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05/22/2014 11:06 am ET | Updated Jul 22, 2014

Puzzling Book Titles

The vast majority of novel titles are self-explanatory: the name of the lead character (Jane Austen's Emma!), the place where the book is mostly set (Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights!), a combination of both (L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables!), the book's subject matter (Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold!), the time (Haruki Murakami's After Dark!), etc.

But then there are novels with titles that are puzzling, at least at first. What exactly do they mean? What are they referring to in the book? It can be frustrating to figure that out, but also fun. Many people like to read mysteries, and an obscure novel title is sort of a mystery in microcosm.

I thought about this after recently finishing an absorbing W. Somerset Maugham novel about a middle-aged stockbroker who suddenly leaves his job, home, and marriage to become an artist despite (initially) showing little talent for painting. That book is The Moon and Sixpence, and I (initially) showed little talent for figuring out what the heck its title meant. Then I thought some more, and decided the moon represented shooting for a hard-to-attain/soul-satisfying something, while a coin is a practical thing -- like a stockbroker's job that supports one's family.

Maugham also penned several other novels with names that make some readers scratch their heads. One of those books is Cakes and Ale -- about a very likable woman who is looked down upon by some people yet becomes sort of a muse for several creative men. My guess was that the title referred to the sweet and sour aspects of her life, but then I learned that the phrase came from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night -- where it referred to two of life's pleasures. My only defense for my guess is that beer is not a pleasure for me, though Maugham's novels are...

Another British writer, Aldous Huxley, wrote the partly comical Antic Hay. I knew there was something humorous about that novel's name, but it wasn't until I looked online that I learned "antic hay" meant a "playful dance." As was the case with Maugham's Cakes and Ale, Huxley's title came from an earlier literary work: Christopher Marlowe's play Edward II. One example of the mirth in Antic Hay is a character's invention of pants with a pneumatic cushion in the seat! A "brave new world" indeed...

(By the way, The Doors rock group took its name from Huxley's nonfiction book The Doors of Perception -- a title Huxley appropriated from William Blake's poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. And "so it goes," as Kurt Vonnegut wrote in a different context.)

There's also the not-obvious title of Reflections in a Golden Eye, Carson McCullers' gripping 1941 novella about sexual obsession/repression at an army base that was an unusual book for its time in having a very clear gay subtext. The book contains a line about a (metaphorical) golden-eyed bird who can be construed as a dispassionate observer of what's going on with McCullers' unhappy characters; indeed, part of the novel's power is the matter-of-fact way not matter-of-fact events are depicted.

The meaning of the title of Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room by New Zealand writer Janet Frame? Don't ask. :-) It has been a long time since I read that excellent novel, and an online search revealed several definitions for "antipodean."

There are also obvious-sounding titles that can be puzzling at first. That's the case with George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, which I read this month after it was mentioned and highly recommended by several commenters (including "lily," Brian Bess, and Elyse F.) under my previous post. While reading the first 15 chapters of that brilliant and moving novel, I thought it should have been called Gwendolen -- after the spoiled, troubled woman initially featured much more than the almost saintly Daniel. But then Daniel began to take center stage -- both as a fascinating character in his own right and as a crucial bridge between Gwendolen's world and the world of Judaism in 19th-century England.

What are some novel titles you've puzzled over? Or, if you'd prefer, what are literature's strangest titles, even if they're not puzzling? And, if you'd like a little entertainment while thinking, here's a rock song with an enigmatic title.

(Thanks to Eric Pollock, "claraluz," and others for recommending The Moon and Sixpence -- and thanks to Eric again for suggesting I try Haruki Murakami's work.)

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In his often-humorous Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir, Dave Astor 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 and various authors. On the personal front, Dave chronicles the malpractice death of his first daughter, his divorce and remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. Contact him at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book -- which includes a preface by "Hints" columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others.

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