Archive | books RSS feed for this section

Book review: Kashmira Sheth’s KEEPING CORNER

25 Apr

Keeping CornerSo one of the books I read in my time away from this blog was Kashmira Sheth‘s Keeping Corner. TBH, this review is one of the things you have to thank for me dusting this blog off at all; when Amy wrote about Sold over at The YA Subscription it was the first thing I thought of, and since, when I recommended it to her, she said sadly that she didn’t think she’d be able to read it anytime soon, I started thinking, well, maybe I should talk about it myself.

The story: It’s 1918, and twelve-year-old Leela lives in a small village in Gujarat. She was betrothed at two and married at nine, and the day is approaching when she’ll leave her parents’ home and go to live with her husband and his family. She’s a sweet, spoiled girl who’s clever but doesn’t really care that much about school—why should she, when after she leaves home she’ll be done with it? Then her husband dies, and she must spend the following year keeping corner—her fine clothes, her beloved jewelry, her long, beautiful hair—everything she defined herself by is taken away from her, and she’s confined to her home. With the help of her family and her teacher, Leela makes it through the year, and it’s while she’s unable to leave her home that she realizes just how big the world around her is.

My thoughts: Guys, quite simply, I love this book. I really, really love it. Keeping Corner is a quick read for two reasons, first because it really isn’t all that long (around 55,000 words) and second because Sheth’s style is so smooth, Leela’s voice so engaging, that it’s difficult not to tear through it. This book has basically everything I love, starting with rich sensory detail and a genuinely likable narrator.

This is, at its heart, a story of trauma—trauma, and surviving it, and recovering from it. In the space of a moment, Leela’s whole life is taken from her. The lives of her entire family are rocked to the foundations—emotionally, of course; it’s obvious that Leela’s grief and misery are deeply upsetting to them, but also practically, too: because widowed women of the Brahman caste can’t remarry, Leela will, it’s assumed, be in their home for the rest of their lives. This is not the story of Leela’s world being shattered, and how she puts the pieces back together—this is the story of how her world is swept away, and what she tries to build in its place.

Also stunning is the complexity of the political questions raised in such a short book, and how deftly those questions are addressed. Leela loves her family dearly, and they her—that’s never even in question. But she doesn’t think what’s happening to her is fair. That the real complexities and, heck, hypocrisies of people are dealt with—how can her father support Gandhi’s blossoming civil disobedience movement, yet ignore his writings on the need for gender equality, particularly with regard to widows?—that Leela can disagree without ever thinking this is an easy matter or that her parents are just backwards, is what makes this book wonderful for me where stories of backwards brown people who need enlightenment (usually in the form of Western ideas and/or white Western saviors) make me deeply uncomfortable.

Which brings me to another point, about my favorite kind of historical fiction. The Big Events—World War I, the birth of Gandhi’s independence movement—absolutely affect Leela, her town, her family, and her friends, but her story isn’t a reiteration of what I could get by reading a non-fiction book or an encyclopedia article about the subject. Gandhi is a presence and a driving force in the story, but there’s no cameo (which is a plus for me; I’m not generally a fan of Famous Person Cameos anyway). By his physical absence, his work becomes all the more powerful a force. It’s sort of the ultimate in showing, not telling: Sheth must show us how Gandhi’s work is changing Leela’s world, rather than having him show up and talk about it.

As a trigger warning, the book contains an attempted rape; it doesn’t feel, to me, in the least gratuitous or exploitative and serves to underline the injustices of the patriarchal system that Leela lives in; but mileage may vary and it’s fairly upsetting, particularly the aftermath, when Leela realizes that her attacker was someone she’s known her entire life. Apart from that, my only warning is to be careful you don’t make the mistake I did, of taking it with me to read on my commute. NBD FELLOW TRAVELERS NBD IT’S JUST RAINING ON MY FACE. The only other incidents where I’ve had such a strong emotional reaction to a work in such a short amount of time:

  • Springsteen concerts
  • every time I rewatch the Doctor Who episode “Vincent and the Doctor” and basically flood my apartment with my tears

Thank goodness it’s the height of allergy season here in D.C., is all I’m saying.

Advertisements

In which it becomes ever more evident how predictable my tastes are, continued.

27 Oct

Today, part two of my review of Judith Pearson’s The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy! The first part can be found here!

I’ve talked a bit about what I liked about this book, and now it’s time for a bit of talk about the things that didn’t work for me.

One of my few complaints about the book is that Pearson hints at a lot of important but uncomfortable issues, and then drops them without really addressing them to my satisfaction. For instance:

  1. the institutional sexism that Hall dealt with during her time at the State Department, and later in life when she worked for the newborn CIA: Pearson mentions how few women were employed as Foreign Service officers and mentions rumors that women were held to a much more rigorous standard on the exams than men. There’s even a throwaway mention of the fact that when Hall was recruited by British intelligence, part of her motivation for joining was likely the fact that they offered her the chance to do much more than the clerical work that was all the US government would entrust her with. The book isn’t aiming to be a feminist reading of Hall’s life, but Pearson is clearly aware of the issues—she just never really seems sure how to address them. Just how disillusioned might Hall have been, that when Vera Atkins asked her to work as a spy for a foreign (albeit friendly) government, Hall immediately said yes?
  2. The book’s subtitle (“The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy”) is ironic; though she later worked for the OSS, and the CIA when it became that, part of Hall’s motivation for getting involved in the war and staying involved in the war was having spent most of her adult life in Europe, and identifying at least as much with the people there as in her home country. Pearson shies away, however, from the more difficult questions of identity and where Hall might have considered herself as “belonging”, and while admittedly this probably makes for a smoother narrative (and I’m a lot more likely to forgive a book’s flaws when they make it a quicker read than a slower one), the allusions to the questions as Pearson comes close to addressing the matters and then backs down are almost more frustrating than if she hadn’t mentioned them at all.
  3. The uncomfortable fact that the Allies, with regional OSS director Alan Dulles leading the charge, made deals allowing numerous Nazi war criminals to escape in exchange for their help setting up anti-Communist espionage forces in 1945, thus kicking off the Cold War. At least, I was deeply uncomfortable with this, and Pearson seems to be at best ambivalent about it; the characterization of those who took advantage of this deal to flee Europe as “war criminals” is hers as well as mine. But the incident is mentioned, and apart from a couple allusions to trials and assassinations at the end, that’s it—there’s nothing to really tie it into Hall’s narrative, even.

Basically, my one complaint would probably be that Pearson doesn’t seem quite sure what she wants this book to be, and ended up a bit wishy-washy on some issues, not wanting to offend anyone with the fact that sometimes people in history do both great things and less-great ones. Or maybe more accurately, Pearson’s editor doesn’t seem sure what it should be, since there are a few obvious misspellings and repetitions that would’ve been fixed by more thorough edits.

Plus it does the irritating thing of referring to Hall by her first name, Virginia, throughout; as her marriage isn’t mentioned until the very last chapter and the jacket copy refers to her as Hall, this just kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Oh, patriarchy, you just always find new ways to delight me, don’t you.

But flaws aside, it was totally enjoyable for me, although again, this may be because I have a love for stories of AWESOME LADIES DOING AWESOME THINGS, which Virginia Hall definitely qualifies as. I’m actually considering buying copy of my own after I have to return this to the library, because it was so awesome and I imagine I’d like to reread it later.

In which it becomes ever more evident how predictable my tastes are.

23 Oct

Time for another round of “what’s Julia reading these days?” The answer is: a bunch of things, mostly as I try to figure out what I’m going to write for NaNoWriMo this year, the steampunk fairy tale YA thing, or the light-hearted YA thing about spies? But let’s face it, given that I love books about a) espionage and b) awesome ladies, “research” is really just an excuse for me to go “VIRGINIA HALL WAS SO COOL DUDES”.

One thing I recently finished was The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy, by Judith Pearson, a biography of the aforementioned Virginia Hall.

First, a warning: I find I have a lot of trouble with biographies in general. I get weirded out by an overly-familiar, novel-type style, and I get bored with an overly-dry, academic-type style. This may just be unfamiliarity with the general stylistic conventions of biography, though, and if I would just read more of them, I’d get more used to them. Maybe that will be something I try to do more of in the future!

Anyhoo, on the subject of this book in particular, Pearson’s writing is certainly competent, and the story is laid out well. The prose is nothing to write home about, but it’s eminently readable, which is much more important: I sat on the couch, absorbed in this book, for a good two hours straight. Pearson doesn’t get fancy; she just gets out of the story’s way, so that it pretty much seems to tell itself.

AND WHAT A STORY IT IS. Man, I’m sorry about the capslock (okay, this is a lie; I am NEVER sorry for capslock), but seriously, people, Virginia Hall was so freaking cool. She was born to a wealthy Maryland family and bucked convention not only by going off for higher education, but by doing so in Europe. She joined the US State Department with the ultimate goal of becoming a Foreign Services officer, working in consulates around Europe for ten years or so while she repeatedly tried to pass the Foreign Services exam. When the Second World War began, she was living in Paris, and worked as an ambulance driver with a Jewish friend, both of them finally leaving not long after the establishment of the Vichy government, her friend’s family fleeing from increasing antisemitism in France (less the direct work of the German occupiers than the result of said occupiers lifting generations-old laws attempting to prevent institutionalized antisemitism, it’s worth noting) and Hall to travel to Britain and try to figure out what else she could do to help France.

It was in London, during the Blitz, that she first met Vera Atkins, who recruited her to the Special Operations Executive. After intense training, Hall was sent back to France, where she lived under the cover of an American journalist and worked to coordinate a Resistance ring, until the group was betrayed and she was forced to flee across the Pyrenees into Spain, and thence back to England. Now at the top of the Gestapo’s most-wanted, she later RETURNED to Europe and continued to work as a radio operator and a general coordinator/intelligence officer literally until the end of the war. When peace came to France, she went to Vienna and worked there, instead. SHE WENT BACK INTO OCCUPIED TERRITORY DESPITE BEING THE GESTAPO’S MOST-WANTED. When the war ended in France, SHE WENT DEEPER INTO OCCUPIED TERRITORY TO FIGHT SOME MORE. THE FREAKING GESTAPO’S MOST-WANTED, PEOPLE. I believe two words are appropriate here: BAD. ASS.

Oh, and did I mention that she did all of this WITH A WOODEN LEG, since her left one was shot off in a hunting accident during her years with the State Department in Turkey? That’s right.

I actually have a lot more to say, but this is super-long already, so I will save Part 2 of my comments on this book, where I talk about the things that I didn’t like quite so much, for another post. Now, I’m off for a job interview! Wish me luck!

In which my excitement is no enigma.

4 Oct

…sorry about that.

I was really jazzed last week when I read this BBC article about how Bletchley Park has been awarded 500,000 pounds for development! This is one of those things that I just find so endlessly interesting and yet have somehow never managed to see the times I’ve traveled to England. Hopefully I’ll be getting back sometime in the next year or so and I can get to it then.

Basically Bletchley Park was the site of the British codebreaking efforts during WWII. It was located about equidistant between Cambridge and Oxford, the joke being that so many of their people came from one of those universities that if they seemed to be favoring one with the location there’d be no peace. If you pick up any kind of resource on Bletchley Park you will find all sorts of hilarious and/or tragic stories (for the latter, see Alan Turing’s ENTIRE FREAKING LIFE).

Here is the thing: a lot of the brains behind the operation were, to put it delicately, nerds, and if you are like me, you have noticed that while plenty of nerds do have normal social skills and hygiene, plenty of them don’t, so if you get a group of nerds together, add the normal nerd levels of neurosis and intelligence to super-code-breaking-genius levels of these, and place them under stress (like, say, having to break German codes and begin all over again every single day), hilarity will tend to result. As for the tragic bits, apart from, as I said before, Alan Turing’s ENTIRE FREAKING LIFE, it was all intelligence work, which means that to the eyes of most of the country, it was a cushy desk job that you took to get out of actually serving. There’s a story of one codebreaker who got this letter from a former tutor, ripping him apart for not enlisting when so many of his classmates had done, and for just taking some safe little government desk job when his country really needed him, and of course even though he was doing just as much as the guys who went off to fight, he couldn’t possibly say that on account of its being TOP FUCKING SECRET.

I’ve currently got Codebreakers: The Inside Story of Bletchley Park in my to-read pile, but having flipped through it a little, it seems pretty excellent! Basically I am a sucker for espionage history in general, and I am also a big fan museums/historical sites, so hearing that Bletchley Park had gotten a decent bit of money (and that there are plans for a 10-million-pound renovation over the next few years besides) was pretty awesome.

In which I read things: The Pirate’s Daughter, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

2 Oct

The Pirate's Daughter, paperback coverI was catching up with a friend last week and she said “so, Jules, what have you been reading lately?” This was not a question I planned to answer on the blog, since only one of the books I read in September was really historical, but then I realized an important counterargument, in the form of “hey, why the hell not?”

One of the books I read this month (the one that actually was an historical novel) was Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s The Pirate’s Daughter. In 1946, Errol Flynn comes to Jamaica, and this is the story of the women–well, and some men, but mostly women–whose lives he affects: primarily a woman named Ida, a preteen girl at the story’s beginning, with whom he later has an affair, and their illegitimate daughter, May.

This book is, in a lot of ways, not at all the kind of thing I usually read–multiple points of view, a sprawling story that sweeps across several decades in scope, and, heck, four out of every five books I read are young adult–but this was a wonderful story, beautifully written, and contains the one thing that will generally make me give something more of a chance, namely a lot of ladies, and ladies of color besides. It’s a story of women and race, women and inheritance, women and land. In writing her memoirs as an adult, May says:

It used to give me a ghostly feeling to hear stories about the days when men like Bligh and Admiral Nelson were in Jamaica. Not that they were ghostly but that I was, creeping about their big, conspicuous ruins. I’d feel ghostly too when I’d hear stories about my father. Because women like my mother, Sabine [a local ghost], the White Witch of Rosehall [a horror story], women like me, are usually heard of only in legends about haunted places. But it’s not a haunted house that I’ve inherited; it’s history.

In a LiveJournal post I linked to earlier, user Oyceter commented that the white man/woman of color pairing dynamic in what these people need is a honky stories plays out as “colonialism in miniature”; that idea is explored thoroughly here. The celebrated white man comes to Jamaica, loves it, but loves it as his vacation spot, not for what it actually is but for what it can offer him; he paints it as a charming, quaint little place and never even pays for his own meals (Ida’s father, his usual tour guide, pays for their dinners and drinks together). He loves it so much that he seduces a young woman from the island, then abandons her, and only meets their daughter once (at which point the child has no idea who he is). Colonialism is acted out in and upon the bodies of the characters, and May begins to come into her own and come to terms with her past against the backdrop of the political violence in Jamaica in the 1970s. Not entirely shocking, then, that The Pirate’s Daughter also contains one of the best descriptions of privilege I’ve ever read:

“I can’t tolerate men who are careless about other people’s lives. […] There was no malice in what Errol did to people, just thoughtless galloping over everyone, like a princeling.”

Basically this is one of the best books I’ve read in ages and I really cannot recommend it enough.

In which Masonic conspiracies abound!

18 Sep

So, the new Dan Brown book came out this week, and I am so grateful to have left Barnes and Noble just a short while ago, because I worked at a bookstore when Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out and it is really not an experience I need to repeat ever. In preparation, since it looks like at least some of The Last Symbol will be set in Washington D.C., the Washington Post offered an article about what D.C. should brace itself for in terms of book-tourism! I’m assuming that there’s a lot of Masonic stuff in there, since a lot of people involved in the American Revolution and several signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons.

I actually have never read much of Dan Brown’s stuff—I tried, but couldn’t focus on it long enough to finish it—but I will admit that it’s probably kind of hypocritical of me to get down on Dan Brown when my go-to movie for cheering myself up is National Treasure. On the other hand, THAT MOVIE IS AMAZING AND ANYONE WHO INSULTS IT IN MY PRESENCE IS DEAD TO ME.

In which there is a lot of saturated fat.

13 Sep

Wow, looking at my stats apparently there has actually been traffic to this blog lately! I am surprised, and now I am sure I’ve jinxed it and I’m probably going to forget all about it soon. Consider yourselves warned. I should also apologize for my lack of interaction; besides generally being terrible at replying to comments and having a pretty terrible couple of days (I spent about six hours straight on Friday crying for no really good reason, that was good times), I am not used to having comments to reply to! It is a strange and somewhat disturbing development. But I really appreciate the thoughts, and, heck, the traffic. It is very cool to know that people are interested in hearing me yammer about things. Well, okay, let’s be honest: complain about things.

Anyhoo, I feel like I have neglected the whole history aspect of this blog pretty badly lately, and that is a shame! Like I say, I had a pretty lousy couple of days, so today my mother and I got together and made brown-butter oatmeal cookies. I saw this recipe in the June issue of Vogue while waiting around for a job interview yesterday, and I didn’t quite trust myself to be stealthy enough to rip it out, nor was I quite shameless enough to just rip it out regardless of stares. Fortunately, the Internet exists, so I used the magic of Google and turned it up at another blog! Hooray!

I would give you delightful photos, but alas, I have lost the charger for my camera’s battery. Instead, because I am sure you are wondering what the heck this has to do with history (we can have a philosophical debate about this, I’m sure—rather, people can, but I am pretty crappy at philosophical debates, so I will probably not have much to say—but I’m fairly certain the June ’09 issue of Vogue does not have that much significance as a primary historical source just yet), here are a few facts about butter throughout history! Who doesn’t love lists of random facts about butter.

  1. According to Peter Hammond’s Food & Feast in Medieval England, gentry families could (did is probably another matter, but they could) purchase butter all year ’round, although “fresh butter must have been in very short supply at some times in the year”. Hammond also says that butter was apparently “very heavily salted”, citing by way of example that “in 1305 the Bishop of Worcester used 1lb of salt for every 10lbs of butter or cheese”.
  2. This 1835 article on butter suggests that “The Romans, who adopted it as an unguent or medicine to anoint the bodies of their children, learnt the invention from the Germans; but neither Greeks nor Romans applied it to the art of cookery.” However, historian Andrew Dalby finds that Northern Europeans did eat butter during the classical period. Frankly I consider that article even more interesting than the facts it contains, since I find the way historical studies and writing have progressed to be pretty interesting in and of themselves. Personally, I’m reassured by the fact that I am not the first person to think it would be interesting to learn a little more about the history of butter. When you start saying to yourself that butter might be interesting to learn about you also start to get a little troubled by the state of your life.
  3. How far back brown butter might go, I’m not sure; a little cursory Googling turned up a recipe from 1918, and no instructions for how to brown butter are given, which suggests that it would’ve at least been common knowledge among chefs. It’s not hard to imagine that someone, somewhere along the line, probably came up with the idea of cooking butter, especially since it’s made in much the same way as clarified butters like ghee.
  4. Just a couple of weeks ago, a couple of peat workers in Ireland found an Iron Age barrel filled with butter out in a bog. Alas, it’s now hardened into a waxy substance called adipocere, so there can be no exciting museum heists that result in cookies made with three-thousand-year-old butter. :(
  5. The seventeenth century finds samp (dried and powdered corn) mixed with milk and butter and “eaten hot or cold” as a breakfast staple in the North American colonies; it comes recommended by Roger Williams! If it’s good enough for the founder of Rhode Island, it’s good enough for you.
  6. The first time I tried to type out “other” in Item #3 there, I came up with “udder”. Apparently I cannot resist a pun.

Plus, the cookies were incredible.