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Category Archive for 'Historical'

Author Anne Enright, the Irish author of this novel about fictional actress Katherine O’Dell, recreates the “life” that Katherine led publicly as opposed the “real” life she is said to have kept hidden. Enright, a superbly controlled author, faced a daunting task in creating the lives of her characters here without resorting to the sensationalism her main character/author Norah scorns. Throughout her career, Enright has specialized in showing the values and attitudes at play within complex but intimate family dynamics, varying her points of view and time frames to allow the reader to draw conclusions about one character because of events which reflect the lives of other characters in other generations and times. She is often so subtle that readers become lulled into sharing the lives of her characters before they have a chance to evaluate who and what the characters are doing and saying and what this means about life and their attitudes toward it. In Actress, Anne Enright is especially concerned with the fictions people create for their own reasons, including fame. Three generations, reflecting different times and points of view, make this novel a complex study of how people often recreate their own memories to make them more palatable, while drawing conclusions, often false, about the realities of other people

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In a novel about the French intellectual elite who live confidently and proudly at the very margins of society in the early twentieth century, author Rupert Thomson explores the lives and loves of two women who live on their own terms at the very margin of social acceptance. Avant-garde in their personal beliefs throughout their lives, they become close friends when they first meet in 1909 when Lucie Schwob is fourteen and Suzanne Malherbe is seventeen. Suzanne and Lucie are actually aided in the development of their relationship when Lucie’s father and her institutionalized mother divorce, and he marries Suzanne’s widowed mother. Now stepsisters, the two can to be together all the time, without causing gossip. Traveling frequently between Nantes, Paris, and the island of Jersey, off the coast of France, for summer vacations, they explore their new lives “as sisters.” As they grow up, they become part of the avant-garde artists and philosophers in Paris, eventually being forced to leave for the Channel Islands as World War II breaks out. Following their story from 1920 to 1970, Rupert Thomson creates a fascinating story of two very unusual women.

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Poet-author Serge Pey grew up among the Republican partisans and anarchists who participated in the Spanish Civil War and were brutally defeated by Generalissimo Francisco Franco’s army in 1939. His family, like those of many other defeated fighters, escaped to France in the aftermath of the war, but were confined to internment camps within France as soon as they were captured. Author Pey, born in 1950, has obviously grown up knowing his family’s stories during the Spanish Civil War and in the internment camps in France, and his own values and beliefs in freedom have been molded by the culture within them. Here in this collection of often interconnected stories, he provides glimpses of a unique and powerful culture, the product of the lives lived by his family and their friends during and immediately after the Spanish Civil War. Filled with dramatic events, symbols, and hidden messages, this book is more than literary fiction. It is true literature, a collection of writings which inspire thoughtful reflection on life itself and share the ideas of its characters and author, a work which many readers will enjoy reading again and again and again.

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DRESSED FOR A DANCE IN THE SNOW by Monika Zgustova is a collection of nine true stories about some of Russia’s brightest and most creative women who have defied life as it exists in those old epic romances – presenting, instead, the dark, often horrific revelations they have personally survived in the Gulags and prisons which they endured during the Stalinist years. Where the title deserves its happy image is that these women not only survived their near starvation and imprisonments but also came to some kind of peace regarding their torture. “The Gulag, just because it’s so terrible,” one woman says, “is also rewarding. That extreme suffering teaches you about yourself, about the people around you, and about human beings in general.” Svetlana Alliluiyeva, daughter of Stalin, is mentioned briefly in this book, in addition to Boris Pasternak (who shows up in two chapters), composer Sergei Prokofief, poet Marina Tsevetaeva, and briefly Joan Baez.

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Focusing on elderly teacher Elsa Weiss and her life story, Israeli author Michal Ben-Naftali develops the character of this teacher in Israel into a stunning novel about aspects of the Holocaust and its effects unlike any other that I have read in my many years of reviewing. This novel has surprises on every page, differing from most other “Holocaust novels” in that it does not follow the customary pattern of presenting innocent victims, the horrors they face from the Nazis, their crises, and the new lives developed in the aftermath of the war. Instead, author Michal Ben-Naftali presents in Elsa Weiss, a woman who has hidden her personal details and personality throughout the Holocaust and even afterward, a woman who has become virtually anonymous, someone whose life feels peripheral to the horrors of the 1940s, someone who survives the wartime savagery in part because she blends in. Dramatic and thought-provoking, this novel abandons the traditional visions of Holocaust survivors and their stories, presenting Elsa Weiss in a series of seemingly hopeless situations from which she believes she can escape and does. The aftereffects of her survival on her values and sense of identity, however, show her spending the remainder of her life trying on some level to erase her naive decisions and to atone for her mistakes.

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