Lavinia

Lavinia is a minor character in the Aeneid – even though she ends the poem as Aeneis’ wife. She never even gets to speak. Lavinia is her story.

A quick recap of the Aeneid. Aeneis was a Trojan who was in the city of Troy when the Greeks snuck in via the famous wooden horse. His house was burned down, but he and his father and his son escaped during the ensuing battle (the Trojans lost). Aeneis sails around the Mediterranean similarly to Odysseus in the Odyssey. Eventually, he ends up in Italy, where he founds the ancient city of Rome, thus giving the Romans a bit of classical shine. At least this is the story that Ovid would have us believe.

Lavinia is a chief’s daughter in ancient Italy, of a small but successful tribe. Aeneis and his men end up, kind of against their will, in battle with them. Lavinia is the prize that Aeneis wins, but according to this story, anyway, they love each other and it works out. She is a practical person.

Lavinia is entertaining if you’re in the mood – like I often am – for some ancient European content that actually centers women. (It doesn’t exist, at least not much, so we have to create it.)

The Awakening

The Awakening is heralded as an early feminist book, as it shows a woman who is clearly in a not-great marriage decide to just be herself. She realizes that she’s a pretty good artist, and so she paints, eventually earning enough money to live on. She has some flings. Her husband goes on a long trip and her mother-in-law takes the kids so they can spend some time in the country. She moves out of their house. She keeps her own friends, not just the business contacts of her husband. Her husband, of course, has no idea what to do about any of this.

But I think it’s also a book about mental illness. Was she driven to mental illness by the repressive structure of her life? Her mood swings are written about in the book in such a way that you realize: oh this is a depressive mood, and here is when she’s manic. And like I said: an overly repressive life can destroy your mental health. When her husband is scheduled to come back, when the ordinary structure is going to overwhelm her again, well, she doesn’t handle it well.

Would I recommend The Awakening? Sure, to someone who’s interested in feminism or early feminist texts. It’s like The Yellow Wallpaper in that way. They’re both, incidentally, very short, novellas really. They would make a good one-two punch.

Parisian Lives

I was so happy to see that Parisian Lives was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. I really enjoyed this book, to the point that I now want to read her biographies, so I was glad to see it get recognized.

Deirdre Bair is a biographer and a mother and an academic and a wife and works her ass off to have it all on the East Coast and in Europe during the 1970s and 1980s. That’s the color of the book; it’s always happening in the background. The meat of the book is her research and meetings while she was writing her biographies on Samuel Beckett and Simone de Beauvoir. The color of their personalities comes through in this book, and I’m interested to learn more (including reading the biographies that Bair wrote).

In short: I enjoyed Parisian Lives, and if you’re at all interested in any of what I wrote above (Paris, existentialism, feminism), I would recommend it.

Monday Shorts

California Against the Sea. Even if a miracle occurs and we manage to get climate change under control by 2040, global warming and its effects are already happening. And people are neither willing nor ready to deal with it.

On a much lighter note: JFK Jr and Carolyn showed us the right way to be famous for being famous. Elegant refusal is going to be my new motto.

Men Know It’s Better to Carry Nothing. I actually have A LOT of thoughts about this, but they boil down to: yes, women, especially moms, are the pack animals of the family and IT SUCKS. But I enjoy my small-ish cross-body bag – I can’t stick a book in my back pocket, but I can in my purse.

I Wanted to Know what White Men Thought about Their Privilege. So I Asked. So, so frustrating.

What Americans Do Now Will Define Us Forever.

Modern Media is a DDoS Attack on Your Free Will. It is the attention economy; as I sit here, the laundry needs to be tended to and the beds need to be made. But instead of taking care of my chores, I am catching up on my internet reading. It’s taking me out of my everyday reality onto web pages where the companies want my attention so they can make money. But it’s also not that simple. I’m reading more about issues that will and do affect my life: climate change is going to f*** up my retirement and my child’s life; theoretically all people are created equal, and society falls SO SHORT of that reality and that affects me and my friends. How do we fix these things? Is reading more really going to change anything? What can I do to fix these issues? Not to mention funding places that are doing important work investigating the state of the world. But I still need to get clean sheets on the beds.

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.