Historical Fiction

OK, I admit it, I know more about history from reading novels than from reading nonfiction.  But what’s wrong with that?  If you read novelists who are sticklers about historical accuracy, you can enjoy a good story, immerse yourself in a different time, and learn something in the process.

Unlike some readers who never want to stray from a certain time period and place – Victorian England, say – I like almost any historical fiction that transports me to a different era.  I want to know what it felt like to be alive in a certain time and place.  The exact time and place is less important to me than the vividness of the details – the creaking of the wooden wagon wheels, the smoky air from the sconces, the smell of the straw-covered dirt floor. 

My favorite author of historical fiction is Sharon Kay Penman because her novels set in medieval Great Britain are lush with historical detail and fully-drawn characters.  Her mysteries featuring Justin De Quincy, a sleuth in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, are good, but I like her meatier – and longer – fiction even better.  There is some romance woven in, but romance doesn’t take center stage as it does in Philippa Gregory‘s enjoyable but light novels that focus on tempestuous intrigue amongst the royals in medieval Britain.

An exotic world – 17th century Persia – opened up to me through the book The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani.  After the death of her father, a teenage girl and her mother must leave their village to live as servants in the household of the girl’s uncle who is a wealthy rug-maker for the Shah.  The girl, who is a gifted but untrained carpet-knotter, wants to learn her uncle’s craft.  Meanwhile, she is being pressured to accept an undesirable temporary marriage contract.  What mesmerized me more

Continue reading “Historical Fiction”

Destination Venice

If your interest is piqued by ancient cities with mazes of streets and canals, of hidden plots and secrets, then you must like reading about Venice.

The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt begins on January 29. 1996 the day the Fenice Opera is destroyed by fire. Berendt’s citizen interviews reveal the intricacies of customs, society, politics, the city’s decades of decay and preservation. Among them are Archimede Seguro, an aging glassblower who makes 100 vases depicting the fire as viewed from his window only feet away. Berendt learns much about Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge, his paramour, whose art collection disappeared in mystery from the home she still inhabited. The inside story of the Palazzo Barbaro (where scenes from Brideshead Revisited were filmed) and so much more brings Venice off the page in a chatty and informative way.

Travel back to the time following the 1527 sacking of Rome, as the wealthy courtesan Fiametta Continue reading “Destination Venice”

Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress

image-of-dai-sijie-courtesy-of-random-houseSince the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, numerous authors have engaged in profoundly depicting the passage of Chinese history. Among a great number of novels, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie definitely deserves to be mentioned.

Originally written in French, this novel tells the story of two teenage boys who are sent to a peasant village on Phoenix Mountain in the Sichuan province for re-education. Labeled as bourgeois doctors’ sons, they are assigned to carry pails of excrement up a hill everyday and are also sent to transport coals with their backs in a small insecure local coal mine. They somehow survive from the extreme hardship due to their skills in story telling. The village headman commands them to go watch movies in town and come back to retell the plots and dialogues of the movies to the entire villagers once in a while. The beautiful daughter of the famous Continue reading “Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress”

Unleash your inner librarian!

image-of-library-stamp-courtesy-of-exlibrisWhat are the odds? The brand spanking new Library of Congress subject heading for “Public Libraries – California – anecdotes’” is getting quite a workout. In the past six months we have seen the publication of two humorous memoirs by librarians in the Los Angeles area: Don Borchert’s Free For All: Oddballs, Geeks and Gangstas in the Public Library and Scott Douglass’s Quiet Please: Dispatches from a Public Librarian. They’re both entertaining slices of the library life (or as I like to call it, “The Game”), and I recommend them both. You may have to get in line, as they are both proving to be very popular, and not just with library staff either! It seems a lot of you are interested in exploring your inner librarian. While you’re waiting to get a behind-the-scenes look at the glamorous, high-stakes world of public librarianship, let me introduce some of my favorite fictional librarians.

Meet Cassandra Mitchell, librarian of the small town of Sechelt, British Columbia. While perhaps less well-known than the prim and plucky Miss Helma Zukas just down the coast in Bellehaven, Miss Mitchell is smart, compassionate, resourceful, sexy, Continue reading “Unleash your inner librarian!”

Parallel stories

When Possession (A.S. Byatt) came out in 1990, readers of literary fiction swarmed libraries and bookstores to get copies of this story-within-a-story relating the modern day characters to famous people in the past. In Byatt’s tale, a scholar finds an old letter written by Randolph Ash, which leads him into delicious research that in turn reveals connections between that past and his present. Later Martha Cooley invented an even more intricately plotted story, The Archivist, in which a librarian at an Ivy League university guards the letters of T.S. Eliot to his lover, Emily Hale, from the eyes of the world – at least until 2020 when the letters’ owner will allow academic access to the collection. The archivist, Matthias Lane, did not anticipate the tenacity of Roberta Spire, however, and eventually the treasure trove is plundered. As a result, the relationship between Hale and Eliot comes to light, while simultaneously Lane’s past is revealed as he works through a new relationship with the much younger Roberta. The lives of those in the present mirror those under scrutiny. A trend toward this parallel story line novel yields a Continue reading “Parallel stories”