Recommend historical fiction set during WWII Japan.
October 29, 2004 8:36 AM   Subscribe

Historical Fiction. I want to branch of of reading almost only middle ages English history. Does anyone have a recommendation for a book about Japan surrounding the nuclear bombs during WW2? Or the Holocost. Or other good historical fiction of other varieties. (I like times of disaster/difficulty.) Heck, I'll even take recommendations for middle ages..but I've probably read it.
posted by aacheson to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Two affecting Holocaust books are The Pianist and Maus (the latter of which is a graphic novel).

And, of course, if you want to read historical fiction of the nautical variety, there are the Patrick O'Brian novels, filled with adventure, humor, and action. Great stuff. (Actually, Mutiny on the Bounty is a fantastic book, too, as are its sequels.)
posted by jdroth at 8:49 AM on October 29, 2004

louis lamour's The Walking Drum is a good pulp adventure.

alternative stanley robinsons The Years of Rice and Salt is very interesting premise being that the plagues wipe out western europe, and if you get tired of the middle ages, you can try Neal Stephensons Baroque Cycle, starting in the 1600's with Quicksilver.
posted by th3ph17 at 8:53 AM on October 29, 2004

I'm reading Quicksilver now--it's great, and historical figures/events are thoroughly interwoven into it. Years of Rice and Salt is also excellent, but not as historical (except in an Alt way).

For Holocaust, Shirer's Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich is considered the definitive standard, i believe, and Hitler's Willing Executioners : Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Goldhagen is very good too (altho denser and not as clearly written).

You might want to dip into Boorstin's books: Seekers, Creators, and Discoverers, and pick interesting people from there for further reading. They're easy roundups, organized thematically and chronologically.
posted by amberglow at 9:20 AM on October 29, 2004

If you're into 50s-70s American history, check out the historical fiction of James Ellroy, particularly American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand.
posted by dobbs at 9:20 AM on October 29, 2004

This is AWESOME! Thank you so much! Keep 'em coming. I'm stacking up the cart on with these!
I've read the Rise & Fall of the 3rd Reich and the Pianist and both are EXCEPTIONAL...but I really want fiction.
posted by aacheson at 9:26 AM on October 29, 2004

J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun: Historial fiction. The true story of Ballard when he was a preteen boy in the 1940's, it is the tale of his imprisonment during WWII in a japanese-controlled internment camp in the Shanghai countryside. Much about the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, the treatment of American/Europe internment prisoners, all culminating in the release of the atomic bomb over Japan.
posted by naxosaxur at 9:29 AM on October 29, 2004

Keep in mind that many of the books mentioned above are non-fiction, not historical fiction. E-mail me if you want recommendations for Holocaust-related books; I hesitate to post anything publicly because I don't want people to misinterpret my suggestions as "official" recommendations of my employer.
posted by arco at 9:43 AM on October 29, 2004

The new Ha Jin novel: War Trash is about Chinese POWs during the Korean War.

My favorite novel about prisoners is probably A Day in the Life of Ivan Densovitch about life in the Gulag.

Speaking of the USSR, Ayn Rand's autobiographical novel We The Living is like a darker, bleaker Dr. Zhivago and much better than her later novels.

And if you haven't read Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove than hold everything else and get a hold of a copy. It is everything it is reported to be: funny, sad, compelling, and above all, heroic.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 9:54 AM on October 29, 2004

1. Some useful sites you might want to check:

Uchronia (alternative history)

Historical Novel Society (lots of links to contemporary novelists; mostly traditional historical fiction--adventure, romance, etc.--instead of the more experimental work)

Literature on the Age of Napoleon (exactly what it says; good if you like nautical and military fiction)

Crime Thru Time (historical mysteries)

2. For good neo-Victorian fiction and steampunk: Peter Ackroyd, A. S. Byatt, Peter Carey, Paul Di Filippo, Michel Faber, William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, Roger McDonald, Charles Palliser, Sarah Waters. (More will come to mind as soon as I post, I'm sure...)
posted by thomas j wise at 10:01 AM on October 29, 2004

If O'Brian is up your alley, then Bernard Cornwell has a whole host of books that you've likely read. If you haven't (or for anyone else who's interested), there's the Sharpe Series for Napoleonic War goodness, the Grail Series for 100 Years War Fun, the Starbuck Chronicles for Civil War fighting, and the Warlord series for historical Arthurian fun.

Laura Joh Rowland has a series of mysteries set in medieval Japan that are pretty good.

Ex Libris by Ross King is set in 1660s England and is rather Eco-esque.

If you don't mind dipping into fantastical historical fiction, Johnathan Strange & Mr.Norrell, my current read, is pretty good. Also, about half the books by Tim Powers fit the bill. On Stranger Tides is a pre-Pirates of the Caribbean (and better, story-wise) pirate yarn. The Drawing of the Dark is about the battle between East and West and how it manifests in a certain beer. Declare is a cold war spy thriller about Soviet efforts to capture a spirit behind the Iron Curtain.

And, fading into more fantastical than historical fiction, there's Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, a novel set in a China that Never Was.

I suspect that you've read many of the books above, but hey, just in case...
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:14 AM on October 29, 2004

I really enjoyed The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, but I concede that it's not for everybody.
Psychic dwarves, Poland, and the Nazi occupation.
posted by clockwork at 10:29 AM on October 29, 2004

For atomic bomb historical fiction books, Ibuse's Black Rain is insightful. It's based upon diaries and interviews from people who were there when it happened. Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen is a good graphic novel on this subject.
posted by vorfeed at 11:05 AM on October 29, 2004

I am reading (and loving) "The Makioka Sisters" by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro. Written back in 1943-1948, it follows the life of four Japanese sisters in the era before and during the war, and is very much like a Japanese "Pride and Prejudice." The sisters' family is in decline, they're trying to marry off two younger sisters, one sister is breaking away from traditional Japanese ways. I find it just fascinating. Warning: I had to read the first chapter twice to figure out which name belonged to which sister, thankfully, there's a handy ID chart in the beginning of the book.
posted by GaelFC at 11:09 AM on October 29, 2004 [1 favorite]

oh, fiction! : >

Lempriere's Dictionary (1700s London) and A Case of Curiosities and Perfume (1700s France) and Baltazar and Blimunda (one of my alltime fav books--1700s Portugal) and Martin Dressler and Alienist (turnofcentury NYC) are all really good, and A Fine Balance (devastating and good Indian recent (70s) stuff).
posted by amberglow at 11:25 AM on October 29, 2004

and Dos Passos' USA trilogy.
posted by amberglow at 11:49 AM on October 29, 2004

While it's not about the atomic decision, The Emperor's General by James Webb deals with the events leading up to and following Japan's surrender and 'reconstruction.' While its primary focus is on Douglas MacArthur, it illuminates the character of both countries' political class. Webb is no stylist, but the novel offers facinating characters and a great plot.
posted by mojohand at 11:50 AM on October 29, 2004

OK, I just ordered WAAAAY too many books from amazon. This is awesome.
Thank you thank you!
Keep 'em coming.
posted by aacheson at 11:52 AM on October 29, 2004

lindsey davis writes some excellent stuff set in flavian rome.

len deighton is absolutely brilliant, think proto-james-bond* with real characters and intelligent writing.

I also recommend cornwell, and of course there is always simon winchester (not actually fiction...)

* you can even get the ipcress file on dvd. good film.
posted by dorian at 12:48 PM on October 29, 2004

i found 'Mila 18' (Warsaw ghetto uprising) and 'Exodus' (foundation of Israel with a lot of back story) by Leon Uris to be interesting books.

'Gates of Fire' is an amazing novel about the Spartan defense of Thermopylae against the Persians.

I liked Horatio Hornblower better than O'Brian. the BBC/A&E versions are entertaining, too.
posted by Sean Meade at 12:51 PM on October 29, 2004

Not sure if it fits your criteria, but I can recommend The Company by Robert Littell. It "fictionally" covers the inner workings of the CIA essentially from its post WWII origins to the fall of the Soviet Union. Might be a bit modern.

I would also suggest Robert Harris' Enigma (about WWII code-breakers) and Fatherland (based on the premise that Germany won WWII).

I wouldn't call any of these classics, but I found them entertaining.
posted by pardonyou? at 12:52 PM on October 29, 2004

I really enjoyed Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. It's less a novel about the Holocaust than it is the character that grew up escaping it and the emotional trauma that lasts throughout his life. In that sense, it's quite unlike the camp survivor stories that are so common with the subject matter. Beautifully written.

I second the recommendation for Maus, and I would add Survival In Auschwitz (more accurately/sometimes translated as If This Be a Man), by Primo Levi. Levi was an italian chemist that approached his time in Auschwitz with a strong sense of responsibility for telling the outside world what had happened.
posted by rfordh at 12:54 PM on October 29, 2004

Oh, and if you read the Da Vinci Code and thought how cool it would be if it didn't suck so hard, try Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. If you're big on the middle ages, you've probably run into it at some point, but for those on the sidelines, take heed. It deals a lot with the Knights Templar, and weaves in an appropriate amount of history.
posted by rfordh at 12:57 PM on October 29, 2004

When I was about 15, I really, really enjoyed Robert Graves' I, Claudius and Claudius the God. They aren't from periods you mentioned, but they are well worth a read.
posted by funkbrain at 3:14 PM on October 29, 2004

WW2 historical novels. I second naxosaxur's recommendation of J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, an excellent book. Joseph Kanon's Los Alamos is a first-rate thriller about the making of the atom bomb. (Kanon has written two other novels: The Prodigal Spy, an even better thriller about the anti-Communist scare in 1950s America, and The Good German, a competent but disappointing thriller set in postwar Berlin.) David Piper's Trial by Battle (out of print, but available secondhand) is a powerful novel about the war in the Far East.

I tend to be disappointed by historical novels set before 1900; they don't often convey the otherness of the past in a way I find convincing. But there are exceptions: Susan Sontag's The Volcano Lover (pre-Napoleonic Europe); Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor (late c17 England); anything by Mary Renault (ancient Greece). Alfred Duggan's novels of the Middle Ages are said to be good, but were mostly written in the 1940s and 1950s and may not have kept their flavour; I don't know, I haven't read them.
posted by verstegan at 3:44 PM on October 29, 2004 [1 favorite]

Alright, since most of the historical fiction I read is of the exact same genre, I figure I'll throw in some of the better stuff I've read, for you, or for anyone else who might be interested:

1) Just about anything by Sharon Kay Penman (the "mystery" ones not so much, but the straight historical stuff is really good, I think).

2) Through a Dark Wood Wandering, by Helle Haas

3) This is lame, but there's a set of 2 or 3 books translated from French that are called something like "The Fire Within"--for the life of me, I can't recall the author or the title right now, but they're successively about a young squire who becomes a knight, goes off to fight in the Crusades, and eventually returns to Jerusalem as an old man (of forty) to die there. (I know, bleak, but pretty authentic, and well-written.)
I'll come back to post the titles if I can somehow figure out them out.

4) These are by far the best, and most important, historical fiction I've ever read--"The Lymond Chronicles", by Dorothy Dunnett. I hate to sound like a fanboy, but talk about trumping Eco, Penman, and anyone else in the historical fiction game, in spades...

Yes, the books are almost willfully challenging at time--like Eco's books, huge plot turns sometimes revolve around an utterance in Italian, Latin or ancient French, with no translation. And even more importantly, they have an aggressive, willful protagonist who is emphatically not always likable (although he is ridiculously charming and well-schooled). The really amazing thing, to me, about the books is how the central character, Francis Crawford of Lymond, genuinely evolved from each book to the next. He makes some soul-shattering decisions and sacrifices along the way, and those choices really change him from the first book to the last.

Again, I don't mean to gush, but if anyone's looking for historical fiction that's not only challenging on an intellectual level, but on a personal/emotional level, I can't recommend these books enough. 'Nuff said.
posted by LairBob at 5:23 PM on October 29, 2004

A couple more occurred to me this afternoon:

Paradise Alley by Kevin Baker is about the Civil War Draft Riots in New York City.

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski (author of Being There) which is about an abandoned boy wandering through Eastern Europe after WWII. This is a classic but it is also creepy and frightening.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:24 PM on October 29, 2004

Oh, crap...almost forgot Mary Renault, especially The King Must Die, The Bull From the Sea, and The Persian Boy (just because I've read them).

They're a little younger--I actually taught The King Must Dies in a high-school class on "Mythology in Literature"--but they're solid stories, and they do a great job of getting into the mindset of how someone could live in those times, and accept the "magical thought" of the era, without violating the understanding of the world we have today.

On preview, verstegan beat me out on the recommendation, so I'll just second his...
posted by LairBob at 5:25 AM on October 30, 2004

I'll endorse Dorian's Len Deighton recommendation, specifically his WWII historical novel Bomber: Events Relating To the Last Flight of an RAF Bomber Over Germany On the Night Of June 31, 1943 which, despite its subtitle, also encompasses the German Luftwaffe personnel opposing the British aircrew, and the civilians who will be bombed. Unforgettable. Out of print, but readiliy available used from Amazon or ABE. It's his best book. I read it again about every five years and envy anyone approaching it for the first time.
posted by mojohand at 8:20 AM on October 30, 2004

I recently read the five books out so far in Kage Baker's Company series and really look forward to the three remaining volumes (which are not yet published). Mixes a bit of future time fiction (mostly in the short story collection but also the back story of the entire series) with a bunch of semi-cyborg immortals observing human history.
posted by billsaysthis at 12:34 PM on October 31, 2004

Laribob, did you recall the name/author of #3 (about the crusades?) I am fascinated with the crusades but most books I read about it are just too badly written or boring. (Also very interested in the inquisition.)
Thanks again everyone!
posted by aacheson at 1:04 PM on November 1, 2004

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