If you’re in Key West, you know that we just experienced The Change — that marvelous moment each late October when the humidity suddenly drops considerably and you think, oh yeah — that’s why we live here. To me, this means reading weather — more on the back deck than in summer (which is also reading weather, because it’s too freaking hot to do anything active, only then it’s inside in the air conditioning). Which means, yes, it’s always reading weather.
But the change of seasons and a couple of upcoming literary events have me thinking about changing up my reading list. And there are some good titles on the way if you want to take part:
1) The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss — historical fiction set after the Revolutionary War, as the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians duke it out for the future direction of the young country and regular folks are collateral damage to some of the duking. It’s the title for the November Book Bites Book Club at the Key West Library so we have lots of copies. The group meets Nov. 10 at the Library.
2) Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford — it’s going to be our One Island One Book choice for 2012, timed to the Centennial of the Overseas Railway reaching Key West. Les will be coming to talk about the book and we’ll have other programs around that time — there will be lots more information in the future at our One Island One Book blog. Bookmark it!
3) Any or all of the writers coming to the Key West Literary Seminar in January 2012 – it’s an amazing bunch especially if you’re into the speculative fiction — superstars like Margaret Atwood and William Gibson, Pulitzer Prizewinners like Jennifer Egan and Michael Cunningham, new voices like Dexter Palmer and Charles Yu, guys with hot new zombie titles like Colson Whitehead. It’s going to be extraordinary. It’s sold out, I’m afraid, but there will be free sessions on Sunday afternoon, as always. And the Seminar will post the audio from as many sessions as we can on our ever-expanding archives.
So read, dammit!
Biographies of the Founding Fathers have been all the rage for well over a decade — and I don’t think I’ve read one of them. Neither of McCullough’s big hits, John Adams or 1776. Not Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin. Not the works of Joseph Ellis or the many others too numerous to mention. Not for of lack of interest but … I guess lack of enough interest. I plan to give Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer-winning Washington biography a read, if only because Titan, Chernow’s biography of John D. Rockefeller, is one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books. I’ve owned his Alexander Hamilton book in hardcover since it was published for the same reason (even if I still haven’t read it). But I recently realized that I have been reading quite a bit about the Revolutionary era — all of it in fiction.
Which makes sense since, for the last couple years, my reading has veered heavily fictional — especially historical fiction (blame that on the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar). And if you asked me what period I mostly read in, historical fiction-wise, I would have said Tudor or maybe medieval England. But looking back, and recently, it seems an awful lot of the better stuff has been set in Massachusetts, just prior to the Revolution.
Maybe I am drawn to these books because I was born and brought up in Massachusetts. Although the first of these books I read, The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss, is set in New York and the Pennsylvania frontier. But since then it’s been all Bay State and it’s focused largely on women: Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore, set in Boston, and Sally Gunning‘s excellent trilogy (so far; I’m hoping there will be more): The Widow’s War, Bound and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke. The first two of Gunning’s books are set on Cape Cod but the third takes place in Boston, mostly, and includes a firsthand view of the event we know as the Boston Massacre as well as a couple cameos from our future second President, John Adams.
I recommend any and all of these as fine works of historical fiction that should both entertain you and give you an idea of what living in those times was actually like. They are not history tracts; The Whiskey Rebels is set after the Revolution and the first two of Gunning’s books touch only glancingly on the tensions between England and the Colonies. But they all meet what, to me, is the primary test of historical fiction set in times about which we know a lot — they make you forget the known outcome of events and experience the tension and uncertainty of the people who were living through them.
Some stormy weather meant my employer was closed for a couple days this week — and I got to read, when not evaluating storm preparedness and/or keeping the dog amused. Since I happened to post some reviews of this recent reading on Library Thing, I figured I might as well post them here:
The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire
A slim, engaging novel about real people — primarily Constance Fenimore Woolson, who has gone down in history as a minor writer who pursued Henry James. According to this book, she was a lot more and I’d like to believe this version, if only because she seems like a remarkable, determined and admirable woman. It was especially interesting to read this fairly soon after reading “The Five of Hearts” by Patricia O’Toole, which includes several of the same people, especially Clarence King.
It may or may not be relevant, but the novel does deal with the main character’s awareness of and acceptance of mortality — and the author reportedly completed it just before she died of ovarian cancer at a way-too-young age.
The Whiskey Rebels: A Novel by David Liss
Historical hindsight tends to carry the air of the inevitable. Because we’ve all known so long about the American Revolution and worshiped the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, we assume it was meant to be, that fate decreed our nation would turn out the way it has.
Historical fiction is a useful reminder that these developments were not so inevitable, and that our history turned on human actions, decisions, chance, opportunity and intelligence. “The Whiskey Rebels” is a fine addition to the American story. The novel takes place in a mostly unexamined period, immediately after American independence had been won but the course of the young country was not yet determined. Continue reading