Chasing Vermeer

Chasing Vermeer

by Blue Balliet; ill. by Brett Helquist

Scholastic, 2003

254 pages

Though there’s just one title, this is really a review of three books: Blue Balliet’s series of art mysteries starring three middle-school kids who live in modern-day Chicago.

I read the first book, Chasing Vermeer, with my daughter after a librarian friend recommended it. She mentioned it, and I picked it up, in part because she thought it might be a good Read Like a Girl book. Unfortunately, I ended up disappointed on that front.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed the book, and so did my daughter.

The story centers on Petra Andalee and Calder Pillay, two Chicago schoolmates and neighbors who become good friends as they solve the mystery of a stolen Vermeer painting.

The plot is engaging and well structured, the setting nicely articulated, the style just quirky enough to be fun but not trite. There are also authentic, positive depictions of family relationships and school – a nice balance to the wealth of post-apocalyptic, hyper-alienated fiction currently flooding the middle-grade market.

But Petra – the girl of the pair – isn’t really all that inspiring. She’s smart but not very strong, a relatively flat character who rarely takes the lead and needs frequent rescuing. Ultimately, I walked away feeling that both Petra and Balliet were holding out on me.

Then I read the next two books in the series, The Wright 3 and The Calder Game. By the time I was halfway through book two, Petra had become far more interesting. And by the time I finished book three, I was highly impressed.

In The Wright 3, Calder’s best friend Tommy (who has been living in New York) returns to Chicago and upsets the balance of Petra and Calder’s friendship. All three of the kids are interested in the plight of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Robie house, which is slated for demolition. But their ability to save it is hampered by the uneasy dynamics of their relationship – until Petra makes a conscious decision to be the mature one and foster meaningful cooperation within the group.

She does the same again in The Calder Game, when Calder disappears on a trip to England with his father. A large Alexander Calder sculpture disappears at the same time from the village where the Pillays are staying, and it’s up to Petra and Tommy to solve both mysteries.

Without Calder around, Petra and Tommy quickly fall into jealousy and mistrust of each other. They might have been able to cooperate on their previous adventure, but there is still no genuine friendship between the two of them. As before, Petra ends up being the first to realize the pettiness of their rivalry and the first to set it aside in favor of focused effort to find their mutual friend.

In the process, she figures out what is needed to build a true friendship with Tommy and deliberately moves in that direction. Eventually, he responds in kind, and they succeed in both solving the mysteries and forming a solid bond with each other.

Taken as a whole, then, the three books are definitely Read Like a Girl-worthy. Petra’s character arc – from bland, shrinking word nerd to confident, mature friend and leader – is both realistic and inspiring. It shows girls that the awkwardness and uncertainties of the preteen years can be managed and even overcome with confidence. And at a time when “mean girls” often rule the roost, it shows that true friendship, maturity, and kindness can win the day.

Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson

Penguin, 2014

352 pages

I don’t read a lot of poetry, and I’m not entirely sure why. When my poetry-loving friends put up Facebook posts sharing a favorite line or two from what they’re currently reading, I always think, “How beautiful. I really should read more poetry.”

Maybe verse is not my default because I like to get lost in books, and poetry feels very interruptive to me. I have a hard time gliding from poem to poem in a collection – my brain always has to make a clean stop and come up for air at the end of each poem.

The one exception is books that tell a story through a collection of individual poems. When I see a glowing review of one, I tend to go looking for it. That’s how I ended up with Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, the author’s memoir-in-verse.

I originally picked up the book because, as I’ve mentioned on this blog, I am very interested in the subject of race, and it was clear from the book’s title (and the review I read) that this was a major theme in Woodson’s story.

Woodson does indeed focus on race in the book, particularly on the differences between living in Ohio (where she was born), South Carolina (where she spent her early childhood), and New York City (where her family ultimately settled). As I would have expected for a memoir, she covers the intersection of social attitudes and movements with her family’s own history: her great-great-grandfather’s Union service during the Civil War, the enforced and de facto segregation of her grandparents’ town in South Carolina, her mother’s participation in the Civil Rights movement.

She also paints an incredibly clear picture of how issues connected with race flowed through and around her and her family’s daily lives and their ways of approaching the world. For instance, she explains her grandfather’s devotion to his expansive vegetable garden through the lens of his family history. The grandchild of slaves and the son of a sharecropper, he was the first of his lineage to freely work his own land and use the proceeds entirely as he wished. “So this is what he believes in,” she writes, “/your hands in the cool dirt/until the earth gives back to you/all that you’ve asked of it.”

Since before my daughter was born, my heart’s desire has been to raise a child who loves others for who they are, not for what society says they are worth. My husband and I want to instill compassion and humility so that she sees injustice, desires opportunity for others, and never feels entitled about her own privileges or opportunities.

So I was deeply touched and inspired by Woodson’s depiction of how her parents and grandparents worked to instill a sense of justice from the other side of the divide. How her mother whispered “We’re as good as anyone,” even as she moved with her children to the back of the bus. How her aunt shared a passion for civil disobedience over the dinner table. How her grandfather tells her she’s as much as part of the Civil Rights movement as anyone “Because you’re colored…/And just as good and bright and beautiful and free/as anybody./And nobody colored in the South is stopping/until everybody knows what’s true.”

I was also inspired by a completely different theme in Woodson’s story: her growth into a reader and writer. As I mentioned in my mini-review, this is what made the book one of my favorites from last year. Her poem “Hair Night,” where she describes listening to her sister read aloud as their grandmother straightens and braids their hair, literally brought me to tears (in the middle of the office break room, no less).

Woodson is like many poets: her facility with language is incredible. She has the knack for just the right turn of phrase – the perfectly chosen three or four words that create an entire mood and image out of nothing. So I was surprised to discover that she initially struggled with language, and even more surprised to discover that it did not in the least dampen her ambition to be a writer.

I’ve always loved words, too, but they came easily for me. I read fluently at age three and fell in love with Dickens at age seven. Writing down my thoughts has always felt natural and easy. So as I read Woodson’s description of words twisting on the page, letters not making it from pen to paper, I developed a strong admiration for her persistence and certainty. I remain inspired by her drive to master words and make them her life’s work, even though early signs said she’d never get there.

This was the other, less obvious dream of the title: her dream to become a writer. Reading her book was a wonderful reminder to me that apparently unreachable dreams can be achievable, and that we can share dreams with others across boundaries of race, place, and time.

A Life in Secrets

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

by Sarah Helm

Doubleday, 2006

493 pages


More than 15 years ago, at the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I read William Stevenson’s A Man Called Intrepid together. It was a fascinating story – the true tale of a secret WWII intelligence alliance between Churchill and FDR, and how that alliance gave rise to the two nations’ modern-day intelligence and counter-intelligence organizations.

On the periphery of that story was a group called the Special Operations Executive, or SOE. Formed in the early days of the war, the SOE recruited, trained, equipped, and supported resistance networks in Nazi-occupied countries. Its agents were sometimes British, sometimes deeply connected (through birth, parentage, or long-time residency) to the countries where they were deployed. They intercepted Nazi communications and committed acts of espionage that Churchill later said helped to shorten the war by “many months.”

The SOE was divided into sections by country, with F Section responsible for activities in France. Sarah Helm’s A Life in Secrets tells the story of F Section, its iron-willed intelligence officer Vera Atkins, and Atkins’ post-war effort to learn the fates of missing F Section agents.

I picked up the book thinking Atkins would be an inspiring figure for this blog, but I ended up feeling conflicted. The SOE, it turns out, badly bungled a lot of its work – many agents, especially in France and the Low Countries, fell into Nazi hands through clumsy lapses in security or the treachery of double agents. Despite numerous clear warnings of breaches, SOE continued to send new agents to connect with broken networks. In a number of cases, these courageous men and women literally parachuted straight into German hands.

At the center of this heartbreaking failure was Atkins, who saw the signs but never spoke up to persuade her boss that they were sending agents into near-certain death. Helm convincingly theorizes that this was a matter of self-preservation. Before joining SOE, Atkins had traveled to the Continent and paid a massive bribe to the Nazis to secure a Jewish cousin’s safe passage out of Europe. Atkins was afraid, Helm argues, that speaking against the SOE status quo would draw unwanted attention to her own past, which was already the matter of gossip because of her Jewish roots.

After the war, however, Atkins attempted to make something like amends. At a time when much of Continental Europe was still in ruins, she crossed the Channel to uncover the fate of SOE’s betrayed F Section agents. She was particularly determined to trace the women agents, who had been in her special care as they prepared to leave for their missions. In the process, she became a key war-crimes investigator and helped bring a number of Nazi leaders to justice.

For the rest of her life, Atkins was a study in contradictions. On the one hand, she refused to assist with efforts to uncover the root of the SOE’s failures, even though she had plenty of useful information. And she was famous among acquaintances for hiding her own mistakes and giving a confusingly cold shoulder to some of the descendants of fallen SOE agents. At the same time, however, she was equally dogged about obtaining deserved recognition for “her girls.” Many of the Continent’s memorials to SOE agents are there because Atkins advocated for them, even assisting with funding and designs.

What I did not feel conflicted about were the women SOE agents Helm profiles. Noor Inayat Khan, Denise Bloch, Violette Szabo, Yolande Beekman, and many others acted with tremendous courage at a time when their culture didn’t believe them capable of it. Their participation in SOE’s mission was technically illegal. Because the British military would be unwilling to admit culpability if they were discovered, they were told they would not receive even the assistance or protection that might be given to a male agent who was taken prisoner.

Yet they went anyway and proved themselves incredibly capable. Parachuted into occupied countries, they carried out espionage missions, rescued downed airmen, and served as radio operators and couriers under incredible danger. As for those who were captured, sent to concentration camps, and executed, eyewitnesses later told Atkins that they conducted themselves with tremendous dignity. For anyone reading A Life in Secrets, their stories are proof that women are capable of just as much heroism as men. Nobility of spirit doesn’t know a gender.

As for Atkins, perhaps there is something to learn from her story as well. Despite her disappointing choices, she was a rock in the storm for many of the women agents and their surviving loved ones. As Helm points out, she provided both emotional and financial support to some of these individuals until she died. And without her tenacity, the captured women agents would simply have been disavowed and their fates ignored. Instead, there are books written about them and stone memorials inscribed with their names.

Atkins’ position was a hard one. Because of the time in which she lived, she could not – or believed she could not – show any vulnerability. Though her choices were certainly her choices, they were also heavily influenced by the prejudices of her time and the treatment she received because she was seen as an intruder into a boys’ club. Her story, to me, is a reminder that we need to look for the good in others and cultivate it, encourage their strengths even if they don’t fit the profile we want. If someone had done that for Atkins, who knows how inspiring she might have turned out to be?

The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj

by Anne de Courcy

Harper, 2014

335 pages

To know me is to know that I am somewhat obsessed with Victorian England. I picked up a copy of A Christmas Carol at age 7, was mesmerized by the imagery and language and characters, and never looked back.

Since then, I’ve worked my way through Dickens, Trollope, Thomas Hardy, Frances Hodgson Burnett, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve dabbled with Elizabeth Gaskell and George MacDonald. On the American side, I devoured Louisa May Alcott because her books seemed such close kin to their British counterparts. I’ve also read my way through numerous non-fiction titles about the period, especially those focusing on Victorian domestic life and the lives of women.

So Anne de Courcy’s The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj was a natural choice for my book list. It promised to cover my favorite topics – domesticity and women’s lives – and to fill a gap in my knowledge. While India and Empire had always loomed large in the background of the Victorian stories I read (especially Trollope’s and Burnett’s), I hadn’t read much that directly covered life under the Raj.

In the event, I learned much more than I expected. Though the book focuses primarily on the 1880s-1920s, when the Raj was at its peak, de Courcy covers marriage customs all the way from the late 1700s to Indian independence in the 1940s.

The book’s title refers to the late 19th- and early 20th-century custom of sending droves of young women to India to hunt for husbands. Empire had greatly reduced the stock of eligible young men at home: many had been killed in Empire-building wars, and still more had been sent to police and administer England’s holdings overseas. So pragmatic middle- and upper-class parents simply packed up their daughters and sent them where the men were.

The practice was oxymoronic. Young middle- and upper-class women were not educated or equipped to handle life on their own – a typical well-bred girl ended her academic education in her early teens and was not taught how to look after herself or earn a living. Yet these same girls were sent off on months-long (sometimes harrowing) sea voyages to an unfamiliar country, where the climate, local population, and simple circumstances of life presented tremendous obstacles to their physical and mental health.

These were young women who had been conditioned to be weak and dependent. Society told them they were always on the verge of hysterics, incapable of functioning without the guidance and protection of a father or husband. But they rose to the occasion with aplomb.

Many turned the trip into a grand adventure. Most did get married, but they were more likely to do so on their own terms. They handled disease, natural disaster, and encounters with wild animals with admirable presence of mind. While their husbands went off on campaigns for months at a time, they took household matters in hand and sometimes traveled thousands of miles through hostile landscapes with just a servant to assist them.

England’s rule of India was far from unblemished. But there is no denying the spirit of women who were bred to be shrinking violets, yet made themselves strong as oaks. The lives they made for themselves helped me realize that, sometimes, victory comes by degrees. A step outside the box is still a step – it doesn’t lose all value simply because it’s not a leap. And it’s inspiration to do what we can with the resources we have, both around us and within ourselves.

Today is my monthly “day off”: a day when I leave the house early, come home late, and fill the hours in between with whatever I feel like doing. And today, I wanted to spend some of that time here.

In trying to decide what to write about, I landed on a book list. I know it’s  not a typical post for me, and it’s something that’s a bit overdone at this time of year, but I liked the idea of a retrospect – something to encourage me to think back over what I’ve read (and, by extension, learned) over the past year. (Plus, I quickly realized it would give me some essay ideas that I can file away for future posts.)

So without further ado, here are my five favorite reads from 2015, in no particular order.

Bill Bryson, In a Sunburned Country

Bryson has long been one of my favorite writers, despite his uneven performance (I really don’t understand how the same man wrote both At Home and Notes From a Small Island). Thankfully, his travelogue of Australia was on the high end of his scale of execution. Don’t read this book in public if you have hangups about laughing hysterically in front of complete strangers.

Brian Selznick, The Marvels

After Wonderstruck, I was a bit worried. Selznick’s second hybrid novel, though amazing in its own right, fell short of the mark he set with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. But my anxiety was misplaced. The Marvels – which centers around London’s theatrical community – is Hugo‘s equal in every respect. The art is breathtaking, the story is heart-achingly poignant, and once again I’m in awe of this man’s talent.

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming

Woodson’s memoir-in-poems tells the story of her childhood move from Illinois to South Carolina to New York and of her discovery of the magic and potency of words. I’ve never read such a spot-on conceptualization of race in the South. And Woodson’s description of the power of story literally brought me to tears – in the middle of the office lunchroom, no less.

Rebecca Stead, Liar and Spy

I reviewed Stead’s When You Reach Me back in 2012. Liar and Spy, the story of two friends who get caught up in a possibly not-so-innocent game of spying on the neighbors, is similarly stunning in its execution. As before, Stead does a banner job of gently but honestly confronting some of the hard truths of life. It’s the perfect blend of funny, dark, heart-tugging, and beautifully exasperating.

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

I caught the Ishiguro bug in college, when I studied under the world’s leading Ishiguro scholar. This mesmerizing retelling of the Arthurian legend is the author’s first novel in 10 years, and it was worth the wait. Every page is soaked in Ishiguro’s guiding theme – the vagaries of memory – but the story is freshly inventive and heartbreaking. Another one that made me cry in public.

The Night Circus

The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

Anchor Books, 2012

516 pages

When my daughter was born, two very dear friends came to see us in the hospital. It was Christmastime, so they brought my present with them: a copy of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

I had not heard of it, but our friends were emphatic that I would love it, and they were right.

I got through it quickly – thanks to frequent, slow nursing sessions – and I was heartbroken by the fact that there was no followup to the cliffhanger ending (which I won’t spoil for you here). It remains the best fantasy novel I’ve read outside Tolkien.

So imagine how thrilled I was to discover a read-alike: Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

I picked up Morgenstern’s novel last month, when I visited the library on a desperate hunt for reading material. I was about to fly cross-country on a business trip, and I had realized the day before departure that I had “nothing to read.” (Just on a side note: I should confess that me having “nothing to read” is like some folks having “nothing to wear.”)

The Night Circus was perched on a shelf, under a sign declaring it “recommended by our librarians.” It was of sufficient length for the trip, and the premise sounded fascinating. So I took it home, along with some fallback selections.

I was hooked from page one. Set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it’s the story of two students whose teachers use them as proxies in a centuries-old magical conflict. Celia, the daughter of one magician, and Marco, the protege of the other, are bound from an early age to pit their skills against one another within the confines of a magical circus. Celia serves as the circus’ illusionist and travels with the show. Along with performing her own act, she uses her magic to build other attractions within the venue. Marco also magically adds to the circus, but from his home base in London.

Then, several years after the contest begins, the two antagonists meet face-to-face and fall in love. First, they collaborate with each other, building some of the circus’ most stunning attractions. But eventually, that’s not enough – they want out of the contest so they can become full partners, both in love and magic. That is when they learn what is really at stake: not only their own lives, but those of everyone connected with the circus.

I love the book primarily for its richness of detail and the way Morgenstern weaves together reality-as-we-know-it and the magical reality of the world she has so deftly created. This, the tight and unique plotting, and the orientation toward characters over action (always my favorite slant) are what make Night Circus an apt readalike for Strange & Norrell.

Granted, Morgenstern is not quite as skilled as Clarke – her ending is tidier but, in my opinion, trite and much less satisfying. And, though her narrative voice is similarly strong, it’s far too American for the book’s primarily British setting.

But Morgenstern’s novel has one thing Clarke’s novel is lacking: a strong female protagonist (though Arabella Strange could possibly qualify as a Super Secondary).

Celia is really the book’s main character, with Marco serving as a close secondary. Aside from getting more page time, she’s also more central to the plot – and to the circus itself.

And what a character she is. She has innate magical ability that stems not just from her parentage but also from her fierce temperament. She is the more powerful of the two contestants, capable of both more dramatic and more complex magic than Marco can execute.

She is the one, we ultimately learn, who holds the circus together. If she loses focus, it literally falls apart. So she is the one who must make a way out for herself and Marco, if she can. She is the primary mover, creator, and problem-solver. In short, she’s the heroine of the book.

Even better, there are some strong female secondaries to support her: the enigmatic contortionist Tsukiko, Marco’s former lover Isobel, and the accomplished costume designer Tante Padva. They’re all flawed characters – as is Celia – but each is courageous and strong and creative.

It’s wonderful to read a book with so many self-assured women in it, especially when that book turns out to be a love story. I’ve read far too many books where, once the heroine falls in love, she loses her verve and becomes a passive pawn in need of rescuing. The Night Circus, by contrast, is a story where love only deepens the heroine’s strength and power.

The next time you’re in search of a good, fat book to spend some serious time with, I highly recommend it.

A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time

by Madeleine L’Engle

Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1963

256 pages

A Wrinkle in Time is one of those books I think I have very clear memories of – and then I read it again and discover that I missed something entirely.

I first read A Wrinkle in Time – or, rather, had it read to me – when I was in elementary school. The school I attended, which housed grades K-8, placed a high priority on reading. Every day, the teachers focused on reading in three ways: they read aloud to their students (even in the higher grades), they had the students read aloud to each other, and they set aside time for the students to read on their own.

L’Engle’s science fiction novel was one of many inspiring books read aloud to me at that school. For whatever reason, my teacher didn’t continue with the series, but I came back to it as an adult and read the remaining four books in the quintet.

And then, just a couple of months ago, I read A Wrinkle in Time with my daughter. I prodded her into reading it with me because I remembered it as an inspiring book. And it was, but not in the way I recalled.

The story was as compelling as ever. Thirteen-year-old Meg Murry travels through space and time to rescue her father, who has been missing for years after taking part in some mysterious government project. Her brother Charles Wallace, her new friend Calvin, and three odd neighbors (Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit) accompany Meg on the trip.

Under the neighbors’ guidance, the children “tesser” to various planets in search of Mr. Murry. They learn that the universe is under attack from a Dark Thing – the embodiment of evil – and that Mr. Murry has become trapped on a planet, called Camazotz, that is wholly given over to the Dark.

Arriving on Camazotz, they find Mr. Murry imprisoned by IT, the disembodied brain that controls the planet and its inhabitants. He is a prisoner because he refused to succumb to IT, and the children are only able to bring him away because Charles Wallace yields to IT’s telepathy. Meg must then return to Camazotz alone to rescue her brother, if she can.

The travelers are a band of misfits if ever there was one. The neighbors, who sound as add as they look, turn out to be paranormal beings analagous to angels. Calvin is the most popular boy in school, but he’s also awkward-looking, deeply misunderstood and neglected by his parents, and unsure of how to handle his own inner gifts. Charles Wallace, a 5-year-old telepath and genius, has a reputation for being developmentally disabled because he rarely speaks to anyone but his family.

And then there’s Meg. She was the missing piece, the element I had forgotten. Sure, I remembered that she is the main character and (more importantly) the crucial operator in the rescues of both Mr. Murry and Charles Wallace. What I didn’t remember is that she is a complete anti-hero.

In short, Meg drives me nuts. For most of the book, she’s a whiny, entitled, hand-wringer with a near-pathological inability to control her own emotions. She wants everyone to do everything for her. She’s the kind of person you want to smack around or douse in cold water, the way cartoon characters do with blibbering hysterics.

But as the book progressed, I realized that’s the way many 13-year-olds are. Thanks to raging, roller-coaster hormones and the vicissitudes of adolescent neurological development, it’s completely normal for a child Meg’s age to be self-centered and emotionally volatile. L’Engle, being the mother of three children, was probably all too aware of this.

Once I had this epiphany, I started to feel grateful for Meg’s messiness. My own daughter is closing in on her tenth birthday, and I realized how edifying it is for her to read about a girl who’s fully in the grips of adolescent turmoil, yet is ultimately able to get beyond it when something important is at stake.

More than that, the very qualities that make Meg so hard to deal with are the ones that feed her ability to rescue Charles Wallace. She learns how to turn her weaknesses into strengths, how to redirect her liabilities into productive channels. She learns how to operate outside herself and attain maturity through the process of seeking a worthy and challenging goal.

And with adolescence looming on the horizon for my daughter, that is an inspiring example for her to have.