Tag Archives: women

Our Mothers’ War by Emily Yellin

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In a way, I feel very lucky to have read Our Mothers’ War. The only women I’ve had significant contact with who lived through World War II (i.e., my husband’s and my grandmothers) haven’t exactly been the most willing to talk about that time of their lives. This is most likely because three of them were teenagers; the only one who was of age is my husband’s mother’s mother. The most I’ve been able to hear of her experiences of that time came when my husband’s cousin was asking questions of a genealogical nature. Because of this, I looked forward to gaining some insight into the lives of women during those times.

The first, and longest, section of the book was about the women left behind by a soldier in their life — whether it be a son, brother, husband, or boyfriend. It discussed the sacrifices made at home to make life less horrible for the soldiers. It also quoted from a lot of the letters passed back and forth between women at home and their men at the front, which I thought was pretty sweet. My only quibble with this part of the book was that there was little mention of men who got “Dear John” letters, or of men who had someone waiting at home who brought another love home from the war. I would have liked to learn a little more about that portion of life for the Greatest Generation.

The next couple of sections worked well together. They were about women who worked during the war and about women who served in the armed forces. The part that struck me the most was about the women who served in the WAACs, the WAVES, and the other women’s military groups. Not only were they faced with resentment over the type of work the majority of them were taking (secretarial and administrative work), which caused men who held those jobs to go to the front, but they faced unfair and false rumors about their behavior.

The most egregious example of this discrimination was an article published in a newspaper at the time that women going into the armed forces had sexual education training and were given condoms. The rumor was false; women working for the military were given no such education and were not given any sort of birth control. In fact, Yellin tells us, the rate of STDs among these women was almost zero, and the pregnancy rate was much lower than that of the women back home. The vast majority of the pregnancies that happened were the result of husbands and wives serving near each other. Yet these women faced comments from servicemen and Americans at home such as, “women who are serving, I have no use for them. They’re all prostitutes, in my opinion”. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be considered a prostitute for wanting to serve your country.

The last sections of the book talk about smaller groups of women in America and discusses the problems they faced (or, in one case, the problems they caused). African-American, Japanese-American, and Jewish-American women faced significant discrimination at home for wanting to help the war effort, or even to just be left alone. There were also Fascist women here who formed groups to push the prevention of intervention in the war on the European continent.

While I got a lot of interesting information and learned a lot, I did have two problems with Our Mothers’ War. The first problem is that the author kept her own opinions about the majority of the groups of women out of her writing until she gets to parts about “undesirable” women, such as prostitutes who worked in Hawaii. She then pushes a certain type of feminism that doesn’t happen to be mine, and it drove me nuts. I didn’t feel that I needed to be preached to while I was learning about the conditions these women lived in.

My other problem with Yellin is in the other direction. She presents primary sources to give us information, but she fails to create a story about women during WWII. The vast majority of her writing would be better suited to an academic summary of the topic, not a book intended for popular consumption. It would have been nice to read something that was a little more narative.

Our Mothers’ War provides good information. It just would be nice for it to be better suited to the intended audience.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Having read The Curse of Chalion, the first in the Chalion series by Lois McMaster Bujold, I expected that Paladin of Souls would be a continuation of the story of Lupe dy Cazaril, or, perhaps, of the new rulers of Chalion.  What it is, instead, is the story of Ista, the mother of Iselle, the current female ruler of Chalion-Ibra.  It is a surprising, and rewarding, turn of subjects, yet still provides the reader with the best of what The Curse of Chalion offered, as well:  a sturdy and compelling fantasy that asks the reader to think through its mysteries and confront real philosophical questions.

Ista, a woman who used to be under the grip of a familial curse released a couple of years ago, chafes under the constant watch of her ladies-in-waiting, her brother, her counselor … everyone in her home treats her with kid gloves and doesn’t allow her any leeway, despite her return to relatively normal behavior.  Determined to extract herself from this oppressive environment, she takes on a pilgrimage to the capital city to visit her daughter, son-in-law, and her grandchild.  Added to the façade is her claim to wish to perform pilgrimage on the way to pray for a son for Iselle while secretly pleading for absolution for a former heinous deed.

Of course, things don’t go as planned.  What fun would a fantasy novel be if everything were easy and simple?  Instead of having a Mother’s dedicat, Ista receives dy Cabon, a man dedicated to the Bastard instead.  Her party is small and is attacked by foreign forces — they are split up, with some ending up in Porifors.  There, Ista finds that she is thrust back into the world of the gods, re-granted second sight and entrusted by the tricky Bastard how to best help in a situation desperate in ways both physical and spiritual.

To me, Bujold’s writing is almost perfect.  Her understanding of people and their reactions, and the ways she chooses to depict them, are spot-on.  The dangerous parts are exciting, the mysteries contained within are challenging but approachable, and her exploration of fate and what it would mean to have something like a constrained free will is very interesting indeed.

Especially compelling to me was the fact that the heroine, Ista, is not a high-spirited young lady.  She’s middle-aged, used to being thought of as mad, and, quite frankly, is ruthlessly efficient in what she does.  She’s not your typical fantasy heroine, and I like that very much.  She has experience with the gods and doesn’t want to have more, necessarily, but is thrust into it anyway.  Seeing the advantage she has been granted, she uses it.  She’s a thinker, as well, which endears her to me.

But perhaps the best part about her journey is a comment Ista’s character makes toward the end of the book to a man she has restored and who doubts his ability to start afresh:  “‘I offer you an honorable new beginning.  I do not guarantee its ending.  Attempts fail, but not as certainly as tasks never attempted.'”  This resonates with me for a number of reasons.  I think it’s the most honest piece of advice I’ve seen in a book in a while.

Paladin of Souls is simply a beautiful book.  Ista is a character of character — she has struggles with herself as to what the right thing to do is, but once she’s figured it out, she doesn’t let anything stand in the way of performing her duty.  An awesome role model whose tale is masterfully told, and whose story is worth reading.

Rating: 5/5.

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The Convent by Panos Karnezis

Panos Karnezis’s The Convent is a different sort of literary pseudo-mystery.  Usually, if there’s a baby in a convent, the focus is on figuring out who the mother is among the nuns.  Karnezis manages to create a story that pulls the focus off that end, making the eventual reveal more honest and enjoyable than a more direct hunt for the mother would be.

The first thing I have to say is that The Convent is beautifully written.  His description has a wonderful quality of being detailed without pushing through the reader’s ability to imagine the location on their own, which I love.  The characters’ behaviors are strongly depicted, their actions at once predictable and surprising.

Karnezis only has us follow a couple of characters throughout the book, which makes the eventual end of the story more interesting.  The Mother Superior, Sister María Inés, is the main character.  She is a complex women, with a sad past that colors her reaction to the sudden appearance of a baby on the doorstep of the convent.  The baby, enclosed in a ventilated suitcase, is seen by her as a sign from God.  Karnezis uses her to explore the lengths to which a person can go due to their beliefs, no matter how misguided.  He does this well, but I also felt that some of her behavior is stretched to the almost-unbelievable, especially her behavior after being attacked by a dog in the yard of the convent.

We occasionally get to see into the mind of Sister Ana, Sister María Inés’ main antagonist.  Her mental state is about as unsettled as the Mother Superior’s, but she seems to have no reason to be so suspicious and mistrustful of almost everyone.  A little more about her background would be wonderful.

The last character we get to know is Bishop Estrada, the man who oversees the convent.  Living far away, he visits occasionally and is a mostly-benevolent presence in the nuns’ lives.  He plays an instrumental role on what happens to the baby.  He is a voice of reason and moderation for the nuns, but is not without his own personal motives.

These characters shape our understanding of the world of the book.  This leads to a surprising climax and interesting denouement, which I rather enjoyed.  The early revelation of the Mother Superior’s secret makes one feel that the story is about her, especially since we follow her so closely.  And, in a way, it is about her and her reaction to the arrival of the child.  But it is the story that is hidden in the end that is truly interesting to me, mostly because it’s about people who struggle to maintain their faith when faced with temptation and how they deal with the consequences.

It’s this story that is infinitely more interesting to me than the increasingly unhinged behavior of Sister María Inés and Sister Ana.  The friction between them, and their actions, feel too extreme to me to make The Convent more than a good story written excellently.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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We Band of Angels by Elizabeth M. Norman

Being a product of a public school education in the late nineties, I have a lamentable lack of knowledge of World War II in the Pacific.  My history classes usually stopped somewhere around the 1920s.  If they didn’t, and actually reached World War II, all we were exposed to was the European theater.  No one in my eighth grade history class knew the leader of Japan during the war, and few even knew that China was to any extent involved.  Thus, I was so happy to find a book that discusses the Pacific theater, and even happier that it’s also about women in the service.

Elizabeth M. Norman starts the book off with some flowery language that seemed, to me, a bit superfluous.  If a word outside the average person’s vocabulary is truly the only one that suits the situation, then, for all means, use it.  In my opinion, though, if a simpler, more easily-understood word will fit the situation well, then that’s the word to use.  There’s no reason to obfuscate the reader.  See?  I just did it there.  Why not use confuse, which gets the point of the sentence across more quickly?  While the book is by no means a fluff read, it’s not a doctoral thesis, either.

Luckily, the vocabulary lesson ends fairly quickly.  Norman shows us the life of the nurses in Manila before the war, a plush existence for people in the armed services.  The rude awakening the American and Philippine troops had once the Japanese began their attack on the islands is depicted rather astutely, reflecting the naive mindset most of the nurses had.

In fact, this is one of the most important points of the book.  The nurses may have been unprepared for the realities of war, but they quickly adapted to most, if not all, the situations they were thrust into.  They treated patients in extreme circumstances, both soldiers when they were still able to have American “hospitals”, and civilians when thrust into civilian internment camps.  Their story is almost incredible when one considers the amount of strength, both physical and mental, it must have taken to live through the conditions they faced, and Norman does a nice job of telling their stories without romanticizing the women.  Sure, they’re devoted and resilient, but they also can be cold, or prone to depression, or controlling, or just plain grumpy.

One other thing about the book bothers me; it’s a personal peeve, I guess.  Norman jumps from person to person within chapters, sections, and even pages.  Due to this, I don’t feel like I got a cohesive image of any one woman; their lives run together for me.  I had to take time to remember salient facts about a particular woman.  I think this could have been made easier for the reader by following particular women for good chunks of the book.  Other readers might like the more eclectic gathering of the women’s accounts, but I found it a little disorienting.

In the end, We Band of Angels provided me with more knowledge on the Pacific front of World War II, and it also gave me something just as valuable — insight as to what it was like to be pioneers in the realm of gender equality.  These women are admirable, and I enjoyed reading about their experiences.

Rating: 4/5.

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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

I guess I should have learned my lesson by now — don’t judge a book by its movie.  Girl, Interrupted came out when I was in high school.  Winona Ryder played Susanna Kaysen.  She portrayed Susanna as a relatively normal woman who managed to be railroaded into a stay in McLean Hospital for mental health treatment, while Angelina Jolie played Lisa, another girl in the institution, as a complete nut.  The true story Kaysen tells about her own life is more nuanced than that, which I am thankful for.  It doesn’t, however, make her story more interesting to me.

First, the good part:  Kaysen writes a lot about what she thought about — and still thinks about.  It’s amazing to see what goes through her mind.  It’s also surprising that we’re allowed in there, since the movie led me to believe she was in McLean simply because of a series of misunderstandings.  From reading her exposition, however, it’s obvious that’s not the case.  Kaysen has some seriously abnormal mental processes.  Her thoughts are scattered and, at some points, downright frightening to read.

The upside of this, though, is that she has wonderful insight into the nature of what is considered sane and insane.  She makes the point that homosexuality was once considered a mental illness, listed in the DSM, and implies that she hopes borderline personality disorder (her diagnosis) will at some point be removed, as well.  I think this is doubtful.

Another part of the book that drove me nuts was the claim she was railroaded into institutionalized treatment.  I found this hard to believe after learning how she, along with the rest of the patients, spent time manipulating and lying to the staff of the hospital.  My experience is that, if a person is good at manipulating others, they are also good at spotting when they themselves are being manipulated.  I find it hard to believe that she didn’t know where she was going or why she was going.  I find it even harder to believe that she couldn’t figure a way out of it had she not, somewhere inside her, wanted to go.

The one other thing that drove me nuts was Kaysen’s story structure.  She tells her tale in a mostly-linear fashion, but some stories occur that feature someone as a background character after we have read the story about their death or their release.  I didn’t care for that.  I suspect she might have experienced these stories, or remembers them, in the same order she presents them.  It’s part of her reality that I don’t care to share.

With that said, I did really like most of the substance of her book.  I enjoyed greatly her character studies of the other patients and of staff members.  I thought the recounted tales of their exploits, both large (Lisa’s escapes) and small (lying about sexual behavior to the psychiatrist) were both entertaining and telling about what life in a mental institution can do to someone.  Her insight into so many different aspects of mental illness, relationships, and the society of the 1960s is so good.  I wish she were able to do a better job with how much control she gives her mental illness and a more consistent stance on whether it does or does not impair her behavior.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Historical fiction, unless it specifically centers around politics or military campaigns, seems to be a feminine genre.  Hence, there tends to be quite a few books labeled as historical fiction that are, for all intents and purposes, truly romance novels.  Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus rises above that tendency.  The reader is allowed to explore art, religion, and politics in a fifteenth-century Italian city-state, as well as enjoy a rather tense coming-of-age story.

The Birth of Venus tells the story of Alessandra Cecchi, the younger daughter of a well-to-do Florentine cloth merchant.  Unlike her sister, Plautilla, Alessandra is not a cheerfully conventional girl; unlike her brother Luca, she is intelligent and loves learning.  But it is her brother Tomaso who is truly her adversary, all the more dangerous for his cleverness.  They go back and forth, exchanging cruelties, until their rivalry reaches a pinnacle that threatens both of them.

Alessandra is also a very curious girl.  She’s educated and sharp.  She also enjoys sketching and painting, which, at the time of her early childhood in Florence, meant that she was not exactly encouraged, but not forbidden it, either.  The Medicis have encouraged the arts, and, in truth, it has become a decadent city.

This is one of the things I enjoyed about this book — the political and religious climate of the city very much shapes the options and behaviors of the characters.  Alessandra’s art is tolerated in her childhood, but by the time she is married, most art by people of either sex is condemned for its ostentatious and heretical nature.  Women, under Savonarola’s regime, are restricted in what they are allowed to do.  For someone like Alessandra, who is driven to learn and to do, this is an unbearable way to live.

She also becomes hampered in other ways.  Her rivalry with Tomaso, combined with the perceived threat invading French troops cause for the city’s young virgins, leads her to a loveless marriage with Tomaso’s older gay lover.  Though they get along and appreciate each other in an intellectual sense, Tomaso holds Alessandra’s husband’s heart, which hurts her deeply.  The hasty marriage also causes the loss of her beloved, a painter who was a former monk.

It’s a fantastic plot, for the most part.  Granted, it is a little like a romance novel, but it reads like an intelligent one.  My main problem with the book is that it tends to toss things in and not tie them together in satisfactory ways.  There is a subplot, for example, about gruesome murders taking place within the city in or near churches.  While it’s interesting, and provides some mood, it’s puzzling as to why Alessandra would come to find out about them in all their grisly glory when she was deemed too innocent to learn about sex.  Was there something about the Florentine culture that made violence more acceptable to expose to teenage girls?  Perhaps sex was considered more dangerous.  I have no idea, but it’s just one of the little things that made me furrow my brow a bit.

I also was a little taken aback by the African slave, Erila.  I liked the fact that she was an intelligent, savvy individual who was a steadfast and loyal friend.  What made me so surprised was that, while the Cecchi family owned slaves, they treated them the same or better than their servants.  It struck me as a little uncommon, to say the least.

While there are these shortcomings, I thought The Birth of Venus to be a rather good piece of lighter fiction.  It gives just enough substance to make you think a little bit, but not so much that it’s inappropriate for summer poolside reading (which is what I used it for).

Rating: 3.5/5.

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Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders appears, on first glance, to be a standard piece of historical fiction geared toward women.  It features a strong heroine.  It spends a lot of its time dealing with tasks that are traditionally considered to be those of women: cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, tending to the sick.  There’s some romance.  There’s the always-popular witch hunt when people become ill.  Yet to dismiss this book as simply another piece of historical fiction is to miss the extraordinary storytelling Brooks displays here.

Year of Wonders tells the story of a small English mining town beset by plague.  Anna Frith, our heroine, is a young wife and mother who escaped an abusive childhood home to find a short amount of happiness with Sam before her husband is killed in a mining accident, leaving her with two young boys.  She later takes in a lodger to make ends meet, who turns out to be carrying the plague.  Soon, her boys are both gone, and the village is taken in a wave of disease no one can stop.  The village, spurred by their minister, Michael Mompellion, takes the drastic step of sealing themselves off from the world, to avoid the spread of the disease.

A pretty standard story, after all.  I’ve heard it told before.  What makes Year of Wonders unique in a crowded field is Brooks’ gift for character development.  Anna is a full-rounded person, with a quickness of mind and a caring heart.  Yet she also takes some questionable actions, such as allowing her father to suffer when he is convicted of stealing from an ill man.  In other words, she’s human.  It’s interesting to be in her head and to see the events in the village unfold before her eyes.

Many of the other female characters are the same way.  Anys, the town’s younger healing woman, is brusque, yet, through her actions, Brooks indicates that she cares about the people she treats.  Elinor Mompellion, Michael Mompellion’s wife, is mild and gentle, but not without her secrets.  Brooks excels at showing us women in their entirety, which is better than most writers can manage.

Brooks’ word choice and description is wonderful, as well.  Her writing has a tone that is approachable, for the most part, but also contains vocabulary and phrasing that indicate to the reader the book is about a different time and a different place.

My main problem with Year of Wonders is in the development of some of the male characters.  Some fell a little flat.  I suppose they really aren’t the focus of the book, but it would be nice if they were their own people.  The only one I found compelling for a good amount of the book was Mr. Mompellion, but by the end of the book, I had little interest in him.  It’s too bad.  Their actions might have been more interesting if we knew about them as we went along, instead of afterward, like the childhood of Anna’s father, or not at all, such as her dead husband, Sam.

On the whole, though, Year of Wonders is a very good historical novel.  It felt well-thought-out, smooth, and realistic.  Those three things go quite a ways to making a book a worthy read, which this definitely is.

Rating: 4/5

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