Sunday Salon: my future is the past

sundaysalonI very rarely plan my reading far in advance. Maybe because I spend so much time at work having to think ahead and plan,that when it comes to reading, I prefer to take the serendipitous approach. The only times I know what will come next are when I’m reading for the next book club meeting or if a book I’ve had on order at the library for some time, suddenly becomes available. Beyond that it’s really a case of looking at the bookcase and the overspill pile on the floor next to it and picking whatever suits my mood.

But that’s going to change for the next couple of months. Because not only do I know what I’ll be reading next, I know the one after that and the one after that. In fact I know the next six books that will have my attention between now and December. And it’s all in the historical genre fiction.


Eleanor Hibbert aka the author Jean Plaidy

Now this is a genre that was one of my first loves as a young reader. In my early teens I couldn’t get enough of Jean Plaidy’s Tudor and Stuart sagas. Even though she was a prolific author she couldn’t produce enough to keep up with my voracious appetite so I turned to other authors like Philippa Carr and Victoria Holt completely unaware that these were pen names for Jean Plaidy herself (or that her real name was Eleanor Hibbert). Through them I learned that history was not just a boring litany of facts but an enthralling human story.

Over the years as my tastes changed I read less and less historical fiction. But now, through the phenomena of Massive Open Online Courses (known as MOOCs) I am rekindling that interest. This week saw me start a free online course on the origins, characteristics and development of historical fiction over the centuries. Plagues, Witches and War is delivered via Coursera but the course content all comes from the University of Virginia.

As part of the course we get to ‘meet’ five living, breathing historical fiction writers to talk about their books. So here’s what I’ll be reading:

Jane Alison, The Love-Artist 

Katherine Howe: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane

Geraldine Brooks: Year of Wonders

Mary Beth Keane: Fever

Yangsze Choo: The Ghost Bride

Actually that’s just the tip of the iceberg though because the course also dips into chapters from a multitude of other books from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and William Faulkner’s William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!. I counted about 40 different novelists that are mentioned within the course materials plus some of the academic articles to which we have been directed refer to some other authors and texts which sound interesting. All of which has greatly added to my book wishlist and will no doubt greatly increase the size of my TBR mountain.

And the sixth book on my reading horizons? The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa is the choice for November’s book club meeting and is by coincidence a work of historical fiction since it chronicles the changes in Sicilian life in the nineteenth century. Published in 1958 it became the top-selling novel in Italian history and is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature.

All of this should keep me pretty busy for a while. But not too busy to hear if you have recommendations for other landmark works of historical fiction I should look at?

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on October 20, 2013, in historical fiction, Sunday Salon and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. That course sounds great. I wish I had the free time to do things like that. I too was a Jean Plaidy/Philippa Carr/Victoria Holt fan in my teens. I loved the Daughters of England series, especially the one set during the Civil War. I’ll be interested to hear the course goes for you.

  2. Just signed up today on your recommendation. A couple hours a week? Plus reading. I can do that.

  3. I’m taking the Coursera course too and enjoying it so far (historical fiction is my favourite genre). I know I won’t have time to read all of the recommended books but I’m hoping to read at least some of them.

    • Ditto Helen in terms of reconciling myself that I wont be able to do all the reading now. but it gives good ideas for what to read in the future and then I will have the benefit of some knowledge on how historical fiction works

  4. Looks like fun! I went to a conference session on MOOCs earlier this month and I think I really want to do that soon.

    • I suspect the content quality is variable depending on which university is involved. but the beauty of these courses is that if it isn;’t working out for you then you just stop without feeling guilty about any money you’ve lost

  5. I was wondering about MOOCs too, but now I’ll have to check out the link you gave. Is that a central place to start? A clearinghouse for them?

    • Coursera seems to be the largest provider Bryan and may indeed be the first. I don’t know of others sorry though Ann of Thinking in Fragments blogsite may have more knowledge than I do. There isn’t a great deal of literature on offer unfortunately. The other provider is Future Learn which is a UK based venture involving the Open University. They just started up a week ago but have no lit courses on offer….

  6. I love the idea of MOOCs and will have to check it out – even though I barely have time to read as it is… And Orlando is amazing!

  7. I have just recently discovered historical fiction (not quite sure why I have avoided it in the past… perhaps because all my high school history teachers focused on memorizing dates rather than learning the compelling narratives)… and so I relish this post for recommending such classics for my newly formed TBR list.

    I am not familiar with MOOCs — but rest assured I will check out the website immediately.

    Enjoy the class – and all these wonderful reads.

  8. You and me both, Karen. Fortunately one of my upcoming book group reads is also historical fiction and mentioned in the first essay we read – ‘Palace Walk’ by Naguib Mahfouz. It’s the first of a trilogy so if I have time (please don’t laugh that loudly!) I might get round to the other two as well.

    • Mahfouz has now become the latest addition to my world lit reading wish list. Hope you feel suitably guilty for this :). Your book club sounds adventurous in their choice of reading matter or was Mahfouz your choice?

      • No, it was my friend Sue who picked it. It is a wonderful group. We’ve been together now for over twelve years and really like novels we can get our teeth into. We’re moving on from that to Salman Rushdie.

  9. I loved Orlando so much but somehow did not think of it as historical fiction. As an aside, I find it amusing that novels set in the sixties and seventies are by some critics called historical when I have lived through that period myself. 🙂

    • you”ve touched on one of the core questions of this whole course – the feeling that you need a separation of time from the period at which the author is writing and the period about which they are writing.

  10. That course sounds wonderful. The MOOC courses area really exciting opportunity. I’m currently in one on writing the personal essay. I hope you’ll follow up and let us know more about the course.

  11. I look forward to reading about your progress. I live very near the University of Virginia so I will think of you as nearby. Somehow it seems appropriate that you take a course in historical fiction through UVa. The UVa community is referred to as “the Cavaliers,” an odd American mascot name but appropriate here, and when you drive through the section of Charlottesville where the university is there are (painted) crossed swords that mark the streets. It’s also the UVA symbol. UVA was founded and designed by Thomas Jefferson and the area is steeped in history.

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