Tag Archives: historical fiction

Are You Ready For a Little Twain and Steinbeck?

Two dear friends of mine recently gave me several new books to adopt. Among them were The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. Having never read anything by either of these classic authors (I know!) I was ready for something spellbinding.moonisdown

Unfortunately, TMID left me disappointed. I was hoping for something completely different than was Steinbeck’s intention, although it is a great piece of war propaganda and it undoubtedly caused a huge uproar during WWII. It was obviously a thinly veiled re-imagination of the Nazis. What made it so scandalous, however, is that rather than being portrayed as death-dealing automatons, the Nazis were just… young men. Young men that craved love and wanted to go home. Still, from a literary perspective, I found it pretty dry until the end.

conn-yank-rqr05mACYIKAC was a bit more fast-paced. It told of an average Joe from the late 1800’s being mysteriously transported back into Camelot. Naturally, with his “modern” knowledge, he was quickly deemed a wizard and become one of the most powerful men in England.

The idea of advertisements on knight’s shields and all the wonders of the 1800’s was certainly an entertaining idea. But… oftentimes Twain’s passages were long and confusing and I had to re-read them to understand what was going on. I also didn’t like that how the protagonist got to Camelot was never explained. For some reason, missing this vital detail, I couldn’t sink into the world as seamlessly. But, of the two, I definitely enjoyed this one better.

3 knights errant and lonely Nazis of 5

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

It’s no great secret that I love Alice Hoffman. I try to read everything of her’s that I can get my hands on, because she had me at Practical Magic. And because she wrote The Dovekeepers, I was persuaded to give it a go. I mean, the Romans invading and conquering the Jews in the deserts of ancient Israel isn’t my normal fodder… I was worried that it would be very drab because of the thick history laid upon it, but I was pleasantly surprised. 

The story told the plight of four women during this harsh period: Yael, an assassin’s daughter, Revka, a baker’s wife, Aziza, a female warrior, and Shirah, the Witch of Moab. Each had their own story of how they came to Masada (the last Jewish stronghold) and the triumphs and tragedies they experienced there. The mammoth novel was split up into four smaller books, each designated to one of the women. I liked this format because we got to see bits of the story through each of their eyes, rather than being tethered to one character (and frankly, it helped to break up the number of months the story spanned).

Hoffman did interject her normal poetry and prose into this book, although not quite as heartily as in her other novels. It’s much harder to do when you’re struggling to keep track of so many characters, individual story lines, a foreign time/place, and still keep things historically accurate–or so I imagine…

It took me a while to get used to the past tense all the women were using rather than the present, and that’s one thing I wasn’t fond of. That being said, however, Hoffman executed it very well and in a way that made the book compulsively readable and not a work gone horribly awry. This story could have suffered in the hands of lesser authors.

The Dovekeepers is not pool-side reading by any means, but it is worth the time investment. Hoffman breathes life into these characters and her research indirectly educates her readers as to what life was like for the Jews during the horrific Roman invasion.

You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate her latest (and some say greatest) piece of art.

5 of 5 stars

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka was unlike anything I’ve ever read.

It was told from a collective consciousness point of view, the consciousness being that of  a large group of Japanese female immigrants. These women were known as “picture brides”–pretty much the 1920’s equivalent of today’s “mail order brides.” They came to America for a fresh start in the land of promises, and most importantly, to meet their new husbands.

Much to the women’s dismay, however, the handsome pictures their husbands sent of themselves were twenty years old.   

Not to mention the fact that they weren’t rich textile dealers, merchants, or business men. Most of them were simply farmers looking for free help with the crops and a warm body to lie next to at night. Imagine the women’s surprise. They were expecting to be the lady of home with a white picket fence, not be sleeping in a foreign barn on a pile of hay next to a sexually insensitive stranger.

The book chronicles their lives as a whole. This includes the hardships they faced, the joys they experienced, and even the historic time of the Japanese Internment camps (an ugly little part of American history that many don’t acknowledge.) It remembers the children they bore, the children they lost, the Americans they worked for, and the men they loved (who sometimes weren’t their husbands.)

The book reads very poetically, and the reading the words feels almost like listening to music. Otsuka does a beautiful job depicting what  life was like for these women and I can tell she really did her research. She shed light on a silent, nearly forgotten group.

This is a great book for those who like historical fiction, and especially those who enjoy Japanese culture. It’s only a stretch more than a hundred pages long, and is a quick insight into a subject that most know little about. My only criticism is that some readers may not like the “disembodied” voice narrating the book, and could lose interest not having one main character to follow. I found that to be one of the most interesting aspects of the story, but of course everyone has their own opinion.  For the brevity of the tale, it worked, but if the story was any longer I could see how it could become tedious to follow everyone without really “knowing” anyone. 

4 of 5 stars

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Dubbed “the greatest war novel of all time” by critics, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque is historical fiction set from the German perspective during World War I. Remarque himself was a veteran of WWI and thus had an interesting and informed point of view while writing this novel. All Quiet on the Western FrontNot only were the battle scenes appropriately anxiety-ridden and gruesome, the other events (such as coming home on leave and an extended hospital stay) were appropriately detailed. First published as a novel in 1929, within 18 months it had sold 2.5 million copies in 25 languages worldwide.

The narrator is 19 year old Paul Bäumer, who joined the army after the vehement insistance of his high school teacher. The story tells not of the harrowing adventures of himself and his companions, but more of the extreme physical discomfort of the soliders throughout the war. It was intriguing to notice that the fear of imminent death often took a backseat to the creature comforts so sorely missed by the men (food, sleep, sex, hygiene, etc…) and that the hardship of missing one’s civilian life and family had faded in the young soliders’ minds.

Since I normally don’t read this genre of fiction, it was a new experience for me to feel the nervous tension of the soliders awaiting an impending bombardment. To feel the gnawing hunger of the young men sent to defend a football field-sized piece of land for days on end with barely any provisions. Not to mention the numbness to comrade’s pain, death, and suffering in order to simply carry on. Coming to terms with the fact that one’s job is to take as many lives as possible would be a very hard thing indeed, especially for a 19 year old. After his first kill in close combat, Paul laments:

“Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony– Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up– take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”

Pretty powerful. This is definitely the right book for war/history fanatics, as well as those looking to gain perspective into what life for a solider was like in such a horrific environment. Although the story didn’t end in the way that I had hoped, it definitely impacted me intensely. It was very easy for me to draw parallels to today’s war– because although the technologies and the participants may be different– the underlying emotions and inhumanities experienced during such traumatic events are the same.

4 out of 5 stars.