I was tagged by Julianne Douglas over on Facebook to quickly write down ten books that have meant something to me, and then pass along the request to ten more people. I can’t do anything the easy way, so I thought it would be fun to do a blog post about it, and to explain why these books are important to me. Since it is the time of year when many people are looking for gift ideas, maybe even some of what I say will provide some inspiration. I am going to stick close to historical fiction for my list, since I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes good historical fiction in general, and medieval historical fiction in particular.
- Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdattir. It is maybe cheating to begin with this because I have about fifty more pages to go, but it was reading this book that got me thinking about medieval historical fiction in the first place. Somehow Undset managed to write here a novel that continues to speak immediately to contemporary themes and problems, while at the same time maintaining a perfect period voice. I have not discovered one jarring note (though specialists in medieval Scandinavia might feel differently). I am thinking of how I could work it into a course.
- Cecelia Holland, Great Maria. This novel is another of the first that comes to mind when I think of other books I have loved that, for me, capture the Middle Ages and its values perfectly. Its heroine is awkward and difficult, and unsympathetic at times. This is because she thinks and feels and acts differently than we would do. This is because she lives in a very different world, and Holland does not allow us to forget it.
- Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road. This one will be less well known even to my book-reading and medievalist friends. It is the eleventh-century tale of Gudrid, as told to a cleric and scribe in Rome, of her role in the Viking exploration of the North Atlantic and her own journey to North America. Gudrid’s world is pagan and Christian, civilized and wild and once again, Elphinstone gets her voice perfectly. I should also say that everything Elphinstone writes is an instant hard-cover buy for me.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. This isn’t historical fiction, most would argue, but rather fantasy. I am going to argue that it belongs on this list of books that made me think about how to write historical fiction. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is not some fantasy realm in some imaginary world, however it may appear to a casual reader. He binds it to the geography and language of the word that we know, the world that is ours, by creating stories told about stories told about stories, layering the past upon the past.
- Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Shadow of the Wind. I saw that Julianne had The Angel’s Game on her list which I unaccountably still have not read, though I went to an author reading when it first came out, and got a signed copy. This one is a book about books by a man who loves books. More than that, Ruiz Zafon casts a spell on the reader from the very first page. We are in post-civil war Barcelona with all its beauty, menace, and danger until the last page when he lets us go again.
- Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. This is the perfect book for someone raised on Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen. Like Heyer, she captures that Regency voice without anachronism, and at the same time manages to work in the magic in a way that seems seamless and plausible.
- Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall. Hilary Mantel in her best historical fiction, here and in A Place of Greater Safety, about the French Revolution not only writes a historical novel, but constructs a historical argument. Here, her argument is a revisionist portrait of Thomas Cromwell. Usually he is depicted as the most hated of Henry VIIIs servants, but Mantel gives us a view of him from the inside to present him as a more sympathetic character. Her depiction of Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More were equally daring.
- Sarah Dunant, Sacred Hearts. Most people would think that a story that takes place entirely within the walls of a tightly enclosed sixtenth-century Ferarrese convent would not be interesting. Those people would be wrong. I read this shortly after teaching a class on Terese of Avila’s autobiography and felt it gave flesh to some of the bones of what Teresa describes.
- Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. I have already discussed this book on my blog, so I won’t say too much here except that this is another book about books (I am detecting a theme here…), and it made me have sympathy for characters I thought I could not feel sympathy for.
- Simon Mawer, The Glass Room. The story of the twentieth-century told through a modernist house built in what was once Czechoslovakia, this one hits close to home. Not only does it depict the world of my ancestors, the world into which my father was born, and the pain of going into exile from that world, the characters themselves reflect elements of members of my family. This may, then, seem less strictly “historical” than the other works on my list. But whether a book takes us to Tang China or Renaissance Italy, surely we love it because we see parts of ourself in it?
New Books — Madrid 2013
I never posted my stack of books from this year’s used book sale, so by way of compensation, here is a photo of the damage I have done as of my second day in Madrid. All come from Marcial Pons, except the bottom one on Velazquez, which is the catalogue for the special exhibit I saw at the Prado yesterday.
My friend Nicole posted this article by Michelle Dean onto her Facebook page:
Why the Man Booker Prize Should Keep Americans Out to Keep the Rest of the World In
I found myself identifying with every word in this article, by a fellow expat-in-the-US Canadian, to the degree that I began to wonder whether I had in fact developed some sort of second identity and had actually written it myself (Anne of Green Gables? Check. AS Byatt and Hilary Mantel? Check. Squishy feelings of treachery the day I got US citizenship? Check. Okay, that is me identifying with David Rakoff.) And I have similar personal reasons for wishing the Booker would remain closed to American writers. Frankly, I don’t find I connect much with American literary writing, past or present, and if I want literary fiction, I tend to turn to a Commonwealth author. It was very kind of the Booker over the last decades to make the best easy for me (and I think this is the place to subtly work in the fact that my cousin Alison Pick was longlisted for the Booker in 2011.)
But I can accept that the Man Booker people are not attending to my interests and desires. They are still making a mistake. The main reason the Man Booker people should not open their prize to Americans, is that it risks making the prize irrelevant. There are already several internationally prominent American prizes for best American book. The Booker risks becoming an also-ran, the Golden Globes of the book world. “We liked it too!” “Yeah, big deal.” Or maybe year after year, they will resolutely not give it to an American; maybe that is part of the point. And then we’ll be subjected to headlines “Americans shut out of Man Booker again,” “Franzen snubbed by Man Booker Committee,” before finally, “First American to win the Man Booker.” Spare me.
How do you feel?
I am reading a book now that got all the right reviews and caused a bit of a stir in the more literary corners of the book world when it came out in 2006. Its author is an extremely talented writer, and the book is very clever, but I don’t think I am going to finish it. I don’t like the characters enough to spend more time with them. I don’t like the main characters, and none of the secondary characters are compelling either. I don’t care if they show some sort of growth over the course of the book, or if they just remain in their mean little worlds. Even the cute little kid is whiney and I want him to shut up. There is a skill in making characters so believably irritating that readers want to avoid them…but it may not be the most useful skill.
I am trying to understand why I am reacting this way; why unsympathetic characters are such a turn-off (this isn’t the first book I have put down for this reason) because at the same time, there is nothing I like less than the overly-perfect hero, the kind whom the author demands we love before he has earned it from us by what he does on the page. For the second novel I wrote, I took the most unsympathetic character from the first and tried to figure out why she was so horrible. So it is not that I don’t like edge and ambiguity.
I think that maybe what I am missing from these books is a sense of humour, or, better, a sense of humility (which is the necessary prerequisite for humour). When I speak of a sense of humour, I am not talking about the ability to tell or laugh at jokes. I am speaking of an awareness of the absurdity of the world that prevents us from taking ourselves too seriously. It is something like what Dean Priest says to Emily in Emily Climbs:
A woman who has a sense of humour possesses no refuge from the merciless truth about herself. She cannot think herself misunderstood. She cannot revel in self-pity. She cannot comfortably damn anyone who differs from her. No, Emily, the woman with a sense of humour isn’t to be envied.
Those who can take refuge from the merciless truth about themselves, who think themselves misunderstood, and wallow in self-pity are, frankly, kind of boring. And the characters in the book I am reading take themselves so, so very seriously.
I think, by contrast, of the sort of characters Arthur Phillips writes about. Most of them are fairly unsympathetic in the same way as the ones in my discarded books — they are selfish and self-centred, venal and shallow. But humour pervades the novels, gently poking and prodding the characters, the author, and the readers. The characters are nothing if not ridiculous, and that makes me care what happens to them.
I am feeling a little bit stunned.
Today, I received a book contract. Cuidono Press is going to be publishing my historical novel, Pilgrimage in 2014. No, it wasn’t unexpected — these things take a lot of lead-up time, I have discovered. A Lot. I finished this novel in 2007, just to give you a bit of an idea. I am so grateful to Martha Hoffman, who read it way back then and remembered it, and asked me if I would publish it with her new small press, and I am also so grateful to Stephanie Cabot, my agent, who has been with me through all those long years and never gave up.
Since it has been a long journey, and since I have a hunch that maybe everyone (or is it only every academic historian?) would secretly like to write a novel and get it published, and wants to know how such a thing can happen, I think over the next few days and weeks, I’ll tell the story of the path that I took to get here. Watch this space.
I really enjoyed this blog post from Kris Waldherr on a subject near and dear to my heart, book covers, so I thought I would post a link here. She is specifically focussing on historical fiction, including the infamous and ubiquitous “headless woman” cover:
…Or Kalamazoo for short. Just got back yesterday evening after missing it for the past two years. So of course I had to hit the book exhibits, hard. And I found some treasures, new and used. I got Bill Klingshirn’s edition of Caesarius of Arles: Life, Testament and Letters — not a bit too soon because I am teaching that tomorrow. I also got a translation of Aldhelm’s Prose works, and the poetry is coming in the mail, as is Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000. I found two books from my doctoral advisor, Jocelyn Hillgarth; one of his oldest, The Conversion of Western Europe 350-750, and his latest, The Visigoths in History and Legend. Kate Cooper’s The Virgin and the Bride, Susanna Elm’s Virgins of God (yes, you are detecting a research theme), Leah Shopkow,’s History and Community, another former teacher, Edouard Jeauneau’s Rethinking the School of Chartres, Matthew Bailey’s translation of Las Mocedades de Rodrigo — the Youthful Deeds of the Cid (because I am tired of taking it out of the library), and Bonnie Mak’s How the Page Matters — which has perhaps the best “medium is the message” cover ever — round out the total. But I am perhaps fondest of all of the tote bag I bought fro the University of Toronto Press. Look Ma, no horns!:
U of Toronto Press
There’s a sameness to this season, always — the turn of the leaves, the chill of the air, the encroaching dark. Even the beginning of the university year feels like an ending. And this year, like last, I also marked the end of a relationship whose time had passed.
But there are compensatons, like the extra week of summer that appeared out of no where last week. And the annual used book sale. As always, I present a photo of my haul. I am most excited by the five Rowan magazines I got for 10 cents each, and Ekaterina Sedia’s Secret History of Moscow, which I have been seeking for a while. The books are all used and have been read before by people who came to their end and discarded them. But they offer a new beginning to me.
When Outward Bound tells you that their programs are supposed to teach maturity and independence, they forget to let you know that they mean by that also the maturity and independence of the parents who have to let their children go and trust that the universe will move them along on their journey and bring them back safe and sound when it is over.
Anyway, I was reminded of a passage from one of my favourite books, A Big Storm Knocked it Over, by one of my favourite authors, Laurie Colwin, taken from us much to soon. And taken from her own small daughter much too soon too, as I recall more often than one might expect. Jane Louise has just left her baby, Miranda, alone with her husband for the first time and is returning from spending time with a friend:
It was nearing the end of the academic year. Everywhere she looked students were lugging boxes of books, clothes, and standing lamps out of their dorms. She stood on the sidewalk and watched a serious young boy load two duffel bags into the trunk of his father’s car and dash into a building. His father, a gray-haired man with a wide chest and a linen sports jacket, was loading the trunk. Jane Louise stood perfectly still, blinded by the sunny glare. Hazy light poured down around her.
Some day Miranda would grow up and go to college. day would follow day: She would lose her baby teeth. Her adult teeth would come in. She would go to school, learn to read, go to high school, have boyfriends, leave home. To her amazement, jane Louise found herself in tears. Her throat got hot, and tears poured down her cheeks. She felt powerless to brush them away.
The gray-haired man walked past her, carrying a pair of suitcases. When he saw her, he stopped and set the cases down.
“Are you okay?” he said.
“I was just thinking about my child going to college,” Jane Louise said.
“How old is your child?” the man asked gently.
“Just five months old,” said Jane Louise, and she began to sob. “You must think I’m a nut.”
The man looked at her thoughtfully. “When my kid went to sleep-away camp for the first time, I wanted to lie down in the driveway and eat dirt,” he said.
Jane Louise looked up at him. He filled her vision entirely. The hazy sunshine swirled around them. She grabbed his wrist, and kissed his hand. He was wearing a beautiful gold watch.
“Thank you,” she said. “Oh thank you.”
Then she collected herself. The man picked up the suitcases.
“It’ll be all right,” he said. “You’ll grow into it.”
There’s another passage from The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing that always sticks in my mind and has been in my thoughts lately. It comes right at the end of the book, on the very last page.
He hands me my wine. And I tell him that his cartoons are beautiful and funny and true.
I ask him what else the review of his dreams says about him. He likes this question. He thinks. Then he says, “Robert Wexler is a goofball in search of truth.”
I think, I’m a truthball in search of goof, and I realize that I can say whatever I want now. And I do.
Why do these lines stick in my head so. A goofball in search of truth. A truthball in search of goof. I am still not sure which one of these I am, and it is a question I have pondered often.
Which are you?