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.

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.


Tougher than you

Manhattan Beach is about New York City in World War II, and it’s about a young woman, Anna, who decides she wants to be a diver. Her father disappeared when she was a teenager; she both wants and doesn’t want to find him. She would like to know what happened to him and to build a life for herself.

I picked up Manhattan Beach because I read the first chapter in an issue of Elle magazine and was entranced by the story of eleven-year-old Anna tagging along with her father as he goes to meet a new business acquaintance. It’s both dreamy and practical. Anna impresses her father’s new business partner with her toughness about putting her bare feet into the cold ocean; the cold ocean and the house on the ocean is shot through gauze. Nothing bad could happen at a house like that.

But overall, I ended up being surprised at the story’s toughness. The rest of the book is not nearly so dreamy or romantic. Bad things happen, people are betrayed, sexism is prevalent. Anna moves through the world competently and with confidence. It’s a nice change from the uncertain way women often act in stories.


Why add a romance when it’s not needed?

After I finished At the Water’s Edge, I found myself wondering what makes a book a romance novel? Because this book has a lot of the trappings of one, including:

  • a heroine seeing the world for the first time,
  • a neglectful (at best) husband,
  • a sexual awakening,
  • someone who turns out to be secret royalty (reader, I rolled my eyes).

But I wouldn’t call it a romance. Why? Because it’s not about the romance – it’s about the heroine, her crappy childhood, where it got her, and then her adventures (for lack of a better word) making her realize that people have just been using her her entire life. The romance feels tacked on at the end, as though her editor or publisher insisted that there be a romance to draw people in. It would have maybe been a better book for not squishing it in.

I found her journey from neglected wife along for the party to an actual friend with caring relationships compelling. A romance with an underdeveloped character didn’t need to be tacked on.

Go forth and be a part of the world

I loved At the Existentialist Cafe. Perhaps it’s a Paris thing, perhaps it’s a cocktail thing, who knows. Who cares? It’s a pop history of Existentialism, along with the author’s reactions when she went back and re-read many of the seminal works on existentialism.

I’ve never read any Sartre or de Beauvoir (but I have read some Camus), and here’s what I learned.

Existentialism isn’t the depressing, disaffected Camus of The Stranger. It’s not black turtlenecks and sitting in cafés staring at your coffee, contemplating the meaning of life. The meaning of life is existing and getting out into the world, thinking about your experiences and your relationships with the people around you. You are nothing without the people around you and how you relate to them. Don’t sit back and expect things to happen! Make them happen! Be a part of the world.

I loved that message. I love it even more for not having to read Being and Nothingness and still learn something about it.

This version of existentialism is also totally applicable to the world we live in now: what are your circumstances? What can you do in those circumstances? What do you feel? How does it make you feel? What can you effect? Changing yourself changes your relation to the world, changing your relations to the world changes the world.

Anyway, go forth and be a part of things. You’ll make a difference.

Not my thing

china dolls by Lisa See


What’s it about?
China Dolls is about two Chinese young women and one Japanese young woman who wanted to be in show business in late 1930’s San Francisco. They are frenemies – they get along and support each other, but are also competing with each other. Eventually WWII comes along and the Japanese woman gets sent to an internment camp.

Why should you read it?
I wanted to read it because I wanted to know more about San Francisco and Chinatown. I enjoy history. But I set the book down after they got their first job and just couldn’t bring myself to pick it up again – I didn’t care enough about the characters. You might enjoy it – it wasn’t actively bad. But it wasn’t my thing.

Light and Dark

All the Light We Cannot See


What’s it about?
There are two main plot threads in All the Light We Cannot See. In the first, there’s a blind girl (Marie-Laure) living with her father (Monsieur LeBlanc) in Paris in the 1930s. The main things to know about them are: she’s smart, he’s a key master who is also great at building puzzle boxes. World War II comes, and they end up leaving Paris for Saint-Malo, a small bit of land that becomes an island at high tide. In the second, there’s an orphaned German boy (Werner) in the 1930s who builds radios. He loves building things in general and is entranced by radios in particular. He and his sister (Jutta) enjoy listening to a broadcast from France as children. He gets selected for a national school, run by the Nazis, because he is smart. He eventually gets sent to the front lines during WWII and ends up in Saint-Malo towards the end of the German occupation.

Why should you read it?
Well, in addition to being a National Book Awards Finalist and a NYTimes book of the year, All the Light We Cannot See also won a Pulitzer this week. So if you’re looking for an award-winning book, this one fits the bill nicely.

In addition to that, it is a gorgeously told story that made me get over my “really? heroes during WWII again?” skepticism. The characters are (mostly) richly created, the settings are amazing – you feel cold and wet when Werner is on the Russian front lines in WWII, and warm and loved when Marie-Laure is amongst her family in small town France. Really, it’s very well done.

Derring-do in WWII

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth WeinWhat’s it about?
A young woman – about 20 if my math is correct – becomes an Allied spy in WWII Britain. Her best friend, Maggie, is a pilot. The young woman is captured by the Germans whilst on a mission in France and forced to write a confession. The first half-ish is her confession, and the rest is Maggie’s experiences of the same time frame. It is, as the NYTimes says, “intricately plotted.” After you finish, you want to go back and read it again, just to make sure you got it all.

Why should you read it?
Code Name Verity is a rich story and a great thriller. Will they make it through?  What, exactly, is going on anyway?  I certainly hope that Hollywood adds it to their growing spate of movies from YA novels. It could make a great female action movie that passes the Bechdel test in spades; there would be plenty of women having conversations about war and jobs and family amongst all their derring-do.