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Category Archive for 'Historical'

Author Rosa Liksom grew up in a Lapland village of eight houses, and she sets much of the action of this novel in Lapland as she creates, through flashbacks, the life story of an unnamed woman, now elderly, who is looking back on her life and her experiences in Finland during that tumultuous time during and after World War II. The old woman as a young girl loved scouting and summer camp, which taught her how to be hard-working to the point of self-sacrifice and helped prepare her for her future role as a mother of soldiers. The complex political conditions in Finland, as they affect the action which follows, are briefly established in the early pages here, then later developed in greater detail. Between 1939 and 1945, Finland faces three wars, which influence the novel’s narrative. Her relationship with “the Colonel,” thirty years older than she, becomes the impetus for the rest of the novel.

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In this unique, ground-breaking novel, John Okada creates such a vibrant picture of the first- and second-generation Japanese-Americans during and immediately after World War II, that it is impossible to imagine readers of this book not being universally moved by what they read here. The Foreword alone, written by Ruth Ozecki as a letter to the author in April, 2014, when this edition was published, attests to the fact that Okada, who died in his forties in 1971, never knew how important No-No Boy would become – the only such book ever written by a Japanese-American about the plight of Japanese immigrants who came under immediate and universal suspicion the instant Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Over 110,000 people who had come to the US from Japan, some of them many years ago, were rounded up and sent to prison camps in the desert for the duration of World War II, forced to give up their homes, their jobs, their businesses, and their dreams. Young Japanese-American men, however, were offered a chance to prove how American they had become. A required questionnaire contained two questions regarding their loyalty: Were they willing to serve in combat duty in the US armed forces, and would they swear “unqualified allegiance” to the country and defend it from any attack by foreign or domestic forces. Those who answered “no” to these two questions were immediately sent to prison for two years, by which time the war was over. This book is an up close study of the effects of the imprisonment on one young no-no boy after he was released to a population which regarded him as a coward. A classic which will make every reader feel the pain of this young man and some of his friends as they try to reenter society.

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Though there are, at present, over a thousand reviews on this website, this is the first, of all the international fiction I have read and reviewed over the past ten years, that is written by a Venezuelan author about everyday life in a country where turmoil and bloodshed often dominate daily life. Author Karina Sainz Borgo, born and raised in Caracas, worked as a journalist there before emigrating to Spain a few years ago. Her experience in Caracas holds her in good stead here as she gets the novel off to a quick, almost journalistic, start, setting the scene and developing her main character, Adelaida Falcon, an editor in Caracas. Her mother’s long illness and recent death have left her with no money, while she and her neighbors are also forced to endure shortages of everything needed for a healthy life, including food and medicine. “We could only watch as everything we needed vanished: people, places, friends, recollections, food, serenity, peace, sanity. ‘Lose’ became a leveling verb, and the Sons of the Revolution wielded it against us,” Adelaida comments. The student brother of her next door neighbor, has been arrested, along with others, by these same Sons of Revolution, and he has spent more than a month inside a prison, “beaten, bludgeoned in a corner, or raped with the barrel of a gun.” When things become much worse, Adelaida decides it is time for her to flee, if she can figure out a way to do it.

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Meticulously constructed and highly dramatic, The Secrets We Kept moves forward with dual story lines – one set in the West and featuring members of the Soviet Russia branch of the US intelligence agency, beginning in 1950, and the other set in the East, primarily Moscow, focusing on the Soviet government, famous author Boris Pasternak and his banned book, Dr. Zhivago, and the people surrounding him, beginning in 1956. The title alone attests to the fact that both groups keep important, even life-or-death secrets during the Cold War. While maintaining the almost contemporaneous time frames of the two separate groups, East and West, the author alternates the locations of the action over the course of several years, a technique which puts two big story lines into a grand perspective while allowing readers to recognize how these story lines overlap in real time. The Soviets are determined to keep the novel Dr. Zhivago hidden in their own country, and the west believes it will benefit the world if it is released internationally. The excitement of the story line, especially for those who remember the atmosphere in the US when Dr. Zhivago was finally published here in 1958-59, is palpable. A debut novel which will have almost universal appeal for lovers of literary fiction, history, biography, and Cold War politics.

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In Melville House Publishing’s Last Interview series, Billie Holiday’s own words define her and and reflect her difficult life through eight interviews. The first is given on November 1, 1939, published in Downbeat Magazine, and the last is twenty years later, published in October, 1959, in Confidential Magazine, an interview she granted two days before her death in a New York hospital at age forty-four. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in Baltimore, the daughter of Clarence Holiday of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, with whom she had little contact after the age of ten. According to Khanya Mtshali, who wrote the substantial Introduction to this book, Billie was raped at around age ten and sent to a Catholic reformatory school for about two years, but was released “with the help of relatives” and later moved to New York with her mother, “where they began engaging in sex work to make ends met. Holiday was only fourteen.” In the the book’s first interview by Dave Dexter, with Downbeat Magazine on Nov. 1, 1939, she talks about those early years when she and her mother “were so hungry we could barely breathe.” Then at fifteen she got her chance singing in a “joint” in New York. Eight years later, at twenty-three, she was a giant in the music world. This book describes her ascent, and her difficulties, in her own words.

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