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Category Archive for 'Historical'

From the sensual and fully imagined opening paragraphs of this extraordinary work to the intensely personal characterizations of the people who share their stories here, Irish author Joseph O’Connor creates worlds so vibrant that many readers will feel as if they, too, have become part of this novel, its period, and its subjects. O’Connor does not hold back here, creating three artists of the literary and theatrical worlds of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose very lives reflect the Gothic intensity of the age with all its private hopes and failures. Henry Irving, world famous actor; Bram Stoker, theatre manager and frustrated writer; and Ellen Terry, highest paid and most beloved actress in England, all speak to the reader so intimately that their often difficult lives, with all the aches and longings one usually holds inside, begin to emerge in what feel like “private” confidences between the characters and the reader. Sharing the characters’ lives from their early adulthood until, in two cases, their deaths when they are in their sixties, the author allows the reader to share even their self-judgments and their judgments of each other when their public lives are at an end, which gives a broader perspective to their stories. Superb.

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Described by Culture Trip as “the most prominent female writer in twentieth century Hungary,” Magda Szabó (1917 – 2007) was almost unknown in the English speaking world until 2016. Since that time, three more novels have appeared in translation, to outstanding reviews and literary success. Szabo’s novels are dramatic, psychologically intense, and historically focused, emphasizing everyday life and its trials and complexities, often in particular historical moments. A resident of Budapest when the Nazis occupied the country in 1943, author Szabo writes from experience about that fraught time in ABIGAIL. Main character Georgina Vitay, an independent girl of fourteen, is secretly removed from her home and everyone she knows in Budapest and driven overnight by her father to a severe, almost cult-like boarding school in Arkod, eastern Hungary (now Serbia). From the day she arrives, the school controls every aspect of her life, keeping her safe from any major conflicts or warfare to come. Her father, a general in the Hungarian army, also works as a secret agent against the Nazi occupation, and he knows that if the enemy learns where Georgina (Gina) is living, that she could be captured and used as a pawn to force him into betraying his own goals of a free Hungary. As Gina tries to grow up in this difficult atmosphere, the Germans are invading Budapest. Exciting novel also appropriate for Young Adults.

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Saul Indian Horse, who tells this story of his life as an Ojibwe living in a non-native society, is in his thirties as the novel opens, and he is at an alcohol rehabilitation facility to which he has been sent by social workers at the hospital where he has been a patient for six weeks. Now alcohol-free for thirty days, he admits that now it is time for his hardest work to begin. “If we want to live at peace with ourselves, we need to tell our stories.” Saul Indian Horse is just four years old in 1957, when his nine-year-old brother Benjamin disappears. His sister vanished five years before. These kidnappings are all part of a brutal program to separate aboriginal children from their families and their culture, send them to a school where they will live apart from everything and everyone they ever knew, and teach them English and the Canadian school curriculum. Ultimately, the goal is to turn them all into “Canadians,” without connections to their aboriginal past. “I saw kids die of tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, and broken hearts. I saw runaways carried back, frozen solid as boards. I saw wrists slashed and, one time, a young boy impaled on the tines of a pitchfork that he’d shoved through himself.” These children universally yearn for the freedom to be outdoors in nature, sharing the spirits of the earth and sky which have been so much a part of them until now. Fortunately, Saul Indian Horse is able to find some salvation in all this. St. Jerome’s has a hockey team, and he, at age eight, is desperate to be part of it, though he has never played. For Saul, hockey becomes the equivalent of a natural religion.

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When author Marc Petitjean was contacted in Paris by a Mexican writer named Oscar, who wanted to meet him to talk about Marc Petitjean’s father Michel, the author’s interest was piqued. His father, a “left-wing militant” journalist, and associate of avant-garde artists and writers in Paris, had been dead for twenty years. When they met, Oscar pulled out a short manuscript he had written with information acquired from the archives of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, indicating that she had had an affair with Michel Petitjean during the three months she had been in Paris from early January to late March, 1939. An affair between the author’s father and Kahlo was new information to son Marc Petitjohn, who almost dismissed it as “overblown.” Still, Frida Kahlo had given his father one of her best paintings when she returned to Mexico after that three-month visit in 1939. Ultimately, “Oscar’s curiosity kindled my own, and I in turn embarked on researching the lovers’ lives.” The developing love story of Frida Kahlo and Michel Petitjean is inextricably connected with the fraught pre-war political atmosphere of Paris in 1939, the boiling artistic and philosophical ferment of the period, and the close, interconnected friendships among Joan Miro, Kadinsky, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, and “other big cacas of Surrealism.” When she finally departs from France after three months, Michel Petitjean has thought ahead to have letters and notes delivered to her along the way.

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Sonia Purnell’s biography of Virginia Hall honors an American woman whose war-time exploits from 1940 – 1945 were so well planned, so well executed, and so successful in saving lives that she was honored by three countries for her efforts. Born into an upper middle-class family in Baltimore, Virginia Hall graduated from private schools, a highly popular student there for her unconventional attitudes and her leadership capabilities. Always independent, she attended both Radcliffe and Barnard Colleges, then continued her education in Europe, where she also worked in several consulates. She was fluent in five languages. With the German takeover of France and the establishment of the Vichy government, she connected with the newly established British Special Operations Executive there, and in April 1941, she started preparing for her first secret mission in France in an attempt to overthrow the Vichy government and the Nazis. Insistent on maintaining absolute secrecy and taking no other agent for granted, she was able to slip through the traps that often nabbed other SOE agents less meticulous in their behavior. Highly successful, she performed heroically, eventually working for the American OSS. Almost unknown by the American public during her lifetime, she is celebrated here in a meticulously researched book by Sonia Purnell which is both momentous and inspiring to the reader – a true story of heroism for the ages.

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