Monday, December 31, 1990

Maniac Magee and the Fine Art of Getting Through This Crazy World

image from

Jerry Spinelli's 1990 book, Maniac Magee, is set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Two Mills, which is racially divided into the East End (black) and West End (white). The title character is an orphan (! - see nearly EVERY OTHER post on the Newbery-winning books I've read) who finds himself on the "wrong" side of town. Although he is white, he is taken in by the Beale family, who are black. When others disapprove of his presence on the East End, Maniac heads out to find another home.

Throughout the book, Maniac Magee moves from one place to another, even living for short spells with Mars Bar, who hated that Maniac Magee beat him in a foot race, and John McNab, who could strike out everyone but Maniac. Most amusingly, he lives for awhile in the buffalo pen at the zoo. He is also taken in by Earl Grayson, a groundskeeper at the zoo and a minor league pitcher who was the last to strike out Willie Mays.

Maniac Magee's method of dealing with this crazy world is what propels the book. He deals with bullying and racism by simply not acknowledging them. Instead, he excels at being who he is meant to be.

It makes for a different angle for a protagonist. He is important to know that Magee is deceptively passive. He isn't really sitting back and just letting things happen - he's steering the outcome of events precisely because of his choice not to react. Ultimately it teaches me as a writer to know that a novel's main character might not actually be the catalyst behind the main action of the story. While a character's actions in a story often drive the plot, the character's reactions are what drive its heart.

Sunday, October 21, 1990

Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls published on this day 50 years ago

First posted 7/4/2020; last updated 7/5/2020.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Ernest Hemingway

First Publication: October 21, 1940

Category: novel/war story

Sales: ?

Accolades (click on badges to see full lists):

About the Book:

“In 1937 Ernest Hemingway traveled to Spain to cover the civil war there for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Three years later he completed the greatest novel to emerge from ‘the good fight,’ For Whom the Bell Tolls.” AZ The novel is “a sparse, masculine, world-weary meditation on death, ideology and the savagery of war in general, and the Spanish civil war in particular.” TG It “depicts war not as glorious but disillusioning.” LC

“‘If the function of a writer is to reveal reality,’ Maxwell Perkins wrote Hemingway after reading the manuscript, ‘no one ever so completely performed it.’ Greater in power, broader in scope, and more intensely emotional than any of the author’s previous works, it stands as one of the best war novels of all time.’” AZ

Robert Jordan is “a young American in the International Brigades attached to an antifascist guerilla unit” AZ “during the Spanish Civil War. As a dynamiter, he is assigned to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia.” WK

“In his portrayal of Jordan’s love for the beautiful Maria and his superb account of El Sordo’s last stand, in his brilliant travesty of La Pasionaria and his unwillingness to believe in blind faith, Hemingway surpasses his achievement in The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to create a work at once rare and beautiful, strong and brutal, compassionate, moving, and wise.” AZ The story “tells of loyalty and courage, love and defeat, and the tragic death of an ideal.” AZ

The novel “was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and became a literary triumph. Based on his achievement in this and other noted works, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.” LC

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Sunday, July 1, 1990

Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray published 100 years ago this month

First posted 7/6/2020.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

First Publication: July 1890

Category: philosophy/novel

Sales: ?

Accolades (click on badges to see full lists):

About the Book:

The only novel by Oscar Wilde was “first published complete in…Lippincott's Monthly Magazine…[It] offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, some of whom said that Oscar Wilde merited prosecution for violating the laws guarding the public morality.” WK When the longer, revised version of the book was published in 1891, it featured a preface defending “the artist’s rights and of art for art’s sake…It [became] famous in its own right as a literary and artistic manifesto.” WK

The Picture of Dorian Gray “pivots on a gothic plot device with strong themes interpreted from FaustWK another work featured in this book. “Wilde forged a devastating portrait of the effects of evil and debauchery on a young aesthete in late-19th-century England. Combining elements of the Gothic horror novel and decadent French fiction, the book centers on a striking premise: As Dorian Gray sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait grows day by day into a hideous record of evil, which he must keep hidden from the world.” AZ

“For over a century, this mesmerizing tale of horror and suspense has enjoyed wide popularity. It ranks as one of Wilde’s most important creations and among the classic achievements of its kind.” AZ

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Thursday, March 1, 1990

Richard Wright's Native Son published 50 years ago today

First posted 6/9/2020; updated 7/6/2020.

Native Son

Richard Wright

First Publication: March 1, 1940

Category: social novel

Sales: ?


About the Book:

“Among the first widely successful novels by an African American, Native Son boldly described a racist society that was unfamiliar to most Americans.” LC “Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.” AZ As literary critic Irving Howe said in his 1963 essay ‘Black Boys and Native Sons,’ ‘The day Native Son appeared, American culture was changed forever…It made impossible a repetition of the old lies.’” LC

Bigger Thomas is a 20-year-old “African American youth living in utter poverty in a poor area on Chicago’s South Side in the 1930s.” WKNative Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic.” AZ “While not apologizing for Bigger’s crimes, Wright portrays a systemic inevitability behind them. Bigger’s lawyer, Boris Max, makes the case that there is no escape from this destiny for his client or any other black American since they are the necessary product of the society that formed them and told them since birth who exactly they were supposed to be.” WK

“‘No American Negro exists,’ James Baldwin once wrote, ‘who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull.’ Frantz Fanon discusses the feeling in his 1952 essay, L'expérience vécue du noir (The Fact of Blackness). ‘In the end,’ writes Fanon, ‘Bigger Thomas acts. To put an end to his tension, he acts, he responds to the world’s anticipation.’ The book was a successful and groundbreaking best seller. However, it was also criticized by Baldwin and others as ultimately advancing Bigger as a stereotype, not a real character.” WK

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In July 2018, I became the organizer of the Classic Novels Book Club. Check out the Book Club tab here or Meetup for more information. This is our book for August 2020.