Thursday, December 27, 2012

Pigeon Pie with Floating Island or The Best Historical Fiction of 2012

My grandmother's 1906 - 1910 "Line a Day" diary lists many of the foods she ate at the parties she attended. She went to fancy fraternity balls, meals and dances at area clubs as well as to elegant dinner parties in mansions in Lafayette, Indiana. Pigeon pie, pheasant under glass, oysters Rockefeller and beef steak appeared regularly. Posset Punch and other concoctions laced with cognac and fortified wines helped her dance the night away. Chocolate desserts and fruit trifles tempted her but her favorite sweet ending was floating island, a meringue concoction borrowed from the French that may have come from her Huguenot ancestors.  On the days after she feasted, she often noted that she "lay in bed reading."  Nana loved history so I imagine that historical novels might have made their way onto her chaise lounge.  In her honor I present my choices for the best historical fiction I read this year.  And the winner is:

The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye

Norwegian immigrant Thea's journey to the United States in 1893, her experiences as a cook in a lumber camp, a brutal attack, bone-chilling cold, and the birth of her baby Odd (pronounced Ode) in 1896 are evocative enough to warrant an award but it's Odd's life in the small Minnesota town of his birth that made this novel soar for me.  Odd, his guardian and his ward, his friend Danny Riverfish and the boundary waters town that reared him will permeate the soul of any reader.  The ending will also provide fodder for spirited book club discussions - perhaps while enjoying a bite of floating island and a cup of Posset Punch. I've begged author Geye for a sequel and a novel about the Riverfish family. Stay tuned and in the meantime read my full review and links to what others say here

The other savory selections in this category are winners as well.  I'm listing them alphabetically by title as they all have much to offer.

A Good American by Alex George celebrates the immigrant experience in a tale about Frederick and Jette who move from Germany to a small Missouri town in 1904 just as their first child is born.  Their grandson, James, narrates the panorama of their lives telling of Frederick's fighting for his adopted country in World War I, the bigotry shown to German immigrants during the war and the power of music to enrich life.  While this novel provides many historical details that readers will love, it's exploration of identity is what made it capture me. Devouring it will transport readers to a different time while making them think about ways our culture challenges others and their loyalty. And the music, George's descriptions of the music provided a stirring soundtrack for the novel. I can't wait to hear Frederick and his sons sing in what I hope will soon be a film based on this book. 

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan won the 1911 Independent Publishers Gold Medal for Historical Fiction but I didn't discover it until this summer when I was thinking about how Geraldine Brooks' novel The People of the Book depicted fifteenth century Granada, Spain, a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in harmony. I wanted to know more about how the Inquisition ended that peaceful coexistence.  That led me to By Fire, By Water, a novel of the Inquisition and of conversos (Jews who conoverted to Christianity) and their treatment under Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor. Kaplan uses a real figure, Luis de Santangal, the Spanish Chancellor at the time, who was himself a converso, to illuminate the period. Kaplan's former life as a screenwriter and script consultant is clearly visible in this cinematic treatment of a period we all need to understand. While some might find it difficult to "witness" some of the horrors of the era, this book is guaranteed to offer a scintillating book club discussion. 

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain came out in 2011 but I didn’t read it until this year.  It’s recently out in paper so I hope book clubs will soon choose it.  Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson’s courtship and marriage was something out of a fairy tale especially during their early years in Paris. McLain’s powerful evocation of the fireworks of the marriage and the way it burned itself out blend with a portrait of 1920s Paris to provide a must-read view of literary history.  With minor characters including James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald this book transports readers to a magical time and place. But it’s Hadley Richardson who’s the star of this novel and Paula McLain brilliantly makes her so real that she absolutely convinced me that I know Hadley – and I know her well.

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian forces us to encounter the Armenian genocide. "Nineteen-fifteen is the year of the Slaughter You Know Nothing About. . . If you are not Armenian, you probably know little about the deportations and massacres: the death of a million and a half civilians." You will live that history in this, the book Bohjalian was born to write, as it illuminates his own culture while he makes it compelling through the love story between a young Bostonian woman visiting Aleppo, Syria after graduating from college and and an Armenian who joins the British army to fight the Turks. Narrated by a contemporary writer who wants to tell her grandparents' story, this cinematic view of a forgotten time will make readers wonder what to do to keep such history from repeating.  Read my full review and links to what others thought here.  


  1. Historical fiction is my favorite genre. What book should I start with?

    1. It depends on whether you're ready for war or want something not too heavy. For you, possibly start with The Sandcastle Girls. Also go back a few years and read Kate Morton's The Secret Garden. Perfect for a garden lover.