Today marks 220 years since the birth of French writer Victor Hugo on 26 February 1802. Hugo is best known for his great classic novels Les Misérables  and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame , and was also a passionate social and political activist who famously supported the abolition of the death penalty, the view that was taken in his short novel The Last Day of a Condemned Man .
“Our mind is enriched by what we receive, our heart – by what we give.”
“The future has several names. For the weak it is impossible; for the fainthearted, it is unknown; but for the valiant, it is ideal” (Victor Hugo).
Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich was born on this day (25 September) 115 years ago, in 1906 (died in 1975), so I am sharing this part from his Piano Concerto No. 2, composed and performed for the first time in 1957. It is a very touching piece of understated beauty.
Carlos Gardel was a French-Argentine singer, songwriter and composer. Born in Toulouse, France, he was celebrated throughout Latin America and became known for his melancholy ballads and classic tango songs. Often referred to as “The King of Tango”, he created hundreds of recordings and one of his songs titled Por una Cabeza was featured in such films as Scent of a Woman  and Schindler’s List . The lyrics were written by Alfredo Le Pera, and Gardel himself sang to his own piece in a film Tango Bar . “Por una Cabeza” is a gambling jargon signifying a horse winning a race narrowly and, in this case, probably also refers to the possibility of losing a beloved woman. The mood of the song is said to be “passionate and vivid”, and the composition is often praised for its contrasting use of minor and major chords.
The video below shows the piano performance by Stanislav Stanchev who plays his own arrangement. Carlos Gardel tragically died in an airplane crash in 1935. He was 44.
Today (9th May) is Victory Day in my native Russia and, as is now “customary” on my blog, I am highlighting notable people and their distinguished actions during the World War II. I would like to to talk about Lyubov Shevtsova and Ulyana Gromova, who were both Soviet partisans and members of Krasnodon’s undercover anti-Nazi organisation TheYoung Guard. They both received the titles of the Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously. The young (nearly all of them younger than eighteen) members of this organisation became known for their actions that displayed unimaginable bravery, unbelievable stoicism and selfless hard-work fighting Fascism and defending their motherland. This year I would also like to pay tribute to my grandfather, Gennadiy Kovalskiy, by talking about his experience being a paratrooper (military parachutist) during the war.
Lyubov Shevtsova [8 September 1924 – 9 February 1943]
After the start of the war in 1941, Lyubov Shevtsova attended briefly nursing courses and wanted to become a nurse for the Red Army, but was rejected because she was too young. Before the war, she also wanted to be a theatre actress, and even applied to the Rostov university, but the war intervened. So, in 1942, at the age 18, Shevtsova received a qualification of radio-operator (signaller) at the Voroshilovgrad school for the preparation of partisans and undercover agents. She started working undercover for the Young Guard of Voroshilovgrad (Luhansk) and her job involved passing to the Red Army Intelligence Centre the information gathered by the partisans. As a member of The Young Guard, Shevtsova was also conducting spy-work on the enemy, helped Soviet prisoners-of-war to hide from the Nazis, distributed anti-Nazi flyers and sourced medication. She was also involved in the arson of the German Labour Exchange in Krasnodon on 6 December 1942. During this event, a list of about 2000 Krasnodon citizens who were intended for the deportation into Germany was burnt, meaning these people were saved. In 1943, Shevtsova was arrested by the Krasnodon police. The Fascists were actively seeking Shevtsova in particular because she was a Soviet radio-operator and they wanted to know all the transmission codes. Therefore, Shevtsova was subjected to an even longer and more savage than usual torture by the Nazis (source). However, after a month of torture, her interrogators realised that they were wasting their time with Shevtskova because she never said a word. Shevtsova was eventually executed in a forest on 9 February 1943. She met death with dignity and those were allegedly her last words: “…Soviet youth will still see many beautiful springs and gold-leafed autumns. There are peaceful, clear blue skies ahead, as well as lovely full moon nights; there will be good times in our beloved and dear motherland”.
A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie  – ★★★★★
15 September 2020 marks 130 years since the birth of Agatha Christie in 1890, and this review is meant to pay tribute to the ultimate Queen of Crime. The author of A is for Arsenic is Kathryn Harkup, a chemist by profession, who decided to plunge into all the poisons that Christie used in her books to come up with her perfect crimes. In A is for Arsenic, we first read about the scientific properties of each of the poisons used by Christie in her fiction, from arsenic and belladonna to opium and phosphorus (including their histories and the ways they kill), before the author illuminates the real cases involving these poisons, and finally talks about the fictitious cases in Agatha Christie’s books. It is clear that reading about different poisons has never been as morbidly fun or interesting as with this book since Harkup is an intelligent and succinct writer with a great sense of humour. A is for Arsenic is sure to fascinate and delight this Halloween season.
James Horner (1953 – 2015), an American composer, would have been 67 today (he tragically died in a plane crash in 2015), so, as a tribute, I thought I would share this beautiful musical composition of his for the film Braveheart  performed on the piano by Patrik Pietschmann.
It is Victory Day in Russia (my homeland), and I thought I would post a tribute especially since today marks 75 years since the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the World War II in Europe. My grandparents lived through the WWII (for example, my grandfather on my mother’s side was a paratrooper (a military parachutist) and was involved in many WWII operations and my grandmother on my mother’s side worked in trenches). Some heroic actions are less evident than others and some heroes remain either unknown or forgotten. I have always found it touching when children or young teenagers distinguished themselves as heroes of war. Although there were many such examples, below, I would like to briefly talk about Zinaida Portnova.
Zinaida Portnova [20 February 1926 – 15 January 1944]
Zinaida was an active member of the anti-fascist youth organisation of Obol, a town now in Belarus. From 1942 (at the age of fifteen), she was a Committee member of the Obol undercover organisation “Young Avengers”. When she worked in one Nazi canteen, she poisoned soup meant for Nazi Officers which led to the deaths of many Nazis (over one hundred), and to prove that she did not, she ate the soup herself and miraculously survived. She then worked on many undercover operations that involved the undercover bombing of Nazi vehicles and distinguished herself in many other ways. When she was captured and interrogated by the Gestapo, the source says she snatched a pistol from the interrogation table and then killed three Nazi interrogators who meant to torture her for information. She escaped that room, but was then recaptured, tortured and shot (source I and source II). For her courage and heroism in fighting the fascists, she was posthumously awarded the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union.
I am concluding this post with this arrangement by Patrik Pietschmann of the Schindler’s List (1993) soundtrack composed by John Williams.
Some of my favourite and most beloved people were born in November (my twin brother too!), as well as a parade of my favourite authors: Albert Camus (7th), Kazuo Ishiguro (8th), Margaret Mitchell (8th), Kurt Vonnegut (11th), Robert Louis Stevenson (13th), Vera Caspary (13th), Arundhati Roy (24th), etc. Jose Saramago, a Portuguese author and a Nobel Prize winner, is known for his through-provoking fiction stories that often ask philosophical questions and detail interesting psychological situations. My favourite books of his are The Cave , The Double , Blindness  and Death with Interruptions , which I all recommend.
“Some people spend their entire lives reading but never get beyond reading the words on the page, they don’t understand that the words are merely stepping stones placed across a fast-flowing river, and the reason they’re there is so that we can reach the farther shore, it’s the other side that matters.”
“Words that come from the heart are never spoken, they get caught in the throat and can only be read in one’s eyes” (José Saramago).
My favourite film composer Gabriel Yared (1949-) is 70 years old today, and I am taking this opportunity to pay tribute to him by sharing his musical masterpiece below. Born in Beirut, Yared gained his law degree before switching to music composition while studying in France. Apart from The English Patient, Gabriel Yared is also known as a composer for such films as Betty Blue, Camille Claudel, The Talented Mr Ripley and Cold Mountain.
“Each face, each stone, of this venerable monument, is a page of the history, not only of the country, but of the science and the art” (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback ofNotre-Dame [1831: 110]).
“It was a singular destiny…for the church of Notre-Dame, at that period, to be thus beloved in two different ways, and with so much devotion, by two beings so unlike as Claude and Quasimodo – loved by the one, a sort of half-human creature, instinctive and savage, for its beauty, for its stature, for the harmonies dwelling in the magnificent whole; loved by the other, a being of cultivated and ardent imagination, for its signification, its mystic meaning, the symbolic language lurking under the sculpture on its front, like the first text under the second in a palimpsestus – in short, for the enigma which it eternally proposes to the understanding” (Victor Hugo, The Hunchback ofNotre-Dame [1831: 155]).
Neil Sedaka (1939-), an American singer, composer and producer, is 80 years old today. He is a writer or co-writer of more than 500 songs, and was also a popular singer with some serious hits under his belt. In 1972, Sedaka co-wrote with Phil Cody a beautiful song Solitaire, and it was later famously performed by The Carpenters. The audio below is the performance by Mark Lanegan, an alternative rock artist who I consider to be rather underrated (see the greatest cover of the song Man in the Long Black Coat). Lanegan’s album Imitations  is composed of song covers that he heard when growing up at his parents’ home.