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Category Archive for 'Historical'

In the alternative universe of Christine Coulson’s collection of stories from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, inanimate paintings and sculptures can think, feel, and speak. These “speakers,” their conflicts, and their points of view vary widely – and surprisingly – from a robust man who speaks as the invisible charcoal underdrawing on a 1545 canvas by Venetian painter Tintoretto, to an insightful chair which describes its memories of a sobbing of little eight-year-old in the Ducal Palace of Parma in 1749. Paintings and sculptures from all time periods reveal their own thoughts as they vie to be chosen the Perfect Muse, the lucky winner of which will accompany Michel Larousse, the Director of the Museum, to an important meeting. A variety of human characters reveal their jobs and their special commitments to the Met and their favorite artworks. The scale and scope are limited only by the museum’s artwork itself, and its settings include all the galleries, many of which are created to resemble the original settings of the work displayed in them.

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With a first chapter set at the Stork Club, where Oona O’Neill, then a sixteen-year-old “voluptuous child,” sits at Walter Winchell’s Table 50, author Jerome Charyn creates a mood of wild nights and war-fueled abandon in New York shortly after the recent Pearl Harbor attack. Oona, young daughter of Nobel-Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, is waiting for her beau, J. D. Salinger (Sonny) and an evening of fun and dance. That night Salinger receives his draft notice to appear immediately at Fort Dix for counterintelligence work for the US. He spends the next three years at war in Europe, and everything changes. Those whose familiarity with the life of J. D. Salinger focuses primarily on his hermit-like existence later in life, will find his early activities from 1942 – 1946, detailed in the opening chapters at the Stork and in the crises he faces throughout the war, particularly insightful of his life and personality. Author Jerome Charyn is particularly careful to connect the events in ways which allow the reader to feel the traumas and horrors and to gain some understanding of the dramatic changes in his personality after the war.

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Few authors convey the inner thoughts of characters with the insight and sensitivity of Hungarian author Magda Szabo, and this novel may be one of her most insightful. Setting the novel in Hungary in the 1960s, the novel is surprisingly non-political, though the failed revolution of 1956 against their Soviet occupiers is a recent memory for her characters. The novel, dealing with the subject of love and how one expresses it, focuses not on one main character, but on four main characters, two men and two women of different generations and commitments. Creating a novel which is almost totally character-based, Szabo uses the plot primarily to provide incidents which reveal character. When Vince, husband of elderly Ettie, dies in a hospital, Ettie might have come into her own as a personality, but daughter Iza soon decides to become heavily involved in “helping” her mother in her day-to-day life. Each tries to do what is “right,” but so many gaps exists in their understanding of each other, based, in large part on their very real differences in background, history, personality, and generation, that their connection becomes frayed. Other connections involving other characters face additional problems. Presented honestly and personally, author Magda Szabo creates her characters and their stories, giving them additional depth and universality by organizing them into four parts – Earth, Fire, Water, and Air, as she tells their stories of elemental love.

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The Game of the Gods, by Paolo Maurensig, just released, focuses primarily on the people who play chess, their feelings about playing, and what the game means to them, not on the specifics of the game itself. As the story of a former, almost forgotten chess champion from India develops, it weaves such a spell about chess and those who play it that even those, like me, who are not chess fanatics, can become totally absorbed in the story of Sultan Khan. His early life as a low-caste Indian, his experiences as he masters the game and begins to play on the international level, and the effects of the game on his personal life make him seem so “human” that the author is also able to elevate the narrative beyond the personal to include the history of the game, its mysteries, and the philosophies which give it religious status for many players. Its likable characters of varying cultures and different outlooks add breadth to the characterizations, themes, and visions of life. Though the novel would have benefited from a tighter plot with fewer locations, few novels these days have as much élan as this one does. I recommend it highly to those looking for some fresh insights into new worlds at a time in which many are desperately searching for a change of pace.

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Young main character Willis Wu spends the most important parts of his life at the Golden Palace, a Chinese restaurant/film studio in an unnamed time period in an unnamed English-speaking city. As Willis, whose parents were immigrants, lives his life there and in the broader enclave of Chinatown, his creator, author Charles Yu, explores Willis’s reality, quickly constructing level upon level of different “realities” and creating an experimental novel, often satiric, which includes the reader from the opening pages. Willis, an actor in a film being made in off-hours at the Golden Palace, is realistic in evaluating his chances at improving his role from that of Background Oriental Male to his ideal role, that of Kung Fu Guy, the hero. As Willis plays his part, hoping to make “progress,” the role of US immigration policy on his life and the lives of his family and friends becomes clearer. A unique novel dealing with the subject of immigration with irony, humor, and a sense of understanding for the victims and the lives they sometimes choose to live.

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