History versus Historical Fiction

I just finished listening to a new novel by Emma Bull called Territory.  It’s a historical fantasy novel that takes place in Tombstone, Arizona during the legendary year of 1881.  Now I have read many non-fiction books about Wyatt Earp, read many fictional accounts, and I have seen most of the major film stories about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. corral.   Territory was entertaining enough that I wanted to stay plugged into my iPod every free moment last week.  Part of this is due to my love of the Tombstone myth, and part due to a good story with good characters.  The narrators were excellent.

Emma Bull seems to know most of the essential facts and speculation about the famous event, and she invents new theories about the how and why of the known facts, especially about the stagecoach holdup on March 15, 1881.  What she does different is add fantasy elements to the story, and I don’t mean she makes up false accusations, but adds fantasy, as in magic, to the storyline.  I love fictional accounts of real people, and I love a good fantasy story that uses famous people for characters, like Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld stories, which featured Mark Twain (Sam Clemens) and Sir Richard Burton.  In Riverworld there was no attempt to recreate an actual historical event, whereas Territory does build a plot around “true” events, so in that regards it attempts to be realistic.

Emma Bull stays on the periphery of the most famous characters, dealing more with the Earp wives and Big Nose Kate, than with the Wyatt Earp & brothers, except for Doc Holliday, who is one of three point-of-view characters.  The other two are fictional POV characters, Jesse Fox and Mrs. Mildred Benjamin.  I think this was a good choice – too many of the Tombstone stories follow the Earps, and seeing history from the sidelines is a good vantage point.

Now I don’t know about the magic element.  I suppose if you’re a fantasy writer you always feel compelled to throw fantasy elements into your writing recipe, but this story could stand strong and tall without magic.  In fact, I think with more history and less fantasy it would have been a better novel of any type.  Obviously, Ms. Bull mined Tombstone’s history for rich historical ore and found plenty to refine.  Her addition of magic creates a non-historical plot thread but that hole in history is also later plugged by the same magic.

There are two types of historical novels – the authentic and the romantic.  Now the romantic historical novel can be very realistic to its time, but it’s ultimate goal is to tell a fun story, often with made-up characters.  Of course, the authentic historical novel seeks to recreate everything as realistic as possible, matching all known facts, and often focuses on real people from the past.  Both are fantasies in essence, because non-fiction history is a kind of fantasy too.  Even our own personal memories are fantasies.  I think when science fiction readers got tired of space opera, many genre writers turned to fantasy, and in recent times, turned to blending historical fiction with science fiction and fantasy.  Readers and movie fans often love a good costume drama, so I think this type of story is growing in popularity.

Territory is a lightweight romantic historical fantasy that entertains with quite a few good facts.  Readers unfamiliar with the Tombstone myths of 1881 can still follow the story, but I’m not sure if they can really enjoy it like it should be read.   Tombstone of 1881 was about law and order, Republicans versus Democrats, American West mythology, guns versus gun control, survival of the fittest, greed, revenge, murder, love, redemption, and every element of a great story.  Shakespeare would have loved the material, and could have written a play more complex than Hamlet with the famous ambiguous characters of Tombstone.  That’s why the story gets filmed so much and used for background for novels.

The most interesting speculation Emma Bull conjures regards the stage holdup and its motivation on Wyatt Earp for later events.  Most of the glamorous stories about Wyatt Earp make him into a frontier hero, but if you dig deep you know that he was involved on both sides of the law.  I wished that Emma Bull had jettisoned the fantasy elements to make more room for the story to be an authentic historical novel because she showed a lot of talent for that, and I also wish she had even added fifty-percent more to her word count.  I think having Mildred Benjamin be a typesetter and cub reporter was enough of a fantasy element for this story.  Her current approach to this classic western is what I would call Deadwood PG.

Overall, I enjoyed this story, but ended up wanting more.  Of course, the additional words I want might bore the average reader, because I’d like to see a lot more history and facts painted into the story.  Really great authentic historical fiction makes the reader feel like they are walking through the past.  Every significant detail adds to the beauty of the work, and you feel like you are learning from first-hand experience.  What really sets off the feeling of reality is the voice of the characters and narrator.  Ms. Bull throws in quite a few archaic words and phrases from the time, but her characters have the tainted feel of the modern mind.  It’s never obvious, but I kept asking myself would a person from 1881 think or say that.

Authentic voice is very hard to pull off.  One way to test modern historical fiction for voice is to compare it to works of fiction written from the time period, but to go even deeper, you have to compare the modern sound to letters and diaries of the time.  It’s not just the period vocabulary, but the popular phrases, topics of interests, the pop culture of the time, common philosophical opinions and so on.  Territory doesn’t go very deep in this regard.

Unfortunately, there is no Pride and Prejudice or Sister Carrie quality novel written by someone who lived during the time in the old west.  About the closest thing we have is Roughing It by Mark Twain, written about ten years earlier about his 1861-1867 trip out west seeking his fortune in a Nevada silver mining camp.  Of course, this might be like learning about contemporary France from the essays of David Sedaris.  Another source is Isabella Bird, who traveled through the Rocky Mountains in 1873 and wrote about her adventures in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.  

The true western novel didn’t evolved until well after the west was tamed, and in many ways western fiction is often more fantasy fiction than historical fiction.  If you really want to know about Tombstone you need to read non-fiction books like Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends by Allen Barra.  The trouble is, reading one book is like eating one chocolate chip cookie.  That’s the thing about history and historical fiction – you run the chance of getting bit by the what-really-happened bug.   Emma Bull takes a particularly strange photo of Wyatt Earp that shows a sinister evil side.  If you read wide enough you’ll find Wyatt Earp detractors who will back this view, but is it the correct take?  You’ll have to read about six history books to get a decent idea.

Jim

Reading Beyond Science Fiction

Years ago I wrote an essay about what where the classic books of science fiction.  I later made it into an web site called The Classics of Science Fiction.  I always meant to use the same techniques to build a web site that reveals the all-time classic books of general literature, and not just limit the search to one genre.  I finally got that site started at Classic Booklists.  It’s just a baby step, because my friends and I hope to do a lot more with the idea.

Until I was fifty, I mostly read science fiction books.  Sure, I sampled far and wide, but I stuck to the tried and true genre I grew up with, always looking for my new sense-of-wonder fix.  Then I discovered audio books at Audible.com and my reading habits completely changed.  Back then, there just wasn’t that much science fiction offered on audio, and so I had to be open to new kinds of books.  I started listening to classic English novels, best sellers, modern American literary works, works of history, biography, science and philosophy, anything that was promoted as a great book.  I quickly discovered sense-of-wonder doesn’t have to be about rocketships. 

Listening to The Bible, and The Bible is the bedrock of all classic books, is hearing the voices of primitive people, the voices of men and women at the dawn of history.  The Bible is a gateway to the mind of man before there were concepts like science, history, mathematics, astronomy and so on.  Sure, there’s the whole religious angle, but that’s the least interesting take.  Just listen to the stories and always remember to ask:  Who is telling this story and why?  You will experience The Bible as a series of evolutionary stories that do far more to explain our physical world than the metaphysical.  It was all about national politics. The Old Testament is very much like the Koran, in that it explains the psychology of radical fundamentalism, which isn’t about heaven or hell, but here and now.

When you read classic books always follow the motivation.  Whether fiction or nonfiction, there’s always a mind at work.  No matter how engrossing a story is, step back and look for the narrator’s slight-of-hand.  There are two narrators to watch for tricks, the one within the words telling story, and the unseen other, the actual writer of the words – and trust neither.  For example, within The Bible, who is telling the story about Moses and Aaron?  The Bible is often referred to as the word of God, but God doesn’t narrate this story.  Did Moses have a PR man cranking out press releases?  Did a BC Billy Graham tell stories about Moses in sermons?  Did the early chamber of commerce for Israel hammer out their tale for national unity?  

Reading Jane Austen will only take you back two hundred years, but she will teach you about the mind of women from any time.  Again, what is Miss Austen’s motivation?  Is Pride and Prejudice a timeless handbook for romance or for gold digging?  Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald tells us about the origins of the 20th century American mind at the ground level.  Every French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese novel opens up a mental beachhead into new culture.  This is all mind bending, and as mind bending as science fiction feels when you discover it at thirteen.  

Each classic is like time traveling to a place and time – for instance Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie takes you to Chicago of the eighteen nineties and shows you a world as far out as any science fictional world.  Compare it to Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany and you will see what I mean.  They are both about rubes from the country, or in the SF case, a backward planet, struggling to survive in the big city.  

American history is really an extension of English history, and reading classic English novels is like working with an Freudian psychologist to explore our hive mind childhood.  When you read far and wide in literature and philosophy, you’ll realize that the history of humanity is like the evolution of one great being. 

We have to accept Isaac Newton when he said, “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” as not just true for scientists, but true for everyone.  How far you see across time and space depends on the pile of books from which you view reality.  Harry Potter novels might be the best of fun, but they won’t help you see very far.  On the other hand, they are great books because they aren’t about magic, but contemporary adolescence.

A classic book, a great book, a masterpiece of literature, will educate its readers about the past, and at the same time they reveal a timeless way of seeing the present.  A classic book begs to be read again and again, because each reading will reveal more secrets.  A classic novel will draw you into history and you will feel like your life is growing in two ways, one forward from your individual birth, and the second, a life that grows backwards, roaming further and further towards our cultural birth.  Reading books from the 1950s lets you grok the 1940s, that make sense of the 1930s – and after awhile it’s the 1790s, or the Italian Renaissance, or 400 BC.  Suddenly, all of history becomes your stomping grounds.

Reading classic books is like assembling a map of reality one jigsaw piece at a time.  In the early part of the 20th century people like Mortimer Adler came up with the educational philosophy of the Great Books, and colleges built liberal arts curriculums around The Great Books of the Western World.  This later evolved into Harold Bloom‘s idea of The Western Canon.  Of course, these lists of great books require a lifetime of study, more than most people ever want to pursue.

That’s when I got the idea of collecting many such booklists of recommended reading of classic books, hoping to find the essential volumes revealed through consensus.  I’m just starting with ClassicBooklists.com.  With the help of my friends Mike and Heather I hope to expand it in many revealing ways.  I’ve started reading books about books, such as, Leave Me Along, I’m Reading by Maureen Corrigan, 1000 Books To Change Your Life by TimeOut.com, The Book That Changed My Life edited by Roxanne J. Coady & Joy Johannessen, and the epic, 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall.

The more you read about books the more it’s obvious that no one person, or editors or scholars or poll of fans have an idea of what the perfect classic booklist should be.  The Classics of Science Fiction is built from 28 lists, and the resultant list is from any book that shares recommendations from 7 or more lists.  Those 193 books represent quite a consensus.  So far I have 12 lists for the Classic Booklist site.  It will take time to build it up.  I plan to add The Classics of Science Fiction list to it next, so we can compare SF books to recommendations for general literature.

So stay tuned.

Jim

Rethinking the Kindle

Tonight I was reading on my Kindle and I decided I’m not completely happy with it.  I love reading on the Kindle, that is, seeing the large print, reading screen by screen with a press of a button, and having a narrow line width to scan with my eyes.  What I don’t like about the Kindle is the Home directory.  I also discovered I no longer like reading Time magazine on the Kindle, although this might not be completely the fault of the Kindle.

For my personal use and taste, I’ve decided I like the Kindle best for reading a single book at a time.  The Kindle is great for reading on a book you’re hooked on and you’re ready to sit and do some serious reading.  I can read screen after screen with little eyestrain.  The Kindle is a comfortable magnifying glass.  Whenever I used to try to reading normal books and hold a magnifier it was never comfortable.  For me the Kindle has become a tool to make reading easier on the eyes.

I don’t like managing books on the Kindle.  The computer makes for a much better librarian.  I wished the Home page only had unread books on it, and I could hide all my read books in another directory.  Really all I want is to turn on my Kindle and start reading where I left off, so I’m not even sure I wouldn’t be happy leaving my library of books on my computer or on Amazon.

The whole thing about carrying 2,000 books around in one little device isn’t as interesting in practice as it was in theory.  In other words, I like the Kindle as a book replacement, but not as a library replacement.  The Kindle’s software and hardware interfaces are clunky when it involves more than reading.  PREV PAGE and NEXT PAGE are perfect concepts for reading – all those other buttons, not so much.

I could handle a much simpler Kindle, but I don’t know if my tastes would make other Kindle users happy.  Amazon should sell two kinds of Kindles – a streamline reader with few buttons, no broadband connection, and have it managed from a computer, for about $100, and then the more expensive Kindle with all the bells and whistles for $399.  I would be happy with three buttons: an On/Off switch, and a Next and Previous page buttons, along with a USB port.  Yeah, and it would need some kind of home button with a trackpad or other cursor selector device – but ultimately I’d prefer a touch screen.  I wondering if something like the iPod player control would work with ebook navigation. 

I’d like this simple Kindle to be super hardened so I wouldn’t be afraid of taking it places, include the bathtub or beach.

My 4gb iPod Nano can hold many unabridged audio books but if I put more than a few on it then it becomes a pain to find things.  My iPod and Kindle just need room for 1-3 books – at least that’s how I feel.  I’m trying to simplify my life.  My iPod Nano is the perfect tool for listening to audio books.  The Kindle is still too swiss-army knifey to make me happy.

I love that the Kindle is Green and I can go paperless, but I’ve decided that general magazines aren’t suited for it.  My fiction magazines are okay, but modern magazines have too much content, with lots of little sidebars and snippets of facts mixed in with the articles.  That busy layout doesn’t translate well to a pure reading layout of the Kindle.

Jim

Ethan Frome

For my May monthly selection for the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge I decided to read Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton.  This is my first reading experience with Wharton, and I was very impressed.  Ethan Frome was first published in 1911, but is set earlier, in a time before cars, when people lived very differently from how they do now.  I listened to an unabridged edition of this book from Recorded Books read by George Guidall, and as soon as I started listening I knew I was hearing very fine writing.

The reason I joined the 1 Percent Well-Read Challenge was to seek out books I’d normally never read, and to discover views of life that would be surprising and novel, and I think Wharton succeeded well with those goals.  Ethan Frome is a very short novel that is often assigned to school kids to read, and I can understand why.  The writing is vivid, sharp and full of details that should stimulate a lot of discussion with young modern minds.  At one point Ethan talks about stars and constellations and regrets he wasn’t able to escape from small town life to become educated and pursue scientific ambitions.  We seldom hear 19th century characters talk about science.

Ambition versus reality is a common thread throughout the story, and I can’t help but think any reader of this novel not comparing their own life with Ethan and Mattie.  We all want more than we’re given, and Wharton creates a rather horrific analogy of being trapped by circumstances beyond our control.  The heavy ironic ending would fit naturally into a Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents television show.

Classic novels of the past are a vehicle of time travel for me, especially ones like Ethan Frome that are written with a significant accumulation of details.  I started listening to Ethan Frome just after listening to The Cat Who Walks Through Walls by Robert A. Heinlein, a science fiction novel.  I was surprised by the stark contrast of details and lack of details.  Heinlein provided damn few details about his vision of the future, instead telling his story mostly in dialog.  Wharton told her story in a chronicle of observations, descriptions of moods and voice, and sparse dialog.  It would be fantastic if science fiction writers could make-up such realistic details about the future for their stories.

The Heinlein book was overtly about sexual relationships, but it was unrealistic.  The Wharton book dealt with sexual undercurrents at a time when writers couldn’t write directly about sex.  It was far more realistic.

Jim

* I was disturb by the number of out of print editions of Ethan Frome on the web that seemed to be no more than traps to get people to look at ads.  In the old Internet days there were a few sites for free books that would nicely format the texts for reading online.  These ad honeypots did not do that.  A lot of these sites were geared to school kids, knowing they had to research the book.  Some of these sites offered study guides, which is admirable, although the content on many were thin.  I’m hoping over time some of these study guide sites will emerge as true centers of study, and not just for school kids.  I think all of these book sites should try to format the text to make online reading easy, and offer links to common ebook formats for people who want to read on ebooks, PDAs, phones and laptops.  It would also be nice if they could integrate their ads into a layout that is more appealing to the eyes.  Fewer ads should get more attention, and if placed properly they shouldn’t detract from the content.  Most of the time the layout was so bad I immediately closed my browser tab.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

1percent

Over at 1% Well-Read Challenge they have set up a reading dare that I found very enticing.  It is built around the book 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which I ran out and bought and highly recommend to anyone who loves to read widely.  It’s richly illustrated and gives fascinating tidbits and short plot synopsis for 1001 books.  Oh sure, if you read the reviews on Amazon and other places on the net you’ll see a lot of grumbling that they didn’t include this book or that, but ignore such whining because overall, editor Peter Boxall included an amazing line-up of stories to get to know.  I’m now reading through this rather massive volume trying to select the perfect 10 books I’d like to read for the challenge.  The challenge is rather simple – read 1% – that is 10 books in 10 months.  You can see the list of titles here.

When I get the time, and I’m afraid I say this much too often and never find the time, I’m going to set up a web site for general books like I set up for science fiction.  My Classics of Science Fiction created a recommended reading list by finding 28 sources of recommendation, building a cross-tabulation database of all the titles and then deciding that any book that had been on 6 or more of the 28 sources would make my Classics of Science Fiction list.  I would use 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as one of the sources for a Classic Books to Read web site.

Since I started blogging I’ve discovered the concept of the reading challenge, which is a fun blogging activity.  Over at A Striped Armchair, Eva seems to be the queen of reading challenges, and you can find a lot of good information there.  I don’t have Eva’s ability to read so many books quickly, so I think I’ll start out slow and just stick to this one challenge for awhile, but if you’re a bookworm, I bet they’re addictive.  Although scanning down Eva’s right hand column makes me want to bite off a lot more than my eyes can chew reading-wise.

One reason this reading challenge is so enticing is because of the reading rut I’m in.  I read all the time, but I seem to be going through a period of less than stellar books.  I’m finding plenty to read, even very good books, but few books this year have really jazzed my mind.  The last was The Road by Cormac McCarthy back in January.  That’s the thing about being a jaded bookworm – reading is only as exciting as your last great book.  I want every novel to go nova in my brain.  And when I finish that explosion I hunger for a book that will go supernova.

Then I’m willing to back off and read some gentle books for awhile, maybe some nice informative non-fiction, or even a crappy guilty-pleasure novel, but eventually, the gnawing returns and I need another nova level fix.  That’s where I’m at right now.  I want something that will make every white blood cell tango in my veins and give me a reading fever.  As every bookworm knows, unless a book makes you willing to give up food, sleep and sex and contort you body for hours clutching a tome until it hurts, then it’s not much of a page turner.

Scan the list and let me know of any that have blown your mind.  I’m looking for 10 Supernova Books!

[The New York Times just reviewed 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die as “Volumes to Go Before You Die” and it is an excellent supplement to the book.]

Jim

SuperBookworms

I feel a certain amount of pride in the number of books I read and take a certain pleasure in thinking of myself as a bookworm, but I’m a total slacker when I compare myself to some people I found on the net while searching for Best Books of 2007. Take a look at Jason Lunberg’s 2007 books read blog entry. He lists 90 books. I have a mere 39 on my log for 2007, down from 53 in 2006. My lame excuse, I got bogged down trying to listen to the Bible and while concurrently studying it at the same time, and I still haven’t finished the Old Testament or any of the supplemental books I bought to help explain it.

This got me to thinking. How many books can a person read in a year? I next found “Anglers Rest” with a partial list that ends at 109. After that I found lots of people listing 40-60 books, like “So Many Books” or “Orpheus Sings the Electric” that I tend to think that around a book a week is the range of the serious bookworm. Looking at the titles, these bookworms also seem to be very diverse readers, reading a mixture of classics, genres, literary and non-fiction, memoirs and biographies. It certainly would be fun to get a party of these people together and get them arguing over best books and writers.

Then I found Eva’s “A Striped Armchair” with 200 titles listed – but only through October 25th and I am in awe! Now she is a SuperBookworm! I’d call anyone reading more than 100 books a year a SuperBookworm. Of course, she is a twenty-one year old nanny taking time off after college before getting real, so that explains some things. When I took “some time off from college” or as my family refers to that time as “Jim’s unpaid vacation as a worthless bum,” I read 478 books in eighteen months. To be honest, I read to avoid growing up and to keep my mind off the question about what to do with my life. I have to wonder if Eva isn’t doing that too.

I kept going through my Google returns but I didn’t find anyone to top Eva. I then found a site that focuses on doing what I was doing with Google. Over at ~Listology~ they take this idea seriously. They generate lists of lists that take the idea to the extreme.

Still, reading over 200 books in one year boggles my mind. Is Eva the top bookworm of the year? I don’t know. If I was a SuperProgrammer, I’d write a program to crawl the net, gather up all the “Books Read 2007” lists from my Google search and compile a database and cross tabulate it to see what were the most read books and who read the most books. If you assume hardcore Bookworms and SuperBookworms have reached the stage of being jaded over bad books and also assume they would naturally seek out the best books, this system might tell me what the best books are to read.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to call myself a SuperBookworm and read one hundred books in a year again. When I was a kid in junior high and high school there were long periods where I could read a book a day, but those were crappy science fiction novels, and SF novels back then were often less than 200 pages long. I don’t want to read worthless crap books any more, and the types of books I like to read now take about a week to finish. I’ll be content with this pace if I read the best of best books and I’ll die knowing I did a good bookwormly job.

The motto I would like to live up to is: Why read any book when you can read a great book!” That’s not an easy motto to follow if you have an undisciplined mind that likes to pursue odd ends and thoughts. I could, but it would probably be silly knowing my true self, to make a resolution for 2008 to only read great books.

I want to read the best books, but I don’t want to stick to just the same old famous classics. That’s why I like to read these Books Read 2007 lists. However, I wish there were other ways to validate good reading ideas.

There are other methods to find lists of great books, such as the one at New York Magazine, “The Best Novels You’ve Never Read,” where they had sixty-one critics recommending their favorite underrated books from the last ten years and producing a year’s worth of reading for the average bookworm. I had read only one of these titles, The Accidental by Ali Smith, and shamefully, I had not even heard of most of the others. New York Magazine even tries to recommend authors who will be taught in school in 50 years in their article, “The Future Canon.” Again, I’m stymied by my lack of knowledge.

Not only am I not a SuperBookworm, but I’m just a normal bookworm with less than good taste. I suppose I need to go get Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and get busy. I’m not a total illiterate, because a quick glance showed I read 4 of the first 20 on this list of his titles at listology. Assuming I followed this list, it would take me twenty years to finish it, and that doesn’t count for any fantastic books written after the list was written, or cover all the Harvard Classics type books that aren’t on this list.

I should join the others and list my Books Read 2007, but glancing down my log I gladly notice a reasonable number of good books, and some even interesting books, but I also embarrassingly note I read a lot of crap, so I think I’ll curl my tail between my legs and walk away cowered by the SuperBookworms.

JWH