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Reading Snapshot: November 2nd

November 2, 2014

After all of that talk about how much I love rereading, I ended up being disappointed by two books in a row: The Little Stranger, which I finished but oddly failed to engage or even move me terribly much, unlike my first experience, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I had planned to read on Halloween but gave up on after page 154, because I was just tired of all of the talk of boys and men vs women (who are apparently not disturbed by time because our wombs make us immortal?), and I didn’t see the point in continuing it when I was in a cranky mood. Look at that sentence: it rivals Henry James! So yesterday I decided that clearly I needed something completely different, and curled up with Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, a fictional memoir by a Moroccan slave who accompanied the Narvaez expedition, during in which 16th century conquistadors failed abysmally to conquer North America. It’s written in an interesting amalgamation of historic style and modern one that is quite addictive. The storytelling certainly moves at a brisker pace and includes more psychological insight than genuine Renaissance works I’ve read, but the decorative aspects of prose, and frequent references to God, give it a bit of extra flavour. I’m trying to resist the urge to compare it to Ye Olde Shoppe that you might find at a historical reenactment, as I genuinely think Lalami has created an intriguing reimagining with a focus on cultural exchange, rather than engaging in a fun exercise of creative anachronism (which also has its place!), but clearly I couldn’t quite squash the urge. I think that’s because of my inherent skepticism with turning real people into historical fiction characters. I know it’s quite trendy at the moment, and I don’t mind a cameo here and there, but up until now I’ve avoided novels which star real people. It just seems to me such an impertinent liberty, to attribute not just words but thoughts and motivations to other human beings, that I’m not quite comfortable with it. I’d prefer even a thinly fictionalised veneer.

Despite that large hesitation, and wishing it thus featured a fictional Moor on a fictional expedition, I’m very pleased with The Moor’s Account so far. I’m 240 pages into the 320 page ebook edition, so I’m sure I’ll finish it soon. It was just the ticket to snap me out of this fiction reading funk!

I’m also, as always, engaged with some nonfiction as well (in between fiction reads, I read about 240 pages of nonfiction, in chunks of about 60 pages, alternated between two books). I finally finished up Summer World just in time for winter to arrive (and I have Winter World waiting for me), but it left me in the mood for some other types of nonfiction. I’m satisfying the international relations nerd in me with The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade, which has proved right up my alley (thanks Jenny!). Written by a young Nigerian-American journalist, its upbeat, at times trendy, language could have felt jarring, but instead seems to match the tone of the stories she tells. If I could, I’d make it required reading for all Westerners who regularly follow the conventional media, and thus absorb a steady diet of ‘Woe is Africa’ news. It’s a journalist account, not an academic one, but that is at least part of the point, and as long as you take it for what it is, I think it’s terribly valuable. And fun! Let’s be honest, not too many of these types of books are fun reads, are they? This is a lovely exception, and I can’t wait to get back into it. I especially love the organising conceit of the book: at the beginning, Olopade discusses how Europeans through the ages have tried to map the ‘dark continent’ and ‘discovered’ the source of the Nile, apparently oblivious to the of people already living there, who knew their landscapes quite well. She arranges the book thematically, presenting different maps, or I suppose paradigms, with which to view Africa. I do love a good nerdy, thought-provoking structure in a book!

I was also in the mood for some essays, and I came across some Ursula LeGuin quotes hours before going to the library, so I ended up picking up The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. What kind of book blogger could resist that subtitle? I certainly couldn’t and dove into it after giving up on the Bradbury. I’ve just gotten a bit of the way in, and read the section with more personal essays than lit themed ones, but it’s already been full of reflections on gender and cultures and aging and libraries. In other words, lots of delicious treats, but the kind of healthy, satisfying treats instead of overly sugary ones. Reading this is like eating a bowl of oatmeal with all of your favourite additions thrown in (hazelnuts and blackberries for me, please).

As I began this post with a rereading complaint, I suppose I should end it by mentioning that I’m in love with Anne’s House of Dreams, my current bedtime audiobook, which I’ve read frequently before. Anne hasn’t let me down since I first met her, when I was perhaps 8 or 9 (I remember Anne seemed terribly old to me at 11 in the first book). My other audiobook (that I listen to while walking or doing chores or perhaps while knitting) is a nonfiction history book about the 14th century: A Distant Mirror by Barbara W. Tuchman. After I finished the Lahiri novel, I was really in the mood for a good work of history (Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII was one of my favourite audiobooks this summer), and I’ve been in a medieval mood, so after randomly browsing my library’s online options I chose it. I didn’t bother to check its length, and it wasn’t until I saw 24 parts downloading (representing almost 29 hours of narration) that I realised this would be an epic undertaking! I’m on part 17 now and still going strong; it’s not as engaging as the Weir but engaging enough. My favourite moments are when she gets into details of everyday life, but she manages to bring even the fairly obscure political and military maneuvering to life, and the narrator has a perfectly appropriate academic sounding voice, complete with excellent pronunciation of the various names. ;) My only hesitation is that Tuchman doesn’t seem particularly fond of her subject; indeed, I’m surprised she spent so much time and energy researching people that she often writes about with, at best, a patronising tone, and, at worst, true contempt. Granted, contempt is the best response to some of the atrocities the century saw, but it’s a bit disorienting. I’m not sure I’ll read more by her, although I’ll finish this one up.

And that sums up my current literary doings! I’m off to make some chai (it turned cold this weekend, in the thirties, and I’m loving it) and likely do some knitting while watching an episode from the second season of Miss Phryne Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (newly available on Netflix & full of feminist, Australian flapper fun), before diving back into The Moor’s Account. What are your thoughts on fictionalising real historical figures? Am I being overly fussy?

23 Comments leave one →
  1. November 2, 2014 5:36 pm

    Bright Continent is also on my list of want-to-reads, thanks to Jenny.

    It’s been a good 25 years since I read Something Wicked This Way Comes, and I remember some of the language very well–and nothing else. I should re-read it (and probably a lot of other Bradbury too).

    • November 4, 2014 4:44 pm

      I remember the scary scene in the library best of all. I might go back to it in a few days & see if I connect with it more; I think I was in a fussy mood last week.

  2. November 2, 2014 7:23 pm

    I just cannot participate in it. I feel as you do that you shouldn’t take a real person and make up things about him or her. I get annoyed at authors who try to be too clever or follow trends because it is the thing to do. I am traditional and old fashioned I guess. I just like really good characters and a strong story. Probably why I collect old Penguin and other books.

    • November 13, 2014 9:19 am

      I read a lot of contemporary books w good characters and a strong story too! :)

  3. November 2, 2014 8:15 pm

    I’m funny about historical fiction with real people. I often really like novels that are light fictionalizations of real people’s lives. For example, I loved Jude Morgan’s The Taste of Sorrow, which is a pretty straight retelling of the Brontes’ story, but as a novel, not a biography. And books with a lot of speculation are OK, too, as long as the author is upfront about it. I think those kinds of books can be a fun way to take a side in a historical debate without really having to take a side. (In her novel about Elizabeth I, Alison Weir actually took a different position from the one she took in her nonfiction, just imagining how a pregnancy *could* have happened although she doesn’t believe it did.) And having real people as incidental characters, the way Dorothy Dunnett does, can be fun.

    But I rarely enjoy historical fiction that just makes up something out of whole cloth about a real person, concocting incidents we have no reason to believe are true and have no evidence for. Books that outright contradict the known history also rarely interest me. I still get mad when I think about a book I read about the building of the Taj Mahal that made up almost everything but the names. I doubt that much fictionalization would have been acceptable in a book about, say, a British monarch where most Western readers would have some sense of the facts..

    • November 4, 2014 4:46 pm

      I think you’d like The Moor’s Account then, as it sounds like it falls most into your first category. Although there isn’t much known about the moor himself, Lalami used the actual chronicles of the voyage for all of the events. I’d be really upset about that Taj Mahal book; somehow it’s even worse! But to be honest, I don’t think I’d get along with the Weir or the Morgan either, even though they’re novels. I just keep thinking ‘But I wouldn’t want to be fictionalised!’.

  4. November 3, 2014 5:31 am

    I read the Moor’s Account a while back (I received a review copy) and one of the things that I struggled with was the same issue you mentioned—I’ve never been a fan of reappropriating real people under a fictional guise, but I do think Lalami accomplished this feat better than many. Perhaps it is because I personally don’t know much about the person upon whom she based her character and so I was better able to simply approach the story as though it were a fictional account of real events. Also, Lalami is a really wonderful writer and storyteller and it wasn’t hard to be pulled into her fascinating—if brutal—world, even though I fully admit historical fiction is not usually my thing. (Whereas historic fiction, I like perfectly fine! I just tend to not respond well to books that are written in modern times but about older periods… I have no idea why. I think too often they feel bogged down in reciting facts rather than propelling a good story and I lose interest.)

    Anyway, I’m glad to hear that after two less-good-than-I-remembered-them rereads that you’ve found a few books that you’re loving!

    • November 4, 2014 4:53 pm

      Now that’s interesting Steph! I have mixed feelings about historical fiction too; it needs to be really well done. But then, I suppose that’s how I feel about all genres, including ‘mainstream.’ LOL

      I agree that Lalami is a fabulous storyteller & I definitely want to read her other novels now.

  5. November 3, 2014 10:24 am

    Hooray! I knew you’d like The Bright Continent. My oldest sister read it recently and loved it, which felt extremely satisfying as her nonfiction reading tends to be all about Law (she is a lawyer). I have other nonfiction books to recommend to you later this month but I will give you some space. :p

    • November 4, 2014 4:55 pm

      Isn’t it satisfying to give good book recommendations? I’ve finished it now & I must admit the second half gave me many more mental pauses (due to some of the assumptions about progress/the free market and a complete lack of discussion of environmental impact/sustainability), but I’m still very glad to have read it. And you can recommend more nonfiction whenever you’d like! My current library selection is very fiction heavy, so it could use some nonfic to balance it out!

  6. bostonbibliophile1 permalink
    November 3, 2014 12:36 pm

    I’m not crazy about fictionalizing real people. just make a character based on that person, then you have all the liberty to give them whatever thoughts and actions you want, without getting into accuracy and that sort of thing. it’s confusing for me to have to keep that distinction in mind with fictionalized real people, and distracting.

  7. Jenny permalink
    November 3, 2014 4:13 pm

    I agree with Teresa that I often like fiction with historical figures in it as incidental characters. Dunnett is great at that, and I love the appearances of, say, Sabine Baring-Gould or T.E. Lawrence in Laurie King’s books. But sometimes it seems to go way over the line, and I think the amount of time we spend with the character has something to do with that.

    • November 4, 2014 4:56 pm

      I had both Dunnett & Laurie King in mind when I mentioned cameos! (Although Margaret Lennox might not appreciate the way she’s portrayed! :o) I agree that the length of time, and whether we spend the time in the character’s head or ‘meeting’ them through the eyes of another character (i.e.: whether the author ascribes psychological motives to real people) make a big difference in how I feel about it.

  8. November 4, 2014 2:03 am

    Oh, Anne. I think Anne’s House of Dreams may be my favourite. I must re-read it!

    • November 4, 2014 4:56 pm

      It’s making me long to live on the ocean!

      • November 10, 2014 12:17 pm

        I hold you entirely responsible for the fact that I am now 40% of the way through it on my Kindle!

      • November 11, 2014 1:56 pm

        :) I’ve finished it & am now in Rainbow Valley. I never liked it as much as a child, and I find I’m still not a huge fan. Why is there so little Anne? Sigh

  9. November 4, 2014 9:41 am

    Sorry to know that your re-reads didn’t go well, Eva. That Ursula Le Guin essay collection looks quite tempting. I will add it to my wishlist. ‘The Moor’s Account’ sounds like a fascinating book. Though like you have said, a fictional account of a real character does sound a little bit not-so-convincing…

    • November 4, 2014 4:57 pm

      The Lalami book will easily sweep you away if you let it. :) And I think I was in a fussy mood last week for whatever reason. I started The Wall today & am completely caught up in it, so thanks! I’ve been wanting to read it since you mentioned it in your best of 2013 posts. :)

  10. November 8, 2014 10:05 am

    I’ve read and loved Lalami’s two previous novels so I picked up The Moor’s Account without even knowing what it’s about. I was a little worried when I started to read your recap of the novel, but I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying it. The Tudors seem to be the only real people I don’t mind fictionalized accounts of. Everyone else and I struggle as to why this couldn’t be nonfiction.

    • November 13, 2014 9:20 am

      I’m glad to hear her other books are lovable! That’s funny re: your Tudor exception…have you read Alison Weir’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII? A really great nonfiction group bio, and the audio version is engaging if you like audio stuff.

  11. November 19, 2014 12:10 pm

    I’m generally fine with real people being fictionalised. My one reservation is that I can’t stop wondering where the line is – which bits are real and which are fiction. And I’m also very aware that I feel I’ve got to know this real person, but it’s not actually them at all, which is a strange feeling.

  12. chowmeyow permalink
    February 12, 2015 5:20 pm

    I just wanted to thank you for posting about The Wave in the Mind. Reading your thoughts about it made me want to read it, and I absolutely loved it. I posted my thoughts about it this week:

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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