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Under the Egg

Under the Egg

by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

Dial, 2014

247 pages

I love literary serendipity.

A couple of years ago, while my husband was out of town one week, I watched a documentary called The Rape of Europa. It was my first encounter with the story of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) military section, and I was riveted. Later, wanting to learn more, I read Robert M. Edsel’s very long but also very interesting book on the topic.

Last summer’s mediocre–and not entirely historically accurate–George Clooney movie somewhat popularized the story, but here are the basics, in case you haven’t heard.

The MFAA consisted of British and American arts experts (both men and women) who embedded with Allied troops in Europe during World War II. The group’s initial mandate was to identify and protect significant cultural sites from being destroyed by war operations and combat. Over time, the mandate expanded to include the identification, recovery, and return of millions of artworks the Nazis had looted from exiled or murdered Jewish families, museums, and churches. My favorite part of the story concerned Rose Valland, a Paris museum volunteer who risked her life to hide and rescue tends of thousands of artworks from the Nazis.

I finished reading Edsel’s book in July. Three months later, I picked up Laura Marx Fitzgerald’s Under the Egg–and serendipity happened.

I chose Under the Egg after reading that it was a brainy mystery with a strong female lead. The book satisfied on both those counts, but (even better) it also turned out to be historical fiction about the MFAA.

In Under the Egg, 13-year-old Theodora Tenpenny must figure out how to support herself and her mentally ill mother when her grandfather dies unexpectedly, leaving behind only $463 and instructions to look “under the egg.”

Theodora eventually connects these cryptic last words with a large painting of an egg that sits over the mantel in her grandfather’s art studio. After accidentally spilling rubbing alcohol on the painting, Theodora discovers that it hides an Old Masters-style Madonna and Child.

She suspects that this hidden painting is a lost Raphael and sets out to determine why and how it came to be in her grandfather’s possession. In the process, she discovers that, like the painting, her grandfather was not what he seemed.

He had not, as he told her, sat out World War II because of poor health. Instead, he had served at D-Day, suffered in a German POW camp, and then served in the MFAA. And Theodora is only able to solve the mystery of the painting (and what her grandfather’s last words really meant) once she solves the mystery of what happened to her grandfather during his stay in the POW camp and his term as a Monuments Man.

I’ll be honest: this book is a little more uneven than those I usually review here. I was a bit bothered by some of the liberties Fitzgerald took with MFAA history. Characterization fell flat in some places, and the plot took a few deus-ex-machina-style turns, particularly at the end.

But the overall story was so engaging, the premise so unique, and Theodora such an inspiring heroine, that I couldn’t let it go.

Theodora’s situation is staggeringly difficult. Her grandfather’s death leaves her as caretaker for a mother and a house that are both falling part. Theodora’s clothes are likewise disintegrating, and all she and her mother have to eat are a few eggs and a handful of beans and vegetables harvested from their backyard each day.

Really, Theodora needs to ask for help, but she’s held back by the near-pathological self-reliance her grandfather taught her. The way she slowly opens up to the world, while building her courage and using her intelligence to solve the mystery, is what inspired me.

She’s one of those heroines who speaks to me not because she has it all together, but precisely because she doesn’t. She feels exasperating and real in her flaws. I can see myself in her failings.

But she grows. She recognizes her need to connect and pushes herself, however slowly and gradually, out of her own comfort zone. And in the midst of horrible circumstances, she remains positive and confident that she will, eventually, work it all out.

In short, she’s courageous, in a real-life maybe-I-could-do-that kind of way. When the book is over, her story continues in my head–she stays with me, reminding me to let others love and help me as I go about the challenges of my own life. It’s a lesson I’ve sorely needed to learn over the last several years, and I’m thankful Under the Egg reinforced it for me.

Every year around Thanksgiving, I share a post about an inspiring woman I’m grateful to have known.

This year, as Thanksgiving approaches, I’m particularly grateful to have known “Nan.” She was my husband’s grandmother, and she died earlier this year at the age of 90, leaving behind her a remarkable and influential legacy.

I first met her when I was just 19, almost 20 years ago. My husband and I were recently engaged, and she and “Gramps” were in the U.S. on one of their many extended visits from England.

She was a bit fearsome, to be honest.

I was very young, still very unsure of myself, and she seemed stern and somewhat stand-offish. I wanted very much for her to like me, but I came away not at all certain whether she did.

Over time, she seemed to warm up to me–or maybe I just became less insecure. She was always polite, always remembered where I was in my college studies, who my family were and what they were doing. Her memory, in fact, was incredible. She seemed to know everyone and everything about them. And she was full of stories.

The stories were what helped me feel less intimidated by her. She was an amazing storyteller, always animated and engaging. Some of her stories were funny, others dramatic, others very sad. But she told each one in a way that made everyone around her want to drop whatever they were doing and just listen.

Through her stories (sometimes directly, sometimes reading between the lines) I learned something about her life.

She was an only child but close to her cousins, one of whom I knew quite well. He was a generation younger than her and remembered that she took very good care of him when he was small.

She met her husband when both were in their early teens, and they became engaged while he was away in Burma during WWII. Through her stories, I first became really aware of the fact that Britain’s war had been very different from America’s. She talked about air raids, the extreme rationing, and the sheer length and loss and intensity of the war.

After the war, she married her beloved Gramps, then cared alone for their two young children while he served on the Berlin Airlift. Later, she went to work at a local school for special needs children. She was a tireless supporter of those children, advocating for new facilities, classes, and anything else they might need. As their swimming teacher, she co-developed a curriculum that is still used around the world in water-therapy classes for disabled individuals.

When I met her, she was semi-retired: still teaching her swimming classes occasionally but also volunteering with the local cathedral and traveling extensively with Gramps. They went to Thailand, India, Burma, France, Italy, and more.

Gramps died about 8 1/2 years ago, when my daughter was just four months old. After that, Nan slowed down a little, but she continued to visit the U.S., volunteer at her beloved cathedral, attend adult-education classes at the local university, and travel around England to attend plays with her best friend.

She was never, ever not busy, and you simply could not tell her that a thing couldn’t or shouldn’t be done.

In short, she was a remarkable woman.

People who live to the age of 90 often have small funerals, usually because they’ve outlived most of their friends and become increasingly inactive and isolated in the last years of their lives. Not Nan. Her funeral service and reception were packed with friends and family of all ages, and so many people were eager to find some way they could help to honor her.

Truth be told, I always felt a bit on the outside with Nan. Part of it had to do with being an in-law rather than a blood relative, part of it had to do with her temperament, part of it had to do with my own baggage.

But I know she cared about me. And I feel deeply honored to have been part of her family, to have heard her stories, to have been inspired by her energy and courage and strength.

When I think of her, I think of someone who was full of life to the very end. If my own grandchildren say the same about me after I’m gone, it will have been a life well-lived.

 

 

 

The Secret Lives of Codebreakers: The Men and Women Who Cracked the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park

by Sinclair McKay

Plume, 2012

352 pages

 

Bletchley Park, where the Enigma code was cracked

Bletchley Park, where the Enigma code was cracked

Near the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I read the book A Man Called Intrepid. It’s the story of Sir William Stephenson, a Canadian airman who became the UK’s primary intelligence operative and liaison with the U.S. government during World War II.

Reading the book was the first time I encountered information about Enigma, the name for both a machine and the supposedly unbreakable German military code it produced. Even before the war was officially underway, certain members of Britain’s government became convinced of the importance of breaking the Enigma code. Eventually, the government formed an operation called Top Secret Ultra to achieve that goal.

The men and women of Ultra were headquartered at a country estate called Bletchley Park. There, they struggled round the clock to crack the Enigma code. The operation gave rise to a number of innovations in mathematics, code-breaking, and computational science, including the development and use of the world’s first computers.

Eventually, Ultra succeeded. According to Dwight Eisenhower, the work done at Bletchley Park shortened the war by at least two years, saving tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of lives.

When I first read about Ultra, I was struck by how many women were involved in the operation. It was a time, after all, when women’s roles were highly circumscribed. Though more doors opened to women during the war, they were still generally limited to working in factories, on farms, and as nurses.

Despite the fact that women were so heavily involved in Ultra, however, many of the articles and books I’d seen on the subject didn’t say much about female code-breakers. Women were generally mentioned as an aside or a statistic, with the focus kept squarely on the operation’s (male) leaders.

But in Sinclair McKay’s book The Secret Lives of Codebreakers, the women get their due. McKay makes it a point to tell the stories of the women of Ultra, who (despite being largely relegated to subordinate positions) played a crucial role in the success of the operation.

According to McKay, Ultra’s male leaders realized from the start that women could be a major asset to Bletchley Park. They began by recruiting young debutantes from titled and wealthy families, primarily because these young women had been raised with a strong sense of noblesse oblige that made them willing to do even the most tiresome war work uncomplainingly (and, more importantly, confidentially). Later, Ultra recruited from universities throughout Britain, choosing young women who knew German or had a particular talent for math.

These women did a variety of tasks. The debutantes mostly maintained Bletchley Park’s meticulous card index, which enabled code-breakers to find “ins” to Enigma by cross-referencing possible code keys with certain words or phrases. The university students worked primarily as transcribers, translators, and code-breakers. When the first computers (called bombes) arrived, conscripts from the Royal Navy’s women’s corps were given the exclusive job of operating the machines.

It was all grueling work. The debutantes’ and students’ work was mentally grueling; the Navy Wrens’ job was physically so. Yet, according to McKay, there were few complaints and almost no breaches of secrecy. These young women worked tirelessly for years, never knowing the full significance of what they were doing, and receiving no recognition for it until decades later, when Ultra’s Top Secret status was finally lifted.

Beyond that, they found a way to make Bletchley life engaging and colorful. McKay writes of musical, dramatic, and sports societies, founded and participated in equally by the women and men. The resilience of the Ultra code-breakers was nothing short of incredible.

What inspires me about the story of these young women is their tenacity. Not just in the way they worked so hard, for so long, with so little recognition, but also in the way they seized the opportunities presented to them. The times being what they were, leadership positions at Ultra simply weren’t open to them. But they still had the chance to contribute, and they stepped outside social norms to do it.

Many of them were ahead of their time, anyway–after all, it wasn’t common in the 1930s and ’40s for a young woman to go to university. Their work at Bletchley was a natural extension of their willingness to break boundaries. And some of them, thanks to that willingness, went on to blaze trails in an even more dramatic way. One Wren worked her way up from machine operation to leadership in a code-breaking office in Singapore. Another Ultra alumna went on to have a long career as one of the UK’s few female politicians. Still others broke ground in quieter fashion, by finding fulfillment in the workplace at a time when homemaking was virtually the only acceptable feminine occupation.

It’s an inspiring picture of women who, at a very young age, made significant sacrifices to fill unconventional roles. Their courage, perseverance, and creativity are an example of how to seize opportunity, push it beyond its original boundaries, and generally make the most of it.

Note: As part of his efforts to cover not just code-breaking activities, but overall life at Bletchley Park, McKay includes a fairly chaste chapter that touches on the issue of sex at the Park. Some might consider it inappropriate for young teens.

 

Dare the Wind

Dare the Wind: The Record-Breaking Voyage of Eleanor Prentiss and the Flying Cloud

by Tracey Fern; ill. by Emily Arnold McCully

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2014

40 pages

I was prowling around the Internet today, searching for content to share on the Read Like a Girl Facebook page, when I came across an interview with Merline Saintil. Saintil is a programmer who currently serves as Yahoo’s head of global engineering for mobile and emerging products.

Both as a woman and an African-American, she’s a minority in her field, and she believes that mentors and a strong support network have been crucial to helping her overcome traditional barriers. In particular, she mentions a male CEO who helped connect her with significant educational and professional opportunities.

I think it’s easy for us to assume that women will be a girl’s best or most important mentors, but that’s not necessarily the case. First of all, as the de facto leaders in virtually every sector of society and the economy, men are simply more likely to be in a position to serve as mentors. Second, there are plenty of men who–out of idealism, pragmatism, or a mixture of both–are happy to help talented girls and women fulfill their potential.

Tracey Fern’s picture book Dare the Wind is about one woman who benefited from the lifelong support of men who recognized and fostered her potential. Born to a sailing captain in early 1800s Massachusetts, Eleanor Prentiss (nicknamed “Ellen”) fell in love with the sea at a young age. Her father, probably motivated by pragmatism rather than feminism (he had no sons to succeed him), taught her everything he knew about sailing. He also taught her the complicated art of mathematical navigation, a skill beyond the reach of most sailors or even boat captains of the day.

As a young woman, Ellen became known for racing–and winning–against other boats in Massachusetts Bay. She later married a trading captain, who promptly took her on as his navigator at a time when it was still considered bad luck to have a woman aboard ship, let alone helping to sail the vessel.

Eventually, the couple took charge of the Flying Cloud, a new type of fast-sailing boat called a clipper. Ellen’s navigational skill–and her husband’s trust in her–spurred them on to multiple world records for the fastest voyage between Boston and San Francisco.

The reality is that, without the help and support of her father and husband, Ellen probably would not have been able to achieve her dream of becoming a champion sailor and navigator. At minimum, the process would have been far more difficult.

But that doesn’t make Ellen’s story any less inspiring for me. She knew what she wanted to do, and she seized every opportunity to do it. Even with a supportive father and husband on her side, there were significant obstacles in her way. Ellen lived at a time when married women had no personhood under the law, and when the weight of social (and naval) convention was very heavy indeed. And then there were the grueling physical and mental demands of repeated sea voyages around the Horn.

Ellen broke all those barriers–and the men in her life were deeply proud of her for doing so. Her story is an excellent example to young girls whose dreams are unconventional. It shows them that they don’t have to assume opposition from half the human race, that in fact they can keep their eyes open for men as well as women to support them along the way. And it’s a reminder to seize the opportunities that come through those channels, to be strong and courageous like Ellen and have confidence in themselves to find a way forward.

By this point, some of you have probably noticed that I haven’t been posting very regularly (or very often). To be honest, I was kind of shocked, myself, when I checked back in and realized that I hadn’t reviewed anything in over a month and a half.

I feel like I owe you all an explanation, not least because many of you are personally known and very dear to me.

First, let me clarify: Read Like a Girl is not shutting down. But I’ve had a major life change that is likely to affect the frequency and regularity with which I post from now on.

After working for about 10 years as a freelancer, I recently went back to full-time employment as a marketing coordinator for a local small business. I love my new job: it centers around writing, my coworkers (who include my husband) are amazing, and I’m learning new skills and stretching my existing ones every day.

But the downside, of course, is that I have less time for “my” writing. It’s taken me the last few months to figure out my new normal and find space in it for my most treasured projects, including Read Like a Girl.

The upshot is that, although I’ll have to post less frequently, I do intend to keep posting. I have a small stack of new books waiting by my reading chair, and I’m going to aim for something on the order of one review per month.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll continue to be patient with me and keep reading when I post. And if you haven’t already, please come join me over on Facebook, where I’m able to share a bit more often.

Thanks from the bottom of my heart for sharing this journey with me. I’m looking forward to the next stage of our travels together.

Sarah, Plain and Tall

by Patricia MacLachlan

HarperCollins, 1985

58 pages

For most of my childhood, my family attended a church that had a lending library. Among the books were novels about pioneer-era mail-order marriages, which I completely devoured. They were trite and fluffy reads, but through them I caught a glimpse of something serious: the reality of women’s social imprisonment (even in “the land of the free”) and the lengths to which some women would go to escape it.

I never lost my fascination with the interplay between marriage arrangements and women’s social status. As I got older, I sought out novels (Anthony Trollope and Louisa May Alcott were my favorites) and nonfiction on the subject, and I discussed it often with professors, fellow students, and friends from other cultures.

Through all that, however, I never got around to reading one of the most famous – and best – stories on the subject: Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall.

But just last month, I was casting around for something to read for the blog and thought of it. It won the Newbery Medal when published, and several of my bookish friends had recommended it, so I decided to try it. It was perfect.

Sarah is narrated by young Anna (no age given, but probably a preteen), whose widowed pioneer father places a newspaper ad for a wife. It’s answered by the title character, a woman from Maine, who agrees to visit for one month to see if they’re all a good fit for one another.

Anna and her brother Caleb are very hopeful. They are desperate for a mother – someone to make a garden, cut their hair, and make good stew – and they know their father needs someone to make him sing and smile again. But when Sarah comes, they’re not sure she’ll stay. She desperately misses the sea and her extended family, and she’s uncertain that she belongs in this dramatically different environment.

This is a book for fairly young children – a first-grader could probably read it with little help – so I was pleasantly surprised at Sarah as a character and at the way the story resolves.

In her own words, Sarah is “strong” and “not mild-mannered.” She has come West because she wants to marry on her own terms and because she won’t play second fiddle to her brother’s new wife.

As it turns out, she also won’t play second fiddle to Anna’s father. Equality is her default, both in work and in relationship. She wears overalls (something Anna and Caleb have never seen a woman do), helps with plowing and carpentry, and learns to drive the wagon so she can go to town on her own. She never asks permission for something. Instead, she states confidently what she wants.

It’s clear that Anna’s mother never did these things, but it’s also clear that Anna’s father likes Sarah all the more for them. And so Sarah not only discovers that she belongs on the prairie – both she and Anna’s family discover that they all belong together.

That, to me, is what makes this book inspiring.

First and foremost, inspired girls love themselves for who they are. But it’s also good for inspired girls to know that they’re lovable. To hear the message, “There are people out there who value girls and women not in spite of, but because of, their courage, intelligence, independence, and creativity.”

Growing up, I struggled with extremely low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression because I felt rejected for who I was. I was incredibly smart and fiercely independent, and many people in my life – both adults and peers – told me (sometimes explictly, sometimes implicitly) that girls “weren’t supposed to be that way.”

I was saved from alienation, isolation, and perhaps even suicide by the few adults and peers (including the boy I eventually married) who saw my intelligence and independence as assets, who were enthusiastic about who I was and told me those qualities were my birthright.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is the kind of book that whispers to an isolated young girl that those people are out there for her. If she hasn’t met them yet, she will soon. It’s inspiration to hold on, knowing that she’ll find a place to belong without losing who she really is.

The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq

by Jeanette Winter

Harcourt, 2005

32 pages

Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq

by Mark Alan Stamaty

Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

32 pages

When the United States, Britain, and George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” invaded Iraq in 2003, the human toll of the operation was the only thing more upsetting to me than the destruction and looting of museums, ancient landmarks, and cultural resources.

I knew that the loss of Iraq’s landmarks and artifacts was not just about the Iraqi people. It was about all of us, because we all trace our history back to the early civilizations represented by those irreplaceable treasures.

Since then, I’ve wondered what happened – what is happening – to Iraq’s cultural repository. How much was lost to the war, and did anyone ever manage to protect what was so important?

Not long ago, I discovered just a small part of the answer to that question when my local library held a book club event for children. The featured book was Jeanette Winter’s The Librarian of Basra.

Inspired by a New York Times article, this picture book tells the story of Alia Muhammad Baqr (sometimes spelled Baker), who was the Basra city librarian at the time of the war. After reading Winter’s book and researching Baqr further, I discovered a second book about her: Mark Alan Stamaty’s graphic novella Alia’s Mission.

Alia’s story is this. She was head of the busy public library in downtown Basra, where people came to read and discuss ideas. Following the 2003 invasion, rumors reached Basra that the British were coming to take the city. Afraid that fighting would destroy the library, Alia asked Basra’s mayor for permission to move the books. He not only said no, he turned the library into a military command post, making it an even likelier target.

That was the last straw for Alia. She secretly recruited her friend Anis, who owned a restaurant next door, and other concerned citizens to help her. They began smuggling books over the wall to Anis’s restaurant and down the street to Alia’s home. The British did take Basra, and the library did burn – but not before Alia and her friends had saved about 30,000 volumes.

Winter lays out this story in just a few sentences, accompanied by simple but richly colored illustrations. Her book is suitable for children of any age.

Stamaty goes into a bit more detail, in a version that is suitable for elementary ages. He fleshes out Alia’s motivation for saving the books, the contributions of the Ottoman Empire, the participation of Alia’s husband and Basra’s citizens. He also tells the end of the story: following a stroke caused by stress, Alia recovered and oversaw the construction of a new library.

There are so many inspirational elements to Alia’s story: her courage, her civil disobedience, her tenacity, her ability to galvanize others. But what I really loved – and what most inspired my daughter – was the fact that this is a story about books.

There’s a reason so many authoritarian regimes deny girls an education, censor or even burn certain books, or deny freedom of the press. Because books make people think. A non-reading, unthinking populace is easy to control. But readers, like the men and women who visited the Basra library, absorb ideas and talk about them. And thinking, idea-sharing people are dangerous people.

Books can also be important tools for becoming better versions of ourselves. Books and other written materials have longed help to spread ideas – whether religious, scientific, political, or artistic – that have saved lives, encouraged compassion, promoted peace, and shared beauty.

As Stamaty points out, that’s why Alia considered “her” books worth the risk of rescue. She had the vision to understand that Basra and its people are better off with their library intact. Especially for a girl living in a free, developed nation, where reading is a mundane activity, Alia’s story is an inspiring reminder of the importance of books and the lengths a courageous woman will go to preserve them.

 

 

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