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.