Sept. 10 1940: Huge crowds followed Winston Churchill when he inspected damage and bomb craters in London. Photo: Fox Photos/Getty Images

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Journey to the Past: Travel by the Book to Another Place and Time With These Historical Reads

/ BY Cynthia Ross Cravit


From the terrible turbulence of London during the Blitz to 1840s France when actress Sarah Bernhardt was the toast of Paris to glamorous Mexico during the 1950s, take a trip back in time with these non-fiction and fiction books.

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1>The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

We all recognize Winston Churchill’s accomplishments and his greatness – which is precisely why it can be difficult to realize just how uncertain his future looked when he became prime minister of the United Kingdom on May 10, 1940. The Nazis were sweeping through Europe. Dunkirk was just weeks away and, soon after, the Blitz. How did Churchill get through it all? Erik Larson – who has penned eight books, including the award-winning The Devil in the White City and The Garden of Beasts about America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany, which has been optioned by Tom Hanks for a feature film – provides the answer: an almost day-by-day intimate look at how Churchill, his family and his colleagues coped with their first year. Larson draws on Churchill’s diaries, original archival documents, newly released intelligence reports and first-hand interviews to produce a fascinating story. Non-fiction that reads like a novel!

2>Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography by Suzanne Finstad

Previously published as Natasha nearly 20 years ago – a comprehensive book based on nearly 400 interviews with Natalie Wood’s family, close friends, lovers, costars and film crews as well as everyone connected to her death in 1981 – the updated version includes chapters of new information from the reopened 2011 investigation into the drowning that took the legendary star’s life and led to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office calling film and TV star Robert Wagner, Wood’s husband at the time, a “person of interest.” The new material, the author contends, shows even more conclusively that Wood didn’t drown by chance.

3>The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklasby Gertrude Stein

On the lighter side, there’s the iconic “autobiography” by Gertrude Stein but written in the voice of her life partner, Alice B. Toklas. Starting with Alice’s move to France in 1907, where she soon meets Gertrude, the book gives an irreverent and often hilarious account of the storied life the duo spent among the Parisian avant-garde and flourishing ex-pat community. Travel back to their famous literary salons at rue de Fleurus, where they entertained such figures as Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as well as artists Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, among others. Originally published in 1933, the new edition features the lively and whimsical illustrations of artist Maira Kalman.

4>The First Actress: A Novel of Sarah Bernhardtby C.W. Gortner

The book follows the extraordinary life of French mega star and international celebrity Sarah Bernhardt. Born in 1844, she began life as the daughter of a high-class courtesan but transformed herself to become the most celebrated actress of her era. Gortner, who has penned bestselling historical novels on famous women from Catherine de Medici and Lucrezia Borgia to Coco Chanel, follows Bernhardt’s rise to fame at the Comédie Française until everyday life collapsed with the 1870 Siege of Paris, where Bernhardt was reported to be seen helping nurse wounded soldiers.

5>Her Last Flightby Beatriz Williams

Taking inspiration from the disappearance of Amelia Earhart, Williams (author of The Golden Hour about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, whose scandalous love affair nearly brought the British monarchy to its knees) imagines the adventures of a world-famous aviator, Sam Mallory, who goes missing during a solo around-the-world flight in 1937. Ten years later, a photojournalist who is obsessed with finding out what happened to him, travels to a remote surfing village on the Hawaiian island of Kauai in pursuit of a woman whom she believes can help her solve one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries.

6>Mexican Gothicby Silvia Moreno-Garcia 

Described as part British novelist du Maurier, part Mexican filmmaker del Toro, this deliciously creepy novel is set in glamorous 1950s Mexico. The story follows chic debutante Noemí Taboada, who receives a frantic letter from her newlywed cousin begging for someone to save her from her husband who is trying to poison her and some mysterious threats surrounding “these restless dead, these ghosts, fleshless things” that “whisper at night.” Heeding the call, Noemí heads to a distant, isolated mansion in the Mexican countryside and, as befits a tale of classic gothic horror, unearths family secrets of madness and violence.

7>Jo & Laurieby Margaret Stohl and Melissa de la Cruz

On the heels of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women film adaptation last year, comes this re-telling of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel of the same name. (Spoiler alert if you haven’t read the original story.) Set in 1869 Concord, Mass., the story picks up after Jo March’s “book of scribbles” has become a bestselling novel. But – and here’s the big departure – what if Jo and her best friend and boy next door Theodore (Laurie) Laurence are meant to be together after all? If so, for many fans of the book, this could mean that a longstanding fictional wrong is set right at last.


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