I was talking to Cousin K this morning about how I hated history in school. There was real disgust in my voice and as I heard myself speak I was shocked. Why is it that I hated the subject? I guess it is because we were taught too much in too short a period. World history, British history (at some point I think they were both the same thing!) and of course Indian history which went on forever. The lessons were dry, the teachers disinterested, the classrooms hot and humid as the ancient fans whirred slowly, producing nothing but a gesture. It was all about cramming for the exams with no real interest in an education for life.
And yet, as I pick up my recent reads they’re mostly historical fiction. Given a chance and taught interestingly, history has moved into my top favourite read. The more I think of it, the more I have stayed away from contemporary settings, particularly contemporary Indian settings in the recent past. There’s been this surge in Indian writing in English and I’ve had the misfortune of reading more than a few books where the writing was stilted and laboured. They left me with a bad taste in my mouth and I’ve scurried back to the comfort of cold coffee and my beloved historical fiction. I present to you, some that might interest you.
I’d never heard of Dutch artist Vermeer until I picked up the book and found myself intrigued. The story is about his inspiration, the maid Griet who his patron has a rather lecherous eye on. Like all historical fiction, most of it is conjecture and I find it really hard to keep that fact in mind. Never mind that it is set in the 17th century Europe, India in the 21st Century still has men who will exploit household help at the smallest chance. Loved this one. Loved it so much that I picked up her Burning Bright. Set in Georgian London, this one is about William Blake and it’s burning a hole on my bedside table, awaiting its turn.
This one uses the old correspondence technique. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s maid writes to her mother, telling her of her employer’s suitor, Robert Browning. I grabbed this book the moment I laid eyes on it and I didn’t regret it. One of my favourite love stories, two of my favourite poets – what’s not to like? Yet another book where the servant-employer relationship is a strange and ill-defined one. But then isn’t that always the case in any relationship where the person goes beyond just being hired help?
If I had to pick my favourite, it might just be this. It has all the ingredients I love – architecture, love, betrayal, dilemma. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright eloped with Mamah Cheney, a client’s wife, causing a huge scandal in the early 1900s. I read this one with a lot of mixed feelings. I am all for running off with the love of your life if you must, but the moment kids enter the picture, choices are no longer so easy. I stay away from the kids for a couple of days and phone calls and updates from family don’t fill the void. I wonder what it would be like to leave the kids and not see them for months or years. To know that no court would award her the children. The kind of scar it would leave on the kids in that time and society to known as the children of the adulterous mother. *shudder* I’ve know deep, crazy passionate love, but I don’t know how she did it. Yes, I think I judged her right through the book .
I didn’t realise until I finished the book, that this was none other than Tiger Mom Amy Chua’s husband. Speaking of whom, I read the book and have been meaning to talk about it but as usual have so much else to say that I haven’t got around to it. This one is about Freud’s one disastrous trip to America after which he swore never to return to this country that he called a mistake. In the midst of his visit he is called in to give his opinion on a murder that he sets his disciple Stratham Young to solve. I was excited by the blurb, threw myself into the book with much enthusiasm and emerged disappointed. Freud was just used as bait/PR and barely made an appearance. The mystery wasn’t exactly a nailbiter and the story line is weak. I think husband and wife both depended on PR more than content to sell the books.
Still lying on my bedside table are these:
Taking off from Edgar Allan Poe’s death this one is about a fan who decides to dig deeper. I haven’t got any good reviews on it but I’m going to find out for myself when I get the chance.
Emperor Akbar’s court, a concubine on the run, a precious pearl stolen. I really want to know more.
I get the feeling our kids will never read this author. Never sigh with Beth, run with Jo or fall in love with Meg. Fact meets fiction as the author makes Louisa fall in love with a fictional character. Nat gave it to me when she visited a couple of days ago and I was shocked at how well she knew me.
There are plenty more but I am running out of time and going nuts linking up, so I shall stop here. What are you reading and what historical fiction do you recommend? I can’t end this post without mentioning Phillipa Gregory’s work. She’s the one that got me hooked on this genre and I can’t thank her enough.