Books like "The Name of the Rose" and "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell"?
December 19, 2007 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Could you recommend books similar to The Name of the Rose and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell? There's something about the tone, the mashing of genres together, and the over-immersion in details that is unbelievably appealing to me. (But don't recommend Tolkien!)

I do know about book recommendation sites, but as always, I trust you fellas more.

There's something fresh about Clarke's and Eco's works that I don't find in, say, Tolkien. Can anyone help me out?
posted by flibbertigibbet to Media & Arts (48 answers total) 83 users marked this as a favorite
Cloud Atlas? House of Leaves?
posted by box at 2:58 PM on December 19, 2007

The Historian? by Elizabeth Kostova?
posted by dpx.mfx at 3:02 PM on December 19, 2007

Titus Groan. I highly recommend it.

The Dictionary of the Khazars is good, too.
posted by winna at 3:04 PM on December 19, 2007

Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos (four books)

Ian McDonald's River of the Gods + the two short stories he wrote previously set in the same universe

Jason Goodwin's The Janissary Tree (debut novel, won last year's Edgar for best novel) and its sequel The Snake Stone

Have you read any William Gibson?
posted by lia at 3:06 PM on December 19, 2007

Best answer: Hooray!

Well, if interrupting an Exciting Murder Mystery to write a long, philosophic treatise about the Politics of Poverty in the Early Church is you sort of thing, I cannot recommend Victor Hugo and Neil Stephenson highly enough.

Victor Hugo, for example, will begin a section with a description of the fugitive Jean Valjean dashing into a sewer to hide from the police. He will then begin an extremely long and well-researched essay about Sewer Systems in Modern Paris, and their Legacy. I love it.

As for Neal Stephenson, you want his Baroque series--it's much the same (i.e., fantastically dense and fascinating historical and philosophic material) except that much of it is false. Not all of it, mind you, and all of the false material is very deliberate, but there you go.

At least, I hope that you'll like these difficult, interesting novels as much as I do. Another couple to attempt are Pynchon's recent once: Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day. I have trouble reading them, but I think they are wonderful. "Over-immersion in details", indeed.

I love these books to pieces, but can't really recommend them to very many people.

Oh, and (on preview) Cloud Atlas and House of Leaves seem quite different, to me, but are both wonderful books in their own right.
posted by Squid Voltaire at 3:07 PM on December 19, 2007

Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville. Hugo and Nebula winner.
posted by Jairus at 3:08 PM on December 19, 2007 [2 favorites]

err...nominee, not winner.
posted by Jairus at 3:08 PM on December 19, 2007

Best answer: Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon did this for me (for some reason I didn't like the Baroque cycle - got about halfway through book one before I gave up).

You might also try Infinite Jest; it's all about over-immersion in detail. Moby Dick is sort of similar - like the description of Victor Hugo above, one chapter will be a very dramatic narrative of a whale hunt, and the next will be a philosophical discourse on the color white.

Also, if you haven't read Foucault's Pendulum, you should check it out - it's denser and even more fascinating than the Name of the Rose.
posted by pombe at 3:21 PM on December 19, 2007

Best answer: If you liked "The Name of the Rose," keep to the Eco theme. "Foucault's Pendulum" may be exactly what you're looking for.

Also, try Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon before investing in the Baroque Cycle.
posted by nkknkk at 3:22 PM on December 19, 2007

Um, or what pombe said.
posted by nkknkk at 3:22 PM on December 19, 2007

Best answer: Have you read any of Umberto Eco's other books? Foucault's Pendulum is fantastic, although not "historical fiction" like Name of the Rose. Baudolino is quite good also. On preview, thirding Foucault's Pendulum.

Seconding Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. Love, love, love those books.

The Historian was good, but I thought the ending was a bit predictable. It's more of a straightforward mystery/horror novel than your examples.
posted by sbrollins at 3:28 PM on December 19, 2007

How about Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow. A weird meshing together of historical fiction and sci-fi written from an anthropological perspective.
posted by gemmy at 3:37 PM on December 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Instance of the Fingerpost , set in 1665(?) was a lot of fun.
posted by mrbugsentry at 3:45 PM on December 19, 2007

For me, the gold standard in the "As Good As Name Of The Rose" department is Charles Palliser's The Quincunx. It's amazingly successful in immersing the reader in Victorian England, and has a killer mystery at the heart to boot.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 3:45 PM on December 19, 2007

sbrollins - you might be right about the ending. but I thought it was very detailed and meshed history in there with the mystery/horror.

I really liked the Sparrow, but didn't find it to be detailed in the way OP seems to like.

Pillars of the Earth doesn't mesh together styles or time periods, but it is incredibly detailed about building of cathedrals, and I found that interesting.

I'm reading Neil Giaman's American Gods, and, although I'm not very far into it yet, I can see it ending up in this category. Maybe. Or, maybe it'll end up being straight-up sci-fi. Not sure.
posted by dpx.mfx at 3:49 PM on December 19, 2007

I forgot M. John Harrison's Viriconium. Also John Crowley's Ægypt Cycle.
posted by winna at 3:50 PM on December 19, 2007

Best answer: Erik Larson's "Devil in the White City" is a mashup of the history of the 1893 Chicago Worlds' Fair and the interwoven history of a serial killer who used the fair to harvest victims. There are tons of detail, and the book shifts masterfully between two very different subjects that are nonetheless closely related.
posted by Doctor Suarez at 3:59 PM on December 19, 2007

Another vote for the Baroque Cycle. Of my recommendations, it's the one that's almost certainly on target with what you're looking for. It's one of the densest books I've read in quite some time. Not just long, but dense. At times, I felt as if I was almost drowning in details.

American Gods doesn't have that same obsession with detail, but is otherwise an excellent book.

Finally, do not fail to read House of Leaves as mentioned above. It's also dense with detail, but in a scattered way. Aside from being straight-up insane, the book itself is rather sharp parody of academic critical excess.
posted by Nelsormensch at 4:00 PM on December 19, 2007

I've read almost every book mentioned here, and like most of them, but Jairus is right: Perdido Street Station is fresh and consuming and surprising in the same way that Name of the Rose and Jonathan Strange are.

(Thanks, Banky_Edwards, I'm going to check out Quincunx.)
posted by emyd at 4:03 PM on December 19, 2007

The Alienist by Caleb Carr is probably the best "historical" novel I've ever read. Set in New York in the late 1800s, it gives the reader a really clear picture of what life was like in that weird, weird time. Moments from the book still stand out to me, such as people betting on streetcar accidents. Just do not read the sequel.

I'll always recommend The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay because it actually had comics creators that were around at the birth of the Golden Age going "Yeah, he pretty much nailed it."
posted by beaucoupkevin at 4:05 PM on December 19, 2007

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, absolutely, but it spans two (or three?) different periods. Alienist is terrific. Foucault's Pendulum excellent. I liked House of Leaves, too, but it was a little stretched out.
posted by luriete at 4:12 PM on December 19, 2007

Cryptonomicon and the Baroque Cycle for sure, but I can't believe nobody's recommended The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters yet.

There's also the wonderful and much shorter The Intuitionist, which will teach you an enormous amount about the history of elevators, roughly half of which is not true. A book that makes you inhale sharply every few pages.
posted by Hogshead at 4:35 PM on December 19, 2007

The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte will tell you more about the The Three Musketeers than you ever imagined. Also, Satanists!
posted by SPrintF at 4:44 PM on December 19, 2007

The Eight.
posted by selfmedicating at 4:54 PM on December 19, 2007

If you want immersion of details of a particular time/place/occupation, you might try Perfume by Patrick Suskind.

Seconding the recs for Les Miserables, anything by Pynchon, and Kavalier and Clay.
posted by sfkiddo at 5:05 PM on December 19, 2007

I just read the historian, and while it fits the bill, it was nowhere near as good as the two books you mention, IMHO. The Alienist was good but it's not stellar writing like those two.

I definitely agree about cryptonomicon though.

Maybe you aren't interested in this, but Tony Hillerman generally does a great job of immersing you in native american culture while also writing mysteries.
posted by Large Marge at 5:43 PM on December 19, 2007

Have you read Moby Dick?
posted by acorncup at 5:53 PM on December 19, 2007

The Magus by John Fowles would probably fit the bill, although I found the ending a bit frustrating.

I've read almost everything recommended above (and I love this sort of stuff too) so I'm hoping there's some life left in this thread yet.
posted by JaredSeth at 6:16 PM on December 19, 2007

I'm currently reading The Terror, which I'm enjoying quite a bit, and I think it fits into this category; it's full of details about life on a ship circa 1840s, and is also a sort of horror novel. Try it, but a big, big second for anything by Stephenson and Miéville.
posted by TochterAusElysium at 6:29 PM on December 19, 2007

Best answer: Seconding Instance at the Fingerpost, Hyperion, Cryptonomicon. For a sci-fi/fantasy cross (but not really either) try Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series. Some of the best writing I've ever encountered.
posted by zardoz at 7:07 PM on December 19, 2007

previously, sort of
posted by zepheria at 7:15 PM on December 19, 2007

A Wild Sheep Chase, by Haruki Murakami.
posted by Flunkie at 7:17 PM on December 19, 2007

Many of Umberto Eco's books have some of those same details. I second the recommendation for Baudolino (though it's as much about the line between fantasy and deceit as it is about the time period), but I also recommend The Island of the Day Before. It's got more in common with The Name of the Rose as it is very strongly embedded in a particular historical period (early Age of Exploration). It's about the lone survivor of a shipwreck, stranded on the wreckage, convinced that the nearby island is right on the other side of the international date line. The IDL had just been invented, and he's not a scientist, so he's half convinced himself that if he can get to the island, he'll go back in time one day. Foucalt's Pendulum captures a different kind of feel, very paranoid, and while I enjoyed what I read, I failed to finish the book several times. I don't generally read historical fiction, but I love Eco's works.

Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (as has been mentioned) also has a lot of historical detail, but as he deals with actual historical figures more than in Eco's works, much of his history is fiction. They still make fascinating reads, but I've been left wondering which parts were made up and which were actual history.
posted by ErWenn at 7:31 PM on December 19, 2007

Someone mentioned John Crowley's Aegypt Cycle, which leans more towards Neal Stephenson-style masses of esoterica for its' own sake; I'll put in a word for his earlier Little, Big -- it's almost like an American transcendentalist Jonathan Strange.
posted by ellanea at 7:44 PM on December 19, 2007

I'd like to chime in with an old favourite which is Rats & Gargoyles by Mary Gentle. It's fantasy but riddled with enough alchemy, sacred geometry, architecture and involved politics to keep the punters happy. It reminds me of Name of the Rose, for some reason.
posted by ninazer0 at 7:48 PM on December 19, 2007

I'm not sure if this book will be of interest to you or not, but Life: A User's Manual by Georges Perec is very interesting and extremely detailed.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:04 PM on December 19, 2007

You absolutely, goddamn positively must read The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen. It's a delight of a read, blends the fantastic with the historical with the philosophical with the tragic with the romantic. It's been compared in major reviews to works by Nabokov, Borges and Marquez. Which makes it all the more curious that it's not more well known than it is.

I read it at least once every other year. It's a wonderful way to spend a few days. You must read this book.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:21 PM on December 19, 2007

I'm reading The Wind Up Bird Chronicles by Murakami, which I think would fit your needs (I loved The Name of the Rose AND Jonathan Strange..)
posted by melodykramer at 9:20 PM on December 19, 2007

Some day .... some day ... she'll finish the sequel. A quote from here:

The next book will be set in the same world and will probably start a few years after Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell finishes. I feel very much at home in the early nineteenth century and am not inclined to leave it. I doubt that the new book will be a sequel in the strictest sense. There are new characters to be introduced, though probably some old friends will appear too. I’d like to move down the social scale a bit. Strange and Norrell were both rich, with pots of money and big estates. Some of the characters in the second book have to struggle a bit harder to keep body and soul together. I expect there’ll be more about John Uskglass, the Raven King, and about how magic develops in England.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:53 PM on December 19, 2007

Seconding Dovtoevsky, Few writers are as familiar with despair and ruminations of the mind as was he. With vivid detail and psychological precision, none documented it better.
posted by Student of Man at 10:39 PM on December 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

There was a somewhat similar thread (in that I'm seeing a lot of the same recommendations) here, and don't forget to take a gander at shothotbot's excellent readMe wiki page cataloging older book recommendation threads.

I will personally nth the House of Leaves recommendation, I'm about a third of the way into it and I like it a lot (though you do need to have a certian tolerance for Pale Fire / Infinite Jest literary shenanigans to get into it, I suspect).
posted by whir at 2:07 AM on December 20, 2007

Q and 54
posted by matteo at 6:05 AM on December 20, 2007

you can also download both
posted by matteo at 6:06 AM on December 20, 2007

"War and Peace" works this way. It's incredibly detailed and mashes up novel and essay. And there's a really good, new translation.
posted by grumblebee at 6:10 AM on December 20, 2007

I second the John Crowley Aegypt series recommendations for what you say you want.

Another recent series you might like are Steph Swainston's The Year of Our War and No Present Like Time (I think there is a third one that recently came out or is about to). Perhaps try Ian MacLeod's books The Light Ages and House of Storms. Also, on a slightly different tack, many of Tim Powers' novels are contemporary and fantastical with wonderful accumulation of detail. I am particularly thinking of the series Last Call, Expiration Date, and Earthquake Weather; but also consider (historical not contemporary) The Anubis Gates, and the wonderful metaphysical Cold War spy novel Declare.
posted by aught at 7:06 AM on December 20, 2007

Best answer: If you get down this far and still haven't found what you're looking for, read The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes. It has everything you are looking for - quasi-historical, genre mashups (fantasy/mystery), black humor, the works. Here is the opening paragraph to get you hooked:

Be warned. This book has no literary value whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and willfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you'll believe a word of it...
posted by tjvis at 11:16 AM on December 20, 2007

> I've read almost everything recommended above (and I love this sort of stuff too) so I'm hoping there's some life left in this thread yet.

I'm loving it too and hoping the same. It will take something astonishing to be better than Name of the Rose, though. (Melville and Tolstoy qualify, but they're not recent and also already read--though both of them stand up to rereading pretty well, I can't be the first to have noticed that.) The wonderful thing about Rose is not just the erudition but the way the erudition is essential to the book. The unresolved philosophical and religious and cultural conflicts past and present are what drive the plot of the murder mystery. Without them no murders, hence no book. My hair stood on end, reading it for the first time, just for amazed pleasure. There was also a trace of anticipated anticlimax, a feeling of "well, I better enjoy this while I'm reading it, I can always read it again but I can't ever read it for the first time again, and I'm not likely to find anything new that's this good for ten, maybe twenty years." Foucault was good, but not as good. NB, SPOILER ALERT. Not here, in the book. There I am, happily setting out with pencil and paper to solve the library/maze based on clues in the text. Then I turn over the next page (320 in my hardback edition) and BLOODY HELL, there's the maze all diagrammed out and handed to you on a plate. No, I couldn't just not look at it. My father was an architect, my mother was a commercial illustrator, and my visual memory is exceptional. One flash on the diagram and I knew where the secret room was. If Eco had been there I would have murdered him on the spot (possibly leaving behind a Coptic palimpsest and a white gardenia as the killer's .sig)

Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night jumps out as the closest comparable, not set in the past when it was written, but that was in 1935 and the Oxford of 1935 is some distance from us now. It is a long and rich contemplation of womens' issues, the lure of tradition (lots of that at Oxford) and the contrary attractions of free though and emancipated behavior (lots of that at Oxford also) hung on the skeleton of a murder mystery motivated directly by the issues being explored. (Concerning those issues, not a whole lot seems to have changed since 1935.)

My contribution to the thread, though, is The Towers of Trebizond by (Dame) Rose Macaulay. It's hung on the skeleton of a travel book, no less, through Turkey and the middle east, accompanied by all the the things that setting might bring to mind. Not your average travel book, though, as the extended climax follows the heroine, who does not speak Turkish, on a journey as an unaccompanied female through the Turkish outback, on a camel, together with a large vial of unspecified green pills that she consumes with abandon so that she is often travelling not through Turkey but through the Byzantine Empire with its exotic trappings and and its bloody massacres, which were not different from the bloody massacres of the present. It is an unreliable-narrator book, as remarkable as As I Lay Dying. The Faulkner, though, leaves me feeling unhappy and dirty (though astonished at the technical tour de force--my mother is a fish, forsooth.) The Macaulay has fully the same level of technical dazzle but leaves me deeply, deeply satisfied.
posted by jfuller at 6:37 PM on December 20, 2007

Response by poster: Wow. MeFi comes through again. I'm favouriting recommendations as I read the books recommended. The first wave will be the books found at my university's library. I've started with The Devil in the White City, as Pynchon is unbelievably dense.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 9:59 AM on December 22, 2007

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