Tag Archives: books

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 am having trouble lifting stuff on account of this chip on my shoulder.

14 Oct

So, apparently people are abuzz with talk about the Millennials! This is relevant to my interests, on account of how I’m generally considered as belonging to that generation (1985). This article in the Chronicle of Higher Education talks about the practice of generational studies, which, like so much of academia, mostly seems to involve saying some stuff and then arguing about it with people who are saying slightly different stuff. It’s a pretty interesting article and definitely worth a read, and I’m now interested in adding the books referenced to my list of things to get next time I’m at the library!

I mostly wanted to say, though, dear Neil Howe and William Strauss, I have a hard time taking your study seriously when you base all your observations on a survey not only of one county and one alone, but of Fairfax County in particular. Now, admittedly, I have a bit of a complex about Fairfax County, being from the county everyone in Fairfax makes fun of: for instance, I once had someone from Fairfax, on finding out that I had grown up in Woodbridge, across the river in Prince William County, respond with “wow, I didn’t know that was something people admitted to in public” (this is why I feel a certain kinship with New Jersey, just FYI). But dudes, Fairfax County is hardly representative of the entire country in any way. As the article points out, in 2007 Fairfax “became the first county in the nation to have a median household income of more than $100,000, about twice the national average.” Admittedly, in the DC Metro area, an income of $100,000 doesn’t go as far as it would elsewhere in the country, because the cost of living is so high, but dudes, leaving aside the class issues, what about the regional differences? What about urban vs. suburban vs. rural?

Like, I am willing to hear out some talk of generational theory, at least insofar as it loosely corresponds to historical trends, but dudes. Seriously. The sample size is pretty good, but that is not much in the way of sample variety. Probably the funniest point, for me, comes in a discussion of an admissions officer’s doubts about this whole business:

He wondered if the sample of students in Millennials Rising had corrupted the findings. After all, most students do not apply to top-20 colleges.

Which pretty much sums it up right there. Oh, Fairfax County.

At first glance, this post probably looks like a thinly-veiled excuse for me to vent some spleen re: Fairfax County, but look closer! What I’m talking about is actually a pretty important thing to pay attention to when doing Serious Historical Research. Obviously, having grown up in the Northern Virginia area during the period Strauss and Howe were studying, I’m able to spot a lot more quickly that drawing conclusions about an entire nation’s worth of young people based on the teenagers in that county alone is stupid, because that county is very much exceptional. But you do need to be careful when faced with raw data, which these dudes seem to have forgotten: in the United States there’s tons of regional variation, and while this might be useful as a study of, say, Mid-Atlantic teenagers, or teenagers in busy, rich, suburban/urban areas, it’s not useful as a study of an entire nation’s teenagers.

In conclusion, though, seriously: FAIRFAX COUNTY, DUDES. SO TOTALLY NOT THE REST OF THE COUNTRY. If they were, I would probably emigrate.

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 a publishing company crosses the line.

11 Sep

So today was going to be Part 2 on Mrs. Bennet, but this turned out to be timely, considering, so Mrs. Bennet will have to wait a day or two.

Look, I will grant that the Twilight books have gorgeous cover designs. Far prettier than they deserve, IMO. But you, HarperCollins, have gone too far. Good day to you, sirs.

Stephenie Meyer presents Pride and Prejudice

I SAID GOOD DAY.

Things that leave a bad taste in my mouth, Part 1 of ???

16 Feb

So obviously interaction with other blogs is helpful in ~getting off the ground~. Unfortunately, searching Technorati for history-themed blogs proves difficult. This is tragic. I was desperate enough to just type “history” into the search bar and go from there. This was about as effective as you’d guess, but I did find the Yale University Press blog, which has a “History” tag. There was disappointingly little beyond mere titles and blurbs about books, but even that was sufficiently intriguing for me to go “Hmm” and start clicking on some titles, including: Europe Between The Oceans, by Barry Cunliffe. It’s written by an archaeologist! It’s about ancient history, which I am intrigued by but have no idea where to start with! Material culture!* Then I hit this:

…[Europe] became one of the most innovative regions on the planet, generating restless adventurers who traversed the globe to trade, to explore, and often to settle. By the fifteenth century Europe was a driving world force, but the origins of its success have until now remained obscured in prehistory.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. So…what was around before the fifteenth century, then, innovation- and adventurer-wise? Nothing? All the other continents were just waiting for Europe to do shit? The book itself still sounds like it could be pretty interesting, but lordy-loo, dudes. I…was going to close with “Eurocentric much?” but I guess that’s really kind of the point.

*I am a giant material culture dork. Just to warn you all now.