Top Ten Historical Fiction

September kind of got away from me. September is always a busy month during which I think I’ll have more time than I do have, but this year, thanks to two bouts of stomach flu, I pretty much missed half of it entirely. Which is to say, I’ve been meaning to write a Top Ten Tuesday post for the historical fiction genre since I read Linda’s Top Ten Favorite Historical Novels blog post over half a month ago.

Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I find that the best authors in this genre are able to weave period detail into their stories in a way that is subtle and memorable at once. Even though I studied history in college, it’s the history I learned through stories that has stuck with me best.

Cover image of Wolf HallSome novels take famous figures from history and are centered around important historical events. In the case of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, it is the court of King Henry VIII in England. In the former, Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary is the main character during Anne’s rise, marriage to Henry VIII, the formation of the Church of England, and Henry’s disenchantment with (and beheading of) Anne. For her books – the first two of a planned trilogy – Mantel takes Thomas Cromwell as her main character.

Cover image of Suite FrancaiseOther novels are about ordinary people in extraordinary times, and the draw of these stories is how their authors are able to make the time and place come to life in a way that seems real. Like Henry VIII’s era, World War II is a popular time period for historical fiction; most recently, the exceptional All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was a bestseller (and with good reason). A few of my favorite WWII novels are Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.

Cover image of FeverStill a third type of historical novel features extraordinary people in ordinary (for them) times. These characters are as vivid as their settings: Mary Malone (better known as Typhoid Mary) in Fever by Mary Beth Keane, set in turn of the century New York. Katy Kontent in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, also in New York, in the 1930s. Regret, a Korean “picture bride” in Alan Brennert’s Honolulu. Tom and Isabel in post-WWI Australia in The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. Mattie Gokey in the Adirondacks in 1906 in Jennifer Donnelly’s A Northern Light, and Desdemona Hart in 1930s Massachusetts in Maryanne O’Hara’s Cascade.

Cover image of AstrayFor those who have been counting, this has been more than ten, but I want to mention just three more. Astray is a collection by Emma Donoghue, in which each story was inspired by a real piece of history; Donoghue is so inventive that she can spin two sentences from an old newspaper into a complete, absorbing story.

Finally, there are two books from my childhood that could be called historical fiction with a twist: Voices After Midnight by Richard Peck includes an element of time travel, and Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix takes place in what appears to be an 1840s village, but – to the main character’s shock – isn’t.

Do you like historical fiction? Which novels are your favorites, and why? If you haven’t read historical fiction before, do any of the above sound interesting?




Required reading

In her review of Becoming Nicole (which we are considering for next year’s Community Read), my co-worker included a few related titles: “Other books on the topic that I recommend are She’s Not There by Jennifer Finney Boylan (who was mentioned in this book as well) and Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree which has a chapter on transgender kids, and which is on my extremely short list of books that everybody should read” (emphasis added).

Most readers can get a little evangelical about their favorite books; when you read something marvelous, you want everyone else to read it too. (Or you have the opposite reaction and want to keep it to yourself, lest it become popular and therefore somehow less special. Though I suppose Harry Potter puts the lie to that logic.)

But going back to the idea of a short list of books that everybody should read…that’s a different sort of list. The books that I love and recommend are usually novels, but as a librarian, I recognize that “every book its reader, every reader his/her book”: that is, reading is subjective, and just because I love a book doesn’t mean everyone will.

The books I would prescribe to everyone, then, tend to be nonfiction; the sorts of books that expand minds, encourage deep thinking, and may require the reevaluation of one’s world view. Although it’s quite long, I’d agree with the inclusion of Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon, because it gives insight into many different kinds of difference, using research and science as well as personal stories, case studies, and anecdotes. This blend of quantitative and qualitative, respectively, serves all readers well, whether you prefer numbers or stories.

Here are a few others:

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz and/or I don’t know: in praise of admitting ignorance (except when you shouldn’t) by Leah Hager Cohen: Being Wrong is the book Drew Gilpin Faust wished that all incoming Harvard freshmen would read, and her review is how I heard of this book. It is about ideas and beliefs, rightness and wrongness, how we err and learn (or don’t) from our errors. Schulz points out that, when using the Scientific Method, “Errors do not lead us away from the truth. Instead, they edge us incrementally toward it.” But people are incredibly uncomfortable with not knowing – it’s why we generally won’t let go of a belief, even if we know it’s wrong, until we can replace it with something else. Cohen’s book, essentially a long essay, is about getting more comfortable in that space. This is important both on a personal and a societal level. She writes, “Real civil discourse necessarily leaves room for doubt. That doesn’t make us wishy-washy…We can still hold fervent beliefs. The difference is, we don’t let those beliefs calcify into unconsidered doctrine.” Doubt has a value, and one ought to be able to change one’s mind when presented with new information – or at least consider that what you “know” may be wrong.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit is a short, serious essay collection. The title essay is available online (read the original essay here). Solnit connects the dots between the subtle kind of sexism that can seem almost harmless and the kind that is violent and unquestionably dangerous and damaging; it’s not that much of a leap. For more on feminism: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; How to Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran; Shrill by Lindy West; Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay; Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter.

On a related note, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler was an eye-opening and heart-wrenching book. I wish anyone who challenges the rights enshrined in Roe v. Wade would read some of these stories first.

“If we do something over and over, it becomes normal. If we see the same thing over and over, it becomes normal.” -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum and “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh were on the syllabus for a Multicultural Education class I took in college, and they both helped me see some things that had indeed been “invisible” to me. This is still clearly a hot topic (the Black Lives Matter movement, etc.). Roxane Gay (Bad Feminist, above) explains the importance of acknowledging one’s privilege and the importance of valuing others’ experience:

“We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone….You need to understand the extent of your privilege, the consequences of your privilege, and remain aware that people who are different from you move through and experience the world in ways you might never know anything about.” -Roxane Gay

The books on my list are there because they expose inequality or shine a light on difference, in the hopes of raising awareness, demystifying the other, and increasing familiarity and therefore empathy. “The other,” of course, is also subjective; the point is to read about people, places, experiences, and points of view other than your own, to understand them better. Reading this way can break down barriers, soften boundaries, widen the circle of “us” until it also includes “them.”

Reading fiction increases empathy too. One of my favorite passages in any book, one that has stuck with me since ninth grade, is from Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Pigs in Heaven. A woman is at a gas station watching a stranger, who surprises her when he begins to speak to his companion in another language. Then: “This ordinary man in jeans, whose thoughts she believed she knew, opens his mouth and becomes a foreigner. It occurs to her that there is one thing about people you can never understand well enough: how entirely inside themselves they are.” We can never know other people as well as we know ourselves, but we can endeavor to try. And when we fall short, there is the Golden Rule to fall back on, and even that can be reduced to just two words. When in doubt, be kind.

“Be a little kinder than you have to.” -E. Lockhart

If you made a list of “books everyone should read,” which books would you include?

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

Another version of this piece can be found on the Robbins Library blog as “Sew what? Fashion and its snags”

It surprised my friends and family when I started talking about this book, because I am not really interested in clothes – I’m certainly not “fashionable” – so why would I read a book about fashion? The truth is that I heard about this book a few times from different sources (NPR, etc.), and when I picked it up, I realized that Cline had several convincing points to make about the current state of cheap fashion.

Cover image of Overdressed

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth Cline (2012) examines the state of “fast fashion” today, traces its evolution, and explores its impact on the garment industry, the planet, and our closets.

In short, she argues that it’s really not a good thing that we can buy a shirt for $4: consumers, garment workers, and the environment would all be better off if we made and bought less clothing, but made it well and took care of it. Though this used to be the case, it isn’t anymore. As Cline writes in her introduction, “We’ve gone from making good use of the clothes we own to buying things we’ll never or barely wear. We are caught in a cycle of consumption and waste that is unsettling at best and unsatisfying at its core.”

Cline writes, “Textiles have always had an unflattering environmental footprint, but the more pressing problem is the terrifying scale at which they are now being produced” – and the volume in which they’re being dumped in landfills. In between, underpaid workers in foreign countries make the garments, because “the demand for cheaper and cheaper garments has all but wiped out the American garment industry,” and consumers’ closets are full of things they don’t wear. Clothes become easy prey for those who are “KonMari-ing” their homes, and even most of those that are donated to Salvation Army or Goodwill end up in the trash.

Cline cites some pretty stark numbers. For example, “Every year, Americans throw away 12.7 million tons, or 68 pounds of textiles per person, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which also estimates that 1.6 million tons of this waste could be recycled or reused.” Clothing is cheaper than it used to be, so consumers can buy more of it, but, accordingly, it is lower-quality and doesn’t last as long.

If all this bothers you, what can you do about it? Assuming you’re not in charge of Forever 21, H&M, or Zara, Cline presents a few ideas for the average person:

  • Educate yourself about textile quality and garment construction so you can identify good quality when you see it, instead of just trusting brand names.
  • Buy the best quality you can for your money.
  • Buy secondhand clothing at thrift or vintage stores, or participate in clothing swaps.
  • Make, alter, and mend your own clothing.*
  • Recognize that “good clothing is not cheap.”

*Cline notes, “As people moved away from making their own clothes, general public knowledge of garment construction faded.” It will take some work to regain that knowledge, but I am interested in learning more – I just checked out a few books on sewing from the library, and have learned a few things already (e.g. what a French seam is). Toward the end of the book, as Cline explores the nascent “slow fashion” movement and experiments with making her own clothes, she enjoys the freedom that comes from choosing prints and patterns in her own style, instead of being confined to what’s available in stores. As someone who will wear the same clothes until they fall apart, I want clothes that are “timeless” instead of trendy; if I could make my own, I wouldn’t have to look.

Overdressed probably could have reached a wider audience in the form of a long (New Yorker-length) essay; given its length as a book, I think it actually could have been much more forceful, given that nearly everything about the fashion industry today is terrible for the environment, workers in the industry, and consumers. Today’s fashion trends aren’t improvements on yesterday’s; they’re just different. As Cline writes, “Unlike the world of technology, where rapid innovation produces improvements, innovation in fashion just produces arbitrary stylistic changes.”

Have you read anything else on this topic you’d recommend? Do you make your own clothes, or would you like to learn? More broadly, what other books have prompted you to consider making changes in your life?




I have not written here for two months – the longest gap since I’ve started this blog – but I have been reading. Here are a few of the adult fiction standouts over the past couple months.

“We have to make choices. I used to think we had time to do anything we wanted, but we can only do some of the things in any one lifetime.” -My Real Children

My Real Children by Jo Walton

Cover image of My Real ChildrenI just finished this tonight, and I loved it; it spans a century, and the part that takes place from WWI to WWII reminded me strongly of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. We begin in 2015, when Patricia is in a nursing home, “very confused.” On top of her ordinary memory problems due to aging, she remembers two separate lives. The reader wants to know which is real, of course, but both are equally real in the world of the book; only in the final pages does Patricia work it out (at least, I think she does; it’s a bit open-ended). This has been on my to-read list for a while and my book club is discussing it this month; I’m eager to hear what others thought of it

Liz had tried not to experience the doubly insulting sting of being excluded by a person she didn’t care for. Eligible

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Cover image of Eligible

I suggested this for book club also. The main appeal for discussion is to compare it to Pride & Prejudice, which some of us remembered better than others. I have adored Curtis Sittenfeld’s previous novels (Prep, American Wife, Sisterland), and had high expectations, tempered only somewhat by mixed reviews. In the end, I thought she did an excellent job adapting Austen’s story and characters, bringing them into present-day Cincinnati, New York, and California. Mr. Bennet’s quips are sharp, and Liz is observant (with one significant blind spot). Highly enjoyable, though it ends on Mary Bennet, which is a bit odd.

He considered how memories hold our lives in place but weigh nothing and cannot be seen or touched. -Father’s Day

Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy

Cover image of Father's Day

Sad and lovely as all his novels and stories are (The Illusion of Separateness, Everything Beautiful Began After, Love Begins in Winter, The Secret Lives of People in Love). Set on Long Island and in Paris, Father’s Day is the story of Harvey and her father, Jason. Harvey’s first parents were killed in a car crash when she was in first grade, and thanks to a persistent, good-hearted social worker named Wanda, Harvey is adopted by her father’s brother. Now, Jason is visiting Harvey in Paris, where she lives and works; he has come for Father’s Day, and Harvey has prepared a gift for each day of his trip. Each gift connects to a memory from their past. The final item, some official documents, are a surprise to Jason and to the reader, though Harvey herself won’t understand the significance unless Jason explains it to her; like My Real Children, there’s something of an open ending. Van Booy’s writing is beautiful and tender without being at all showy.

Why should one expect to feel the same every day, in a world that was rearranging itself by the hour? -Everyone Brave is Forgiven

Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

Cover image of Everyone Brave is ForgivenLike Sittenfeld and Van Booy, Chris Cleave is another of my favorite authors (2016 is a good year for me in this respect, and I hear there will be a new Ann Patchett this fall!). With Everyone Brave is Forgiven, Cleave departs from contemporary fiction and delves into historical fiction, specifically the early years of World War II. Mary and Tom are in London during the Blitz, and Alistair is suffering during the siege of Malta. Unlike in Gold – my favorite of his previous novels – I did not quite feel as though the characters were wholly real. Mary’s sensibility was imperceptible from a progressive modern one, and Tom and Alistair were too perfectly British, with their dry wit, pithy quips, and good manners even in the face of bombs and starvation. Still, this is high-quality WWII fiction; it reminded me a little of Corelli’s Mandolin, perhaps just because of the Malta setting. I enjoyed it, but I hope he returns to the present in his next novel.



Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012) has been on my to-read list – and on my bookshelf – for some time now. My book club chose it for our April meeting, and once I picked it up, I read it quickly; it’s written in a clear, accessible style and makes a great deal of sense. Cain draws on a large body of research and writes about her own experience as well as that of others, and this mix of data and anecdotes makes for a perfect blend.

There are plenty of differences between introverts and extroverts, but one of the main ones has to do with stimulation. How much do you need to stay in your “sweet spot” where you’re neither bored nor overwhelmed? Introverts and extroverts feel comfortable – and do their best learning and work – with different levels of stimulation (noise levels, new environments, crowds of people, etc.).

Cover image of Quiet by Susan CainCain gives a bit of history about how, especially in America, we’ve shifted from a “Culture of Character” (in which “the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable”) to a “Culture of Personality” (a focus on how one is perceived by others). The “Extrovert Ideal” is now pervasive in the workplace as well as in schools, despite the fact that 1/3 to 1/2 the population is introverted and that there are actually disadvantages* to setting up schools and offices to suit only extroverts.

Can introverts fake being extroverts in order to fit in (and get ahead)? Sure, to some extent; but, Cain writes, “We might call this the “rubber band theory” of personality….We can stretch our personalities…only up to a point.” While an open floor plan office might provide just the right level of stimulation for extroverts, it’s likely to exhaust and stress an introvert unless s/he has the opportunity to recharge by working in quiet and solitude some of the time. (Open-plan offices have also been found to “reduce productivity and impair memory” – probably not what employers are after.) Likewise, working in large groups or teams in a classroom might be great for some kids, but others will do their best work independently. (Indeed, Stephen Wozniak has said, “I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by committee.”)

*I found the following two pieces of information surprising and interesting:

(1) “…excessive stimulation seems to impede learning….the simple act of being interrupted is one of the biggest barriers to productivity. Even multitasking…turns out to be a myth. Scientists now know that the brain is incapable of paying attention to two things at the same time. What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.”

(2) “…group brainstorming doesn’t actually work….Studies have shown that performance gets worse as group size increases. [Online collaboration is an exception.] We fail to realize that participating in an online working group is a form of solitude all its own.”

A more balanced approach in schools and workplaces would benefit everyone, not just the introverts. (Cain’s section on the Wall Street crash is one example.) But if you’re an introvert and your school or workplace is set up to honor the “Extrovert Ideal,” at the very least, Quiet affirms that there’s nothing wrong with you; you just don’t happen to fit “the prevailing model.” Try to carve out “restorative niches” wherever you can, and don’t feel guilty if you’d rather be home with a book than out at a bar.




More to the story

Linda writes, “Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today’s topic is Ten Songs That I Wish Were Books, and it may be my favorite topic so far. Now these aren’t necessarily my favorite songs….They’re just songs that I think have a good story behind them that could be developed even more.”

As someone who spent a significant percentage of her teenage years squinting at liner notes and mining song lyrics for meaning, I agree that this is a great topic, and it’s a struggle to keep it to ten (you’ll see below that I kind of cheated to include more), but these were some of the first to come to mind. Unlike Linda, I didn’t pair an author with every song (though hats off to her for some awesome, and telling, choices). These songs already have a story-like quality to them, and I’d love to see three minutes expanded to 300 pages.

  1. “Brick” by Ben Folds Five and “Freshmen” by The Verve Pipe: these two songs are linked in my mind, possibly because they were on the radio a lot around the same time, but they also both have to do with abortion.
  2. “Lately” by Helio Sequence: “Lately” is essentially an updated version of “Most of the Time” by Bob Dylan, which is already part of the High Fidelity movie soundtrack, so I suppose this book already exists and what I want is for Nick Hornby to write another book about music.
  3. “Crush” by Jimmy Eat World: I would like Sara Zarr, Jandy Nelson, Robin Benway, and Gayle Forman collaborate on this one, please and thank you.
  4. “The Way” by Fastball: for some reason this song has always put me in mind of two books: Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout and Smack by Melvin Burgess. But I’d read a third.
  5. “Bank Job” by Barenaked Ladies is the only heist song I know of; I’d like for Dave Barry (Big Trouble, etc.) to write it. Practically every other BNL song would also make a good book; I’m thinking “The Old Apartment,” “The Flag,” “Wrap Your Arms Around Me,” and “Fun & Games” to start.
  6. “Play Crack the Sky” by Brand New: this haunting, tragic song has Audrey Niffenegger’s name on it.
  7. Like BNL, nearly every song by The Weakerthans would make a good novel; I’ll go with “Reconstruction Site,” with “Civil Twilight” a close second.
  8. “Nightswimming” by REM: maybe this is more like one scene in a book than a whole book itself. Let’s give it to Lauren Myracle (The Infinite Moment of Us).
  9. “Cath…” by Death Cab for Cutie: According to Wikipedia, this song is based on Wuthering Heights, so.
  10. “February” by Dar Williams or “As Is” by Ani DiFranco: these top-notch singer/songwriters are probably capable of writing their own books.


Pleasure reading should be pleasurable

Makes sense when you think about it, right? Yet so many of us feel obligated to finish a book once we’ve started it, and feel guilty if we set it aside. We really should read it, because a friend recommended it, or it got a good review, or it’s on a topic we really ought to know more about, or everyone else is reading it, or we put it on our to-read list four years ago (but we can’t remember why), or it’s a classic…fill in the blank however you like.

But unless a book is assigned reading for school or work, then presumably you’re reading for pleasure, and pleasure reading should be pleasurable. Not that you shouldn’t ever explore a new genre or try a book that you find a bit difficult, but if you’re 25 or 50 or 100 pages in and you’re just not that into it, then by all means, put it down and pick up something else instead! You have this librarian’s permission.

This is something I have worked on for years myself. I was inspired partly by Knopf editor Marty Asher, who said something along the lines of “I don’t have time to read anything but great books” (and that was almost a decade ago). Of course, you might well think a book is going to be great and it turns out not to be: you can only judge so much by the cover, title, author, first sentence, first page, flap copy, reviews, etc. Most of us don’t choose books we think we’re going to dislike on purpose.

And yet it can be so hard to put down a book we’ve invested some time in already. It feels like giving up; it feels like failure. And who knows? We’re optimistic; maybe it will get better in another 25, 50, 100 pages. But no: at some point you begin to feel certain that this book is not the one for you, at least not right now. (“Every reader his/her book, every book its reader“).

One side effect of my free time having been somewhat curtailed of late is that I have become much better at putting down a book that doesn’t hook me quickly. This is usually not a reflection on the book’s quality; it’s just not for me, not right now. For example, I have decided to return M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead to the library – despite the fact that it was personally recommended to me by a reader I trust, and that it was a finalist for the YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adults – because I just can’t get excited about the siege of Leningrad right now.

What can I get excited about? Young adult fiction, apparently: I’ve read nine YA novels so far this year, including some truly stellar books (all right, let’s name names: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Like No Other, Dumplin’, Roller Girl, Echo, A Step Toward Falling, Bone Gap, Rain Reign). I’ve also read (and re-read) some excellent picture books. And, I got to read Gayle Forman’s upcoming adult novel Leave Me, which is just as good as her YA; I read it in just two days, and I have a three-month-old baby, so that should tell you something. (The thing it should tell you is “read Leave Me“!)

So there you have it, from a librarian: if you don’t like what you’re reading, and you don’t have to read it, put it down and read something you love instead. That’s the beauty of the public library: millions of books just there for the borrowing. Don’t do what I did and spend an entire month trying to slog through a book you aren’t that excited about: you’re not being graded, and ticking a box on a checklist you made yourself isn’t nearly as satisfying as spending time reading a book you love. In fact, I think there’s a song about this. Let it go…

[All that said…my library is hosting a 2016 Reading Challenge with some interesting categories, and one book can count toward more than one category. Click through to read more if you’re interested in participating.]