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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.


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 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.

Review: Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

12 Aug

So things got a bit rough for awhile there, but I’m going to give this whole thing another try. One regular feature from now on is going to be me talking about historical I’ve read recently. Definitely novels, maybe some non-fiction as well, popular or academic.

Title: Flygirl

Author: Sherri L. Smith

Period: 1941-45

Location: USA

Let’s not mince words: I loved this. Flygirl is the story of Ida Mae Jones, a young black woman from New Orleans, who decides to pass as white and join the WASP—Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—program. The WASP was instituted to free up male pilots for combat duty; women ferried planes, test-piloted new aircraft, and flew targets during practice.

If you know me at all, you will know that I like a lot of the following things:

  1. women doing awesome things
  2. examinations of how race, class, and/or gender intersect
    1. in American history
  3. young adult fiction
  4. family and duty-to-family issues

If you do not know me…well, now you know that. :D Basically this delivered all of those things, and as a consequence, I freaking adored it.

As I said, in order to join the program, Ida Mae must pass as white. I said this quickly, and if in doing so I implied that the decision is made or treated lightly in the book, that’s my mistake, because it so totally is not. In fact, one of the things that drew me to it in the first place was the fact that the issue of passing was addressed; it was something I hadn’t read much about in the past and was interested in learning more on. Ida Mae agonizes over the decision to pass, not only because of the constant care she must take (she makes excuses not to sunbathe with the other WASP and comes up with an elaborate system to keep her hair from getting wet when swimming), but because in passing, she must cut herself off completely from her family. Ida Mae’s brother goes missing in action; when their mother comes to the Texas base where WASP training takes place to deliver the news in person, Ida Mae must tell the other girls in her flight that the woman is “my mother’s maid”. Though the issue is a constant struggle, it’s not repetitive in the least: this is such an essential conflict in the narrative, and is so skilfully handled, that to ignore the constant agony Ida Mae endures is to short-change the character and the readers both.  Flygirl raises a whole lot of difficult questions and issues, with regards to race and gender both, and it doesn’t offer easy, pat answers to them, though Smith still manages to wrap everything up into a satisfying (if open) ending.

And then, of course, there are the characters. Ida Mae narrates the story, and her voice is crystal-clear, brisk, and engaging. The characters, particularly her strong-willed mother and fellow WASP airwomen, are lively and rich characters—not an easy thing to accomplish in a first-person narrative. This is a war story, so some of the cliches that go along with that exist here, but this is…I don’t want to say a subversion, because that’s totally not what it is. This is the story of a black woman’s war, and more than that, it’s a powerful reminder that yes, by God, such a thing existed.