The best books that tell people’s stories interwoven with the events of their time

Judith Berlowitz Author Of Home So Far Away
By Judith Berlowitz

Who am I?

My passion for historical fiction evolved late in my life. I was assigned to teach the second of the core courses required of all undergraduates at Holy Names University. Required materials: the Divine Comedy, the Canterbury Tales, Sundiata, Don Quixote, Othello, the Tale of Genji, Leonardo da Vinci, Islamic calligraphy, the music of Ravi Shankar… But everything was set in history–boring!dates and places I could never remember, events that meant nothing to me. But my passion for genealogy and for oral history made me realize that everything had a story. This course was about people telling their stories. Now that I’m retired from teaching, I want to tell people’s stories–in their historical context.


I wrote...

Home So Far Away

By Judith Berlowitz,

Book cover of Home So Far Away

What is my book about?

Peek into the diary of Klara Philipsborn, the only Communist in her merchant-class, German-Jewish family. Klara’s first visit to Seville in 1925 opens her eyes and her spirit to an era in which Spain’s major religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, shared deep cultural connections. At the same time, she is made aware of the injustices in Spanish society. By 1930, now working at the medical school in Madrid, she feels less “different” than she did in Germany, as she learns new ways of expressing her opinions and desires. And when the Spanish Civil War erupts in 1936, Klara enlists in the Fifth Regiment, transporting her across the geography of the embattled peninsula and ultimately endangering a promising relationship and even Klara’s life itself.

The books I picked & why

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Homage to Catalonia

By George Orwell,

Book cover of Homage to Catalonia

Why this book?

What the Spanish Civil War meant to the world, told by an outsider who was plunged into it–by choice. Possibly the first book I read about the conflict (my copy is from 1967–Beacon Press). This little volume (232 pages) epitomizes the well-loved book, splashed with coffee stains, bristling with Post-Its, and peppered with underlining and notes. The author of the better-known Animal Farm and 1984 doesn’t spare us his strong opinions, as in this description of a Russian agent: “… it was the first time that I had seen a person whose profession was telling lies–unless one counts journalists.” But Homage presents a generous view of people “who, with their innate decency and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had the chance.” 


The Novel of the Future

By Anaïs Nin,

Book cover of The Novel of the Future

Why this book?

Another slim tome, also a lesser-known work, this is the famous diarist’s how-to on writing fiction from the depths of the psyche. Nin places herself in the trajectory of the history of the novel and defends its elements that she has learned through her own diary, which resonated with me. The title of the first chapter, a quote from Jung, “Proceed from the Dream Outward,” sets the tone for what I can only call a justification of my choice of the fictional diary genre for my book. Nin does not use these terms exactly, but when she sets one genre against another, a composite genre might emerge: “The diary made me aware of organic and perpetual motion… [but] when you write a novel you are arresting motion….”


For Whom the Bell Tolls

By Ernest Hemingway,

Book cover of For Whom the Bell Tolls

Why this book?

Anaïs Nin doesn’t mention historical fiction, though she dances around this solution. So I approached Hemingway’s classic novel having already written mine, cowed by the fact that this was my first reading of the model of Spanish Civil War fiction. But I was immediately drawn in by the tangibility of the action, by the sensations, and by the completeness of the characters. It was somehow comforting to know that the main character was based on the noble Robert Merriman of the International Brigades, almost like a family connection, with other historical people mentioned by name. The Spanish language hovers in the background of the dialog and occasionally bursts out raw. I loved translating to myself phrases like, “I obscenity in the milk of thy mother,” and laughed at Hemingway’s tirades against anarchism, completely contrary to Orwell’s viewpoint. 


Even in Darkness

By Barbara Stark-Nemon,

Book cover of Even in Darkness

Why this book?

This is the most recently written book of my picks, and one with which I have much in common. I first came in contact with the author through her search for a relative on Geni.com, a website on which I serve as a volunteer curator, and it turned out that she and I are distant relatives! But it didn’t end there: Barbara and I have the same publisher (She Writes Press). The names of her main character (Kläre) and mine (Klara) are practically identical. She and I both cite a horrendous chant hurled by Nazi Brown Shirts, illustrating the terror our main characters experience. We have in our lives or in our stories a prominent priest. Each of us based our novels on the lives of real people and each of us dipped into stories kept long silent by our ancestors.


L.A. Woman

By Eve Babitz,

Book cover of L.A. Woman

Why this book?

A roman-à-clef which is not a novel and 80% of whose keys I have unlocked. She was “Evie” and she died in Hollywood this year of complications of Huntington’s disease and probably smoking, at age 78. Our families were close and in fact the second “L.A. woman,” second that is to Eve herself, narrating and thinly disguised as Sophie Lubin, was my aunt, Marie (née) Gattman, called “Lola,” married first to photographer Hy Hirsh (“Sam Glanzrock” in the book) and second to Elwood Scott Chapman (whom Marie “named” Aaron and who is called “Luther” in the book). Eve’s writing style is contagious and its logic so twisted that it makes you say “What?” and re-read many passages. As in my book, the battle between Stalin and Trotsky hovers constantly in the background. I think Trotsky wins.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the Spanish Civil War, Hollywood, and Spain?

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The Spanish Civil War Explore 41 books about the Spanish Civil War
Hollywood Explore 87 books about Hollywood
Spain Explore 133 books about Spain

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