My Old Kentucky Homesite

Demythologizing the Past

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 05/16/2010

As I’ve said before, many atheists spend far too much of their reading time confirming their atheism. My attitude is: If your freedom from faith is so shaky that you’ve got to pore over every godless screed available through Amazon, you’re probably still a believer deep down.

Assuming, though, that you’re really interested in expanding your mind (instead of just sponging up a few facts to use in your next losing debate with a theist), you might want to pick up a decent novel. A well-written piece of literature forces the skilled reader to see the world through others’ eyes: those of the characters and, ultimately, the author.

What better way to find oneself in a different time and a different place and a different mindset than to pick up a historical novel? Unfortunately, the majority of books published in that genre are drivel. Far too often, the writers of so-called historical novels do some cursory research and then chug out predictable potboilers peopled by wooden characters that display feelings and motivations reflecting the stupidest modern-day sensibilities. The dialogue in those books is a weird combination of modern English usage, even slang, and a few old-fashioned words ludicrously sprinkled in, usually inappropriately, for colo(u)r. Long paragraphs are devoted to “period” details about clothing, food, architecture, transportation, you-name-it — encyclopedia articles that add nothing except tediousness. Picking up such a book is like being around an annoyingly precocious child determined to tell you what he or she has learned in class today. But by far the worst thing about those third-rate novels is that they almost always include a bogus romance as the main event, as if the only thing a reader could conceivably care about history is whether some bland boy and some drab girl succeeded in hooking up. Yuck.

Because I’m a lover of both history and literature, when I do come across a historical novel that I like, I tend to get excited about it. And I can’t resist sharing my enthusiasm. Right now, I’m working my way through two — two! — historical series, both of which I’m happy to preach about (although I promise not to ring your doorbell at seven in the morning).

The first series is Gore Vidal’s Narratives of Empire, a seven-novel jaunt through American political machinations, starting in revolutionary times and ending in the 1950’s (although a very short section of the final book takes place in the year 2000).

It’s an oversimplification to say that Vidal sees the long story of the United States as a continuous chain of contests between various Machiavellians vying for power. The writing is far too rich to reduce it to a mere hook for a theme. Still, the author does deconstruct our nation’s history, cutting ruthlessly through its sacred bull. The real characters who march in and out of these books are not the same figures you learned about in high school. Oh, they have the same names, all right, but Vidal brings them to life, sometimes shockingly so, often through hilarious dialogue. Over and over again, he records ironic interchanges between people you thought you “knew.” Whenever a real person is involved in a conversation, very little is “made up;” Vidal quotes actual words written or said by the individual taking part. Even those personages for whom Vidal seems to have great respect — Lincoln is a good example — are demythologized.

I can’t quite figure out how the author manages to suck the reader in, but I found myself turning pages eagerly to find the answers to questions like: Will Aaron Burr be found guilty of treason? Is Lincoln going to be assassinated? Who the hell will win the 1876 presidential election? Yeah, I already knew what was going to happen, but Vidal transmutes foregone conclusions into page-turners loaded with intellectual suspense. That’s great writing.

The second historical series I’m making a pitch for here are the Flashman books, all twelve of them, written by George MacDonald Fraser. These were originally brought to my attention by Postman, who delivered the good news in this comment.

Flashman began his literary life as a bullying character in Tom Brown’s School Days, a preachy 19th-century novel for boys, teaching them how to grow up to be fine upstanding Victorian men. Fraser takes the book’s most interesting character, who was likely not to grow up to be a model English gentleman, and examines his life. The adult Flashman is a coward (he calls himself a “poltroon”), a womanizer, a liar, cheat, racist, sexist, and xenophobe. But somehow, he becomes an unlikely star in just about every war fought by the English-speaking peoples of his time.

The conceit of the novels is that Flashman, looking back from old age, has chronicled his life in “packets,” sheaves of remembrances that relate self-contained episodes. The main character screws his way around the world, showing up to play reluctant “hero” in such places as Afghanistan, India, North America, China, the Crimea, and Madagascar, to name just a few venues in which he appears. Fraser, the “editor” of Flashman’s memoirs, helpfully supplies footnotes, appendices, glossaries, and maps.

The series was begun in 1969, near the tail end of James Bond’s original burst of popularity. So it’s possible to read the novels as tongue-in-cheek adventure tales, a la Ian Fleming. Or you could read them as satirical send-ups of military reminiscences. Certainly, each book contains a few history lessons, although you’d have to be a very serious dullard, indeed, if you opened these volumes merely to learn something.

MacDonald’s skill is in creating a believably unbelievable character who, by all rights, should be hateful to nearly every reader. The fact that we find ourselves rooting for him again and again must be related to our human DNA: we’re genetically programmed to be fascinated by hedonistic scoundrels. (Think of all those real-life lying, cheating bastards who keep us spinning through the news cycle.)

As Vidal does, MacDonald manages to un-deify some of the demigods of the past. He also introduces us to real characters whose actual words and actions seem too far-fetched for fiction. (MacDonald uses many of his notes to tauntingly tell the reader “Yep, that’s true. Gotcha!”)

Both series of novels contain plenty of treasures for cynics. The authors tell us, again and again in dozens of ways, not to take for granted anything that we’ve “learned.” Yes, both Vidal and MacDonald seem to say, textbook history may well be written by the victors. But there are always a few skeptics who joyfully refuse to get taken in by the propagandistic claptrap. Nothing in this world should be accepted unquestioningly, should be so sanctified that it can’t be reflected in a satirist’s funny mirror.

Remember: freethinking is not limited only to the subject of theology.

Narratives of Empire
Washington, D.C.
The Golden Age
The Flashman Series
Royal Flash
Flash for Freedom!
Flashman at the Charge
Flashman in the Great Game
Flashman’s Lady
Flashman and the Redskins
Flashman and the Dragon
Flashman and the Mountain of Light
Flashman and the Angel of the Lord
Flashman and the Tiger
Flashman on the March

45 Responses to “Demythologizing the Past”

  1. I looked up the Flashman stories after the same comment thread. What I always find daunting about such things is the danger of being drawn into a dozen-book series that will encompass all my (precious little) reading time for months on end. How far into the series have you gotten?

  2. Des:
    I’m just finishing my fourth book. Against the advice of everyone who loves these novels, I’m skipping around, following neither the order in which the books were written, nor the chronological order of Flashman’s life. (Actually, I’m reading them in reverse order of my interest in the historical content, trying to save the ones that superficially intrigue me the most for last. That way, I’m always looking forward to another.) Each “packet” stands pretty much on its own, although there are some references to other novels in the series. The downside of randomizing is that I get hints about the books I haven’t hit yet, but I’m not reading them primarily for plot anyway. (Spoiler: Flashman always survives.) The upside to approaching them in haphazard fashion is that I don’t feel compelled to start immediately on the “next” book whenever I finish one. There is no next book, per se. So the temptation to treat the series as a sequential “dodecology” is easy to resist.

  3. the chaplain said

    I agree that it’s hard to find good historical novels. A clerk at Barnes & Noble once recommended that I read Philippa Gregory’s books. I read two of them and swore, “Never again.” I swore some other words too; I’ll let you guess what they were. I’ve gotten a start on Vidal’s Empire series, since I’ve read the first three books already. Of course, I read them so long ago that I’ve been considering reading them again, just because Vidal is such a compelling writer. I think I’ll read the Vidal series, then move on to Flashman. I hadn’t heard of that series until Postman mentioned it.

  4. How do you people have time to read leisurely?

  5. Chappy:
    Yes, Vidal is one of America’s greatest writers, I think, and The Narratives of Empire is a stunning intellectual achievement. I’d already read five of the seven novels, most of them when they were originally published, but this is the first time that I’m looking at the American Chronicles (the publisher’s “safer,” alternative name for the collection) holistically. The Flashman novels are great fun, and they even approach being literature, but they’re clearly not on the same rarefied plane. However, each of those series sparkles with mordant wit, and fortunately you don’t have to choose between them; as I’m doing, you can read them both.

  6. Philly:
    How do you people have time to read leisurely?
    Suddenly you’ve become a professor and you have no time for anything other than teaching, watching football, and barbecuing?

    Seriously, I’m not the world’s greatest sleeper, so in lieu of tossing and turning in bed, I read — sometimes for hours. I’m lucky that my wife happens to be one of those people who can REM away happily with a light on, and she doesn’t even stir if I laugh out loud. Perhaps great novels are written specifically for insomniacs.

  7. I wish I had a wife that tolerated reading in bed. If I so much as turn a light on, and she’s awake, I get the evil eye. So I wait till she falls asleep, then use a small light.

    Vidal’s books are wonderful, but I don’t think I ever realized there were 7 of them. I read the first four (Burr, Lincoln, 1876 and Empire) but now I’m trying to figure out whether Julian comes before or after Lincoln. Wasn’t John Hay one of Julian’s generals in Macedonia?

    I find I actually read more history than historical fiction. I remember reading as a teenager the Allan Eckert books about the frontier, (wait: his might actually have been history) and Kenneth Roberts (Revolutionary War era stuff), and what I loved about them is that they DID read like history, rather than fiction. No bodice ripping allowed.

  8. SI:
    There’s an Eckert series of historical novels, collectively known as The Winning of America. (Individual Titles, in order, include: The Frontiersmen, Wilderness Empire, The Conquerors, The Wilderness War, Gateway to Empire, and Twilight of Empire.) I’ve thumbed through some of them in the past, but the writing seemed a bit dry.

    Nowadays, I’m prejudiced against them because (1) they’re published by the Jesse Stuart Foundation, which is “devoted to preserving the human and literary legacy of Jesse Stuart and other Kentucky and Appalachian writers,” and (2) I see them displayed prominently in the “Kentucky” section of my local bookstores.

    They may be great novels, and I might be depriving myself of reading that I’d enjoy. But since I’m goddamned sick of the constant Kentucky rah-rah here in Lexington, I can’t see going out of my way to revel in it.

  9. the chaplain said

    How do you people have time to read leisurely?

    I don’t know what Larry does with his time, but I watch very little TV.

  10. Chappy:
    What’s TV? Is it that rectangular thing my wife keeps staring at?

  11. Sarge said

    I’ve read them all, including Fraser’s MacAusland series, his personal memoir, Steel Bonnets Over the Border, Candlemass Road, Pyrates (not one of his best) and the last book, the name of which escapes me. All good stuff!

    If you like stuff that deals with the Cathars and the Crusades Zoe Oldenberg is really great, and even as an adult I still love to read “Otto of the Silver Hand” by Howard Pyle.
    It pulled no punches, and for a kid to read it hit hard, but was as they say, a good record of “wie es wirklich war”. Later, I had a friend whose family was related to the person this book was based on, and I actually got to see some of his personal property, which makes it live.

    Mika Waltarai’s The Egyptian, The Adventurer, and The Wanderer are also spot on for a good read. The first takes place in Akenaton’s Egypt, the other two take place during the Reformation. These books actually get you to smell what’s going on as well, you can lose yourself.

    I also really enjoy Mckinley Cantor, Fast, and Kenneth Roberts also came up with some “rattling good yarns”.

    Glad to see there are still readers among us.

  12. Sarge:
    It’s good to see you. You’re about the only atheist I know besides Christopher Hitchens who has read more novels than I have. (Actually, Chappy’s probably close, but I had a head start, since I’ve been reading about fifteen years longer than she has.)

    I remember The Egyptian from when I was a kid; I never read it, but I think my grandmother — of all people — had a paperback copy that she kept in a brown paper cover because the novel was allegedly “dirty.”

    When I was a boy, I read Howard Fast’s Spartacus twice in a row, mostly because I was hooked on the movie. For about a month when I was in junior high, every gathering of male thirteen-year-olds included a few minutes of yelling, “I’m Spartacus!”

    Back in those days, another “historical novel” I liked, although it was really a partially fictionalized biography, was Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defence.

    I don’t recall Pyle’s Otto of the Silver Hands, but I ate up The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. That was back in the day when Robin had his own TV show, and competed for my admiration with Davy Crockett. I preferred the former because I liked his theme song better, even though the songwriters must have been afraid that kids would forget the hero’s name:

    Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen.
    Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men.
    Feared by the bad, loved by the good,
    Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood.

    I still have an illustrated copy of Pyle’s version (not, alas, the very one from my childhood), but I find the writing pretty much unreadable these days.

    Some other historical novels I loved in my youth — I’m sure you did, too — were The Three Musketeers and Ivanhoe.

  13. Sarge said

    LOVED Ivanhoe!

    Then, when I became a smart-ass teenager (promotion from being a smart-ass little kid)I read Richard Armor’s commentaries on Ivanhoe and the rest of the classics. A real laugh.

    I read everything I could by Howard Pyle (knights of the rround table et al)and still love the illustrations.

    Delderfield’s “Seven Men From Gascony” and, “Too Few For Drums” are also excellent. Nora Lofts books do the job as well.

    I am dyslexic, so, for me, reading is sort of a sacradotal experience, something I don’t take lightly in either how great or how enjoyable it is.

    History is a funny thing, though, to write about. It doesn’t even matter what “primary sources” say, if it gets in the way of the author’s opinions or what he thinks about a subject, it’s gotta go.

    I am a civil war reenactor, and you’d be surprised at the arguments you get from “scholars” (some of whom are writing books, some you even see on CSPAN)who attend events for a “feel” of what it was like.
    They are 20th – 21st century people and they cannot understand that there was a very different attiude toward life than there is today in many things, and so they go with what they THINK it should have been rather than actually WAS. When you cite something that contradicts their view, show them a resourse or demonstrate why they are mistaken, you get, “Yes, but…” and that’s when I stop talking, because their mind is made up. Facts don’t matter.

    I am a Viet Nam veteran, and you can see quite the change there as well, and this is something that happened in living memory, and yet the narrative has changed very largely from what was to what poeple WISH it was.

    For the sake of brevity, let me explain this way: In the last month I have been a performer in two events, one a Viet Nam Vet’s appreciation rally, and the other was the Veteran’s Day proceedings last weekend.

    I could only conclude that I had somehow not been in the same country, military, or war that everyone else seemed to have been in. How the hell did THAT happen? Musta been the dyslexia, went through the RIGHT door when they said the LEFT one.

    But it was fascinating to hear, the contrasts. They even trotted out the old “dolchstoss” theory which (I don’t know why) seems to have a lot of cred these days. And, yes, it reflects in the novels, I’ve seen.

  14. Sarge said

    I got up from writing the previous post, and I always like to see a program about Pennsylvania books by Pennsylvania authors (I live in PA) and on at present is a Dr. Carl Konstein.

    He “flew the hump” during WWII and wrote a book about it, and the interviewer was asking about routes. Wasn’t it easier to fly the valleys?

    Konstein said that he had, indeed, read several “historical” fictions which discribed such a thing, but that you NEVER flew down the valleys. And he visibly shuddered.

    A good yarn versus fact, right there!

  15. Sarge:
    Religious zealots, political extremists, and spoiled children never allow facts to get in the way of “legends” they’d like to create. Haven’t you heard? America was created as a Christian nation, socialists are trying to ruin the country, poor people are nobler than rich people, and all the other kids wear $500 sneakers.

    By the way, I remember laughing my ass off at Richard Armour’s books. For history humor, I also liked The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody by Will Cuppy and 1066 and All That by Sellar and Yeatman. I’ll bet you remember those, too.

  16. Sarge:

    Your scholars attending events to “feel what it was like” remind me of an incident with my U.S. Military History professor a couple of decades back. One of the right wingers in the class (composed mostly of right wingers, I should add) trotted out the old “dolchstoss” canard. He commented on how much easier it must have been for soldiers in WWII knowing that the American people were behind them. By contrast, he said the morale of the soldiers in Vietnam was dragged down by the traitors back home. The professor blew up, “In Vietnam, we worried about killing the enemy, not about hippies. At least there we got fed. When I jumped into Sicily, I was carrying all the food I would get. We spent more time hunting chickens than Germans…” and he went on quite a rant. Prior to that, he had never let on that he had ever been in the military, let alone a division (?) CSM.

    Having recently read one of the classics on the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, I would assume the non-reenactable portions of battle would have a pronounced effect on “the feel.” The cumulative effects of exhaustion, the sight and smell of death, hunger to the point of starvation, disease, years away from home, and general misery are not trivial.

  17. …general misery…

    What corps did he lead?

    Speaking of Sicily, there’s a new book out called Operation Mincemeat about the double deception we used to throw the Germans off before the invasion. It looks interesting.

  18. Sarge said

    If you ever wore a uniform, you remember “General Misery” as being the leader most prized by the higher-ups, SI. There seemed to be a mantra that if the troops were happy in their work, someone wasn’t doing their job, and in the interest of morale, they must be as unhappy as possible. I admit that there were some actual leaders, good people in charge, but there were more turds.

    I am an army brat, and I remember what the WWII vets were talking about around our kitchen table, colleagues of my father. There was apparently a joke about the infantry in combat: “Two a-shootin’, ten a-lootin'”. That was in the 1950s, by the 1960s things were quite a bit different in their recollection. There was a markedly rosier glow about it. The fact that there were wildcat strikes, race riots, and repression, not to mention prifiteering and outright collaboration with the enemy by some of the “finest” families in the land is ignored.

    The one CW reenactment group I am a member of is a band (all original instruments, period correct music) which I direct and arrange for.
    You find out some very interesting things when you research the music, especially the times which it appears during the conflict and what it says.

  19. I’m not a fan of “top 100” things, but I needed some benchmark. I have only read 13 of Time’s 100 top novels. I don’t feel so bad, though, as two of these supposedly “great” novels were terrible: Gone with the Wind, which was a dressed-up dime-store bodice-ripper, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which I found condescending even as a child.

  20. Des:
    For the benefit of lazy readers, here’s a link to Time’s All-Time 100 Novels, although they’re only the “best” in English from 1923 to the present. The list is bullshit. Aside from the ones you mentioned, how about Are You There, God. It’s Me, Margaret? For Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest instead of The Maltese Falcon? Huh? The Berlin Stories are well written, but they’re not a novel, f’Chrissake. Can anybody still stomach the Beatnik drivel of Naked Lunch or On the Road? (Truman Capote said of the latter book, “That’s not writing. That’s typing.”) And, really, The Watchmen, a series of fucking comic books?

  21. To see belief in God vs. atheism as the only two possible perspectives on faith is to accept the essential terms of theism: either you believe or you’re faithless. You don’t have to believe in God or any other sort of supernatural or divine doctrine to become aware of your faith in life or being itself as an existential aspect of being human.

  22. Paul:
    I’m not sure what you mean by “faith in life or being itself.” Are you simply saying that we should be glad to be alive? I’m guessing that most of us would say that we are, although if we weren’t alive we wouldn’t really know the difference, would we?

    If, on the other hand, you’re positing some Platonic Ideal called Life or Being, in what way is that not a crypto-supernatural entity?

    In either case, though: Why does faith come into it at all?

    And how does any of that relate to this post?

  23. And how does any of that relate to this post?

    Well, it is fiction, and historically the argument has been going on for centuries….

    …but, it really belongs in Philly’s “Faith vs. Trust thread.

    As for the 100 Greatest Novels, (which also, technically, is off topic) I hate that list. I’ve only read 9 of them (11 if you count the three volumes of Lord of the Rings, less if you count all the once I had to read for various English Lit classes, and wouldn’t have otherwise) it’s always a subjective decision as to what goes on and what stays off. I envision the editors of Time as a bunch of stuffed shirt would-be intellectuals who went to Hahvahd and Yale (or maybe City College) and like to think they know good literature when they see it, but wouldn’t re-read one of those books if their lives depended on it.

    My criteria for the best books is – Did I love it? If yes, throw it on the pile. My favorite books I would re-read, if there weren’t so many freakin’ books I haven’t, and I’ve only got a few more decades at best to do so.

  24. Mr. “Ha!” has returned. Does he even read what the thread is about before posting his grade-school theology?

    One book that I actually read twice in a row (that is to say, starting it over as soon as I finished it) was Animal Farm. I think it was the first book I had ever read that approached recent history (well, relatively recent) with a skeptical eye and in a very subtle yet entertaining way.

  25. My comment related to the theist vs. atheist paradigm of your first two paragraphs and your blog as a whole.

    “Are you simply saying that we should be glad to be alive? I’m guessing that most of us would say that we are…”

    Yes, pretty much. That there is a sense of peace and calm, of not being worried, that’s built into us and occurs in relation to life or being itself. No doctrinal connotations, no purported knowledge about the existence of benevolent deities necessary to account for the fact that if you go deep enough, you find tremendous trust in being here a little while to live and die. And it’s an unconditional peace, calm and trust that’s there in joy and but also present in great pain. (I’m in my seventeenth year of an incurable progressive illness.)

    I should add that of course the theist/atheist division makes sense as you move to address folks on the conservative end of religion and spirituality. But there’s a lot going on in this field today– a lot of it is wacky, a lot of it is ultra conservative, but there are also thoughtful people out there. I think mainstream religion would still see them as outside the fold, so to speak, but they’re out there. For example, Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton, rejects the most basic doctrines of Christianity – the resurrection and the notion that Jesus was a deity.

  26. SI:
    Yeah, a discussion of the 100 Greatest Novels is technically off-topic, but maybe not. All novels ultimately become “historical” novels, don’t they?

    My criteria for “best books” is similar to yours, but I’d add a qualifying question: Would I proudly recommend this novel to others? That’s why I don’t count my collection of Perry Mason mysteries among the top 100 of the 20th century.

    I also liked Animal Farm — when I was 15. I agree that it’s entertaining, but it’s a not-so-subtle parable, not really a novel. I certainly wouldn’t count it among the top 100, unless I was trying to compile a list of teeny books for high school kids and other “reluctant readers.”

    Please save comments like yours for appropriate posts at this blog, of which there are — and will continue to be — many. This is not one of them.

    So let me try to pull you back on track. Have you read any good historical novels lately? If so, what were they? If not, why don’t you try one of the many recommendations listed in my original essay or in this thread? Then report back and join the conversation; tell us what you thought. To paraphrase something I said earlier: Expanding one’s mind is not limited only to the subject of “religion and spirituality.”

  27. Larry:
    I usually read what I post right after posting. I saw that I had written the word “subtle,” and my first thought was that that book was as subtle as a baseball bat. I have no idea what I was thinking. Throughout high school, my non-mandatory reading (much of it done during algebra) was limited to pulp fantasy novels. Early in college, I only read military history (exceptions being military-related historical novels such as The Killer Angels). It was only when I was in the Army that I had time for leisure reading. In my second duty station, I found a nice bookstore and began to read classics for the first time. I started with the less daunting such as Red Badge of Courage and Animal Farm before moving on to full-length novels.

    That first summer in California, I was drinking in dozens of books. After reading great book after great book, I encountered Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Once I have begun a novel, I MUST finish it, even if I hate it. There has been a sole exception. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. At that time, I was technically a believer, but what I read of that book made me want to punch every bible-thumper I saw right in the neck. If the internet had been around back then, I’d have researched voodoo to resurrect Harriet Beecher Stowe just to kick her reanimated corpse down some stairs.

    But I digress…

    Animal Farm was the first book I loved since I was a small child (oddly, I was a voracious reader before school sucked the bibliophilic tendencies right out of me). Subtle, no. Great, yes. I hold my ground on that.

  28. Des:
    I’d agree that Animal Farm is a great book, and a terrific motivator for reading. I just don’t think that it’s one of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century. But your experience with it was similar to that of many others “unaccustomed” to reading literature for — yikes! — fun, probably myself included when I first stuck my nose into it. It’s definitely a page-turner that leaves the reader with some meat (pork?) to think about.

    When I was a teenager, I found Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be a huge bore, at least the first twenty or so pages before I threw it down. But that was because I lacked historical perspective on just how important that book was in its time. Now that I have such a perspective, I still think it’s a bore, but I can appreciate what a furor it caused. I never thought of it as an indirect argument against Christianity; that’s a great insight. Check this out.

  29. Wow. That’s some crazy biblizing there. I’m glad I stopped when I did.

  30. ildi said

    Late to the party, but I recommend Raptor by Gary Jennings.

    LOTR is also great historical fiction (despite what the Middle-Earth denialists say).

  31. Ildi:
    Late to the party…
    Welcome back. We still have some Entenmann’s Chocolate Donuts and plenty of non-lite beer left. (It’s not heavy, it’s my lager.)

    I looked up Raptor at Amazon, and I’ve added it to my (admittedly long) list of future purchases. I also followed links to a couple of other Jennings novels that intrigue me: The Journeyer and Aztec. Have you read those?

  32. ildi said

    Scarfed down the nachos and sangria already, I see…

    The Journeyer was good; Aztec is written in the form of letters, which I personally find a tedious style of writing to follow. I mentioned Raptor in particular because it was one of those novels that stayed in my head for quite a while after reading it. Of course, that was true of Asimov’s Foundation series; however, when I re-read it many moons later I found the writing style incredibly disappointing. I can’t believe it won a Hugo in 1965 over LOTR for best all-time series.

    (Obsessed? Me?)

  33. cl said

    My attitude is: If your freedom from faith is so shaky that you’ve got to pore over every godless screed available through Amazon, you’re probably still a believer deep down. Assuming, though, that you’re really interested in expanding your mind (instead of just sponging up a few facts to use in your next losing debate with a theist), you might want to pick up a decent novel. A well-written piece of literature forces the skilled reader to see the world through others’ eyes: those of the characters and, ultimately, the author.

    BRAVO. There was more truth and value in those three sentences than the whole of Team Scarlet A’s blogs combined.

  34. cl:
    Thanks for the unsolicited testimonial. Now, do you have any historical novels to recommend?

    I know how much you love to write at length, and I’d never censor you. But in the interest of keeping this thread from becoming unwieldy, I’ll ask you, please, to limit yourself to no more than 1,000 titles or names of series. (Note: I already had to delete Sarah Palin’s list of favorite novels, since she typed in the names of all of ’em.)

    Seriously, do you have a few suggestions?

  35. cl:
    Thanks for the unsolicited testimonial backhanded ad hominum.

    I fixed that for you, Larry. No need to thank me.

  36. SI:
    I didn’t see it as an ad hominem. (Is that a commercial for grits?)

    I’ve never met anyone who belongs to a team called the Scarlet A’s. I have heard of the Cincinnati Reds, and the Boston Red Sox, and even the St. Louis Cardinals. But the only A’s I know of have a logo that’s white with gold outlining on a green background.

    Perhaps cl was mistakenly alluding to this guy, whose A is actually yellow, although it does lie on a scarlet background. However, I wouldn’t call that fellow’s colleagues a “team,”per se; they’re more like a backup group.

    As I said: I’d like to avoid having this thread become unwieldy. So I didn’t ask what the commenter meant by his sports reference.

  37. cl said


    …ad hominum

    Misspelled and misused; way to go!

    Ex / Gideon / Trinity / Larry,

    Okay, fine, you asked a serious question, I’ll give you a serious answer: Quakertown, Lee Martin, 2001.

  38. cl:
    Not Gideon. I don’t do scary, only funny. I was kinda hoping he was you. It’s horrifying to think that there may be somebody out there actually like that.

    Hey, I looked up Quakertown, and it sounds pretty interesting. I’ll add it to my long-and-getting-longer list. If you’re interested in historical novels about America’s fucked up race relations, I can highly recommend The Known World, a powerful and beautifully written book by Edward P. Jones.

  39. cl said

    I don’t do scary, only funny.

    Gideon was funny, and an attentive writer with an affinity for cars, too. Not to mention, AFAIK, Gideon only commented on blogs you and your other personae were known to frequent. Imagine that! Of course, that’s all circumstantial anyways, but I think I just saw the likeness of Gideon in my Doritos, and my compass was pointing towards Lexington! Now there’s proof!

    If you’re interested in historical novels about America’s fucked up race relations, I can highly recommend The Known World, a powerful and beautifully written book by Edward P. Jones.

    Tit-for-tat eh? Perhaps I’ll have a look-see…

  40. cl:
    Gideon is/was funny only to someone who would have enjoyed Goebbels’ sense of humor. So look at your Doritos again.

    No tit-for-tat here. I was just hoping you had returned to the actual subject of this post, which was — I’ll remind you — historical novels. I’m happy to jump on any opportunity to recommend books I think are worthwhile.

    But you’re obviously eaten up with argumentation. Whatever the topic, you’ve always got to drag in old conversations, whether they’re applicable or not. Too bad, because judging from the fact that you’ve actually read a historical novel (and I’m taking you at your word here), you may have something germane to say in this thread.

    By the way: Ex and Trinity are dead. If you choose to refer to me, please use my real name. And, while you’re at it, feel free to share your own.

  41. cl said

    Gideon is/was funny only to someone who would have enjoyed Goebbels’ sense of humor.

    So, you’re saying Lifeguard would have enjoyed Goebbels’ sense of humor?

    I was just hoping you had returned to the actual subject of this post, which was — I’ll remind you — historical novels.

    I returned to the “actual subject” of this post: I left a suggestion for a good historical novel to read.

    But you’re obviously eaten up with argumentation. Whatever the topic, you’ve always got to drag in old conversations, whether they’re applicable or not.

    Right, as if you and your Scarlet A cronies never do that! Relax, I’m having a chuckle with someone I consider an old online friend (and I do mean old)!

    By the way: Ex and Trinity are dead.

    Well, at least you finally admit to Trinity!

    If you choose to refer to me, please use my real name.

    I used your real name: I included “Larry” at the end of my address.

  42. cl:
    So what can you say about Quakertown? What makes it a good historical novel, in your opinion? Why do you think it’s no longer in print, in either hardcover or paperback?

  43. cl said

    “A black man with talent can always make white folks take notice.”

    What makes it a good historical novel, in your opinion?

    For one, Martin is a great author. What makes Martin a great author? Well, among other things, the ability to convey believable characters with authentic character arcs. There’s also something to be said for the way an author connects words, and how those words translate to visual imagery with emotive content. Quakertown could not have been a good historical novel with a good writer penning it.

    As for what makes it a good historical novel, well.. another positive is the utter absence of any type of “textbook” feeling (Or, as you described it, “…being around an annoyingly precocious child determined to tell you what he or she has learned in class today.”). I get the sense Martin has a real sense of empathy and/or connection with the characters. Martin writes with believability, maybe even humility — as an example, the relationship between Camellia and Bell (you’ll see if you read it). As opposed to an historical novel with stale textbook style that conveys often impertinent facts about any particular period, a good historical novel captures the impact of these facts on real human beings with varying and often conflicting beliefs, values and desires (though many writers personify this through hypothetical characters). Going off this, Quakertown allows us to experience what it might have been like to live in a segregated north-Texas community in the Jazz Era. I could not have this experience otherwise.

    Why do you think it’s no longer in print, in either hardcover or paperback?

    I’m skeptical of the question, as any answer I could give you would amount to speculation. There are several reasons any given book falls out of print, ranging from poor sales to cultural backlash to indifference on behalf of the publisher.

  44. cl said


    Quakertown could not have been a good historical novel with a good writer penning it.

    That should have read, “…without a good writer penning it,” but I think you get the point.

  45. cl:
    Well, now you’ve really whetted my appetite to read Martin’s book. If I can find it.

    As far as my last question, yeah — I guess the answer was self-evident: Who the fuck knows? There’s certainly no longer any pride among publishing companies in offering (and keeping alive) “quality” novels. I do remember, back in the Year One, before publishing houses were parts of large multimedia conglomerates, when certain imprints were famous for nurturing authors whose work had literary value (regardless of sales).

    Even though I know that literature is a dying artform (IMHO WTF ROFLMAO), I still manage to get pissed off whenever a novel that I consider “worthwhile” disappears from bookstore shelves to make room for yet another Dan Brown or Nicholas Sparks or John Grisham.

    But I’ll save this rant for another post. I’ll be counting on you to join in.

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