s a nasty control-freak, and the rich Whiting family and not-rich Roby family have a complicated intertwined history.

Another bad boss is Vinnie Plum, cousin of bounty-hunter protagonist Stephanie Plum in Janet Evanovich’s mysteries. Vinnie is lazy, a gambler, a sexual pervert, and contemptuous of his employees — despite those employees being much better workers and much better people than he is.

Then there’s the bank boss in Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century who fires protagonist Michel Dufrénoy and his co-worker after they make just one mistake.

Also in the bad-boss club are — among others — Nurse Ratched of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, and Ebenezer Scrooge (until he’s transformed) of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Which bad bosses in fiction are most memorable to you?

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 dance vs. gym, an unauthorized hotel addition, and more — is here.