Thursday, September 28, 2006

More Emma Darwin

Leaving aside a few fatuous observations by the interviewer (she's just learned about this new "buzz term" historical fiction, "it's so hot right now ..."), another interesting interview with Emma Darwin. I'm going to have to pick up her book soon. If Darwin writes half as well as she thinks about writing, it should be great. For example:
I usually do basic research first, to establish that I can do what I want to do. Then I write the first draft without stopping to find things out more than I absolutely have to. Then I have a manuscript and a pile of notes for more research. That's often when I'll try to travel to places I need to, partly to get that authenticity, and partly because you stumble across things you wouldn't have known to look for. But you have to get beyond the research, or your novel turns into a ghastly kind of history-book-with-dialogue.
Plus, anyone willing to say that Charles Darwin is too well-traveled a historical topic to write about right now gets huge points from me. Redeemable for what, I don't know ...

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I'm in the middle of revising how I handle this site a little. Expect some small (but, to me, significant) changes come October. But I don't want to leave the blog dead in the meantime. So, a little linkblogging. Today,, which seems to be a decent collection of links about historical fiction. While I'm not crazy about the lack of diverse categories, I'm willing to chalk that up to two factors:
(1) There may not be that many other historical fiction sites.
(2) These links are not a bad snapshot of how people think of historical fiction.
So click over, and do a little exploring.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sunday at Borders - 24 September 2006

It's a light week this week. So, without further ado, new and reviewed this week in history and historical fiction:

Historical Fiction
Imperium, by Robert Harris, reviewed by Dennis Drabelle for the Washington Post. "I could have used this book while taking third-year Latin," says the reviewer (halfway through this myself, I know how he feels). Harris hits the high points of Cicero's career, but fills in lots of juicy backstory about just how the conspiracies and prosecutions that led to his great speeches happened -- it's inside baseball for high-school classics students, and I mean that in a good way.

Donne: The reformed soul, by John Stubbs, reviewed by Katherine Duncan-Jones in the Times Literary Supplement. Donne has pretty much defied biographers, says Duncan-Jones. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Stubbs has "completed a substantial and lively account of Donne's life and times ..."

Consuming Passions: Leisure and pleasure in Victorian Britain, by Judith Flanders, reviewed by Rosemary Ashton in the Times Literary Supplement. This isn't the first historical account of leisure, but the angle (that increased leisure time and funds were spin-offs from the Industrial Revolution) feels fresh. Of course, since it's a British history, it wouldn't be complete without some account of class conflict; at least this time it's relevant.

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, by Daniel Mendelsohn, reviewed by Ron Rosenbaum for the New York Times. I have to admit, my first reaction on seeing this review was "not another Holocaust book," but Rosenbaum points out a few things that turned me around. Mendelsohn is an interesting and careful scholar who writes on a number of subjects, and his book appears to eschew a number Holocaust cliches (like "backshadowing" -- making lives seem tragic in light of the coming Holocaust) in favor of reconstructing the fate of a single family.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Graphic History: Chicken with Plums

This is a first, because the English-language version of this graphic novel (the original French edition, Poulet aux Prunes, was published in 2004) hasn't come out yet, and won't until October 2. Pantheon Books sent out advance copies to graphic novel reviewers, and and the fact that I can occasionally be mistaken for one delights me to no end.

[and once again, Blogger Beta is having trouble with images]

Chicken with Plums is by Marjane Satrapi, author of the excellent Persepolis and Persepolis 2. It's the story of her great-uncle Nasser Ali Khan, a musician who, in 1958, suffered the loss of his favorite tar, and died of a broken heart eight days later. The graphic novel covers those eight days. Since it hasn't been released yet, I am going to go really light on anything that might be considered a spoiler. And I'm simply going to say that, while I thought both Persepolis graphic novels were excellent, I thought this surpassed them both. Buy it. You won't regret it.

Small observations:
  • The history is worn lightly. Satrapi doesn't shy away from referring to events or people that her Western audience won't know offhand, and that adds to the verisimilitude. Rather than stopping the narrative for explanations, she just drops footnotes, which works better in graphic novels than it does in prose.
  • Satrapi also plays a lot with chronology. The events of the book take place over eight days, but flashbacks (occasionally repeated) provide context and add layers to interactions we've already witnessed. In many ways, she has structured this like a murder mystery, even though we are watching the death as it happens.
  • The linework is deceptively simple, and the backgrounds (the set dressing of comics) are minimal. Each detail Satrapi does use is telling enough that the end result is more powerful than if she had laden her backgrounds with endless Easter eggs.
  • Like most great historical fiction (and this is historical fiction in the loosest sense -- it's necessarily a fictionalized account of her family, and it takes place before she was born), Chicken with Plums plays with interpretation. We watch the events that lead up to Nasser Ali Khan's death, but she wisely doles out information sparingly, so we don't really understand them until the end of the story. It's the things no one bothers to tell each other that are most important to Nasser Ali Khan's motives.
Overall, just an outstanding piece of work. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

And Still More Black Dahlia

Because it's late, and I'm tired ...

Slate's Seth Mnookin on why people seem so fascinated by the Black Dahlia murder. (Hint: It's Ellroy's fault.) A sample:

The Black Dahlia is, with its overlapping themes of obsession, sublimated lust, revenge, trust, and incest, the most personally revealing of Ellroy's novels. It transformed the murky facts surrounding Short's life and death into art, the unknown "dead white woman" becoming a tabula rasa on which the author could wrestle with his anger and affection toward his mother. ... Ellroy's book introduced the paradigm of Short as an unknowable Everywoman to a new generation.

I kind of buy it. The Dahlia murder was kind of a train wreck, and it was amplified by Ellroy's own issues, as well as his ample writing talent.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sunday at Borders - 17 Sept 2006

New and reviewed this week:

Historical Fiction
The Translation of Dr. Appelles, by David Treuer, reviewed by Brian Hall in the Washington Post. Treuer's novel covers a pair of parallel love stories: a modern one about a forlorn translator and a college librarian and an early 19th-century one about a pair of foundlings rescued by an unnamed (in the review) Indian tribe. The focus on the translator sounds interesting -- if only Hall weren't so convinced the majority of us great unwashed won't like the book as much as he did.

The Fall of Troy, by Peter Ackroyd, reviewed by Sue Gaisford in the Independent. A "lurid and generally entertaining drama" that's "packed full to bursting with extreme and supernatural occurences." Oh yeah, it's about a fictionalized version of Heinrich Schliemann, the man who supposedly discovered Troy.

The Meaning of Night, by Michael Cox, reviewed by Christian House in the Independent. House thinks this "600-page Victorian murder mystery pastiche" is "an unadulterated pleasure." My guess is that people who like this sort of thing will like this particular version of this sort of thing.

Zoli, by Colum McCann, reviewed by Ed Wood in the Independent. A novel about "the rise and decline of a Romani singer and poet" in Iron-Curtain Poland. Wood thinks it's ambitious, but doesn't quite hit.

Five Germanies I Have Known, by Fritz Stern, reviewed by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post. The renowned German Historian (Blood and Iron) tells a more personal history of Germany. Unlike Grass's controversial new memoir, there are no surprise revelations about the Waffen SS, but that doesn't mean there are no surprises.

LBJ: Architect of American Ambition, by Randall Woods, reviewed by Nick Kotz in the Washington Post. I've reviewed this one before, but Kotz seems to like it. He cites its balance and "nuanced sense of Southern politics" as its greatest strengths, and a series of "minor errors" as its biggest weakness.

Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family, Fatherland and Vichy France, by Carmen Callil, reviewed by Christopher Caldwell in the New York Times. Louis Darquier, one of the architects of the Vichy government in France, sounds like a twisted, real-life version of Casablanbca's Captain Renault. But the real story here is apparently why Callil decided to write the book in the first place: when her psychiatrist committed suicide, she turned out to be Darquier's abandoned daughter.

The Lost Men, by Kelly Tyler-Lewis, reviewed by Magnus Mills in the Independent. Another book about Shackleton, who explored Antarctica. This one, though, focuses more on the Ross Sea party, left behind while Shackleton ventured out on the continent.

The Long Exile, by Melanie McGrath, reviewed by Edward Marriott in the Guardian. In the 1950s, Canada convinced a number of Inuit to resettle from the Hudson Bay to Ellesmere Island in the Polar Arctic -- when they found out they'd been lured to a dark, barren land under falser pretenses, the Inuit asked to return, and were refused. I'll be seeking this one out.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Philippa Gregory on Historical Fiction

The Boston Globe has a (brief) interview with Philippa Gregory:
The way I write historical novels is that I research and research so that I could write a book of straight history. Then I put my novelist hat on and inhabit the private life of these people until I can convey the feeling to the reader that they are really there. All characters are at one level unknowable, all you can do is look at their actions. But I haven't received any criticism.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Black Dahlia - Followup

An interview with Ellroy and Friedman. There's one bit that caught my attention:
His language is so lush. Josh was a very good barometer of what you could and couldn’t do with his work. He lived and breathed Ellroy’s complex, dark material for a decade, forcing the material into Ellroy-ese, never taking the simple route.
That explains one of the things that felt wrong to me. Too much voice-over, which led to that ponderous, choreographed feel. (LA Confidential had some of it, but it was punchier, playing as cribbed newspaper copy.)

Also, despite Ellroy's protests here, he has propounded at least one theory before. It was in an documentary. Pretty sure this was the one.

History and Film: The Black Dahlia

Just came back from watching. Overall, I liked it better than I was expecting to. If you forget the studio is trying to market it as a star-studded epic followup to LA Confidential and just treat it on its own terms, it works reasonably well. A few quick comments:
  • Ellroy (and Friedman) were smart. The Dahlia murder (an actual event) is a framework, but this does not purport to be the "real" explanation of how it happened. (I saw a documentary last year on Ellroy, in which he -- drunk and BSing with some off-duty cops -- lays out what he thinks actually happened. This isn't it.) As a result, the writers can get away with a lot more dramatic tightness. For example, Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters winds up applying, without feeling overly forced. If this were more docudrama in feel, that might not have worked.
  • In fact, DePalma and Friedman (and maybe Ellroy as well, I have to confess, I haven't read the book yet) go to great effort to make The Black Dahlia feel like a modern, historical version of The Big Sleep.
  • The writers were also smart enough to avoid making the real story about the Dahlia murder. Yeah, it's there in the background, and it serves as a great MacGuffin, but the real story is more of a twisted love polygon (it would be spoiling to say how many sides, not to mention damned difficult).
  • There's some deft expository work in the beginning, tying in a bond issue, which you would expect to be dry, and making it a catalyst for the rest of the story. Side note: what is it about Los Angeles-based noir and municipal policy? Chinatown has water policy at its heart, this has a bond issue for policemen. You wouldn't think these would work, but they do.
  • Not really a storytelling point, but: Aaron Eckhart is great in this. Intense, haunted, full of rough energy. He makes the scenes he's in. Sadly, Hartnett, Johanssen and Swank seem to know they're in a Hollywood film. And that's really the problem with the movie overall -- it knows it's a big studio film. DePalma tries too hard to be serious and elegiac, and more often comes off as choreographed. Eckhart, though, knows enough to not quite keep the beat. Next to the rest of the performances, he feels almost syncopated, and that works well for him.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Other Folks on Historical Fiction

Rambling, kind of self-involved essay in a Boston-area paper about how to read historical fiction, but one that poses a couple of interesting questions, and makes a few interesting points. Namely:
  • The Historical Novel Society (didn't know that existed) has a definition for historical fiction -- anything set more than fifty years in the past, or written before the author's lifetime. So Updike writing about his boyhood in the forties? Historical fiction. But so's a twenty-five year old writing about Watergate. I can accept that.
  • And, this point is pretty useful: "What good is historical fiction then? It probably puts more non-historians in touch with history than non-fiction does. It's far better than traditional textbooks or stale historical accounts in giving history a 'neighborhood.'" What follows from there is a pretty good discussion of one man's reading habits that rings pretty true.
  • One thing I would love to see less of: using (1) The Da Vinci Code, (2) The Historian, or (3) 9/11 or the War in Iraq as a reason why people are reading more historical fiction. Each is kind of easy, kind of cliched, and kind of wrong.
  • And, one other useful clearinghouse link: Historical Fiction at Squidoo.
I never pretended to be the only one out there thinking about this stuff. So I'm glad forcing myself to think about this daily is showing me what else is out there.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Blame vampires.

Ugh, historical fiction is now a publishing trend:
The colossal success last year of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, a novel that imagined the life of Dracula set against the background of numerous world events, has publishers hoping that book-buying consumers are hungry for more historical fiction.
Leaving aside the bad sociology in this article, it's just a little depressing that an overhyped vampire thriller is getting credited with the resurgence. Don't get me wrong. I like the genre, and I even find the occaional vampire novel amusing. But really, why do so many people flock to this subgenre?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Historical Fiction Reviews

Danny Yee does a bunch of two-paragraph reviews of various historical novels. Worth checking out, in that "wonder what appeals to the audience" kind of way.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Frost/Nixon in the West End

From the TLS's review of Frost/Nixon, playing in London's West End:
History as an account of past events is sometimes not enough for us: we are trained as an audience that likes to see dramas made out of crises. The Donmar’s production of Frost/Nixon revisits not the original Watergate political mini-series itself, but the attempt a few years afterward to bring closure to it with a series of interviews featuring the disgraced male lead.
The premise sounds interesting. David Frost's career is slumping, so is Richard Nixon's pocketbook. Fate, and $600,000, brings them together for a series of interviews ...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Sunday at Borders - Too Tired Edition

Back from wedding in Nantucket, exhausted, and yet still I get this up. Wonder at me. New and reviewed this week:

Historical Fiction
The Ruby in her Navel, by Barry Unsworth, reviewed by Richard Mason for the Independent and Alex Butterworth for the Guardian. 1149, and Thurstan, Sicily's first metrosexual, is playing Muslims against Christians. Mason's not sure Unsworth gets the tone right, but still enjoys this "riotous period soap opera," and Butterworth thinks it's a "conspiracy thirller to shame lesser talents."

Restless, by William Boyd, reviewed by David Martin for the Independent. A single mother meets a former WWII spy: what could possibly go wrong? Apparently some of the writing, but Martin still thinks this is "a spy thriller from a first-rate narrative intelligence."

Imperium, by Richard Harris, reviewed by Andrew Rawnsley for the Guardian. Rawnsley thinks that folks who like "history dressed as fiction" will like this tale of Roman intrigue by a blockbuster author. He just wishes he'd write something more -- well, modern.

Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, by Nicholas Lemann, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley for the Washington Post, and Sean Wilentz for the New York Times. Yardley's too caught up in looking smart about the period to really review the book itself. But Wilentz thinks this "story of Reconstruction's demise ... is an arresting piece of popular history."

Will You Die With Me?: My Life and the Black Panther Party, by Flores A. Forbes, reviewed by Stanley Crouch for the New York Times. Crouch thinks that Forbes's memoir makes Huey Newton look like Jesse James -- and not in a good way. Flores was the a onetime military leader of the Panthers, and he gives "the inside story of a left-wing group of 'revolutionaries' whose organization evolved into a lucrative criminal enterprise."

The Conquest of Nature: Water, landscape and the making of modern Germany, by David Blackbourn, reviewed by Christopher Clark for the Times Literary Supplement. It's a grand story, "mythopoeic," even: a century of rectifications of the Rhine river in central Europe led to the Germany we know today. Blackbourne goes for the necessary labor porn (so many workers! so much time!), but also traces through the consequences of the rectifications.

Leonard Woolf, by Victoria Glendinning, reviewed by Vanessa Curtis for the Independent. Ignore "the many errors scattered throughout the book" - who really cares whether there's such a thing as a Bach "cello partita?" Glendinning's biography of that guy who married Virginia Woolf is "an absorbing read," even if it never explains why he took her name.

The Private Lives of the Impressionists, by Sue Roe, reviewed by Tom Rosenthal for the Independent. Oh look, another book about Impressionists! This one doesn't have as many pictures, but Rosenthal thinks that this "relatively slight but diverting book" has "a certain charm."

Friday, September 08, 2006

Guardian - Out of Time

Review of Stephen Baxter's latest. I'm not a huge fan of his, but it does have one nugget:
This is Baxter at his best, writing historical fiction with an SF sensibility, and proving that the genres are closer in style and creative demands than many readers realise.
This is something I've been saying for a while. More on this later.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Canada and Historical Fiction

An interesting article in MacLeans, which is enough for tonight. I have done much writing and am very tired. And, so you don't have to click blind, an excerpt:
historical fiction is one of CanLit's dominant genres. One reason we love to write it, it's clear, is to create history, to make up for its perceived lack in Canada. Authors also relish the chance -- you can't libel the dead -- to name names and play with real-life characters as they wish. Then again, some writers might be motivated by Prairie author Guy Vanderhaeghe's snarled response to a query about why so much great historical fiction was coming out of Saskatchewan: "Because we've got no f--king future, that's why."
Exeunt, to bed.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Graphic History: The Golem's Mighty Swing

  • The Stars of David are a barnstorming Jewish baseball team in the 1920s, who need something new to draw in attendance. Victor Paige, of the Big Inning Promotional Agency has an idea: he'll get them a golem for a ringer ... Overall, this is a great example of just how to do historical fiction right. Let the history inform the fiction, instead of dictate it.
  • The story works for me, I think in part because if it didn't happen, it should have. There were barnstorming Jewish teams, like the House of David, and they did use ringers (like Babe Ruth in a very unconvincing beard). And Negro Leagues players often barnstormed for extra money. Combining the two just feels right, which can be an important quality for historical fiction.
  • And, with the exception of the art, Sturm doesn't lean too hard on the history. I'm not downplaying the research. The reference work that must have gone into those drawings had to be grueling. But Sturm is confident enough to let it create atmosphere, instead of dwelling on his research. Instead, he gets ahead with the story.
  • Sturm's choice of voice is effective - simple, underplayed. It allows the story to come through, and the characters, without losing anything to visual or verbal pyrotechnics.
  • One of the most important things (sadly, not part of the image here) is that Sturm doesn't forget that one of the most important things in a baseball story is drawing the baseball well.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The right way to write historical fiction is ...

Obsessive realism? That's the "dominant tradition."
You're better off using shifting time frames? "You can expect readers to get what you're saying about the presence of the past in our present."
Using certain male types, familiar to readers of historical fiction? Like "the good-hearted ... patriarch," the "mysterious friend" and the "hapless ... love."

This is why I'm doing this, because everyone likes pronouncing on how to do this, but only one of them has a PhD in it. (Go ahead, click on the second one, it's a really interesting interview.)

Monday, September 04, 2006

Sunday at Borders - Monday Edition 2

OK, so late with this again, but it's a long weekend, and I know nobody's reading this anyway, so who could be complaining? So, new and reviewed this week ...

Historical Fiction
  • Another Green World, by Richard Grant, reviewed by Ross King in the Washington Post. I read the description with dread: do we really need yet another World War II novel? But the description -- more Pynchon than Wouk, according to King -- has me excited.
  • Imperium, by Richard Harris, reviewed by Tom Holland in the Guardian. Holland doesn't seem to like Harris much, which makes it all the more surprising that he loves Imperium. Me, I think it will make for good reading till HBO hits us with the next season of Rome.

  • First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War, by Joan E. Cashin, reviewed by Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post. Another Civil War history, albeit from the perspective of Jefferson Davis's wife. Sadly, Yardley doesn't seem to identify any way in which this offers something new and different.
  • Orson Welles: Hello Americans, by Simon Callow, reviewed by Gary Giddins in the New York Times. I'm a sucker for this from the beginning, since it's Simon Callow. The fact that it covers the period in which Welles made, among other things, The Stranger and Lady from Shanghai pretty much sells it.
  • Writers, Readers and Reputations: Literary Life in Britain, 1870-1918, by Phillip Waller, reviewed by Dinah Birch in the Times Literary Supplement. At 1,181 pages, I'm not sure this is one I really need to get; 1,176, sure, but this is just a few too many. Seriously, if I were planning on delving into lesser-known Victorian authors, I think I'd start here.
  • An Aristocratic Affair, by Janet Gleeson, reviewd by Sarah Bakewell in the Independent. Harriet Spencer was apparently the Paris Hilton of her day, except here, we get the consequences, in all their schadenfreudenish glory. Yes, "schadenfreudenish" is a word, you should see how many points it gets in Scrabble.
  • Love and Louis XIV, by Antonia Fraser, reviewed by Tom Dewe Matthews in the Independent. Apparently, Fraser is trying too hard to make her histories read like novels. Of course, if you're just focusing on who he slept with, there may not be a whole lot of historical arguments you're inclined to make.
  • Private Battles, by Simon Garfield, and Invasion, 1940, by Derek Robinson, both reviewed by Robert McCrum in the Guardian. More books on the Battle of Britain, which is one topic I never mind seeing more of. Makes gift-buying for some folks easier.
  • Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell, by Georgina Howell, reviewed by Rachel Aspden in the Guardian. Debutante or Oriental Secretary in Baghdad, what is a wealthy heiress to choose? See, now, that's a hook.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Although it sounds like he just got them all drunk ...

An interview with the author of the forthcoming children's book Beethoven's Five Legless Pianos. Which, despite all odds, now intrigues me, just based on this bit:
It is certainly neither “creative nonfiction” or “historical fiction.” It is exactly what it claims to be—a theory on how Beethoven might have moved his five legless pianos in and out of 39 different apartments, and on why he might have felt compelled to move so often, and on what these apartments might have been like, and on what works he might have composed while in the various apartments.

More on Mahfouz

Edward Said remembers Mahfouz in Counterpunch.
To have taken history not only seriously but also literally is the central achievement of Mahfouz's work and, as with Tolstoy or Solzhenitsyn, one gets the measure of his literary personality by the sheer audacity and even the overreaching arrogance of his scope. To articulate large swathes of Egypt's history on behalf of that history, and to feel himself capable of presenting its citizens for scrutiny as its representatives: this sort of ambition is rarely seen in contemporary writers.