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alice network book chai red

It’s no secret I love a good spy story – especially if it features a badass female protagonist. This column originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.

Spies are paradoxically famous for flying under the radar. Both their livelihood and their success depend on remaining undetected. For women, their gender often provides an additional layer of disguise: many men overlook women or doubt them to be capable of a spy’s cunning and deceit. (They’re wrong.)

Kate Quinn’s 2017 novel The Alice Network brings to life the work of female spies in occupied France during World War I. The titular network revolves around whip-smart Alice Dubois (an alias, of course), who smuggles information up the Allied ranks via hairpins, skirt seams and her web of crackerjack female agents. Though Quinn’s protagonist Eve Gardiner is fictional, “Alice” and her compatriots really existed, and the novel is a fitting homage to their courage.

Spanish seamstress Sira Quiroga finds herself swept up and then abandoned by a charming man in Maria Duenas’s powerful novel The Time in Between. Stranded in Morocco, Sira hones her sewing skills and becomes a successful couturier whose designs eventually catch the eye of Nazi diplomats’ wives. As war swirls on the Continent, first in Spain and then everywhere, Sira passes coded information through her elegant gowns, stitching herself into the complex worlds of high fashion and espionage.

Mrs. Virgil (Emily) Pollifax is used to being underestimated: as a retired widow, she’s also downright bored. Presenting herself at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., she argues her way into a position as an undercover agent, launching an unorthodox career that has her crisscrossing continents throughout the Cold War (though her neighbors never know it). Dorothy Gilman’s series, which spans 14 novels, lives up to the name of its first book, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, in delightful fashion.

In fiction as in real life, female spies are often underrated–but their stories are reliably fascinating.

Who are your favorite lady spies – real or fictional?

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james baldwin quote books

Here in the middle of Black History Month, I have to start with a disclaimer: any reading list I can offer will be woefully incomplete.

I am reading more books by and about people of color these days, but I have a lot of catching up to do. While I recognize the gaps in my reading list, and the absurdity of highlighting black history during only one month of the year, I wanted to share a few titles that have helped me see beyond my own experience.

These books celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans, ask difficult questions about race and responsibility, and tell a good story – fiction or nonfiction. (For a list of great kids’ books on this theme, see my librarian friend Shelley’s recent post.)

Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly is the fascinating true story of the brilliant black women who worked for NASA (doing complicated math the likes of which I can’t imagine) during World War II, the Cold War and the space race. It focuses on their accomplishments but doesn’t minimize the discrimination they faced. I also loved the movie version, starring Octavia Spencer and a knockout cast. Meticulous research + engaging writing + fantastic real-life characters = a brilliant launch.

I’ve recently discovered the work of Tracy K. Smith, who was named U.S. poet laureate last summer. I read Smith’s new collection Wade in the Water (out in April) for review; it’s thought-provoking, often searing, with some gorgeous lines. Then I picked up her memoir, Ordinary Light, which I just finished. It’s beautifully written, and powerful. (I appreciated Smith’s admission that she didn’t want to deal with the hard truths about her heritage for a long time.)

I love young adult fiction, and I’ve recently read several spectacular novels that feature young black women:

  • Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham is a dual-narrative novel that tells the story of the Tulsa race riots of 1921 and also hits on present-day issues.
  • Nicola Yoon’s second novel, The Sun is Also a Star, has one protagonist who’s terrified she’s about to be deported back to Jamaica, where she can barely remember living, when she meets (and falls for) a Korean-American boy.
  • Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give needs no introduction from me. It’s a horrifying portrait of the aftermath of a shooting (from the viewpoint of a witness), but I also loved it for its rich, complicated depiction of family life.

An oldie but a goodie: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry was the first book I ever read (at around age 10) that featured a black protagonist who wasn’t a slave. Cassie Logan lives in Mississippi in the 1930s; her family owns their land, but is still dealing, every day, with the legacy of slavery, sharecropping and pervasive, damaging racism. I loved Cassie and her family, and my heart also broke for them every few pages. The sequel, Let the Circle Be Unbroken, is also great.

Fast forward to a recent discovery for me: Brittney Cooper, whose essay collection Eloquent Rage is out this week. Cooper tips her hat to bell hooks, Audre Lorde and other giants of black feminism, but her tone and approach are very much her own. So much here to ponder; so much that made me uncomfortable, for good reason.

I recently read A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality and the Law (out in March), a transcript of a conversation at NYU Law School by four leading black thinkers and activists: Sherrilyn Ifill, Loretta Lynch, Bryan Stevenson and Anthony C. Thompson. It’s short, but thought-provoking, and reminded me that I still need to read Stevenson’s Just Mercy.

You probably don’t need me to tell you about Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jacqueline Woodson, Jesmyn Ward or Colson Whitehead. Or about James Baldwin, whose quote (above) I found in the bathroom at McNally Jackson in NYC. Some of these authors are still on my to-read list. And they are only the beginning. I know, above all, that I still have so much to learn.

What are the most essential books you’ve read by and about people of color? Please share in the comments.

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the winter sea book cover lights bare feet

It’s still cold: it is January in Boston, after all, though most of our recent snow has melted. I’m switching between getting out in the weather (commuting, running, seeing friends) and curling up inside with good books. Here’s the latest roundup:

The Long Run: A Memoir of Loss and Life in Motion, Catriona Menzies-Pike
Menzies-Pike describes herself as a “gin-addled bookworm” who traded late nights for long runs, to her own surprise. She took up running almost on a whim, and it has transformed her sense of how she moves through the world. I recognized myself (I’m a novice runner) in this wry, insightful, whip-smart memoir about running, grief, moving forward, and the politics of running as a woman. Fantastic, and the perfect book for me right now.

The Winter Sea, Susanna Kearsley
Novelist Carrie McClelland heads to the ruins of Slains Castle, north of Aberdeen, to research her latest historical saga. She invents a heroine, naming her Sophia after a distant ancestor, but soon finds she’s writing down details she couldn’t have read elsewhere. Kearsley intertwines Carrie’s story with Sophia’s journey and the history of the Jacobites. Perfect midwinter reading – I loved the characters (especially the Countess of Erroll and Colonel Graeme), the romance and the setting.

Moxie, Jennifer Mathieu
I heard about this YA novel from Shelf Awareness, Sarah and Kari. Vivian is a good girl in small-town Texas who gets fed up with the egregious sexism at her high school from male students and administrators. Inspired by her mom’s Riot Grrrl zines, she makes her own – called Moxie – and starts a movement. I loved the fierce girl-power vibe, but also how messy and real it felt: Viv and her friends struggle to take a stand and reach across lines of race, class and cliques. Inspiring, fresh and often funny.

A Fountain Filled with Blood, Julia Spencer-Fleming
This sequel to In the Bleak Midwinter finds the Reverend Clare Fergusson and chief of police Russ Van Alstyne dealing with a rash of hate crimes in their small New York town. We learn more about their respective military experiences, and the plot deals (somewhat obliquely) with homophobia. Not as gripping as the first one, but I like these characters, especially Clare.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper
“Owning anger is a dangerous thing if you’re a fat Black girl like me,” Cooper writes. But she owns her rage in these powerful essays, with brilliance, bravery and wit. We need – I need – more voices like Cooper’s, as we grapple with questions about race in this country. She urges us to own our complicity, ask good questions and join the fight for justice. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Feb. 20).

I’ll Be Your Blue Sky, Marisa de los Santos
I adore de los Santos’ luminous novels about family, and loved this dual-narrative one about Clare, whom I know from Love Walked In. Days before her wedding, Clare meets an elderly woman named Edith, who gives her some wise advice (which leads to Clare calling off the wedding) and later leaves her a house and a mystery to solve. Lovely and insightful – vintage de los Santos – and I loved revisiting these familiar characters. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 6).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading this winter?

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In memory of Mary

mary tyler moore hat

A few years ago, soon after I moved to Boston, I fell completely in love with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I’d watched it occasionally in reruns as a child, but this time I checked the DVDs out from our library and savored every single episode. I love Lou Grant, Rhoda, Murray and the whole cast, but Mary Richards – sweet, spunky, hardworking, brave Mary – is my favorite.

I loved her chic wardrobe and cozy studio apartment. I laughed aloud at her eloquent facial expressions and quick wit. I cheered as she made her own way in a big city, forging a new career (as I was doing much the same thing). And I related in a deep and visceral way to the struggle between being a “nice girl,” staying true to yourself and your values, and standing up to sexism or other prejudices.

Mary belongs to my grandparents’ generation, and her show was popular in my parents’ youth. But much of what we’re fighting for, as women and as human beings, has not changed. (In the current political climate, this truth is coming home to me every single day.)

Mary Tyler Moore died this week, and I’ve been thinking about her – both the character I love and the actress who pushed television forward with her bold, funny, utterly real performance. She may have “turned the world on with her smile,” as the show’s theme song has it, but she also lit up the world with her courage, wit and grace.

Thank you, Mary. You made us laugh, you made us think and you made us brave. I think you made it after all.

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hidden figures book tea scone

Before “computer” came to mean a sophisticated calculating machine, it meant a person: someone with a firm grasp of numbers and their myriad practical applications in the real world. In the 1940s, as the U.S. rapidly expanded its flight program to fight the Axis Powers, the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Virginia tapped into a new source of computing power: a group of whip-smart, highly educated African American women.

For the next two decades, the “colored computers” applied their mathematical knowledge to solve problems of flight at Langley, first in aviation and eventually in the space race. Margot Lee Shetterly tells the previously unknown story of these women in her first nonfiction book, Hidden Figures.

Sixty years after the narrative of Hidden Figures begins, we are living in fraught times here in the U.S. Many voices are calling for respect, equality and civil discourse while other voices–which often seem louder–are trumpeting hatred, bigotry and violence. I don’t always know how best to add my own (white, privileged) voice to the chorus of the former. But I believe that listening to, and helping tell, the stories of people whose experiences are different from my own is a vital first step.

It’s my turn again at Great New Books today, and I’m raving about the brilliant, bold women of Hidden Figures. Please join me over there to read the rest of my review.

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strand bookstore awning nyc

My reading pace has been fairly slow (for me) this month. New apartment, still-new job, lots of other things crowding into my brain. But I’ve still found a few good books. Here they are:

A Sense of Wonder: The World’s Best Writers on the Sacred, the Profane and the Ordinary, ed. Brian Doyle
An eclectic, luminous, often demanding collection of essays first published in Portland Magazine. My favorites are by Heather King, Robin Cody and Pico Iyer, but they are all worth reading. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Sept. 15).

Crowned and Dangerous, Rhys Bowen
This 10th entry in Bowen’s Royal Spyness series, which I love, finds Lady Georgiana Rannoch unexpectedly in Ireland with her beau, Darcy, trying to exonerate his father of a murder charge. Frothy, fun and smart, like this entire series. (I adore Georgie.)

The House of Dreams, Kate Lord Brown
Journalist Sophie Cass interviews artist Gabriel Lambert about his experience as a refugee in Marseille during World War II. The true story of Varian Fry and others at the Emergency Rescue Committee, who worked tirelessly to get artists out of France, is fascinating. But the novel’s framing story was less so, and I did not like the ending. (I loved Brown’s previous novel, The Perfume Garden.)

Love for Sale: Pop Music in America, David Hajdu
Music critic (and self-professed music geek) Hajdu takes readers on a tour of pop music in the U.S., from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway, 45s to LPs to mixtapes and MP3s. Smart, entertaining and surprisingly deep. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

The Queen’s Accomplice, Susan Elia MacNeal
Mathematician-turned-spy Maggie Hope returns to WWII London and gets pulled onto a gruesome Scotland Yard case: a Jack-the-Ripper copycat serial killer targeting young professional women. I like Maggie (this is her sixth adventure), but this book was daaark. Also, the comments on the treatment of women felt heavy-handed. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 4).

Faithful, Alice Hoffman
Since the night of the accident that left her best friend in a coma, Shelby Richmond doesn’t believe she deserves to live. Faithful is the slow, rich, heartbreaking story of how Shelby finds her way, with help from her stalwart mother, a few stray dogs and a few highly unlikely friends. Bleak and gritty at times (Shelby messes up over and over), but also beautiful, and ultimately hopeful. Hoffman has written many books, but I’d never read her before. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Nov. 1).

The Boy is Back, Meg Cabot
Pro golfer Reed Stewart hasn’t been back to his Indiana hometown in a decade. But when his parents end up in the news (and in financial trouble), he returns to try and help out – which means facing his ex, Becky Flowers. Cabot tells this hilarious story through emails, texts and newspaper articles. Fluffy and really fun – smart chick lit. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

Wonder Women: 25 Inventors, Innovators and Trailblazers Who Changed History, Sam Maggs
We are hearing a lot lately (it’s long overdue!) about brilliant, brave women whose stories have been overlooked. Sam Maggs writes bite-size biographies of 25 such women in this snappy, girl-power book. The colloquial tone got a little wearing, but these women – inventors, spies, scientists – are amazing. Would pair well with Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which I loved. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 18).

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?

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greenlight bookstore window brooklyn

It is officially spring, but there’s snow in the forecast – so, naturally, I have stocked up on books. Here’s what I’ve been reading:

A Study in Charlotte, Brittany Cavallaro
Charlotte Holmes and Jamie Watson (descendants of that Holmes and Watson) end up at the same posh Connecticut boarding school. When a student they both despise is murdered, they join forces to clear their names and solve the case. I love a good Sherlock riff (see also: Mary Russell), and this one crackles with great dialogue and entertaining details. Bought at Greenlight on our recent NYC trip.

The Kite Fighters, Linda Sue Park
I enjoyed this gentle tale of two brothers preparing for a kite-fighting competition in 15th-century Korea. For the Reading Together Family Exploration Book Club (which Moira is hosting this month).

What Works: Gender Equality By Design, Iris Bohnet
Bohnet teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, where I’ve been temping. Her book uses (lots of) research to explore ways to improve equality and neutralize biases through organizational design. The research gets dry at times, but there are some fascinating case studies. (Watch the video for a quick précis.)

Salt to the Sea, Ruta Sepetys
The Wilhelm Gustloff sank in the Baltic Sea on Jan. 30, 1945, killing more than 9,000 soldiers and refugees. Sepetys brings this little-known tragedy to life through four young narrators: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse; Florian, a Prussian artist; Emilia, a pregnant Polish girl; and Alfred, a Nazi soldier. Vividly told and tensely compelling; I read it with my heart in my throat.

Night Driving: A Story of Faith in the Dark, Addie Zierman
Desperate for some warmth and light during a frigid Minnesota winter, Addie loads her two preschoolers into their van and takes off for Florida. Along the way, she explores what it means to reach the end of your easy certainties and light-filled metaphors relating to God. Powerful, honest and beautifully written.

Celia’s House, D.E. Stevenson
This is the story of Dunnian, a family estate in Scotland where the Dunnes have always lived. A sweet, multi-generational family saga (which begins with one Celia Dunne and ends with another). I love Stevenson’s gentle novels.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

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