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Category Archive for 'Non-fiction'

On May 5, 1840, Lord William Russell, a quiet, elderly member of the aristocracy, was found in the bedroom of his unpretentious London townhouse with his throat slit so severely that his head was almost detached. Other wounds to his chest were equally horrifying. The shock of the murder reverberated throughout the city, especially among the upper classes, who well knew his prominent family and that of his deceased wife. This was a period of social change, and London was “teeming with immigrants, the unemployed, and a burgeoning working class who were more literate and organized than ever before.” The winter of 1839 had been one of “mass rallies by Chartists demanding universal suffrage,” and in some places had turned into bloody riots. Over two hundred Chartists had been convicted of high treason for their actions and were transported out of the country. Several fiction writers of the period came under fire for “writing fictions that glamorized vice and made heroes of criminals.” Popular books now were seen by some as “pandering to the lowest…full of violent excitements and vulgarity that could all too easily lead susceptible readers astray,” and a whole genre of “Newgate books,” for the masses, evolved. Claire Harman’s careful research and her eye for telling details, even as she focuses on the broad theme of murder in 1840 and the controversy over whether that is an appropriate subject of fiction, make this an absorbing study. She draws in the reader with her selection of facts and her elucidation of the goals of literature as seen by famed authors of the day, making them almost as compelling as the gruesome realities of real murder.

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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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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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Telling the story of his father’s life, author Johannes Anyuru, the son of a Ugandan father and Swedish mother, focuses on the fraught political climates of several East African countries in the 1970s, when his father was in his early twenties, trying to find some sort of direction and sense of purpose. As a young teen in Uganda in the early 1960s, his father, known here as P, took advantage of a program in Greece which taught him and other young men in Uganda how to fly military aircraft, a program which changed his life. He loves the freedom of the air and sees himself flying professionally. P is an ethnic Langi, belonging to the group to which President Obote of Uganda also belongs, but as the novel opens, Obote has just been deposed in a coup led by Idi Amin. Assumed to be a supporter of Obote, P has no interest in being drafted into the air corps aiding Amin in his bloody rise to power. Secretly escaping his program in Greece by going to Rome, he then flies to Lusaka in Zambia, hoping to start a job he found as a crop-duster. The back and forth narratives of P and his son continue as they try to figure out who they are and where they come from, and require the reader to fill in blanks by making their own connections. For P, the biggest issue is escaping to someplace safe. For his son, it is filling in the blanks in his own life by learning more about who is father is, or has been. P remains full of mysteries, largely because one never knows whether he is telling the whole truth about the things we do know about him.

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“Over the past few decades, Emily Carr’s reputation has soared so high that it now can be argued she is Canada’s best-known artist, historic or contemporary. Her impassioned paintings of the West Coast of Canada – her depiction of the monumental sculpture of British Columbia’s indigenous peoples and of the towering trees and dense undergrowth of the region’s rain forests, executed during the early decades of the twentieth century – have superseded [every other] claim to Canadian wilderness. And to national identity.” – Robin Laurence, “The Making of an Artist,” Introduction, 2005. In this autobiography, Carr shows her superb talent as a writer and observer, concentrating on her feelings and her intense responses to life’s challenges over the seventy-four years she has lived – including her struggles to acquire the skills she needed as a painter on an island where there were few others, her trips to aboriginal villages and her desire to preserve their unique qualities, and her friendships with the Group of Seven which gave her new impetus to continue with her landscape paintings. Lawren Harris, in particular, became a mentor. Fascinating and enlightening story by a woman whose success almost did not happen.

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