Welcome to IWSG Day. The goal of this blog hop is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Those who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a haven for insecure writers of all kinds. IWSG is the brainchild of Alex Cavanaugh. To find other contributors, click here. Thank you to the co-hosts for the March posting of the IWSG: Diedre Knight, Tonya Drecker, Bish Denham, Olga Godim, and JQ Rose.
This month’s optional question: Have you ever read a line in novel or a clever plot twist that caused you to have author envy?
My quick answer? Yes. I’ve devoted quite a few posts here to works that have made me say, “Boy, I wish I wrote that!” but rather than going back and rehashing them, I thought I’d spend this one talking about an author who has awed me for a different reason.
In high school, I took a class called “History through Literature” during which we read historical fiction set in formulative eras. During class, we discussed the real life events that provided the framework for the novels. Even now, books from that course stand out in my mind. All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, Night, by Elie Wiesel, Désirée by Annemarie Selinko, The Great Hunger, by Cecil Woodham-Smith and Tai Pan, by James Clavell.
The taped-up copy of the last one, an “epic” novel written in 1966 about the founding of Hong Kong , has been sitting on my bookshelf since high school. (No, I wasn't in high school in 1966!) Last week when the novel I’d wanted to download from my library wasn’t available, I pulled Tai Pan off the shelf again. At over 700 pages, reading it is a commitment. Frankly, it’s been so long since I’ve touched it I’ve forgotten more than I remember, and what impresses me this time is the way Clavell wrote with such authority about the English and Asian cultures of the mid-nineteenth century.
I can understand why Mr. Burgess, our history teacher, made this required reading. Apparently it took the author two years to research and write what ultimately became Tai Pan. In my mind, I am thinking two years would be a blink to create the complexity and nuance that flows through the story. He was either a genius or for those two years, writing must have been a one hundred percent full-time occupation. Probably both. He wrote with such clarity and depth about the financial and political impact of the English sea trade, (opium for tea and silks,) and about two distinctly different cultures, both of whom believed the other to be barbarians. The storyline involves pirates, romance, intrigue and betrayal, but beyond the entertainment value, reading it reminds me of something. What a person believes based on how they were raised may be diametrically opposed to the beliefs of those from a different culture, but that’s not to say they can’t learn from each other.
Reading the book now, I have to make some exceptions for behaviors in the novel appropriate to nineteenth century standards and offered via a 1960’s slant. But even through a 2023 lens, Tai Pan imparts lessons that matter, even after 50+ years in print.
Way to go, Mr. Burgess!
What book(s) from high school made a lasting impact on you?
That's a big book. And two years is still a long time for research.
So true that how we are raised can so affect how we view the world.
Your history through literature class sounds amazing. My high school experience left room for desire. I never thought we read enough. Happy IWSG day!
I loved that book Thanks for reminding me!
It is snowing a big old storm and I'm by the woodstove working on my ending. My writing pal is in the kitchen working on her novel. We've been doing this once a week for more than twenty years Life is good. Keep on writing you!
Great that you had a teacher who instilled a love of reading. A big old book like that creates its own world, like LOTR. An inspiring feat!
I have not read Tai Pan, but maybe I ought to tackle it. And how cool is it that you had a teacher that incorporated history and literature? I used to read books that would do double duty for English/Literature classes and history classes. So for example I read the essays Self Reliance by Emerson and Civil Disobedience by Thoreau and wrote a compare/contrast paper which I turned in to both my English and History teachers. I did that with a couple of other books too...
I'm now adding Tai Pan to my reading list. You've got me intrigued. While my Eng. classes were okay, I now realize how slow they moved and stuck to the classic reads without much thought. Which was too bad, since it just felt boring and dry.
I read Night in high school. I was more open to tackling really long books back then. Now I have too many books I want to read.
"One hundred years of solitude" was not required but highly recommended by my high school creative writing teacher. I wish I had finished it before it perished in a fire. I may see about getting another copy now that I'm reminded ;-)
Thank you but I’m wondering which periods in history were NOT forumulative. I think they all are.
And the author took only 2 years to research Tai Pan? He was quick!
Alas, Liza, I was in highschool in 1966 ~ lol. I read "Tai Pan" shortly after it came out, because James Clavell was an author I enjoyed and admired. I would have loved your History through Literature course. Sadly my copy of "Tai Pan" moved on to Goodwill years ago. I love big fat books to read ~ enjoy your reread of a classic!
Tai Pan is another book I should add to my ever-growing list. Thank you for the recommendation.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald made kind of an impact on me when we read it for an American lit course in high school. I was going through this phase of envying others for certain material things they had, but, even though gradually, that novel broke that illusion for me.
Your blog reveals how much you love this novel. My world increased after reading a book by Pearl S. Buck in high school. I think I'll read it again just to compare how I feel now as a senior citizen instead of a 17-year-old.
What a great teacher you had. I wish my English teachers had put the required books into perspective by including the history at that time.
Hi Liza - yes as the others have said - what a great history/literature teacher - amazing! Thank you for reminding me about James Clavell and his Tai Pan part-based on the Jardine Matheson group mercantile trade of that era. I'd like to read it again ... cheers Hilary
That sounds like an excellent high school class. It's a shame teachers don't get that much freedom anymore. I had a college class that was a combo of reading/art/and film that covered pre-WWII Germany. So many "artsy" folks were very aware of the coming Nazi storm and had it their art forms to warn. Alas, it wasn't enough.
As for authors that always make me say wow - check my review on Demon Copperhead. Barbara Kingsolver never disappoints and I was admiring many of her passages.
That sounds like a list everyone should experience at some point.
Ah yes, I remember Tai Pan. Never read it though. The book that impacted me the most in high school was The Hobbit ;)
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