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Monday, July 7, 2008

Unexpected Summer Reading

Summer reading for many people is synonymous with fluff. Not that this is bad, mind you. I've raced my way through my fair share of Dan Brown on a vacation, loving every minute of it. (If you don't think of him as fluff, just look at his trite descriptions and arbitrary chapter divisions, and compare him to someone like Amy Tan, whose New York Times best-sellers are imminently more literary. But after 40 pages of rollicking plot, I'm ready to forgive Brown his awful sentences as I'm completely sucked into the mysteries he can weave. And that is my definition of fluff.)

Anyway, the point is that while I, like everyone, love the light summer reads, I've found myself in the last few years also drawn to books that spin a good yarn but do so based in fact. I am fascinated by books that the author had to do years of research in order to write, especially when all that work is turned to underpin a fantastic tale without forcing me to read academic footnotes.
It is a commonplace that "truth is stranger than fiction." I would also add that a true, researched, historical tale that is written up by a talented author has the potential to be the most compelling kind of read of all.

What's got me thinking of this is a book I'm reading right now: Clara's Grand Tour by Glynis Ridley. The Grand Tour was the 18th and 19th century definitive marker of sophistication, a months' long tour of western Europe undertaken on finishing university or as a honeymoon, and the sign of having arrived in ranks of the the comfortably middle-class. If you're thinking manners and morals and high-necked dresses, the book may not sound that promising...until I tell you that Clara was an Indian rhinoceros, that she was the first rhino to survive more than a year or two in Europe since Roman times, that only six other rhino transfers to Europe had even been attempted, that she was the property of an 18th century Dutch sea captain, and that she spent seventeen years touring all over Western Europe in a curious and sturdy cart that traversed roads worse than you could ever imagine. Meticulously researched by an historian, the book is the story of scientific fascination with an exotic creature and of the power of brilliant marketing. I can hardly put it down.

Other summer must-reads in my life have included Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer -- the story of a disastrous effort to climb Mount Everest that resulted in the deaths of muliple members of the team. I read this novel during a heat wave in Madison, WI, when the temperatures stayed in the upper 90s around the clock for a week or more. Husband and I huddled in the one room we had with a window air conditioner -- a spacious finished attic room with an alcove for an office, a main area for living room, and a bay window containing a futon bed. We sat in the relative cool, watched movies, did research, and amused ourselves by reading everything we could think of that would help us think cold thoughts. This riveting story of a group caught in a terrible storm on Everest more than did the trick.

I read Farther than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook by Martin Dugard on the plane on the way to New Zealand. Lest you think I'm insane to read a whole book on a single plane ride, please to recall that it's about seventeen hours of flying time from Detroit to New Zealand. Something needed to be fascinating. Cook started life as a farm boy, worked his way up through the ranks on seagoing ships, and eventually captained a Royal Navy vessel in the 1760s and onwards. He circumnavigated the globe and mapped New Zealand and much of the South Pacific, producing maps and charts so accurate that they were not replaced until the late twentieth century. He was a brilliant sailor and increasingly an incredible ego, and this historical book, which relies heavily on excerpts from Cook's own journals, tells a fantastic tale of the interplay of talent and power.

The most fictionalized account on this short list is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova -- a retelling of the life story of Vlad the Impaler, who was the inspiration for Dracula. Kostova weaves a tale that is as compelling as it is long, of an historian who is looking for the truth about Vlad, based on hints that he is still alive in the 1970s. Although the story certainly begs for willing suspension of disbelief in its insistence on the existence of vampires, the compellingly creepy story that interweaves meticulous research into the real-life precedent for the fable is the most thrilling beach reading I can imagine.

So there you have it. Four great summer reads, with mesmerizing plots and a little tiny bit of thinky thrown in for good measure. If you've read anything based on a grain (or a whole library worth) of historical truth lately, I'd love to know about it. Clara's story is almost done, and I need to know what to check out from the library next.


Juli said...

Seabiscuit (WAY better than the movie, as always is the case), Krakauer's 'Under the Banner of Heaven', and I'm in the middle of 'The Perfect Storm' right now. I've never seen the movie, but I'd like to after I finish the book. If you like fictionalized historical biographies, try Margaret George. Hers are among my favorites!

Aimeepalooza said...

Ohhh, I am going to have to pick these up! They sound great. Sometimes I don't want to have to think all that much when I read. But I hate reading that makes me mad because I know I can write it better.

San Diego Momma said...

Another great Captain Cook book is "Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before." But I'd also love to check out your recommendation.

Also, Into Thin Air was great! Wonderful suggestion. And I've been trying to read The Historian for months now. I just had to return it to the library...guess it's time to renew.

I assume you've read The Thirteenth Tale? So, so good if not.


LceeL said...

Labyrinth, by kate Mosse. An excellent adventure set in the south of France, in 1209 and 2005.

Veggie Mom said...

I've read Into Thin Air, and highly recommend it. My daughter is now reading The Climb, which is the account of the same Everest climb, told from the point-of-view of the Russian guide that Krakauer semi-trashes in his book. I'm going to check out your other suggestions. Dan Brown's a pretty good writer, especially for a summer read! BTW, I'm hosting another Giveaway on my blog starting tomorrow, so please drop by!

auds at barking mad said...

I have The Historian and I have been dying to start it, yet haven't found a moment to do so. Well that's not true. I have been reading lots of "mind crack" as I call it...more vampire books. I know, it's worse than sitting there eating bag after bag of cotton candy and wondering why my teeth are falling out. But I can't help myself.

I usually binge on the mind-crack after I've re-read Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead. And this time around it was the new Sedaris that sent me into oblivion and reaching out for crack like the Twighlight series, stuff that I go through in the span of a few hours.

Another excellent read that I picked up a while back was The Sex Lives of Cannibals.

Tracey said...

The rhino one sounds truly different and interesting. I love stories that surprise you. And if there is historical fact worked into a fiction, it makes it all the more enjoyable for me.

foolery said...

Chas and I went through a disaster bender a few years ago, starting with Into Thin Air. Also:
~The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
~Isaac's Storm by Eric Larson (the 1900 hurricane that decimated Galveston Texas)
~Capsized (meh)
~Krakauer's book Into the Wild, which was made into the movie last year (I recommend both)

Do you see the weather thread? Chas is a weather enthusiast. I just know it's HOT. Thanks, MT!

MultiplesMommy said...

I loved, loved, loved Labyrinth! Read it on our childless vacation last year. My new favorite is the Secret History of the Pink Carnation, which, while fictional, is very well researched. It's the story of a grad student looking thru old papers to ID an elusive Napoleanic spy for her dissertation. There's a whole series now, and they're all great.

soupisnotafingerfood said...

I am halfway through Into Thin Air and can hardly wait for my Monday morning subway ride - 30 uninterrupted minutes to see what happens next!!! GREAT book.

Also, for giggles? Read anything by Laurie Notaro. She's a real hoot, and she writes short essays, so you can bite one off before the kids start lobbing their demands your way.


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