Review: A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

This book was recommended to me last year, when I raved about Code Name Helene, a fictionalized story about a real-life World War II hero, Nancy Wake.  A Woman of No Importance is a biography of Virginia Hall, one of the first and most recognized female undercover agents in France during World War II.  Her story is amazing and I’m glad I read it. 

Virginia Hall was born in Maryland in 1906. She studied abroad as a diplomat and served as an embassy clerk for the Department of State. In 1933, she accidentally shot her foot on a hunting trip, and her leg had to be amputated below the knee. Her disability kept her out of most occupations available to women at that time, including the Foreign Service, which she tried repeatedly to get into. She served as an ambulance driver in France when the county was taken by the Germans. She impressed an intelligence officer, and in 1941 she was recruited by Britain to join their newly-created Special Operations Executive (SOE) unit and went into Lyon, posing as a journalist. 

The prospect of SOE service in the field was undoubtedly terrifying. So many backed out that SOE would later set up a “cooler,” a remote country house in the wilds of Scotland where quitters would be forcibly confined until what knowledge they had gleaned of SOE was of no use. As of July 1941, F Section had just ten people still in training—of whom Virginia was the only woman. And the only one with a disability.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell
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Goodbye, Harleycat

This week, we had to say goodbye to our beloved cat, Harley. She lived a good life, and she was part of our family for more than 17 years. She was my first cat, and to me she is everything that is lovely about cats. She was strong, independent, opinionated, loving, and loyal.

Little Harley in her new home.

We found Harley in 2003 through a feline rescue service. She was about 8 months old, and had just been spayed when we met her, yet she climbed onto my husband’s lap and fell right asleep. Her name was Shadow at the time, which neither of us liked. We were sitting in bed with her that first night, and her purrs were so loud they reminded us of our downstairs neighbors’ motorcycles. So Harley it was.

Cats like to attach themselves to one person, and Harley was very much my husband’s cat. But she always let me know she loved me, whether it was sitting with me in front of the fire or leaping to comfort me when I cried at a sad movie.

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Review: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

You’ll have heard of this book because of the awards it won in 2020, including the Booker Prize.  This story of a young boy growing up with an alcoholic mother in 1980s Glasgow is worth the read.  It’s dark, but once I finished it, I missed the characters.  By the time you finish it, Shuggie is someone you feel like you know, and you want to stick around and see what happens next. 

I’m finding stories about addiction really powerful these days. We all need to understand addiction better because most of us are touched by it in one way or the other. As a society we have to treat addiction with sympathy, rather than condemnation, if we want to help people overcome their addictions. We have to see the humanity in people who are struggling, and this book does exactly that. 

While this novel is about a mother who is an alcoholic, it’s primarily about Shuggie, a hopeful young boy who’s forced to become an adult way too early in his life.  Shuggie feels different from everyone around him.  He’s tidy and polite and well-spoken, which makes him an outcast among the other boys, and the adults in his life see him as “not right”. 

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Review: Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright

Your first reaction to reading a book about the history of infectious diseases might be “why would I want to read that right now?” But this book was fascinating. It was published in 2017, well before COVID, yet it has so much to say about people react to the threat of infectious disease, and how we should react.  And what makes this book stand out is that it’s written in an engaging, even humorous way that makes it a lighter read than you might expect. 

Wright describes the different diseases in chronological order, beginning with the Antonine Plague near the end of the Roman Empire, and ending with polio. In between are the ones you’d expect — the bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid, and influenza — and some you may not expect unless you really pay attention to such things, such as syphilis, leprosy, and encephalitis.

This is actually a fairly quick read, as Wright doesn’t go into a lot of depth. Each of these diseases merits much deeper discussion, and of course there are many books dedicated to just that. Instead, Wright looks at commonalities across each disease. She describes how each one started, how it spread, and what was done to contain and eliminate it as a threat. She calls attention to the heroes, like those who developed vaccines or cared for the ill.  But there is also the down side — those who spread misinformation and prejudice, who push ineffective remedies for their own gain, or who prevent sufferers from getting treatment. 

Forgetting is soothing and probably in our nature.  But disregarding, and being ignorant of, plagues of the past makes us more, rather than less, vulnerable to inevitable ones in the future.  Because when plagues erupt, some people behave amazingly well.  They minimize the death and destruction around them. They are kind. They are courageous. They showcase the best of our nature.  Other people behave like superstitious lunatics and add to the death toll. 

Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright
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Favorite Books Written Before I Was Born

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, is about our favorite books written before we were born.  I haven’t written about my favorite classics for a while, so this was a nice opportunity to span a couple centuries of great literature and pick out my favorites. 

In making this list, I thought about the books that have had the greatest impact on me, as opposed to maybe being the best books ever written.  Most of these are books I read years ago, some of them in high school and college. But they’ve stuck with me.

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My January Reading Wrap-Up

January was certainly an eventful month.  We went from deeply disturbing to inspiring, and now I’m hopeful we can settle into something that feels a little more like daily life.  My parents are still waiting to receive vaccinations, but I’m hoping that happens soon. 

It was a good month for reading, and I’ve gotten off to a good start this year at keeping the blog organized and actually writing posts regularly.  One of my goals is to post at least three book reviews a month, and I got there this month. But then I also had to post about the year that was 2020 and my resolutions for 2021, so the other months will be easier.

Here’s what I read in January:

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Review: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

I had mixed feelings about this book, which generated a lot of buzz when it came out, but I continue to think about it.  It’s an unusual blend of character-driven horror, something like Station Eleven. It’s a book where not much happens, but it’s still terrifying.  I would have liked it more except that sometimes the writing style distracted me from what was happening – or not happening – in the story. 

I loved the premise of this book.  Amanda and Clay are a well-off white family taking a week’s vacation in a posh rental house outside of New York City.  They’ve packed all their stuff, arrived at the house, bought groceries, and settled in – when there’s a knock at the door.  An older black couple explains they are the owners, and they’ve left their home in NYC because of a city-wide power outage.  They couldn’t possibly get up to their high-rise apartment and didn’t want to try.  Why should they, when they own a nice place out in the country?

But Amanda and Clay, understandably, feel invaded.  As Amanda notes, they’ve paid to feel like this home is theirs for the week.  What do they tell their children?  And how do they even know George and Ruth are who they say they are?  They have power, but no internet or phone connection, so none of them know what is actually happening, other than a couple of emergency alerts on their phones.

Most of this book happens over just a couple of days, and our main characters know almost nothing about what’s happening, except the fears in their own minds.  The narrator of the book drops tantalizing bits of information about what’s happening in the region, so as the reader, you know a bit more than the characters do. 

I won’t say more about the story, though I loved the build-up of fear and tension.  Two warnings: readers looking for a more action-driven story (rather than character-driven) may find this story dull.  And readers who want everything clearly resolved at the end will be disappointed. 

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Review: Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

This is my second book by O’Neill, and while it wasn’t nearly as powerful as Asking for It, it still kept me thinking well after I put it down.  O’Neill draws characters that feel very real, and her books leave an emotional impact. 

Only Ever Yours is set in a dystopian future where girls are no longer born, they are bred.  They grow up in schools where they are groomed for three possible futures: companion (wife/mother), chastity (nun/teacher), or concubine.  Their future is determined for them upon graduation; only the prettiest, most liked girls are chosen as companions. 

Frieda is part of a class of thirty in her final year of school.  The girls must compete with each other (they are ranked regularly on their appearance) and their every action is dissected on social media.  Frieda has been second only to her friend Isabel for years; she’s torn between love for her friend and jealousy.  When Isabel starts to fall apart, Frieda has to decide whether to put her ranking or her friend first.

Frieda’s world is completely isolated; the entire book takes place in one building and the girls only see their teachers, their classmates, and the ten boys who are allowed to visit them for the purpose of choosing some of them as wives.  It’s Mean Girls meets Love Island, only in this story only the boys get to make any choices. 

This book draws obvious comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and certainly it owes a debt to that book. But if you’re looking for another Handmaid’s Tale you’ll be disappointed. Handmaid is so terrifying because readers can see how the world went from the one we’re in today to one that seems scarily possible. This book would have benefitted from more world-building, because it doesn’t give the reader that sense that this is where we could end up if we’re not careful.

Setting aside the Handmaid comparisons, this book is chilling in its portrayal of teenage girls groomed to tear each other apart, to fixate on appearance and popularity, and to be watched at all times through social media.  O’Neil doesn’t have to create a future that seems possible; in many ways her book works as an exploration of our present state. 

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Inauguration Day, 2021

I moved to Washington, DC in September 1996.  I’ll never forget the first time I visited, and how excited and awed I was by the city.  I still am, even though I’ve come to know this region as much more than just the seat of government. It’s not just museums and monuments, but a region that includes a whole lot of people who make our government work.  Sure, we’re not known for our fashion sense and we’re not as kind to tourists as we should be.  We rush around with our noses in newspapers and books rather than saying hello to the people around us.  But DC is a big part of who I am, which is something that really hit home yesterday, every time the cameras panned outwards. 

I went to my first inauguration that winter, January 1997, to see Bill Clinton’s second inauguration.  It was bitterly cold, especially for a west-coaster like myself, and I remember not lasting too long out in the crowds and the winds. My friends and I eventually found a restaurant somewhere to watch the rest of the ceremony (you couldn’t see anything out on the mall anyway). 

Twenty-four years later, I still remember every Election Day and Inauguration. Some were celebrated and some were cried over, but this one touched me like no other.  I watched the entire ceremony and the Inaugural concert, and I was in tears for most of it.  I loved Biden’s speech for its sincerity and for the way he plainly established his priorities. I loved the performances. I was awestruck by the power and beauty of Amanda Gorman’s poem. 

My husband maybe said it best: he feels like we’ve gotten our city back.  Back from the corruption and the nastiness and the people heading up agencies who only wanted to run them into the ground. Not that all of that will go away, but some of it will.

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Review: Dear Miss Kopp by Amy Stewart

Dear Miss Kopp is the sixth book in the Kopp Sisters series by Amy Stewart, and I was thrilled to receive an advanced review copy from NetGalley.  This is one of my favorite historical series, and if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend picking up the first book, Girl Waits With Gun.

What makes this series so good?  I love historical fiction that’s well researched and draws upon real life events. Even better, this series is about an actual family and other real-life personalities of the time.  Not everything in this series is true, of course, but Stewart does an excellent job explaining which events actually happened and which have been adapted for the story.  For example, sometimes she’ll alter true-to-life events so that her main characters experience them, or so characters come in contact with each other who might not have known each other in real life. Much of her writing incorporates actual letters and newspaper articles.  

I love the characters of the three sisters, Constance, Norma, and Fleurette.  As the series goes on, you feel like they’re your own family.  Constance is the most developed of the three, particularly in the first four books, but Fleurette plays an increasing role as she grows into adulthood.  Norma is perhaps more of a side character, but we all know someone like her: stubborn, brilliant (in her own way), caring, but difficult to get along with. 

Most importantly, Stewart draws a compelling picture of the lives of women in the 1910s through World War I (and there is more to come). I love the way she introduces real laws and practices of the time, bringing awareness to terrible practices like women being thrown into prisons and institutions just for running away or being seen with a man.  What the “morality police” do to women in these times is truly appalling (though we haven’t made nearly as much progress today as I wish we had).  Stewart also highlights truly courageous women of the time, and the ways that women made inroads into different professions, like law enforcement, and often brought something to those professions that men couldn’t.

If you haven’t read the series, I recommend you stop reading this review and pick up the first book. 

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Reading Resolutions and Challenges for 2021

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, is about our reading goals and challenges for 2021.  In my last post, I wrote about my reading and blogging trends in 2020, so now it’s time to think about what I want out of the coming year. It’s not quite a “top ten” list; I’ve got five reading goals, five challenges, and three non-reading resolutions for the coming year. Updates on my reading challenges will be posted throughout the year on this page.

Reading goals:

When I thought about how I wanted to read this year, I came up with these general principles:

  1. read for enjoyment/comfort
  2. read to understand others, focusing on authors of color, LGBTQ, and books set in other countries
  3. read to learn about important issues, such as racial justice, current events, and history

Additionally, I’d ike to read with greater focus, paying deeper attention to how books are written and reading for quality rather than quantity.  One way to do this is by highlighting meaningful quotes and spending more time on reviews. 

In 2020 I avoided quarterly TBR lists and I mean to continue with that. It was one less thing to stress about, although I know for many, choosing what you read without a plan is stressful as well. What I mostly do is load up my library lists with what I’m interested in, put books on hold, and see when they come in. The downside to that approach is that those books come with a deadline and you have to resist taking out more than you can read. Plus I’m much more likely to read books that are on hold than books that are available whenever I want them, since the holds have other people waiting on them. In 2021, I’m going to make more effort to read books that aren’t on wait lists, which will also address my plan to read more “backlist” books. All too often I say “I need to read more by that author” but then something else catches my eye . 

Challenges:

In the Reading Nonfiction challenge by Book’d Out, you need to read nonfiction that falls into these categories:

  1. Biography
  2. Travel
  3. Self-help
  4. Essay Collection
  5. Disease
  6. Oceanography
  7. Hobbies
  8. Indigenous Cultures
  9. Food
  10. Wartime Experiences
  11. Inventions
  12. Published in 2021

Some of the nonfiction I hope to read this year: The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Sukla (essays), Eat a Peach by David Chang (food), Get Well Soon by Jennifer Wright (disease), and A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (wartime experiences). I haven’t identified books for the other categories yet.

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2020: Reflections on my year in reading and blogging

I’m about a week late in wrapping up my year — and what a week it’s been! It hardly matters what or how I read in 2020 at this point, but 2020 was such an unusual year it seems worth thinking about.

Things I missed in 2020: seeing family and friends, traveling and exploring new places. Things I didn’t miss in 2020: commuting, wearing makeup, office drama. Things I appreciated in 2020: slowing down, taking more time for myself and loved ones, taking long walks, learning new things, and tackling long-standing projects. One important thing about 2020, for me at least, was realizing you could connect with people in new ways, even if you weren’t in the same room.

My reading life in 2020:

In 2020, I read 128 books.  Here’s a breakdown of the major categories of books I read:

For the most part, I was surprised to find that my reading life in 2020 was pretty similar to the year before, despite all the changes that affected how I read: no travel, no commuting, no long reading lunches in my secret spot outside of work. Instead I read while walking, or baking, or cleaning the house. Sure, I read more romance novels and fewer classics, and maybe I had less concentration, but I still read things about topics that mattered.

My major change in 2020 was that I structured my reading life less. I threw out TBR lists, for the most part. I stacked my library hold lists and read whatever came through, and if I didn’t feel like reading it, I sent it back. I felt that took some pressure off and helped me enjoy reading more — and at the same time it didn’t keep me from reading books that challenged me.

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