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 The latest weekly piece — which puts a local spin on the repugnant Brett Kavanaugh — is here.

Obsession in Lit and From Many a Political Twit

After right-wing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died this month, Republicans proved once again that they’re obsessed with obstructing Barack Obama at every turn. Refusing to consider ANY Scalia replacement nominee from the Democratic, biracial president with almost a year left in the White House? How partisan — and, yes, racist — of the GOP. Sure, Obama’s pick would change the ideological bent of the Supreme Court, but them’s the breaks.

Since I’m a literature blogger, I also started thinking of obsessed fictional characters — both negative (like the Republicans in their vicious hatred of the more-centrist-than-liberal Obama) and positive. Whether the single-mindedness is political, romantic, or otherwise, it can be riveting in a protagonist.

For instance, there are the rulers obsessed with control of the populace in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the hyper-ambitious, Huey Long-like Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.

Or how about the fanatical police inspector Javert, who focuses to the nth degree on trying to capture Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables? And the escaped prisoner Edmond Dantes, who devotes his life to revenge against the men who framed him in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. And the guilt-ridden lovers Therese and Laurent, who are hyper-focused on the memory of the man they killed in Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin. Heck, those three examples are just from 19th-century French literature alone.

Also obsessed is the man (Nathanael) who becomes infatuated with a (robot?) woman in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story “The Sandman,” the woman (Katerina) who stays intensely/criminally attached to the no-good Sergei in Nikolai Leskov’s “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” and various Edgar Allan Poe protagonists — including the murderers in “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” and the love-struck young man in the partly comedic “The Spectacles.”

Then there’s the title character in Toni Morrison’s Sula who’s obsessed with being independent, unconventional, and not bound by gender norms.

A torrid affair begets homicide in Therese Raquin, but romantic obsession has different results in other novels such as W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. In the first book, would-be doctor Philip Carey becomes totally fixated on a waitress (Mildred Rogers) who holds him in contempt until… In Garcia Marquez’s novel, Florentino Ariza carries a torch for Fermina Daza over many decades until…

Theo Decker carries something else — a painting — out of a museum after a terrorist attack in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, and remains obsessed for years with Carel Fabritius’ famous bird portrait — partly because of its association with Theo’s beloved mother, who died in the attack.

Another creature filling the mind of a protagonist is the huge marlin relentlessly reeled in by Santiago the fisherman as he tries to defy bad luck and aging in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and Sea.

Still another creature is the fixation of Captain Ahab, who, in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, angrily pursues the huge white whale that bit off part of his leg. (Some latte-drinking readers might also be obsessed with the novel’s Starbuck character and how his name was appropriated by a certain coffee chain. πŸ™‚ )

Speaking of 20th-century/19th-century connections, Octavia Butler’s Kindred novel sends Dana Franklin back in time to America’s slave-holding South. As the black character navigates that horrid world, her obsession is making sure her ancestor is born so that she (Dana) can exist 150 years later.

Many Americans are also known for single-mindedly climbing the corporate or social ladder, and an example of someone who ascends the latter ladder is Undine Spragg of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country. It’s not a coincidence that her initials are U.S.

The title character’s initials in Martin Eden represent Jack London’s semi-autobiographical “me” — a self-educated, working-class protagonist hell-bent on becoming a successful writer.

Also obsessed with having a writing career is Jo March, the Little Women character partly based on the author herself — Louisa May Alcott.

Last but not least, we have Lord Voldemort’s obsession with killing Harry Potter. I’d compare the GOP’s many obstructionist politicians to Voldemort, but that would be an insult to J.K. Rowling’s gruesomely evil creation. πŸ™‚

Who are your favorite fixated fictional fellows and women? (Also welcome are any thoughts on the late Harper Lee, who died Feb. 19 following decades of being obsessed with maintaining her privacy after the great To Kill a Mockingbird rocketed her to fame.)

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