Blogs: Historical fiction

Book jacket: Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly PrentissIt feels how buttery popcorn smells, or seeing chartreuse flashes while your ears pop from an underwater dive.

Like a rebellious cigarette you had smoked when you were twenty, or a night under the stars with a girl or a boy who had only wanted to be your friend.

These are just some of the ways that the character James Bennett, an art critic with synesthesia, describes paintings and people in Molly Prentiss's debut novel, but he could just as easily be describing the book. One that has left me in such a daze that I'm at a loss for my own words to describe how much I loved it.

Set in a pre-gentrified SoHo, Tuesday Nights in 1980 follows Argentine artist Raul Engales, bright-eyed New York newcomer Lucy Olliason and the wonderfully odd art critic James Bennett; whose lives are all irreversibly altered on a series of Tuesday nights at the start of the new decade.

Whether you're an art lover or just up for visiting a unique time and place through vivid characters, check out this vibrant whirlwind of a book.

 
 

 

There are a couple of flavors I like in Highlander romance -- I enjoy the ones that are straight up historical; but mmm, a Highlander story especially if it involves time travel? Yes! Maybe you have seen the new Outlander television series? Guess what? It's based on a book!

The story starts with Mrs. Claire Randall on her second honeymoon in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s 1945 and she's a former combat nurse who has taken up the hobby of botany to fill her free time. She is gathering plants at the stone circle Craigh na Dun when she is transported through time to 1743, and finds herself in the midst the fighting prior to the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

This first novel of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon is a passionate romance with depictions of wartime violence, and steamy sex scenes. If you're squeamish about these things this isn't for you. Presented in the context of the times, these details give the story historical resonance. I found comic relief in Claire’s swearing. She doesn’t swear like a sailor but she swears like a healthy woman dealing with brawny men, exciting, brutal times, and frustration. I don’t know about you, but if I was a fish out of water I might swear a lot too.  If romance, brawny men in kilts and time travel are among your favorite flavors too, there's more to explore in my list, Scottish highland romances.

 

Children Of The Sun CoverNeo-nazism and punk rock share ugly and now pretty well-tracked genealogies.  Less well-documented is the once-occulted presence and resilience of gay desire amidst UK white power subcultures and splinter groups like the National Front and the British National Party. 

Max Schaefer's Children of the Sun relentlessly confronts this seeming contradiction via a time-bending collision between two queer protagonists interspersed with insanely well-researched documentation from the "golden years" of UK neo-nazi skinhead culture (roughly late 1970s-about 1990 or so).  Schaefer walks a fine line between unsparing and sympathetic in the development of Tony, a working class teen coming of age as a gay man AND a (hidden) racist skinhead.  Tony's narrative moves forward through a landscape of real-life UK far-right figures (Nicky Crane, Ian Stuart of Skrewdriver, Nick Griffin, Savitri Devi) as James, a mid-20s queer privileged "screenwriter" bankrolled by his well-to-do parents in 2003 becomes increasingly obsessed with the confused collisions between gay subcultures and UK white power movements - Nicky Crane in particular - poster boy for the NF's violent street fighters and who also came out as gay in 1992, months before he died from an AIDs-related illness. 

Schaefer's text reads like a police report, rarely stopping for extended emotional interludes (though when they do come, they hit hard).  Knowing something of Schaefer's personal background, it was never unclear where he stands in terms of the "politics" of his protagonists.  That being said, the narrative never clearly impugns Tony or James (in fact, James comes off more of a problematic dude in the end - which may have much to do with class, Schaefer implies).  Highly recommended for anyone interested in darker cultural histories.

I love Christmas, but most of the things I love about it probably originated in the celebration of the solstice. Sure, I appreciate super-religious and very old carols (“Fall on your knees! O  hear the angel voices!”), but for me, really, it’s mostly about having a real tree in my living room that’s all covered in lights and sparkly things, and the fact that the world will begin, finally, slowly, to get lighter and lighter.

So I’m not a believer, but it was still an interesting time of year to listen to Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, which focuses intensely on the story of one woman who just happens to be the mother of Jesus Christ. This short novel is narrated by Meryl Streep, who is a magnificent reader, and the experience of listening to it was vivid and intimate. This Mary is a person who has lived through real anguish and is unwilling to put up with any nonsense. The novel is set several years after the crucifixion, and she is being cared for, or perhaps held by, some of the disciples, men who are hard at work making Jesus into a myth. She has no patience for them. For their part, they want her to cooperate or else to just shut up. The human aspects of the story, which are everything to Mary, don't interest them at all.

I listened to this because I was charmed by the author's By the Book column in the New York Times. Tóibín's a voracious reader, and I liked the warmth, humor, and wide embrace of life that came through as he spoke about books he’s loved.

Here’s a list of audiobooks that, like this one, are read by extraordinary readers. I wish you all a season of glorious reading while these long winter nights and rainy days continue, and let me know if I can help with some suggestions.

I fell in love in Africa once. On horseback. Surrounded by giraffes and impala. My boyfriend and I were backpacking around southern Africa, and that’s when I knew my heart was his.

Reader, I married the guy. We moved to Portland and acquired jobs, a mortgage, and two kids. It’s great, really, but I miss traveling. I miss that sense of not knowing what the day before me will bring, and I dream about going back to Africa.

Paula McLain, whose Paris Wife was a big success in 2011, has just published Circling the Sun, a new novel about Beryl Markham, the pilot, horse trainer, and author of West with the Night. West with the Night is an awfully good memoir that I’ve owned forever and finally read after finishing McLain’s book. Hemingway said of it that "this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers ... it really is a bloody wonderful book." (The story goes that Hemingway wanted to sleep with Markham and she refused him!) 

It must be said that both books skirt the very real issue of how British colonists treated the natives-- but I still couldn’t help being beguiled by their descriptions of Kenya in the early 20th century.  I long to join all the expats on Karen Von Blixen's veranda to sip gin and tonics and watch the hills in the distance turn a darker and darker shade of purple as the sun goes down. I want to go riding along Lake Elementaita in the early morning, scattering  thousands of flamingos who take to the sky as we draw closer, and I want to go on safari again and see lions stalking a kudu in the long grass.

Paula McLain is so good at putting my fantasies on the page. Someday I'll get to travel the world some more, but until then, Circling the Sun offered a great escape, one I think you might enjoy. 

Have you ever wondered if the dead can talk to the living? Is there is a spirit world that we can communicate with, but can’t see?  

Portland author, Cat Winters wonders about it too. She is fascinated by the idea that the dead can come to the living to comfort or warn them. Both of her books take place at the turn-of-the-century and reflect the emotion of people reeling from the senseless slaughter and indiscriminate death caused by World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic. They were desperate for a word or a sign from dead or missing sons, husbands, fathers.

In The Shadow of Blackbirds, Mary Shelley Black is visited by a mysterious blackbird.  What does he want? Has her sweetheart been killed in the trenches? Set against the backdrop of seance and spirit photography, and illustrated with archival photographs of World War I, this gripping story takes you into the dark and dangerous world of spirit communication.

Cat Winter’s second book, The  Cure for Dreaming, tackles a different type of spirit -- the spirit of independent thinking. This type of spirit is alive in the main character, Olivia Mead.  It is the year 1900 in Portland, Oregon. When Olivia’s father realizes that she is growing into a strong-minded  young woman in favor of women’s suffrage, he decides to take extreme measures. He hires visiting hypnotist Henri Reverie  to make her think and act like a docile, obedient daughter. But Henri whispers a hidden command in her ear: ‘You will see people as they really are’. Now, what began as a known story veers off into the unknown. This book is filled with authentic local details and presents a fascinating look at the unquenchable spirit needed for to fight for change.

If you like historical mystery with a flash of courage to face the unknown, check out The Shadow of Blackbirds or The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters. Need some music to accompany your reading? The author has created playlists for her books on Spotify and Pinterest.

Book Jacket: The City of Palaces by Michael NavaA handsome doctor, tortured by his dark past, returns home from exile in Europe to perform house calls for bored, rich housewives.

Robbed of her beauty by smallpox, a spinster countess in a crumbling palace, swallows her own pain by devoting her life to God and caring for the downtrodden in the city’s worst neighborhoods.

An upper class gentleman, shunned from the city as a “sodomite” returns as an openly gay revolutionary who refuses to apologize for his politics nor for whom he loves.

It’s the end of the 19th century and the setting is Mexico City under the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. The Eurocentric old guard are losing their hold on the city, but who or what will replace it remains uncertain.

The book is The City of Palaces by Michael Nava; A finalist for this year’s Lambda Literary Awards. As a devout chilangophile, I’ll read anything set in Mexico City, but this particular book took my breath away. The surprising cast of characters sucked me in right from the start and Nava's talent for storytelling carried me straight to the heart of a country on the brink of revolution.

If you need a page-turner to read this Summer with amazing characters that breathe life into history, check out The City of Palaces

Mr. Mac and Me book jacketWhen a long-awaited book finally arrives, it’s hard not to place high expectations on its performance. So when I finally had a copy of Esther Freud’s latest book Mr. Mac and Me in my hot little hands, dreams of a great story, pristine writing and new lands to explore were circling above my head. As a fan of Esther Freud (see Hideous Kinky and The Sea House among others) I was not disappointed on any front.  

Freud’s latest tells the story of thirteen-year-old Thomas Maggs, who lives in the Suffolk coastal town of Walberswick under the watchful eyes of an overprotective mother and an unpredictable father. Thomas’s father runs the local pub and helps himself freely to the goods. Times are not good. Business is far from booming and World War I looms ahead. When not in school, Thomas spends his time helping out at the pub, assisting the local rope maker ply his trade and exploring the countryside. He is also a talented artist who frequently sketches ships and dreams of escaping by sea. His life is changed when  Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his wife Margaret move to town. The renowned architect of the Glasgow School of Art is down on his luck and hoping some restorative time at the seaside will change his fortunes. A quiet, contemplative relationship develops between Mackintosh and Thomas, an association that will be deeply affected when the war finally comes to town.

Freud’s family has its own history of life in Walberswick. Her paternal grandfather Ernest, also an architect, spent years living in the village and transforming local cottages with his Bauhaus-style designs. Her father, the painter Lucien Freud, spent time there as a child.  And Esther Freud herself owns a home there, her second in fact. The first house she purchased in Walberswick was the former pub, known in this book as the Blue Anchor.  

Freud, the author of eight novels, is an extraordinary writer. She particularly excels is her descriptions of the physical world. The village and its surroundings act as characters equally as important as Mr. Mackintosh or young Thomas Maggs. As Thomas and Mr. Mac and the others who populate Walberswick move towards their prescribed destinies, readers have the pleasure of witnessing the development of a relationship both strikingly subtle and completely life changing. Mr. Mac and Me is not the perfect read but it does exactly what I want a book to do for me:  introduces me to new people and new places and provides me with much appreciated and invaluable food for thought.

Postscript:  Sadly, a fire at the Glasgow School of Art in May of 2014 destroyed a portion of the school’s west wing which housed the Mackintosh Library.  The library is expected to reopen by 2018.

It captured my imagination when a colleague told me that Roy Blount Jr. said of Charles Portis that he “could be Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he’d rather be funny.” I listened to the audiobook of True Grit soon thereafter, and I agree. He’s my favorite kind of funny, too. The humor all emerges out of-- and illuminates-- beautifully  realized characters. In this, I’d compare him to Jane Austen as much as anyone else-- Jane Austen without the courtships but with more shooting and swearing, and with a very different set of social expectations. The conversations around the campfire are priceless. And in True Grit, as in Austen's novels, the most important thing is to be a fair and strong person, even in trying circumstances.

You might already know the story of True Grit. A 14-year-old girl is determined to avenge her father’s death, so she hires a crusty U.S. Marshall to find the murderer and make sure he is punished. Much against his will, she rides into Indian Territory with him to see the job done. The Coen brothers flick absolutely did this story justice, but I'm glad I turned to the book (actually, the audiobook) to enjoy the elegant writing. I vow that there will be a lot more Charles Portis in my life in the future.

Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch and The Secret History, was the voice actor for True Grit, and she was perfect. If you’re interested in experiencing more classic works read by their ideal voice actor, take a look at this list, and please let me know if you think of any more audiobooks that need to be added to it.

The letter D in ornamental scripto you like beautiful scenery? Beer? Constant, simmering warfare? Then you need to visit Anglo-Saxon England!Cover of Hild by Nicola Griffith

I fell in love with this setting after reading Nicola Griffith’s recent novel, Hild. It follows the coming-of-age of a young girl named Hild, the seer to Edwin Overking, an Anglisc lord in the early 7th century. She is continually called upon to predict the future of her kingdom, with the constant threat of death should she ever guess wrong.

Hild is a beautifully written book, with characters that take up residence in your mind, but it was the setting that really blew me away. Anglo-Saxon England is a combination of cultures: there are the ruling Anglo-Saxons who began migrating from Germany and Denmark in the 4th centuries, but there are also the Irish, the Welsh, the Picts, and the Christian missionaries. There are ruins of the Roman civilization that had only recently spread across the island. The people speak multiple languages, and they worship multiple gods.

Of course I can’t actually visit England circa 1,400 years ago (although someday I would like to visit the land that it has become!) but there are plenty of books to take me there. Here are some of the best reads that I could find for booking a longship voyage back through time to the England of the Anglisc.

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