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.

Treat women better

A screenshot of the audiobook version of Seduction by Karina Longworth

Seduction isn’t about Howard Hughes. I mean, it is, in that he’s the framing device to talk about twentieth century Hollywood, but Seduction is really about all the ways that women were screwed over in the Hollywood machine, from the Silent Era of the 1920s, into the beginnings of television in the 1950s.

At the beginning, it’s about how women started with more equality in Hollywood than you might think, both behind and in front of the camera, but men edged them out of the business. It’s about how women were seen only as vehicles for men’s emotional arcs or as prizes to be won in the stories that Hollywood was telling. It’s about how men would limit actresses’ availability or undermine them or keep them as actresses when they really wanted to be something else.

If you’re a fan of You Must Remember This (a podcast which is on potentially permanent hiatus), I would highly recommend Seduction, especially in audiobook form. It was like listening to a very long podcast episode (or one of her series of episodes), and I enjoyed it. Even as it was making me angry.

Horrors told lightly

Get Well Soon was a delight of a book. I very much enjoyed reading about all of the ways nature has tried to kill humanity over the years, from the virus that indirectly brought down the Roman Empire to the Bubonic Plague to the Spanish Flu of 1918, with an epilogue about AIDS.

And while I enjoyed the author’s flippant writing style as a way to offset the horrors of millions of people dying, I would understand if someone else thought it inappropriate or unsuited to the task.

Overall, Get Well Soon is a good way to learn a little bit more history than you knew before.

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 Thériault’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.

Too many facts, not enough information

I wanted so badly to like The Witches. Stacy Schiff has a lovely storytelling writing style, and the history of witches is interesting! (Ok, that’s a link to a specific story about witches in Norway, but I loved it and wanted to take this opportunity to share it.)

But her storytelling style of first-this, then-that was ultimately confusing. There are too many people in this book without enough context, both in terms of relationships between people and historically. I did get a good idea of why some of the suspicion existed between neighbors, a sense the isolation of New England in the late 1600s, and the weird city-country dynamics that affected how the situation played out.

But ultimately, I was done in by the fact that there was so much detail about each individual, who was accusing whom, and what specifically was going on, that I lost the forest for the trees. I ended up putting The Witches down when I didn’t want to. But the reading was so hard (and my to-read pile so big) that I felt like I had to. Maybe I will pick this up again at a later date when I have more time and brainpower.

Science + History = Awesomeness

I found The Fate of Rome SUPER fascinating. And I’m usually not into the whole Rome-is-dying-lets-find-out-why genre of Roman History. (I prefer stories about people doing their jobs well rather than people screwing up.) But The Fate of Rome applies all kinds of updated scientific techniques to history, telling a story of disease and climate change affecting the Roman Empire, and how competent (or not) rulers played into that.

There are two parts that really stick in my brain.

First, there’s a thing in Roman History called The Crisis of the Second Century. Basically after Commodus (the emperor portrayed in Gladiator), the Roman Empire kind of falls apart. The usually theories that are put forth are around inflation and rulers who don’t get the trust of the military (both of which were problems, don’t get me wrong). There’s a whole line of study that tries to answer the question, “Why didn’t the Empire fall apart during the second century? Because it maybe should have.”

BUT, there is new analysis of the epidemic that hit the Roman Empire during the second century, with a truly appalling death rate of somewhere around 60%. The Antonine plague, as it’s known, has been discussed plenty. It’s typically identified as a type of smallpox. There was a plague about 100 years later that has never been identified, and it is usually assumed to be another wave of smallpox. However, using modern epidemiology & pathology techniques and Galen’s discussion of the symptoms, it seems way more likely to be a type of ebola. Both diseases have truly appalling death rates: 30-40% for smallpox, possibly as high as 70% for ebola. Either way, the combination of plagues had a HUGE destabilizing effect on society.

The second part that really sticks in my brain requires a slightly longer explanation. By the 500s, the Roman Empire had been split into two and the Western half had fallen. The Eastern Half, now known as the Byzantine Empire, was still around. The emperors would occasionally try to reincorporate the Western Half, but would usually not make it very far.

Until Justinian, who was a super-capable human being. He had a general he could trust and who succeed in starting to bring Italy back into the fold during the 530s. And then 536 hit. No one knows why, but 536AD is the coldest year in the last 2000 years. Core ice from glaciers and tree-ring evidence show that there was a HUGE volcanic explosion in 536 and another in 539. This coupled with lower solar activity during the time (measured by the amount of certain radioactive elements in the air caused by solar radiation that then precipitate onto the glaciers), was hugely devastating. No sun means no crops means no food. Combine that with a conquering army sweeping across your land? Disaster.

Suffice it to say, Justinian didn’t succeed in rejuvenating the Western Roman Empire.

I learned SO MUCH about both how to combine history and science reading The Fate of Rome and so much more about why the Western Roman Empire fell. If you are at all into history, I highly recommend it.

Doing what you have to to survive

Les Parisiennes tells the stories of women who lived in Paris during World War II. It is a complicated book, structurally, with far too many individual stories told to keep track of all of the people. There is a six page list of all of the women mentioned in the book, before the index, if you want to be a better person than me and actively try to keep them all in your head.

I didn’t worry about keeping everyone straight because that’s not really the point of the narrative. Les Parisiennes is arranged chronologically and that has the advantage of reminding you that Paris is a big city, full of different people who asked themselves “what do I need to do to survive?” and answered differently. There are the women who collaborated, those who resisted loudly, those who resisted quietly, and those who did what they had to in the gray area in between.

I learned about Drancy, the holding area for prisoners before they were sent to concentration camps. During the early 1944 chapters of the book, it does leave Paris for Ravensbrück, the women’s concentration camp. Because it’s a third-person account it’s less emotional than, say, Survival in Auschwitz, but it was still nightmare-inducing. I couldn’t read these chapters before bedtime.

The most light-hearted part of the book is, of course, about fashion. No one writes a book about Paris and without including the fashion industry. You learn about the codes embroidered onto hats and belts and about the rather insane turbans women would wear just to piss off the Nazis. There is one memorable photograph of a woman, keeping watch on the top of a building during the liberation of Paris in 1944, wearing a lovely flowered skirt and sling-back heels with a helmet, holding a machine gun.

The juxtaposition of the soft and the hard in that photograph is what makes it interesting and it’s the jumble of all these women’s stories told together that makes Les Parisiennes work.

Recommended.

When the patriarchy was even stronger

Agrippina by Anthony A Barrett

Agrippina, specifically Agrippina the Younger, was a kind of incredible woman who co-ruled the Roman Empire first with her husband Claudius and then with her son Nero. This book has a distinctly feminist take on her.

Agrippina has often been portrayed as a power-hungry woman who would do anything (e.g. setting up Claudius’ prior wife for political downfall, murdering Claudius so Nero would inherit over Claudius’ natural son, sleeping with Nero once he was on the throne to stay in his good graces) to rule Rome. Mr Barrett’s take on it is as follows:

  1. Look, she was a powerful woman in a deeply misogynistic society. She’s not going to be portrayed in anything like a positive light.
  2. She only shows up in the contemporary stories about the men whose lives she was in. We don’t have anything that focuses on her.
  3. Sex scandals were frequently used by the contemporary sources to explain why powerful people (both men and women) were suddenly not in power anymore.

So when she’s implicated in a sex scandal, it’s important to look around and see who benefits and who else is being taken down with her. That’s going to show you what’s really going on.

Here are the facts: she was raised by an extraordinarily determined mother and her dead father was worshipped by the military. When she was around Caligula (the emperor before Claudius and her brother), he wasn’t such a crazy asshole who tried to kill everyone. Claudius’ reign was much smoother when she was his wife than when he was married to his prior wife. Nero didn’t go off the rails until after she was banished (and then he had her killed to keep her from coming back). Shit worked when she was on the scene.

So maybe consider that the contemporary reports were written by gossipy people with a strong patriarchal bias and should be taken with a HUGE grain of salt.

I liked this one.

They’re all crazy

Dynasty

Dynasty is a story of a particularly prominent and dysfunctional family: the Julio-Claudian set of Roman Emperors. It includes Augustus (who started the empire), Claudius (subject to a relatively famous BBC series), and Nero (who fiddled while Rome burned), amongst others. They’re notable because they were the first emperors: Augustus managed the transition from republic to empire; Tiberius couldn’t live up to him; Caligula was either crazy or really spoiled; Claudius was underestimated; and Nero was complicated.

It was also a complicated time in the Roman state: how does a republic transition to an empire? Why? How did the prominence of women in the family (Livia, Agrippina the Younger) effect anything?

Dynasty is popular history (not scholarly), and both readable and enjoyable.

Everyone has their own filter

SPQR

SPQR is and is not a history of Ancient Rome. It does not cover the entire 1200+ years of the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire. It’s almost more of a media study of Ancient Rome. The fact is that there are few sources, and they’re difficult to verify against each other. In fact, before about 300 BCE, it’s all legend; there are no records of any kind. But we do have the stories, and how people tell the stories say a whole lot about the time they’re writing in.

Augustus burned all of Cleopatra’s records; we don’t get anything of her that didn’t pass through his filter. So what do we know of her? What does that tell us about Augustus, the first emperor of Rome? That’s the kind of history this is – it’s different than others and useful as a result. I thought about Rome differently.

Recommended.