My Covid-19 Summer: Reading Historical Novels

The Summer of Covid-19

It is not exactly that I am depressed. It is more that the world is in crisis.  The long game:  we wash our hands, wear masks in public, and stay home as much as possible.  Dr. Anthony Fauci says that a vaccine is unlikely to be more than 75% effective, and may not develop herd immunity in the U.S. because of anti-authoritarianism and the anti-vaccine movement.  And that’s where I’m living: in a country in denial.

I  am not depressed, but allowed myself a Doris Lessing-style mini-breakdown (see The Summer Before the Dark and The Four-Gated City), which took the form of not washing my hair, wearing pajamas, meditating, and treating myself to historical novels. There are so many good historical novels out there–and I’ve been missing out!

THE SUMMER OF HISTORICAL NOVELS.

In progress:   Sue Monk Kidd’s new novel, The Book of Longings.

Sue Monk Kidd is a well-respected writer, best known for her first novel, The Secret Life of Bees. I got hooked on her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, the story of a mother-daughter relationship and the middle-aged daughter’s coming to terms with the past.

Kidd’s style is simple and spare, characterized by short sentences. Her intelligence and skilled storytelling make her novels a delight.   I don’t want to do anything at the moment but read her new novel, The Book of Longings, set in the first century A.D., during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius.

I have a weakness for novels set in ancient times, and I am thoroughly enjoying this one.  The fiery heroine, Ana, a young Jewish woman in Sephoris in Galilee, lives in unusual times.  And, though rich, she marries a poor man.  There it is, right on the jacket copy: Ana marries  Jesus. Yes, that Jesus!  If I had written the jacket copy, I would consider that a spoiler.  She doesn’t actually marry him until page 144.

Instead, we meet her as a rebellious, studious girl, the daughter of one of the top advisers of Herod Antipas (King Herod in the Bible). And her brother is Judas, a Zionist and an agitator.

The narrator, Ana, is a writer and a scholar.  Her father, an advisor of Herod Antipas (a ruler of Galilee and Perea), teases her that she should have been a boy when she asks him to hire a tutor to teach her languages. And so she becomes a scholar:  she is writing her own account of women in the Bible. Her mother disapproves, but Yaltha, her radical aunt, gives her the support she needs.

Monk deals with many women’s issues in ancient Galilee: women are threatened with rape, mutilated for speaking out (one poor girl has her tongue cut out),  and betrothed to men they don’t want to marry. Ana runs away when her father wants her to become Herod’s concubine; she filches the ivory tablets they tried to bribe her with, telling them it is her gift.  At the market, when Herod’s servant catches her with the ivory, Jesus saves her not only from being stoned , but says he and Ana are about to be betrothed. It’s an odd concept, the marriage of Jesus, one you’ve probably heard of and wondered about. Kidd’s research is meticulous, and though she is writing fiction, the characters are brilliantly-depicted and the details of life in the ancient world are mostly accurate.  Ana is more than a wife:  she is a writer and uses birth control because she is not interested in motherhood.

Entertaining and meticulously researched. It gets better as it goes along.  An enjoyable read, if not great literature.

I also enjoyed Crystal King’s entertaining novel, Feast of Sorrows, set in ancient Rome. I wrote in my book journal:  Set in ancient Rome in the first century A.D., it is narrated by the slave Thrassius, who is the gourmet cook (coquus) for the household of Apicius, a Roman gourmet after whom an actual Roman cookbook was named.  In King’s  novel, Thrassius is the author of the cookbook, though  Apicius takes credit for it.  It is great fun to read about the dinners (cenae), but there are also fascinating political intrigues and feuds. The pages fly.

Now I want to read her second novel, The Chef’s Secret, which sounds similar, except for the setting. The book jacket says: ” A captivating novel of Renaissance Italy detailing the mysterious life of Bartolomeo Scappi, the legendary chef to several popes and author of one of the bestselling cookbooks of all time, and the nephew who sets out to discover his late uncle’s secrets—including the identity of the noblewoman Bartolomeo loved until he died.”

And what historical novels have you been reading? I’m washing my hair again, but I’m still reading historical novels!

What Historical Novel Should I Read? and Musings on Obsolete Slang

There were three pokes before the phlebotomist could draw blood, but he/she left no bruises, which indicated a degree of professional competence.  Bemused, weary, and bandaged, I biked home and decided to escape into pop fiction.  Will I find refuge in a historical novel?

Here is the stack of books I am considering.

1 . The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart.  I enjoyed The Crystal Cave, the first of the Merlin trilogy, and though I prefer Stewart’s charming Gothics, her writing is on a higher level here.  The trilogy is categorized as  fantasy, but they are  really historical novels about mythic characters.  As always, Stewart meticulously researches the background, and the details about political conflicts and Merlin’s  protecting Arthur are fascinating.  I hope The Hollow Hills is as good.

2.  Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of Kings.  Everyone recommends this six-book series about a Scottish soldier. Is it time for me to read it?   (See an entertaining essay in The Guardian.)

3.  Hilary Bailey’s Cassandra, Princess of Troy.  I can’t remember who recommended this, but Bailey is an excellent writer.  Here is an excerpt from the Bloomsbury Reader description:  “Hilary Bailey re-invents the history of the Trojan Wars and tells a new story of Cassandra. Legend has it that Cassandra died at the hand of Clytemnestra, but in this novel she escapes to a farm in Thessaly, and writes her own account of the fall of Troy.”

4.  John Cowper Powys’s Porius. I read several of Powys’s novels after reading this essay by Margaret Drabble in The Guardian, but Porius, a 751-page novel set in the year 499,  may defeat me because of the tiny print.

The New Yorker said in 2007: “This immense, robustly imagined novel was whittled down by more than five hundred pages when it was first published, in 1951. Powys’s original conception is here restored, a dense, complex merging of modern psychology and ancient mythology. In Wales in the year 499, the ruling Celts learn that the Saxons and the forest people are advancing against them; Porius, the son of the Celt prince, awaits the coming battle while ruminating on the eternal conflicts between male and female, nature and humankind, pagan and Christian.”

5.  Mary Renault’s Alexander trilogy:  Fire from Heaven, The Persian Boy, and Funeral Games.  I read Fire from Heaven after the TLS published the introduction to the Folio Society edition of the trilogy.    I have two to go.  From the Goodreads book description:  “This is Mary Renault’s masterly evocation of ancient Greece and Alexander the conqueror, beautiful, beloved – and flawed. ”

WHERE DOES THE SLANG GO?

My mother used the following slang expressions. Were they dialect,  I wonder? Or were they American idioms?  They are long obsolete.

crooked as a dog’s hind leg, as in “Your part is crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”  (This was said to me often.)

fussbudget – someone fussy

slow as molasses 

cute as a bug

oopsy daisy!

old as Methuselah

Darn!  (instead of damn)

too old for you (Mom said this mostly of clothes)

quick as a wink

don’t count your chickens… [before they’re hatched]

tickled pink – happy, amused, and surprised

happy as a clam 

Sleep tight!

THERE ARE MORE, BUT I CAN’T REMEMBER THEM.  That’s the trouble with disused slang.