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Beyond the Book Articles
Music and the Arts

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Popular Dances of the 1960s-70s and Ballet (05/24)
In The Swans of Harlem, Karen Valby explains how Arthur Mitchell sought to make ballet appealing and relevant to a Black audience. He and his dancers regularly visited schools to give talks and performances. Mitchell loved to point out how ballet could help the students in their daily lives. He'd tell the boys how much higher they could ...
The Qin (05/24)
Music and poetry are a central part of Song of the Six Realms by Judy I. Lin. They are cornerstones of life in the kingdom of Qi and the Celestial world beyond it. Music may entertain but it also expresses feelings Lin's characters can't express with words. Xue'er cannot bring herself to confess she is falling in love with Duke Meng, so ...
The Tangled History of "Strange Fruit" (04/24)
In February 1959, Billie Holiday sang the anti-lynching song she popularized, 'Strange Fruit,' on the London television show Chelsea at Nine. She was battling liver disease because of a prodigious vodka and gin addiction. It was rare for Billie to sing 'Strange Fruit' when she was this physically fragile.

'She just needed a reason to ...
A Short Glossary of Ballet Terms (03/24)
Dances by Nicole Cuffy is a novel filled with the mechanics of ballet. Through the first-person narration of her protagonist Cece, Cuffy portrays the everyday rhythms and realities of dance, creating patterns and scenes with its terminology. While the physicality of this language is an art to be enjoyed in itself, having even a cursory ...
Thomas Gainsborough (03/24)
Emily Howes' enthralling debut novel, The Painter's Daughters, features a fictionalized version of the lives of Molly and Peggy Gainsborough. Their father, Thomas Gainsborough, was one of the most influential British painters of the 18th century.

Gainsborough, born in 1727, was the youngest of John and Mary Gainsborough's nine ...
Puccini's Opera Tosca (03/24)
Roxana Robinson's novel Leaving begins with the protagonists meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House during a production of Tosca. This opera is a tragedy, set in Rome in 1800, during the Napoleonic Wars.

The drama centers around three main characters: Mario Cavaradossi, a painter and Napoleon supporter; Baron Vitellio Scarpia, the ...
Glassworks by Philip Glass (01/24)
In Marie-Helene Bertino's Beautyland, the protagonist, Adina, has a visceral reaction to a song that plays at the end of a movie she sees at the planetarium. 'At the end of the film, they pan through the universe. A song begins. Made out of choppy, repetitive phrases, sturdy in the middle and fragile around the edges, so ...
Gentileschi's Masterpiece: Judith Slaying Holofernes (12/23)
Judith Slaying Holofernes — also referred to as Judith Beheading Holofernes — is widely considered the masterpiece of Italian Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-c.1656), the protagonist of Elizabeth Fremantle's novel Disobedient. It depicts the Biblical tale of the widowed Israelite Judith, with the help of her ...
Taiwan and China's Palace Museums (10/23)
At the end of Fragile Cargo, Adam Brookes' excellent history about how China's cultural treasures were protected during World War II, the author informs his readers that the finest items in the imperial collection were moved to Taipan, Taiwan. They remain there to this day, an ongoing point of contention between Taiwan and China.

...
Grime Music (09/23)
As Olivette Otele references in her book African Europeans: An Untold History, many Black British artists find music to be an effective and far-reaching medium in which to address and explore their heritage and life experiences as people of color. Grime music has become one of the hottest and most vibrant genres to emerge in the UK in the...
The Bylina (09/23)
The bylina, an Old Russian form of epic poetry or song, is referenced in The Story of Russia by Orlando Figes, in which the author notes its ideological significance.

The word 'bylina' (plural: byliny) has its origins in the Russian 'byl,' translating as 'that which happened.' Byliny began to be printed and popularized in the 17th ...
Stravinsky's The Firebird (09/23)
The protagonist in Meg Howrey's novel, They're Going to Love You, is a choreographer, hired to create a new adaptation of Igor Stravinsky's renowned ballet, The Firebird. First staged in Paris in 1910, it is often credited as the show that catapulted the composer to international fame.

The ballet's story is based primarily on the ...
Nazi Plunder (09/23)
In Deanna Raybourn's novel Killers of a Certain Age, four women are betrayed by a fictional organization of assassins they joined that was formed to hunt down and kill former Nazis after the end of World War II and the fall of the Third Reich. Part of the organization's goal is recovering any artworks the Nazis may have looted and hoarded...
The Beginnings of British Ballet (09/23)
Lucy Ashe's The Dance of the Dolls is populated by historical figures whose presence in the fictional narrative enmeshes the story within the real history of British ballet. Long associated with the royal courts of France and Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries, the art form only became established in Britain in the early 20th century. ...
Street Artist Shepard Fairey (08/23)
In Kevin Wilson's Now Is Not the Time to Panic, the main characters decide to anonymously make a piece of art and post it publicly. This idea is part of a larger street art aesthetic that encompasses everyone from unknown graffiti artists to international superstar Banksy. One of the most famous street artists, one who got his start with ...
The Automaton: Tipu's Tiger (08/23)
Central to the plot of Loot is the magnificent Tipu's Tiger, the wooden automaton that Abbas, a young Muslim woodcarver, creates in the 1790s in collaboration with the French inventor and clock maker Lucien Du Leze at the request of their ruler, Tipu Sultan.

According to the Mechanical Art and Design Museum (MAD), the word automata...
It's Raining Men: René Magritte's Golconda (1953) (07/23)
In Sloane Crosley's novel Cult Classic, protagonist Lola is swept up in an experiment run by a secret society called the Golconda: The society's leader has manufactured a way to induce many of Lola's ex-boyfriends to appear, one at a time, in downtown Manhattan, so that she can confront them and achieve closure. The society is named ...
Harvard's Glass Flowers (06/23)
Olivia Wolfgang-Smith's novel Glassworks begins with the heroine employing a Czech glass artist to create a collection of realistic flora and fauna for her university in Boston. In interviews, the author has stated that she was inspired by Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, a father-and-son team who created thousands of remarkably detailed ...
The Portrait of Mao at Tiananmen Square (06/23)
Though Chairman Mao Zedong's legacy is a contentious subject in China, his portrait still presides over the gates of Tiananmen Square, the symbolic heartland of the nation. The enormous oil painting, measuring 6.4 by 5 meters and weighing 1.5 tons, was first put in place in 1949, shortly after Mao's Communist Party wrested power from the ...
Chinese Handscrolls (03/23)
The family at the center of Peach Blossom Spring carries a handscroll with them as they flee their home in the Hunan Province of China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The scroll illustrates a fable, the significance of which grows and changes for main character Renshu over the course of his life. The handscroll has been a form of art...
The Music and Writing of Sasha LaPointe (03/23)
Sasha LaPointe, the author of Red Paint: The Ancestral Autobiography of a Coast Salish Punk, is an established musician, poet and writer of nonfiction who holds an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. According to her website, she draws inspiration from her Indigenous background (from the Upper Skagit and Nooksack Indian tribes...
Writing Residencies (03/23)
In Lee Cole's Groundskeeping, the protagonist is offered a fellowship to take up the (fictional) Harry Crews Cottage writing residency in Florida, and his love interest is the writer-in-residence on their shared college campus in Kentucky. Writing residencies vary greatly in terms of what they entail. Some can be like a free working ...
The Evolution of the Pipe Organ (03/23)
The protagonist of James Runcie's novel, The Great Passion, is an organist and organ builder. The pipe organ has been referred to as the 'king of musical instruments' due to its size, complexity and power. Though its structure is similar to that of a piano, it has not one keyboard but as many as seven, plus a pedalboard played with the ...
The Booth Family and Shakespeare in the 19th Century United States (02/23)
Karen Joy Fowler's Booth features several characters who are Shakespearean actors, starting with Junius Brutus Booth, who was born in England in 1796 and emigrated to the United States in 1821. He managed the Adelphi Theatre in Baltimore in the 1830s and also toured internationally, becoming very well-known in the U.S. and abroad. All ...
"Degenerate Art" in Nazi Germany (02/23)
In David R. Gillham's Shadows of Berlin, the protagonist's mother was a modern artist whose work was banned by the Hitler Regime.

Adolf Hitler didn't originally intend to have a career in politics, planning instead to be a professional artist. In 1907 at the age of 18, he applied to Vienna's Academy of Fine Arts, but was rejected &#...
The Photography of Spencer Ostrander (02/23)
Thanks to the numerous photographs that accompany Paul Auster's prose, Bloodbath Nation reads like an extended photo essay, the combination of words and pictures creating a truly indelible work. The images were recorded by New York City–based photographer Spencer Ostrander, for whom this work is deeply personal.

Ostrander, who ...
The Famous Forgeries of Han van Meegeren (01/23)
In Con/Artist, Tony Tetro explains the value of provenance, meaning how a painting came to be in a seller's possession. Sometimes, the provenance of a forgery is what we remember. In 1945, Dutch police arrested Han van Meegeren for collaborating with Nazis by selling them art. During the trial, van Meegeren explained what really...
The Influence of Pygmalion in Art and Entertainment (01/23)
Tracing Jennieke Cohen's My Fine Fellow and its influences through time offers a fascinating thread stretching back all the way to the ancient Greeks.

Cohen's novel is a playful reworking of the musical My Fair Lady, about a snobbish English professor determined to make over a Cockney flower seller. The musical was written by composer ...
The Work of Mark Rothko (11/22)
The story 'Rothko, Rothko' in Gish Jen's collection Thank You, Mr. Nixon features an art forger who is dedicated to mimicking the work of the abstract painter Mark Rothko. Known for his depictions of intensely colored rectangular figures, Rothko is considered one of the most notable artists of the 20th century.

An American of Latvian ...
Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne (10/22)
In Freya Sampson's novel The Lost Ticket, Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne is a central motif. The painting first comes up in a conversation between the character Frank and an admirer he encounters on the London 88 bus, and it continues to reflect relationships between characters throughout. The mythological relationship between Bacchus ...
Haitian Art (09/22)
In the back matter of What Storm, What Thunder, author Myriam J. A. Chancy cites paintings by Trinidadian artist LeRoy Clarke (who passed away in July 2021) as a major inspiration for her novel. Clarke created a cycle of nearly a hundred paintings about Haiti, many of them depicting the 2010 earthquake. Similarly, Chancy was moved to ...
Misogynistic Themes in Murder Ballads (07/22)
In The Killing Hills, which takes place in Kentucky, misogyny manifests in attitudes toward key female characters, notably the town sheriff. Additionally, the act of femicide is a central theme and a reminder of cultural aspects of female subjugation, including the murder ballad, a song format that is notably popular as a sub-genre of ...
The Nutcracker (06/22)
Megan Abbott's The Turnout, a novel about two twin sisters who are dancers, begins at the start of The Nutcracker season. Apart from being a universally beloved show with deep roots in American ballet, The Nutcracker is also the Durant School of Dance's main moneymaker: 'Every year, their fall enrollment increased twenty percent because ...
The Four Treasures of Chinese Calligraphy (05/22)
In Four Treasures of the Sky, heroine Daiyu arrives at Master Wang's calligraphy school as an orphan looking for work. She quickly becomes his best student as she learns about the titular four treasures: brush, ink, paper and ink stone. Since the time of the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420–589 CE), these items have been ...
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe (04/22)
In Julietta Henderson's The Funny Thing About Norman Foreman, the title character is a 12-year-old boy who wants to perform his stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Also known as 'the Edinburgh Fringe' or simply 'the Fringe,' this event started out as an unofficial offshoot of the Edinburgh International Festival in Edinburgh...
John Coltrane's Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (01/22)
Sarah Schalansky's book An Inventory of Losses introduces readers to an eclectic group of 12 things that no longer exist, from extinct species to ruined castles. But early on, Schalansky notes that sometimes the opposite happens — something is pulled back into public consciousness after a period of dormancy. One of these things is ...
The Gardner Museum Heist (10/21)
The Last Mona Lisa is a fictionalized account of the real 1911 theft of the famous da Vinci painting of the title. Despite extensive investigation, it took more than two years for the painting to be recovered and returned to the Louvre. Other art heists don't have such happy outcomes: Sometimes stolen paintings are damaged or destroyed, ...
Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) (10/21)
In Susannah Clarke's novel Piranesi, the titular character lives in a fantastical, labyrinthine home filled with endless hallways, rooms, statues and even an ocean. It's a remarkably inventive setting, and, as our savvy First Impressions reader Lorraine D. noticed, the protagonist's name is a reference to a likely source of inspiration ...
Dadaism (09/21)
In The Gallery of Miracles and Madness, Charlie English connects the psychological effects of World War I to the evolving art scene in the early decades of the 20th century. The war not only killed upwards of 20 million people, but it also had an enormous impact on European culture in the decades after the guns fell silent in 1918. One of...
Fairuz: The Voice of Lebanon (09/21)
Fairuz is a Lebanese singer and actress, often hailed as the voice of Lebanon and the voice of hope. Having recorded over 1,500 songs and sold over 100 million records, her body of work is vast and globally admired.

Born in the Chouf region in the 1930s with the name Nuhad al-Haddad, her family moved to Beirut when she was young. It ...
Art Restoration and Conservation (08/21)
In Dirk Wittenborn's The Stone Girl, the main character, Evie, is an art restorer who specializes in repairing statues. Art restoration is the professional process of repairing works of art that have been subjected to the effects of damage or age, including paintings, sculptures and architecture. The restoration of art is somewhat ...
A History of the Vegas Showgirl (06/21)
Dario Diofebi's novel Paradise, Nevada takes a look into the world of the Las Vegas working woman, including the iconic Vegas showgirl. The last traditional showgirl extravaganza, 'Jubilee,' was shut down in 2016 after a 34-year run, pushed out by competition from other entertainments catering to more modern and family-friendly tastes. ...
Top of the Pops (05/21)
David Mitchell's novel Utopia Avenue centers around a fictional British pop band in the turbulent years of 1967 and 1968. Acts popular in both the United States and Britain included the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who, the Supremes, the Byrds, the Kinks, Aretha Franklin… and ...
The Oud (04/21)
In previous 'beyond the book' articles we've looked at different aspects of contemporary Syria - such as its culture and the refugee crisis. Now, we take a look at its music through a close up look at one of the Muslim world's most popular instruments.

Aeham Ahmad, author of The Pianist from Syria, owned a music store with his father ...
Looking Back On Mississippi Burning (1988) (02/21)
In December 1988, the controversial crime-thriller movie Mississippi Burning was released. It follows two FBI agents — played by Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe — who investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers. The agents' efforts to solve the case are hindered by a hostile local police force and the Ku Klux ...
Artistic and Religious Representations of Angels in Pet (01/21)
In Pet, Jam is fascinated by angels. Through her mother, an artist, she is aware that monsters do not necessarily look scary, and angels can be visually mistaken for monsters, especially when they are of the avenging variety. Her friend Ube the librarian helps her find books full of artwork depicting angels. Jam is surprised to see that ...
Children's Art of the Holocaust (10/20)
In Alice Hoffman's novel The World That We Knew, Julien, 14, escapes occupied Paris and finds temporary refuge at a rural chateau-turned-orphanage. He tutors math and participates in art workshops there. The displaced children survive day-to-day, and are encouraged to express themselves with drawing and painting.

An important collection...
The Rise of the Celebrity Chef (08/20)
Jeff Gordinier, the author of Hungry (about his travels with René Redzepi), dates the concept of the modern celebrity chef to 1990, when Marco Pierre White, a London chef with a famously fiery temper, released the cookbook White Heat. A decade later, Anthony Bourdain, who had a similar bad-boy image powered by sex and drug use, ...
Dr. Zhivago, the Movie (08/20)
The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott revolves around the publication of Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel Dr. Zhivago, which was banned in the Soviet Union because of the author's perceived anti-socialist ideals. The novel was adapted into a film in 1965 by British director David Lean (famous at the time for Lawrence of Arabia), starring Omar ...
Chopin's Farewell Waltz (08/20)
In Your House Will Pay, one of author Steph Cha's characters is a gregarious, astute journalist called Jules Searcey, who is known for writing about issues related to political and racial dissent. He penned a breakthrough book based on his reporting called Farewell Waltz: The Life and Death of Ava Matthews, which covered the murder of a ...
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