I, for one, don't like to learn about history. But, I do like to read and I do like to be smart (or at least sound smart). The best solution for me is to read novels that are set in a time & place that teaches me all about it, without me even realizing I am getting a history lesson.
Of course, it's not just about gaining smarts! Reading stories that are set in another time & place gives us a first person point-of-view to understand better the circumstances of others' lives. Like "heavy reads" that pique my empathy, any stories that take place in a life different that my own do increase my sense of humanity and fraternity. Straight up: learning about different lives makes me a better person! And, it makes life more interesting, too, no?
From the East:
Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden. If you missed its original run in the late nineties, then you may have missed the film as well, which it is a good thing! It is a crime to rob the story of the fullness and extraordinary vividness of stepping into her world, only truly experienced by Golden's remarkable storytelling. It was so intimate, I found it mind-boggling that it was written by a man!
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan – Lisa See. Through the friendship of two young girls as they grow, learn about the agony of foot-binding, arranged marriages, and the joys and tragedies of motherhood in a remote Hunan county of 19th c. China.
A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry. A MUST READ, set in mid-20th century India. "With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India." Yep.
Of course, Khaled Hosseini's books are heartbreaking and beautiful and necessary. The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns are a window into Afghanistan from the 1970s through to the 21st century.
Of the Biblical-times/characters variety:
The Red Tent – Anita Diamant. A broadening of the story of little-mentioned Dinah (daughter of Leah & patriarch Jacob).
The Gilded Chamber – Rebecca Kohn. Novelization of the life of Queen Esther. Many Goodreads reviewers objected to the sexuality; in my opinion, it was a truth bomb that slapped the romanticism away in favor of a more authentic account of the plump-up-the-virgins realities of the king's court of ancient Persia.
The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks. This is a work on the life of David — a "saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power." Alternately, check out her more time-spanning People of the Book which follows, instead of a character, a Jewish document from 1996 back to 1480.
Set in Africa:
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was her novel Americanah that actually exploded this author into the American, public conscious. But this previous work — about moral responsibility, the end of colonialism, ethnic allegiances, class & race —is set fully in her home country of Nigeria during the time prior to & during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970). “Half of a Yellow Sun takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states," says the Washington Post.
What Is The What – Dave Eggers. Eggers' style can be divisive, but for me, personally, it is my admiration of him as a person that keeps bringing me back to give him another chance. From Goodreads: "Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. ...we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one indomitable man faces in a world collapsing around him."
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency will never (by Alexander McCall Smith's own admission) be considered "important fiction", but it is delightful! The series brings fun & light to fiction set in African countries, whose stories are more often defined by darkness and hardship.
The Navigator of New York – Wayne Johnston. This is more a glimpse of a historical relationship: the rivalry between Dr. Cook and Lieutenant Peart as they race to the North Pole at the beginning of the 20th century. And if that piques your interest, the recently released The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore explores a similar obsessive, rivalrous account of early electricity with Edison, Westinghouse, & Tesla (set in New York City 1888).
The Lacuna – Barbara Kingsolver. Frida Kahlo & Diego Rivera! Trotsky hiding from Stalin's exile! McCarthyism! It's Mexico in the 1930s & USA in the 40s-50s.
For an American Civil war drama, remember Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier?
The Cellist of Sarajevo – Steven Galloway didn't do it for me, but it is well reviewed and certainly falls into this category.
If you aren't scared off by the historical in your historical fiction, there is Ken Follett's Century Trilogy, Herman Wouk, or Leon Uris or Edward Rutherfurd for more country- & city-specific explorations.
Of course, there could be an entire, massive list specific to World War Two novels, with All the Light We Cannot See as the recent winner, Unbroken as my personal fave (shamelessly, I know this is not a novel — just read it anyways, it's amazing!), Sarah's Key on the heartbreaking front, or The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society on the lighter end of the spectrum.
That should do it, right? At least until the end of the month... ;) What books are on your list? Which books have taught you about a place, era or lifestyle that you would never have known about or understood? Share in the comments below!