Tag Archives: Europe

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 we are reminded of the importance of specificity. And also the deliciousness of apples.

7 Oct

So the food I set out to dig some info up on today is a pretty difficult one to research: apple cider! You’re probably thinking, “Jules, what’s so difficult about that?” In response to which I might punch you! It turns out, there is a lot that’s difficult about that.

Not only is cider about as old as apples (the only question seems to be whether the Egyptians were making it; while they grew apples, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that they were making any kind of juice or beverage from them), but trying to figure out which particular cider any given source is talking about is pretty tricky, too. American cider, which is unsweetened, unclarified juice (cloudy and brown, as opposed to the clear yellow stuff sold as juice), is completely different from what we call hard cider and the rest of the world just calls cider, which is also clear and yellow but will get you drunk! This brings me to a very important Serious Historical Research Tip: always specify your terms. A lot of the sources out there are just throwing “cider” around without any modifiers whatsoever. Is that useful to the Serious Historical Expert? It is not. Not when you’re trying to find information on one particular kind, anyway.

As far as other early mentions, a couple of different sources mentioned that when the Romans reached Britain, the locals in Kent introduced them to some kind of apple-based drink. But the earliest records of cider-making in England are from after the Norman Conquest, although there were references from France early in the ninth century, from no less a source than Charlemagne. It also turns out that in the late nineteenth century, cider actually outstripped wine as the beverage of choice in Paris! In America, meanwhile, during the early years of the colonial period, apples were a lot quicker and easier to grow than grains, so cider was generally more prevalent than beer.

But this ended up being as much a chance to talk about the Serious Historical Research Process as delicious autumnal beverages. Here’s the thing: in a lot of the sources where I found this information, I ended up having to deduce for myself which kind of cider the author was referring to (usually hard). In the case of an article from a website dedicated to alcoholic beverages, this was kind of a no-brainer, but in other cases, I’d have to go on references contrasting cider with beer, remarking on the differences in “fermentation processes”, and mentioning that a general decline in popularity was followed by the blow of Prohibition. These are the kinds of context clues that the Serious Historical Expert needs to be on the lookout for, you see. And while it’s easy to write one source off, especially one found by the Grueling Research Method of googling for two minutes, the need to pay attention to context because no one would specify whether they were talking about hard or soft cider was a constant one–even a New York Times article confused me for awhile until its middle, where there were references to alcohol content. This timeline, further, has an interesting graph at the bottom. I had assumed (from the fact that the URL is a UK-based one, and it’s generally only Americans who refer to soft cider as merely “cider”, without any modifiers) that it was generally tracking hard cider, and if you’ll look at that graph, you’ll notice something else that corroborates that assumption: there’s a huge drop-off in US cider consumption right after 1919. Again, this is an important context clue–Prohibition went into effect shortly after, and that would’ve affected hard cider sales drastically.

Personally, for dinner tonight I’m going to make these pork chops braised in (soft) cider. I suspect they will go down in history for DELICIOUSNESS.

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 cannot maintain my cynicism.

1 Oct

Man, I don’t even know what it was about this, but it basically had me all weepy and ridiculous when I read it. So, okay, awhile back, a high school teacher assigned his students a project in which they would collect oral histories from their family members to create a record of the town’s memories of the Second World War. And they ran across a story the American 30th Infantry Division who were moving through Germany at the end of the war, intercepted and then proceeded to liberate a train that carried thousands of people from the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen to a death camp. It turned out this story had basically been forgotten about, because Mat Rozell, the teacher who’d started it all, began getting emails from people who’d been on that train.

Like, the ABC article about it is kind of silly and manipulative soft journalism, but I’m not gonna lie, I was totally manipulated by it. This is also a really good example of how technology can be really useful for historical study; one of the survivors who was on the train said he had spent 44 years searching for some mention of the incident and found nothing until Matt Rozell’s high school history class posted what they’d found on the Internet.

Seriously this is ridiculous, I am crying all over again. I don’t even know, guys.

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 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.