Thursday, August 31, 2006

Saying goodbye to ourselves

[Preface: I wrote this essay for the November 2004 issue of the Historical Novels Review. Since the fall semester has just begun at Eastern Illinois U., and the freshmen are looking younger than ever, it seemed an appropriate time to repost it. This was meant to be a discussion on why we shouldn’t pigeonhole ourselves in our definitions of “historical fiction,” but also why we can’t help doing it; it can be read as a sequel of sorts to the definition article/conference talk that's posted on the HNS website (which I wrote two years earlier, in 2002).

If you want to read the current Mindset List, published annually by Beloit College in Wisconsin, you can find it here. Enjoy.]

As some of you know, I work full-time as a reference librarian in a university library. Each autumn, when the freshmen arrive on campus, the librarians remark on how much younger the new students look than last year’s crop. Of course, they’re the same age as always, while we’re the ones who are growing older. Nobody really wants to admit that. Still, it is true that the age gap between the library staff and brand new university students gets wider all the time.

Each year, academics across the United States refer to the famous “Mindset List,” produced by Beloit College in Wisconsin, to put themselves in the shoes of the young people that they’re instructing. The list takes elements of history and popular culture and views them from the perspective of the younger generation. At my library, we print out each new edition as it’s published, and place it at the reference desk for our own edification.

Most of today’s new university students were born in 1985 or 1986, and are considered the Class of 2008. Here are some history-based examples from recent years’ Mindset Lists that describe their viewpoints. The details given in parentheses are my additions. For these students:

- Most of them know someone who was born with the help of a test tube. (Louise Brown, first test tube baby, born July 25, 1978)

- They have no idea that Americans were ever held hostage in Iran. (Last hostages freed January 20, 1981)

- They have no meaningful recollection of the Reagan era, and did not know he had ever been shot. (March 30, 1981)

- There has always been an heir to the heir to the British throne. (Prince William born June 21, 1982)

- The drinking age has always been 21 throughout the country (USA). (National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, signed into law on July 17)

- The precise location of the Titanic has always been known. (Wreck discovered September 1, 1985)

As its co-editor Tom McBride, Keefer Professor of the Humanities at Beloit College, states: “The Mindset List, among other things, is a reminder of that [new] world—a world that makes education a tougher yet more fascinating job than ever. In saying hello to the new generation, which [educators] labor mightily to understand, but with mixed results, they are saying good-bye to themselves.”

Today’s new university students have a vastly different perspective on the past than even people of Generation X – those individuals born in the 1960s and 1970s – do. Each generation has its own perspective on what connotes history, and it can be a very personal definition. It’s an odd kind of culture shock. As historical novel readers, we’re used to envisioning the lives of people who lived generations, or at least one generation, earlier than ourselves. It can be disconcerting to realize, via publications such as the Mindset List, that younger generations might feel about us the way we feel about, well, characters in historical fiction.

According to the official HNS definition, a historical novel should have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who wasn’t alive at the time. We acknowledge that this definition is arbitrary, because we can’t please everyone. It benefits us to be precise. After all, we can’t review everything. But the more I think about people’s varying definitions of “history,” particularly those of the younger generation, it occurs to me that it benefits us just as much to be flexible.

This point became clearer to me when looking through the backlist catalogue of Scholastic, a major publisher of children’s and young adult fiction. They publish four series of fictionalized diaries of teenagers and older children who lived in different historical periods. I recently spotted one of the latest entries from the Dear America series, Ellen Emerson White’s novel Where Have All the Flowers Gone: The Diary of Molly McKenzie Flaherty. Set on the American home front in 1968 Boston, Massachusetts, it describes one teenage girl’s personal Vietnam-era experience as she volunteers in a military hospital, sees war protests firsthand, and fears for her brother, fighting for his country on the other side of the world. Is it set more than fifty years in the past? No. Was the author alive at the time the novel depicts? Yes. But is it historical fiction? Members of the novel’s teenage audience, who were born nearly twenty years after the novel takes place, would probably think so.

I can also recall, while growing up, being fascinated by Judy Blume’s 1977 children’s novel Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, about a ten-year-old Jewish girl from New Jersey who winters in Miami Beach with her mother and brother. Like any child of her age, her curiosity runs away with her at times. She dreams of swimming as beautifully as movie star Esther Williams, with her elegant bearing and super-white teeth. Having been deeply affected by the death of her cousin Lila in the Holocaust, Sally seriously wonders if her next-door neighbor may be Adolf Hitler in disguise. Back then, I didn’t really care whether Blume’s novel was “historical fiction” or not – I just thought it was a good story. But it did make me consider how World War II influenced the day-to-day lives of Jewish Americans, many of whom lost family members in concentration camps overseas. They didn’t teach you about this sort of thing in school – how average people were changed by historical events – and they probably still don’t. But this is what historical fiction is all about.

Lest anyone feel I’m being pedantic by selecting two children’s books as examples, take Charlotte Bingham’s The Moon at Midnight, a fairly new saga set in the fictional English fishing village of Bexham in 1962, over forty years ago. One of Bingham’s main points was to show the contrasting values between members of the Greatest Generation and their children, who don’t seem to care about the sacrifices their parents made for them during World War II. Reading this novel, its historicity is well evident, at least to a reader (like me) who didn’t live through those events firsthand.

All of these thoughts were brought home to me via a discussion on the Internet discussion group rec.arts.books.hist-fiction, on which fans of the genre post messages about their interests. Several readers agreed that they couldn’t conceive of “historical fiction” as anything set during or after World War II, because it was an event they lived through. On the other hand, historical fiction can be a valuable tool in demonstrating the differences between now and then, even if the “then” isn’t that far away in actual years. Reading these novels can be a real eye-opener, showing us how many things – social conditions, politics, and the influence of contemporary events in our daily lives – have changed.

It may be true, as an HNS member suggested in a recent letter to the editor, that many readers of this magazine prefer to read about eras long past. I enjoy this type of setting myself, and they’re certainly popular with reviewers. But occasionally reading a novel set within the last forty years, one with significant historical content, brings home to me the fact that times have changed considerably more than I might believe.

Of course, there’s another advantage to reading these novels. Thanks to historical novelists who write about the recent past, a past that many of us still remember well, we don’t have to “say good-bye to ourselves,” as the Mindset List suggests. We can relive those times just as often as we’d like – and we can introduce the younger generations to them, too.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

In which I spend way too much money at Amazon UK

Yes, most of the money I make on my writing projects goes to support my book-buying habit...

This morning while browsing Fay Sampson's website, I noticed she has a new book out. One I've never seen mentioned anywhere else. Hmph. The Land of Angels, about Queen Bertha of Kent and the coming of St. Augustine of Canterbury, as her website reports, was published on July 31st by Robert Hale. Given that her earlier The Flight of the Sparrow went out of print before I could buy it, and it took me five more years of searching before I found a copy of the darn thing, I went right to Amazon UK and ordered her latest. Despite the outrageous price, which included a £1.99 "sourcing fee" because it's a special order. I almost suspect it's out of print already, because Hale novels normally aren't this hard to obtain...

Did I mention it has a really cool cover?

To assuage my guilt at the £2.99/book shipping price plus the £3.49/order shipping price, which I'd be paying regardless, I added a copy of Edward Charles's In the Shadow of Lady Jane to my shopping cart.

Now I just have to wait until mid-October until my books arrive, and my credit card gets charged the $80 or so I paid for both of these. I must be nuts.

Friday, August 25, 2006

It's not you, it's me

(Anyone else see that Seinfeld episode?)

After attempting and setting aside four novels in rapid succession, I've come to the conclusion that the problem is neither the novels, nor the authors' skills - it's me. Yikes. This is the first time in maybe 7-8 years that I haven't had a novel on the coffeetable, nightstand, etc., waiting to be picked up and read. I have several thousand sitting on my bookshelves, but they don't appeal at the moment. It's a weird feeling.

Basically, I think I need to read something besides fiction for a short time (if I read anything at all). Fiction in general, that is, not just historical fiction - as one of the four was a contemporary chick lit/mystery that I read 3/4 of the way through before skimming to the end. (As an aside, the one novel that managed to hold my attention within the last week and a half was Megan Abbott's excellent Die a Little, a crime/noir set in 1950s LA. I'll write up a summary of that one for my next NoveList column.)

What have I been reading instead, you ask. The answer is - linguistics essays. This may seem like the most boring topic in the world to you, but au contraire, they're fascinating reading for anyone interested in how language works, and is used. Back when I was in grad school, I bought a book of essays by Geoffrey K. Pullum called The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. I read a few of them back then, but am reading the rest of them now.

The essays are hilarious, if you enjoy dry humor as well as the author's successful attempts at making fun of stuffy people. (Linguists are not snobs.) For the title essay, Pullum explains why the myth of Eskimos having countless (200? 400? how many really?) words for snow is completely false. And why writers should stop using that cliché in trying to describe quantities that are, quite simply, indescribable.

Pullum's also a contributor to the lively and popular Language Log, a collaborative blog hosted at the University of Pennsylvania. (One of my former profs is another contributor, but I won't name drop... too much.) If you enjoy writing, or words in general, it's worth checking out and bookmarking.

But bringing the topic back to historical fiction and other writerly stuff: here are some entries from the Language Log that may appeal.

Novelist Frank Delaney (the multi-period epic Ireland) says that the Irish language has no word for sex. The linguists prove him wrong.

The bane of the author's life, copy editors, and their false claims about what is and isn't grammatical.

Dorothy Dunnett has been cleared of anachronism. Ditto for Patrick O'Brian. (Not surprising.)

Ever try to analyze Dan Brown's writing style? They've done it for you, and it's not pretty.

TGIF and all that. I'm going to read another of those essays now. (BTW, the Cookson and Lewis novels - that wasn't just me. I don't think.)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Historical novel title changes...

I've been browsing older historical novel deals in Publishers Marketplace and have come across some interesting data on title changes. As I'm sure you know, titles of novels are occasionally changed after they're sold, usually for marketability purposes.

The following are examples of this phenomenon: when the publishers bought these novels from the authors' agents, they had different titles than the ones you'd recognize. Do you prefer the newer titles, or the older ones?

Diana Gabaldon's Lord John and the Chamber Pot became Lord John and the Private Matter

Jenni Grizzle's Beyond the Mists of Midnight became Jennifer St. Giles's The Mistress of Trevelyan

Linda Holeman's Linny Gow became The Linnet Bird

Deborah Larsen's Two Falling Voices became The White

Kate McCafferty's Cot became Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl

Lilian Nattel's The Theater of Consolation became The Singing Fire (not The River Midnight as I originally reported, sorry - my mistake)

Mary Rourke's Mary and Joanna became Two Women of Galilee

Jed Rubenfeld's The Name of Action became The Interpretation of Murder

Frances Sherwood's Threshold became The Book of Splendor

Anne Easter Smith's Of Blood and Roses became A Rose for the Crown

Debbie Taylor's The Mistress and the Dwarf became The Fourth Queen

Edmund White's The Life of Frances Wright by Mrs. Trollope became Fanny: A Fiction

I tend to agree with all of them, with the exception of the Larsen - Two Falling Voices sounds like the more evocative and appealing title to me.

Monday, August 21, 2006

The 50-page rule

How long do you continue to read an unenjoyable book before giving up?

Nancy Pearl - reader's advisor extraordinaire, author of Book Lust, and model for the librarian action figure - came up with the Rule of 50: "If you still don't like a book after slogging through the first 50 pages, set it aside. If you're more than 50 years old, subtract your age from 100 and only grant it that many pages."

More and more, I'm discovering that life's too short to read novels that I'm not enjoying, or simply am not in the mood to read, even if I feel I should read them. Until recently, I kept bookmarks to mark my place in novels I never got around to finishing. For example, my copy of Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter still boasts one of these, ten years after my valiant attempt at reading it (please don't send me hate mail because of this). I got about halfway through. I don't know if I do this to assuage any possible feeling of guilt on my part, or if it's my lame attempt to avoid the obvious truth - that there are so many other books out there that, most likely, I'll never get around to picking these novels up again.

I don't have a hard and fast rule for these things. Review books, I'll slog through regardless of enjoyment (but fortunately, I do enjoy most). And I'm occasionally rewarded for my efforts - sometimes novels surprise me and turn out to be better than originally anticipated.

My latest two rejectees are Catherine Cookson's The Silent Lady and Hilda Lewis's I, Jacqueline. The former was Cookson's final novel, which she dictated to her husband from her sickbed - she was very ill at the time. I found the plot convoluted and the characters unappealing, and I really wonder if it would have been published if Cookson wasn't the author. I made it through about 30 pages. I, Jacqueline, a biographical novel of Jacqueline, Countess of Hainault, started off well, but the heroine was of the TSTL type - so naive and wishy-washy that I spent most of the novel (the half I read, anyway) cringing from her poor decisions.

It's possible I just wasn't in the right mood to read any of these novels. But I'll probably never know.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Idle observations on shelving

I'm writing today from Newington, Connecticut (my hometown), where I'll be until tomorrow. En route to Boston yesterday, we stopped at the New England Mobile Book Fair in Newton Highlands, which a friend had told me about - despite living in the area for years, I'd never been there before. Contrary to its name, the bookstore is not mobile; it resembles a warehouse, with no windows, high ceilings, and books absolutely everywhere.

The interesting part is that aside from new arrivals and nonfiction, which are mostly grouped by category, adult fiction was arranged by publisher rather than by genre. Ace to Zebra, in other words (although Zebra was probably with other books from Kensington; I didn't pay attention). Books from different but related imprints (part of the same company division, maybe?) were shelved together - Ballantine and Del Rey, for instance. Those from Knopf and Crown, on the other hand (both Random House imprints, different divisions), are not. Within each publisher group, books are grouped by format (hb, pb, tpb), and then arranged alphabetically by author.

Yes, I tried to figure out the system; it's the librarian in me, I admit. I think it's probably based on how books arrive at the store, so it makes unpacking easy.

The store has a self-service kiosk where you can look up a book and find out who the publisher is, plus a customer service counter, where you could ask a human being about it. The shelves themselves were of the utilitarian, tall, metal, open-backed type. The overall selection was excellent, once you dug deep enough.

I was bemused by the arrangement, since it doesn't facilitate browsing for the majority of folks (who won't know the details on who-owns-who in the publishing industry, and don't care who published what, either). It allows for an odd sort of serendipity, and I guess it must work - the place has been in business for years - but I didn't see anyone else, besides me, browsing the shelves.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Tuesday afternoon, random notes

I'm starting to dislike Blogger's insistence on titles, but I do like the Moody Blues... and it fits. Just sitting here figuring out what to make for dinner, UPS is pulling up outside, and I'm about to start cataloging (via Librarything and Readerware) the piles of books that arrived recently. Oh, and the Donati review has been written and turned in, on the same day, even (this is not typical) - 200 words exactly, and not another review book in sight. Yet.

The burning question Entertainment Weekly has on the upcoming Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette is: "Will audiences buy the blend of period detail and deliberate anachronism (for example, Coppola's Marie is a sneaker-wearing punk who listens to Siouxsie and the Banshees)?" Um, what? But the Wikipedia article agrees with this raucous auditory image, so of course it must be right... I thought A Knight's Tale - which uses a similar technique - was amusingly unpredictable in a campy sort of way, but it wasn't based on a historical character. I'm not sure I'm going to like Marie Antoinette - maybe I'm too old for this "modernizing the historical character" business.

In other historical film notes, I saw Tristan and Isolde on DVD this weekend and turned it off about halfway through. Gorgeous scenery, but slow-moving, and I didn't care for Tristan much at all.

I don't often mention children's books here, but this one looks interesting (from Publishers Marketplace):

Sibert Honor author and illustrator James Rumford's BEOWULF, a retelling of the classic tale of good and evil using only Anglo-Saxon words, to Kate O'Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin Children's, in a nice deal, by Jeff Dwyer at Dwyer & O'Grady (NA).

I studied Anglo-Saxon once upon a time - took a semester-length course while I was in undergrad at Drew University, circa 1989. I wish I could remember more of it, but we did read Beowulf in the original.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Deep thoughts on reviewing...

Here's an ethical issue I've been struggling with recently. Deep thoughts for a Saturday morning, I know, but I'm mostly awake for a change and am not going to question it.

Generally, I believe - have always believed, as far as my own reviews are concerned - that book reviews should stand on their own; that regardless of requirements in length, they should be written so that every word counts; and, as a consequence of this, that I don't feel right about going into detail on my thoughts about a book before (and, to a lesser degree, after) the actual review is written and/or published.

(Yes, that was a long sentence. If I remembered even 1/4 of what I learned in my linguistics grad program, I could probably diagram it, but I don't, so I won't...)

I even feel a little funny about mentioning the books I'm in the process of reviewing, which may be going too far even for some people. I have no problem discussing these things in private email, generally. But I know the number of hits that come to this site because people are searching for book reviews, and I'm concerned that casual surfers - and even egosurfing authors - will pick up on my thoughts about a book before the review's published. And that goes against my feeling that a review should stand on its own, etc.

On the other hand, the folks at Booklist (their blog, Likely Stories, is linked from the left-hand sidebar here) regularly list the books in their to-be-reviewed pile. They go into detail about their opinions on passages within novels, as well as their general approach to a review they're still writing. I have a lot of respect for the staff there (and not only because they asked me to review for them). They've also been in the "review" business far longer than I have, which is a mere seven years so far. I find their blog fascinating because it goes into the little details that I also deal with often, though don't talk about much here. Like the problems with reviewing and quoting from uncorrected proofs, my dislike of reviewing from photocopied galleys (sometimes necessary), the challenge of staying original even when reviewing similar books... and so forth.

Also, talking about good books in a public forum (like a blog) does give them additional publicity. This isn't, and shouldn't be, the ultimate goal of the book reviewer, though as a reader, I certainly do like to spread the word about worthwhile novels. The converse, I suppose, could be said for my going into greater detail (than a review allows) on what I didn't like about a book.

And finally, given that reviews are just one person's opinion, namely my opinion in this case, how much does this matter in the grand scheme of things anyway? (Probably not a good excuse, here.)

Anyway, if they are comfortable with posting details on reviews-in-progress, who am I to question it? Is it time for me to start rethinking my own position on the issue?

I have been testing the waters, to some degree, by not-so-subtly hinting at the book I'm currently reading for review. I still feel a little not-right about it, I admit, which is one of the real reasons why I deleted my earlier post about Hudson Lake, the novel I covered for HNR Online last week.

What do you think - should reviews stand on their own? Is it appropriate, or helpful, to post thoughts about them in advance of the review's publication? Or, third option, am I simply thinking about this issue way too much?

Book sale alert

I've been surfing around this morning - as usual - and noticed that Greenwood is having an up-to-50%-off sale on a number of history (and other) titles from 2005 and earlier. They publish the "Daily Life Through History" series, the volumes of which have potential use for historical novelists looking for an introductory reference. My library owns a number of them. Details here.

As a disclaimer, I'll mention that another imprint of Greenwood published my book, though they didn't ask me to post about this sale, and I don't benefit financially (or otherwise) from mentioning it. Just thought it would be of possible interest to readers and writers.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Words fail me ...

I'm home today, about 300 pages into my 550-page review book (not 600pp, as I originally said), and it looks like a rainforest outside - lovely, don't know if I'm up for running out to the bank and PO today after all.

Normally when I read a novel for review, I keep a pen and sheet of paper nearby so that I can jot down little notes, impressions, phrases to use in the review. So far with this current review book, though, I haven't written down a single thing. This is both good and bad - good, because it means I've been too wrapped up in the novel to do so, but bad, because a 210-word review will be the end result of this process, like it or not, and I'm not doing myself any favors by failing to think about what I want to write.

For some reason (and maybe this indicates something deep and meaningful about my character, I don't know) I've nearly always found it easier to write critical reviews than glowing ones. When I think about it, it's probably because I'm nearly always able to pinpoint what I don't like about a novel, what doesn't work for me, but it's harder to focus on exactly what does work - especially if nearly everything in the novel does work.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I can procrastinate anything

So I took this afternoon off work in the hopes I'd settle down and read my latest 600-page review book, but it just wasn't happening. Nothing against the book, which really is quite good (Sara Donati's latest). Instead, I ended up going through Amazon and collecting info on forthcoming historical novels for 2007, which you'll see if you click on the link. Yesterday, I did the exact opposite, reading the review book rather than posting all of the forthcoming title info I'd collected over the past few weeks. No, this is not my normal means of motivation, but it seems to be working at the moment.

I spotted these on Publishers Marketplace today, and they look good:

Edgar Award-winning Eliot Pattison's BONE RATTLER, a new mystery series featuring a Scottish-born indentured servant and sleuth, who solves related murders and suicides in a colonial New England backdrop of the often violent collision of Native American, European, and African cultures while providing startling insights into the founding of the United States, to Keith Wallman at Carroll & Graf, in a two-book deal, by Natasha Kern at Natasha Kern Literary Agency (NA).

And hey, a librarian novel involving intrigue:

Emilio Calderon's debut novel THE CREATOR'S MAP, about a Spanish architect in the 1930s caught in a web of intrigue involving a librarian, a prince and a map, to Scott Moyers at Penguin Press, for six figures, in a pre-empt, by Thomas Colchie, on behalf of the Antonia Kerrigan Literary Agency (NA).

Monday, August 07, 2006

Amusing Amazon matches

Back from Chicago, some $500 poorer (hotel, dinners out, shopping...) and enjoying the last two weeks of, er, getting lots of work done, before the students return on the 21st.

Very occasionally I check my book ranking on Amazon, but I see today that it's down to #810,304, which doesn't really bother me because (1) most libraries buy it from Baker & Taylor, Ingram, etc., rather than Amazon, and (2) there are a bunch of used copies on Amazon that people would probably buy first, including the cheapest one, with this description: "2005 Hardcover. Has considerable wear and/or hi-lighting/underlining. Your purchase benefits the Brooklyn Public Library." Which makes me wonder what the story is behind that. (And who'd want to buy it, anyway?) Did some reader go crazy with a highlighter in the library, with my book? Shame.

But it's this set of matches that amuses me the most:

Customers who bought this item also bought:
The Economic Implications of Aging Societies: The Costs of Living Happily Ever After by Steven A. Nyce
Supremely American: Popular Song in the 20th Century by Nicholas E. Tawa
African American Literature: A Guide to Reading Interests by Alma Dawson
Genreflecting: A Guide to Popular Reading Interests Sixth Edition by Diana Tixier Herald
Inside the Minds of Mass Murderers: Why They Kill by Katherine Ramsland

Books 3 and 4 in this list are part of the same series as mine. The connections between my book and 1, 2, and 5 on that list, though, not quite as clear.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Where does the time go?

I've barely blogged anything all week, and here it is Thursday night, I work tomorrow, then we're leaving for a weekend in Chicago right after...

Anyway, if you were fortunate (?) enough to catch the post from last weekend that I deleted, you can find the novel I was talking about here, reviewed on the Historical Novels Review Online page - I posted all of these reviews earlier today, after the HNR Online editor sent them to me. The review in question is the one at the very end. Excellent novel overall, despite the aforementioned issues with the lack of a clear plotline until partway through. I read it from an ARC, which was in POD format, though I later discovered (after checking the publisher's website, and double-checking with the author) that the paperback won't be officially released until next February. Until then, you can purchase the e-book version. If you think a novel set in 1926 rural Indiana sounds like it would be boring, think again. I don't know many other novels that convey the Roaring '20s quite so well.