Blogs: Historical fiction

Yep, swuft--if you take that to mean anything that is cool or wonderful or fascinating. Swuft is a catch-all phrase in Seattle author Ivan Doig’s Bartender’s Tale, and it really does describe one of my favorite authors. Doig’s characters are flawed but big-hearted; miners, ranchers, teachers, raconteurs trying to get by in tough times. His settings are always in Montana, perhaps in the  early 1900s or the 1960s, and he weaves in a historical event or two into his stories. Doig’s characters' vocabularies are full of “Montanisms” derived from real research. (He’s even involved with a national group studying regionalisms.)  ‘Swuft’, by the way, is unusual in that Doig has said his “fingers” made it up. Doig’s own writing style is old-fashioned and full of “fine turns of phrase.” Finally, what I love most about Doig is that despite of some horrendous happenings, his books end on a hopeful note.

If you haven’t read Doig, try starting with the Whistling Season, to see how he intersects the lives of an Eastern Montanan widower, a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse, and a housekeeper hired on the merits of her ad in the paper. (The ad: “Can’t cook, but doesn’t bite.) If you like that one, try the related novels, Work Song and Sweet Thunder. Another place to start is This House of Sky, Doig’s autobiography of his early years in Montana. If you like Doig’s masterful mix of characters, language, setting and hopefulness, try some of the titles on my list, (Mostly) Western Places, (Mostly) People You’d Like to Know. Those books are all pretty swuft. 

 

Book jacket: The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin GoOut of the blue Tristan, a young and aimless American, receives notice from a London solicitor's office that he could stand to inherit an unspeakably large fortune that has been left unclaimed for nearly eighty years. He has only to provide evidence that he is the great grandson of one Imogen Soames-Andersson; a name he's never heard before. Oh and Tristan has only two months before the trust expires and the fortune is turned over to charity.

So begins The Steady Running of the Hour, a debut novel by Justin Go that's part historical romance, part pulse-racing scavenger hunt. This is a book for fans of multi-layered historical fiction, whirlwind European travel, genealogy, and mysteries that reveal clues that only lead to more mysteries, until uncovering the story becomes the only thing that matters.

Just be warned that when you are forced to put Go's book down momentarily: to wash dishes, put on pants, or otherwise keep up appearances as a functioning member of society, you too may find yourself walking around in a daydreamy fog, contemplating clues written on brittle letters left behind in isolated Swedish barns.

I've read a lot of novels set in Europe during World War II. Hasn't every reader of historical fiction? It's the just war—the only war in recent memory where there was a clear line between the good and the bad guys, which makes it very useful for literature. But of course, it's not really that simple. Recently I read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, and it gave a thoughtful and moving look at what it would have been like to be on the wrong side of that war.

We meet Werner as a young orphan in a bleak mining town in Germany. Germany is already turning into a war machine, one fueled by the coal mines that Werner and all the boys in the orphanage are going to be sent down into when they get old enough. But Werner is a bit of a prodigy. He has the ability to fix radios everyone else has given up on, and when his talent catches the right person's attention, he's given a chance to escape from the mines. He takes this chance, getting a place at a national school that, with the use of shocking brutality, is molding the future leadership of the Third Reich. 

Marie-Laure is a blind girl living in Paris with her father. She's a great character, extraordinarily brave, and indeed, she needs to be brave as she flees Paris, loses her father, and gets involved with the French Resistance.

The narrative alternates between these two characters and they do not meet until very close to the end of both the war and the book. The writing is lovely, and the book is full of interesting and well-developed characters.

Sometimes I look around at the books in the library where I work and despair-- the whole world of literature is darkness, except for those books I've inhabited for a while and made my own, and there are so many I'll never get to. If you enjoy fiction set during World War II, this list contains other good books that you may not want to leave in the dark.

 

 

Margaret MeadI have vivid memories of rummaging about in my mom’s stockings drawer when I was a kid and finding two books - one was on boys' development (my brother was in his difficult puberty years) and the other was Margaret Mead’s, Coming of Age in Samoa. I didn’t quite understand why my mom had hidden this book away and it didn’t look enticing enough to read so I left it and spent a lot of time reading about how boys develop. I wish now I had read a bit of Coming of Age in Samoa to see just how ahead of its time it was.

Euphoria bookjacket

My memory of finding Margaret Mead’s groundbreaking book came back to me as I was reading Lily King’s latest book, Euphoria. Euphoria takes as its starting point an event in the life of Margaret Mead and spins off into a tale that takes you into the world of anthropologists exploring the world of New Guinea in the 1930's. It’s the story of three anthropologists: Nell Stone, modeled after Margaret Mead, her husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson, a troubled, suicidal man who is saved by his relationship with Nell and Fen. It’s a tale of passion, imagination, memory. It makes you think about how objective any of us can be when viewing the world. And you'll be blown away by the amazing writing: 

Do you have a favorite part of all this? she asked. . .

It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on this place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion--you’ve only been there eight weeks--and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.

Bloody hell. I laughed.

You don’t get that?

Christ, no. A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.

If you’re looking for a book filled with wonderful imagery, a fascinating story, an exotic setting, and interesting characters, then Euphoria’s a book for you.

cover image of rules of civilityIf you are enamoured at all with the Lost Generation era, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles may just be the next read that recreates that initial flutter. It's not technically Lost Generation, but the feel is much the same. ​The setting is the tail end of the roaring 30s in New York City. It is the leftover last hurrah of the long party, which was the 20s, with the Great Depression still lingering. It is a sophisticated novel, which captures the romance of the time while never letting the reader forget the gritty underbelly. Mr. Towles manages to write convincingly from a woman’s perspective and has created quite the character in Katey Kontent. Katey is a witty and independent young woman making her way in the world when she meets Tinker Grey, who may as well be Jay Gatsby himself with his rags to riches story and suave debonair manner. This novel has many elements to enjoy.  It has interesting, admirable, flawed, yet relatable characters, a plot that keeps you turning pages because of the subtle twists in the story, a setting in a major metropolis at a memorable time in history, and language that is simply exquisite with its rich and unique turns of phrases like “slurring is the cursive of speech." There is unrequited love, loss and gain of fortune, clever quips, and a cinematic atmosphere. So relax. Sit back with a drink and loll the passages over with your tongue. This is one unpredictable journey.  

Today I made a discovery. I still enjoy reading old fashioned stories about the Old West.

Some people call it pulp fiction, but for me it brings with it memories of spending hot summer afternoons lying on the old metal bunk in my grandfather’s office in Eastern Washington, reading Zane Grey’s Western magazine  and paperback westerns by Louis Lamour.  

Cover for The Tonto Woman by Elmore Leonard

Well I’m more sophisticated now. I read Swedish mysteries by Henning Mankell and Pulitzer Prize winners like The Goldfinch and Olive Kitterige.  But something inside me still loves those stories about strong silent cowboys and rugged, bold spirited  American Indians who feel much but say little; times when everything seemed black and white simple.  So when I saw The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, my hand was already picking it up before I knew what I was doing. From the first story  "Trail of the Apache"  which takes place in Arizona in the 1880s, I was hooked again.  The tough realism of his later suspense and crime novels is there as well as a dispassionate awareness that makes the characters- native or white  stand out from their stereotypes.

If you are looking for a good read for a long afternoon, give it a try.

“History isn't about dates and places and wars. It's about the people who fill the spaces between them.” ― Jodi Picoult, The Storyteller 
 
I happily Marathon book jacketread non-fiction books about the Oregon Trail, but otherwise I like to absorb most of my history lessons via fiction. Fiction gives you setting, context, details and a snapshot of 'a day in the life'. It makes history into what Jodi says: a human story. And thanTemplar book jacketk goodness there are quite a lot of writers and artists bringing these stories to life as graphic novels!
 
Marathon by Boaz Yakin shows the life of Eucles, the Athenian messenger who ran from Sparta to Athens and prevented the fall of Greece to the Persian empire. The art is a good match for the gruelling story. Templar by Jordan Mechner is based on the apocalyptic end of an entire knightly order when the king of France arrested 15,000 of these crusaders. Pretty dark, but also has a bit of a 'heist movie' feel to it. Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang are brother and sister works that show opposite sides of China's 1898 Boxer Rebellion. It is a dangerous time for Chinese Christians, and seeing how Yang gets us to empathize with opposing characters is a neat trick. 
 
You like? We have lots more.

I found  Dan Simmons' The Terror  positively ripping, a great big adventure story filled with interesting characters-- men of the sea testing themselves against the many, many things the Arctic throws at them. Then it changed, and it started to remind me of a book I read once about the Donner party. And then it changed again and became something unexpected and unusual, and I don't want to talk about that too much and spoil it for you.

The Terror is based on the real expedition of Sir John Franklin and his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, which in the 1840s disappeared in the Arctic on a doomed search for the Northwest Passage. There's not much sailing in The Terror, as a the ships get frozen into the ice pretty early on and stay there, the result of several exceptionally cold winters. Things start out pretty bad-- Franklin, the commander of the expedition, is something of a fool who fails to respect the Arctic as he should, the canned food is tainted and spoiling, there are no animals to be found by the hunters, crewmen are coming down with scurvy, and it’s unbelievably cold-- like -50 degrees Fahrenheit cold. The ship is crowded and the darkness is constant. And then things get worse. Something-- an enormous polar bear?-- is stalking the crew. And the ships, frozen in the ice for years, are starting to crack up under the pressure.

This is not for the faint of heart-- it’s almost a thousand pages long (or 22 CDs), and contains vast amounts of research about nineteenth century ships, polar ice, the early days of canned food, Inuit mythology, and more. But while I can’t believe that human beings actually signed up for these expeditions, I  just loved the time I spent in the world of this book. The writing is good,  the plot is thrilling, and it’s so compelling that I couldn’t stop listening. Oh, and if you are considering listening to the audiobook, as I did, you should know that the voice actor is excellent, as well, with a plummy English accent and great ability to express characters of different ages, classes and dispositions.

This list will provide you with even more opportunities to head into the cold during the hot summer days that will be coming back soon.

The Illusion of Separateness book jacketOn a muddy World War II battlefield a young soldier happens upon the enemy, shoving a gun in the terrified man’s mouth. In 2010 Los Angeles a newly arrived nursing home resident drops dead at his welcome party. In 1960’s rural France a young boy excitedly shows his classmate the ruins of a burned-out German plane. A pair of young lovers has their picture taken at Coney Island in 1942. A blind woman in the Hamptons in 2005 yearns for someone to love.

What do these people have in common? Nothing at first glance but then again that is the illusion of separateness. In a world that is vast and often alienating it is comforting to think we are somehow all connected – that like the idea of six degrees of separation we don’t have to go too far to find our footing or to appreciate the intricate twists and turns that got us here. More than a series of linked short stories, Simon Van Booy’s delicate novel is a world slowly revealed, where discoveries are made, connections are forged and the reader is part detective, part voyeur and part conspirator.

Beautifully written, with fascinating characters readers will grow increasingly attached to, The Illusion of Separateness depicts a world that will stay in the reader’s mind long after the book is closed.

Portland author Nicole Mones’ novels are so interesting. You get well-developed characters, a bit of romance, and good writing, but you also get to share in her wealth of knowledge including, but not limited to, all things Chinese. Ms. Mones owned a textile business for many years that required her to spend a lot of time in China. Between that and the research she's done for her books, she is such an expert on China that she’s now a member of  the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Her novel, A Cup of Light is full of information about Chinese porcelain, and The Last Chinese Chef offers an introduction to the fascinating philosophy that guides Chinese cuisine.

Her new book, Night in Shanghai, introduced me to an astonishingly interesting and vivid city. Shanghai in the 1930s was an open port, with a thriving International District. It was full of money, jazz clubs, dangerous women and political intrigue. Communists jockeyed for position against Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist party, powerful crime gangs fought each other, and the Japanese army had long been an increasingly menacing presence in the city. Black American jazz musicians came in multitudes because in China, they could escape from the racism and segregation they left behind in the United States and could earn a fair living. Shanghai also came to be a haven for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, mostly because of one man, Ho Feng-Shan, a Chinese diplomat in Vienna. Jews were desperate to flee Austria, but no one was issuing visas for Jews anymore, and they were not allowed to leave without a visa. Shanghai, as an open port, did not require visas, but in order to help thousands of Jews escape, Ho set his staff to creating fake ones, as fast as they could, in spite of the fact that his superiors were ordering him to stop. His heroic actions didn’t do much for his career, but he is still honored in Israel for them.

In this exciting city, a  romance blossoms between Thomas Greene, a classically trained pianist turned jazz musician, and Song, an indentured servant and secret communist.  It’s ever more obvious that World War II is coming, and as Japan allies with Germany against the United States, we wonder if Greene will get out in time, and will Song go with him, or if she’ll stay in China to fight with the communists. And what will happen to all those Jews who have found refuge in Shanghai now that Germany is demanding that the "Jewish Problem" is addressed there?

Mones writes beautifully in this book about music, how it feels to improvise, and how music can change the world. More Portlanders should know about this local author. Give her books a try!

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