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Category Archive for 'Historical'

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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Originally published in Italy in 1973, under the title Caro Michele (Dear Michele), Natalia Ginzburg’s most popular Italian novel changed its title for an English-speaking audience in this new edition. Happiness, as Such, the English title, conveys the author’s purpose, emphasizing the uncertainties of knowing exactly what happiness is on a grand scale, the major point of this novel, and applies to a broader cast of characters than just “dear” Michele, the “oblivious” son of a forty-three-year-old mother whose life is a melding of strange experiences with uncertain goals and values. Told through a series of letters, primarily between Adriana, the mother, and twenty-one-year-old Michele, her son, the letters reveal the often interconnected stories of several other characters – family, friends, and lovers, past and present – as they go about living and describing their daily lives. Author Ginzburg, whose style is so unpretentious and seemingly spontaneous that a reader cannot help but become involved in the various narratives, gradually shows how each person protects his/her happiness by doing whatever seems right at the time in order to escape misery, unpleasant consequences, and time-consuming self-analysis. As she reveals her characters, author Ginzburg herself begins to come alive, a person of ironic humor, witty insights, and immense sensitivity to hidden meanings as revealed in seemingly ordinary dialogue.

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Shimada sets this newly translated 1982 “locked room” mystery, the second novel of his career, at the top of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, in a fictional building designed by the main character, Kozaburo Hamamoto. From the outset, the author stresses that Hamamoto’s house is a very special creation, with floors that are not level are not level and a tower with the same five degree tilt as the Tower of Pisa. This unique fictional residence is the setting for a celebration of Christmas, 1983, as owner Kozaburo Hamamoto, a widower, has invited eight guests to spend the holiday weekend with him at the Crooked House, also called the Ice Floe Mansion. The mysteries begin almost immediately. At breakfast time, one guest does not answer his door, and outside the room a dark figure is lying in the snow. As the guests go outside to get closer, they see that there are objects strewn around the figure. The “body,” however, turns out to be one of Hamamoto’s antique puppet dolls from Czechoslovakia – a Golem – with a missing head. When they return to the house, however, they find the body of a chauffeur who has come with one of the guests, stabbed to death with a hunting knife which has a white string attached. Additional crimes occur, and the mysteries become much more complex, eventually requiring the work of a fortune teller, psychic, and self-styled detective to help solve one of the most detailed and complex locked room mysteries ever.

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“Tell me the truth,” I said.
“What truth?” he echoed. He was making a rapid sketch
in his notebook and now he showed me what it was: a long,
long train with a big cloud of black smoke swirling over it,
and himself leaning out of a window to wave a handkerchief.
I shot him between the eyes. – Opening lines of this book.

In The Dry Heart, her first novel after the war, author Natalia Ginzburg deals with the “world writ small” telling the story of the marriage of an uncommunicative and unnamed woman married to an even more uncommunicative man. Less than a hundred words after the novel opens, the conclusion is revealed: “I shot him between the eyes,” a statement of great drama because of the context’s lack of drama. Using the woman’s point of view, the author carefully shifts back and forth in time, illustrating what happens, and more importantly, what often does not happen, in this marriage. Matching her realistic style to the undramatic nature of the marriage, Ginzburg slowly builds the tensions, eventually revealing everything the reader needs to know about the past which will explain the bold admission of murder in the first few words.

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It is almost Christmas in 1921, and Captain Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police Force in Calcutta is running blindly across the rooftops of Chinatown, trying to avoid capture by his own men, who have no idea who they are chasing. An opium addict, as a result of his service in World War I and its aftermath, Sam has spent the evening fighting off his withdrawal symptoms by feeding his habit in an opium den. Then, inexplicably, the police attack. In his desperate efforts to escape, he climbs up through a hatch to a storage attic, where he finds a critically wounded Chinese man with ritualistic injuries – a man in such agony that he musters the last of his strength to try to kill Wyndham with a knife, before expiring. As the police work their way up, Sam escapes across the roof, eventually hiding in a crawlspace, covered with blood and carrying the bent-bladed knife with which the Chinese man tried to kill him.. With all this fast and flamboyant action stuffed into the first ten pages, readers may wonder, as they take a breath, if author Abir Mukherjee is creating a sensational, non-stop narrative to draw the reader into an action-for-its-own-sake story about exotic India and its unusual cultures. Mukherjee, however, has far bigger plans for this novel, both thematically and historically, and as the nonstop action begins, he simultaneously creates a vivid picture of his main character, Sam Wyndham, his problematic personal life, his fears, his role as a police officer trying to maintain control during the British raj in Calcutta, and his questions about why this raid was kept secret from him.

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