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Category Archive for 'Non-fiction'

If you think that the machinations, the rumor-mongering, and the outright lies we have seen in the latest election cycle in the United States is as bad as it gets, take a look at journalist John Preston’s latest book of non-fiction about a scandal in England in the 1960s and 1970s. Subtitled “Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament,” Preston’s thoroughly researched and dramatically presented study of MP Jeremy Thorpe and his small coterie of friends and family, both in and out of government, gives new meaning to the idea of political egotism, at the same time that it illustrates a British sense of reserve and a respect for privacy that has now vanished from the press and our own twenty-first century lives. At a time in which there was no internet, no reality TV, and no desire to destroy lives in order to sell newspapers with stories based solely on rumor, Jeremy Thorpe’s crimes would not come to a head and result in a trial until seventeen years had elapsed from his first contact with Norman Scott. Scott claims to have been a victim of rape by Thorpe when he was twenty, followed by several years of homosexual contact, both of which were against the law in the UK in 1960 when the relationship began. NIneteen years would pass before Scott would be vindicated. During that time Jeremy Thorpe came close to being named Prime Minister.

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Author Nellie Hermann’s recreation of two years in the life of Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) breathes with Van Gogh’s earnest attempts to live a productive life while he is also burdened by crushing sadness and isolation. Depicting Van Gogh before he became an artist, she focuses on the years of 1879 and 1880, when Van Gogh was living in a coal mining village in the Borinage mining area of southwest Belgium, near the French border. The young twenty-seven-year-old son of a Dutch Reformed preacher had worked for several years in the Goupil & Cie gallery and its showrooms in the Hague, London, and Paris, before studying theology to become a minister and missionary, like his father. His letters to his younger brother Theo, used as resources by the author, provide intimate glimpses of his life in the Borinage, including the misery he shared with the miners and their families, which his own depression may have exacerbated. Throughout the novel Vincent’s own life develops in great detail, and readers interested in his biography will have plenty to keep them involved and intrigued here. His references to existing paintings that epitomize what he himself is seeing and to scenes which he himself eventually brings to life in his own paintings will please art historians. He puts so much heart into his actions, giving up everything he can from his own life so that the miners can benefit, that he becomes emotionally ill and spiritually at loose ends, and requires intervention from his father and family. A dramatic and insightful novel of a man whose sensitivity exceeded what his heart and mind could bear.

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In this memoir of a man’s life, from his problematic childhood in the rural south Yorkshire mining village of Hoyland Common in the late 1950s, through his current, highly successful adulthood in Sheffield, also in South Yorkshire, author Richard Hines makes total connection with his reader in “gentle and familiar” ways. Rarely, if ever, have I had such a feeling of intimacy with an author as he tells about his life and draws me in completely. The key to his whole life took place when he was just fifteen – the summer that he “manned a kestrel,” a small hawk. The first half of the book focuses on Hines’s childhood, beginning in 1955, when the author is eleven and living in Hoyland Common, a town in the shadow of the coal pits. His father and grandfather both worked in the mines, and as Hines reminisces about family life back then, we see a poor, working family dealing with a typically active young boy, sometimes in trouble, but mostly attentive to the “rules.” Close to his father, who is injured on the job more than once, Richard Hines also admires his brother Barry, six years older and an excellent student, with whom he shares a bedroom. Always a lover of birds and animals, the author keeps a magpie at home, a bird which, having never lost its wildness, terrorizes the neighborhood and inspires him, eventually, to release it into the wild. Not until he is on his way home from a hike to Tankersley Old Hall one afternoon does he see and get close to his first kestrel, a bird he decides that someday he will bring into his life. And he does. Vividly and honestly created and absolutely captivating.

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“On October 27, 1949, at Orly, Air France’s F-BAZN is waiting to receive thirty-seven passengers departing for the United States…[including] Marcel Cerdan… former middleweight boxing champion… and the violin virtuoso Ginette Neveu…. The tabloid France-soir organizes an impromptu photo session in the departure lounge. In the first snapshot, Jean Neveu, Ginette’s brother [is] smiling at her, while Marcel holds her Stradivarius and Ginette grins across at him.” The plane takes off but never arrives in New York – nor does it arrive at the island of Santa Maria in the Azores, where the pilot had planned to refuel for the trip across the Atlantic. All thirty-eight passengers and eleven crew died when the plane crashed into a mountain top fifty-five miles from the airport at Santa Maria. French author Adrien Bosc wastes no time getting into the action of this book, which he calls a novel, though this “novel” is based on real life events and the historical record and feels more like a long piece of journalism or investigative reporting. There is almost no dialogue, something which even “fictionalized biographies” include, and the author interjects himself into the book and speaks directly to the reader, at times, when he is puzzled about the facts as he is uncovering them. Parts of the book feel like a quest story – in this case, the author’s quest for the complete truth about the crash and the fates of all the passengers. Certainly some of the “facts” here are extrapolations which the author himself makes from what he knows, and in that sense the book might qualify as a novel, but most readers will find themselves learning about the crash and its victims, rather than reliving it as one does in pure fiction.

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Brunelleschi’s Dome opens with a description of the city of Florence in 1418, when it is holding a competition for artists or architects to produce a model or design for the vaulting of the main dome of the large new cathedral being built there. Six weeks are allowed for the candidate to produce his sample work for the dome, which will complement the cathedral campanile on which the artist Giotto has worked for twenty years. Because of the proportions of the work already completed, the crowning dome will have to be the highest and widest dome ever built – higher and wider than the 143’ 6” diameter of the Pantheon built in Rome a thousand years earlier and never duplicated. The Gothic architecture popular in the rest of Europe, with its flying buttresses to draw the weight of large arches and domes away from the center of the cathedral, does not appeal to the Florentines, who want something different for their cathedral. The finalists in the competition are Filippo Brunelleschi, a goldsmith and clockmaker, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, a worker in bronze who has designed the doors of the Baptistery of Florence. Detailing the issues that Brunelleschi faced for twenty-five years as he designed and built the dome of the cathedral, Ross King makes the complex engineering and structural feats of building this dome understandable to the lay reader and makes Brunelleschi’s behavior human

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