Faculty Favorites: Good Historical Reads

Keri (Lindemann) Disch (class of 1997) enjoyed reading novels in her history classes at Marquette, but has found it difficult to keep up the practice since graduating. To assist her and others who may be interested in good historical reads, the History faculty have put together a brief list of some of their favorites. And thanks, Keri, for the suggestion!

African and Asian

Tahar Djaout, Last Summer of Reason Translated by Marjolijn de Jager (Ruminator Books, 2001)

Boualem Yekker is a bookseller who refuses to abandon his liberal political beliefs despite pressure from the totalitarian government. His wife and children abandon him and accept the political and religious rhetoric of the nation's new leaders. Yekker is left to his memories of the way of life he has lost and of the last summer of reason, the last season in which people tried to fight the oppression of the emerging government. Yekker is a truly literary hero, openly disagreeing with the treatment of women and intellectuals in his country and never abandoning his belief in the power of books to restore sanity to a nation driven mad with self-righteousness. His creator Djaout's own defiance was silenced when Islamic extremists in his country, Algeria, assassinated him in 1993. (Suggestion by Dr. Naylor, synopsis from Booklist)

Fan Shen, A Gang of One: Memoirs of a Red Guard (Bison Books, 2006)

Written by a former Marquette graduate student, this riveting autobiography explores the incredible adventures of an uncommitted Red Guard. Sent to a desperately poor commune during the Cultural Revolution, Fan works as a laborer, barefoot doctor, and jet engine technician, before devising ways to manipulate the system to escape the country. Even if you know nothing about Chinese history, you will find yourself drawn into his fascinating story of survival. (Suggestion and synopsis by Dr. Meissner)

Li Zhi-Sui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (Random House, 1994)

While Mao launched the Red Guards (like Fan Shen, above) on their mission to crush traditionalism and bourgeoisie thought, he was living a posh life of dinner parties and ballroom dancing, while cavorting with beautiful young revolutionaries. This expose by Mao’s personal physician provides an eye-opening account of life in the inner sanctum of Chinese officialdom during the Cultural Revolution. (Suggestion and synopsis by Dr. Meissner)

Laura Joh Rowland, The Assassin's Touch: A Thriller (St. Martin's Minotaur, 2005)

Set in 17th-century Japan (after 2004's The Perfumed Sleeve), Sano Ichiro, now the shogun's chamberlain and second-in-command, returns to his previous role of criminal investigator after the country's top spy, Ejima Senzaemon, drops dead on his mount during a horse race. Sano quickly finds that Senzaemon was just the latest senior official to die without warning. With the assistance of Hirata, his longtime assistant, the chamberlain uses his highly irregular sources to get on the trail of a martial-arts master using the legendary dim-mak, or touch of death. The first of a trilogy of Sano Ichiro adventures, this is a real page-turning thriller. (Suggestion by Dr. Meissner, synopsis from Publisher’s Weekly)


Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Random House, 2001)

Through the lives of a pair of Jewish cousins who become comic book writers in the 1930s, this novel explores immigration, war, love, and the American dream. (Suggestion and synopsis by Dr. Marten)

Phillip Roth, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin, 2004)

This novel is not historical, as such, but is, rather, a counter-factual historical novel in which Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the United States in 1940, keeping America out of the Second World War and launching a campaign against American Jews. (Suggestion and synopsis by Dr. Marten)

Michael Sharra, The Killer Angels (Ballantine, 1974)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which the movie Gettysburg was based. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought for two dreams – freedom, and a way of life. Memories, promises, and love were carried into the battle but what fell was shattered futures, forgotten innocence, and crippled beauty. (Suggestion by Dr. Marten, synopsis from Powells.com)


Sarah Dunant, The Birth of Venus (Random House, 2004)

This is a fun read, a page turner, and provides some sense of life in Renaissance Florence. Perhaps surprisingly, the history of the open convent is less preposterous than it seems. Its model is actually a Venetian community of canonesses (Santa Maria delle Vergini). You can read more about them in K.J.P. Lowe, Nuns' Chronicles and Convent Culture in Renaissance and Counter-Reformation Italy (Cambridge, 2003). (Suggestion and synopsis by Dr. Knox)

Hermann Hesse, Demian 1914 (Harper Perennial, 1999)

In Demian, one of the great writers of the twentieth century tells the dramatic story of young, docile Emil Sinclair's descent — led by precocious shoolmate Max Demian — into a secret and dangerous world of petty crime and revolt against convention and eventual awakening to selfhood. (Suggestion by Dr. Naylor, Publisher’s synopsis)

Hermann Hesse, Steppenwolf Translated by Basil Creighton (Penguin, 1999)

Alienated from society, Harry Haller is the Steppenwolf - wild, strange and shy. His despair and desire for death draw him into an enchanted world. Through a series of shadowy encounters, Haller begins to rediscover the lost dreams of his youth. (Suggestion by Dr. Naylor, Amazon.com synopsis)

David Liss, The Coffee Trader (Ballantine Books, 2004)

Set in 17th-century Amsterdam's immigrant Jewish community, this novel provides insight into religious, political and ethical issues of this early period of global trade. The plot twists and turns as Miguel Lienzo, a Jewish escapee of the Inquisition in Portugal, attempts to corner the market on a new European commodity – the coffee bean. (Suggestion and synopsis by Dr. Meissner)

Sharan Newman, The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code (Penguin, 2005)

I in no way recommend The Da Vinci Code, mainly because it's writing and structure are so horrible! But, because I have answered so many questions in the last few years about that novel's historicity, I do recommend Newman’s text. Newman is an ABD medievalist, who writes a successful series of mystery novels set in twelfth-century France. Her book does an excellent job of briefly (2-3 pages usually) explaining the history of the Templars, the Gnostic Gospels, the Freemasons, etc. She also offers suggestions for further reading. Newman's mysteries are ok too. (Suggestion and synopsis by Dr. Knox)

Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine Translated by Eric Mosbacker (Signet Classics, 1977)

The impoverished, desolate mountain regions of the Abruzzo during Mussolini's reign provide the backdrop for the three greatest novels by Ignazio Silone, one of the twentieth century's most important writers. In Fontamara, Bread and Wine, and The Seed Beneath the Snow - presented together for the first time in English to mark the centenary of the author's birth - Silone narrates the struggles of the cafoni, the farmers and peasants of his native Abruzzo, against poverty, natural disasters, and totalitarianism.Silone's masterpiece, Bread and Wine, introduces the semi-autobiographical character Pietro Spina, an anti-Fascist revolutionary who returns to his homeland after fifteen years in exile. He seeks refuge among the Abruzzo peasants by posing as the priest Don Paolo Spada. (Suggestion by Dr. Naylor, synopsis from Powells.com)

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward Translated by Nicholas Bethell and David Burg (Dial, 1968)

Cancer Ward examines the relationship of a group of people in the cancer ward of a provincial Soviet hospital in 1955, two years after Stalin's death. We see them under normal circumstances, and also reexamined at the eleventh hour of illness. Together they represent a remarkable cross-section of contemporary Russian characters and attitudes. The experiences of the central character, Oleg Kostoglotov, closely reflect the author's own: Solzhenitsyn himself became a patient in a cancer ward in the mid-1950s, on his release from a labor camp, and later recovered. (Suggestion from Dr. Ball, synopsis from Literature Annotations)
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