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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.

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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 a grudge is hinted at

6 Oct

Ugh what the hell, that was supposed to post around nine AM this morning. My eternal quest to master the “Schedule Post” feature continues.

So, as you have probably noticed, I love food history. I would like to give you guys more in the way of hilarious anecdotes from history, but a lot of what I end up studying tends to involve material culture and attempts to find out how the general populace lived in a given society, rather than the oustanding few whose names we know. This means that a lot of what I’ve got tends to be more on trends and fashions, instead of the kind of delightful stories one gets from biographies. But I’ll try to work on that a bit more, because I’m sure I just need to dig a little deeper!

Anyhoo, this isn’t so much an anecdote, but it’s kind of awesome: while poking around a couple of food history sites, I came up with this: Thomas Jefferson’s recipe for vanilla ice cream, written by Jefferson himself, is over here at the Library of Congress web site! Oh Thomas Jefferson. Here is the deal with me and Thomas Jefferson, guys: you know how sometimes you meet someone, or you watch a TV show and there’s some character on it, and you can’t explain why, but you just really want to punch them a lot? That is how I get with Thomas Jefferson. I don’t even know! He did a lot of great stuff for the United States, and humanity in general, and he was a pretty interesting dude, objectively, and yet somehow I just want to get a time machine, go back to the eighteenth century, and (after I have gone on my amazing date with George Washington) punch Thomas Jefferson in the face.

Now, if you are like me and you grew up in Virginia, you spent a whole lot of time hearing about how freaking great Thomas Jefferson was, and among his many accomplishments was credit for bringing ice cream to America.* Turns out this is BS! While the earliest known recipe for ice cream in America is Jefferson’s, according to Monticello, “George Washington’s papers contain a prior reference to an ice cream maker”. IT ALL COMES BACK TO GEORGE IN THE END, MY FRIENDS. Seriously, though, the deal was that TJ was just kind of famous for serving it a lot at Monticello, and that’s the earliest known recipe in America (although there are ones in England from as early as 1718). Sorry, TJ, you are just going to have to rest on that whole Declaration of Independence thing and hope it is enough to keep me from punching you. No promises, though; that’s just not how I roll.

* In fairness, I spent a lot of time tuning out whatever my teachers were talking about, especially when we returned once more to the subject of how great Thomas Jefferson was, so maybe I am just piecing this together from hearing about how much he liked ice cream and the approximately five billion other things he is credited with bringing to America (not to be confused with the six billion things Ben Franklin invented or brought to America.

In which the news is not all completely infuriating!

30 Sep

Some of it is hilarious! In the midst of the Polanski business (here’s a free tip, readers: if you don’t want to go to jail for raping a child, maybe you shouldn’t rape a child), here are some articles that have shown up in my reader and did not make me want to punch a lot of people!

First of all, the Telegraph reports that apparently archaeologists are now thinking that the Battle of Bosworth Fields actually took place about a mile away from the site that’s been previously used to mark it. Awkward!

Also from the Telegraph comes news that a dude who made some wacky claims about Hitler’s skull fragment on a History Channel special never actually examined the fragment. Hey, remember when the History Channel wasn’t all WWII all the time? Yeah, me neither.

And the Times reports that a Van Dyck self-portrait is due to be sold! They also say, however, that “modern detractors argue that van Dyck is to blame for 400 years of flattery and airbrushing in depictions of the famous and the powerful”; maybe I am not so up to date with the art history world, but I have never heard this at all. Is this true?

Or if “what wacky times we live in” is your thing, the BBC reports that a PoW camp in County Durham is for sale on eBay!

Ah, that was refreshing. By the way, for those of you who’d like to know whose movies to illegally download borrow from your friends instead of buying from now on, the LiveJournal celeb-gossip community ohnotheydidn’t has a list of people who’ve signed the “Free Polanski” petition. Fortunately, most of my favorite celebrities and imaginary significant others are not really important enough for anyone to have asked their opinions on the matter, so I can continue with planning our imaginary weddings, but man, this is bad enough. Et tu, Tilda Swinton?

In which I’ve got nothing.

26 Sep

I went to Small Press Expo in Rockville today! That was good times. I was going to make you a ~brilliant work of Photoshop art~ to illustrate some of the highlights of my day (wishing I had a flamethrower to use on other drivers; finding and replacing a blown fuse in my car and feeling all competent about myself for it; having someone cut in line in front of me to see Kate Beaton and then hearing that same someone complaining about all the people jumping the line; feeling really bad for Kate Beaton, who looked a bit terrified at the crowd; starting my day by getting up at four AM to take my father to the airport so he can go visit Hawaii for work), but I got up at four, so mostly I am thinking I will just kind of nap for awhile. Sorry, dudes! Have this instead.

date

I’m also sorry about the white text. Life is a series of miseries followed by the peace of the grave, my friends. At least you’re not getting stood up and having to watch your army dwindle?

In which Indiana Jones better step up.

23 Sep

I had not heard of Rose Valland until a few years back, and I think I found out about her by following a random sequence of links on Wikipedia. Man, okay, here are three things I love:

  1. Stories about spies, spying, and espionage
  2. Museums
  3. Stories about badass ladies

This lady was a curator at the Louvre’s Jeu de Paume. When the Nazis occupied Paris and the Third Reich’s Special Staff for Pictorial Art was headquartered at the Jeu de Paume, she was enlisted to work as a cataloger (and in addition to the Louvre’s own works, the Germans were using it as a waystation for storing works raided from throughout occupied territories). So she started passing details of the works, where they were being transported to and how they were getting there, along to the French Resistance, who sabotaged German efforts to get them back.

In conclusion, you know that saying about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and how she did everything he did except backwards and in high heels? Basically substitute “Rose Valland” for “Ginger Rogers” and “Indiana Jones” for “Fred Astaire”, and also add in that she’s not a fictional character, and you have my point here. MUSEUM CATALOGERS DEFENDING FREEDOM, HECK YES.

Tragically, there is nothing in the way of a biopic (The Train is about the French Resistance staging a daring raid on a train carrying artwork to Germany, and it’s based on her memoirs and features a Resistance informant based on her, but there’s not much about Valland specifically) or English-language book (though she’s featured in The Rape Of Europa)! I would love to read her memoirs, too; I just need to do the following:

  1. Learn French
  2. Get my hands on a copy that doesn’t cost $400+ like the ones on Amazon

Whatever, details.

In which the nature of history is reflected on a little more.

15 Sep

Last week, Yahoo News’s HealthDay reported on one of the more historically significant speakers at a burn survivors’ conference in New York, and later interviewed her: Kim Phuc Phan Thai, first seen by the world at nine years old, when Nick Ut photographed her after her village in Vietnam was bombed and she was doused with napalm.

Here is the thing: history happens. I definitely think the line I like to pull out is true—the past is another country—but like I’ve also said, it’s the one we came from in getting to where we are now. It’s easy to forget sometimes that history informs who we are, that it may be another country but it’s not another planet. Kim Phuc isn’t nine years old anymore: she’s had an entire life beyond that photograph (against a whole lot of odds, too). Heck, even the focus of the article isn’t the ~historical significance~: it’s an article on a burn survivors’ conference first and foremost, written with a health focus. About as much lineage is devoted to the progress we’ve made in burn treatment since the early 70s as to Kim Phuc.

(I will leave untouched the stupidity of the line “What the iconic photo — snapped in 1972 by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut — doesn’t show is the girl’s struggle to survive and thrive in the aftermath of that day.” No, of course it doesn’t show that, because it’s a still photograph. There had to be a less awkwardly redundant way to convey all the information you wanted to get across there, dude.)