Tag Archives: feminism

“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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“She Made Me Laugh – My Friend Nora Ephron” by Richard Cohen

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Nora Ephron is almost my contemporary, but the eight year age difference between us is, in fact, a big deal. Born in 1941, she faced a level of sexist chauvinism which was being challenged by the time I graduated from high school and headed out into the world. Ephron’s life is an interesting study in American feminism as it emerged after World War II.

I admit to being only sketchily familiar with her books and movies. I saw “Sleepless in Seattle”.

Richard Cohen, nationally syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, wrote about Ephron because they were best friends. Inadvertently, he provides insight into the New York City world of the rich and famous (and those aspiring to be…) There’s a little too much name dropping, but the affection that underlies the writing is unmistakable.

I think Ephron’s book Heartburn falls into the category of “guilty pleasure” fiction. It’s based on the breakup of her first marriage, which happened at a time when women were often advised to turn a blind eye to spousal infidelity. I can’t help but be disturbed by her fictionalizing her family (especially her children) so extensively. She was, according to Cohen, absolutely confident that she did no harm.

I believe Ephron has been compared to Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) whom Wikipedia describes as “poet, satirist and critic”. I read a biography of Parker and would describe her as brilliant but mean spirited. I think Ephron was equally bright and talented, but far more kind and generous.

If you enjoy biography and/or contemporary gossip, this book is a good read.

The Neapolitan Quartet, by Elena Ferrante – Books 2, 3 and 4

See my blog entry of July 13 for comments on the first of these books, My Brilliant Friend.

Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels comprise a tetralogy, or quartet. My only other experience with a literary quartet is the magnificent Raj Quartet by Paul Scott. The Raj Quartet has been described as “sprawling”. I would say panoramic. The Neapolitan novels are intensely focused on one woman’s life, and within it, one intense friendship.

I read the three books that followed My Brilliant Friend (1300+ pages total!) in a fast and furious binge that took less than a month. Just couldn’t stop!

The Story of a New Name is about gender and relationships. Normally I’m not charitable towards authors who provide an index of characters. Clear and thoughtful writing should render that crutch unnecessary. But I forgive Ferrante because the complexity of her books, with their multitude of characters, reflects “real” life.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay continues the lives of Elena (the narrator) and her best friend Lila, as does Book 4, The Story of the Lost Child. Farrante doesn’t back off from shocking plot twists. The story continues until Elena is past age 60 and Lila has, apparently intentionally, disappeared, dropped out of sight.

What is stranger than a disappearance? In my long life, this has happened twice – two people, not “closest friends” but more than acquaintances, have disappeared – one almost 40 years ago, the other about 15 years ago. I have no intention of writing about them, or of seeking further information. But I cannot help being fascinated by Ferrante’s literary take on this.

One reviewer describes the Neapolitan novels as an “education in being female”. I recommend them to men on that basis. Very likely you will learn a great deal. Ferrante (whoever she is) is an author for the ages.

“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.

“The Half Sisters” by Geraldine Jewsbury

I love a good used book store! Halfway between a library and a “regular” book store, it can make me think I died and went to heaven. The Bookshop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, qualifies. I visited there last week.

I limited myself to two purchases. One was The Half Sisters by Geraldine Jewsbury. A winner! I got the Oxford World Classics 1994 paperback edition of this book, which was originally published in 1848. Jewsbury was simultaneously way ahead of her time and all over the map. But it adds up to a GREAT story!

We first meet the half sisters when they are about 15 years old. Bianca was the illegitimate daughter of an Englishman who had an affair in Italy just before settling into a highly conventional English marriage. Alice was the only child of the marriage. Neither sister knows of the others existence.

Bianca’s Italian mother brings her teenaged daughter to England, expecting to present her triumphantly to her father. But the father has died, and Bianca’s shocked mother suddenly becomes a helpless and senile.

Bianca is in deep trouble, on her own in a country where she barely speaks the language, with an invalid mother to support. Three men collaborate to help her out, and she (literally) joins the circus. Over time, it becomes clear that she has a gift for acting, and, again with help, she becomes an accomplished and reasonably wealthy actress. Improbable, but it works well enough for fiction. Jewsbury is much more interested in Bianca’s moral development and affairs of the heart, and in commenting on the role of women in 19th century England.

The sisters meet and establish a limited friendship, with only Bianca aware of their shared paternity. Alice marries a businessman who is kind and distant. She suffers from boredom and anxiety.

I won’t go into more of the plot, but it surprised me several times. The whole story would make a great BBC drama or movie. The books covers a ten year period, at the end of which Bianca finds love and marriage. Alice dies prematurely of “brain fever”, or possibly a broken heart.

Modern feminists will be disappointed that Bianca retires from acting after her marriage, but Jewsbury makes so many interesting observations and comments in the course of the novel that I think it is correct to describe The Half Sisters as an early feminist classic. And it reads very well!

“Margaret Fuller – A New American Life” by Megan Marshall

It’s been suggested that I should consistently provide the following:

  • Published 2013, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 375 pages (text) + 95 pages (contents, illustrations, prologue, epilogue, notes, index).

It’s been over a week since I posted about a book. That’s a long time for me! The reason is that I found a book that took some time to read, and it amply rewarded my effort.

Margaret Fuller was born in 1810 and died in 1850, living in and around Boston, then New York City and finally spending four years in Europe.

SPOILER ALERT! The circumstances of Margaret Fuller’s death in 1850 were shocking and very sad. If you want to read her life story in proper order, stop now, read the book and then come back and consider my reflections.

Margaret Fuller was born just over 200 years ago. A very bright first child, she was initially educated by her father, who intended to convey to her “everything” he had learned at Harvard. She soaked it up, and later, deprived of any opportunity for college, became her own teacher of classics and languages, setting very high expectations for herself.

At the age of 25, Margaret’s father died and she took responsibility for her mother and several younger siblings. Fear of poverty shadowed her life. But Boston was in a state of intellectual ferment (the so-called New England renaissance), and Margaret, both well educated and outspoken, found a place among the Transcendentalists and other writers and thinkers of the day.

Margaret edited the new journal called The Dial and published a book Woman in the Nineteenth Century which is considered the first classic of the American feminist movement. Working for the New York Tribune, she became the first American full time writer of book reviews.

Margaret’s burning wish to travel to Europe was finally fulfilled when, at the age of 36, she accepted the position of governess in a Quaker family that toured England, spent some time in Paris, and then went to Italy.

In Rome, Margaret’s life took a turn that her New England friends and family would not have expected, and, indeed, she told them nothing about it for many months. She fell in love, bore a child, and married. Before her infant was a year old, revolution broke out in Italy. Margaret was firmly on the side of change, hoping for democracy and reform. Her husband fought in the defense of “free” Rome and Margaret worked as a nursing volunteer in a makeshift hospital.

The revolution failed, and Margaret, with her husband and child, made plans to return to Massachusetts, where she expected to support her family by writing.

Unable to afford travel on a passenger liner, they embarked on a freighter that accommodated a few passengers. Bad luck plagued the trip. The ship’s captain died. In inexperienced hands, the ship ran aground near Long Island (NY). Some crew and passengers survived, but not Margaret, her husband or their child.

What impressed me about Margaret Fuller was the way she threw herself into the issues of her times. She wrote about race, prison reform and education among many other topics.

This book by Megan Marshall is right in the “sweet spot” between popular and academic writing. This is biography at its best. I recommend it highly to anyone interested in feminism and/or American intellectual history.