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Category Archive for 'Non-fiction'

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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Although author Herman Wouk talks about writing as a crapshoot, he himself also had a talent for being in the right place at the right time, recognizing new opportunities and new avenues of communication (such as television) as they have arisen. This talent, combined with his incredible dedication to long-range goals and seemingly unlimited energy – several times spending seven or eight years on a single book – led to popular success as well as literary recognition. Though many people over the years have suggested he write an autobiography, he has always been reticent about his private life, and his wife even told him, “Dear, you’re not that interesting a person.” This book, which he has declared will be his last, is a memoir, but in it, Wouk limits its scope to his work and the people and events which influenced it. About the author, one learns only as much as he deems necessary to understand how and why he wrote what he did. One of the most ambitious and principled writers of the past century ,Wouk has said that this book is his last. With a career which has spanned comedy, serious historical fiction, popular fiction, philosophy, and religion, Wouk has sold hundreds of thousands of books and had a major impact on the people and the culture of this country. He will be one-hundred-one years old on May 27, 2016, but with his energy, I would not bet anything on this book being his last.

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In this unusual approach to memoir writing, Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano presents all aspects of his life from his earliest memories until he turns twenty-one, without embroidering them, without drawing conclusions about who he is as a result of them, and without moralizing, excusing, or apologizing. It is as complete a record of his life as he can apparently remember or resurrect from records, with numerous references to people and places that were important to him but that most American readers will not recognize. The result feels more like an objective research tool for students of Modiano’s work rather than what one finds in memoirs written by other, more loquacious, authors. Those who have read a novel like Suspended Sentences, for example, cannot help but believe that much, if not most, of that novel is autobiographical. Here in this memoir, however, Modiano gives only the basic outlines of the events at the heart of that novel, forcing the reader to conclude that the action in this and other novels has been embellished, developed, and described in ways which make for great fiction, whether or not it is completely true. An unusual view of the past and its memories.

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