Tag Archives: education

“Code Girls – The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II” by Liza Mundy

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I had high hopes for this book before I even opened it. Why? Because the group of smiling young women on the front cover seemed eerily familiar. A face very like theirs looks down from the mantel in my living room. My mother-in-law JRC was a “code girl”, an officer from the first group of women accepted into the Navy during World War II.

Mundy points out that the United States differed from Japan and Germany in its response to the challenge of global war. The US consciously and intentionally mobilized its women, taking advantage of a large pool of educated and willing workers. This was not done without considerable ambivalence. Mundy describes an assembly at which the women were treated to a detailed analysis of what was “wrong” with the use of women to serve military interests. Pretty much everything! The women refrained from expressing anger or amusement. I wonder if the speaker ever developed any insight into his own myopic boneheadedness.

I met JRC when she was almost 60, and contributed two of her (eventually) eight grandchildren during the next decade. Her death at age 85 (in 2005) was a grievous loss to me and all her large and loving family.

We all knew that JRC loved puzzles and codes. She said her interest started when she read Edgar Allan Poe’s popular short story “The Gold-Bug”. See Wikipedia for a good discussion of this thriller!

It’s tempting to continue with personal reminiscence, but I feel that my mother-in-law’s story is not mine to tell. Perhaps I’ll discuss this with family and ask how they feel about it. Like most of the “code girls”, JRC didn’t say much about her wartime military responsibilities.

In the meantime, I loved Code Girls and recommend it without reservation.

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“My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One” by Elena Ferrante

I couldn’t figure out how this book came to be on my Kindle. Sometimes I forget I’m not the only person using my account! Thanks, J, for spotting this wonderful novel, which was originally published in Italian.

What did I like about this book? I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I like authors who take childhood and children seriously. Ferrante never deviates from the point of view and story line of her heroine, who, in this book, is followed from about age 6 to 17.

What else? I decided to look up “literary fiction” to see if this book qualifies. Wikipedia tells me “literary fiction” has something more going on that just plot. It engages some important idea or concept. My Brilliant Friend deals with poverty, war, education (very interesting!), gender roles, social violence and other important issues, all within the framework of one life.

If I’m going to read “literary fiction”, I want to do it right… I consulted Thomas C Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor on the subject of symbolism. According to Foster, almost everything is a symbol, and most symbols carry both positive and negative connotations. (Foster was not so helpful as to list the symbolism of common objects.) One prominent symbol in in My Brilliant Friend is shoes. Speculating wildly, I would say that the shoes in My Brilliant Friend symbolize creativity, wealth and power. But fixing shoes (as one character does) symbolizes poverty and subservience.

So much for literary criticism…

“Elena Ferrante” does not exist. This is the pen name of a person who (despite international acclaim and major prizes) prefers to remain anonymous, and who has been quoted as saying “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Her publisher has respected her wishes. Speculation as to her identity is rampant and sometimes detailed. I, for one, am content to enjoy the books and let the author use whatever name she chooses.

I plan to read more by Elena Ferrante.

“Waiting for Snow in Havana – Confessions of a Cuban Boy” by Carlos Eire

This book falls into two of my favorite reading categories – memoirs, and history I “lived through” but may not understand well. The history in question is the Cuban Revolution, which Wikipedia dates to January 1, 1959. Of course, what I remember best is the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. I expected nuclear war.

Carlos Eire is about one year younger than me. His childhood ended at age 11, when he was put on a plane from Havana to Miami, accompanied only by his 15 year old brother.

Waiting for Snow in Havana is an amalgam of memories, highlighting Eire’s parents, brothers, friends, teachers and neighbors. His father was a judge, hence a member of the “establishment”, but not so close to the old regime as to have been immediately targeted for execution by the Revolutionaries. Eire lived a life of privilege and received a good education. Catholicism dominated the culture in many ways.

The decision to send Carlos and his brother to the US on their own was made by his mother, who eventually followed them. His father never left Cuba.

Eire’s childhood memories are dominated by danger and death. Danger, because many of the pastimes and activities would put at contemporary parent into shock – rock throwing as a socially sanctioned game, surfing in rough seas… Death, because so many actions were thought to be deadly – going from a warm room to a cold room, etc.

The book is also permeated by anger, especially at the Revolution, at Castro and Guevara and the changes they imposed on Cuba. Eire is still angry. A quick Goggle search makes it easy to find out the details. Eire knows that his own adult voice permeates the book, although it is intended to express his childhood in its own terms.

If you like memoirs about childhood, read this book. It also sheds (some) light on the immigration and foreign policy issues we now face.

“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough

Where shall I start? Wilbur and Orville Wright made their famous “first flight” on December 17, 1903. That designation is somewhat arbitrary. It was preceded by many unpowered flights, by the Wrights and others. Gliders had preoccupied many inventors. But on the day in question, Wilbur traveled 852 feet in 59 seconds, in a “flying machine” powered by a gasoline engine.

I have visited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where this event took place. It’s on the Outer Banks, where the wind always blows. The National Park Service maintains the Wright Brothers National Memorial. You can walk the 852 feet traversed by Wilbur Wright on December 17, 1903 and study displays explaining how the feat was accomplished.

At the National Memorial, the emphasis is on SCIENCE. Inspiration certainly played a part, but the Wrights were meticulously scientific. Discovering that accepted tables describing “lift” were incorrect, they built a wind tunnel and collected their own data. They studied everything they could get from earlier inventors, and they made endless observations of birds in flight. An important insight was that, not only must they build a suitable “machine”, but they themselves must LEARN TO FLY.

It’s a wonder they didn’t get killed. As soon as they created a plane that could carry two people, they agreed never to fly together, so that if there was a serious crash, one would remain to carry on their work.

Initially, the world took little notice of the Wright’s achievement. The first journalistic interest was from the editor of a newsletter about beekeeping.

As interesting as the two famous Wright brothers were (they had two not-famous older brothers), McCullough includes other family members who were interesting on their own.

Bishop Milton Wright was a Baptist minister and often traveled away from his family. He campaigned against Freemasonry, on the grounds that the secrecy involved was unacceptable for a responsible Christian. He observed the Sabbath as a day of rest, a practice continued by his sons even when they were in (more secular) Europe. Most importantly, he loved books and learning and trusted his children to educate themselves, sometimes allowing them to skip school when they were engrossed in reading.

The only Wright sibling to graduate from college was Katharine, the youngest and only daughter, who attended Oberlin and had a career as a high school teacher. Katharine was an early liberated woman! The whole family was well informed and sophisticated beyond what might have been expected in “middle America” at that time.

The cultural consequences of powered flight have been staggering. McCullough doesn’t attempt to explore them. What comes to mind for me is the military use of the airplane. See my review (October 9, 2013) of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke – The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization. Why the end of civilization? Because aerial bombardment led to warfare in which there was NO distinction between combatants and civilians.

The Wright brothers were supremely civilized – educated, industrious, responsible and thoughtful. Only Orville survived to experience World War II. The amount of change he saw in his 77 years is hard to comprehend!

David McCullough is a wonderful writer. (See my review of Path Between the Seas – October 18, 2014). I think the next of his books that I want to read will be The Johnstown Flood. I spent Thanksgiving in Johnstown, PA, in 1972.

“The Shepard’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape” by James Rebanks

This autobiographical book is magical! Rebanks was born into a sheep farming family in England’s Lake District. Farmers and their livestock (mostly sheep) are tied to their land by intense historical and cultural bonds. The sheep are raised on land too steep and rough for other agriculture (and possibly for other human use). Most of the sheep fend for themselves several months of the year, taking advantage of summer pastures held as “common” land, now generally owned by the British National Trust. Sheep are raised for meat, though much of their economics is determined by their breeding value. I was surprised to learn that wool no longer has much market value. The sheep must be shorn for their own health, but sometimes the wool is discarded, not being worth transport to market. I wonder if wool may regain its value in the future.

Rebanks builds his narrative around the seasons. Winter in the Lake District sounds brutal. It would be hard even if one wasn’t keeping livestock out of doors.

The Shepard’s Life was not written as a critique of the English educational system, but it can and should be read as such. Local teachers, no doubt with good intentions, told farm kids they should “think big”, consider careers off the farm and out in the “wider” world. The cumulative impact of these statements was to devalue the lives and business enterprises of the farm families.

Of his school’s headmistress, he says “The idea that we, our fathers, and mothers might be proud, hardworking, and intelligent people doing something worthwhile or even admirable was beyond her”.

Children became alienated from school by the time they reached their early teens, and they “acted out” with rudeness and delinquency. Rebanks stopped attending school before the age of 16. He was completely determined to follow in the footsteps of his beloved grandfather, who taught him “sheparding”, a way of life on the land handed down through generations and generations of farmers.

Rebanks’ father was “semiliterate” and scornful of education, but his mother wanted him to finish school. She valued reading. Once out of school, Rebanks became an avid reader. Eventually he attended night classes to prepare for university. His interview with Oxford included a heated argument with a tutor. Most of the time that he was enrolled, he returned home regularly to work on the farm.

Sheep farming in the Lake District provides only a subsistence income. Like many farmers, Rebanks has worked at other jobs in order to keep farming. He serves as a consultant to UNESCO on ecotourism. He jumped into the social media scene with a Twitter account in 2012. It was a surprise runaway hit, leading to an article in The Atlantic magazine and then to the book. Does this mean I should join Twitter?? (No… too little time!)

The lifestyle occupied by the Lake District sheep farmers occupies an interesting “niche”. It’s not “indigenous”, like that of the Inuit and other far northern people. It’s a little less secluded than the Amish. It carries all kinds of cultural implications, but doesn’t involve bilingualism.

In using a freely available biological resource, there is some resemblance between Rebanks’ sheparding and the cattle raising described in Bryce Andrews Badluck Way. (See my blog entry dated April 17, 2014.) But the cattle ranching in the American West lacked any cultural context. It was a desperate attempt to wring a profit from a dry, harsh landscape. No wonder Andrews only worked on the ranch for a single year. Nonetheless, each of these farmers has a complex relationship to a landscape and its ecosystems. I would love to hear a conversation between the two of them!

Read this book, brush up on William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter, and if you get to England, put the Lake District onto your itinerary.

“Fire From Heaven” by Mary Renault

On a whim, I read Fire From Heaven by Mary Renault. It was her first book based on the life of Alexander the Great, covering the period from his early childhood until his father (King Phillip of Macedon) died. Alexander eventually vanquished the High King Darius of Persia and ruled a vast empire until his death at age 33. He ended his wars of conquest because his soldiers refused to go beyond the Indus River into the Indian subcontinent.

If you are curious about the ancient world but intimidated by “the classics”, this is a way to get started. Several of Renault’s books impressed me when I read them 40 years ago. Fire From Heaven did not disappoint me. Renault also wrote two non-fiction books about Alexander and the Persian Wars.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Fire From Heaven is young Alexander’s education. His father was portrayed as a Macedonian who passionately admired Athens and wished to be “accepted” as overlord of Greece. Phillip hired the philosopher Aristotle to tutor Alexander. Perhaps this is what allowed him to develop into a leader who was greatly loved, rather than merely being feared.

Renault was born in England but spent the later half of her life in South Africa, where her lesbianism was more socially accepted. Her literary treatment of homosexual love in the ancient world is probably more sympathetic and respectful than most other authors.

Courtesy of Wikipedia, I learned that Renault (who died in 1983 at the age of 78) wrote six contemporary novels between1939 and 1953 before she concentrated on the ancient world. I look forward to exploring them.