Crime: All the Time or Some of the Time

The ever-popular category of crime fiction — which can include detective novels, mysteries, thrillers, etc. — has different categories of authors.

There are those writers — such as Raymond Chandler, Lee Child, Agatha Christie, Michael Connelly, Arthur Conan Doyle, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Dashiell Hammett, Patricia Highsmith, P.D. James, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Lisa Scottoline — known mostly for their crime fiction, even as they occasionally roam/roamed outside that genre. Then there are authors known more for their non-crime-fiction work, even as they produce/produced some strong offerings in the detective/mystery/thriller realm. This blog post will be about the latter group — which includes people like Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, J.K. Rowling, and Mark Twain.

I’ll first discuss Rowling, who, as “Robert Galbraith,” writes the series starring fascinating private investigator Cormoran Strike. I read the debut installment, The Cuckoo’s Calling, this week — and was bowled over by how smoothly Rowling moved into crime fiction after conquering the young-adult/magical-fiction world with her iconic Harry Potter series and then writing the compelling general-adult-fiction book The Casual Vacancy. Rowling will always be associated more with Harry Potter than anything else, but her versatility is off-the-charts.

Collins is best known for The Woman in White, an ultra-suspenseful mystery; and The Moonstone, an early example of detective fiction. But most of his novels were in the realm of general fiction.

Poe is of course almost synonymous with horror fiction, but he wrote several earlier-than-The Moonstone detective stories starring C. Auguste Dupin — the most famous of which were “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter.”

Twain’s late-career novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, with its important plot-solving element of fingerprint analysis, placed that author somewhat in the crime-solving genre. Two years later, Twain came out with Tom Sawyer, Detective — one of his lesser novels.

Dickens turned to the mystery genre with his last, unfinished book — The Mystery of Edwin Drood — after more than 30 years of penning more general literary works.

Obviously, authors who write crime fiction most of the time can really master that genre, but the potential drawback can be a certain sameness in some of their work. Those pros and cons can of course flip for writers who turn to crime fiction only occasionally.

Any thoughts on the two categories of crime-fiction authors discussed in this blog post? Your favorite works in each category?

(BTW, one reason Jim Grant took the name Lee Child was because that alias alphabetically placed his Jack Reacher novels in libraries and bookstores between the works of crime-fiction greats Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie — just like Child ended up between Chandler and Christie in this blog post’s second paragraph.)

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 run amok in my town — is here.

This Literature Post Contains a Secret Supreme Court Message

Today’s column will be sort of random. What pulls it together is the first letter of every fiction title I’ll mention, because together those boldfaced letters spell out a message by the time you reach the end of this post. Here goes:

Beloved by Toni Morrison. A novel, about the psychological toll of slavery and more, chosen by The New York Times in 2006 as the best American fiction work of the previous 25 years.

Redburn by Herman Melville. The lesser-known but excellent Melville work, published in 1849, about a sea voyage to Liverpool that predated The Beatles.

Evelina by Fanny Burney. A novel about the adventures (romantic and otherwise) of a young woman that’s one of the most readable books of the 18th century.

Three Junes by Julia Glass. An interestingly structured novel with three separate but interconnected parts set in 1989, 1995, and 1999.

Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener. The famous stories-sewn-together-as-a-novel that feels more modern than a 21st-century reader would expect.

Kindred by Octavia Butler. Part science-fiction, part sobering social commentary as a 20th-century African-American woman is repeatedly pulled back in time to the Antebellum South.

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. The best YA novel ever? Could be. About a brainy, spirited orphan girl in 19th-century Canada.

Villette by Charlotte Bronte. Uneven and not as riveting as the author’s Jane Eyre, but still pretty darn good.

Arch of Triumph by Erich Maria Remarque. This memorable novel, set in late-1930s Paris, features a German surgeon refugee who becomes romantically involved.

Native Son by Richard Wright. This riveting novel is a sort of 20th-century version of Crime and Punishment, with the added theme of American racism.

A Is for Alibi by Sue Grafton. The first of the engaging “alphabet mysteries” that star very human private investigator Kinsey Millhone. Sadly, the friendly Grafton (I spoke with her twice on Facebook) died before writing the 26th book.

Underworld by Don DeLillo. A long, sprawling novel that says a lot about the United States in the second half of the 20th century.

Gerald’s Game by Stephen King. I’m in the middle of reading this ultra-suspenseful book — which, though published in 1992, evokes the current Republican “war on women.” Gerald’s bad behavior toward his wife Jessie (and the sexual misconduct of other males in the novel) would make many a vile Republican politician proud.

Hollywood by Charles Bukowski. A hilarious fictionalization of the author’s experience writing the screenplay for the movie Barfly.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. The great, justly famous historical novel. But while it’s Scott’s best-known work, it’s not his best work.

Silas Marner by George Eliot. Many high-schoolers supposedly dislike this novel, but I think it’s compelling and moving. And quite short for an Eliot book!

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Fascinating satirical novel that can be enjoyed on different levels by kids and adults.

Ulysses by James Joyce. Oops — never read it.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. So masterful that it became one of the few short-story collections to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. A boy warily co-exists with an unfriendly tiger when they’re cast away at sea.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck. The author’s first really successful novel is hilarious and socially astute.

Yet he still was confirmed. 😦

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 puts a local spin on the repugnant Brett Kavanaugh — is here.

‘The Magnificent Seven’ Continents: a Reading Tale

Many literature lovers have reading goals: Try a particular author for the first time. Finally pick up a classic that’s been on your list forever. Polish off 50 novels a year. Etc.

Me? I recently reached a goal I didn’t even know I was aiming for — just realizing that, since mid-2017, I’ve read fictional works set or partly set on all seven continents. That and a dollar will buy me something at Dollar Tree…

I completed my double-trifecta-and-a-half a couple weeks ago with Ha Jin’s Waiting, which is set in Asia — China to be exact. That absorbing novel is about a doctor, stuck in an unhappy arranged marriage to a traditional woman, who falls in love with a more modern woman — after which things get quite complicated, emotionally and logistically. The author lives in the U.S., but spent his childhood and young adulthood in China, so he knows his native country well.

Obviously, a major appeal of reading literature not set in one’s home nation is learning about other cultures, even while realizing that human emotions are usually not that different from place to place. Of course, one can learn even more about other countries by visiting them (I did get to France for a couple of weeks this spring), but reading certainly costs less — and living-room chairs are roomier than airline seats in coach. πŸ™‚

I also “traveled” to Africa this past year via Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen, a compelling novel partly set in Nigeria. Ambitious/resilient protagonist Adah strives for an education and a better life despite sexism, racism, a problematic husband, and other obstacles.

Australia? I’ve recently read several novels by Liane Moriarty, one of my very favorite contemporary authors. Books such as Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret expertly mix three-dimensional characters, mystery, social issues, humor, and other elements to create a page-turning brew.

There was a South America “sojourn,” too, when I read Jorge Amado’s Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands. That Brazil-set novel stars the smart and congenial Dona Flor, her charismatic but irresponsible first hubby, her responsible but rather boring second hubby, and a sort of ghost of that deceased first spouse. Quite a threesome, or foursome.

The vast majority of fictional works I read are set in North America or Europe, so I’ll mention just four of my recently perused ones among the dozens I’ve gotten to since mid-2017.

I just finished Rosamunde Pilcher’s Winter Solstice, which unfolds in England and Scotland (both of which sound like Europe to me πŸ™‚ ). That novel — which is almost as good as Pilcher’s fabulous The Shell Seekers — features related and unrelated people, ranging in age from 14 to 67, who come together around Christmas time amid tragedy and hope. (On top of this blog, my cat Misty poses with the novel.)

This past week, I also read Nikolai Gogol’s short story “The Viy,” set in the Ukraine. A masterful horror tale with a lot to say about religion and more.

North America? My favorites of recent months include Lee Child’s latest Jack Reacher novel, The Midnight Line, which addresses matters such as drugs amid interesting character depictions and visceral action sequences; and the always-reliable Fannie Flagg’s touching novel The Whole Town’s Talking. Both books are set in the U.S.

You’re probably wondering how I managed to read a fictional work set in Antarctica. Well, part of Maria Semple’s quirky seriocomic novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette takes us to that icy continent — and memorably so.

Have you ever done the seven-continent reading thing? Do you have other reading goals you’ve knowingly or unknowingly achieved?

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 offers a fake history of my town in this era of alleged “fake news” — is here.

Unfairness in Literature

I have unfairness on my mind these days. The unfairness of Trump — almost exactly a year ago — defeating the flawed but infinitely more qualified Hillary Clinton because of sexism, racism, the Electoral College, Russian interference, Republican voter-suppression efforts, etc. The unfairness of Democratic National Committee shenanigans helping to give Clinton an advantage in the 2016 primaries over the more progressive/less-corporate-tied Bernie Sanders — shenanigans again confirmed this monthΒ in a book by DNC insider Donna Brazile. And there are other unfair things, in and out of politics, too numerous to mention here.

That got me thinking about the many depictions of unfairness in literature — depictions that evoke all kinds of reader emotions: sorrow, anger, frustration, “I can relate to that in real life,” or “glad it wasn’t me in real life.” Sometimes things end well in those fictional works, and we’re happy in a wish-fulfillment sort of way. Other times things end badly, which is upsetting but perhaps more believable. Here are just a few examples:

In George Eliot’s Silas Marner, the title character is betrayed by his best friend — who not only falsely frames Silas of a crime but also ends up marrying Mr. Marner’s fiancee. Silas is devastated by those horribly unfair blows, and only an unexpected event helps him recover.

Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred shows African-American protagonist Dana living a pretty good life in 1970s California before she’s yanked back to a plantation in pre-Civil War years. As terribly unfair a destination as there is for someone involuntarily traveling in time.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin includes the slaveowner character Augustine St. Clare, who pledges to free Tom but never does the necessary paperwork before he (Augustine) unexpectedly dies. The results are tragic for Tom, who’s then sold to vicious plantation owner Simon Legree in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. Unfair is a gross understatement here.

The two main characters in John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars have nothing but unfair lives as they each deal with ultra-serious medical conditions. But they meet and develop a wonderful relationship, until the unfairness escalates to another level…

In W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, Philip Carey is unfairly born with a club foot that’s one of the things that takes a toll on his self-esteem. So, even though he’s a smart guy with good prospects, he ends up pathetically enamored with an unlikable woman spectacularly unsuited for him.

But, more often than not, female characters in literature experience more unfairness than male ones — whether it’s beleaguered welfare recipient Connie Ramos in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, several women in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple,Β or the basically enslaved women in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to name just three examples.

Then there’s the unfair way so many gay characters are treated by other characters in literature, as is the case with Molly Bolt of Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle.

In Peter Straub’s “Blue Rose” short story, which I read last month, a young boy is part of an extremely dysfunctional family. That unfair accident of birth is bad enough, but then his older brother begins manipulating him through hypnosis — leading to a shocking fate for the poor kid.

An example of the very ultimate in unfairness? In Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, Australia’s residents await certain death from a wave of radiation set off by a nuclear war their country had nothing to do with.

What are some memorable fictional works that fit this topic for you?

(Also, debate about my first paragraph is welcome. πŸ™‚ I know there are some Hillary Clinton supporters who regularly comment here, while I preferred Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. It would have been nice if Donna Brazile had waited until after the November 7 election to release her book, but it didn’t seem to hurt the Democrats last Tuesday.)

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 looks at Election Day results, is here.

‘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?Β  πŸ™‚

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…Β  πŸ™‚

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.Β  πŸ™‚ 😦

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.

Russian Fiction Is Much Better Than Trump’s Diction

With the corrupt Trump administration’s ties to Russia all over the news, I’d like to offer a different Russia-related topic this week: Russian literature.

Which includes an amazing array of dark/compelling/unforgettable fiction, particularly in the 19th century. Even Trump would be impressed reading Crime and Punishment — as long as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel was shortened to a one-paragraph memo.

Crime and Punishment is my favorite Russian novel, and one of my favorites from any country. Riveting, feverish, psychological (it was said to have influenced Sigmund Freud). The high points of The Brothers Karamazov may be even better, but there are some slog-through pages and chapters that the never-a-dull-moment Crime and Punishment doesn’t suffer from. Dostoyevsky reportedly planned to make The Brothers Karamazov the first of a trilogy, but death intervened.

There are several other Dostoyevsky works well worth discussing, so please have at it in the comments section! But now I’ll turn to Leo Tolstoy, whose War and Peace and Anna Karenina are as famous as novels can be. I was impressed with those two classics (though I’m more a fan of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov) as well as with several of Tolstoy’s magnificent short stories, some almost novella length. “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “Master and Man” — wow!

Speaking of short stories, you can’t go wrong with Tolstoy’s pal Anton Chekhov. A pioneering writer of tales that are more character-oriented and human-emotion-focused than plot-oriented, plus Chekhov of course was also a master playwright.

Earlier-in-the-19th-century Russian authors can also knock your socks off (though I wouldn’t advise that during a Moscow or St. Petersburg winter). Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter novel is a great read, as is Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls novel and his “The Overcoat” short story. Dostoyevsky contemporary Ivan Turgenev wrote a really good novel, too, with Fathers and Sons.

Moving near/into the 20th century (experienced by the 1910-deceased Tolstoy for a decade), we have socialist-realist writers such as Maxim Gorky and Nikolai Ostrovsky. The latter’s How the Steel Was Tempered (a novel I purchased during a 1980s trip to Russia) is quite gripping for a while before getting a bit tedious.

Then there was Boris Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago novel drew the ire of Soviet officials despite it being somewhat nuanced about socialism; and the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was adept at both fiction and nonfiction (and the subject of this “Mother Russia” song by Renaissance). I’m not fond of the way Solzhenitsyn’s politics turned very right-wing, but he did go through imprisonment hell.

Renaissance has a lead female singer and a female lyricist, but Russian literature (unlike fiction from a number of other nations) has been dominated by men. Unfortunately, lots of patriarchy, machismo, and sexism in that country — which might be one reason why Trump is so attracted to Putin and Russia’s oligarchs.

Russia’s history of authoritarianism and oppression certainly has had an effect on its writers, as has that country’s politics, poverty, income inequality, geographic size, high rate of alcoholism, aforementioned machismo, and huge war casualties — including the carnage resulting from Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions. But the most famous Russian writers would most likely be literary geniuses no matter where they had lived.

Obviously I’ve left some writers out, so please fill in some of those blanks in your comments. Who are your favorite Russian authors, either ones I mentioned or didn’t mention?

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 — set in the year 4034 AD! — is here.