Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Two Novels and a Dash of History

Yesterday I finished two novels.

One was Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, a marvelous work set in England in 1806-1817. As those of you know who paid better attention in history class than I did, that timespan largely overlaps with the Napoleonic Wars. I had just learned a great deal about Napoleonic Europe by reading Isabel Allende's Zorro (which ought to be subtitled "the making of" or perhaps "the early years" as most of the action actually takes place outside of California) and I was eager to add to my newfound knowledge.

Never a model history student, I have found historical fiction to be an excellent medium for edifying myself*. Of course, there are certain drawbacks. One must recognize that the eponymous characters in both Allende's and Clarke's novels are entirely (and perhaps regrettably) fictitious.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell took a few more liberties with the facts than Zorro, but I was delighted with Clarke's exhaustive "research" into her alternate history. Footnotes abound, referencing scholarly works, demonstrations of magic, folktales of the Raven King, and various events which I am certain cannot be real but whose authenticity feels comparable to that of Clarke's Duke of Wellington, whom I am reasonably sure actually existed.

Hmm. In retrospect, perhaps I should not have tried to learn much true history from this book.

I had picked up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell in Madagascar from the Blue Ventures library, a ragtag collection of dog-eared volumes left and traded by the various volunteers who come through the place. I read perhaps the first quarter of the book in Andavadoaka, then left it when we traveled away. I did not find myself in possession of another copy until the recent Thanksgiving holiday, when I encountered it on the bookshelves of my brother and his wife. They encouraged me to borrow it and perhaps never return it, as they had not particularly enjoyed it.

I myself had suffered somewhat in the first few hundred pages for want of a character to like, but I so enjoyed the author's style that the narration itself almost supplied the deficit. I was determined to go on at least a little while to see if new characters appeared or old characters endeared themselves to me.

Both occurred, and I kept reading. Yesterday I found myself at that critical point in a good novel, which often lies about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through, when I have gathered up nearly all of the plot threads and I am mad to find out where they all lead. I read through the afternoon and into the evening, gobbling up words like dinner, until I reached page 782, which is, in this edition, the final page. I loved it.

In any case, that was one novel. The other was my own invention. The working title is A Girl and her Squid, and that is what it is about. I am intending to make it a great deal better--perhaps four or five hundred drafts will be enough--and then publish it. The first draft is 50,223 words in length. I believe that is probably one quarter or less the length of Jonathan Strange,  but that is a fearsome tome. Fifty thousand words is enough for a nice light young adult paperback, which is my aim.

It will not, unfortunately, be historically educational; however, various aspects of biology, oceanography, and physics make guest appearances throughout.


(and now, a footnote of my very own)

* I have been thinking about my K12 education in history lately, and working myself into a snit. In elementary school, I would never have said I disliked history. We read excellent young adult fiction (By the Great Horn Spoon and Dragonwings come to mind), we built dioramas, we acted out dramas. It was delightful.

Something switched abruptly in high school, and the style of teaching history became exactly that of the worst college professors. Reading nothing but the dreariest textbooks, doing nothing in class but listening to the teacher drone on and on. What happened? Why didn't we keep reading historical fiction? Why didn't we keep building dioramas? Grahhh!

But wait a moment . . . we did keep acting out dramas. Until this moment, I had forgotten about History Day L.A. One year I got together with a few friends and wrote a skit about Chinese and Irish immigrants building the transcontinental railroad (no doubt heavily influenced by Dragon's Gate, the prequel to Dragonwings) that took us all the way to the statewide competition in Sacramento. That was neat!

Okay, high school history, perhaps I will forgive you.


  1. Oh yes! I have been slowly reading JS&MN over the course of the last 3 years. I do enjoy her coy writing style. On the other hand, I quite despise most of the characters, and find the book to be generally dull. It's sort of like if watching the movie "Gosford Park" took a month instead of 2 hours. So I haven't continued, and I think it's just sitting in the bottom of my backpack, getting increasingly tattered and being really heavy.
    But I just now recommended it to Robey, who likes (a) history and (b) things that are boring.

  2. Hah! I hope Robey reads it soon so I can have somebody to discuss it with. I have this exciting (for some value of "exciting") theory that the plot was heavily influenced by the Darwin/Wallace evolution controversy, but nobody I talk to really wants to hear about it. Sigh.
    I also disliked most of the characters for the first few hundred pages, but by the end of the book I surprised myself by liking a lot more of them. Especially Childermass--he becomes awesome!


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