Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Category

Summer and Fall of Enlightenment – Part 2

A lot of new authors this summer – keeping the public library very busy! I think I am done with romance writers for a while – too much new and interesting stuff I am discovering! I do need some new sci fy to keep me busy. But first, Noah Gordon – a new author to me. Started with Shaman – great historical picture of medicine in the 1800’s as well as in-depth looks at life in Indian country, biases/prejudices about native Americans and Jews, Civil War and medicine. Long involved stories, well written, and really great description. This main character had so many dimensions, and a love and dedication to everything involving medicine, even when it meant being a war surgeon on the front lines of the Civil War. The story revolved around the father and son, and you could see the influence of one on the other.

This is the kind of historical fiction I love – broad, sweeping, involved, accurate….all great attributes, and you are very sorry to see it end…another trip to the library for the next book by him. It reminds me of a lot of the historical fiction I read in the 60s and 70s ‘- long historic family stories, great characters, but his later books are so much better in terms of depth of character and involvement. So yeah, it will be hard to go back to basic romance. (D0n’t want to forget to mention Five Smooth Stones from the 60’s – LOVED that book.)

Gordon’s second book was The Physician – absolutely amazing – medicine in the 11th century, with a very detailed look at Jewish life, medieval England, travels to the Middle East, and the role of Islam in teaching medicine. Thoroughly researched, fascinating picture of Jewish and Islamic life entwined, the early study of medicine, and the classical study involved to become a “hakkim” – physician – at the time. I was left at the end of the book thinking about the amazing life this main character led, all he had learned, and he ends up content doctoring in a small herding village in the wilds of Scotland for the rest of his life, as a practicing Christian, after years of immersion masquerading as a Jew. The conflict between Judaism, Islam, and Christianity is well-developed, and yet Islam seemed to be the more forgiving of the religions to difference.

I still am processing how I felt/feel about his leaving all the knowledge and learning behind as he retires to Scotland – it kind of coincides with how I feel about not teaching any more. I’m retired, but I still feel like I have much to contribute. When I have the learning that Rob Cole had, how could I leave it for the rest of my life? After this I read The Last Jew about Jewish life in Spain during the Inquisition. Some of the same thoughts- such a revelation about Jewish life, the Inquisition, and the horrid excesses and cruelty of the Inquisition and the Catholic Church. I am once again appalled at the excesses and intractability of organized religion, which has led to some more of my readings in other ares – for other blog posts.Now I am reading what turns out to be his first book from 1965 called The Rabbi.  Not nearly with the complexity of his later books, but still a good character study.

I am jealous at his ability to write such descriptive phrases – so I set myself a task to see something each day and try to describe it – which I do and it seems so “straight-forward” and bland (as did Hemingway) , but then I try and turn it into a simile or metaphor just to play around with the words…interesting how quickly I seem to go for a cliche – so something for me to work on. Love me my word play!


…and in looking for these, I discovered a third Cole book in a trilogy – Matters of Choice – need to get back to the library!

Thoughts on Themes in History

I’m working with my college student on preparing for a history exam coming up on Monday, from World War I through World War II. That’s a lot of ground to cover. My student was complaining about how boring the class lectures were.

Sheesh. When are history professors and teachers going to learn that history is a “story,” and as such can be absolutely fascinating. It’s probably a good thing I was never good at lecturing when I first started teaching, because I approached all history lessons thematically: what did we learn from the past. Even today I am astonished at how much I still learn through well-researched historical fiction. I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long while.

First case in point: The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, the second in a trilogy of the Civil War. This book focuses on the Battle of Gettysburg, and Shaara writes from hours of research of letters and diaries. I will never look at Gettysburg the same way again. This three days in July could have been avoided, could have changed the course of this country. It is a truly powerful story.

“He went back along the low stone wall. The dead were mostly covered now with blankets and shelter halves, but some of them were still dying and there were groups of men clustered here and there. There were dead bodies and wounded bodies all down the wall and all down through the trees and blood was streaked on the trees and rocks and rich wet wood splinters were everywhere. He patted shoulders, noted faces. It was very quiet and dark down among the trees. Night was coming. He began to feel tired. He went on talking. A boy was dying. He had made a good fight and he wanted to be promoted before he died and Chamberlain promoted him. He spoke to a man who had been clubbed over the head with a musket and who could not seem to say what he wanted to say, and another man who was crying because both of the Merrill boys were dead, both brothers, and he would be the one who would have to tell their mother.” (p. 232)

Jeff Shaara, the son, has also written a very power set of books about the American Revolution. Here’s his description of the reading of The Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, from Rise to Rebellion.

“‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…'”

“The words reached out to each of them, the delegates, those above in the public seats, out beyond the walls of this one simple building. The words were carried by rider and post, copies posted in every town square, in every courthouse, every state house, every assembly hall. Like a great stone dropped into a vast deep pond, the impact of the Declaration of Independence would flow out in waves that would reach far beyond the colonies, far beyond the people who had brought it to life. The words would spread beyond the great ocean, would reach the halls and stout buildings of a government that would still not understand, would still pretend to own the spirit of these unruly people, would insist that crushing that spirit mean crushing the people and whatever sham of an army these outrageous rebels would dare to mount.” (p. 528-529)

I’m reading The Fall of Giants by Ken Follett, about the years prior to and after World War 1. Again, extremely well researched and based in fact. World War I was an exercise in incompetence. When you begin to read about the United States, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, and you see how everything came to a head in war because one or two men in charge would not compromise at all, it is eye-opening. Very much looking froward to the second book in the trilogy.

“Fifty thousand casualties, of which twenty thousand are dead,” Da went on. “And the battle goes on. Day after day, more young men are being massacred.” There were sounds of dissent from the crowd, but they were mostly drowned out by the shouts of agreement. Da held up his hand for quiet. “I do not say who is to blame. I say only this. Such slaughter cannot be right when men have been denied a part of the decision to go to war.” (p. 517-518)

And finally, from today’s history chapter on causes of the Great Depression, frightening in its accuracy:

“In addition to irresponsible speculation, income disparities and rampant use of credit also destabilized the economy. The income of the wealthiest one percent of Americans doubled, while the income of the bottom third only rose 6 percent. Income tax cuts returned money to the wealthy but did little for the middle class or the poor. While rich Americans could keep on buying washing machines, refrigerators, radios and cars, the bottom two-thirds found themselves stretched to the limit. By 1929 American factories, like farmers, were guilty of over-production. Manufacturers cut prices and then reduced their output. They laid off workers, who in turn cut back on their purchases. Borrowers stopped paying their consumer loans, leaving banks and stores with millions in bad debt.” (p. 871-872)

When you read those words, how can you find history boring? Can’t you see the direct connections? Why not a discussion that has to be fact-based to involve every student? If we continue to relegate the teaching (or reading ) of history to a minor subject that is considered boring by most students, when will we ever understand how we have gotten to where we are?





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