Archive for the ‘historical fiction’ Tag

Sculpting a Life From Wax   Leave a comment


Period novels usually aren’t my thing. It could be the often flowery language, the popular use of first person narrative, the topic, the je ne sais pas. Little by Edward Carey, while guilty of the above, including the French, is captivating. The story, based on the early life of Madame Tussaud known for her wax sculptures of celebrities, is rich with humor, pathos, historical references and lively characters.

Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Marie, as she was generally called until her diminutive size warranted the nickname “Little,” recounts her family background. She literally begins with her birth. Interspersed among the details of her life are drawings. The first identified as “Drawn by herself. In graphite, charcoal, and black chalk. (This being a likeness of her pencil.)” It’s difficult not to smile, although not all of the subsequent illustrations are humorous.

As a child, her life circumstances dramatically change following the death of her parents when she’s relegated to becoming a servant. Yet, Little is witty, intelligent and has a sharp power of observation: Traits that serve her well as her creativity and talents expand.

Little learns the craft of waxwork from the odd Dr. Curtius, who at first sculpted body parts and organs out of wax. Initially, he treats her as a ward. When the pair moves to Paris from Switzerland, her station is reduced to kitchen maid.

Carey’s epic follows the French Revolution with Little’s indomitable spirit whose name bears no reflection on her inner strength and kindness.

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
435 pages

Hitler’s Henchman Horrifies Historian (and everyone else)   Leave a comment

The title of Laurent Binet’s debut novel, HHhH, is troublesome. Not so much what it means, which is “Himmlers Hirn heiBt Heydrich” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,” but how to say it. The quartet of Hs is baffling. Fortunately, Binet’s writing is not. While it is not entirely comfortable being amused by Hitler and one of his main henchmen, Reinhard Heydrich, Binet provides a work that is rich with historical perspective and editorial comments interjected in a humorous and sarcastic voice.

The narrator’s purpose is to tell the story of Jozef Gabcik, a Slovak, and Jam Kubis, a Czech, who were primarily responsible for Heydrich’s assassination in Prague. The pair was part of a scheme concocted by the British secret service, and, in the narrator’s opinion, nothing short of heroes.

Binet’s approach is to blend historical fact with conjecture. Occasionally, after describing an incident in vivid detail, he writes, “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up.” He even apologizes for spending much of the novel detailing Heydrich’s background and rise through the Nazi ranks. He writes, “Heydrich is the target, not the protagonist.” In fact, the heroes do not even appear until one-third through the book. Even then, it’s hard to avoid returning to Heydrich, the man known as “the Butcher of Prague,” among other monstrous adjectives.

Heydrich’s fate, like that of his assassins, is fodder for the history books. Nonetheless, Binet’s strong storytelling ability creates suspense and satisfaction as the events unfold.

Four Bookmarks
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2012
327 pages