Round up the usual suspects

Destination Casablanca is about Operation Torch, the Allied operation in 1942 to invade French Morocco and Algeria; this allowed the Allies to gain an operational toe-hold in Africa to fight the Nazis from another side.

France held a weird position during WWII. The official French government was headed by Petain and collaborated with the Nazis: France was our enemy. But there were a LOT of dissenters – the decision to surrender to Germany in order to maintain a semblance of self-control was not unified by any means. A lot of army officers who didn’t necessarily agree with that decision were posted to France’s colonies – including Algeria and French Morocco. Which meant that a fair number of the officers in these two colonies were sympathetic to the Allied cause. A major part of Operation Torch was figuring out who they could trust and how much.

I also got to learn about Josephine Baker’s espionage career, which was a delight. She would smuggle messages on sheet music.

I would recommend Destination Casablanca, but be forewarned that the actual chapters on the battle sometimes get bogged down in detail.

Virginia Hall is amazing

A Woman of No Importance is the biography of Virginia Hall, a young American socialite who falls in love with France as a girl. After college, she moves to Europe and gets a series of jobs with the US State Department; because it’s the 1930s they want her to be a secretary and she is not satisfied with that option. As a result, she moves around from place to place, trying to get a better job. During the 1930s, while she’s in Turkey, she accidentally shoots herself in the foot and loses her left leg below the knee.

When WWII breaks out, she feels the burning desire to help, to do something. She starts as an ambulance driver in France; when France falls to the Germans, she makes her way to Britain and gets a job with the SOE, also known as Churchill’s “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare.” Under her cover of being an American journalist, she moves to Lyon, starts coordinating efforts amongst the resistance – turning it from pockets of people into a coordinated movement.

Virginia Hall turns out to be incredibly good at this. She inspires loyalty in people and eventually is coordinating the efforts of and distributing supplies to hundreds of people.

But she gets burnt. In 1942, a German double agent infiltrates her circle, and she barely escapes. To escape, she walks across the Pyrenees to neutral Spain. In the winter. On her wooden leg. Because that’s what she does and that’s who she is.

Britain won’t send her back into the field after this incident – too many Germans know who she is and they really, really don’t like her. So Virginia switches to work for the US’ OSS. The OSS does send her back into the field, under heavy disguise, into a different part of France, to coordinate with the maquis to lay the groundwork for D Day. They’re initially resistant to taking orders from a woman, but Virginia has by this time become battle hardened and knowledgeable and takes no shit from anyone. She figures out who she can work with, discards the people she can’t, and moves on ahead.

After WWII, she finds work with the CIA, who, with the US back on its patriarchal BS after WWII, doesn’t use her nearly as effectively as they could or should.

I LOVED A Woman of No Importance. Virginia Hall is amazing, her story is well-told, and the history is compelling. Like, I finally understand why James Bond is so damn popular. I am not surprised one bit that JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot has bought the rights for the movie, nor that Daisy Ridley is attached to play Virginia Hall. I hope it doesn’t sit in development for too long.

Sunday Shorts

Gertrude Bell, badass lady

Gertrude Bell is seated between Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.

One day, in my spare time, I will write about famous royal women in history. Until then, I will content myself with Anne ThĂ©riault’s Queens of Infamy series over on Longreads (which you should be reading). And as a part of that series, I will make an exception for non-royal Gertrude Bell, an Englishwoman who was instrumental in getting the British out of the government of the Middle East.

How to summarize Gertrude Bell? She was the daughter of one of Britain’s titans of industry, independently wealthy, full of energy, and an adventurer through and through. Before she explored the Middle East, she climbed the most difficult mountains in the Alps, mostly because she could.

Once she started exploring the Middle East, she became omnivorous about it, learning not only the languages and the customs, but also the history and peoples and more. Many of her expeditions were to ruins and historical sites that she was the first Westerner to explore, and the maps she created were the best of their ilk.

As WWI broke out, she offered her services and knowledge to the British Empire. They eventually took her up on the offer (of course there was sexism and having to prove she deserved to be in the room before anyone would start taking her seriously), and her knowledge of the tribal structures and people in the Middle East was a great asset during the war.

She was also instrumental in setting up Iraq as an independent country after WWI. She fought to get the best structure for the future Iraqis; the British government back in London was all about doing what was easiest for them. Those two things did not often align.

Basically, Gertrude Bell was a force to be reckoned with and historically important. Gertrude Bell, Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations was a lovely introduction to her. Recommended.

Modern romance stories are better than you think

The Proposal was a super-sweet, very swoony modern romance set in Los Angeles. The actual wedding proposal takes place at the beginning of the book: a public proposal on the big screen at a Dodgers game that was definitely not discussed ahead of time. Nikole is rescued from her upset now-ex-boyfriend and an angry crowd by Carlos and his sister. Nikole and Carlos go on to have a very enjoyable romance.

Recommended, especially if you need a pick-me-up.

An aside, not just about this book: one of the things I like about most modern romance stories is how they deal with issues of diversity, living in a social media filled world, consent, sexism, and generally what it’s like to be a woman navigating the current world. These are books written largely by and for women, and they are sometimes written at an amazing clip, which means they can react to the issues of the day faster than other genres. And it’s all wrapped up in a happy package, a thing that can feel radical in and of itself.

So consider a good romance novel the next time you’re looking for a book.

More about the characters than the mysteries

The Lady Sherlock series is… fine? I recently read the first two books; they’re fun without being spectacular. I’m not sure I could tell you any of the intricacies of the actual mysteries, which always seem to be entirely too convoluted. One of Agatha Christie’s rules of mystery writing is that the motive should be something simple and everyday. These books do not follow that rule.

However, I’m not here for the mysteries. I’m here for the characterization of women in Victorian London figuring out how to be transgressive and get away with it. Charlotte Holmes losing her virginity and making sure it gets out so her father can’t marry her off; Mrs Watson coming from the stage; Charlotte’s sister starting to make her own living by writing down “Sherlock”‘s mysteries. Sherlock is a total fabrication created so that people will bring their issues to Charlotte.

The books are a mixed bag, and I still have the third one on hold at the library, so I’m enjoying them enough to keep going on the series.

Knowledge is power

Educated was not an easy read. It’s the memoir of a woman who was raised in a strict Mormon household, the kind that is convinced the government is after them. Her mother was a midwife at first, and then a healer later. Suffice it to say, there was no going to see doctors. There was no school. She didn’t even have a birth certificate until she was 9. The home environment was not healthy, to say the least.

But she ends up at BYU as a 16 or 17 year old (it wasn’t exactly clear from her writing), where she starts learning both about the world and how to learn. She ends up at Cambridge and then Harvard and estranged from her family and parents.

Educated was a powerful read – you feel her emotions, the highs and the lows. The desire to run away, the need to fit in, and all the therapy in between.

Highly recommended.

Don’t f*** with Circe

Madeline Miller collects the myths that mention Circe the nymph, gives her a backstory, and then puts it all into a very entertaining story.

If you remember Circe at all, it’s probably because you know her as one of the obstacles Odysseus had to face before he could get home (though, Calypso is the nymph with whom he dallies for seven years, not Circe). Circe is known for turning Odysseus’ men into pigs. In this telling, she still totally turns them into pigs – who knows what a bunch of hungry sailors are going to do to a woman living alone on an island. A woman has to defend herself, after all. But the story is more nuanced than that; she changes them back eventually and they use a hidden cove on her island to repair their ship over the winter, when it is usually too dangerous to sail anyway.

Overall, Circe is portrayed as a nymph who has been rather unjustly exiled to live on an island in the middle of the ocean, where she teaches herself magic from the herbs there. She makes friends with the animals – it’s very Cinderella in that way, now that I think about it. People and gods come to visit her over the years, and she’s even once allowed to leave the island for a particular task.

Circe is a woman who has been allowed to fully realize who she is and what she wants and figures out how to get it. It’s wonderful.

Recommended.

Having Feelings

I had so many conflicting thoughts while reading All The Single Ladies. I agree with her premise: that many women are marrying and having children later because that is how they get time to fully form who they are and what they want from life. We need to support women at all stages of their lives, from single hood, through partnership (if that’s what you want), through parenthood (again, if that’s in the cards), and beyond. All of this, and this is most of what she’s saying, is 100% correct, and we should celebrate all of the ways in which people, both men and women, realize their full potential.

Does my praise sound forced? It might. I do agree with what All The Single Ladies had to say, but at the same time, I felt vaguely attacked for my own life choices (married in my late 20s, having a child a year later). Did those decisions, negatively affect my career? Probably. Moving across the country twice didn’t help, though. I’ve always chosen a new adventure over building a career. It’s part of who I am.

And so: All The Single Ladies gave me Feelings. Feelings of “I didn’t do life right” except that I’ve done life right for me so far, and I hope to continue that. But that was a conclusion that took me some time to get to.

The later chapters also gave me feelings of “Yes, we absolutely need to make it easier for women to have both children and careers” and “female friendships are super important” and “society needs to realize how much money women have.”

So: recommended, but apparently I needed some psychoanalysis to get there.

Ignoring the feminine

Mary Beard is, of course, a well-know classicist, and it’s a personal life mission of mine to read all of her books. Even the dry academic ones – they’re quite interesting, if you’re curious about life in the Ancient Roman or Greek worlds. This is not one of those.

Women & Power is a very slight book – less than 100 pages – that is basically a transcript of two speeches she gave about just how deep silencing women goes in Western culture. Spoiler alert: the first example of silencing a woman in a written text is the Odyssey, which is possibly the oldest written text there is.

There are examples of powerful women in ancient texts, but these women are never portrayed as positive role models – think of Medea and Medusa – and even Athena is problematic. The feminine is secondary to the masculine by default.

This was a quick but illustrative read. Definitely recommended.