Top Ten Tuesday: My Favorite Historical Periods

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature brought to you by the ladies at The Broke and the Bookish.

This week’s topic is a rewind–we’re supposed to pick a past topic that we wanted to do but couldn’t (or from a time when we weren’t yet blogging). A while back there was a topic about historical periods you like to read about. I’ve picked five of my favorite eras and a couple books set in each one (or written in them), one I have read and one I haven’t. These are in no particular, and certainly not chronological, order.

All book links will take you to Goodreads.

WWII

I think I’ve made my interest in this period pretty clear with blog posts like this one about my recommended books set in this time. I’m not as interested in the movement of armies as in the lives of civilians and of course the atrocities of the Holocaust. As despairing as this period can be, the amazing hope and courage displayed by extraordinary individuals can be uplifting not in spite of but because of the circumstances.

read: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr–I think I’ve said previously that this book lives up to all the hype surrounding it. It’s totally immersive and the characters are so engaging.

want to read: Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky–This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while. It was written on the eve of French occupation by a Jewish woman who later died in Auschwitz.

The Victorian Era

If I had been required to specialize in a particular era in college, it would have been this one. I find the Victorians, who were at an unprecedented moment in history in terms of the awakening of science, industry, and social movements to be completely fascinating. I love the books and plays written in and about this era.

read: To Marry an English Lord: Or How Anglomania Really Got Started by Gail MacColl and Alice Wallace–All about the American heiresses who crossed an ocean for titles and prestige (and the mothers who pushed them to go), this nonfiction book was really fun.

want to read: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

The French Revolution

Combined with the period leading up to it, the French Revolution captivates me. Another unprecedented time in history, it’s a story about excess, philosophy, and the power of the mob. It’s also a time that produced some really interesting personalities from Marie Antoinette to Ben Franklin across the ocean.

read: Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber–If you’re interested in fashion, you’ll love this book, otherwise there are many other great nonfiction books about this time period.

want to read: Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser–This book has been on my TBR for years, but one day I will finally read it.

The Regency Period

Maybe it’s all due to Jane Austen, but I love this period right after the French revolution when people wore high-waisted gowns and cared about who was dancing with whom.

read (and currently rereading): Emma by Jane Austen–I don’t think this book needs much introduction, but it’s my favorite Austen novel, so it needed to be here.

want to read: Belgravia by Julian Fellowes–I’m not sure if this book should be here or in the Victorian era, since it’s technically set in both, but it starts in the regency so we’re gonna go with it. It’s also here because Julian Fellowes wrote Downton Abbey (which is a show I love but I have not seen the final season so don’t say anything–I just don’t want it to end yet), and because I never have new books on here and this one was recently published.

The Renaissance

Here I’m specifically referring to the Italian Renaissance, which occurred earlier than the English one (though that one is also in my top ten). I love the romance, mystery, and magic of this time period.

read: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie–This book gets a lot of flack, either for not being similar enough to Rushdie’s other works or for having rather flat depictions of women, but both times I read it I was swept up by the power of storytelling.

want to read: The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen–Renaissance? Check. Art? Check. Female protagonist? Check.

 

Do you have a book you enjoyed (or want to read) from one of these time periods? Did I miss your favorite historical era? Let me know in the comments.

 

Women Writers Reading Challenge #48: A Scented Palace by Elisabeth de Feydeau

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The full title of this work on non-fiction is A Scented Palace: The Secret History of Marie Antoinette’s Perfumer, which really helps to explain the whole premise of the biography. Jean-Louis Fargeon was a man with Republican leanings and an aristocratic clientele, and his story gives insight into how the country was split by the French Revolution. The entire court was captivated by perfume, and perfumers were kept busy creating different scents for different times of day and a million different occasions. If you’re interested in the intimate workings of fashion and finery in Marie Antoinette’s court, this book will give you a unique look. (And the other book you should read if you’re interested in Marie Antoinette and fashion is Queen of Fashion by Caroline Weber).

Marie Antoinette is one of those subjects that I find totally fascinating. No matter how many accounts I read of her, I can’t help but be enchanted with the doomed queen. She’s one of a few historical figures that I can’t get enough of: Marie Antoinette, Cleopatra, Marilyn Monroe, and Coco Chanel are just a few of my obsessions.

Anybody else have any historical figure obsessions?

Baking for Bookworms: Fried Potatoes from Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel

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Every once in a while there’s a book that’ll leave a bad taste in your mouth. I was really eager to read The Scarlet Pimpernel, as it’s a book that many people regard as classic historical fiction, which happens to be one of my favorite genres. I already knew the general story line, and wanted to read about the supposed dandy Sir Percy Blakeney, who is really an English spy helping to rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine. I was all set to love this book, but its gratuitous anti-semitism at the end left a horrible impression on me, and I was hard pressed to even finish it.

I mean, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t in love with the book even before I started the final third of the novel. I didn’t think it was all that well written, and I thought the plot left something to be desired. But then I came to the final third, and I was shocked. For those of you who don’t know, Blakeney dresses up as Jew. His “filthy” appearance means that the French investigators don’t go near him, and so the Englishman is not discovered. They abuse him verbally and physically because of his religion, and even the main characters feel this disguise is abhorrent. It’s possible that there was a missed opportunity to make this section clever; if it had been a conscious decision on Blakeney’s part to use the biases of the French against them while knowing that it was wrong to treat any human being that way, then maybe I would have excused it. I do support satire, and I think that it’s a writer’s job to turn a mirror to society. However, Orczy doesn’t do that. She uses the “filthy Jew” as a plot device as if it’s of no consequence, either giving into and sharing the prejudices of her time or simply not challenging them. Neither is acceptable in my opinion.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand, perhaps better than many people do, what the popular sentiment in Europe was against Jews. I understand the context in which this book was written. That doesn’t make this book less anti-semitic than it is, nor does it excuse the author. No matter the era, there are always people who are willing to speak out against injustice, and one voice speaking out can turn a crowd.

I think everyone is particularly sensitive to at least one kind of intolerance and injustice–this particular one hits home for me as it has affected my family and larger community irrevocably. Many people are able to brush this sort of thing off. As a lover of classic films, I know that it’s easier to forgive a black face number in a musical for being part of its time rather than speaking out against it. It’s also easy to say that we’ve moved forward, or to dismiss it in some way. The truth is that prejudice and ignorance are all around us. And reading about intolerance or watching it on screen makes me a little nauseous.

So why am I cooking from this book at all? Well I considered not doing it, but then I thought that it was more important to speak out about this book than to leave it forgotten on its shelf.  I know many people will forgive it and excuse it, or just avoid reading it, but I won’t do that. I will remember it. Only by remembering and speaking out against things that display intolerance and ignorance are we able to fight them and avoid letting history repeat itself.

Okay I’m getting down from my soapbox now. I know that many people love the romance of these books and the characters of Marguerite and Blakeney. I don’t think that people who enjoy this book are bad or anti-semitic–I certainly see the appeal of this book and others like it. I just think that it’s important to stand up for what you believe in, and for me that’s tolerance. Everyone is free to (respectfully) disagree with me. I’m eager to hear what you think/thought of this book if you’ve read it.

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These fried potatoes are one of the only dishes mentioned at all in the novel, and the mention occurs at the very beginning of the book in the tavern where the scene is being set.

“She looked cross for a minute, and thoughtfully rubbed her hands against her shapely hips; her palms were itching, evidently, to come in contact with Martha’s rosy cheeks–but inherent good-humour prevailed, and with a pout and a shrug of the shoulders, she turned her attention to the fried potatoes.”                                                                                   (11)

Fried potatoes

  • 3 small or 2 medium potatoes (I used red, but feel free to use russet)
  • 2 tablespoons butter (you could also use your favorite cooking oil if you don’t use dairy)
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • you can put any seasonings you like in this dish–I chose dried parsley and thyme, along with some paprika and a little coriander

Cut your potatoes in thin rounds, then cut into quarters. Try to make your cuts as even as possible.

Heat a skillet to medium-high heat and add the butter. After it melts, add in the garlic for 30 seconds, stirring it around, and making everything fragrant.

Add in the potatoes and cook until tender. Throw in the seasonings and continue cooking until the potatoes reach your desired crispiness. The potatoes should take about 10-15 minutes to cook when it’s all said and done.

Serve for breakfast with your choice of accompaniments, or for dinner as a side dish.

If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, there is a great discussion on Deanna Raybourn’s blog here. As always, comments on this book, the food, or anything else are welcome. I kindly ask that you keep all your comments respectful.