Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik, author of the best seller The Good Daughter: A Memoir of My Mother’s Hidden Life, has turned to fiction to examine the life of another Iranian woman — poet Forugh Farrokhzad. Before her untimely death in February 1967, Farrokhzad challenged a society that didn’t encourage or recognize women’s accomplishments. To satisfy her need to create, and to live on her own terms and not those dictated by people like her mother-in-law, she had to make devastating sacrifices. She became a groundbreaking literary and feminist icon, but the price of her success was extremely high. The author tells the story from Farrokhzad’s perspective, which provides intimacy where imagination has to fill in the cracks between fact and fiction.
The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia by Susan Jaques. A director of Russia’s Hermitage Museum spoke of the woman who created its collection: “She stares down at us from portraits and everywhere we find objects linked to Catherine . . . In a century dominated by the accomplishments of men, Catherine the Great stands as one of the greatest European leaders of her time.” While there are many biographies of Catherine II, Susan Jacques focuses on Catherine’s passion for the arts and her efforts to create a national culture that will be perceived by the rest of the world, for the first time, as enlightened and sophisticated. The monarch’s passion for art — whether it was collected, like paintings from old masters, or commissioned like her magnificent palaces and pavilions — was rivaled only by her passion for her lovers. Her dramatic personal story is smoothly intertwined with the history of Russia and the Romanovs in the last half of the 18th century.
The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. Before the birth of Christ, King Herod built a palace atop a mountain in southern Israel. Less than a century later, it became the fortress Masada, where 900 rebellious Jews held out against invading Roman forces. Alice Hoffman introduces four strong women who are the dovekeepers for the community. Each one arrived from a different background and location. One was the daughter of a renowned assassin, another was once the wife of a prosperous Jerusalem baker. Another is a mystic and healer, and the fourth is hiding a mastery of weaponry that she acquired when she was disguised as a boy. Life in Masada is a fascinating backdrop for a story of faith, fortune and fortitude. Hoffman is not known for historical fiction, but this novel, based on real people and events, has been called her master work.
Marmee & Louisa by Eve LaPlante. Abigail Alcott was an unsung heroine until Eve LaPlante started examining her life. Abigail was more than just the model for Marmee in Little Women. She was the actual role model who encouraged her daughter to study, write and succeed. Louisa May Alcott’s father, who often took credit for his daughter’s accomplishments, was a self- centered, self-styled intellectual who thought working for money was beneath him. Set in the mid-1800s, when women had no rights, this biography of the Alcott women is an eye-opener. It makes you wonder how many other accomplishments by influential women will forever lie hidden by the misogynistic veils of their times.
The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley. While recorded history often overlooks the accomplishments of women, there is a realm where females reign — in the annals of legend and mythology. In her 1983 classic The Mists of Avalon, prolific science fiction/fantasy writer Marion Zimmer Bradley recreates the Arthurian legend from the viewpoint of the women. When you share the perspective of the villainized Morgaine (Morgan le Fay in more conventional fiction), you inhabit a mystical world where the priestess Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, has yet to be replaced by Christian priests and tenets. The clash between the old ways of Avalon and the “new” religion is exacerbated by Arthur’s wife Gwenhwyfar. Merlin is not the only character who practices magical arts, and in the course of the novel’s very-readable 860 pages, the reader watches old loyalties and sympathies vanish into the mist along with the island of goddesses and enchantment.
The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George. Margaret George has written volumes about strong women, including Mary Queen of Scots, Helen of Troy and Mary Magdalene. In her fictional memoir, Cleopatra emerges as so much more than a powdered and pampered femme fatale. From the time she inherited the throne of Egypt at age 17, she was beset by deadly political threats and intrigue. Other members of the Ptolemy dynasty were anxious to get rid of her, and her affairs with powerful Romans empowered enemies from across the Mediterranean. The queen’s memoir takes the reader from the palaces and libraries of Alexandria to journeys on the Nile, from encampments on pivotal battlefields to glittering seats of power and passion in the ancient world. The literary journey is almost as long as the historical (950+ pages), but it is too fascinating to put down for long.
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. Britt-Marie has a minor role as a neighbor in My Grandmother Told Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. In Britt-Marie Was Here, Fredrik Backman makes her a star. As her own novel begins, the meticulous homemaker has a predicament. Although she has no employment history, she is a very persistent job hunter, and she lands a position as manager of a doomed recreation center in a small Swedish town. It’s a match made in purgatory. Residents of Borg, including a group of messy children who need a soccer coach, are as socially inept as she is. Salvation is on the horizon, but Britt-Marie’s orderly silverware drawer will never be the same.
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The Lady in Gold by Ann-Marie O’Connor. Two strong women, who are historically and emotionally bound to a great work of art, are the heroines of a true story of loss, legacy and redemption. Adele Bloch-Bauer grew up surrounded my music and art in a wealthy Viennese family. Less than three decades after the artist Gustav Klimt painted her portrait, Adele dramatically escaped from Vienna during the height of Nazi power. The painting was not so lucky. In 1999, Adele’s American niece, Maria Altman, sought to reclaim the family treasure, which had been renamed “The Lady in Gold” to disavow its Jewish identity. Her courageous quest created an international incident. With a splendid immersion in time and place, O’Connor’s novel was translated into a movie, “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. The painting’s identity crisis in no way diminishes its glory and the significance of its story.