Fiction that Enlightens: Learning Something Adds to the Enjoyment

Oleanders and Books, Van Gogh
Oleanders and Books, by Vincent Van Gogh

For many years, I avoided reading fiction. The world is vast and there is so much to know that I just couldn’t justify reading a novel. In addition, there are so many talented journalists-turned-author that it’s easy to find nonfiction on almost any subject that grabs and holds your attention—history, current events, politics, real people, you name it. Historical fiction was the next best thing. As long as I was learning something new, I was marginally okay with reading a novel. Many of my friends, however, prefer fiction and over time, they’ve convinced me to read more of it.

It’s been almost a year since I started writing regularly. So besides being able to discuss novels with friends, fiction now has a secondary appeal. I want to contemplate the ways in which authors of any genre choose to express themselves. Some of the best prose that I’ve read in the last year came from novels written by John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, and Elizabeth Wetmore. Keep this in mind as you read the following reviews of books I’ve read (or listened to) in 2021 but haven’t yet blogged about. I have deep respect for all of these authors who have pulled off the near-impossible feat of writing a bestselling book. What I find lacking might well be the perfect escape for someone else.

The Great Believers

The Great Believers
The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

In this work of period fiction, the author of The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai, skillfully jumps between two storylines, one taking place in Chicago during the 1980s, the other in Paris in 2015. Much of this book was acutely nostalgic for me. The main character from the Chicago narrative went to the University of Michigan, then moved to Chicago in the early 80s, just as I did. He’s gay and the story portrays the horrors of that period when so many gay men were contracting AIDS and dying and when those with the power to do something about it seemed not to care much. I remember talking to and worrying about my gay friends at the time. We were young, optimistic, enterprising, and upset about society’s general indifference to the growing AIDS crisis, just like Makkai’s fictional characters.

I can’t speak for the experience of a gay man living through that devastation but from my perspective, Makkai, who was a baby at the time, recreated a convincing account of what it was like. She intertwines this aspect of the 1980s plot with the intriguing backstory of an eccentric octogenarian who lived in Paris in the 1920s. Back then, the endearing dowager was both muse and friend to a number of famous painters. I’m keenly interested in that part of Parisian history and again, I thought Makkai did a fantastic job of making all of these secondary details largely plausible.

I found the narrative that unfolds in the summer of 2015 to be the weakest part of the book—especially the last half. This modern-day storyline features an extraordinarily strained mother-daughter relationship and certain aspects of their estrangement didn’t ring true to me. Oddly, you’d expect this portion of the story to have the most authenticity since buried animosity between a parent and child is a common theme in both fiction and real life.

Makkai spins this plot a bit differently than what one customarily encounters. Usually, the parent is the unreasonable actor that slowly bends to the needs of the child. In this case, the opposite takes place, with the mother having many admirable qualities and the daughter behaving uncharacteristically intolerant well into adulthood. Again, there was a small parallel to my own life since I spent 5 weeks in France in the summer of 2015 and I’m the mother of two daughters. Hence, I wanted to like this storyline as much as the other one, but it fell a bit flat.

Overall, The Great Believers is a very good read that accurately reflects some exceptional, yet often overlooked, periods of history.

Wicker Park, Chicago
Wicker Park, Chicago. Setting for the 1980s plotline in The Great Believers.

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give
The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

I listened to the audio version of The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, after my teenage daughter recommended it. I really enjoyed the narrator, Bahni Turpin, who did a wonderful job interpreting the voices and personalities of so many characters.

The story is an important one as it revolves around the wrongful death of an African-American teen at the hands of a white cop. The perspective is also refreshing, told by a teenage girl, Star, who was accompanying the male victim on the night he was murdered.

I liked the characters and the story was by and large compelling. No particular detail felt unreasonable. At times, however, the plot dragged and I eventually increased the narration speed which helped with the pace.

In the end, I felt the book was a little too pollyannaish. Everything wrapped up far too smoothly. Star, still a child, after having witnessed the violent deaths of two close friends, maintains her carefree attitude and continues her stereotypical teenage existence, relatively unscathed. Other characters, despite daunting setbacks, optimistically move forward with their lives.

Overall, I’d say that Angie Thomas’ writing is solid but lacks depth. This book falls into the Young Adult category and that’s exactly where I think it will be most appreciated.

There There

There There, by Tommy Orange
There There, by Tommy Orange

Unlike the other books mentioned in this post, There There, by Tommy Orange, is a novel that covers an aspect of American life that was completely new to me. Orange grew up in Oakland, CA. His mother is white and his father is Native American. One of Orange’s goals in writing the book was to dispel stereotypes about what it means to be Native. In particular, he wanted to paint a modern portrait that today’s media completely overlooks—that of the”Urban Indian”. In his prologue, he writes.

Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building. We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range… We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread… We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.

Tommy Orange, There There

There There doesn’t only present a new American experience for the reader to ponder. The manner in which the story unfolds is unconventional and worthy of consideration simply for its craft. The novel looks at the lives of 12 characters all heading to a Pow Wow at the Oakland Coliseum. Much like Wetmore’s Valentine (my favorite book of 2020), each chapter features a different character and stands on its own as a short story. As the novel progresses, tension mounts as the day of the Pow Wow draws closer. Orange has skillfully set the stage for chance encounters between many of his disparate characters once they eventually enter the massive coliseum. Throughout the last third of the book, I was eager to find out who might run into who else and what the consequences of doing so would be. A gamut of potential scenes, ranging from disastrous to joyful, were waiting to be revealed.

I appreciated this book on multiple levels. It gave me insight into an unfamiliar segment of American culture. The story is suspenseful without suspending plausibility. And, I admire Orange’s method of piecing together many experiences to construct a bigger picture. This is Orange’s first novel. At times I thought the writing lacked fine-tuning, but the book certainly merits the acclaim that it’s received.

National Pow Wow, 2005
National Pow Wow, Washington DC, 2005

Your Turn

Are there any novels that you’ve found particularly enlightening? Maybe something that taught you a lot about a time period, a profession, or subculture. Or, maybe there’s an author whose prose just blows you away. Please leave us your favorites in a comment.

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

20 Comments

  1. Hi Carol. As you know, I also lived in Chicago for many years. In fact, my first apt.in 1983 was a few blocks away from the Boystown neighborhood. I frequented clubs and music venues etc. and there was a constant conversation going on about AIDS. I am quite interested in The Great Believers based on your review. Thanks for sharing.

  2. As a history major I read a lot of fiction and I can honestly say that I have loved every book I’ve read. It’s really helped me understand other cultures among other things. One I really enjoyed was A People’s History of The American Revolution by Ray Raphael.

  3. Two “classic” novels I would suggest as must-reads for pretty much anyone are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Both, in very different ways, explore dark aspects of human nature, and the quality of the writing is riveting. When a writer is still remembered and in print after more than a century, there are often good reasons for it. Among more recent works, there’s Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (forget the godawful movies, read the book). As for contemporary novels, I’m mostly partial to science fiction, but my impression is that that wouldn’t particularly be your thing.

    A well-written history can have much of the same appeal as a novel, with colorful characters and the drama of conflict. However, the quality of writing in history books (of which I’ve read many) varies enormously. Biographies are even more like novels, since the focus is on a single central character, with the added interest that the “character” is a real person. The most interesting I’ve read is Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, Infidel, which tells the story of her growing up in a very primitive society (Somalia) and later Kenya, then the tremendous cultural shock of coming to live in the Netherlands, and her determination to understand why Western and Islamic societies were so different. I’d also mention Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, which is largely the story of his father, the fundamentalist theologian Francis Schaeffer, a far more complex man than that description would suggest.

    About the only historical novels I’ve read are Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece. They’re great, though.

    Probably my favorite novel is Household Gods by Judith Tarr and Harry Turtledove, which is hard to classify. A modern American woman travels back in time and spends more than a year living in a border town in the Roman Empire. Life in a “simpler” time turns out to be anything but the idyll she had imagined. There’s some pretty brutal stuff in it, especially when the town is temporarily occupied by invading barbarians.

    Early in the pandemic I wrote a post of book suggestions, both fiction and non-fiction, though nothing like as detailed as yours here.

    I am a little puzzled at your earlier stance of not reading fiction because there was so much to learn. It’s true that novels often are not educational at all, but that isn’t really their purpose. Learning is important, but it is not the only thing worth doing in life.

    To be honest, none of the three novels that you reviewed sound like they would particularly appeal to me (tastes differ), with the possible exception of There There, with its dispelling of what you call stereotypes and I would call clichés. It stands to reason that the lives of most American Indians today are shaped far more by modern realities than by a largely-vanished cultural heritage which now lies centuries in the past, for most.

    During the early eighties, when I was a student, I got to know two gay men very well — one a professor, the other a next-door neighbor. As best I can remember, neither of them ever expressed any concern about AIDS. That was probably before the situation had gotten really bad, though.

    • Thanks for your recommendations Infidel! I’ve never read Heart of Darkness but have read some that I place in a similar category: The Jungle, Crime and Punishment, The Grapes of Wrath, for example. That said, Apocalypse Now is one of my all-time favorite movies (based on the same story only set in the jungles of Vietnam.)

      I’ve also read Infidel and her story is a perfect example of why I tend to prefer nonfiction. It’s as engrossing as any novel and yet it actually happened. What’s more, it gives you a better understanding of the conditions/circumstances in which real people live. Some novels rise to that level of excellence but it’s a minority. I consider the books that I reviewed here to be well above average compared to most novels but I doubt any of them will attain the status of lauded and timeless classics, even There There which was my favorite of the three.

      I am Legend sounds interesting as do Household Gods and The Persian Boy (mentioned in your post). Those books are new to me as are their authors.

      I admit that my stance on always having to learn something was a bit extreme. But when I look back at all the books I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed a larger percentage of the nonfiction books than I have novels. The very best novels are superb but very few novels reach that level for me.

      Regarding the 80s, I and my peers left college right around the time when people were realizing how AIDS spread and were taking more precautions. Thankfully, all of my friends avoided getting sick. We were, however, quite worried about those who were dying and the fact that the treatment options for many years were also life-threatening and extremely expense.

  4. Steinbeck, in my opinion, is the be all and end all for writing in that period.

    If you like expressionism, I can recommend Kobo Abe.

  5. When thinking about fiction vs nonfiction, I always recall Emily Dickinson’s superb phrase “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Though she was referring to more gentle ways of delivering hard truths, I find her phrase applicable to the gifted novelist’s ability to reach larger truths than can often be delivered through nonfiction.

    Having said that, one of the most extraordinary books I’ve read in recent memory is actually a memoir—but one that weaves parts of a classic within. It’s Daniel Mendelssohn’s “An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, an Epic.” Mendelssohn teaches the classics, and he beautifully fuses his exploration of his relationship with his father, his thoughts about The Odyssey, his students’ reactions to the classic and his teachings, and his own reactions to it all. This book is not for everyone, but I have a feeling you’ll enjoy it and appreciate its multilayered approach. For me, it fulfilled Emily Dickinson’s recommendation.

    I am about to begin Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s courageous fictionalization of Shakespeare’s family. It received rave recommendations from two professional writer friends whose opinions I value (one writes fiction; the other nonfiction).

    Interesting topic.

    • The Odyssey book sounds intriguing Annie. I’m adding it to a TBR list. Your comment reminds me that O’Farrell’s book exists. I’ve heard good things but had forgotten about it. I’m going to pass that one on to my brother-in-law who has studied Shakespeare in depth but I doubt he knows much if anything about Shakespeare’s family. I assume the fiction is at least partially based on his actual life.

      I’m going to use your suggestion as a segue to plug my brother-in-law, Dennis. The NYTimes journalist Michael Blanding (who wrote The Map Thief), is about to release a new book about Dennis, the Shakespeare expert. Dennis barely graduated from high school but managed to discover much about Shakespeare’s plays that the rest of the literary world seems to have missed.

      Here is a link to an article in the Boston Globe about Blanding’s book, titled “North by Shakespeare”. https://www.bostonglobe.com/2021/03/19/magazine/how-college-dropout-new-hampshire-found-shakespeare-secret-all-phds-missed/

      • Good grief, Carol! And to think I might have missed all this if I hadn’t mentioned Hamnet (which I am loving so far). Your brother-in-law is clearly remarkable (as is your sister, for responding positively to what must be one of the most audacious introductory “lines” ever delivered from a barstool).

        It’s such a compelling story, and I was struck by a parallel between Dennis’s all-consuming search and the quest to find Valentin’s owl. If I had known ahead of time, I would have signed on to Blanding’s talk tonight. What a fascinating window into a creative scholar’s intellectual journey.

        Dennis is a serious threat to all parents who insist their kids must get a formal education so they can make something of themselves…

        • I just received my pre-ordered copy of Blanding’s book. I will have a blurb on my blog tomorrow and a longer review in the future. I’ve been promoting it on Twitter and Facebook. I wish I’d let you know sooner. If I learn of future online interviews, I’ll try to give you advanced warning.

  6. Fiction or. not? An interesting question. I read fiction and philosophy or essays on contemporary situtations. (e.g. France, which has me seriously worried). Now I can read classic French fiction, the kind of books I buy at the bookboxes along the Seine. Terre des hommes by Saint-Exupéry is a good recent example. I enjoyed Steinbeck, Faulkner and others tremendously a long time ago. Or Gracía marquez of course. Not big on modern French fiction. Didn’t like Le Clézio or Modiano. No story.
    The keys to fiction, whatever the genre are: the characters of course and the setting. When I read García Marquez, I can recognize Colombia all the way.
    merci pour le post Carol.

    • I picked up a copy of Saint-Exupéry’s Pilote de Guerre a few years ago for 50 cents. Have been wanting to read it since. I like Modiano because he’s easy to read and I like the way he makes his works’ settings come to life. Some of my favorite French contemporary writing is semi-auto-biographical and often by authors from francophone countries other than France.

      I haven’t read much from South American authors but so far I have to say I’m not a fan of magical realism. I’m too much of a materialist (philosophically speaking) to enjoy it.

      Merci pour ton commentaire Brieuc.

      • (Pas de quoi chère amie)
        Pilote de guerre? Will look for it next time.
        South American authors, García Marquez I read because I speak the language and live there. And I love García Marquez. Now, my contention is that “Magical realism” is a concept coined by westerners who don’t know South America. In fact in one hundred years of solitude, all is true. Things really happen that way in Latin America. To me García Marquez is a talented journalist reporting absolute facts. Which seem so bizarre to Westerners that they think it’s magic. Nope.
        I will try another Modiano. But to me it’s like the Paris road map with a few additions. LOL.
        PS. “Terre des hommes” which my daughter pilfered actually tells of one occasion when Saint-Ex crashed in the desert and the idea of the Little Prince came to him. (Though he doesn’t say in the book) And his French is superb.

        • I love your perspective Brieuc, but as you say, I may be too much of a Westerner to get Marquez. I read about half of One Hundred Years and couldn’t keep going. I also read one of his short stories because it was assigned to the Turkish exchange student that we were hosting and she was having tremendous difficulty figuring out why people changing into animals. I could sympathize. Perhaps I’m just a hopeless skeptic. Haha!

          I can believe Modiano is less than thrilling for someone who already knows Paris well. I’ve read 4 of his books, one of which was written for children and illustrated by Sempe. It’s called Catherine Certitude. Half of the story takes place in New York and again, Modiano makes me feel like I’m there.

          Amitiés

          • I agree with your student. Many things can be missed if one doesn’t know the place.
            Sempé is a good incentive to try Modiano again. Ed McBain is a good way to feel in New York, though he calls it “the City”

  7. Wonderful post! Next step is discovering more thrillers!
    I have recently read some French thrillers where I learned a lot of scientific data, for instance several books by Franck Thilliez. They contain some disturbing scenes and can be tough for some readers, but he has amazing information. Most readers don’t like reading nonfiction, so I have often said that I think it’s a very smart choice for an author to choose the thriller genre to approach an important theme

    • Franck Thilliez is new to me. “Disturbing” only turns me off if it is “disturbing” for “disturbing”‘s sake. In otherwords, I dislike manufactured scenes that have no basis in reality and are only meant to make your stomach turn.

      Is there a book of his that you’d recommend that you found particularly enlightening?

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