Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Reading About Everyday Life

I love books that paint the characters' everyday lives down to fine, minute detail. Off the top of my head, I'm thinking about The Red Tent (Anita Diamant), The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck), and Pope Joan (Donna Woolfolk Cross). These are just a few historical fiction novels that I've read through the years that really did daily lives justice.

In The Red Tent the details about food, living conditions, and the women's menstrual rituals blew me away. In The Good Earth I was satisfied to visit life in rural China--the backbreaking work, sparse living, and then a richer lifestyle when Wang Lung and O-Lan hit it big. Finally, Pope Joan, a lesser known novel these days but a big book club pick in the early 2000s, is about a rumored female pope in the 9th century. Donna Woolfolk Cross does a great job illustrating how people lived during this time period, and how a woman could've disguised herself to rise to the papal throne. Hygiene, religion, and the pursuit of education played a big part in this novel.

After my last disappointing read, I picked up By Fire, By Water, by Mitchell James Kaplan. When I saw this one reviewed over at Caribousmom, I knew I had to try it, and the author was kind enough to seek me out and offer a copy. It's rare that I get a craving for a very specific kind of book. Most of the time I'm a random reader. I just snatch whatever looks tasty off the shelves and take a taste. For some reason, though, I've been feeling a definite need to be swept into a different time period where I can fall into someone else's everyday life. I'm sure it's a combination of end-of-term stress at work, a very full home life, and other factors.

I'm not far enough in to do this one justice, but so far it looks like it's going to stick. It revolves around the Spanish Inquisition, and I know embarrassingly little about this particular time period, so it's something of a learning experience. I do have a base knowledge. I was prompted to do a little research after I read Alice Hoffman's YA novel of the inquisition, Incantation, which I really loved. I even loved it in the middle of the night during a Read-a-Thon, so it HAD to be good to keep me awake.

So now I need your recommendations for future reference. What are some of your favorite historical novels that have plunked you down in the middle of another time and let you take a peek into the details of how people lived?


  1. By Fire, By Water sounds really interesting! Can't wait to read your thoughts on that!

    I would say, the books that really made me feel carved into a specific timeframe would be many of the classics, of course. But, I guess I would also say the flashbacks during The House at Riverton, The Heretic's Daughter, Devil in the White City, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Oh! And Pillars of the Earth! That's what I can think of right off the top of my head right now, I must think a bit more on it!

  2. Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White rocked my world when I first read it. That was years ago, but I still feel pretty confident recommending it.

    On a side note, I'm reading The Passage - which I refer to as Andi's book - and I'm loving it.

  3. I'm afraid I'm of no help whatsoever. But I wanted to say how happy I was to hear that you enjoyed Incantation. I just picked that up in a used book store, but had never heard anything about it.

  4. I am SO glad you got a copy of Kaplan's novel...and I certainly do hope it sticks and you love it!! Can't wait to read your full review ;)

  5. Ahh ... what a wonderful post. I love the power that books have to take you out of your life and put you into someone else's. And historical fiction is so good at doing just that. And it is all about the details: without enough of the day to day historical fiction can read more like well, just history. Unfortunately, I haven't been reading very much historical fiction lately (which is sad, possibly even tragic) but maybe I can take some of the books that people recommend them and add them to my TBR list.

  6. Hum, the ones that pop into my head right off are The Last Days of Pompeii, Ben Hur, and The Bull from the Sea (or I think that is the name...'bout Alexander the Great).
    I read these years ago and I guess they bring me a feeling of nostalgia. This is when I was young and dumb and realized that I really needed to learn something. So I went to our local library and the librarian was a goddess-send. She was ex-military, never been married, short but intimidating woman, who was not very good with children. However, with bit of patience on fronts, she turned out to be the high priestess of the library and I, a faithful follower. My first excursions to literary heaven was through her guidance and the rest, as they say is history.

  7. The Calligrapher's Daughter comes to mind...and a bonus is that it's about Korea, which doesn't seem to get written about much.

  8. i'm so guilty of not reading much historical fiction. i did just receive a book from a publisher that is set in 1910--is that historical enough? :)

  9. Coffee and a Book Chick, I'm enjoying it so far, though my urge to read has been squelched by lots of work responsibilities the last few days. I'm hoping I can dive in and take out a big chunk today and tomorrow. I have Snow Flower and the Secret fan on my stacks now, and I've wanted to read The Heretic's Daughter for a while. Thanks!

    Trisha, I vaguely remember starting that one, but the detail was fantastic. Glad you're lovin' The Passage!

    Debi, it's fantastic!!! Really nice, fulfilling, quick read.

    Thanks, Wendy! I'll keep you posted.

    Jennifer, it's a come and go genre for me. I'll get really into it for a while and then out for a while. Though, even some of the "contemporary novels" I read have a lot to do with history, too. Such is the case with The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer.

    Fem, that library sounds like a hoot!!! Thank you for the recs! We need to get together.

    Jill, I can't say I've ever read anything about Korea. Why it doesn't come up much, I'll never know!

    LOL, Nat! I end up with a lot of those books that don't seem old enough to be "historical fiction." ;)

  10. Oh, my, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan will. suck. you. in. !!!! I hope you enjoy it, can't wait to read your thoughts on it!

  11. What are some of your favorite historical novels that have plunked you down in the middle of another time and let you take a peek into the details of how people lived?

    Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett

    A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

    Giants in the Earth by O. E. Rolvaag

    These Is My Words by Nancy Turner

    The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly

    Aztec by Gary Jennings

    Can you tell I love to make lists? Thanks, Andi! And, btw, I've read all three titles mentioned at the beginning of your post and loved them all.

  12. Not to be predictable, but Sarah Waters's books, Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet in particular. And then Mary Renault's books set in ancient Greece are always incredibly vivid to me, especially The Mask of Apollo, which is about life as a Greek actor.

  13. That's it, the Mask of Apollo, not the Bull from the Sea; although both are from the same author. One more comes to mind, but I am not sure if it is historical enough. Salman Rushie's The Enchantress of Venice may be historical fiction? I have not checked on that. However, there is a bibliography in the back of the book and I have never seen such a long reference list in a work of fiction, which kind of made me wonder if it has a bit of his-fic. Also, there are some passages that read like a history lesson, which kind of dragged it down a wee bit. Nevertheless, the novel has some beautifully written passages that make one want to fall into the book forever.


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