Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Historical Novels

Top Ten TuesdayHistorical fiction is my favorite genre, and I’m not sure I could pick an adequate top ten. There are so many great books that fit into this genre. You can find my list below with the following caveats: I simply haven’t had a chance to read a lot of great historical fiction that’s out there yet, so this list is necessarily limited to just those books I have experience with, and also I have decided not to include classics that were set during their own contemporary times but are history now (e.g. [amazon_link id=”0486284735″ target=”_blank” ]Pride and Prejudice[/amazon_link] or [amazon_link id=”1441408223″ target=”_blank” ]Jane Eyre[/amazon_link]). Also, these are in no particular order (aside from the order in which they occurred to me) because I couldn’t begin to rank them. Finally, I selected these particular books out of all the historical fiction I have read and loved because they so perfectly evoke their time settings that they bring the historical eras in which they are set alive (with historical accuracy) and simply couldn’t take place any other time.

  1. [amazon_link id=”034549038X” target=”_blank” ]The Dante Club[/amazon_link] by Matthew Pearl: Not only is this book a solid thriller with fun connections to Dante’s [amazon_link id=”0812967216″ target=”_blank” ]Inferno[/amazon_link] and the Fireside Poets, but it is also a great snapshot into life in Boston right after the Civil War. In terms of period detail and engaging reads, you could do worse than Matthew Pearl for sure.
  2. [amazon_link id=”0780748433″ target=”_blank” ]Catherine, Called Birdy[/amazon_link] by Karen Cushman: This is a middle grades/early YA novel set in 1290 in England. Catherine is the daughter of a knight, and Cushman captures the Middle Ages (particularly, the lives of a family in a small manor house) in exquisite detail.
  3. [amazon_link id=”0152164502″ target=”_blank” ]The Coffin Quilt[/amazon_link] by Ann Rinaldi: The subject of this YA novel is the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. Told from the viewpoint of Fanny McCoy, the novel touches on all the major events of the feud and is simply one of the most well-written YA novels I’ve ever read.
  4. [amazon_link id=”0345521307″ target=”_blank” ]The Paris Wife[/amazon_link] by Paula McLain: This novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage and time in Paris perfectly captures the lives of the American artist expatriates living in France during the 1920’s. It’s a gorgeous novel.
  5. [amazon_link id=”1565125606″ target=”_blank” ]Water for Elephants[/amazon_link] by Sara Gruen: This isn’t just great historical fiction. It really captures an era and a subculture that I’ve not seen captured as well in any other novel. Superb read.
  6. [amazon_link id=”0765356155″ target=”_blank” ]Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell[/amazon_link] by Susanna Clarke: While also classified as fantasy, this novel also explores England during the Napoleonic Wars, including brushes with Mad King George and Lord Byron as well as the Duke of Wellington. The footnotes are a great touch. I loved this novel.
  7. [amazon_link id=”039331507X” target=”_blank” ]Nothing Like the Sun[/amazon_link] by Anthony Burgess: I don’t think I’ve read another historical fiction book about Shakespeare that touches this one. Burgess’s characters speak like Elizabethans, and the events described are both believable and fun homages to Shakespeare’s plays. The premise behind the book is that Shakespeare’s tangled love life majorly influenced all of his work.
  8. [amazon_link id=”B000FC10KC” target=”_blank” ]Ahab’s Wife[/amazon_link] by Sena Jeter Naslund: Oh, how I love Una Spenser. She is my fictional BFF. She is amazing. I need to read this one again. As you might have guessed, this book takes the passage in [amazon_link id=”B003GCTQ7M” target=”_blank” ]Moby Dick[/amazon_link] in which Captain Ahab mentions he has a young wife at home and creates her character and her life (and it’s a fascinating life that, in my opinion, puts that of her husband to shame).
  9. [amazon_link id=”0061577073″ target=”_blank” ]The Poisonwood Bible[/amazon_link] by Barbara Kingsolver: This novel about Christian missionaries in the Belgian Congo right as the country declares its independence from Belgium is a fascinating snapshot into the Congo of the 1960’s as well as the lives of Christian missionaries and also serves as an allegory for America’s own role in colonialism.
  10. [amazon_link id=”0061990477″ target=”_blank” ]The Thorn Birds[/amazon_link] by Colleen McCullough: When I read this novel, I couldn’t put it down. I haven’t read a lot of books set in Australia, but this novel seems to so perfectly capture the times and setting. Meggie is an engaging heroine, and who doesn’t love Father Ralph de Bricassart?

Because I read a ton of historical fiction, I need to include some honorable mentions:

  • [amazon_link id=”0547550294″ target=”_blank” ]The Witch of Blackbird Pond[/amazon_link] by Elizabeth George Speare: This YA novel is set in Colonial Massachusetts and is a great vehicle for middle schoolers (or even their older siblings and parents) to learn about that time period in history. I can’t think of too many books that do as good a job with this era.
  • [amazon_link id=”0312378025″ target=”_blank” ]The Tea Rose[/amazon_link] by Jennifer Donnelly: This book is a fun read, but has a few lapses in terms of credibility (at least for this reader). Set in Whitechapel as Jack the Ripper ravages London, this novel is the story of Fiona, daughter of one of the Ripper’s victims, who makes her way to New York and builds a tea empire from scratch.
  • [amazon_link id=”B001NLKT2E” target=”_blank” ]The Commoner[/amazon_link] by John Burnham Schwartz: This story of a commoner’s marriage into the Japanese imperial family makes for a great read, too, though Schwartz takes some liberties to make his character’s ending happier than that of the real model for his heroine.
  • [amazon_link id=”0060515139″ target=”_blank” ]A Plague of Doves[/amazon_link] by Louise Erdrich: Some of this novel is contemporary, which is one reason I didn’t include it above, but it is one of the finest novels I’ve read and concerns the repercussions of a murder and hate crime that sent ripples through a community for generations.
  • [amazon_link id=”B003WUYROK” target=”_blank” ]The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane[/amazon_link] by Katherine Howe: Also partly set in contemporary times, this novel concerns Connie Goodwin’s attempts to learn more about her ancestors’ grimoire and secret powers.
  • [amazon_link id=”0399157913″ target=”_blank” ]The Help[/amazon_link] by Kathryn Stockett: While this book certainly evoked Mississippi of the 1960’s, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, it did not seem as realistic to me as some of the books I included in my top ten.
  • [amazon_link id=”0307588661″ target=”_blank” ]Madame Tussaud[/amazon_link] by Michelle Moran: This novel, set during the French Revolution, was an excellent read and shone a spotlight on a historical figure who hasn’t perhaps received as much attention as she was due.
  • [amazon_link id=”0143034901″ target=”_blank” ]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_link] by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: Barcelona’s book world during the 1930’s and 1940’s, though to me, the plot did not have to be set during era or in that place.
  • [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb: Again, because this novel is set partly in contemporary times, I excluded it from the list above, but the historical fiction parts were my favorite. This novel is the story of how a song learned on the crossing from Scotland to America in the eighteenth century was passed down in a family and survived to the present day.
  • [amazon_link id=”039306915X” target=”_blank” ]Emily’s Ghost[/amazon_link] by Denise Giardina: The story of Emily Brontë and one of the better historical fiction novels about the Brontë family.
  • Pretty much anything by Jude Morgan. Love him. And Syrie James. And Tracy Chevalier. I mean, this was really a hard topic for me to narrow down.
Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Book Club Books

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is the top ten books that would make great book club picks. Some of these books I have actually read with a book club; others I haven’t, but I think they might make for good discussion.

  1. [amazon_link id=”0385341008″ target=”_blank” ]The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society[/amazon_link], Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer: It’s a book about book clubs! What could be better to read with a book club?
  2. [amazon_link id=”0312304358″ target=”_blank” ]Moloka’i[/amazon_link], Alan Brennert: This might be because I just chose it for my book club, but I think it would be great for discussion, especially because it’s a good story, but it has some flaws.
  3. [amazon_link id=”0345521307″ target=”_blank” ]The Paris Wife[/amazon_link], Paula McLain: I think this one would be great for literary book clubs who want to learn more about Hemingway and his circle.
  4. [amazon_link id=”1451648502″ target=”_blank” ]The Kitchen Daughter[/amazon_link], Jael McHenry: It might be fun to bring the dishes described in the book to the meeting. I also think discussing adult Asperger’s would make for an interesting evening.
  5. [amazon_link id=”1594484465″ target=”_blank” ]The Little Stranger[/amazon_link], Sarah Waters: I picked this mostly because I would like to talk about the ending and see what everyone else thinks happened at the end.
  6. [amazon_link id=”0399157913″ target=”_blank” ]The Help[/amazon_link], Kathryn Stockett: I liked this one a lot and see it being a good book to talk about when you’re done with it. I could even see a good discussion about whether it’s another in the long line of “white people solve racism” books/movies.
  7. [amazon_link id=”1613821395″ target=”_blank” ]The Woman in White[/amazon_link], Wilkie Collins: Marian and Count Fosco are great characters. So was Frederick Fairlie. He’s hysterical, in fact. I think it might be interesting to talk about how Collins popularized some of those tropes we consider clichés.
  8. [amazon_link id=”0142001805″ target=”_blank” ]The Eyre Affair[/amazon_link], Jasper Fforde: There is so much bookish fun in this one. I think book nerds would really like reading and talking about it.
  9. [amazon_link id=”B005K5XQRY” target=”_blank” ]The Lace Reader[/amazon_link], Brunonia Barry: I am not sure it would appeal to everyone in the group, but it has a classic unreliable narrator, and those always make for juicy discussion. Plus you could try to brew up some “Difficul-tea” and try out lace reading (if you can figure it out).
  10. [amazon_link id=”0385338015″ target=”_blank” ]Madame Bovary’s Ovaries[/amazon_link], David P. Barash and Nanelle R. Barash: The premise of this book is that you can explain the behavior of some characters in great literature through evolutionary psychology. It’s an interesting read. It’s sure to generate some discussion; I can’t imagine you’d get a whole group to agree on whether or not the authors are right. It serves the dual purpose of making you interested in the literature they discuss, too. The Goodreads reviews on it are all over the place.

Honorable mentions: [amazon_link id=”0812979303″ target=”_blank” ]Reading Lolita in Tehran[/amazon_link], Azar Nafisi; [amazon_link id=”0679751521″ target=”_blank” ]Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil[/amazon_link], John Berendt (only left out of top ten because everyone’s surely read it by now); and [amazon_link id=”014029628X” target=”_blank” ]Girl in Hyacinth Blue[/amazon_link], Susan Vreeland.

Sunday Salon: Time to Read


One thing I hear a lot when I talk with friends, family, and colleagues about reading is that they don’t have time to read. I instantly feel a pang of guilt because without their knowing it or perhaps meaning to convey this message at all, I tend to interpret this as a veiled criticism: I am either 1) not busy enough in my life if I have so much time to read, or 2) I am not doing something I should be doing if I can read so much. Now, of course what the person is really saying is probably something closer to “I envy you for being good about carving out time for reading; I wish I could.” My contention is that if reading is truly important to you, you will make time to do it. If it is something expendable to you, you will dispense with it.

I have to read.

Reading is essential to my happiness. When I don’t make some time to do it, I actually become grouchier. In the past few years that I have been book blogging, hence reading more, I am actually happier than I have been in years when I have done less reading.

If you are having trouble carving out that time, it might be that you are not taking advantage of down time. I loathe Newt Gingrich, but I will never forget reading a story about him in which he describes taking a book with him wherever he goes in case he has to wait. If he is in line anywhere, or is waiting for an appointment, he whips out his book and uses the time to read. I know that one seems obvious, but a lot of people don’t do it. Nowadays, you can even download reading apps on your phone or carry your e-reader, so it isn’t even onerous to carry a book with you wherever you go.

Another great time to read is during your commute. If you ride a bus or train, easy enough, but even if you drive, you can try audio books. We listened to Daphne Du Maurier’s [amazon_link id=”B000GH2YPG” target=”_blank” ]Rebecca[/amazon_link] on our trip to Salem last summer, which was a great way to pass our time in the car. I have listened to several audio books in the car, and in some cases, I think listening was better than reading. For example, the narrators of the audio version of [amazon_link id=”0143144189″ target=”_blank” ]The Help[/amazon_link] were fantastic, and the narrator who voiced Minny in the book—Octavia Spencer—is Minny in the film. In other cases, I think I would have preferred reading the actual book as audio can be difficult if you’re trying to follow an intricate plot. My point is that commuting is often down time we can use to read, one way or another.

It can be hard to carve out time to read if you have a demanding job, small children, or something else more pressing that needs your attention, but you can make the time if you truly want to make the time. It’s a matter of looking for it.

The Sunday Salon

photo credit: h.koppdelaney

The Help

The HelpI have been listening to Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help during my commutes and car trips, and I finished it this morning just moments after I pulled into my parking space at school. Stockett’s first novel is about the relationships between white Southern women and their black domestic help during the Civil Rights Movement era in Mississippi. I have picked up the hardcover novel several times, but until my principal recommended it, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. I think sometimes the book is done a disservice by its description. Case in point: look how I described it in my second sentence. For some reason, that description didn’t grab me either. The book is about these relationships, but it’s more.

I have talked to three people at work (note: I live in Atlanta) who grew up in circumstances similar to those described in the book. All three of them described the love they felt for the black women who took care of them—they were family. Stockett herself describes being raised by Demetrie, a woman who worked for her grandmother and her mother, and Stockett acknowledges that while she cannot know what it was like to be a black maid in the South, she felt that she wanted to try to describe it as a way to honor Demetrie. I suspect this relationship Stockett had with Demetrie, whom she describes as surrogate mother, informed her description of Aibileen’s relationship with Mae Mobley Leefolt. I teared up several times during the course of listening to this book, but most often, it was because of a moment between Aibileen and Mae Mobley.

If you have lived in the South for any period of time, you will recognize all of the characters: Junior League President Hilly Holbrook runs the town of Jackson with an iron fist, or thinks she does. She plays bridge with her old friends and former classmates at Ole Miss, Elizabeth Leefolt and Skeeter Phelan. Elizabeth is Aibileen’s employer and Mae Mobley’s mother. She follows Hilly Holbrook’s instructions to the letter. Skeeter is an aspiring writer. She is shy and insecure after living under the exacting scrutiny of her formidable mother, but she is uncomfortable with the way things are and desperately misses her family’s maid Constantine. It is during a regular meeting of the bridge game (Hilly’s mother makes up their fourth in this first game) that the novel’s events begin to unfold: Skeeter asks Aibileen if she ever wishes things could be “different” during a private moment in the kitchen, and Aibileen, suspicious and cautious, answers “no.”

The Help is an amazing book. It has joined the ranks of my favorites. I think my experience with the book was much enriched by the voices of the actresses in the audiobook; it’s simply one of the best narrations I’ve ever heard. I felt like I had made friends with Aibileen, Minny, Skeeter, and Celia by the end of the book, and I am dying to know what happened to them all. I try not to give away the endings of books in my reviews, but I will say that no neat little bow exists at the end of the book. In my mind, I have some satisfactory endings written for all of the characters, including Hilly Holbrook (that witch!) and Mae Mobley, and I really hope their stories ended the way I imagined they would. Perhaps Stockett has given the reader a true gift in leaving the characters in the way she did: we can write the ending ourselves. Of course, it goes without saying that with so many loose ends, Stockett could easily write four or five sequels!

My favorite character was easily Minny, and I really loved the plotline involving Minny’s relationship with her new employer, Celia Foote. Poor Celia! I absolutely adore patient, loving Aibileen. Skeeter rings true as an intelligent aspiring writer. You’ll wonder how on earth she could ever have been friends with Hilly Holbrook by the novel’s end. If you have the chance to listen to the novel, I feel that Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell did a masterful job bringing these characters to life. One of the criticisms I have seen of this novel is that the white characters’ speech is not rendered in dialect, while the black characters’ speech is. I couldn’t have told you that listening to the novel. The actresses all read in dialect that rang true to me, and I don’t know how she does it, but Bahni Turpin, who reads the part of Aibileen, sounds just like a small child as Mae Mobley and can switch among several pitch perfect white Southern women’s dialects as well.

Another criticism I’ve read of the book is that it should not have been written by a white woman. In her review of The Help, Elinor Teele raises these questions:

Is Minny with her outlandish catchphrases just another version of Mammy, updated for more sensitive times? Even if stories haven’t been told, is it fair for an outsider to tell them? What would Hattie McDaniel, who worked as that $7 maid before making it to Hollywood, think of this book?

Valid questions, but Octavia Spencer, who reads the part of Minny replied to these questions:

Finally, I think you posed the question, ‘what gives her the right to tell these stories, in the voice that she chose.’ My response to that is simple, she’s human. My interpretation of the story is that we are all human. What better way to demonstrate that than taking America back in time to an ugly part of her history, and showing through the experiences of these provocative characters that beautiful, human side. A writer needn’t be black or white to tell these stories, just truthful.

Something about Ms. Spencer’s response to Teele’s review rings so true to me. This story is everyone’s story. In the words of Skeeter Phelan, “Wasn’t that the point of the book? For women to realize, we are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”

Reading Updates

I have three books going at the moment. I am listening to The Help whenever I’m in the car, and sometimes I have to sit in the car a little longer so I can finish a particularly good part. I am absolutely loving this book, and I can’t wait to discuss it with my faculty’s book club.

I’m also re-reading Pride and Prejudice. This annotated version is helping me understand nuances I’m not sure I picked up the first time I read it years ago. The only problem I have with the annotations is that they give away much of the plot. I would like to use this edition with students, but some of the annotations should be read as they are reading, and some will give away the plot a great deal, which I think some students may find frustrating.

Finally, I am still working through Crime and Punishment on DailyLit. I am just not enjoying it at all. I found the murder of Alyona Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta chilling and compelling to read, but for a few scenes since that time, the book never grabbed me. I am close enough to the end to stick it out, but I’m not inclined to read any more Dostoyevsky. I don’t know whether I should feel stupid that I’m not getting something that so many people in the past have clearly enjoyed and esteemed, or just accepting that it’s OK to feel the way I feel about this book.