Thursday, August 31, 2006

Write-Thinking Folk

OK, so some freelancer named gets himself an article on Slate about Deadwood. That's fine. I like reading about Deadwood almost as much as I like watching it.
And MacIntrye's not enamored of series creator David Milch, which I can also accept. My guess is, after the season finale this year, a lot of people are not enamored of Milch. (I don't happen to be one of them, but I can accept that there are people like that out there.)
I can even accept that he thinks Milch may be a huckster who "dresses up his auteurlike compulsiveness with a professorial bearing and impressive erudition."
Here's where I draw the line. I quote:
He's given to repeating gauzy platitudes, such as a line from the scientist Friedrich August Kekule, that "what writing should be is a going out in spirit," and this precious aphorism of craft: "You can't think your way to write action; you can only act your way to write thinking."
See, here's the thing. Leave aside whether you've ever known anyone into self-help or in any one of a scad of recovery programs. Just Google "think your way into write action." You get "Your search - 'think your way into write action' - did not match any documents." Now Google the homonymic "think your way into right action." (Now, just for fun, try "act your way into [right/write] thinking.")
I quote again from the illustrious Mr. MacIntyre:
The lesson to any would-be TV provocateur: Do the research.
Do as he says, not as he does.

Mauger what I've said before ...

I know I've said to be shy of old-fashioning dialogue, but I think the methodology here (combing through old sources for unusual uses of words) is pretty sound. Plus, it's amusing.

How to Speak Nineteenth Century.

Obit - Naguib Mahfouz

This is sad.

He studied philosophy at Cairo University and wrote his first novel in 1939. In the decades since, he had published some 60 more books, including heavily researched historical fiction and sprawling, intricately structured novels about contemporary Egyptian life.

Intensely prodigious throughout his life, he also wrote hundreds of short stories, screenplays, newspaper columns, essays and more.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Graphic History: Joan Book I

Joan seemed an interesting selection to discuss for two reasons: (1) it's manga, but about European history, and (2) it deals with an interesting subject, Joan of Arc. But while I had high hopes going in, there was one overwhelming flaw that pulled me out of the story.
  • The plot revolves around Emil, another girl dressed as a man, who follows in Joan's footsteps ten years later. The similarities don't end there. She was also raised by Baudricourt, the same man who ostensibly mentored Joan. She also talks to the dead Joan of Arc in visions.
  • And I just have to ask: why? If you're going to do a story about a woman in Joan of Arc's period, who dresses as a man and goes to the same places, why not just do the story of Joan of Arc? As it stands, Emil is a pale shadow of Joan.
  • It's not like freeing the story from Joan's specific events helps it any. Instead of some strong narrative pull, the reader just gets some meandering from one mild adventure to another.
As you can see, the art on this graphic novel is beautiful. But, in general, I can't help wondering if the story isn't trying a little too hard.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Books: True History of the Kelly Gang

  • True History of the Kelly Gang won the Mann Booker Prize in 2001. I picked it up off a remainder shelf in San Francisco, ecstatic to find a Peter Carey novel on the cheap. Which tells you something about the sales power of the Mann Booker Prize in the United States.
  • Carey uses a neat device here. While the “found papers” novel is nothing unusual (cf. any epistolary novel ever), he goes so far as to include archival notes, describing each set of documents. They make for a naturalistic way to break the novel up into chapters, and even allow for a old-fashioned “summation” of the story in each chapter.
  • Which leads to one question. Why doesn’t the summation doesn’t wreck the narrative tension? Probably because the story isn’t really about what it’s supposed to be about. The Kelly boys are well-known in Australia. So what is the novel about?
  • It seems, in part, to be about the ways in which outlaws get mythologized. But, more importantly, it’s about why Ned Kelly decided to write his life story. We know early on that he’s writing it for his daughter, but the reason he wants to pass it on stays hidden, which creates the same kind of tension found in the short story “First Defeat.” It seems that maybe, more than in other kinds of fiction, historical fiction can use this question of why the story exists in the first place to great effect.
  • The narrative voice is one of the big attractions of the novel. (In the cover blurbs, Janet Maslin calls it one of the great acts of literary ventriloquism.) It’s effective, too, once you get used to it. I was concerned at first that it sounded too contrived, but I found myself considering it normal after about fifty pages. (Before that, it was work, but rewarding work.) It’s far from flowery. Instead, it’s hot-blooded but halting, earthy, but with the restraint of a man who’s trying not to set a bad example for the daughter he barely knew. The more one learns about Kelly, the more the voice in this novel seems a real achievement.
  • Not that the novel is flawless. (Brilliant, just not flawless.) One question that bothered me: why does Carey start with the incident where Kelly improvises body armor in a gunfight? It’s an arresting image, but it’s not like the incident drives the story. And it’s not like he plays a whole lot with chronology otherwise. So what purpose does the flashforward serve? As is, it feels kind of like a bad JJ Abrams trick.

Some More New and Reviewed

Procrastinating on something else, and trying to clear out some of my backlog, so:

Saint Patrick's Battalion, by James Alexander Thom, reviewed by Danny Lee in the Indianapolis Star. I've read about this incident -- recent Irish-American immigrants joining the Mexicans in the Mexican-American war -- somewhere else in a historical fiction context, where it was a story within a story. Good to see it getting a more prominent treatment.

The Lambs of London, by Peter Ackroyd, reviewed by Kelly Jane Torrance in the Washington Times. More Shakespeariana, but at least it's focusing on some of the earliest Shakespearianists -- the folks who brought us the abridged Tales from Shakespeare. Ackroyd tends to be pretty interesting, though, so it may be worth picking up.

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories, by Ben Fountain, reviewed by Jim Ruland in the Los Angeles Times. This is the second time I've seen this reviewed (and reviewed well), and the first that mention that the stories explore historical themes. I'll be picking this one up, if for no other reason than I've been pondering historical shorts a lot lately.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Sunday at Borders, 27 August 2006 - Special Monday Edition

Traveling over the weekend, so this is a day late. Sorry. Among the new and reviewed this week:

Historical Fiction
The Law of Dreams, by Peter Behrens, reviewed by Ron Charles in the Washington Post. Peter Behrens makes his literary debut with a story of the Great Famine of 1847 (more popularly known as the Irish Potato Famine). The story looks interesting, even if reviewer Charles seems enthralled by just how many ways to describe hero Fergus O'Brien's suffering.

Sovereign, by CJ Sansom, reviewed by Jane Jakeman in the Independent. The third in a series starring Matthew Shardlake, the hunchbacked lawyer in Henry VIII's court. Jakeman praises Sansom's evocation of "contemporary horrors ... [t]his is no herbs-and-frocks version of Tudor England." Because, Lord knows, we've all seen entirely too many herbs and frocks 'round these parts.

The Pure Land, by Alan Spence, reviewed by David Isaacson in the Independent. Shogun with a Scotsman, in which "action takes precedence over character." Pity.

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution, by David Quammen, reviewed by Adrian Desmond in the New York Times, and by David Brown in the Washington Post. Oh look, another Darwin biography ... Desmond spends half the review on "the Darwin industry" (which he's working on joining himself), but says this latest edition is a "plucky condensation." Brown just tries to tie it into yet another summary of the debate over Intelligent Design.

Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, edited by Caroline Moorehead, reviewed by Francine du Plessix Gray in the New York Times. Gellhorn was apparently the "greatest female war correspondent of the mid-century decades," which may be the greatest quoted superlative in an August linkblogging entry. The letters themselves sound interesting, though, combining the substance of a war correspondent's correspondence with what Gray says is Flaubert-level prose.

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, by Sarah Helm, reviewed by Selwa Roosevelt in the Washington Post. Atkins worked for Britain's Special Operations Executive -- a wartime covert intelligence outfit -- despite the fact that she was of Romanian birth herself, and therefore "technically an enemy alien." She served as a spymaster for female agents in World War II. If that description hasn't sold you, check yourself for vital signs.

Waxing Mythical: The life and legend of Madame Tussaud, by Kate Berridge, reviewed by Marianne Brace in the Independent. The infamous mistress of waxworks predated PT Barnum by more than a century. And Brace seems to think Tussaud could teach him a thing or two.

Shakespeare and Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story, by Stanley Wells, reviewed by Simon Callow in the Guardian. Oh look, another book about Shakespeare ... But Simon Callow wrote the review, so go read it.

So What Is Historical Fiction?

It’s a good question. Because, given enough time, all fiction gets to be historical. And that makes me rethink what I said last week about genre being a shelf in the bookstore. That’s not a bad start, but keeping the metaphor physical like that may limit our understanding of genre, we start thinking “one book, one shelf,” which leads bookstores to put Toni Morrison’s Beloved in African-American Literature, and nowhere else.

It may be that genre is a tag. It’s not that it has characteristics that make you put it on the historical fiction shelf as opposed to in general fiction. Instead, it has characteristics that allow you to put a sticker on it that says “Historical Fiction.” You can put a lot of other tags on it as well, but this one clearly belongs.

So what are the characteristics? I’ve heard some say that historical fiction is fiction written about a time before the author lived. But that isn’t quite right – that gets limiting. It excludes Phillip Roth’s Plot Against America, and Don DeLilo’s Libra, both of which I’d say are I’d say historical fiction, even though Phillip Roth has inserted his childhood self into one, and DeLilo clearly lived through the Kennedy assassination.

One of historical fiction’s weird strengths is that it is so broad. Basically, anything that happened in the past is the subject of historical fiction. But it seems silly to call John Updike writing about his boyhood “historical fiction,” no matter how long ago that was. Better example --- Shakespeare wrote a number of plays that are referred to as the Histories. Why? Because they were about British history, and the primary reason to watch them was to get an idea of who and what came before.)

So maybe historical fiction is simply fiction that is concerned with history. It’s not a great definition, but it serves my purposes for the time being. And I think, as I wind up looking at more of the problems and the techniques unique to historical fiction, I’ll be able to refine the definition.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

History and Film: Apollo 13

Should have posted this yesterday, but I was traveling. Also, no picture this time.
  • Think this one is largely workable. The consensus is that it creates suspense even though you know the outcome.
  • Hanks gives some expositional dialogue in the beginning that works because it has a couple of purposes. It gets across the exposition, but it also expresses Lovell’s frustration. Ditto with the tour. Is it a sales pitch? Yes, to the overseers to keep the program going. “If there is an Apollo 14.” There’s your stakes.
  • Some of the “isn’t it quaint?” moments stick out, though. Computer that fits in room. “Is she still mad because the Beatles broke up?”
  • Some natural advantages. Apollo 13 makes for nice foreboding. (And they keep the bad omens to Marilyn Lovell, which is smart.) The “it actually happened” part of the story works here, particularly when it needs to lend weight the additional crises that come in by the end. In a purely fictional movie, having to land through a storm would just be too much. Knowing that was what actually happened? The tension ratchets that much more.
    Small glitch with the launch (“the clock is running …”) keeps it from being clichéd, even though Howard uses the expected beats. (He also cuts inside, and to Sinise’s POV, which switches it up a little.) The glitch also helps with tension against the facts. (“Looks like we just had our glitch for this mission.”)
  • The themes in the movie are grand, but the execution is earthy at points. “How do you go to the bathroom up there?” “Flight surgeon horseshit.” “Eat the ass off a dead rhinocerous.” “Constellation Urine.” “No more waste dumps.” “It hurts when I urinate.” It works. It keeps it from falling for its own bullshit. Getting too lofty.
  • There is some highly technical stuff to deal with in this movie. That could have been boring, but it’s not. The actors help in selling some of it. Howard also cuts back to ground – built-in Greek chorus, sells us on danger from reactions. The earthier tone also works in delivering technical dialogue. There’s some rough poetry to learning that the rockets have developed a “Wicked bang and shimmy.”
  • Showing the problem as it occurs works. Keeps the audience grounded, even if the astronauts don’t quite know what’s going on yet. Plus, we know it’s coming, so why be coy?
  • The cigarettes in Mission Control are a nice way of indicating what a different time this was. As are the low-tech wonders. When the engineers pull out slide rules to double-check Lovell’s math, my reaction was: Slide rules? They did their navigation with slide rules?
  • People with common goals but cross-purposes. Good example, as he tries to come up with a power-up procedure, Ken Mattingly talks about needs, his tech talks about what they have. They’re all after the same thing, but that interim conflict keeps tension high.
  • The voiceover at the end may be a little too much. I know it comes from the book, and I know it’s making a good point, but it just feels like too many tacked-on voiceovers before it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Fiction: Quicksilver

So this is the real meat of what I wanted to do with this blog. I've been reading a lot of historical fiction in the past year or so, and I wanted a place where I could think out loud about technique in the stuff I was reading. Why start with Quicksilver? Two reasons. One, for all what I say below may sound critical, I thought it was a great read. And, two, because, while I had read historical fiction before (I mean, who growing up where I did could avoid Johnny Tremaine?), this was the first piece that really made me think consciously about method. And, I think it did, because it’s kind of a crossover piece.

Stephenson started out as a science fiction writer. (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age.) He had a mainstream hit with Cryptonomicon. After that, he started on the Baroque Cycle, of which this is the first volume. And he’s pretty transparent about taking some of the obsessions and techniques of science fiction and using them in his historical fiction. There is no doubt that this is historical fiction, but it feels different than something that Bernard Cromwell, or Dorothy Dunnett, or Phillippa Gregory might write. So, we’ll start here. (And, needless to say, some SPOILERS below.)
  • There’s crossover with Cryptonomicon (among other things, the main characters are Shaftoes and Waterhouses), which is a nice marketing technique. It pulls in people who otherwise might have been turned off by the length or the historical period. Remember that last really long book you read and loved? Here’s more of the same. Sort of.
  • In fact he starts the book with Enoch Root, who one assumes is a predecessor of the Enoch Root in Cryptonomicon. ("Enoch rounds the corner just as the executioner raises the noose above the woman's head.") Why another Enoch Root? Now that I’ve finished, I think I know, but, I have to admit, this one bugged the hell out of me for nigh-on 2,700 pages.
  • And the length is an issue. In hardcover, this book is a whopping 916 pages of narrative, and there is no question that, with something this long, there can be vast stretches where the thing drags. I was talking to a work colleague about this, and he mentioned that he likes long books like this because he can skim past the stuff he finds less interesting to get to the stuff that appeals to him. I can understand some of that impulse, but in a market already saturated with books, do you really need to throw three 300 page books into one? (You think I'm kidding? Stephenson has now released the Baroque Cycle as an eight-volume series, of which the first three volumes are titled Quicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque -- the three "books" in the Quicksilver I read.)
  • One other issue is that, for all its length, this is definitely the first of a trilogy. It doesn’t really have its own beginning, middle and end. While the Waterhouse operation makes for a nice cliffhanger, it makes it tougher to read the Confusion, because you know that you won’t get a satisfying chapter out of it.
  • Another reason for the occasional drag is that Stephenson does love his exposition. Granted, that's part of the hook here. He's good at exposition. But it works much better when he’s doing it as part of the narration than when he does it as dialogue (of which there are long stretches). His voice works well as narration. His dialogue, while not bad, can get didactic. (More on this in the later volumes.)
  • He does take great pains to keep the plot moving, just in case you thought it was all going to be long historical lectures. So he starts off early getting you to the King of the Vagabonds -- a character that promises tours of the seedy underbelly of Europe.
  • One thing Stephenson does a great job of in here is playing with language. Some of it is minor variations in spelling, "mathematick," "philosophick." But then occasionally he'll switch it up even more, using “phant’sy” for “fancy,” giving you an idea of the etymology. And then he will introduce as if it were a new concept the hotel, a French word for "private compound of nobles." The language is in a state of flux during this period, and Stephenson goes to pains to show that. At times it borders on the overly cute, but for the most part, it allows him to strike a colloquial tone while still maintaining that this the past is a foreign country. THIS is the stuff that gets me excited about Stephenson.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Graphic History: Archangel

'Sbeen a busy week, so, once again, I'm going to keep this one short. I was hoping to go a little longer before going to the WWII well (because so many people dip into it in historical fiction), but War Stories: Archangel by Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine is such a great shorter piece, I thought it was worth doing now quickly. So:
  • The three panels above give the hook, which grabbed me the first time I read it. Camships protected convoys in WWII. They were launched from smaller boats like a catapult when a German squadron came. There was usually one to a convoy. And they had no place to land. Think on that. No. Place. To. Land. You know, except the North Atlantic. Powerful hook.
  • So what kind of a person pilots one of these things? He's either got to be crazy, or just plain dumb unlucky. Ennis goes for the second, which actually works very well for the story, because flying the camship (which is what the story is about) is only one of a series of escalating disasters for the lead character. One of the others? The lead gets assigned to the camship for (unintentionally) shooting his own officer in the air -- a documented problem that doesn't often get addressed in war fiction, and certainly not comically.
  • This is the lightest of Ennis's War Stories series (which comprises eight one-shots so far, collected in two trade paperbacks).
  • One excellent sequence is a montage -- four or five panels in rapid succession, each just another instructor explaining just how bat$#!+ crazy flying one of these things is.
  • Ennis does the appendix thing with these, and I think it works. Talking about what you tried to get right and what you deliberately changed definitely helps sell the "painless history" part of your historical fiction. More on this later, as this is one of those things I'm wrestling with.
  • That's it for right now. Like I said, short. But I enjoy the hell out of this story.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Not Just Fancy Dress

Oddly meandering and inconsquential column, but the last paragraphs include the result of a quick interview with Sarah Waters, who wrote The Night Watch, a book that is on my to-buy-and-read list. The following small bit hits some of the stuff I'm struggling with myself:

Taking her cue from novelist Mary Renault, who said that "the past isn't just
full of us in fancy dress", she believes that good historical fiction should
take you back into a different mentality.
That's it for now.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Why Historical Fiction?

So I’ve got this blog, and I’ve been posting to it regularly for almost a month now. I keep linking these things that catch my interest, and I keep saying the same thing to myself: “I’ll think more about this later.” Well, it’s later.

Because, after all, genre is really a way of shelving books in a store. And, in that way, genre is helpful. It answers our questions when we say “I’m in the mood for X, where do I find that that in the bookstore?”

There’s a reason a reader goes to that shelf. If you’re reading science fiction, chances are you want some cool technology or some future shock. If you’re reading a romance, there’d better be some exotic settings, breathless descriptions, and Fabio on the cover.

Most shelves have unique sets of problems the storyteller has to solve. And there may be specific tools that are well-suited for solving them. (And some not as well-suited, that people insist on using anyway.)

On top of that, writers and readers can, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, create traditions that create expectations for readers. Over time, these traditions can ossify into clichés, or even hard-and-fast “rules” that prevent innovation. Then, genre can wind up as a ghetto. “Spaceships? That’s not literature. Go to science fiction.” And you can only graduate from the ghetto if you write some non-genre stuff good enough to be accepted as literature. So William Gibson’s Pattern Reognition – a stark, present-day novel about a trendspotter with nearly no fantastic elements – gets shelved in Science Fiction, but Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale winds up in Fiction/Literature. (Personally, I think you should shelve them both in both places. But I don’t run a bookstore, and there’s probably good reasons for that.)

Unlike mysteries, unlike science fiction, unlike horror, unlike Westerns (which, if you think about it, are just a specialized historical fiction), historical fiction doesn’t get ghettoized in bookstores. It sits happily on the “Fiction/Literature” shelf. That’s both a good and a bad thing. It’s good, because it means that many authors don’t feel any compunction about writing something set before they were born, and don’t have to worry about whether they’re going to get slotted into a specific shelf on the bookstore.

So why is it bad? Because historical fiction is in a weird spot right now. Most bookstores don’t have a Historical Fiction section, but say the words “historical fiction,” and you’ve created a set of expectations in your listener. So, if you write something, and you call it “historical fiction” (or even if you just set it in the past) then you have to deal with the expectations, because they’ll be sitting there in your reader’s head. The lack of a shelf masks that fact for a lot of people.

One of the good things about genre is that, once it has its own shelf in the bookstore, you get people who think hard about the problems specific to the books on that shelf. There are people who think very hard about science fiction, and romance, and mysteries. A lot of that thinking is crap –constant walling off of what is and isn’t part of the genre, almost-fractal subdivision of genres, endless invention of clever labels. But some of it is genuinely useful.

And, because there are specific problems with writing about history, historical fiction has some problems, some tools, and, of course, some bad habits that are, if not unique to it, at hard for it to deny under oath. It’s worth thinking hard about those, even if it doesn't have its own shelf. And that’s what I want to do here.

Some of this stuff has been sitting in my head a while. I figure I’ll be posting like this about once a week as I think through some of this stuff. I’ll try to figure out a way to label it so people know to skip the long, rambly pieces. Of course, the fact that they’re long is probably a tipoff.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Playing with Time

The beginning and end of this article are too cute by half, but the general idea -- that time is just another tool in fiction writing, and that certain genres handle it better than others because of the expectations people have of them -- well, that bears some further thinking.

(There'll be more about Life on Mars at some point. Great show.)

Sundays at Border - 20 August 2006 - Welcome Ego Surfers! Edition

I've noticed that most of the very few hits on this blog come from Google, Technorati, and Feedster searches for author names, and it seems to be a different name each time. Now, it could be that some first-time authors have already generated enough buzz that people are searching out what they can on them. But it seems a safer bet that this kind of one-to-a-customer search is coming from nervous authors checking on their newborns. For which I have a great deal of sympathy.

So here's the deal. This particular weekly entry is just my way of getting a feel for what's in the market. The stuff that looks good, I'll likely buy and read. The others, probably not. But if I didn't think your book looked good, and you want to change my mind, feel free to get in touch with me.

So, my quick takes the new-and-reviewed:

There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975, by Jason Sokol, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post. Here's the part that everyone will be talking about: "[i]t's difficult not to approach Sokol's book with sheer astonishment that it has been written by one so young." Here's the part that makes me want to pick it up: "he has read a huge amount of material ignored by others -- the personal testimony of whites whose lives were changed by the movement -- and his account of what happened to them is sound and perceptive."

Two Elvis Books - Fortunate Son: The Life of Elvis Presley, by Charles L. Ponce de Leon and Me and a Guy Named Elvis: My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley, by Jerry Schilling with Chuck Crisafulli, both reviewed by Joe Heim in the Washington Post. Fortunate Son reads like "an overlong Wikipedia entry" -- yeowch. On the other hand, it looks like Schilling and Crisafulli have shown us an Elvis that could have fronted Entourage, which is at least a fresh take.

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, reviewed by Dave Itzkoff in the New York Times. Itzkoff calls it a "thoughtful and meticulous biography." And the description of a woman caught up in an increasingly complicated pseudonym sounds more compelling each time I read about it. (The Times has the first chapter up, and, kludgy present-tense intro paragraphs aside, it reads well.)

LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, by Randall B. Woods, reviewed by Alan Brinkley in the New York Times. Good Lord, another LBJ Biography? Maybe -- according to Brinkley, "Woods has produced an excellent biography that fully deserves a place alongside the best of the Johnson studies yet to appear." (First chapter is up, and it looks like Woods is trying some fictional techniques in his biographing.)

Dead Man in Paradise, by James MacKinnon, reviewed by Ian Thomson in the Independent. A "true-crime thriller" investigating the murder of a Jesuit priest in the post-Trujillo Dominican Republic. The possibility of purple prose worries me a little, but the period is fascinating, and Thomson thinks the language problems are just "hiccups in a superb work of reportage."

Iron Kingdom, by Christopher Clark, reviewed by Brendan Simms in the Independent. A history of Prussia, or, as Simms calls it "a sophisticated yet accessible acocunt of how a middling German dynasty manoeuvred its way into the European pentarchy of powers." Which is really just a hiccup in an interesting review of a book that I'd be a sucker for anyway.

Historical Fiction
The Three Musketeers, by Alexandre Dumas, translated with an introduction by Richard Pevear, reviewed by Terrence Rafferty in the New York Times. Yes, Dumas wrote historical fiction -- he lived in the 19th century, and provided "long, scenic excursions into French history ... for the newspaper readers of mid-19th-century Paris." Rafferty thinks he was a "hack with genius," and that Pevear's translation brings out his "pure nuttiness," which sells me, frankly.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Yeah, What About All Those Norse Myths?

From The Independent, a few days back (but only just noticed this AM). Bernardine Evaristo makes some valid complaints about stale poetry:
The published poetry scene actually needs an injection of alternative histories, cultures and stories. Haven't we had enough of the same old same old: my childhood memories; my mildly dysfunctional parents; my repressed grandparents; Greek myths; my last lover; my new lover; my love of nature; more Greek myths; my holidays in foreign lands.
(Emphasis added for, well, emphasis.) Two reactions:
  • She's got a point. I'd love to see more exploration of other histories and myths that doesn't just sound like "my holidays in foreign lands."
  • Poetry. Another form of historical fiction. You know, like Beowulf, and the Iliad? Lots of room on this bookshelf.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Some More History and Film

Haven't had the chance to see The Illusionist, but Dana Stevens at Slate gives it a good review. Giamatti, Sewell, Norton. That's enough for me. But most notably, for purposes of this blog:
The Illusionist also has considerable intellectual ambitions, though it tucks them discreetly up its sleeve. The film shows the competing strains of spiritualism and scientific rationalism that dominated late-19th-century thought, while the figure of the prince is an odd mix of modern ideas and imperial aspirations: He wants to overthrow his dictatorial father so he can rule more democratically.

I'm looking forward to seeing this. (So's the fiancee, but she's really excited about Snakes on a Plane.)

History and Film: Red River

It's Friday, so it's time to hit the multiplex. And since Red River was sitting on my TiVo, waiting to be watched, why not go with that? Quick thoughts (because real analysis requires work):
  • Tom Dunson (John Wayne) the cattle baron gets set up from the beginning as less-than-sympathetic. He deserts a wagon train (leaving his girl to die). He takes land from Don Diego. And he tries to steal a fellow cattle baron's cattle, only confessing to it when he’s almost caught. Hardly a movie that mindlessly glorifies pioneers.
  • For the first forty-five minutes, there’s a nice discussion of the economic forces that lead to the drive up the Chisolm trail waeved into the dialogue. It doesn’t feel like forced exposition -- it’s front-and-center for these guys because it would be. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Matt Garth(Dunson's foster son, played by Montgomery Clift) was “away,” for most of the fourteen years, allowing everyone to catch him up on what happened while he was gone.
  • And that's one one of those things you don’t often deal with in non-historical fiction. Economic discussions. (It’s not unheard of, but it doesn’t always have the same urgency to the plot as in these kinds of stories.)
  • The voiceover/montage at the beginning feels a little kludgy to this modern eye (ear? some kind of facial orifice), but it does get you through fourteen years in the space of a minute or so. (This kind of technique is something I want to study harder. How do you handle large swathes of time?)
  • The whipping scene – nice way to show how hard discipline is outside of civilization. The fact that it's followed by desertions and outright mutiny shows a nice thinking through of the consquences of these actions. Tom Dunson, not too far off from Captain Bligh. (Apparently, I'm not the only one to notice this.)
  • The journal-page-as-title-page trick, while not unique, is a decent way of making the movie "feel" historical. At least, it was in 1948, before it got overdone. Why does it work here, when I'd usually roll my eyes at it?
  • Unfortunately, the negotiation in the denoument is unrealistic compared to discussion of everyone's dire economic straits in the beginning. It’s a little too convenient. It doesn't wreck the film because it’s incidental to the main theme of the story, which is the struggle between Garth and Dunson, but it can still creep past suspension of disbelief.
  • After the Winslow Boy commentary, I've been trying to watch props a little more. Three key ones that bear watching through the film (aside from the handwritten journal pages) are the bracelet, Garth's gun, and the brands for the cattle.
  • And there's a definite homoerotic subtext. I'm certainly not the first to notice this. Just sayin’ is all.

Thursday, August 17, 2006


Been a real long day, so just a few random notes:

  • Professor David Mould asks if there's "Too Much Lewis and Clark in History?" Actually, he just goes over their route (again), but the title is catchy.
  • So, suppose you want to go to a bookstore to fill in an embarrassing gap in your reading by getting a copy of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's much-lauded historical ghost story Beloved. Let's say that the bookstore in question has decided not to shelve the title (or the author) in Fiction/Literature. Where else do you look? Horror? History? A special shelf for Nobel Laureates in Literature? (And seriously, shouldn't we have one of those?) Nope. African-American literature. Because, you know, Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's single defining characteristic? African-American.
  • Sounds like this may not be a good book, but the review is fascinating.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Graphic History: The Death of Thomas Scott

This is part of a longer work I've been meaning to pick up -- Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, by Chester Brown. The excerpt appeared in McSweeny's Quarterly Concern No. 13.

Just a few notes --
  • Riel was an important figure in Manitoban history -- the death of Thomas Scott resulted in his exile, which, in turn, led to an almost Messianic belief that he had to lead his people (the Metis) people in revolt aganist the Canadian government.
  • Brown, on his inspiration (from an interview with
    I was looking to do something non-fiction because I had done a strip, "My Mom Was a Schizophrenic" [which examined the historical diagnosis of schizophrenia and those who disagree with its classification as a disease.] I really enjoyed the process of doing that strip, despite its subject matter. To do it I'd had to do a lot of research and reading and I figured I'd like to do that again. Also, in the last couple of years I've had an interest in history and politics. I was reading various historical books and I read Maggie Siggin's Louis Riel biography ["Riel: A Life of Revolution"] and it seemed like a good, dramatic story that would translate well into comic-strip form.
  • A constant problem when recreating historical events is how to treat action and dialogue. Do you make it as painstakingly accurate as possible, leading to awkward storytelling? Or do you gussy it up because, hey, no one knows what really happened? Brown's deadpan dialogue (pictured above) is an elegant solution.
  • I think it also goes hand-in-hand with the cartoony art style. Not a lot of ornament or fuss. Here's the facts as we known them. Have fun.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Primary Sources ...

This one's more for my own reference than anything else. New book out in New Zealand, which takes a historical view of a number of obscure (even for New Zealand) Kiwi authors. As the reviewer puts it:
Aesthetic evaluations and obsessive fussing over rankings within the literary canon have given way to a readiness to accept literature as a branch of social history, furnishing documents that can be examined as evidence of bygone attitudes.

For the new sociologically minded approach, the writing analysed does not need to be brilliant. Indeed, brilliance rather gets in the way. The more commonplace - and thus representative - the attitudes expressed the better ...

But still we have the oddity of a work of literary criticism that tackles literature hardly anyone, apart from Stafford and Williams, has read.

I've mostly been focusing on how history informs fiction. But the relationship is a two-way street.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Walesa calls out Grass

Now this, I don't even know what to say about this. It's like watching Mom and Dad fight, if both of them were men, and Nobel laureates, and one of them an illicit affair with the racist down the street twenty years ago and decided to mention it one night over the sausage and potatoes and got told to pack his bags. (And, you know, he was about to write a book about it.) Which, I have to admit, is more screwed up than my family ever got.

Given Sucking

Tim Willock's new novel (that of the "historical dialogue" mentioned last week), The Religion, gets reviewed in the Independent. It sounds about as bad as I feared:
When not slaking his lusts, Willocks contents himself with mounting an assault on the English language that puts the Ottoman hordes to shame. The narrative voice in The Religion is prevailingly that of the pulp historical romance - babes are "given suck", people wave "damask blades", women "sashay", men "swive" - but it can occasionally rise to the kind of Basic English that Kingsley Amis used to write as a joke, especially when speaking of the great imponderables of manhood and existence. "This was what it was to be a man," intones Willocks, "this, and not some thing other than this."
I told thee so.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Sunday at Borders - 13 August 2006

New and reviewed this week in history and historical fiction:

Building Houses Out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power, by Psyche A. Williams-Forson, reviewed by Matt Lee and Ted Lee in the New York Times. Sounds like intriguing social history. What can we learn about a disenfranchised population from how they interacted with food?

The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations, by Paul Kennedy, reviewed by James Traub in the New York Times. One of the grand old men of the history of great-power politics takes on the UN. Probably not much new in it, but who reads Paul Kennedy to find something new?

Historical Fiction
The Judas Field: A Novel of the Civil War, by Howard Bahr, reviewed by Jeffrey Lent in the Washington Post. Yet another Civil War novel. But at least this one's about a lesser-known battle (Franklin, Tennessee), and looks like it may have an actual story in it.

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by Gordon Dahlquist, reviewed by Kevin Allman in the Washington Post. Sometimes, no matter how wrong it is, it's fun to review a book by its title -- and why would anyone use both "Glass Books" and "Dream Eaters?" Allman's full review doesn't dissuade me ("poonderously ornate").

Helen of Troy, by Margaret George, reviewed by Clare Clark in the Washington Post. A woman's-eye view of the events in the Iliad, but without the gods, apparently. Too bad, they do a lot to explain why Helen wasn't completely nuts.

The Book About Blanche and Marie, by Per Olov Enquist, reviewed by Ruth Franklin in the Washington Post. Blanche Witman was Marie Curie's lab assistant, and later the subject of some ghastly medical experiments, and, in this book, she sleeps with her neurologist, too. Sounds like the Marie Curie parts may be interesting, though.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Some Quick Links

* Jane Robbins makes Rebel Queen Caroline of Brunswick (tried for adultery in 1820) sound like the kind of woman you'd want to meet at a party -- provided it's not at your house.
On being introduced to gauche and garrulous Caroline three days before the nuptials, [George IV] looked ill and requested brandy. She, with her customary tactlessness, commented on his bulk. Nine months later, their daughter Charlotte was born.

* 514 years later, Christopher Columbus continues to make Dead White Men look bad, "cutting off people's ears and noses, parading women naked through the streets and selling them into slavery."

* And, new and reviewed historical fiction in Publisher's Weekly:
  • The Boleyn Inheritance, by Phillipa Gregory -- Apparently, it's time for the story of the other Other Boleyn Girl.
  • Unconfessed, by Yvette Chistianse -- The premise, following a slave in a South African prison who murdered her son, hits right in the solar plexus, but I'm a little suspicious of any nook that "alternates between exhausted lament, seething rage and scripture-tinged poetic soliloquy."
  • The Rising Tide: A Novel of the Second World War, by Jeff Shaara -- The subtitle is useful, since it tells us Robert E. Lee will not be making an appearance.
  • A Dangerous Love, by Bertrice Small -- Part one of an "action-packed erotic tale set in the English and Scottish borderlands just before and during the Tudor period." I have to admit, it's the combination of the pulpy ("action packed erotic") and precise ("just before and during the Tudor period") that makes me want to pick this up.
  • The Last Van Gogh, by Alyson Richman -- Doctor's daughter sleeps with earless artist.
  • A Fine Crack of Light, by Pam Jenoff -- Billed as a "historical romance," but the plot, Polish Jew spies on, and maybe falls for, Nazi Commandant, sounds intriguing.
  • The Tailor's Daughter, by Janice Graham -- "How much can one middle-class Victorian-era woman endure?" You know, I'm okay staying in the dark on this one.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Graphic History: The Plot

It's Wednesday, which means that it's time for another installment of Graphic History -- historical fiction in the comics.

This week, we look at Will Eisner's last work, The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Produced over the course of twenty years, this is Eisner's attempt to sum up the various research debunking one of the most persistent anti-Semitic tracts in modern history. Just a few quick things to note:
  • The history is impeccable, the fiction not quite as much. Primarily because Eisner seems more interested in making his argument than in creating three-dimensional characters. This is hardly a flaw in the overall work -- The Plot succeeds because it uses the techniques of graphic fiction (dramatizing scenes, laying facsimiles of text side-by-side with commentary) to make an otherwise complicated explanation much simpler. But the narrative "thrust" of the book -- which seems to ask when we'll see the end of the Protocols (answer: no time soon) -- makes for a weakish ending.
  • Using Philip Graves -- a British reporter who wrote a series of articles on the Protocols -- as a central character is an smart tactic (and aging him throughout the remainder of the story is a nice touch). Am I the only one who thinks that he winds up looking a little like Eisner's old Commissioner Dolan by the end?
  • It's interesting that Eisner engages in some of the same tactics as the Protocols themselves, putting words in the mouths of historical figures. It doesn't detract from his argument (argumentive dialogues are an old, honored technique), but it does set up a few resonances.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

HistFic Follies: Dialogue

From an article in last week's Independent flogging Tim Willocks's latest:
It was very freeing to work in a different time, to work with language in a different way. Modern dialogue is a bit stunted - it has to be. It's nice with historical fiction to be a little more flowery.
Now, I know it's unfair to grab a soundbite from an interview that really exists only sell the author's latest and then rant and rave against it, but this is one of those constantly repeated truths about historical fiction that drastically oversimplifies what the genre (to the extent that it is a genre) can do.

Yes, there is no question that historical fiction allows you to get flowery with language. David Milch has been doing it on TV with the excellent Deadwood, and writers as good and diverse as William Shakespeare (Henry V) and Atturo Perez Reverte (The Fencing Master) have been doing it on the stage and the page. But other writers, like Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose) and Neal Stephenson (Quicksilver) have done well with blunter or simpler dialogue in historical fiction. And Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49) and Peter Carey (My Life as a Fake) have certain shown that you can use ornate, or "flowerly," dialogue to great effect in fiction with a modern setting.

I'm going to come back to this one a lot, but I thought I'd get it out there as soon as possible. Historical dialogue does not have to be flowery. Not if it's accurate, and not if it's designed to let you know that something happened in the past. There are valid reasons to make dialogue -- past or present -- either blunt or ornate. But writing flowery dialogue for no other reason than to make it sound "historical" is misinformed and lazy.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Playing History

From yesterday's New York Times, an article by Ed Leibowitz on actors who play historical figures.

Leibowitz focuses mostly on physical resemblance and voice pattern, but it's a larger question for historical fiction, and one that no doubt will recur. (And make no mistake, biopics are historical fiction. They dramatize rather than report.) How true do you stay to people who really existed? Do you report details faithfully, or change those things you need to to make a story more interesting? Do you glamorize your lead character, or try to make them seem as real as possible? And which of those requires the most invention?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sunday at Borders: 6 August 2004

Linkblogging the new and reviewed in history and historical fiction this week:

Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography, by David S. Brown, reviewed by Sam Tanenhaus. Hofstadter is best-known to generations of college students for his often-assigned work The American Political Tradition. Brown's biography delves much deeper, tracing Hofstadter's early trust in, and later disillusionment from, popular politics in history.

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, reviewed by Martin Morse Wooster. Science fiction has traditionally been a male-dominated field. Phillips's book follows a woman who decided the best way to break in was to publish as a man.

And Yardley's latest -- Jonathan Yardley takes on the slim memoir of George Appo, which gives a revealing look at post-Civil-War crime in New York City.

Historical Fiction
An Iliad, by Allesandro Baricco, reviewed by Nick Tosches. Baricco thinks that his "translation of a translation" would make postmodernism's granddaddy Borges proud. Tosches, with great regret, disagrees.

The Syringa Tree, by Pamela Gien, reviewed by Wendy Kann. Apartheid is now, thankfully, history. And Gien's novel apparently recasts To Kill a Mockingbird there.

History and Film: The Winslow Boy

Another thing that I hope to do regularly on Fridays. Which means, of course, that I'm off to a great start.

For a writer/director known for his very modern, highly stylized verbal tics, David Mamet offers up two surprises in this adaptation of Terrence Mattigan's stage play. First, with the exception of a couple of additional lines (including, apparently, the "how little you know" exchange at the end), he holds to Mattigan's original script pretty tightly.

Second, and more interesting, he relies heavily on props to tell his story (a fact that comes through clearly on his DVD commentary). While the characters aren't above relating exposition to each other, Mamet repeatedly refers to handwriting samples, editorial cartoons, calendars, and even umbrellas to show how damning the evidence is against the title character, and the state of popular support for his case throughout the period the film covers. Film is a visual medium, and the heavily reliance on props to set atmosphere and covey key story points works particularly well here, allowing the dialogue to focus less on historical exposition, and far more on hitting the emotional beats of the story.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Free Story Idea: Khutulun

Niece of Kublai Khan, mentioned in Marco Polo's Travels, Khutulun apparently resisted any attempt to marry her off by challenging her suitors to a wrestling match -- 100 horses against her hand. Supposedly, she died, unmarried, with 10,000 horses.

Perfect as the heroine of either a feminist revisioning of Chinese history or a pulpy adventure novel (a la Red Sonja). So why has no one written about her?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Graphic History: From Hell

This will be a regular feature as long as I have material to support it -- every Wednesday, a look at historical fiction in graphic form (or, comics, for those of us not trying to be so pretentious). There's a lot out there, and it gets overlooked by just about everyone.

This week, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's From Hell, likely the gold standard of graphic history. Painstakingly researched (there are two factual appendices), and told by a writer and artist at the absolute top of each of their games, From Hell elevates the Jack the Ripper story from just another whodunnit into a meditation on the end of the Victorian era. Which, of course, is a fancy way of saying that Moore and Campbell produced an engrossing book that makes you think -- hard -- about how many of the problems faced in the twentieth century were foreshadowed in a famous serial killer's story.

It does raise one disturbing question, though. Why are writers of historical fiction so obsessed with serial killers?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Don DeLillo on the JFK Assassination

Also from a not-yet-archived Paris Review interview, circa 1993:
You’ve said that you didn’t think your books could be written in the world that existed before the Kennedy assassination.

Our culture changed in important ways. And these changes are among the things that go into my work. There’s the shattering randomness of the event, the missing motive, the violence that people not only commit but seem to watch simultaneously from a disinterested distance. Then the uncertainty we feel about the basic facts that surround the case—number of gunmen, number of shots, and so on. Our grip on reality has felt a little threatened. Every revelation about the event seems to produce new levels of secrecy, unexpected links, and I guess this has been part of my work, the clandestine mentality—how ordinary people spy on themselves, how the power centers operate and manipulate. Our postwar history has seen tanks in the streets and occasional massive force. But mainly we have the individual in the small room, the nobody who walks out of the shadows and changes everything.
DeLillo wrote, among other things, a masterful novel about the Kennedy assassination, Libra. And while, like Sondheim, he seems to view the assassination as almost mystically important, unlike Sondheim, he spends a great deal of time (about a hundred thousand words) justifying his case. So when he talks about "the true and lasting power of [Lee Harvey Oswald's] name," you've got reason to believe it.

(Also interesting, from the Author's Note in Libra: "Any novel about a major unresolved event would aspire to fill some of the blank spaces in the known record. To do this, I've altered and embellished reality, extended real people into imagined space and time, invented incidents, dialogues, and characters.")