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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Historical Novels: Lots of Fun Facts


I am going to give blood this afternoon. I'd do it anyway but the Red Cross is running a sure-fire promotion right now: give blood, get free Ben & Jerry's ice cream! I can so get behind this.

So I was thinking about what book I would be bringing with me, and that reminded me of a conversation I had while giving blood a couple of months ago. The girl at the next station asked me what I was reading: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. She then asked if I mostly read historical fiction. I immediately said no, my usual answer for what I mostly read being memoirs. But as I thought about it, she's not all that off base.

Since Year of Wonders I have read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene, and Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (which is a contemporary novel but has a historical diary as a huge element, not to mention a flashback.) Earlier this year I read The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis, People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, True Grit by Charles Portis, The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig, and Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Hm. If I don't like historical fiction an awful lot, I'm doing something wrong.

Now I consider myself mostly a nonfiction reader although in reality I read about 50/50. The main thing I like about nonfiction is that I get to learn a lot of fun facts while reading, which I mention often in my reviews. I rock at Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit and the more random the facts, the more likely I am to retain them. So why on earth would I be reading so much historical fiction, a genre I usually associate with little old ladies? Well the answer I think is simple. For the same reason. Lots of fun facts.

Historical novels (as opposed to novels that were contemporaneous when written but are now old, like Peyton Place by Grace Metalious and The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton) are usually extensively researched, and authors give many of those details in order to imbue the story with more authenticity, as well as demonstrate their mastery of the era. In my review of Remarkable Creatures, I even included an image of one of the fossils Mary found, and in my review of Snow Flower, an image of foot binding.

I wouldn't have thought that historical novels would be the best fictional counterpart to my nonfictional bent, but there it is. As I continue to plod through Shogun, and contemplate which novels should be at the top of my TBR list - March by Geraldine Brooks (yes, I've pretty much decided to read all of Ms. Brooks books this year), The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, or One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd by Jim Fergus - I've come to accept that perhaps my favorite genres are memoirs, AND historical fiction. Who knew. And it only took me three decades to figure that out.

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