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People, Eras & Events

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The 2004 Tsunami and Its Effects on Sri Lanka (01/14)
Wave is not a linear account of the tsunami, and because the author's stark focus is internal, the disaster and events in the months and years that followed, are often hazy. Because of this, it's worth taking a look at the magnitude and nature of the tsunami the author survived.

A tsunami is a series of giant waves caused either by an ...
The Canadian Expeditionary Force and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (11/13)
In her introduction to The Cartographer of No Man's Land, P.S. Duffy states that the WWI Battle of Vimy Ridge is 'as iconic to Canadians as Bunker Hill is to Americans.'

The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was formed in 1914 to provide support to the British battling overseas. 619,363 Canadians enlisted, of whom 60,661 – ...
The Great Migration (10/13)
The Great Migration describes a large-scale movement of African-Americans out of the South between 1910 and 1970. Hattie, moving from Georgia to Philadelphia, would have no doubt agreed with Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson's assessment of the Great Migration as 'six million black Southerners moving out of the terror of Jim Crow to...
Henrietta Leavitt, a Pioneer in Astronomy (10/13)
Neil Shubin describes The Universe Within as a 'timeline' covering great events and processes of the history of the cosmos, the planet and life on earth. But his is also a timeline of scientists and scientific discoveries that enlarged our understanding of the world. One scientist who stood out for me was Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921).

...
The Current Ice Age (09/13)
Today's climate discussions are often so focused on global warming that it can be easy to forget that dramatic changes in climate, including extensive periods of global cooling, have been a hallmark of earth's history for billions of years. In fact, we're in an ice age right now. Currently, earth is in what's called an interglacial period...
Rationing and Victory Gardens During World War II (07/13)
In the novel I'll Be Seeing You, Glory and Rita bond over their daily experiences trying to live a fulfilling life in the midst of wartime worry and hardship. The two women live far apart - one in Iowa, and the other in New England. In their letters to each other, they share tips for growing a decent Victory Garden as well as recipes that...
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell (07/13)
As Ami McKay notes in the afterword of The Virgin Cure: 'In 1870, there were over thirty thousand children living on the streets of New York and many more who wandered in and out of cellars and tenements as their families struggled to scrape together enough income to put food on the table.'

The New York Infirmary for Indigent Women...
A Short History of the Zeppelin (07/13)
In Flight from Berlin, Richard Denham inherits his love for and fascination with zeppelins from his father. The highlight of his press coverage of the 1936 Olympic games is flying into Berlin on the Hindenburg with a film crew. At that time, passenger zeppelins were mostly a uniquely German phenomenon having been developed in the late ...
Thirteenth-century England (07/13)
Something Red is set in 13th century England, in the latter part of what is known as England's High Middle Ages (essentially the time period from the Norman conquest in 1066 to the end of the reign of the last Norman king in 1272).

Although English life was beginning to change with the gradual development of cities, the economy was ...
Pablo Neruda and Politics (06/13)
The country of Chile might be a vibrant democracy now - its shining 'Jewel of the Pacific,' Valparaíso, lined with upscale businesses and boutique hotels - but there have been turbulent upheavals in its recent political history, and the country's preeminent poet, Nobel Laureate, Pablo Neruda (born Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto)...
The House of Borgia (06/13)
The Borgia name is synonymous with corruption, crime, and scandal. In Malice of Fortune, several Borgia family members play both prominent and subtle roles against the backdrop of the Renaissance papacy.

Pope Alexander VI

Born in Spain as Roderic Llançol i de Borja (Rodrigo Borgia), he studied law in Bologne before being ...
A Look at the Khmer Rouge (06/13)
Before the Khmer Rouge (pronounced ki-mer roouze, effectively translating as Red Cambodians) wreaked havoc all over Cambodia and killed approximately one quarter of the country's seven million people, they were mostly a fringe communist guerrilla group operating in the jungles in the north of the country. Early in the 70s, then-Prince ...
Rum-Running in Prohibition Era Florida (05/13)
Prohibition in the United States began on January 1920 when the 18th Amendment, ratified the previous year, took effect. It ended with the passing of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, which repealed the 18th. Illegal liquor was, of course, produced and sold during this time. It was typically lousy stuff; poor quality drink made, ...
The Bombing of Berlin (05/13)
Berlin, Germany's capital city, was home to more than four million citizens at the start of WWII.

Between 1940 and 1945, the city was the target of 363 air raids, with an estimated 20,000 civilians killed during the period. The most significant and organized series of raids occurred from November 1943 to March 1944.

The ...
Cast of Characters (05/13)
Henry VIII
King of England 1509-1547
Painted by Hans Holbein in 1536

German painter Hans Holbein made his reputation in Basel, designing wood blocks for book printers, and painting portraits and commissions for churches. Despite his relative success, the disturbed conditions of the Reformation led him to doubt his ...
The Influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile on Thomas Day (05/13)
Wendy Moore illustrates the various cultural influences that led to Thomas Day's peculiar experiment. Among these are the Pygmalion myth (later popularized in George Bernard Shaw's play by that name, as well as the musical, My Fair Lady, based on Shaw's play) and, perhaps most influentially, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's book, Emile, or On ...
The Battle of the Chosin Reservoir (05/13)
Korea suffered under a brutal Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945. After Japan's defeat in World War II, Korea was divided along the 38th Parallel, with South Korea falling under the jurisdiction of the United States, and North Korea under the Soviet Union. Reunification was the stated ultimate goal, but when North Korea attacked South ...
The Year, 1961 (04/13)
Ordinary Grace is set in the Midwestern United States in 1961. Although it was a time of peace and prosperity for much of the country, many important events were taking place around the world that year:
  • January 20: 43-year-old John F. Kennedy was sworn in as the 35th President of the United States, still the youngest person ever...
A Brief History of the Armenian Genocide (04/13)
The word 'genocide' was coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish Polish legal scholar, although it didn't enter common usage until the Nuremberg trials (the criminal prosecution of those responsible for the Holocaust). The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as 'any of the ...
The Budapest Offensive (04/13)
The stories in Tamas Dobozy's collection, Siege 13, look at some of the emotional and psychological consequences of the Budapest Offensive, one of the longest and deadliest military campaigns of World War II. Beginning in the autumn of 1944, the Budapest Offensive lasted though February 13, 1945. Budapest was officially surrounded on ...
The Economy of Post-World War II Europe (03/13)
Downing's portrait of post-World War II Europe highlights the wrangling that took place between political and economic leaders over who would get domain of which pieces of land, all rendered nearly unrecognizable by bombs. Indeed, history has told us that even during the thickest action of the world war these leaders kept themselves busy ...
A History of New York's Great Fires (03/13)
In Lyndsay Faye's novel, The Gods of Gotham, a fire ravages lower Manhattan, setting the stage for her suspenseful historical mystery. In reality, New York City has fallen victim to more than one devastating blaze.

In 1609, Henry Hudson, a British explorer hired by the Dutch to find a faster route to 'the Orient,' followed what is ...
The Kwangju Massacre (03/13)
The family in Forgotten Country flees South Korea in the tumultuous wake of what many South Koreans consider to be the worst tragedy in Korean history since World War II - worse even than the Korean War. Indeed by all accounts the event that took place in May of 1980, known as the Kwangju Massacre, when hundreds of students and private ...
The Cuban Missile Crisis (02/13)
For thirteen days in October 1962, the world was on the brink of nuclear war. U.S. spy planes had detected what appeared to be nuclear missile sites being built on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles off the coast of Florida. Soviet ships, originally designed to carry cargo such as lumber or food, had been outfitted to transport nuclear...
Italy's Role in World War II (02/13)
Italy's role during WWII can seem puzzling, as the country gave the appearance of switching allegiances more than once during the course of the conflict, at times ostensibly siding with the Axis powers, at others supporting the Allies. This contradiction, though, can be seen as a reflection of a volatile period in Italy's history, as ...
The Girl Scouts of the USA (02/13)
Although many elements - from her grandma's letters, to her mother's hopes, to her friends' expectations - help shape Rory's understanding of what it means to be a girl in her small community, one institution does more than any other to shape Rory's perception of American girlhood: the Girl Scouts of the USA.

The Girl Scouts of ...
Domestic Service in Early 20th Century Britain (01/13)
In Britain in the early twentieth century, occupational options were few for women. Up until World War I, domestic service constituted the largest single employment for English women, even ahead of factory work. The 1901 census shows that approximately 40.5% of the working adult female population worked in service, to which must be added ...
Reactions to The Rwandan Genocide (12/12)
While the Hutu and Tutsi clans have been in Rwanda for centuries, it was after the Belgian colonialists took over the country in 1916 that categorizations into Hutu and Tutsi were made more explicit through the use of ethnic identity cards. The minority Tutsi were largely favored for government jobs early on in the colonial government and...
The Hundred Years' War (10/12)
Joan of Arc's successes on the battlefield helped to end the series of battles known today as the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453). Essentially, the series of battles were dynastic conflicts between the Plantagenets in England and the Valois in France. In the 1330s, both Houses claimed rights to the vacant French throne, but these claims ...
The Day Literature Made Headlines (10/12)
Before there was the fatwa, there were protests, bans, and deaths. The first inkling of controversy came just before the book's publication, when an Indian journalist broke the publishing embargo on writing about a book before it is available for sale. Madhu Jain's article, 'An Unequivocal Attack on Religious Fundamentalism,' was ...
The Memoirs of Catherine the Great (09/12)
The Memoirs of Catherine the Great
Robert K. Massie constructed his biography of Catherine the Great relying heavily on material from her memoirs (now published by Random House under the title The Memoirs of Catherine the Great), which provided him with rare, honest views of an eighteenth century royal's life.

These memoirs ...
Obama in Europe (09/12)
'Poor old Sarkozy,' Addie remarks at one point in This Is How It Ends. 'Poor Angela Merkel. They all seem so dowdy now, by comparison. It's like we all went to the movies in the middle of the afternoon and spent two hours swooning over George Clooney. Then we came home and found the husband sitting on the couch with his beer belly.' She's...
Two Unlikely Spies: Mary Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew (06/12)
Lois Leveen's debut novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser, is based on the real-life story of Mary Bowser, a woman born into slavery in 1839 in Richmond, Virginia to John Van Lew, a merchant. After Van Lew passed away, his daughter, Elizabeth Van Lew, freed his slaves and paid for Mary Bowser to get an education. She also helped procure a ...
Struggle for Democracy in Post-Franco Spain (05/12)
Victor del Árbol's The Sadness of the Samurai begins in pro-Nazi Spain and takes place over three generations - the perfect political backdrop for the violence, betrayal, mystery and murder that takes place in the novel. Every nation struggles with its own demons, and 20th century Spain was no exception - experiencing civil war, ...
Baseball: An Early History (05/12)
Though The Art of Fielding is not about baseball per se, there are still large segments of the book devoted to the game. It is used as a metaphor for the human condition and is the frame around which the story is built.

Baseball has been referred to as the 'national pastime' of the United States since the mid-1800s, though it is ...
The Nazi Invasion of Poland (05/12)
In Amanda Hodgkinson's 22 Britannia Road, Silvana and Janusz are plunged into war when Germany invades Poland in 1939. Though the invasion catches them (and their real-life counterparts) by surprise, Polish-German relations had been increasingly strained since the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which redrew European borders at the ...
Mercy Lavinia (04/12)
Though she led an extraordinary and highly public life, few people today are familiar with the main character of Melanie Benjamin's The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. In 1841, Mercy Lavinia 'Vinnie' Warren Bump was born in Middleboro, Massachusetts to a long-time well-respected New England family whose lineage can, in part, be ...
The Cambridge Five (04/12)
The Cambridge Five consisted of Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, and John Cairncross, all Cambridge graduates, who made their careers in various British government agencies including the Secret Intelligence Service. They were recruited to work for Stalin's NKVD (the precursor to the KGB) while students at ...
The Treetop Philosopher (04/12)
Although Nothing's protagonist, Pierre, seems to withdraw from the world, he is not necessarily a nihilist (one who believes in nothing). When he tells the other children he is 'contemplating the sky, and getting used to doing nothing,' and urges them to 'enjoy the nothing that is,' his attitude is reminiscent of the French novelist and ...
Key Players in Afghanistan & Pakistan (03/12)
Some of the best parts of The Taliban Shuffle are Barker's encounters with various Afghan and Pakistani  high officials, all of whom are fairly eccentric characters.  But, inevitably, it becomes difficult to keep track of their names and positions. Here is a short list of some of the figures met in the book.

...

Coxey's Army (03/12)
In John Sayles's A Moment in the Sun, Hod Brackenridge's colorful past is marked most deeply by his participation in a working class uprising. A group of men, inspired by Populist rhetoric, hijack a train car in an attempt to bring their economic grievances to the nation's capital.

Turn-of-the-century America was fraught with class ...
Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals and People with Disabilities During WWII (03/12)
In 1938, the Nazis annexed Austria in what is known as the Anschluss, the 'link-up' or 'union'. In their pursuit of a 'pure' Aryan master race, they immediately began arresting anyone of difference or who might oppose them, especially Jews. According to the Vienna City Administration website, Nazi-incited pogroms in November 1938 ...
Glasgow's International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry (1888) (03/12)
Jane Harris sets her novel Gillespie and I at a time when Scotland felt it was ready for its close-up. The International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry took place in Glasgow from May to November in 1888 at Kelvingrove Park on the banks of the River Kelvin (image below, left). It was the country's bid for prominence in the ...
The Doctors' Plot (11/11)
The Betrayal is loosely based on a series of investigations that took place toward the end of Joseph Stalin's rule in 1953, formally known as 'The Doctors' Plot.' This bizarre scheme wrongfully accused nine prominent Moscow doctors - the majority of whom were Jewish - of coordinating the deaths of high-ranking Soviet Party members. Rather...
Lady Duff Gordon (10/11)
Born on June 24, 1821, Lucie Duff Gordon was the daughter of John Austin, a former army man and legal scholar, and Sarah Austin (daughter of John Taylor of Norwich), a respected translator. Lucie was schooled in Germany during her early years, and demonstrated an aptitude for languages. As an only child, she was frequently in the ...
The Legacy of Alexander the Great (10/11)
Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BC), popularly known as Alexander the Great, was one of history's most successful military commanders.  He is reputed to have never lost a battle, and his tactics are still studied in military academies.  He successfully challenged the Persian Empire, the largest, most powerful kingdom ...
The British Women's Suffrage Movement (09/11)
Ethel and Maud's agitation for women's suffrage is a critical element in Fall of Giants. According to Follett: 'of all the massive changes that took place in the 20th century, the biggest was equality for women.'

Though there were instances of agitation for a woman's right to vote in Britain prior to the formation of the National...
The Perfect Squeeze: Julio Lobo's Manipulation of "The Good Neighbor Policy" (09/11)
In The Sugar King of Havana John Paul Rathbone describes one of the most successful and cunning business moves of Julio Lobo's career - a manipulation of FDR's Good Neighbor Policy which, according to Eduardo Kaplan of The Wall Street Journal, 'placed [Lobo] in a different league.'

As part of the Good Neighbor Policy, FDR ...
Catherine de Medici (07/11)
Catherine de Medici was born on April 13, 1519 in Florence, Italy. Her mother, Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne, died a few days later either of plague or of syphilis contracted from her husband, Lorenzo II de Medici, Duke of Urbino (a sovereign state in northern Italy), who died from the disease a few weeks later. Madeline and Lorenzo had...
The Caribou (05/11)
Although Donald's growing suspicions about Hans Mohring and other Europeans cross the line into obsession, some American readers may be surprised to learn just how active German U-boats were in Canadian waters during World War II. (U-boat is the anglicized version of unterseeboot, meaning undersea boat, i.e. a submarine).

During...
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