A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell

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Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

Fluent in French, German and Italian, she initially worked for the US Consular Service before moving to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an early UK intelligence organisation. The US had not yet joined the war and she’d previously been turned down by the US State Department because of her disability. She had lost a leg below the knee after a hunting accident and had a wooden prosthesis, yet that did not hold her back from her active work first in Vichy France, primarily Lyon which she made into the most extensive and effective center for Resistance and intel in France.

After being betrayed and hunted Javert-like by Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, she made a daring and arduous trek over a 7,500 foot pass in the Pyrenees to Spain without even a walking stick to help. Once the U.S. joined the war she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), returning to Occupied France to organise Maquis units to harass the enemy, gather intel, and assist the Allies before, during, and after the D-Day invasion. Her intel was crucial to the D-Day planners.

I can’t begin to list all she accomplished despite her wooden leg and, more importantly, despite being held back every step of the way by male superiors who couldn’t accept that a woman could do useful work other than typing or making tea, hence the title of this book. This discrimination persisted after the war when she eventually found work with the CIA after the OSS was disbanded, yet was belittled and confined to desk jobs by men with no combat or espionage experience.

Yet, her intelligence and adaptability, her drive and charisma, her intense love of France and determination to drive out the Nazi invaders together won her the loyalty of the people she worked with on the ground. Only Virginia thought to use a brothel as a safe house and its workers as intel-gatherers. Only Virginia had the organizational and planning ability to organise jailbreaks from the Nazis’ most forbidding prisons.

It’s a stunning and inspiring story, brilliantly presented here. I learned much that was new to me about conditions in Vichy and Occupied France and the Resistance, things I thought I knew pretty well. The action is as breath-taking as any thriller. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, one of my favorite actors, and often couldn’t bear to stop. I fumed about the discrimination, grieved for the losses, raged at the Nazis’ torture of captured spies, and rejoiced in her victories.

What a woman!

Have you read a biography of a “forgotten” historical figure?

In the Wake, by Per Petterson

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It’s curious how the somewhat random choice of what to read next can bring two books into conversation with each other. This 2000 novel by Petterson, author of the marvelous Out Stealing Horses, has been lurking in my to-be-read pile for a while. I pulled it out primarily because of its stunning blue cover and the comfort of knowing I could count on this author for a thoughtful read.

Imagine my surprise on discovering that it begins with the same situation as the last novel I reviewed: with the protagonist struggling to come to terms with a traumatic disaster. Yet the two books could not be more different.

It has been six years since the ferry accident that took the lives of 43-year-old Arvid’s parents and younger brothers. He is still consumed by grief, unpacking memories of his father and mother, wrestling with both the past and the terrible present, questioning everything. He starts a new file on his computer and thinks “I am writing myself into a possible future.”

Since the accident, his marriage has fallen apart and his work as a writer has dried up, his novel-in-progress abandoned. He drinks too much—we first meet him surfacing from a blackout—and has almost no human contact. There’s his Kurdish neighbor from upstairs who has one word of English: “thanks”. And a woman in the opposite apartment block whom he sometimes sees in her window.

He’s had little to do with his remaining brother, three years older and a successful architect who lives with his wife in a gorgeous home he designed himself. That is, until his brother calls him at two in the morning, drunk or getting there, to say that he too is getting divorced, a conversation that quickly devolves into sibling sparring.

Here we are deep in Arvid’s consciousness, carried by his voice—so calm and forthright, so candid, so obviously containing oceans of emotion. The contrast is irresistible. You might think this novel is more narration than dramatic scenes, but the narration is so vivid and in the moment—present or past—that it creates scenes we experience with Arvid. They accumulate, relentless as the waves, pulling us in.

Petterson also uses very specific descriptions to ground all this ruminating. Here’s a wonderful example; Arvid has shown up at his twelve-year-old daughter’s school and, instead of getting on the bus, she’s gone with him to a cafe.

After a little while the man comes back with our order on a big tray he carries high above his head as if the place was crammed with people, but we are still the only ones there, and he lowers the tray in a sweeping circle and with a flourish sets white cups and plates of waffles on the table and a bowl with a silver spoon and jam. He pours the cocoa from a big white jug and when the cups are full he puts the jug down on the white cloth. He does not spill a drop. We just sit quietly watching. Everything is so white and sumptuous that half would be sufficient, and the waffles are lightly toasted and make the jam glow in the light from the window . . .

“Kidnappings not half bad when you get waffles,” says my daughter . . .

There are a number of cool things about this excerpt: the humor, the sentence variety, the specificity. One of the brilliant aspects of it is the way Petterson bypasses the emotions one would expect from these two—the guilt, the resentment, the sadness—and goes for the unexpected: a luxurious, sensual joy. As Donald Maass (literary agent, writer, and writing teacher extraordinaire) points out: we readers can fill in the commonplace emotions while the surprise grabs us.

This is an intense book, made bearable by moments such as this and by the steadfast voice, recounting ordinary events, dreams, memories, moments of violence and betrayal, joy and communion all with the same calm and with no self-pity. It feels genuine, more so than usual. No wonder, perhaps, since Petterson himself lost family members in the 1990 Scandinavian Star disaster, like Arvid. His description of the video Arvid watches to identify bodies in the ferry is particularly chilling.

Yet the story does not seem self-indulgent. It is a deep dive into the question of how we find or create meaning in our life, how we bear tragedy, how we begin to find the faint threads of connection.

Have you read one of Per Petterson’s books? What did you think of it?

Mouths Don’t Speak, by Katia D. Ulysse

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A member of my book club heard Ulysse speak and was fascinated by her descriptions of Haiti and the experience of living in a new country, far from family. My friend recommended this book—Ulysse’s first novel; her previous book Drifting is a collection of short stories—to our group, and we happily agreed. We’d previously read novels set in Haiti by Edwidge Danticat and Madison Smartt Bell, and were eager to read another, especially a book by someone from Haiti.

The story opens days after the devastating Haitian earthquake that occurred on Tuesday, 21 January 2010. Now living in Baltimore with her husband and three-year-old daughter, Jacqueline is desperate to contact her parents who still live in Haiti. “She had not changed her clothes since she learned about the earthquake three days prior. She had not eaten, and she had forgotten to sleep or bathe.” All this time she has been watching the repetitive tv coverage and compulsively dialing and redialing her parents’ phone number. She hasn’t bothered to go to work (she teaches at a public school).

I found this unrealistic. Yes, I remember after the World Trade Center attacks how we couldn’t stop watching the coverage, even though there was nothing new. Some of us tried to contact family or friends. I also sat out the first days of the tsunami and Fukishima disaster with a woman from Japan. So I’m not unfamiliar with the reaction to a catastrophe. Still, Jacqueline’s stupor seemed extreme to me, especially when there’s a three-year-old in the home.

Jacqueline continues in this vein for a month before finally going outside–not bathing though; she just “put her coat on top of the clothes she’d worn for days.” And the school holds her job for her, not pressuring her to return as month follows month. Really? I taught in the Baltimore Public Schools for a few years and can’t imagine such leeway granted to a teacher. A month later, when she is almost ready to give them up for dead, her mother Annette suddenly contacts her; she and Paul, Jacqueline’s father, have been in Florida all this time, not bothering to let their daughter know that they are alive.

While some aspects of the story are hard to believe, the essential story question is not just timely, but important. How can Jacqueline forge a relationship with the parents who, fixated on their own pleasures, essentially abandoned her? Forced to practice the despised piano until her fingers bled in order to impress her parents’ friends at parties and then sent to boarding school in the U.S. when only ten, Jacqueline has had almost no contact with her parents in the intervening years. Suddenly her mother will not leave her alone, needing Jacqueline’s help now that Paul has been permanently disabled because of the earthquake.

A good story question, yet the story itself seems insubstantial. It’s narrated quickly, skipping over much that could have been explored, leaving it feeling superficial. Characters make abrupt changes for no reason. There are a number of subplots alluded to but not really explored: Jacqueline’s husband has PTSD; she’s stopped attending church after—for some never-explained reason—throwing a hymnal at the new pastor; Jacqueline instantaneously becomes BFFs with a white woman who teaches Haitian dialect. Disturbing and sometimes tragic incidents are inserted, apparently to goose up the plot rather than growing organically out of the characters and their interaction.

The underdeveloped characters are a large part of the problem. Instead of multi-faceted individuals, the characters are two-dimensional, each sounding their one note over and over. One member of my book club observed that they are all broken people, thrust together. And broken people do obsess over and over about their point of fracture, bending your ear with the same story over and over. No matter how accurate psychologically, though, it does not make for interesting reading or a convincing plot.

I so wanted this story to be good. How many children today are suffering the effects of growing up with distant, distracted, or self-absorbed parents? The bones of a great story are here. Some of the descriptions are vivid, though there’s actually very little about Haiti itself. Jacqueline’s parents are super-rich, Annette in particular loathing the worthless poor. I did appreciate that Ulysse stepped outside the stereotypes to write about the rich in Haiti and how the earthquake might have affected them, yet I had hoped for more about Haiti and its people.

Writing a novel is hard. It’s different from writing short stories. I wish the author had taken more time with this book, so she could have made it the great novel it promises to be. Dave King wrote an excellent blog post on WriterUnboxed.com about “The Practice Novel”. He says:

The problem is that novels are huge. They involve moving parts you may not even be aware of and require skills with language and tension building and insight into characters that take years to develop. You don’t just have to master these skills, you also have to develop a feel for how they all work together.

So my sympathies are with Ulysse. She’s got the emotions and the plot structure. She’s got good descriptions, strong and varied sentences, and a genuine understanding of human nature. More work with developing characters would go a long way, as would less narration and more dramatic scenes; as readers, we prefer to learn about characters from what they do rather than from what they say about themselves. Maybe this novel feels a bit rushed because she was pressured to publish it quickly. I’d like to read her short stories now, and will look to see what happens with her next novel.

What novel have you read about the immigrant experience? What did you think of it?

Grace Notes, by Brian Doyle

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These days I’m turning to books not so much for escape as for courage and comfort. I welcome anything that might help replenish my stores of both. For me, that often means returning to one of my favorite authors. In addition to writing unforgettable stories and essays, Brian Doyle, who died much too young in 2017, was a teacher, magazine editor, husband, father.

In this collection of short essays—a form he excelled in—Doyle reminds us of what is good in the world. At the same time, he doesn’t shy away from the darkness; in “The Sin” he describes losing his temper with his son, grabbing his shirt collar and roaring at him, frightening them both. He doesn’t avoid his own responsibility or pretend it didn’t happen. Instead, he confronts himself, “ashamed to the bottom of my bones.”

Then he goes big: “I do not know how sins can be forgiven.” As he ponders that question, and the further one of who must do the asking and who the forgiving, he is led to consider the grace alluded to in the book’s title.

Doyle is a Catholic and makes clear in his Prologue that many of these essays “use . . . Catholicism as a prism, a way of being, an approach”. Yet he keeps these works accessible for those of us who do not ascribe to that or perhaps any religion by using terms we can all believe in. Like Mary Oliver, whose work he much admires (and vice versa), he links prayer to attentiveness. And when he talks of grace, he speaks not of the Catholic God but of the experiences we all yearn for: the unearned gifts, the moments of being, the love that descends on us.

I call his essays unforgettable because each pierces me in ways I cannot describe. I often use his essays in my writing classes and, reading aloud an essay I’ve read fifty times, still, as I near the end, my voice trembles and tears start in my eyes.

How does he do it? In just two or three pages he builds a world that fills my heart.

Partly it’s his word choice, the unexpected verb or adjective that surprises and transports me. And there are the startling images he uses. Both can be seen in this excerpt from “Cool Things”:

. . . the way the young mother at the bus-stop has her infant swaddled and huddled against her chest like a blinking extra heart, and the way a very large woman wears the tiniest miniskirt with a careless airy pride that makes me so happy I can hardly squeak . . .

A blinking heart. Airy. Squeak. They shock us, these revelations; they draw us in to the world of the story by linking it in new ways to the world we know.

Partly his essays are unforgettable because he does go big. He doesn’t hesitate to take on huge ideas, universal themes, and look at them in new ways, connecting them to our ordinary, our extraordinary lives. For instance, in “On Miraculousness” he uses an exquisitely described encounter with a little girl who is terribly crippled, out on the beach with her family, to—implicitly—look at the question of why bad things happen to good people.

Another technique he uses is to take on the voice of someone else, easing into it with the slightest of transitions, but giving us this genuine voice, this glimpse of the world through someone else’s eyes. For instance, here is the beginning of “A Child is Not a Furniture”:

One time when I lived in Chicago I spent an hour talking to a woman who was wearing a dress of the brightest red I have ever seen in all my born days and I have lived fifty years. This was on the Cicero Avenue bus at three in the morning. She said she was returning to the apartment where she lived with her husband. I inquired after children and she said,

My husband and I trying to welcome children but as yet we have not been blessed. I would like to have five children. I am myself one of five. My husband however an only child of complex circumstances. He have misgivings and forebodings.

Most of all, though, what makes Brian Doyle’s work so profound is that, as dancers say, he leaves it all on the stage. He doesn’t hold anything back. He lets us into all his secrets, shows us his warts and his wonder, his deep appreciation for our flawed and amazing time on earth.

He is missed.

What books are you turning to for comfort and courage?