Tag Archives: war

Ladies of Liberty, by Cokie Roberts

We hear a lot in the US about the Founding Fathers – the Revolutionary War heroes who wrote/signed the Declaration and the Constitution, who dedicated their lives to the country and shaped the nation we have today. We hear less about the Founding Mothers – the women who subsumed their relationships and sometimes their own preferences into the politics and struggles of the new country.  Oh, sure, we know a bit about Abigail Adams, maintaining a Massachusetts farm while her husband was creating a country, and Dolley Madison, who saved the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812, and sometimes there might be a collection of biographical sketches of First Ladies – but there’s not even close to the depth of research given to the Presidents and other major male figures.

Cokie Roberts is trying to redress the balance with this book. It’s extensively researched and documented (as far as I can tell) without ever being dry and dusty (for more than a few sentences at least). Overall, she does an excellent job of bringing the women to life.

And it’s about more than just the First Ladies/White House hostesses. Obviously they make up a bulk of the book, being the female focal points of their respective administrations, and they are covered in detail during – and sometimes before and after – the relevant administrations (except for Elizabeth Monroe, who seemed to have been private and sick most of the time), but the book also covers the Ursuline nuns of New Orleans, the free black women societies who made huge strides in educational access, Theodosia Burr, and other wives, socialites, reformers, and writers of the first six administrations.

Structurally, it’s fairly straightforwardly chronological, with one chapter for each presidential term from John Adams until the election of John Quincy Adams. The women thread into and out of the book much as they would have in the national consciousness of the time – which can seem a bit chaotic but does give a sense of the real-time history. There were quite a few personalities that probably deserve their own biographies – and not just the obvious candidates like Abigail Adams, Louisa Adams, and Dolley Madison.

There were some timing coincidences for me during my reading. I’d just finished reading abut the War of 1812 in the book when one of my favourite podcast series had an episode about the Bombardment of Baltimore, and BBC History podcast had an episode about the War of 1812. And reading about Theodosia Burr made me want to reread Burr – and then I heard that Gore Vidal had died.

(I also wanted to reread The President’s Lady when Rachel Jackson came up, but she never played a big role in society and the book ends at John Quincy Adams’s election.)

This book definitely gave me a new/different perspective on key, well-known figures. I think of Thomas Jefferson, for example, as a man of refinement and education, so to see him derided as a sort of hick with no manners was a bit startling. (Not Cokie Roberts’s derision, I should point out, but public opinion at the time.) I also lost a bit of respect for Abigail Adams for her vehement support of the Alien and Sedition Act, the PATRIOT Act of its day, if not worse. I also found Louisa Adams incredibly fascinating and contradictory, and want to read more about her  (when I’m next in an early-America mood).

It’s not a book for American history beginners, and it was easy to put down – but it was also easy to come back to, and I definitely learned a lot.

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Mr. Rosenblum’s List, by Natasha Solomons

My local library is doing a sort of book club. There’s no schedule, no meetings – just a list of books and an end date. You can read whichever of the books you want, at your own pace, and write a tiny review on the enclosed paper. And at the end of a certain time, the library will collect and collate all the reviews and there will be a voluntary discussion session.

This was the first book on the list so I gave it a try. It tells the story of a German refugee couple in the mid-20th century. Jack, the husband, wants desperately to belong in England and uses a list of instructions given to refugees as his guide, adding to it as he discovers more “typically English” things. Sadie, his wife, wants desperately not to forget their life and family in Germany. As you can imagine, this causes problems. Jack runs into problems fulfilling the list’s edicts – anti-Semitism is subtle but rife in post-war Britain, so he can’t become a member of a golf club, for instance. Sadie, on the other hand, sees her husband’s attempts to belong in Britain as a betrayal of their life “before” and an abandonment of their religion, heritage, and family. Jack is nothing if not persistent, though, and moves to Dorset in order to build his own golf course so that he can become a “real” Englishman.

The main thing that I took away from this book – apart from anger at the attacks and vandalism that come with casual racism, and anger at Jack when he ignores or dismisses Sadie – is a deeper though about “how to belong”. I think everyone can agree that simply following a set of rules isn’t enough to make you “belong” – especially when the rules are slightly different for different social groups. There isn’t one overarching set of rules to say “this is an Englishman” or “this is an American” or “this is a German.” The rules are different for Dorset and London, for upper-class and middle-class and working-class, for impoverished gentry and emigrants, for farm laborers and factory workers.

But the most important thing about “belonging” is not what rules to follow, but when to make up your own rules and when to go beyond the rules. Any group is made up of individuals, often similar but never identical. Jack does a lot better at his quest to belong when he stops trying so hard to get all the details right and just acts normally (for him). Sadie finds her “belonging” by doing what she does best (baking and cooking) but also because she never pretends to be something she’s not.

The other thing that helps with “belonging” is when you yourself are inclusive. Jack never turns anyone away, and makes an effort with everyone he meets to bring them into his project and his life. Sir William, on the other hand, makes an effort to exclude and is, in the end, excluded himself. Exclusion can limit belonging – Jack excludes Sadie who in turn excludes him: it’s not until they both make an effort to include the other in their lives that they come together again.

I would recommend this book – I gave it four stars on the library review sheet. It’s not a must-read, a “why haven’t you read this yet” or anything, but it’s nice, and well-crafted, and well-written. If you happen to pick it up, you won’t be sorry.

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The Hunger Games/Catching Fire/Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

I knew I would read The Hunger Games (trilogy) before watching the films, and I pushed it higher up on my list after my sister spent Christmas reading it. On vacation. In San Diego. Where there are whales and pandas to watch. I been avoiding spoilers as much as I can (even when the articles on the film looked really interesting), so all I really knew was that the main character was named Katniss Everdeen, the Hunger Games were a reality-tv competition where the contestants had to literally kill each other, and there was a girl named Rue who was black.

It’s easy to read The Hunger Games – the first book, at least – as an indictment of reality TV and our collective enjoyment of watching people suffer, in whatever way, for our entertainment. But for me, the trilogy is much more an indictment of what we choose not to pay attention to, especially as people in the higher income strata of the world. Social awareness has come a long way since the days of Jane Addams, etc., but things like the Mike Daisey story (to keep with relatively current events) show how far we still have to go. So many times the real people involved in things are forgotten or ignored – or worse, like Haymitch, ignored except when they are useful. We get complacent about the things in our lives, and forget to recognize where they come from. We start thinking that our problems are the only problems, and the worst problems, and we forget that there are other people who also have problems, who have more fundamental problems, or who are willing to share the burden of our problems.

And that’s true of the people in the Capitol – the ones who paint their faces and throw food away while other people are starving, the ones who only think about the Districts during the Hunger Games, or when a supply chain breaks down. It’s true of us, in the “western” world, the affluent world, who don’t really think about where our products come from or the background to our entertainments.

But it’s also true of Katniss. She has such a hard time with unconditional love, both giving it and receiving it. She has grown accustomed to seeing people in terms of what they can do for her – which is completely valid given the circumstances of her life – and is well aware that she is seen by many others only in terms of what she can give them and what she symbolises for them. It takes ages for her to accept that Peeta, for example, loves her for herself, not for anything she can do for him – only to have him turned by the Capitol. Is it any wonder that she has no trust in other people’s motivations towards her? But that ends up hurting her in the long run: because she can’t trust other people to see her as anything other than a tool or a symbol, she misses out on quite a lot of allies.

Another thing that The Hunger Games presents, in several different ways, is how not to run a country. Fear and oppression publicly paraded is effective for a while, but it is fragile. All it takes is a spark of rebellion, and the awareness that the few cannot always oppress the many. Unfortunately it takes unity to rebel. If one participant, one district, rejects the rebellion, it fails. The Hunger Games themselves couldn’t have happened, and wouldn’t have lasted, if the champions had refused to kill each other – but only if all the champions had refused. Some of Katniss’s initial power as a symbol comes from her refusal to bow completely to the Capitol’s whims – but the rebellion would have been a lot easier if all the champions in the Quarter Quell had been with her, or if all the districts had joined together peacefully. And it nearly fails.

I really enjoyed these books – as much as you can enjoy dystopian worlds where people kill each other for the entertainment of others, where the main character is used and manipulated by everyone around her despite her best efforts to rise above it, where the allies can be just as evil as the enemies. The world is sadly realistic – it’s not our world, but it’s not too far off what our world could become. I definitely want to see the films, but even more I want to reread the books.

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Blackout/All Clear, by Connie Willis

Connie Willis is brilliant, and in this novel set she revisits her favourite continuum (Oxford time travel: see also, The Doomsday Book, Fire Watch, and To Say Nothing of the Dog) and my favourite of her themes (chaos theory). In Blackout and All Clear, three historians go through to various points of early World War 2: one to an manor housing evacuees, one to observe the Blitz, and one to observe the Dunkirk evacuation. They are under strict instructions not to put themselves into danger, and not to do anything that could alter history. Of course, they inadvertently do (or think they do) – you can’t introduce an element into a closed system and not affect it – and fear that the timeline is trying to correct itself when their access back to 2060 gets blocked off.

Of course, now they’re all in approximately the same position as the “contemps”. They may know the details that the original timeline had, but they don’t know what, if anything, has changed, and they don’t know if anyone can or will rescue them. The parallels of terrifying, imminent danger are very well-done.

Another thing that Connie Willis does extraordinarily well is weaving in phrases and motifs so subtly that you don’t notice them until you realise their importance. She gives minor characters or overheard conversations phrases that are totally appropriate to the scene and the setting, but piled all together make a great running theme, and reassurance for the reader. Of course, that does lead to the only minor query that I have. Agatha Christie is a bit of a motif (referenced at least three times, in different ways), but would the British consistently have referred to Murder on the Orient Express as  Murder in the Calais Coach? (Wikipedia has Calais as its American title.) I trust Connie Willis’s research, but I spent a couple of  minutes trying to work out which mystery people were referring to, and was very taken aback when the title was revealed as Calais. It’s also kind of pivotal at one point, in a way that Orient Express wouldn’t have been.

My favourite theme, though, is chaos theory – something that she’s worked with before in both the Oxford series and Bellwether (which I think is my favourite Connie Willis novel). Non-linear, non-obvious cause and effect, fractals (not mentioned here, but part of the math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable math of chaos) and the obscure consequences of something like wrapping a parcel (classically referred to as the butterfly effect) are things that fascinate me and have for years. Tracing the connections between seemingly random events is impossible except in hindsight – there are simply too many variables to keep track of, all interacting – but she weaves them together so well that the conclusions are inevitable.Bellwether does the same kind of thing: establishing all the seemingly random events is overwhelming and the (realistic) half-sentences and interruptions are frustrating, but the clarity when chaos resolves into order is absolutely worth it.

I don’t think I would recomment this as a starting point for Connie Willis, though. The Oxford continuum’s history anand time travel laws are already well-established when this book starts, so there’s not a lot for a novice to grab on to. Start with either  The Doomsday Book  or  To Say Nothing of the Dog, but then devour these two.

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Operation Mincemeat, by Ben MacIntyre

Operation Mincemeat, by Ben Macintyre

 

Did you ever notice that once you become aware of something, you start seeing it everywhere? When I was dancing salsa, I noticed every ad for dance classes/studios/clubs in the city – new ones as well as ones that had clearly been around for years. And I’ve had that experience with Operation Mincemeat, as well.

I’ve had the book for a few weeks, and had seen it (and thought about reading it) for months.  It’s an absolutely brilliant book, delineating an amazingly detailed espionage plan critical to the invasion of Sicily. They took a dead body – an indigent Welshman who died in London – created a new, military identity for him, and set him adrift where he’d be found by Spanish Nazi sympathizers. The letters in his briefcase were intended to make Hitler think that Sicily, the obvious target for a foothold in southern Europe, was not the actual target. And it actually worked.

It almost didn’t work. Things that were supposed to go perfectly smoothly didn’t. The body was picked up in the right place, but given to the slightly wrong people. A few important people (like Goering) wondered privately if the information was actually a plant (which, of course, it was). But ultimately, the ruse worked, and the invasion of Sicily was a success.

Ben Macintyre’s book is almost completely absorbing. It’s full of details and references, but it never feels like an infodump and never really like name-dropping. The references are actually explained, and even followed up on. The story, and plan, itself is compelling without being sensationalised (not that it needs to be). The famous names are relevant (Ian Fleming was a member of staff who helped with the backstory; Eisenhower and other generals played an active role, either by approving the operation or by actually contributing details).

One of the awesome parts of Operation Mincemeat is that, while the operation itself was fairly unusual, the purpose of it – massive misdirection – was not. For the invasion of Sicily alone, Mincemeat was one of at least three misdirection operations, including sabotage in Greece and Sardinia, and an attempt to make the Germans think that the initial landing site was only a preliminary and the main attack was coming later, elsewhere. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the Allied spy network, especially all of the fictional agents and double agents that were running. The mental acuity of the (real-life) spies involved had to be immense to keep track of all the plots and deals and personalities that they created. And yet Macintyre is able to impress without glorifying the danger that everyone involved was in.

Which leads me to my “hey, I just learned about that!” moment from this book: Agent Garbo.  He was a critical part of Mincemeat (….every part of Mincemeat was critical….) so Macintyre spends a bit of time on him and his background. This guy was rabidly anti-Nazi, and offered himself as a spy to the Allies several times, being turned down each time. So he decided to cut out the middle man, and started his own disinformation feed to the Nazis in Spain. He hid in Portugal, but made his German handlers think he was in England. Before too long, the British codebreakers picked up on his communications and realised how valuable he could be.  He served the Allies officially for the rest of the war.

And now there’s a documentary about him. One of the people I follow on Twitter linked to the trailer on iTunes earlier today – it’s just been released in the US. Agent Garbo was the most interesting supplemental character for me in Operation Mincemeat, so the documentary is totally on my to-be-watched list now.

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The Sterkarm Handshake, by Susan Price

This one I found at the charity shop. The back-of-book blurb sounded interesting, and as I’d just finished Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad trilogy, I was in the mood for something similar.

The Sterkarm Handshake is not similar. I was expecting humour and puns and satire. What I got insetad was an amazing depiction of culture shock, sixteenth-versus-21st-century morality, and how different basic assumptions can lead to massive miscommunication.

The basic story is that scientists working for a private foundation in the 21st century have created a “Time Tube” – time travel handwaved through the multiverse explanation, and the exact physics are not necessary or mentioned again – leading to various points in history. Usually points without pollution, with genetic diversity among plants and animals, with vast reserves, as yet untapped, of oil and coal. You may be able to see where this is going.

The Sterkarm Handshake deals with one of the projects – The Sixteenth – which leaves the Time Tube in sixteenth century Scottish border lands. They send scouts and liasons through, including one, Andrea Mitchell, who is a historian and expert in the time. She lives with the local clan, the Sterkarms, and has fallen in love with Per, the son of the leader. She is the translator and liason between the 16th and the 21st – but that doesn’t prevent her from completely misunderstanding how the Sterkarms live and how the 21st century company is going to deal with them.

I thought the counterpoints between the ordinary violence of the Sterkarms (completely incomprehensible to those from the 21st century) and the ordinary violence of the 21st century corporation (completely incomprehensible to the Sterkarms) were really well-done. The portrayal of the complete and total misunderstanding, especially on the part of the 21st century people, is also incredibly well realised: the “modern” people just don’t have a clue that, or why, the Sterkarms wouldn’t be totally thrilled about getting all the modern conveniences.

The one thing that seemed to come out of nowhere, and this could be my own reading, as it came right about the point when I’d taken a brief break from the book, was Andrea’s shift from being essentially part of the Sterkarms to what seems like essentially part of the 21st. It seemed very abrupt to me, and I almost got mental whiplash from her justifications for betraying each side. Don’t get me wrong, I identified very strongly with Andrea and thought, overall, that she was very well drawn, but her switch was a little bit too quick and out-of-the-blue for me.

I just looked it up on Wikipedia and found out that there’s a sequel. If I can find it, I wouldn’t mind reading it.

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I mean, it’s been recommended to me by a lot of people, including my best friend and my mother, both of whom have excellent taste in books, but the impression I’d always gotten from reviews and things was of a fairly light book. I knew I would like it; I wasn’t sure I was in the right mood for light.

And it is light, but it also isn’t. The style is fairly light – it’s an epistolary novel, so the tone is almost always that of friends chatting – but the subject matter isn’t always. It’s set post-WW2, so there’s all the dealing-with-that that you might imagine, and it revolves around the Channel Islands, which were occupied by the Germans. The basic idea (of the title, certainly) is that a group of islanders formed a literary society that, ultimately, saved their sanity during the Occupation.

The novel starts off with a writer on a book tour, who gets a letter from an islander telling her about their book club. She is, of course, instantly intrigued, and before long is corresponding with all of the members about their reading habits and their lives under the Occupation. Eventually she goes to visit, and learns even more about them and their lives.

The first half, where she’s on the book tour and just getting to know everyone through the letters, is much deeper than the second half, where she’s on Guernsey.  For various reasons, the first half of the book deals a lot with the power of reading, and the reasons that people – particularly these islanders – read the books that they do. I wish I’d had some post-its or something while I was reading it, because some of the phrasing is incredible.

The second half of the book is more of what I was expecting. It’s still quite good, of course, but it’s less about the power of reading and more a typical romance novel. Juliet (the writer) must decide whether to marry a rich American, stay in Guernsey, etc. Books are still an element, of course, but the overall theme is much more about Guernsey and the post-war recovery.

I don’t really know anything about the Channel Islands. I knew they’d been occupied during the war, but that’s about all I knew. I was fascinated to read about the conditions they’d been under while the Germans were there – one of the lesser known aspects of the war. I may have to learn more about them, after this book.

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