Beach Reads

Now that weather in Minnesota actually resembles July and not March or November, I think I’m finally in the proper mood to ask that overasked question: What to read on one’s summer vacation?

I, Claudius (1st edition cover)The English novelist Andrew Miller — author of the well-received Pure, set in pre-revolutionary Paris — recently shared his list of top ten historical novels, none of which I have, well, read. But they sound great!

Now, I have seen the PBS version of I, Claudius (#2 on Miller’s list), and watching PBS is sort of like reading. Right? And I, Claudius was written by a famous veteran of World War I, about which I’m currently blogging. And I do read those blog posts before publishing them, so…

Okay, I’ll be honest: I’m not exactly a voracious reader of fiction, even of the historical variety. But let me take a shot at recommending the two authors of such fare that I most appreciate.

Alan Furst

I’m both a parent of twin toddlers and innately cheap, so I’ll postpone judgment on Spies of the Balkans, as it was only recently released in paperback. But I have a pretty good sense what to expect—for better or worse.

For worse first… As with most novelists who write in series, there’s a sameness to Furst that can either bore or comfort. His novels are all set in the same era (1930s-1945) and same places (Paris; Central and Eastern Europe), and feature the same kinds of protagonists (lonely, cynical men who are either spies, anti-Nazi resistors, or working with one or the other). But you could find worst ruts to be stuck in, and because these novels all inhabit the same literary universe, it’s fun to spot the cameos from recurring characters or the callbacks to previous stories (e.g., the inevitable explanation of why there are bullet holes in the wall of a certain Paris nightclub).

For better… True, there are three or four plotting devices that are guaranteed to show up again and again. (What, our hero has hooked up with an alluring woman of exotic, mysterious origins? I sure hope it works outs Furst, Night Soldiersthis time!) Yet Furst is such a consistently interesting writer that the terrain never seems overtilled. (Note to self: write terrible post using the history of crop rotation to give advice to writers.) Whether we’re following a Dutch freighter captain, a Soviet journalist, a French movie producer, or a Polish military attaché (that old one), Furst is adept at plunging American readers, accustomed to the anodyne Good War narrative in which self-sacrifice always serves a noble cause, into more shadowy European memory of WWII and its origins.

I’ve even used the first chapter of his first book (the still-riveting Night Soldiers) in my Modern Europe course, as an exercise in seeking “imaginative understanding” of a group with which few Americans want to empathize: fascists. A few snippets, describing a parade of the fictionalized “Bulgarian National Union” in 1934:

Legs and arms moved like ratchets, as though operated by machinery. All in time to Khosov the Postman, who kept the beat with a homemade drumstick on a block of wood. They badly wanted a drum, but there was no drum to be had unless one went all the way to Sofia. No matter. The desired effect was achieved. A great modern age was now marching into the ancient river town of Vidin….

Colonel Veiko and his troopers thought [their] caps were magnificent, a little flamboyant, a daring touch to offset the somber tone of the uniforms, and wore them with pride. The local wise men, however, laughed behind their hands. It was entirely ridiculous, really it was. Vidin’s petite-bourgeoisie tricked out in goose feathers, strutting up and down the streets of the town. The grocer preceded by his monstrous belly. The postman beating time on a wooden block. Laughable….

“Ah, here’s a thing,” Khristo said quietly. “The glory of the nation.”

“Levitzky’s geese,” Nikko answered, a title conferred by the local wise men.

“How they strut,” Khristo said. (pp. 9-11)

However absurd the spectacle, the troubling appeal of fascism is also evident: the possibility of social mobility; the sense of being in the vanguard of history; the atavistic attraction of playing at war. And that’s just the first chapter. Read on. And on. And on. (There are now eleven page-turning installments in the series.)

Patrick O’Brian

I enjoyed the Russell Crowe-Paul Bettany movie on its own (it might make my top 20 list of best filmed historical fiction), but I thank my Uncle Bob the astrophysicist for recommending that I go to the source material and read at least one of the twenty (completed) Patrick O’Brian novels that inspired Master and Commander.

O'Brian, Master and Commander (1970)I’ve plowed through the first two tales of English naval captain Jack Aubrey and his surgeon-spy friend Stephen Maturin. And frankly, that’s probably where I’ll stop. The very skill that makes O’Brian such a distinctive master (and commander) of the historical novel is what can make it rather tiring to read his work: his command of period language. As a historian, I find O’Brian’s attention to the subtleties of the never-stagnant, endlessly varied English language fairly compelling (not to mention the subtleties of class and ethnicity in post-1789 Europe). As a convinced landlubber, I found the nautical jargon to grow less and less interesting at a logarithmic rate.

Yet even that is leavened by attention to the baser details of naval life: O’Brian isn’t assembling a literary version of some pristine ship-in-a-bottle. Consider Aubrey’s first inspection of his new ship, as told in the 1970 novel that started the series:

She bore as much resemblance to her ordinary self as the rigid bosun, sweating in a uniform coat that must have been shaped with an adze, did to the same man in his shirt-sleeves, puddening the topsail yard in a heavy swell; yet there was an essential relationship, and the snowy deep of the deck, the painful brilliance of the two brass quarter-deck four-pounders, the precision of the cylinders in the cable-tier and the parade-ground neatness of the galley’s pots and tubs all had a meaning…. He was blind to the things he was not meant to see — the piece of ham that an officious fo’c’sle cat dragged from behind a bucket, the girls the master’s mates had hidden in the sail-room and who would keep peeking out from behind mounds of canvas. He took no notice of the goat abaft the manger, that fixed him with an insulting devilish split-pupilled eye and defecated with intent; nor of the dubious object, not unlike a pudding, that someone in a last-minute panic had wedged beneath the gammoning of the bow-sprit. (p. 38)

If you can get through this paragraph, you can (a) now use the words “puddening” and “abaft” in conversation and (b) enjoy at least one of O’Brian’s books.

I’ll admit that I’ve got a sentimental, albeit indirect, attachment to such fiction. Not only does it remind me of my much younger self, who paged through his USN veteran grandfather’s books on Admiral Nelson, but one of O’Brian’s literary forebears provided the preferred reading of Dr. John H. Watson, sidekick of my beloved Sherlock Holmes, and another inspired the original pitch for my beloved Star Trek, as well as the director of the two best Star Trek films.

But even ifthough that doesn’t describe most peopleanyone else on the planet, I think that even non-history buffs willing to put in some close reading (and re-reading, in spots) can tap into the most fundamental appeal of O’Brian: as the most sophisticated purveyor of the guilty pleasure known as “sea stories.”

What’s your favorite historical novel, or series of novels?

3 thoughts on “Beach Reads

  1. I’m a great fan of Patrick O’Brian, though I find the nautical jargon a bit difficult for me (I describe myself as a Stephen Maturin type. 20 books in, and can’t tell a sheet from a sail). I’ve read the entire series once, and the first nine or so an additional two or three times. For me, the appeal of O’Brian is in the characters, and how vibrantly he brings that world to life.

    I also quite like Bruce Alexander’s Sir John Fielding mysteries.

  2. OK, (1) this isn’t really a beach read since it’s 1176 pages long and too heavy to hold up on the hammock, but …And Ladies of the Club, by Helen Santmyer is my all time favorite. I’ve read it twice and know I will at least once again. It is the life-long work of an elderly resident of a nursing home who had a brief flash of fame before dying a few years later. (She also wrote Xenia, a boring look at the town she grew up in that I’ve given up trying to finish.) Anyway, Ladies is set in Ohio and follows the lives of two women from the just-ended Civil War to the dawn of the New Deal. Besides being historically interesting, it was the first time I really felt the “continuity of life.” We can talk about that some time to explain better.

    (2) Another heavy one, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is 717 pages, written by Allan Gurganus. It is the life story of a woman who marries an old Confederate soldier when she was very young, so, of course, outlives him by decades. Anyhow, it is an interesting look at the aftermath of the war in the South from a small-town-local-details kind of a way. Not one to read repeatedly, though.

    (3) The last, is a trilogy by Francine Rivers: Mark of the Lion (series). It is the life of a Jewish girl taken captive, sold to the Romans and eventually set free. What is gripping about it is the description of a siege of Jerusalem that describes what life is like in such conditions. Could hardly sleep after reading it. It was one of the first times I considered what the Bible DOESN’T say. Eventually she becomes a believer of outstanding faith as life takes her through a lot of history. A real page-turner that I know I’ll read again.

    So, there is my list of fiction, all historical (my favorite kind). Oh, forgot, the Rutherford Sarum should be on the list too, come to think of it.


  3. I loved the O’Brian novels, and I’ve read ’em twice. But, the nautical jargon can be tough. Two options: a) get the glossary that they’ve published, or b) just skip past the jargon. Think of it like the techno-babble in Star Trek. I seem to remember reading a quote from one of the Star Trek script writers where he said that they wouldn’t even write out the techno-babble, they’d just put a placeholder phrase in and someone would later add the dialog.

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