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Reading and Writing My Way Around Covid

By Michal Strutin
August 31, 2021

On this Fifth Tuesday of the Month, guest blogger Michal Strutin shares her upcoming reading with us.

I’m plotting the second book in my historical mystery trilogy set in the Late Renaissance: the 1570s, specifically. The first book, on its way to draft three, is set mostly in Venice and its ghetto. The second book is set in Istanbul. Can you guess that Covid wrecked an amazing “research” trip to Istanbul? Topkopi Palace, the Galata district, the bazaar… Research by foot is out. It’s all books and lectures.

Fortunately, I’ll have to reread MY NAME IS RED. It’s set in the same time period and its back-cover blurb tells it well: ”a fiendishly devious mystery, a beguiling love story, and a brilliant symposium on the power of art.” I’m a big fan of Orhan Pamuk, a Nobel Prize-winner in Literature.


Because my plot has a medical theme, I might have to reread THE PHYSICIAN, a book by Noah Gordon about a medieval boy who serves a swindling barber-surgeon in England and runs away to study medicine in Persia with the world’s first famous physician, Avicenna.  

I’ll also have to question my doctor, who loves medical mysteries and gave me the idea for poison in the Sultan’s harem. It became standard for the son chosen to rise as sultan to have all of his brothers strangled by a silken cord. If you were Brother Number Two, what would you do? You might consider poison. Then, when you accede to the throne, only four will have to die by the silken cord. Arsenic is too common. What poison do you suggest?

I love many things about writing historical fiction: fascinating bits such as death by silken cord or the bocce di lion in Venice, small lion’s-head postboxes where tattlers could slip notes to the Council in the lion’s mouth, informing them about plots and political intrigue. And food…the history of food. In my first fiction, JUDGING NOA: A FIGHT FOR WOMEN’S RIGHTS IN THE TURMOIL OF THE EXODUS, when women had “tent parties” they drank beer, not wine. Barley beer. In 16th century Venice, the poor ate soups and stews. The wealthy ate much fancier food and lots of it. To find out who ate what and when, travel down the rabbit hole that is So much strange and wonderful vetted food history. The marshmallow, for instance.


Historical fiction research is intriguing. Definitely rabbit-hole. But what I love best about historical fiction is its mirror of humanity. Technology changes and knowledge accretes, but people remain pretty much the same blend of emotions, desires, and needs. When I learned about the Sultanate of Women and the political power held by the sultan’s wife…such delicious intrigue, plus love, hate, fear, longing, laughter. We can see the human and societal traits of our times mirrored in the past. Although we remember the past, to paraphrase Santayana, we seem condemned to repeat it.  

As to what I’m reading these days: Fearful of plane travel as Covid’s delta variant rose, my husband and I drove from San Jose to Denver to see a new granddaughter. We listened to THE EMPORER OF ALL MALADIES via Audible, across mile upon mile of glittering Utah salt flats and the pronghorn high plains of Wyoming. It’s a fascinating book on the history of cancer and how we’ve tried to cure it. But when we returned home, only two-thirds through, I gave up—for the time being. It’s doorstop thick.

This Covid year, stuck close to home, I’ve been reading faraway historical fiction. I thoroughly enjoyed Lisa See’s THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN. Not only a fine tale of friendship among some extraordinary women, but also I learned about Korean history. Lee matches storytelling with history wonderfully well. No wonder she was this year’s keynote speaker at the Historical Novel Society Conference.


I recently read the latest book by one of my favorite writers, Louise Erdrich. THE NIGHT WATCHMAN adds to the reason why she deserves a Nobel in Literature. Based on the life of her grandfather, THE NIGHT WATCHMAN tells the mid-twentieth-century story of rural Chippewa who counter a powerful Congressman and his bill to dispossess Native Americans of their lands. The story is intertwined with his young neighbor’s quest to find her sister, who was lured to the mean streets of Minneapolis, another ploy to destroy native culture. Erdrich is a genius at weaving despair with winking humor.

MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA was published in 1997, but I just got around to reading it. If the manuscript  came across the desk of a 20-year-old publishing intern today, I fear this book would not have made it past that first gatekeeper. Written in the first person, the life of this early twentieth-century Japanese woman was authored by Arthur Golden, a western white man. “Cultural appropriation!” the intern might say as she tossed it.

Yet, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA sold more than four million copies and was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. From the digging I did, Golden not only had academic weight in Japanese culture, he also lived there. His tatami-carpeted tea houses and the rigid hierarchies and rivalries of the okiyas (geisha houses) revealed the highly structured world of the geisha in fascinating detail, from how they dressed and who dressed them to the politics of their rise in rank.

Although MEMOIRS was translated into more than twenty languages, Golden never wrote another novel. Strange. The most I could learn is that he is scion of the House of Sulzburger (New York Times) and, in 2020, became a NYT’s board member.

Speaking of hierarchies, I just watched “The Chair,” starring Sandra Oh as newly designated  chair of an English department in a second-tier ivy. This short Netflix series even-handedly gore’s everyone’s oxes: tenure rivalries, cancel culture, racism, free speech, generational tensions. All packed into 6 half-hour sessions that are both disturbingly current and hysterically funny.

Michal Strutin
Written by Michal Strutin

Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.

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