Old-Adult Literature

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Old-Adult Literature

Gen 7, 2021, 3:49pm

After teaching a class in young-adult literature, I started researching "old-adult lit" books that I researched for a conference paper. Here is the criteria for old-adult lit and my initial reading list. Always looking for new rec's!

1. An old-adult book is one in which the protagonist is at least 50, the age at which a lot of psychological, physical, and circumstantial changes start to occur.

2. The protagonist has realistic limitations imposed by age and is not merely a lightly lined and slightly frosted 35-year-old in disguise.

3. The protagonist is a fully-rounded character, and not merely a collection of stereotypes about the aged—little, lonely, sick, poor, sexless, resistant to change, out of touch with popular culture, grumpy, etc.

4. Impending death, frailty, or illness do not unrealistically ennoble the protagonist.

5. An old adult novel reflects the frustrations that elders feel about society's expectations and attitudes about them.

6. An old adult novel may be no more than half flashback, as if nothing that happens in old age is worth talking about.

7. The novel must present historical context through the protagonist believably.

Reading list:

All Passion Spent, Vita Sackville-West (British, 1931)
Lady Slane vexes her middle-aged children by choosing to spend her final years in a small house on her own terms.

The Book of Eve, Constance Beresford-Howe (Canadian, 1973)
Eva walks out on a petulant, bed-ridden husband to live alone and broke in an apartment with a collection of grim, hard-luck characters.

The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster (American, 2005)
Nathan has divorced his wife, moved into an apartment where he assumes he will die from the lung cancer he just completed treatment for. A chance encounter with a long-lost nephew leads to a self-discovery road trip.

Deaf Sentence, David Lodge (British, 2008)
A retired college professor who suffers from hearing loss has one last fling at directing a dissertation—and with the possibly psychopathic student writing it.

The Fixed Period, Anthony Trollope (English, 1882)
In a utopia set in 1980, legislators decree that people will live a fixed period of 67 years, at which time the state will dispatch them painlessly so they won’t suffer or become a burden. Problems ensue when the legislators turn 66.

A Friend of the Earth, T.C. Boyle (American, 2000)
Tyrone O’Shaugnessy Tierwater lives in California, 2025 where global warming is causing wholesale species die-off. Ty is keeper to a menagerie owned by a deranged rock star, who wants to “save the animals no one loves.” Then food and water run out.

Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck (German, 2017)
Retired classics professor Richard, piqued by observing refugees protesting in Berlin, begins visiting them in their shelter and learning their stories.

The Human Stain, Philip Roth (American, 2000)
At Athena College, visiting writer Nathan becomes friends with professor Coleman Silk, who has been forced to resign over an allegedly racist remark and wants Nathan to write his side of the story.

Man in the Dark, Paul Auster (American, 2008)
August Brill, recovering from a car accident, goes to live with his widowed daughter and granddaughter. He spends insomniac nights making up a dystopian novel in which he himself is a dark force who must be killed by his protagonist.

Memento Mori, Muriel Spark (British, 1959)
A group of aging friends and nemeses begins receiving a message from a telephone caller, who merely says, “Remember you must die.” And most of them do.

The Old Devils, Kingsley Amis (British, 1986)
Alun Weaver, a retired TV personality, meets up with a group of mostly ghastly former friends in Wales. Their past relationships reverberate in their present.

The President Is Missing, James Patterson and Bill Clinton (2018)
The president of the United States rushes off to save the country from hackers threatening our democracy. He also has a chronic disease that might sink the whole deal.

Quartet in Autumn, Barbara Pym (British, 1977)
Four lonely co-workers face retirement fears in this extremely dark novel.

The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner (American, 1976)
Retired literary agent Joe struggles with retirement, age limitations, and resentment. A postcard from a friend in Denmark reminds Joe about a strange interlude in their middle age, which they explore through Joe’s diaries.

The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist (Swedish, 2009)
In a dystopian future, those over 50 who have not procreated are sent to Units, facilities where they are warehoused until boredom leads them to participate in medical experiments or organ donations.

An Unnecessary Woman, Rahmi Allemedine (Lebanese, 2014)
Aaliya has lived through the worst days of Beirut in a state of increasing self-imposed exile. For years, she has fussily translated books for her own enjoyment—books that are doomed when her apartment building floods.

The Woman Next Door, Yewande Omotoso (South African, 2016)
Next-door neighbors Muriel and Hortensia loathe each other, divided by race and temperament in post-apartheid South Africa. Hortensia’s remodeling project destroys Muriel’s house, and through this calamity they reach some level of understanding.

Gen 7, 2021, 4:49pm

I was surprised (not sure why) to find I had read 3 of these... Deaf Sentence, Human Stain and Old Devils. And I've had Memento Mori on my TBR list for some time.

Gen 7, 2021, 4:55pm

>1 nohrt4me2: Thanks for this. I have read 2 of them. I have some catching up to do.

Gen 7, 2021, 11:26pm

>2 Crypto-Willobie: There was a pretty good movie made of "Memento Mori." I like Muriel Spark. What did you think of " Old Devils"? Such awful people!

Gen 7, 2021, 11:29pm

>4 nohrt4me2: Amis is good at portraying awful people. It's been a while since I read it -- I seem to recall a few redeemable characters. I larfed, I cried, I had a drink...

Gen 7, 2021, 11:34pm

>3 perennialreader: Which ones have you read? I'm always looking for new ones. Someone mentioned The Book of Ebenezer LePage to me, but it sounds like it is a man-about-to-die-tells-story-of-life. Not that those can't be good, but those plots are done to death. Ditto the plucky-kids-save-grumpy-elder-from-loneliness plot.

Gen 7, 2021, 11:36pm

>5 Crypto-Willobie: Awful people can be fun to read about. I remember two people at the end of the Amis novel had a happy ending. Spark is good at awful people, too.

Gen 8, 2021, 7:48am

The Spectator Bird & An Unnecessary Woman. I really like Stegner's work and this one was good. The other one was a bit weird.

Gen 8, 2021, 11:14am

>8 perennialreader: I haven't read anything else by him. I also liked the David Lodge book, "Deaf Sentence," and would like to read more of him.

Gen 8, 2021, 11:25am

I really enjoyed The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson, although I don't know whether it fits into your schema.

Gen 8, 2021, 12:15pm

>10 John5918: That sounds interesting!Thanks!

Gen 9, 2021, 12:56am

Have not read any of them, but The Spectator Bird is on my TBR pile.

Gen 12, 2021, 3:00pm

Joseph C. Lincoln wrote a century ago, often featuring older Cape Cod denizens. The one that stands out in my mind is Mary ‘Gusta. Mary ‘Gusta is an orphan. Her just deceased step-father has asked his two old friends to take her into their care. A couple of old bachelors seems an odd choice; but they show good sense and kindness. It was a real pleasure to spend time with them.

Gen 12, 2021, 4:21pm

>13 2wonderY: That sounds like a good read. When we were young my parents asked whom we would want to live with if "anything happened" to them. Our two aunts were flakey, and their kids were wild. We immediately said we wanted to live with our bachelor uncle and grandmother. We never had to fall back on this contingency, but our uncle taught us how to play chess and work a fly fishing rod, and my grandmother grew a big garden and had half a dozen cats and a beagle in a huge old farm house. So I'm pretty sure it would have worked out.

Gen 16, 2021, 4:01pm

>13 2wonderY: I just downloaded Mary ‘Gusta from Gutenberg Press. Agree with nohrt4me2. Sounds like a good read.

Modificato: Gen 26, 2021, 9:56am

>1 nohrt4me2: I'm the one who started a thread in this group looking for book recommendations for my mother who is 91. Many of the books on your list here are something that she will like. Thank you!

Gen 26, 2021, 11:14am

>16 vwinsloe: Glad to help!

Modificato: Feb 6, 2021, 9:59am

>13 2wonderY: I just finished reading Mary ‘Gusta and what a pleasure it was. I just loved this charming and cleverly-written story. I think I fell in love with it when I read, “I swan,” “land sakes,” and “good land,” as I heard those expressions my whole life from my mother and aunts. I’ll never forget all of those wonderful people.

Feb 6, 2021, 11:30am

>18 marell: So glad. And I pulled my copy out and there it sits. Too many other options at the moment.

Feb 7, 2021, 7:38am

>18 marell:
>19 2wonderY:

It's free on Amazon! Just d/l it!

Mar 9, 2021, 4:39pm

Thank you ! I am always looking for something to read where the main characters are out of their teens and twenties.

Mar 10, 2021, 11:12pm

>1 nohrt4me2: I just read A Measured Thread by Mary Behan. An 80 year old woman, who immigrated to the US from Ireland 55 years before, looks back on her life. Poignant, and without a trace of self-pity.

Mar 11, 2021, 8:30am

Rules for Old Men Waiting doesn't fall within my normal reading boundaries, but it certainly held my attention. A retired professor, recently widowed, makes some choices that guide his time alone.

Modificato: Mar 15, 2021, 5:41pm

I read The Book of Eve, and some other titles by the author, when I was in my 20’s and I loved it. What a spunky old woman. Now that I am 73, I should reread her. Actually it was a series, but I can’t remember the name of the other book which may have been the first one. It is the only one on the list I have read.

In a Scottish police procedural, Five Ways to Kill a ManI finished yesterday the author, Alex Gray, provides a view of a stroke victim, about 70, and how she is treated in hospital. Mrs. Finlay can’t speak at this point so you have her internal dialogue when called “Alice, darling” by a nurse decades younger than her, and not Mrs. Finlay. People have what she calls wheelchair eyes which from the end of the hall appear to see her but as they get closer she realizes they go right over her head to the person behind her. Her son-in-law is the Chief Inspector in charge of a case review that ties into one of the murders from the title. Gray fits it in very well.

I live in a nursing home surrounded by mainly women with some degree of dementia and regularly make the point my name is Penny not dear or honey.

This is the second or third book I have read recently which addresses the mistreatment of seniors in the manner of Mrs. Finlay. All were mysteries and this was a ‘by the way’ thing done well.

Mar 15, 2021, 5:57pm

>24 pmarshall: Thanks, Penny. Sounds like a good read! I always fear that staff calls people "honey" because they can't remember their names.

Mar 16, 2021, 2:49pm

>1 nohrt4me2:

Good call on The Book of Eve.

You really need to add Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel. Hagar Shipley is a magnificent character and easily meets all your criteria.

Mar 16, 2021, 3:48pm

>26 librorumamans: Thanks. I avoided that title because it sounded like it might have more flashback than forward motion. I didn't include Woman at 1,000 Degrees because it was mostly flashback, though it is an interesting book. Maybe I should give Hagar Shipley a look.

Modificato: Mar 16, 2021, 4:06pm

>27 nohrt4me2:

Yes, at ninety, Hagar's life is mostly past. Yet she is indomitable and despite her frailty moves forward. She refuses to go quietly into that good night.

Mar 16, 2021, 5:16pm

>28 librorumamans: Sounds like an interesting companion read with All Passion Spent, in which Lady Slane has no qualms about death, but wants to go into it peacefully and without the interference of her horrid middle-aged children.

Mar 17, 2021, 11:51am

>1 nohrt4me2: I love this topic! Here are a few from my list that I loved:
An Odyssey—Daniel Mendelsohn (memoir about a Classics professor and his father)
Thirteen Ways of Looking—Colum McCann (the first story in this collection is powerful and touching)
The House of Broken Angels—Luis Alberto Urrea (fiction about an aging family patriarch and a final birthday party)
Norwegian by Night—Derrek B. Miller (mystery story of an old man in a new place finding an unexpected purpose)

Mar 17, 2021, 7:27pm

I just discovered Erma J. Fisk who has written 5 books; the one I started with was A Cape Cod Journal in which she shares her thoughts about aging, doing what she loves (birding), and just living. Her other books are The Peacocks of Baboquivari in which she spends 5 months (at age 73) living alone in Arizona to study and band birds for the Nature Conservancy. She has also written Parrot's Wood and a lovely cookbook, A Birdwatchers Cookbook.

Other aging books I loved are The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen (83 1/4 years old) and On the Bright Side (The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen). I want Hendrik as my friend!

Mar 18, 2021, 7:50am

It's been a while since I read it, but Penelope Lively's How It All Began has a wonderful older woman as narrator in Charlotte, who has to move in with her daughter's family after a mugging leaves her with a broken hip.

Mar 18, 2021, 8:01am

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Mar 20, 2021, 9:24am

>33 rosalita: That sounds interesting, thank you

Mar 20, 2021, 1:42pm

>35 mckait: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Mar 20, 2021, 8:26pm

Has anyone here read Tove Jansson's The Summer Book in which on an island in the Gulf of Finland, a small girl and her grandmother, with seventy years between them, argue, dream, and explore together their island and each other.The grandmother,surely a lightly concealed depiction of Tove Jansson herself,is a remarkable character.I highly recommend this book.

Mar 21, 2021, 3:35pm

Racing Odysseus is one of my faves.

Mar 22, 2021, 8:00pm

>37 dustydigger: I put that on my list, too. I have 3 library books to finish before I take more... thank you !

Mar 23, 2021, 8:23am

Talking about nasty old characters we love to hate,my all time favourite is Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park.dear Jane,so spot on.Its funny yet so realistic.
EEK I will have to discipline myself not to run off and read Mansfield yet again.Not sure how many times I've read it over the last 40 years,but it must be quite a few!

Mar 23, 2021, 8:42am

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Mar 23, 2021, 9:21am

From 1895, I’m starting Beside the Bonnie Briar Bush. It’s a collection of portraits of the old fellers of Drumtochty, Scotland. I’ve already read the last one, published separately, A Doctor of the Old School and fell in love with their taciturn wisdoms.

Modificato: Mar 23, 2021, 11:49am

>42 2wonderY: portraits of the old fellers

This brings to my mind a very particular group of "old fellers", namely railwaymen, especially footplate crews (drivers and firemen). I have a lot of books which are either memoirs or biographies of these old chaps, which I find fascinating, although I'm not recommending them to a general audience as it's a fairly specialised interest. One sometimes wishes that these narratives had been edited a bit - these chaps were highly skilled at their craft and carried huge responsibility, often with the lives of hundreds of passengers in their hands, but writing things down was not their strongest point. They're often written in a very conversational style, as a lot of these blokes were gifted story-tellers, so on balance better not to edit out their unique voice. I've been privileged to have met people like them - one of my mentors as I learned how to operate steam locomotives was a South African who had been on the footplate for fifty years, and I've come across quite a few others over the years. Kindred souls.

Modificato: Mar 23, 2021, 11:49am

>40 dustydigger: Dickens, Austen, and other 19th century novelists had some great older characters. Silas Marner was always a favorite. Betsy Trotwood too. But, alas, these are characters subordinated to the main plots revolving around young people. And the elderly characters are too often comic relief or antagonists. A novel about Mrs. Norris would be interesting. I have often thought that she very likely murdered her first husband by pandering to his gluttony and dipsomania!

Mar 26, 2021, 12:19pm

>44 nohrt4me2: lol! I dont think she needed to murder him,his own stupendous gluttony was enough to kill him off.

Apr 13, 2021, 5:13am

>10 John5918: I was surprised nobody mentioned it already. I am currently reading it and having quite a lovely time with it. Allan is so dissociated from the world's worries that is insightful to see things from that perspective. I always find indifferent characters enlightening as they sort of allow you to see things objectively and often it is funny to realise how disproportionate reactions can be to the real event. But of course, that is subjective.

Modificato: Giu 20, 2021, 10:41pm

May I recommend Two Old Women? Its subtitle gives what amounts to a plot summary: “An Alaskan Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival.” Because they’re old, they’re thought to be fragile and of less importance than the others, so they are left behind That’s not quite how it happens, but I don’t want to give the story away any more than that. Anyway, it’s a quick read and uplifting to an older reader!

Modificato: Giu 21, 2021, 1:01am

A friend reminded me of Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage. Mrs Noyes is quite a character, tough and funny, enured to the uncompromising demands of Dr Noyes. In this retelling of the Noah story from a feminist point of view, Mrs Noyes experiences the flood and the voyage accompanied by her beloved cat, Mottyl. All does not go well, making parts of the ending disturbing for some readers, while the pious may object to the negative depiction of Noah himself. Personally, I think it's brilliant.

Giu 21, 2021, 9:42am

>47 TempleCat: and >48 librorumamans: Thanks for those nominees! Both of the sound intriguing.

Might add Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, which I read back in April. An aging drama festival director falls on hard times of his own making (mostly) and sets up a Shakespearean drama program in a men's prison. It's "The Tempest" within "The Tempest" with touches of the old Bette Davis movie, "All About Eve." Entertaining and moving.

Giu 21, 2021, 3:14pm

If you're tired of 100-year olds climbing out of windows to meet unbelievable adventures but still want a good laugh, there's a collection of humorous books featuring the lives of upper age groupers by Judy Leigh that are $5-free (on Amazon Prime Unlimited) that make great read-alouds for bedtime, will cheer the sick, and improve the mood of any dour senior -- guaranteed. Spirited but realistic, sprightly but grounded, hilarious and touching all at once.

Some of my literary favorites:
Tinkers by Paul Harding
A Palace in the Old Village: A Novel by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
A Dignified Exit by John J Asher
Madame Verona Comes Down the Hill by Dimitri Verhulst
*The Matchmaker of Périgord by Julia Stuart (mostly elderly characters)
*French Exit: A Novel by Patrick deWitt
*Straight Man by Richard Russo (OK, the guy's only 49)
Nobody's Fool by ditto (Sully's 60)
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
**Benediction (Plainsong series Book 3) by Ivan Doig
**all the ages of life

Hope you find something to enjoy in that list!

Giu 21, 2021, 5:29pm

>50 Limelite: Thanks. I ready Mrs. Palfrey long ago and enjoyed it. I'm not of the opinion that age is akin to sickness or that elders are dour and need cheering up with sprightliness. But God knows I can always use a good laugh.

Lug 26, 2021, 4:19pm

>1 nohrt4me2: I would recommend (strongly) the mysteries by Canadian writer Louise Penny, primarily for her protagonist Armand Gamache, of the Quebec Surete.

Lug 27, 2021, 10:22am

Hi guys,

new member so finding my way around. Have read only a couple of books mentioned but a good few are worth looking into. A personal favourite is Stoner by John Williams, does this fit the bill?

It follows the life of the eponymous William Stoner, his undistinguished career and workplace politics, marriage to his wife, Edith, affair with his colleague, Katherine, and his love and pursuit of literature.

One of the books cited was Silas Marner, but my eldest son has warned me off as he thinks it will drive me further to madness than Moby Dick! Any thoughts?

Modificato: Lug 27, 2021, 2:03pm

I'm not new to this group but normally just lurk. I've jumped in to say Stoner is a great book. I don't think John Williams is read a lot now which is a shame. He was a winner of the National Book Award (for Augustus), and you will see that many writers and critics considered Stoner a near perfect work.

I've read all of his novels but haven't reread them within the last 20 years. Another nudge (thanks Bob) to do some rereading.

Lug 27, 2021, 2:08pm

>54 clue:

Alan Jacobs in his book Reading in the Age of Distraction recommends that we should all reread as it enables us to gain different perspectives that may have been missed the first time around. My problem is getting through the TBR pile!!

Lug 27, 2021, 4:56pm

>54 clue: I have had Stoner on the TBR pile for years. I really must get to it soon.

Modificato: Lug 28, 2021, 9:33am

Yes, it fits my def of old-adult lit, but the charm of Stoner escapes me. For me, the title character was so utterly passive and weak, unable to accept love or do anything but crumple at every turn, that he was completely unsympathetic. I found the book positively nihilistic.

However, if you are old and have some regrets, it might be helpful to read it and realize that "at least I am not as FUBAR as Stoner."

I would be happy to read a good defense of the book to get another take on it, though.

Lug 28, 2021, 9:32am

>52 AlexanderPatico: Lots of people like that character, and it sounds like it fills the bill.

I don't read a lot of mysteries, but Stephen King's Bill Hodges books qualify in the old-lit as well. I read Mr. Mercedes and thought it was fair to good.

Lug 28, 2021, 8:41pm

>53 bob1947: Oh I love Silas Marner! Probably in the top 5 of the books I love! Moby Dick, however, I hated with a passion!

P.S. And, welcome!

Lug 28, 2021, 8:44pm

Thanks to everybody for the mention of John Williams. I have put both Augustus and Stoner on my WL.

Modificato: Set 21, 2021, 11:51am

I'm just reading A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Ove would barely qualify to be one of us "over sixties" but exhibits a lot of the qualities of a bygone age which many older people could perhaps identify with. A charming and amusing book.

Set 21, 2021, 1:29pm

>61 John5918: A lot of people like that book, and it is nicely written. I don't want to get didactic, but I didn't include it on my original list because I think the "mean old geezer saved from himself by the perky youngsters" theme is overworked.

Go, Went, Gone is another "widower in search of meaning" novel that I think celebrates the resiliency of age. By German author Jenny Erpenbeck.

Modificato: Set 21, 2021, 2:16pm

Considering that LT's home is Maine, don't forget Elizabeth Strout's Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge. (I've got to get around to watching my DVD of the miniseries as well as reading Olive, Again from my Mount TBR.)

And for the Maine novel of all Maine novels, Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs with its wise village herbalist Almira Todd.

Modificato: Set 21, 2021, 2:57pm

>63 CurrerBell: Those are great books about aging, though they don't strictly fit the criteria above.

Set 21, 2021, 10:13pm

George Smiley of John le Carré's Cold War espionage novels is of ambiguous age but at least 55 years old in the first novel about him, Call for the Dead. He certainly displayed all the characteristics of an aging man with a wife who has betrayed him more than once; he distrusts; has failing sight; is putting on weight, is balding; he has quirky habits like cleaning his glasses with the end of his tie. But he is a character who hasn't given up on life, despite the strain his profession keeps him under, despite the losses and betrayals he suffers among his colleagues; and despite his wandering wife, he continues to be his country's best spy.

Set 22, 2021, 12:04am

>65 Limelite:

Thanks! George Smiley is brilliant, and I reckon Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and others in the series are still amongst the best spy books ever written.

Set 23, 2021, 9:28pm

Yes, I need to go back and read some of those to see if they resonate now that I am old.

Set 24, 2021, 7:53pm

>66 John5918:, >67 nohrt4me2:

Yes. Le Carré, The Master. I wished for him eternal life, but my wish didn't come true.

I don't know if Wallace Stegner's beautiful novel about a life-long friendship between two couples qualifies, but I think Crossing to Safety is a brilliant book that looks into the nature of friendship well into maturity.

I know my other favorite novel doesn't qualify in meeting the requirements of this thread, but it is a wonderful examination of deep romantic love, lifelong faithfulness, and eventual fulfillment in old age. It's Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.