- Fizzy Thoughts: Weekly Geeks 2009-11 - Historical Fiction

Weekly Geeks 2009-11 - Historical Fiction

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


This week's Weekly Geeks is all about historical fiction. Our assignment:

Let's take a magical history tour this week, with a focus on Historical Fiction. That is, contemporary novels with a historical setting. I like to give choices, so here they are, pick the question(s) that appeal to you:

Is there a particular era that you love reading about? Tell us about it--give us a book list, if you'd like. Include pictures or some fun facts from that time period, maybe link to a website that focuses on that time. Educate us.

Do you have a favorite book that really pulled you back in time, or perhaps gave you a special interest in that period? Include a link to a review of it on another book blog if you can find one (doesn't have to be a Weekly Geek participant).

A member of your book group, Ashley, mentions that she almost never reads Historical Fiction because it can be so boring. It's your turn to pick the book for next month and you feel it's your duty to prove her wrong. What book do you pick?

If you're in agreement with Ashley on this one (or even if you're not): Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to browse through this week's WG posts, and by the end of the week, pick a book from one of the posts to read. Report on which book you picked, linking to the Weekly Geeks post where you found it.

I think I've told this story two or three or ten times before, but oh well. You get to read it again.

Historical fiction holds a special place in my heart (really, there's a little corner marked historical fiction). Although I don't read a lot of it, I have read some amazing books in the genre.

Let's start with The Devil in the White City. I read this way before I ever knew what a blog was. I thought the author found a fascinating way to weave together the story of a serial killer and the Chicago World's Fair. It made the history not so boring.

So fast forward a few years to when I was taking my first (and only) class as a history grad student. One of our (many) assignments was to discuss a favorite historical book. Because I had been out of school for 13 years, and out of teaching for 9 years, I was a little out of the history book loop. So I used The Devil in the White City as my example of a favorite book, because it blended education and entertainment (and it was the only thing I had read in recent memory that worked for the assignment). My god, you would think I had mooned the Queen of England. Along with the brave guy who used Maus as his topic, I was practically run out of town. Okay, I exaggerate. Although I did feel like I was under attack for a few minutes, and that I had committed some giant faux pas by choosing a book that was *gasp* entertaining, and written by someone other than an accredited historian. It was obvious that others didn't consider our choices worthy of the word "History."

It was a rough quarter. I read a lot of incredibly dry, boring Historical Works. And I spent too much time with a bunch of dry, boring wanna-be historians who took themselves and the study of history way too seriously. After one quarter (and an A-...hah!), I quit.

The first book I read after I made the decision to be a grad school drop-out was Lisa See's Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. And I learned more about Chinese history from that one book than I had in 6 years plus 1 quarter of college. Because I've come to believe that the feeling you get about an era or place can be more important than rote memorization of names, dates and places. Or bowing down in honor of the stuffy history that academicians consider to be superior to anything gleaned from the pages of historical fiction.

I've gone a bit astray from Ali's original questions. I'll finish with four recommendations for Ashley. These books are anything but boring:

The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larsen - As mentioned above, this book tells the story of both the Chicago World's Fair and the serial killer H. H. Holmes. Littered with historical figures, the book uses murder to spice up an otherwise dry topic. Reviewed at Used Books Blog and Ex Libris Book Reviews.


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See - Set in 19th century China, this book offers a glimpse into the lives of women...the pain of foot-binding, the seclusion, and the secret language that some women developed as a way to communicate with others. Reviewed at A Novel Menagerie and Tiny Reading Room.


The Last Queen, by C.W. Gortner - This is the story of Juana la loca, the mad queen of Spain. What I love about this book is that while it is a fictional account of Juana's life, there is enough fact mixed in to make the revisionist history entirely plausible. Reviewed at The Literate Housewife and Books on the Brain.


The Heretic's Daughter - Probably the bleakest of the four books I've listed, the author does an amazing job of conjuring the mood of the Salem Witch Trials and the harsh reality of life in the colonial period. Reviewed at Wendi's Book Corner and The Boston Bibliophile.

13 comment(s):

Ali said...

Well, I hadn't heard the story before and was well worth doing the Round-up this week, to read it. (And I love when people go astray from the WG questions--make it your own, would be my WG motto, if I had one).

Also, I think I need to read the Devil in the White City.

lilly said...

Great post, very exhaustive. I am glad you don't concentrate on just one period of time. I don't either, I feel i would be losing out on many wonderful historical books if I did. I haven't read any of the ones you mentioned but I do own 'The devil in a white city' and 'Snow Flower...'. I am definitely reading both of them this year.

bkclubcare said...

Huh. Where/why have I been under the impression that Devil in the White City is nonfiction!? I guess it doesn't really matte - I've wanted to read it for a long time.

I, too, love Historical Fiction and haven't read any in too long! I want to read all these on your list and many more.

And I'm so behind on my WG participation and now I bit feel overwhelmed.

sophisticateddorkiness.com said...

All those books sound awesome, thanks for the recommendations. I never did history grad school, but I can imagine grad school people generally being a bit full of themselves and taking themselves too seriously. I mean, I suppose you get those kind of people anywhere, but academics can be particularly frustrating.

Anyway, good post!
Kim

Heather J. said...

You really CAN learn so much from historical fiction ... it is a shame "real" historians don't realize that. Great post, as usual. :)

softdrink said...

Care is correct...The Devil in the White City IS non-fiction. I spaced on pointing that out. But it does read like a fiction book, so yeah, you all should still read it. :-)

And Care, WG is a no pressure thing...you only have to participate when you feel like it! So there is no "behind." :-D Even Ali and I skip weeks!

Marie said...

I've heard so many raves about Devil in the White City- one of these days I'm going to have to pick it up.
BTW thanks for linking to my review of The Heretic's Daughter. What a terrific read!

Dawn - She is Too Fond of Books said...

Loved *The Devil in the White City* and *Snowflower*. Both were book club picks of our 3-4 years ago.

I haven't read other Erik Larsen, but I will ...eventually!

Dreamybee said...

I loved The Devil in the White City too-I had no idea (or interest really) about the history surrounding the Chicago World's Fair, but the way it came together was amazing! I started Snow Flower and the Secret Fan but never finished it. I need to pick it back up one of these days.

Ladytink_534 said...

I believe I agree with you that you seem to learn more from entertaining historical fiction that drier than dust "real history." I have two out of your list (one of these are from you lol) but I haven't gotten around to reading them. I just don't read as much historical fiction as I would like to lately :(

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

I love it when you read historical fiction and you don't really realize that you're learning something. I have Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and The Heretics Daughter on my TBR list. One of these days . . .

claire said...

You are so right.. the feeling you get is more important than memorization. And because I loved Snow Flower (I'm reading Peony in Love right now), I'll look out for all three other titles you mention here.

Christina said...

I agree, there is so much to learn from historical fiction because, not only does it involve the details of everyday life in a particular era, but it allows you to 'get into' the heads of the characters who lived in a particular age - their world view and their mores.
'Serious' historians can be rather arrogant about historical fiction, I think, because they don't appreciate the amount of work that goes into the research.
Thank you for a very interesting post!

Christina

Most Beautiful Princess

In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. ~S.I. Hayakawa

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.
~St. Augustine

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