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review 2020-06-04 21:30
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her - Melanie Rehak

I read this in college and it opened my eyes, on finding a copy on our first venture out this past weekend in a second hand shop I figured it was time to give it another go since I've read a few of the original Nancy Drews now.

 

 'Girl Sleuth' traces the history of the 'Nancy Drew' series from its genesis in a memo from the Stratemeyer Syndicate to the cultural momentum Nancy Drew had achieved by the end of the 20th century. The focus is on the original author of the series, Mildred Wirt Benson, and editor Harriet Adams Stratemeyer who shepherded the series and, infamously, revised the original books and claimed sole authorship for decades. 

 

The story is a fascinating one. It is very hard to feel sympathy for Adams, but Rehak does a fine job on Adams' background and restrictions and the hardships she faced as a woman in a man's industry. Benson, on the other hand, was an amazing woman who would be noteworthy even without her having ghost-written Nancy. A journalist, pilot and - though she refused the title - feminist who paved the way for many after her.

 

I would have liked there to have been more discussion of the racism and classism inherent in the books written in the '30s and '40s. How much was present in the Stratemeyer outlines that Benson couldn't deviate from, written by Harriet and her sister for the most part, and how much did Benson add? Rehak goes straight into the era when the books needed to be revised. Those images, stereotypes and ideas were a part of the times, but they were not mandatory. Did Benson ever make a statement of regret? Did Adams? 

 

Still a good read for those of us who can't get enough.

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review 2020-05-28 18:39
A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell
A Woman of No Importance - Sonia Purnell

This is an engaging book about a totally badass historical figure, though I’m left unconvinced that the author really had enough information to write a book about her.

Virginia Hall was an American woman who, during WWII, worked undercover in France for first the British and later the American intelligence agencies. She helped organize and arm the French Resistance, spied for the Allies, and later even directed guerilla activities herself. She faced incredible dangers to do so, and with about two years behind enemy lines, spent much more time in France than most operatives, despite the comrades regularly being hauled off by the Gestapo to be tortured and sent to death camps. She had plenty of adventures and near-misses, including once having to escape over the Pyrenees on foot in winter, an even more impressive feat given that she walked on a wooden leg after shooting herself in the foot years before.

Hall is certainly an impressive figure, and I am glad to have learned about her and enjoyed the book. After the first couple of chapters early on, relating the first 30-odd years of her life before sneaking into occupied France, the book is overwhelmingly focused on high-tension WWII exploits, and written in a fluid style that makes for quick reading. I’ve read my share of WWII books considering this is not my favorite subject, but I learned some new things here about the French Resistance, and the book introduces readers to numerous impressive men and women who risked and sometimes lost their lives fighting the Nazis.

That said, Hall herself – no surprise here – was secretive, and refused to share war stories even in later years with the niece to whom she was close, so I have some questions about where all the author’s information comes from. In particular, the author is quick to describe Hall’s thoughts and feelings about events without attributing them to any particular source, leaving me to suspect she made them up. Also, that same reticence on the part of the book’s subject left me confused about just how Hall was accomplishing the things she did. Somehow, Hall would arrive in a place where she knew no one, and despite Purnell’s repeated insistence that Hall was security-oriented and had no patience for loose-lipped operatives, within as little as two days she would have some new person apparently in on the secret, risking their life to accompany her on dangerous missions, while she risked hers in trusting them. Obviously Hall was an excellent judge of character since this virtually always worked out, but the book doesn’t give any sense of her methods, probably because the author doesn’t know.

I also came away with the sense that Purnell was perhaps a little too enamored of her subject, heavily criticizing anyone Hall didn’t get along with. It’s interesting that Hall’s career never really went anywhere except in occupied France: before the war she largely seems to have been held back in her attempted diplomatic career by gender prejudice, and it was at least partially the same story afterwards in her years with the CIA. However, I couldn’t entirely share the author’s indignation with the CIA’s failure to fully utilize Hall’s talents when during the decades after WWII the agency was busy toppling democratically-elected progressive leaders in Latin America to replace them with right-wingers who were friendly to American business interests and whose torture and murder of dissenters was pretty similar to the Nazis’ methods. While Hall’s having a desk job during those years doesn’t exempt her from her share of moral culpability – which Purnell never acknowledges – it at least lets the book focus instead on the straightforward excitement of the French Resistance years, with everything after that summed up in a single chapter at the end.

As an interesting and enjoyable book that introduced me to an impressive woman I would not otherwise have known about, I found this worth reading. But it’s sufficiently biased and speculative that I find it a bit difficult to recommend.

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review 2020-05-23 18:25
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence
Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature) - T.E. Lawrence,Angus Calder

I was aware before starting that this was a somewhat unreliable account of the exploits of Lawrence on the Eastern Front during WWI but the Introduction introduced such a level of scepticism that it tainted my reading; I was forever wondering what was true, what was exaggerated, what entirely fabricated. The veracity of the account was challenged in a publication of 1955 that I don't have. I'd have much prefered to read a critical edition that put the book in the context of the known history so that truth and fiction could be easily separated - I don't know if such a thing exists, though.

 

Lawrence is at his best when describing landscape and action, at his worst when being judgemental, whether it be about history, peoples or individuals. The first half fled fairly fast but the second was a struggle for most of its length. It turns out that camel rides and raids on railways and bridges can become repetative and dull. Interest was re-ignited when the Allies turn up in force and events become novel again.

 

I know very little about WWI; my main impressions of it come from two books; All Quiet on the Western Front and this. The contrast between the Western and Eastern conflicts could hardly be greater, on this basis. The mud, trenches, gas attacks, whole-sale slaughter and stalemate of France and Belgium feel like a different world from the rock, sand, guerilla warfare and endless gadding about by horse, camel, plane and (Rolls Royce) car that Lawrence describes in the Middle East. Lawrence's account is rarely in the slightest bit romanticised, though, and hunger, thirst, battle and death are treated in a most matter-of-fact manner that contrasts both with the myth of Lawrence of Arabia on the one hand and the deliberately political and horrifying verse of Sassoon and his fellow War Poets.

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text 2020-05-13 22:25
Reading progress update: I've read 603 out of 704 pages.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature) - T.E. Lawrence,Angus Calder

Plans go awry. Time to retreat as stealthily as they advanced.

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text 2020-05-11 02:23
Reading progress update: I've read 596 out of 704 pages.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Wordsworth Classics of World Literature) - T.E. Lawrence,Angus Calder

Aerial dog-fights, ground demolitions.

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