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Beyond the Book Articles
People, Eras & Events

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Sherman's March To the Sea (01/17)
Fallen Land is set during the end of the Civil War and describes a landscape in the aftermath of Major General William Tecumseh Sherman's clamp-down of Georgia through which he delivered one of the definitive end points of the war between Union and Confederate forces.

Fallen Land describes the ravages wrought by the General's tactics, ...
The French Enlightenment (01/17)
The intellectually febrile period between the early 1600s and the late 1700s which saw an unsurpassed expansion in humankind's understanding of the world around us, particularly in the arenas of science (especially physics), and social and political philosophy, later came to be known as The Age of Enlightenment, also known as the Age of ...
Mohammad Mossadegh (01/17)
In Gardens of Consolation, one of the main characters becomes a supporter of Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, who served from 1951 – 1953 until he was ousted in a coup d'état backed by the American CIA and the British SIS.

Mossadegh was born in Tehran in 1882 into a well-connected ...
Dorothea Dix: Passionate Advocate for the Mentally Ill (01/17)
One of the main themes in A Question of Mercy is mental illness. And if you search for information on its history in the United States, the name Dorothea Dix keeps appearing.

In 1802, Dorothea Dix was born into a reportedly unhappy home in Hampden, Maine. Her parents were neglectful alcoholics: her mother was incapacitated by severe ...
The Jazz Age: A Quick Tour (01/17)
A Certain Age is set in the 1920s in America, known as the Jazz Age.

The author F. Scott Fitzgerald whose novel, The Great Gatsby was one of the defining publishing events of the decade, labeled the Jazz Age so because jazz as a music form became increasingly popular during this time especially in big cities like New York and Chicago.

Jim Crow Laws (12/16)
Patrick Phillips' non-fiction book Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America examines a specific rape and murder of a white girl that occurred in 1912, in Forsyth County, Georgia. It also examines, more broadly, the South during that time. Following the end of the Civil War and the passage of Constitutional Amendments Thirteen ...
Reiving (11/16)
In the 14th century, the land on either side of the border between England and Scotland became known as the 'Border Country' or 'The Borders.' This area, where Fair Helen is set, was frequently used as a thoroughfare by English and Scottish armies, and consequently the residents were constantly impoverished as the militias sought to ...
Thorstein Bunde Veblen (11/16)
The economist Thorstein Bunde Veblen, a frequent point of reference (and the main character's namesake) in Elizabeth McKenzie's The Portable Veblen, was born in Wisconsin in 1857. Veblen is famous for the concept of 'conspicuous consumption,' or spending more on things than they are worth to make a show of one's class.

He was the ...
Prohibition in Vermont (11/16)
Press, the protagonist of In the Country of the Blind, lives in Vermont near a forgotten trail that rum-runners used to smuggle alcohol into the United States during Prohibition. 'The Nobel Experiment,' as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was called, was an attempt at social engineering lasting from 1920 to 1933.

Section 1 ...
America's First Ransom Note (11/16)
In People of the Broken Neck, a series of mysterious messages, scribbled in salt, follow the Sawyers as they flee from the authorities all across the country. Cryptic communications, especially when interlinked with crimes, have always been intriguing, and the ones in this novel reminded me of ransom notes even if they make no overt ...
Occupy Wall Street (11/16)
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size Of a Fist is built around the 1999 street protest in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. Its core message of capitalism and globalization smothering the lifeblood out of an individual has been mirrored in demonstrations before and since, most notably in the Occupy Wall Street movement that was ...
Kurt Cobain (10/16)
In 'Nirvana,' the opening story in Adam Johnson's Fortune Smiles, the main character's wife, Charlotte, is paralyzed from the shoulders down. She lies in bed and listens to the rock band Nirvana, as if the band's frontman, Kurt Cobain, was the only person who could understand her despair.

'It's not you,' she says. 'I just need my ...

Eccentric British Noblemen (10/16)
William John Cavendish-Bentinck-Scott, 5th Duke of Portland and the eponymous 'Dead Duke' of Piu Marie Eatwell's book, was undeniably eccentric. He was extremely reclusive, never inviting anyone to his home at Welbeck Abbey and prohibiting his servants and workmen from acknowledging his presence in any way (any who did were immediately ...
Wallace Stevens (10/16)
The title of the story collection, Thirteen Ways of Looking, is a reference to a poem, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. This poem, a stanza of which prefaces each chapter of McCann's novella, was written by Wallace Stevens in 1923.

Stevens, an American poet, was born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1879. A Harvard graduate and ...
Julius and Ethel Rosenbergs' Children (09/16)
Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, accused of being Soviet spies, are at the center of Jill Cantor's novel, The Hours Count. After their marriage in 1939 the Rosenbergs moved to New York City's Knickerbocker Village where they lived with their two sons, Michael and Robert (renamed John and Richie in the book), until their arrests on ...
Geoffrey Pyke's Genius (09/16)
Geoffrey Pyke, the subject of The Ingenious Mr Pyke, was a man of many talents; his interests were as varied as they were obsessive. To understand them, we need look no further than two of his most successful projects, The Malting House School and the development of a remarkable substance which became known as 'pykrete.'

The Malting ...
Julian Assange (08/16)
In Purity, Andreas Wolf, who starts The Sunlight Project to expose corruption worldwide, is often compared to Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks.

A computer scientist by training, Assange was named to Forbes magazine's 'Most Powerful People' list in 2010 for being the 'genius provocateur behind Wikileaks, hard at work providing ...
Operation Pied Piper (08/16)
In Crooked Heart, Noel Bostock, aged 10, is evacuated from London during World War II. The evacuations that took place in British cities at this time constitute the biggest and most concentrated mass movement of people in the country's history.

Known as Operation Pied Piper, the planned evacuation began in September 1939. Britain and ...
Who were Ghazali and Ibn Rushd? (08/16)
Those versed in Muslim philosophy and theology have probably heard of both Ghazali and Ibn Rushd, but when I first read Two Years Eight Months Twenty-Eight Months I thought they were fictional. When I discovered they were real people who had written the books Rushdie talks about, I decided to find out more about them.

Ghazali of Tus, ...
Flights to the West: Soviet Defections during the Cold War (07/16)
When Svetlana Alliluyeva, Joseph's Stalin's only daughter, took the impulsive decision on 6 March, 1967, to enter the American Embassy in New Delhi and request political asylum, she took the world by surprise. Becoming an instant celebrity, she was feted in the United States (her adopted country), and was widely reported on in the world's...
Yolande of Aragon (07/16)
Popular history remembers Joan of Arc but not so much Yolande of Aragon (1384 – 1442) who, according to Helen Castor's Joan of Arc, was more influential in placing Charles VII on the throne of France than 'The Maid of Orleans,' or indeed of the rather weak-natured Charles himself.

Yolande of Aragon The kingdom of Aragon was a wealthy, ...
A Glimpse of Beryl Markham (07/16)
Paula McLain's new historical fiction, Circling the Sun is the story of Beryl Markham, an aviatrix whose incredible flight accomplishments took a back seat to the more famous Amelia Earhart. A number of books have tried to shine the light on this British daredevil who, in many ways, was ahead of her time – Straight on Till Morning ...
The Oregon Trail (06/16)
One of the defining qualities of the American character has always been restlessness. But even within the traditions of that locomotive impulse, the so-called 'Great Migration of 1843' stands out as a singularly significant upheaval in the history of continental relocation – and a central concern of Rinker Buck's The Oregon Trail: ...
The Gujarat Riots: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Tainted Legacy (05/16)
In The Association of Small Bombs, the 2002 Gujarat Riots become the rationale for a bombing as terrorists seek revenge against then Chief Minister (and current Indian Prime Minister) Narendra Modi.

The incident began in the western Indian state of Gujarat on February 27, 2002. A train carrying Hindu pilgrims was parked at a station ...
Settling Western Canada (05/16)
In Patrick Gale's A Place Called Winter, he describes how Harry Cane comes across an office for Canadian emigration, and decides that moving abroad to become a homesteader/farmer in Canada is the solution to keeping the scandal of his being homosexual away from his family. Most people know something about the American push to settle the ...
The Space Race (05/16)
Much of The Last Pilot revolves around the United States' participation in the technological contest between the US and the Soviet Union involving conquests in outer space.

The Space Race had its origins in Nazi Germany prior to the outbreak of World War II. Military scientists and engineers designed ballistic missiles and liquid-...
The Real-Life Kopp Sisters (05/16)
Girl Waits With Gun is historical fiction based on the true-life accounts of the Kopp sisters of New Jersey, whose lives were irrevocably changed after one roadside incident when their horse-driven buggy was damaged by a car.

The car's owner, Henry Kaufman, was a local industrialist who, along with his brother, owned a silk dyeing ...
The Mighty Lusitania (05/16)
Greg King and Penny Wilson's Lusitania commemorates the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the great ship by exploring its glamorous passengers and the fateful torpedo that highlighted a microcosm of the elegant Edwardian era and possibly initiated the U.S. involvement in World War I (WWI).

In 1915, after the beginning of WWI, a German ...
The Fall of Saigon (04/16)
Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut The Sympathizer vividly describes the fall of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the opening chapters as the narrator is transported out of the city along with a host of fellow citizens who have served the American cause in some way.

April 30, 2015 marked the fortieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon. ...
Porcia Catonis (04/16)
In The Death of Caesar, author Barry Strauss touches on the lives of some of the women surrounding the conspirators, including Brutus's wife Porcia Catonis, the daughter of Brutus's uncle Cato the Younger, and perhaps, the only woman who knew about the conspiracy to assassinate Caesar.

Much of Porcia's life is undocumented. It's ...
Child Soldiers in the Yugoslavian Civil War (04/16)
The Civil War that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia consisted of a number of separate but related ethnic conflicts spanning the period 1991 to 2001. Sara Novic's debut novel, Girl at War, zeroes in on the Croatian War of Independence, which lasted from 1991 to 1995.

The United Nations estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 child soldiers (some ...
The Challenger Disaster (04/16)
'The day I fell in love with Lindy Simpson was January 28, 1986. This was also the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and seven courageous astronauts died. I was eleven years old and in fifth grade.'

Although not a historical novel, M.O. Walsh's My Sunshine Away evokes a real sense of the recent past when the narrator, fourteen...
The Diaries of Marie Vassiltchikov and the Goncourt Brothers (03/16)
In The Folded Clock, which is a curated selection of Julavits' journal entries over two years, she writes about reading diaries by Franz Kafka and Virginia Woolf. These are two giants of twentieth-century literature and thought, but Julavits also references other less well-known practitioners of the craft, including Marie Vassiltchikov (...
Espionage in Wartime: An Unlikely Trio Of Spies (03/16)
In Too Bad to Die, the central character is author Ian Fleming whose career path started out in the British office of naval war intelligence. This piqued my curiosity about other writers in espionage.

Ian Fleming, Julia Child, and Noel Coward had little in common growing up but all three were heavily involved in wartime espionage. ...
The Myth of the American Cowboy (03/16)
In a chapter toward the middle of her novel, Epitaph, Mary Doria Russell includes an excerpt of a letter penned by Oscar Wilde, in England, to Harry Wood, editor of one of Tombstone's newspapers, The Nugget. In it, he inquires whether the editor could 'obtain for me a good specimen of the genus Homo known as the cow-boy.' The note ...
Rabindranath Tagore (02/16)
Set in 1980s London, Odysseus Abroad features a young Bengali protagonist Ananda Sen, who is in the city to study poetry — 'his sights were set on the Olympian, the Parnassian: especially getting published in Poetry Review.' The elephant in the room is the greatest of all Bengali poets, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941). Even if the ...
Estonia During World War II (02/16)
When the Doves Disappeared is set in Estonia during WWII and the 1960s. The characters are very much shaped by the war and react to it in different ways.

In 1939, as World War II created major players on the world stage, the USSR and Germany shook hands on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that corralled a number of Eastern European ...
New Orleans' Levees (02/16)
Though Hurricane Katrina did strike a mighty blow, it was only part of the catastrophe that befell New Orleans. As Sheri Fink writes in Five Days at Memorial, 'Katrina rapidly lost strength after moving onto land. The rain lessened and the winds began to ease by late morning. The water level outside Memorial stabilized at about three feet...
Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Etc. But First, They Have to Stand in Line (02/16)
Before Ellis Island became the 'Welcome to America' sign for about 12 million immigrants from 1892 to 1954, Castle Garden on the waterfront at the tip of Manhattan was the first official immigration hub. From 1855 to 1890 it took in over 8 million immigrants mostly from Northern Europe.

However, worsening conditions in Europe ensured a...
Jedediah Strong Smith (02/16)
Author Shannon Burke bases many of his characters and events in Into the Savage Country on the lives and adventures of real-life American frontiersmen and trappers, the most famous of whom is Jedediah Strong Smith.

Smith was born on January 6, 1798 in Jericho, New York (now known as Bainbridge). The fourth of 12 children, he grew ...
The Sri Lankan Civil War (01/16)
The country of Sri Lanka covers an area of just over 25,000 square miles. Located off the southern tip of India, the island has been called 'the pearl of the Indian Ocean' due to to its shape, location, and natural beauty. Separated from India by about 18 miles at its closest point it is believed that there was a land bridge between it ...
Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Conflict (01/16)
On June 25 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, which, since World War II, had operated as a federal republic comprised of the territories – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia.

The departure of Croatia, a republic with a large Serbian population, was of ...
Aviation in 1937 (12/15)
Flora Saudade, one of the primary protagonists in Martha Brockenbough's The Game of Love and Death is an aviatrix. The novel takes place in 1937, a year that was full of aviation inventions and adventures. Here are a few highlights:

  • January 19 – Howard Hughes (pilot, businessman and investor) set a new world record, flying from...

Washington's Logging Industry (10/15)
Timber has been a key industry for Washington state since the Gold Rush of the 1850s. Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees once filled a tract of land from the Cascade Range to the Pacific Ocean. Seattle and the Puget Sound area provided much of the lumber that was shipped down to California.

Logging ...
The Marx and Engels Family Members (10/15)
In Mrs. Engels, Gavin McCrea brings the families of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx to life, pitching the reader into the action with little biographical backstory. The lives of these characters are interesting to learn about, within and beyond the time span covered in the novel.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels (1820-...
Old English (10/15)
The phrase 'Old English' might seem like a quaint way to refer to any works in English that we now consider 'old' – Milton, Shakespeare, Chaucer, et al. But in fact Old English – the language whose rhythms and vocabulary inspired Paul Kingsnorth's novel The Wake – would be unrecognizable by readers and speakers of the ...
The Battle of Stalingrad (10/15)
Berlin, August 20th, 1942

My dear Peter,

The Fuhrer has just announced that we are to take Stalingrad. To hear it from our leader's lips is thrilling. Imagine it, Peter, a German Empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Volga. It is beyond anything I could have hoped for. The man is truly a genius.

And you are to be part ...
Fifteenth Century: Dawn of the Age of Invention (10/15)
The Black Plague had claimed as much as two-thirds of Europe's population in the 14th Century. Life seemed fragile at best, and people who could write felt like it was important to get things down in black and white, to record their stories for posterity. Furthermore, the Church, the medieval everyman's raison d'etre, had pretty...
William Mulholland and the St. Francis Dam (10/15)
'Self-taught civil engineers are probably as trustworthy as self-taught brain surgeons and self-taught airline pilots,' thinks Finn to himself in 100 Sideways Miles. He's thinking about William Mulholland, the engineer better known today as the namesake for Mulholland Drive, home to many famous actors and musicians and the inspiration for...
More Civil War Women Fighters (10/15)
In addition to the four women profiled by Karen Abbott in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, many others had well-documented military careers. Some of these famous female soldiers include:

Frances Clalin enlisted as Jack Williams. A Minnesota farmer's wife and mother of three, Clalin signed up to be with her husband, Elmer. Her fellow ...
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