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?




How the MA eBook Project became the Commonwealth eBook Collections

Information Today logoBack in March (which seems much longer than three months ago), I wrote a feature article for Information Today, and now it has been published! If you are one of the librarians who helped, either by providing your feedback or proofreading, you have my sincere thanks. Here it is: “Ebooks in Libraries: Equal Access to Digital Content?” (Hint: no, not yet. But we’re working on it…)

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.



Flaunt It, Baby: Creating Inventive Library Displays

I’ve had this “creative library display ideas” post kicking around in my drafts folder here for the better part of a year, and I realized…someone else should write it. Specifically, my kickass colleague Rob Lorino (@lostboybrarian), because he makes some of the best displays I’ve ever seen. Take it away, Rob!

Confession: Making displays is probably my favorite part of being a librarian.  I think that’s due in part to my photography background.  I tend to put photographers in two categories:  there are the documenters, who try to capture the world as they see it, and there are the constructors, who create objects, situations, and worlds to photograph.  I’m firmly in the latter camp, and the skills I’ve developed creating props, outfits, and more for photo shoots have really lent themselves to the art of display making.


The Black History Month display featuring a timeline of events from the 1960s-present, as well as a variety of materials to check out.

Photography background aside, why do I love making displays so much?  Making displays combines creativity, problem solving, and self-promotion.  (Or is that shelf-promotion?)   You get instant feedback and can see how patrons are responding.  Honestly, it’s still a small rush for me every time I see an empty spot on one of my displays.  It’s also value added for your patrons by collecting materials that don’t necessarily get shelved together.  Sure you can point patrons to the 970’s if they’re looking for books for Black History Month, but you’re missing so many other areas that are just as relevant to Black History month: biographies, parts of the 300’s, movies, music, etc.


A display highlighting the new collection of adult video games.

I’ve been lucky enough to work in libraries that have pretty much allowed me carte blanche in terms of selecting themes for my displays.  I largely pick a theme based on what’s been on my mind recently; but that’s not me being lackadaisical. If you’re paying attention to current events and pop culture, what’s on your mind will in all likelihood be what’s on your patrons’ minds.  I’ve done displays based on holidays, like Black History Month and Banned Books Week. I look to current events as well, like with my display of Oscar-winning films.  Sometimes I’m inspired to highlight a collection that I know some patrons don’t know we have, like Playaways or graphic novels.  Other times I’ll use the season or other feature of a month to get a little punny, like a “cold-hearted characters” display I did in December, or a “fall into adventure” display of autumn-colored covers I did in November.  Displays are a great way to show off new collections too:  I made a display celebrating the addition of adult video games to our collection.


A display of graphic novels with speech bubble text.

After I’ve got a theme, I try to visualize what I want my display to look like.  Bold, graphic, and unexpected are adjectives I try to keep in my head throughout the process.  For me, displays are places to catch patron’s attention visually, not necessarily places to feed patrons lots of information.  If you can do both, that’s great!  But the visual impact is key to making patrons walk over and engage.  Don’t muddy the waters by putting too much on your display – negative space is just as important as your visuals.  It’s also important to remember that books or other materials will be occupying the same space as the rest of your display.  You’ll want to remember to make sure that the materials don’t get in the way of important parts of your display.  The materials will also be another layer of visual interest, which is why I try for more simple but graphic visuals on my displays.


A display of Playaways featuring a homemade jumbo AAA battery.

When it comes to the actual construction of displays, I try my best to make or borrow as many elements of my display as possible.  I will occasionally buy a piece here or there if I’m really married to a specific idea, but a lot of times you can make things using really basic materials like construction paper, poster board, card stock, glue, etc.  I recently made a (fake) jumbo size AAA battery using a roll of paper as a base and covering it with construction paper.  Websites like Pinterest and other crafty blogs have innumerable guides and tutorials on how to create pretty much anything you’d need.  Creating interesting lettering or graphics is easier than ever now with software like Publisher, InDesign, and Photoshop, and free online tools like Canva.  I feel like every display I make teaches me something new or a way to be more efficient next time, through trial and error.  Learning things like the fact that painting on card stock might make it warp or that different types of glue are more effective on different materials aren’t necessarily intuitive to folks (like me) that don’t craft all the time.


A display of Oscar-winning films includes an Oscar statuette, a film reel, tickets, and the movies themselves, all framed by fancy red curtains.

I tend to judge the success of a display by three things: did materials get checked out, did people stop and browse the display, and did patrons comment to staff about the display.  Having materials move off the display is the most obvious, but the other two are just as important.  Even if a patron doesn’t physically take anything from your display, if you get them to notice it you’ve still given them something.  That something could be knowledge of something the library offers. It could be perspective on something in the world; several people relayed that they had an “aha” moment with the tagline “Black History Is Now” I used for my Black History Month display.  It could even just a positive experience, like a chuckle at your bad pun or appreciating the artistry of the display itself.  Sometimes it’s hard to capture the latter two, so if you notice patrons stopping to look at a coworker’s display or if patrons say something nice about a display, definitely let your coworkers know!

I know that thinking up new displays and executing them every month can feel like a slog to some people, but displays are an incredibly important service we provide to our patrons.  They can be a really fun and engaging way to interact with your patrons – don’t underestimate them!

Thanks, Rob! (Again, he’s at @lostboybrarian on Twitter.) Does anyone else have any display ideas they’re proud of? Stuff you’ve always wanted to try? Challenges? Handy crafting tips? Please share in the comments!


Stuff I’ve Been Reading, Online Edition

My online reading habits have shifted over the past few months, both in the amount of time I have to spend reading online (less) and the way I do it (more on the smartphone, less on the computer). It was a little surprising to me how much the device I use determines what content I consume.

I’m still using Feedly (their app is pretty good, though if you go in and out of it, it doesn’t save your place, which is annoying), and reading many of the same blogs as I’ve been reading for years (see this post from August 2013). Some old favorites have fallen by the wayside, particularly webcomics, which don’t display well on the smaller phone screen. I’ve also, happily, discovered some new ones (and am taking recommendations!).

Here are the blogs I’ve kept up with through these months of erratic sleep and limited free time:

Librarian blogs

Linda @ Three Good Rats

Brita @ Library &

Anna @ LCARSLibrarian

Brian @ Swiss Army Librarian

Jessamyn West @

Librarian Problems

I Work At A Public Library

Non-Librarian blogs

Wonderfully weird: Jenny Lawson (author of Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and Furiously Happy) @ The Bloggess

Delicious (if labor-intensive) recipes: Deb Perelman (author of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook) @ Smitten Kitchen

How to live a “luxuriously frugal” lifestyle (which sometimes dovetails and sometimes clashes with The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up): Liz @ Frugalwoods (discovered via this Boston Globe article)

Parenting/humor: The Ugly Volvo (start with her deconstruction of Goodnight Moon)

Technology, privacy, general nerdiness: Cory Doctorow @ Boing Boing (I make a valiant attempt to keep up with this one, but am perpetually behind)

What makes you stick with a blog – content, humor, consistency, post length, post frequency? My ideal right now is a shorter post – several paragraphs, say – a few times a week; most of the blogs above follow that formula fairly closely. What blogs do you read? Whose writing do you enjoy?

Have you ever noticed a shift in your reading habits due to format (print, digital) or device (computer, smartphone, tablet)?