Saturday, January 13, 2007

Those long historical novels

There are novels that you can't put down. Then there are others you have trouble picking up. Literally.

After a failed attempt at Ghislaine Schoeller's Lady Jane, a (deservedly?) obscure and rather emotionless biographical novel about Lady Jane Digby (I made it 150 pages in), I've begun reading Edward Rutherfurd's The Princes of Ireland: The Dublin Saga in preparation for a read-alike article for NoveList. It's first of a two-volume series, and fortunately it looks less dense than Sarum or Russka - the print's bigger, for one - but it's still 760pp long. For a while this afternoon I was vegging out on the couch, head propped against a cushion, but found it impossible to read Princes with a cat on my lap. I tried holding it in the air, but my wrists got tired quickly; I tried leaning it against my knees, but that wasn't comfortable. Eventually the cat got sick of being displaced by a book and jumped off.

That made reading a lot easier.

Historical novels have a reputation for being long books, don't they. Some are, I fear, unnecessarily so. Fantasy novels have a similar problem lately... read the review and comment trail for this heavily hyped upcoming work of epic fantasy, a 900-pager. That one did look interesting to me, but I'd have to be in an awfully ambitious mood to pick it up.

Length does make sense for the type of multi-generational epic that Rutherfurd writes, I suppose. It occurred to me to wonder what the longest historical novels in my collection were, because I knew that Princes probably wouldn't come close. These ranked at the top:

Paul Anderson's Hunger's Brides: A Novel of the Baroque, at 1376pp. (The paperback edition, called Sor Juana or the Breath of Heaven: The Essential Story from the Epic Hunger's Brides, is just over half the length.)

Henryk Sienkiewicz's With Fire and Sword, at 1135pp.

Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History, at 1113pp. (UK edition. The US edition was split up into four paperbacks, released a couple months apart. I heard this was one reason that Ash didn't succeed stateside.)

James Michener's Centennial and Alaska, at 1088pp and 1073pp respectively.

Daniel Peters' The Incas, at 1057pp.

Rutherfurd's Sarum, at 1056pp.

Donna Gillespie's The Light Bearer, at 1024pp. (Mass market paperback edition.)

Diana Gabaldon's A Breath of Snow and Ashes, at 992pp.

Margaret George's The Memoirs of Cleopatra, at 964pp.

In case you're curious, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, at 800pp, is somewhat further down the list.

Figuring this out was easy - I opened up my catalog in Readerware and sorted the books by # of pages. Page length doesn't always correlate with word count, since I suspect Faulks' Human Traces, with its tiny print and 570pp+ of text, is probably just as long as anything written by George or Gabaldon. No easy way to count words, though.

I've read Rutherfurd before, but I have to say that Princes really hasn't grabbed me yet, and I'm 75pp in. Lots of emphasis on geography and history, not so much on character or action. The maps of Dublin and environs are a big help, with all the references to places and bodies of water and what directions they are in relation to other things. I hope Princes picks up some before the scene switches to a later time period, as I know it's bound to do soon.

14 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:02 PM

    Publishers really need to work on a book format that accommodates holding the book and sitting with a cat at the same time. Or a dog--my dog and I have been in an ongoing battle over one of our chairs. I'm allowed to sit in it to read at lunch, but only if I accommodate him in my lap at the same time. Long hardbacks can be rough reading that way.

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  2. Why do cats and books always seem to go together?

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  3. Is Henry Sienkewicz(?) the same one who wrote "Quo Vadis?"

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  4. I'm actually one of those people that is attracted to really long novels. I think this is because I was a precocious reader as a kid and I lived in fear of being caught out over a weekend with "nothing to read" so I purposely always chose the longest book I could find.

    That's how I read Kristen Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1124pp - technically several books but usually regarded as one complete work). And The Master of Hestviken (994pp). These are still on my list of all time favorite historical novels. I've re-read them several times since my first reading in about the 4th grade.

    So when I hear about a trend for epic novels I say - bring it on!

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  5. Anonymous5:13 AM

    Do historical novels have a reputation for being especially long? Some of them are, certainly, but I hadn't thought of it as characteristic.

    I find book length is a very subjective thing, like time. The Lord of the Rings didn't, and still doesn't, feel long to me, whereas plenty of books with half the word count feel very long indeed. Odd.

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  6. Anonymous6:25 AM

    I've read Ash by Mary Gentle, and had similar problems to you, except I didn't have the cat to contend with. Definitely hard on the wrists, but in Ash's case worth it. Gentle's new one (Ilario) is just out, and it's another door stop, but I'm up for it (I think ...)

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  7. Susan - my cats love books, but only when they're in piles (the books, that is - because then they're the right height to rub up against). Unfortunately the feeling isn't mutual.

    Elena Maria, yes, that's the same Sienkiewicz. Can't say I've read any of them yet...

    Stephanie, I used to feel that way about longer novels, but I started to feel a little differently after my collection got way too large, and after reading more than a few lengthy ones that could easily have been trimmed. That said, Kristin Lavransdatter wasn't one of them. I thoroughly enjoyed it and should re-read it sometime, especially in the new translation, which I hear is an improvement over the earlier one I read. I also prefer one long self-contained novel to a seemingly never-ending series - one big reason I don't read as much fantasy fiction now as I used to.

    Carla - I remember reading that in one readers' advisory text, and it hadn't occurred to me before, but I think it's generally true, at least compared to other popular genres, like romance or mystery. Or literary fiction. Fantasy, SF, and historicals seem to be longer than these, maybe because of the time it takes to create/build the setting? I agree about length being subjective in a sense. Light Bearer didn't feel long to me, because it moved very quickly and I found the story absorbing.

    Alex - I have Ilario on my wishlist. If you read it I'll be curious what you think!

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  8. Anonymous11:26 AM

    I'm a sucker for big books, too. I don't even have a cat to get in my way of reading them, lol. Like Stephanie, I took the biggies out of the library because you got more book, and we were only allowed three at a time. That way, I snatched The Count of Monte Christo and The Karamassov Brothers up at the same time because they're both of epic size.

    Historical novels tend to be on the bigger side since Malory and the Reali di Francia, I think. Ever tried the third installment of Dumas' Musketeers, Le Vicomte de Bragelonne? It's difficult to find in an unabridged version and I'm not sure there's an unabridged translation at all, but Dumas got paid for lines, and lines he did deliver. :)

    Btw, when I reread Kristin Lavransdatter a few years ago, I was able to read it in the original, followed immediately by a much shorter, modern hist fic novel by Herbjørg Wassmo, Dinas Bok. Interesting comparison of two strong women.

    So they must not be big - most historical mysteries are not, but I still like epic books. Series, too, though somehow they feel different to a single epic story, despite the fact you stay with the same characters over a long time (Bernard Cornwell's Saxon books, fe.).

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  9. Limits on library borrowing are no fun at all.

    Is Dina's Book worth reading? I'm pretty sure I've seen an English language version around.

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  10. Anonymous11:36 AM

    Sarah,
    I'd say, yes.

    Here's a bit from the backcover (translated): Midst 19th century at the Norvegian coast between the Lofotes and Tromsø. As child Dina Grønelv was responsible for the death of her mother, a guilt that will never leave her. She's married to the rich Jacob Master of Reisnes age 16, but Dina does not fit the role of housewife. After her husband's death, she takes over the merchant firm of her husband and slowly gains the respect of her surroundings despite the fact she acts 'umfemale' and follows only her own rules when it comes to love affairs.
    There are some vivid pictures of the life in 19th century Norway, too.

    Another book I'd reccommend is Vilhelm Moberg's more epic Utvandrarna (The Emigrants) series. He's a Swedish writer who took up the subject of Swedish emigrants to America. I liked the first book best, probably because part of it takes place in Sweden, lol, but the sequels (Invandrarna - The Immigrants / Nybyggarna - The New Builders) about the life of the group of people in America is interesting, too. The books were written in the 1950ies but are still popular in Sweden.

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  11. Frank J.5:21 PM

    There are so many, I'm not sure the page count in hardcover, but what about:
    Shogun 1210pp
    Winds of War 1047pp
    War and Remembrance 1378pp
    Journeyer 1058pp
    And of course, War and Peace

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  12. Oh yes, I think those are among the longest. I don't own copies of any myself, although I may have others by Jennings.

    Just had a reviewer cover the reprint ed. of Ben Ames Williams' A House Divided, at 1514pp.

    Thanks, Gabriele, sounds like an interesting book. I hadn't heard of Vilhelm Moberg before, shame on me.

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  13. Re: Afternoons With Emily

    Does anyone know if this is a factual account of Miranda Chase's experiences EED?

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  14. Miranda Chase is a fictional character, as far as I'm aware.

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