skygiants: (wife of bath)
I didn't deliberately read up on seventeenth-century English history history in preparation for A Skinful of Shadows; it was just a fortunate coincidence that I'd just finished Aphra Behn: A Secret Life right beforehand (thanks to [personal profile] saramily, who came into possession of the book and shoved it into my hands.)

The thing about the English Civil War and everything that surrounds it is that it's remarkably difficult to pick a team, from the modern perspective. On the one side, you've got Puritans and repressive morality and NO PLAYS OR GOOD TIMES FOR ANYONE, but also democracy and egalitarianism and a rejection of the divine right of kings and the aristocracy! On the other side, you've got GLORY IN THE DIVINELY ORDAINED KING AND THE PERFECTION OF THE ESTABLISHED SOCIAL ORDER, but also people can have a good time every once in a while and make sex jokes if they feel like it.

Anyway, one fact that seems pretty certain about Aphra Behn is that she grew up during the Interregnum and wrote during the Restoration, and was very much on Team Divine Kings Are Great. Would Puritans let a woman write saucy plays for the stage? NO SIRREE, NOT AT ALL, three cheers for the monarchy and the dissolute aristocracy!

There aren't all that many facts that are certain about Aphra Behn, especially her early years -- the first several chapters of this book involve a lot of posed hypotheticals about who she might have been, how she might have got her start, and who might have recruited her into the spying business. It does seem fairly certain she was a spy: code name Astrea, Agent 160. (Me, to [personal profile] aamcnamara, after seeing Or last month: "I don't know that I buy all that Agent 160 business, there's no way that was something they did in the 1660s!" I apologize for doubting you, Liz Duffy Adams.)

Admittedly she was the kind of spy who spent most of her spy mission stuck in a hotel in Antwerp writing irritated letters back to King Charles' intelligence bureaucracy, explaining that she would happily continue with her spying mission and do all the things they wished her to do if only they would send her enough money to PAY HER DANG HOTEL BILL. (They did not.)

Besides her unpaid expense reports, most of what is known about Aphra Behn comes from her context and her publications, and the things she wrote in them -- only some of which can absolutely definitively be traced to her at all; several of her short stories and novellas are disputed, including one of the ones I found most interesting, "Love-Letters Between A Nobleman And His Sister." This early three-volume novel is extremely thinly-veiled RPF about a wildly trashy historical trial involving King Charles' illegitimate son, his best friend, the best friend's wife, and the best friend's sister-in-law. All of these people then went on to be involved in a major rebellion, which the second and third volume of "Love-Letters" cheerfully fictionalizes basically as it was happening, in the real world.

One of the first English novels ever written by a woman [if it was indeed written by Aphra Behn], and arguably the first novel written EVER, and it's basically one of Chuck Tingle's political satires. This is kind of amazing to me.

OK, but back to things we think we're fairly sure we do know about Aphra Behn! She wrote a lot about herself talking, and about men judging her for how much she talked; she wrote a lot of things that were extremely homoerotic; she also wrote a lot about impotence; she was often short on money; she cheerfully stole other people's plots, then got mad when people accused her of stealing other people's plots; she rarely wrote anything that was traditionally romantic, and most of her work seems to have an extremely wicked bite to it. She did not read Latin, which did not stop her from contributing to volumes of translations of things from Latin. She was almost certainly not a member of the nobility, but she believed in divine right, and divine order, and divine King Charles, even though it seems likely from her writing that she did not believe personally in religion, or God, and the King probably never did pay her bills. An extremely interesting and contradictory person, living in an interesting and contradictory time.

And now I think I need to go find a good biography of Nell Gwyn - she's barely relevant to this biography (Aphra Behn dedicated a play to her, but there's no other information available about their relationship) and yet Janet Todd cannot resist throwing in a couple of her favorite historical Nell Gwyn one-liners and they're all SO GOOD.
skygiants: Kozue from Revolutionary Girl Utena, in black rose gear, holding her sword (salute)
I happened to see on Twitter that today was the 30th anniversary of The Princess Bride, which I guess makes it a good day to post about As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride.

This is Cary Elwes' memoir of the making of the film, a book I had vaguely meant to read for years, but did not actually get around to until our new roommate left his copy in the house this summer as a sort of placeholder before actually moving in. It's very charming! I'd sort of always had a vague sense that Cary Elwes must in some way resent being forever branded as The Man In Black, and I'm sure that at some points he has and does, but this write-up is probably the most overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic Hollywood making-of memoir I've ever read. It's clearly intended for people who love the film and want to go on loving it, without a complicated feeling in sight.

My favorite part was probably the enthusiastic things that Cary Elwes and everyone interviewed had to say about Robin Wright and her acting as Buttercup; they're all like "we sailed through on jokes! playing the straight man is the hardest role in the cast! ALSO SHE CAME FROM SOAP OPERAS, SOAP OPERAS ARE SO HARD, DO YOU KNOW HOW MANY LINES PER DAY --" I went in braced to feel vaguely defensive of Robin Wright and Buttercup, as I so often do, and instead I was charmed and endeared!

I also enjoyed accounts of:
- Mandy Patinkin turning up to the first rehearsal with six months of sword practice under his belt, much to Cary Elwes' dismay
- William Goldman freaking out about Rob Reiner setting the leading lady on fire
- Andre the Giant accidentally conking Cary Elwes out on set
- Cary Elwes carefully arranging himself on the grass in an elegant lounging position to hide that he'd broken an ankle joyriding in a golf card
- so much detailed description of sword training and fight choreography! *__* SO MUCH
skygiants: Katara from Avatar: the Last Airbender; text 'just kicked butt' (katara kicks butt)
Code Name Pauline: Memoirs of a World War II Special Agent is a compilation of oral history interviews with Pearl Witherington Cornioley, behind-the-lines SOE agent in France during WWII, packaged up into a YA nonfiction narrative.

Pearl's story is as fascinating as all the other stories about WWII female secret agents I've read, with the bonus that it's barely crushingly depressing at all! Pearl started out as a courier, posing as a traveling cosmetics saleswoman and working with an old school friend of hers who was running the SOE Stationer network -

(sidenote; she'd also been the one to recommend that her old school friend sign up for secret intelligence to begin with, and then was like 'yes now that I've set that up I'll pop on over to join his network now, thanks')

(sidenote 2; she'd also managed to somehow smuggle a secret message to her fiance Henri, a French soldier who had just escaped from German POW camp, and get him in contact with the Stationer network as well, so literally as soon as she parachuted in her boss was like "HEY WELCOME TO FRANCE HERE'S YOUR BOYFRIEND I'll just .... leave you two alone a bit")

- but eventually her boss was arrested by the Gestapo. Fortunately, Pearl had dragged several other members of the network out for a picnic that day, so they all escaped!

Then D-Day happened and Pearl was like "well, I guess it is now my job to be in charge of organizing all British supply drops and getting weapons and money to the French underground resistance, and no one else seems to be sabotaging the Germans around here, so ..... I guess that's what we're doing now?"

And that's how Pearl ended up being in charge of several thousand Maquis soldiers! With Henri playing support.

(There's a couple of Henri interviews in the back and they are mostly taken up with the story of how he rescued a baby bunny while retreating from the Germans and brought it along with him through numerous battles until they were about to be captured, at which point he was like 'FLY FREE, MY RABBIT FRIEND! SAVE YOURSELF!' "And that was the only life I saved during the war." BLESS.

There's also a very cute bit that the interviewers put in dialogue, because they also obviously found it super cute, where Pearl is like "ugh I get so mad when people say the men followed me because I was pretty" and Henri is like "BUT YOU WERE, YOU WERE SO PRETTY" and Pearl is like "I WAS NOT AND ALSO THAT'S NOT THE POINT.")

I have not yet managed to get my hands on Nancy Wake's autobiography, but I would love to compare/contrast -- they played very similar roles during the war in organizing Maquis during the liberation of France, but while Nancy Wake seems to have made no bones about being a very front-lines combatant (strangling soldiers with her bare hands, etc.) Pearl spends a lot of time in her account strongly disclaiming active heroism and emphasizing the logistics and support elements of her role. Could she have killed somebody herself if she had to? Well, gosh, she's so glad she never had to find out, that wasn't her job at all!

But I mean, Pearl also starts out early on in her narrative explaining that she is very conflict-averse and dislikes argument above all things, and then goes on to describe, in addition to extensive amounts of fighting with the Germans:

- fighting with the entire French government when it looked like they weren't going to give any of her Maquis any medals because they were technically working under the British rather than the French (ง'̀-'́)ง
- fighting with the entire English government when they tried to give her a civil Order of the British Empire rather than a military one because "there was nothing remotely 'civil' about what I did" (ง'̀-'́)ง
- fighting with the head of SOE after he accused a trusted French colleague of hers of being a double agent due to a misunderstanding and then failed to apologize -- "as Colonel Buckmaster is kind enough to visit me each time I come to Paris, can you ask him to alert me next time and I'll ask [the dude who was falsely accused] to come too?" (ง'̀-'́)ง (AND HER OLD BOSS NEVER VISITED HER AGAIN)
- fighting yet again with the English government when they wouldn't let her wear parachute wings, because she'd only jumped four times instead of five, "SO I JUST WORE THEM ANYWAY" (ง'̀-'́)ง (the editor is like 'we don't know where or how she got a pair to wear? but apparently she did?')

What I'm saying is I take Pearl's description of her own retiring conflict-averse shyness with a grain of salt.
skygiants: Fakir from Princess Tutu leaping through a window; text 'doors are for the weak' (drama!!!)
Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age is a fairly fascinating book that's trying to do a lot of things at once: the book starts out with the dramatic recounting of MURDER!!! and then immediately takes, if not a deep dive, at least a vigorous swim through such varied topics as the history of British radio and the BBC, Keynesian economic philosophy, copyright limitations, and the founding of Sealand in order to contextualize it.

Once we get back to the story of the murder itself, however, it turns out: IT'S BONKERS. The principals in the case are two pirate radio impresarios in 1966. Oliver Smedley, An Ardent Free-Trade Capitalist, was running a station called Radio Atlanta on a boat off the coast; Reggie Calvert, A Dance Hall Impresario, had taken over an entire abandoned British navy fort called Shivering Sands in the Thames Estuary and staffed it with a rotating encampment of youths running a station called Radio City. At one point Smedley and Calvert were going to have a merger, but then they had an ACRIMONIOUS BREAKUP spurred on in part by:

- the fact that Smedley was supposed to give Calvert a shiny new transmitter and instead provided an old one that never worked
- the fact that Smedley never paid all the bills he had promised Calvert that Radio Atlanta would pay
- the fact that Calvert got sick of all this and decided to merge with another station instead

The reason for all these pirate radio stations on boats and naval forts, by the way, is because in 1966 there was no legal pop radio in the UK (as explained, extensively, via the history of radio and Keynesian economic theory etc. that makes up the first half of the book). Because the pirates were technically outside of UK territory, on the other hand, they could technically get away with doing whatever they wanted, or at least the government like "it will be way too embarrassing to launch a huge naval raid against a bunch of youths on was a fort with a radio transmitter, so let's not."

HOWEVER, the fact that everything was happening outside of territorial waters where British laws and police had no jurisdiction BACKFIRED when:

- Ardent Free-Trade Capitalist Smedley decided he was so mad that Calvert had made a deal without him that he was going to MAKE SURE that the deal could never go through
- he was going to GET BACK HIS PROPERTY [the transmitter that had never worked]
- so he sent an ACTUAL OCCUPYING FORCE composed of out-of-work dockworkers to Shivering Sands, stole a bunch of key broadcasting equipment, took a bunch of it back to the mainland, and left a bunch of toughs to hold everybody who was on the station at that time hostage!!!
- (when they met the invading force, the hostage broadcasters were like 'welp' and made everybody tea)
- ("the vessel had to return briefly to pick up [the contractor who recruited the gang], who had been left behind drinking his tea")
- and then Smedley went to Calvert and his partner, an actual professional broadcaster, and was like 'I will not let you broadcast from there again or finish making your deal unless you pay me FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS'

Naturally, everyone involved was like 'wtf????' and refused to pay Smedley a dime; Calvert threatened to involve the police but the police were like 'ummmmmm technically we can't do anything for the same reasons we haven't been able to stop you from broadcasting;' Calvert then made a whole bunch of other even wilder threats; and all the hired dockworkers sat around cheerfully charging Smedley for hostaging operations which he was rapidly running out of money for.

Anyway, in the middle of all this, Calvert drove out to Smedley's house in the middle of the night and started screaming at him, and Smedley shot him and then claimed self-defense and that his HOSTILE OCCUPATION OF A POP RADIO STATION was just a little joke gone wrong! No harm no foul if only Calvert hadn't been so UPSET about it! It did help Smedley's self-defense case that Calvert happened to be carrying A FAKE PEN FULL OF NERVE GAS at the time, which apparently, according to his family, he always carried around just for safekeeping. the author's point in writing about all this seems to be that a.) this incident was crucial in getting the pirate radio boats shut down and the formation of the current BBC radio system that includes actual pop radio, b.) that this is all a forerunner of later copyright battles and offshore data centers and so on, c.) pirate-radio-on-boats in the 1960s was a WILD TIME. About the latter, at least, he is most surely not mistaken.

(This has nothing to do with the main brunt of the book but I have to spare a mention for Radio City's chief engineer, who later was hired by the mob! to perform an assassination attempt!! using a spring-loaded hypodermic needle full of cyanide!!! in what it turns out was ACTUALLY a sting operation by the U.S. Treasury department who picked the hapless Radio City engineer to act as the assassin because "he needed the fee while being clearly incapable of killing anybody"!!!! This whole incident gets two pages in the book because it's somewhat irrelevant to the author's argument but seriously, where is this guy's movie?

For the record, the same mobsters then tried to intimidate Reggie Calvert's widow into selling them the remnants of the station and she was like 'lol no' and they were like '....well, when a lady knows her own mind, she knows her own mind! No hard feelings.')
skygiants: the Phantom of the Opera, reaching out (creeper of the opera)
Catching a chunk of the Tony Awards the other night (bless Bette Midler, who WILL NOT BE SILENCED) reminded me that I never wrote up Razzle Dazzle: The Battle for Broadway, a nonfiction account of (primarily) the Shubert Organization, Broadway's largest theater-owning company, with stopovers into the offices of other leading Broadway financiers along the way.

The book starts out with Broadway ticket-scalping scandals, jumps back to a overview of the lives of the original Shubert brothers, and lays out the drama of various generations of hard-partying Shuberts eventually being ousted by Responsible, Respectable Lawyers Jerry Schoenfeld and Bernie Jacobs.

Then Michael Bennett, legendary choreographer of A Chorus Line, enters the picture and the whole book gets sort of carried off by him for a while. A great deal of page space is devoted to the psychodramatic relationship between Bennett and Jacobs -- as recounted in this book, a wildly unhealthy pseudo-father-son dynamic in which Jacobs constantly attempted to ensure Bennett's emotional and financial dependence on Jacobs while Bennett was constantly attempting to break away and BE A PRODUCER ON HIS OWN, DAD. An excerpt featuring further Michael Bennett drama, including one of history's most melodramatic Tony Awards, is up in Vanity Fair for the curious.

And then it's Andrew Lloyd Webber and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Andrew Lloyd Webber, alongside an in-depth discussion of the various political and financial campaigns that eventually led to the Disneyfication of Broadway after its days of 1970s sleaze, and that brings us about up to the present day.

It's an interesting, rather gossippy account of the money, organizational politics, and personal quirks that underlie the eventual decisions about what makes it onto a theater stage; I read the whole thing and then left it in the airbnb I was staying in when I finished it, because I felt I had taken what I wanted from it and couldn't really imagine wanting to read it again. It's certainly interesting to know how the sausage is made, but it's occasionally a bit depressing to look at Broadway largely from the perspective of the people for whom profit is the most important consideration.
skygiants: Mary Lennox from the Secret Garden opening the garden door (garden)
I have a confession: I am not a science person. It's an odd kind of mental block. I always liked history, and I actually also liked math, and it always seemed like therefore I should be able to master science too -- I mean, science is basically just math + story, right? And I'm good at both those things! But somehow I could never even build a mousetrap car that worked correctly, let alone wrapping my head around the more complex aspects of physics or biology. My glass-ceiling-shattering neurologist mother was always nice enough not to seem too obviously disappointed by this.

Anyway, Lab Girl -- a memoir about geochemist/geobiologist Hope Jahren's career in science, interspersed with descriptions of the scientific weirdness of botany -- was our book club pick a few months back. I didn't actually make it to that round of book club, but I read the book later on anyway.

...and I'm going to be honest: the book is compellingly written, botany is undeniably weird and interesting when looked at objectively, and yet when reading this book, I still found myself impatient to shove through the straight botany sections to get to the actual memoir story. I'm sorry! Science writing is cool, I just find it personally challenging, I don't know what's wrong with me.

("But just a couple weeks ago you were going on about how cool the alien linguistic morphology was in Embassytown" -- yes I know and for some reason it doesn't apply when it's made-up science! I don't know why this is!!! I guess I just find it more impressive when other humans come up with this stuff than when evolution/God/forces beyond our control do??? "My brain could do that! Except, of course, it doesn't.")

....and once again when trying to write about a memoir I find myself writing a post that's more about me than the book. It's a solid memoir! Jahren is pulling together a couple of story-threads -- one about being a female scientist, and then one again about being a female scientist with severe manic-depression, and then wrapped into that is the story of her lifelong partnership with her highly eccentric lab buddy/platonic life partner Bill. (I believe there was a Yuletide request related to this.) I'm glad I read the book, but I think I remain confident in my conclusion that biology was not the career for me.
skygiants: Mae West (model lady)
I was browsing through the nonfiction available from Open Road Media's free-books-bonanza a few months back, and a book caught my eye immediately and held it -- Marlene Dietrich's ABC: Wit, Wisdom and Recipes.

I immediately did the internet equivalent of grabbing the people I'd been chatting with by the collar in order to shout, "Marlene Dietrich* WROTE A COOKBOOK?!" I don't think I've ever pressed a "Purchase" button so fast.

*early film icon, notorious femme fatale, one of the first women to kiss another woman onscreen

It turns out Marlene Dietrich's ABC isn't exactly a cookbook, although it does contain recipes. Written in 1962, when Dietrich was 61, it's exactly what it says on the tin: an alphabetical index of Things Marlene Dietrich Considers Interesting Or Important. This means that any given page is likely to contain a miscellany of Marlene Dietrich's thoughts on such subjects as Backseat Driving (she's against it), the Beatles (she's for them), Beauty (The Seamy Side), Beef Tea (recipe), and Bergman, Ingmar ("they treat him like a king, and when you are with his disciples you fall right in step"). The book overall is exactly as weird and fascinating as you are likely to imagine from this. Some of the time Dietrich is playing the role of Sophisticated Screen Siren, sometimes she's playing the role of Your Kindly Grandma, and sometimes she just wants to tell you her Feelings About Poetry. Did I need to know that Marlene Dietrich thinks about Atticus Finch as "someone she might have married"? Yes, I ABSOLUTELY DID. (Also, who's going to write me that fanfic for next Yuletide?)

Of course there's all the parts where she gets very kindly and domestically gender-essentialist at you; Dietrich may have been bisexual, but she's certainly not letting any of that show here, and would much rather tell you about how important it is to be a good helpmeet to your husband without henpecking him.

But then, on the flip side of this, there are all the parts where she slides in an offhanded comment that abruptly reminds you that she's a German woman who watched her country become something she didn't recognize, renounced her citizenship, spoke out vocally and consistently against fascism, and performed so tirelessly for the USO during WWII that she ended up on the front lines more than Eisenhower.

The entry for Hate, for example, sandwiched in between entries on Hardware Stores and Hats: "I have known hate from 1933 till 1945. I still have traces of it and I do not waste much energy to erase them. It is hard to live with hate. But if the occasion demands it, one has to harden oneself deliberately."

There are times in this book when I found myself abruptly identifying very much with Marlene Dietrich.
skygiants: Susan from The Bletchley Circle looking out a window (i crack the codes)
So my assigned fic for this year's Yuletide was Statistical Methods in Risk Assessment, a Bletchley Circle fic. Bletchley Circle is an extremely historically-grounded mystery series about the aftermath of WWII and the codebreakers at Bletchley, which meant that I spent a fair bit of November and December falling down a wartime Britain research hole, starting broad and eventually narrowing in on what I actually needed to know to write the fic.

I did not write up any of the books I was reading up at the time, under the general Yuletide veil of secrecy, but I think all of them are worth the perusal:

Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love and Betrayal, Ben Macintyre

Like most of Ben Macintyre's books, this is a true-history spyjinks story which leans heavily on the hijinks. Eddie Chapman was a thief in prison on the Channel Islands when they were occupied by the Germans; he got the bright idea to get out of prison by offering his services to the Germans as a spy. Then, after being thoroughly trained in Advanced Spying by the Germans, he was parachuted into England to blow up a factory, where he was immediately caught by the British, and promptly informed them that he was in fact more than happy to be a double agent.

The usual sort of Elaborate MI5 Ruses followed, perhaps the most impressive being the hiring of a stage magician to fake the destruction of an entire factory for the Germans so they would assume Chapman was still a totally independent Nazi agent, yes sirree. It's not my favorite of Macintyre's books, but it's a fun read -- or it was at the time; I suspect "lol, those gullible folk-dancing Nazis!" might seem a bit less funny now that we are all realizing how very much Nazis are no longer a thing of the past.

(Ben Macintyre's funny bone is clearly tremendously tickled by the Nazi Who Obsessed Over English Folk Dancing. He never misses an opportunity to bring it up. Long after I have forgotten the rest of this book, I will remember the English folk-dancing Nazi.)

Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49

So Mass Observation was a research organization founded in the 1930s which encouraged Ordinary British Citizens to write in or diary about their daily lives, which quite by happenstance resulted in the creation of this really astoundingly thorough primary-source record of what it was like for a middle-aged British woman to live through WWII. In other words, a researcher's godsend.

It's also sort of astounding how much of a plot there is to this unstructured diary; it feels like something that could be a novel. Nella Last, at the beginning of the war, is a housewife married to a man who doesn't much like to go out and doesn't much like for Nella to go out either, at all, ever. As the book goes on, and she starts taking on war work and becoming involved in local organizations, she begins to write more and more about how trapped and stifled she's felt for most of her marriage; she starts standing up to her husband, taking on new projects, sleeping downstairs in the bomb shelter just so she can have her own space. And meanwhile one of her sons has to join the army, and hates it, and ... falls in love with another soldier? ... I mean obviously Nella Last doesn't say or think that that's what it is, and I am hesitant to start writing RPF about ordinary people, but it looks an awful lot to me like that's what is going on. Fiction has its patterns for a reason, is I guess what I'm saying.

Anyway, it's a fascinating read, though generally not a cheerful one. And occasionally some bit of period-specific awfulness of Nella's will come up and hit you in the face -- when she chattily goes on for a while about how obviously Hitler is awful but perhaps he's not entirely wrong on the eugenics thing, for example, or when her other son comes home and starts complaining about the Jews in his town and Nella's like "lol kiddo looks like you've gotten a bit racist!" in the most unconcerned fashion imaginable.

A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII, Sarah Helm

This is the book which really ended up shaping my Yuletide fic the most -- like, the thing I wrote is probably based on this book as much or more as it is on The Bletchley Circle.

Vera Atkins, a Jewish Romanian, joined the British SOE division as a secretary in 1941. She quickly rose in the organization, became the head of section F (France) and became influential in the deployment of women agents behind the lines. In 1943, the primary network of British agents in France was compromised; though many of the men and women who were captured by the Germans tried their hardest to alert headquarters, SOE's refusal to believe anything was seriously wrong meant numerous other agents heading to France dropped straight into Nazi captivity. This is the grim flipside of Macintyre's trademark cheery spyjinks.

(One captured agent radioed in under duress and pointedly did not provide his double-secret security code -- the whole point of the double-secret security code was to show when someone was radio-ing under duress -- and Atkins' boss radioed cheerily back to tell him that he'd forgotten his double-secret security code and not to do it again! I MEAN.)

Many of Vera Atkins' agents turned up after the war, but many more did not. This book is only partly about the actual wartime espionage; much of the rest of it is about Vera Atkins' determined journey across postwar Europe, visiting concentration camp after concentration camp to attempt to find out what happened to the missing ones. As you might imagine, this does not make for easy reading. But at least her quest wasn't fruitless; she did eventually trace every last one of them.

(For the record, there also exists a RIVAL biography of Vera Atkins. I did not read it, but there is a beautifully scathing review of it that purports to be from the author of this biography, which you can read here if, like me, you are entertained by the prospect of historians getting into fistfights over their subject matter.)

I also read the parts of Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan that were available via Google books, because I could not get my hands on a copy in time to read the whole thing before I had to write my fic. But the bits I could read were extremely helpful and I do intend to read the whole thing at some point! Noor Inayat Khan also turns up quite a lot in A Life In Secrets; Sarah Helm seems to think that Vera Atkins was particularly interested in Noor among all her agents, but personally I think this may just be due to the fact that Sarah Helm was particularly interested in Noor among all Vera's agents. Not that one can blame her -- her story is tragic, but incredibly compelling.
skygiants: storybook page of a duck wearing a pendant, from Princess Tutu; text 'mukashi mukashi' (mukashi mukashi)
A month or two ago, I went to the Yiddish Book Center for an archives conference that happened to be hosted there.

The idea of collecting Yiddish books was first conceived of by Aaron Lansky in the late 1970s, when Yiddish books were being thrown away by the thousands as a generation of Yiddish-speaking immigrants were starting to die and leave their possessions to children who didn't see a point in keeping a lot of books around that they couldn't read. Lansky -- at that time a graduate student in Eastern European Jewish Studies who was having a near-impossible time actually getting his hands on any Yiddish books to read -- put out a call in his hometown that if people were thinking of throwing away their Yiddish books, they should send them to him instead. Pretty soon, the story goes, his parents called to tell him that he had to figure out another solution because they were fairly sure the second floor of their house was about to cave in from the weight of the books that people were passing onto them. The Book Center, as it now exists, seeks out Yiddish books and digitizes them; sorts titles to identify unique ones; provides copies of Yiddish books to other libraries; runs a translation program to print Yiddish titles in English; and runs cultural and educational programs, among a bunch of other stuff.

I can't speak Yiddish -- it's a language lost to me by several generations -- but I've been starting to look into classes; I'd give a lot to be able to read Yiddish books. Until then, the next-best thing is reading about Yiddish books, so I put Aaron Lansky's Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books on library reserve.

Anway, last weekend [personal profile] aquamirage and I went to go see the Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, and it was amazing, and all my Yid-lit feelings came roaring to the surface again. I came home and immediately picked up Outwitting History, which turns out to be a relatively light and cheerful collection of anecdotes about salvaging a language and culture that has at several points throughout the 20th century been the target of brutal and deliberate extinction. This is entirely in keeping with the general tone of Yiddish literature, which is often funny and depressing and uplifting and pessimistic all at once. (After seeing Fiddler, [personal profile] aquamirage said, 'I knew the whole plot but I didn't know how funny it was going to be!') So, you know. Come for the cute stories about enthusiastic elderly Jews stuffing the faces of bemused book-collectors with kugel and borscht, but stay for stuff like the first shipment of Yiddish books back to the Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
skygiants: the aunts from Pushing Daisies reading and sipping wine on a couch (wine and books)
One of my coworkers recommended me When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II, which is 100% unsurprising because this is definitely a book geared towards making librarians and archivists feel good about themselves, with several chapters dedicated to the valiant patriotic efforts of the ALA.

I mean, I'm not knocking it, it did make me feel good! It's basically an exploration of what books meant to soldiers on the front as one of the few viable forms of entertainment a person could tote around with them on the battlefield, the various efforts that went to getting those books there, and the impact that they had when they did.

The ALA kicked off the trend by running a massive book drive, but the huge bulk of the book is dedicated to the publication of Armed Service Editions (ASE), which were lightweight little books selected for publication and distribution en masse to the armed forces and designed to fit inside a uniform pocket.

When Books Went to War makes a big deal about how the ASEs represented all kinds of genres for all kinds of tastes including classics and history and science and so on, but looking at the list in the back, it seems like they were really mostly contemporary fiction with a few other options thrown into each batch, and the choices were occasionally baffling (weirdly, for example, Dorothy Sayers' Busman's Honeymoon was published as an ASE, but not any of her other novels.) Hilariously, romance was not really represented -- after all, these were manly books for manly soldier men! -- until soldiers wrote in and were like "WE WANT SEX SCENES, PLEASE SEND US FOREVER AMBER," and the Council on Books in Wartime dutifully sent Forever Amber to the front lines, as well as Strange Fruit, which MIGHT have been a controversial and searing examination of racism and interracial romance that was banned in multiple cities but ALSO had sex scenes in it.

(As a sidenote: wow, I had heard of Forever Amber but not read the Wikipedia article until just now and it's AMAZING. "[The] attorney general cited 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and "10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men" as reasons for banning the novel." Thirty-nine illegitimate pregnancies! I know it's like 800 pages, but still, how is there room?)

Anyway, the book does not provide a particularly nuanced examination of why any of the books in question were chosen or approved or sent overseas, and there are a whole bunch obvious questions about wartime propaganda that don't really get asked. However, all the anecdotes and primary source quotes about soldiers pouncing on books and devouring them and writing earnestly back to authors and publishers are really genuinely heartwarming, as is the fact that the most popular novels by far among the troops were >A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Chicken Every Sunday, because it turns out what extremely stressed-out troops on the front lines really want is heartwarming YA from the point of view of plucky teenage girls. Who says male readers can't identify with a female viewpoint!
skygiants: Jane Eyre from Paula Rego's illustrations, facing out into darkness (more than courage)
I am briefly in DC for work this week, so it seems like a good time to write up Patricia Bell Scott's The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, which [personal profile] nextian recced to me and which was everything she promised.

I didn't know much about Pauli Murray before reading this book, which is a crying shame because she was INCREDIBLE -- a queer disabled black scholar and activist, famous for (among many other things) being the first black deputy attorney general in California AND publishing the first full inventory and examination of segregation laws AND being one of the first people to criticize sexism in the civil rights movement AND being the first black female Episcopalian priest, who (understandably) spent much of her life embodying that tumblr meme of 'should I fight [x] famous person/institution? YES, DEFINITELY FIGHT THEM.'

In fact she met Eleanor Roosevelt while attempting to fight FDR.

PAULI MURRAY: Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, I am a law student with as of yet no fame, notoriety, or credentials whatsoever, and I have attached a letter for your husband in which I inform him about his failures in re: dealing with this country's ridiculous racism, could you please make sure he gets it? THANKS, PAULI MURRAY, A CRITIC.
ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: Dear Miss Murray, thanks for your critique, here are the ways in which I think you are a wildly misguided radical young person. But the feedback is appreciated! THANKS, ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, A PATRONIZING WHITE LADY.

Somehow -- amazingly! -- this began a regular correspondence and, eventually, a lasting friendship??

(PAULI MURRAY: You're an orphan? I'M an orphan!!!)

For the record, while Eleanor Roosevelt gets equal billing in the title, it's really Pauli Murray's book; Eleanor's life is only covered insofar as it relates to Pauli Murray's. This is as it should be, since there's approximately five bajillion books that relate to Eleanor Roosevelt and not nearly enough on Pauli Murray.

And, like. OK. This didn't really need to be a book about Eleanor Roosevelt as well as Pauli Murray at all, it could've just been a Pauli Murray bio with Eleanor Roosevelt sidenotes and in some ways maybe that would've been better because Pauli Murray certainly deserves to stand on her own -- but I also am glad, right now, to be reminded that friendship and respect can exist across very different political beliefs and states of awareness. Not that Eleanor Roosevelt and Pauli Murray's friendship was an easy or an uncomplicated one (oh man, Eleanor Roosevelt published an essay titled 'Some Of My Best Friends Are Negroes,' SHE WAS I BELIEVE THE TROPE NAMER ON THIS, oh god, Eleanor) but still: they disagreed, and valued each other anyway. And that's not nothing.
skygiants: Moril from the Dalemark Quartet playing the cwidder (composing hallelujah)
Before starting in on the backlog of books I read while traveling and ... from before then (SO MANY), I probably should take the opportunity to mention This Is Jerusalem Calling: State Radio in Mandate Palestine, which I read towards the end of last year.

This is one of those nonfiction books for which the title is a lot more lyrical and evocative than most of the actual text -- the book is a history of the Palestine Broadcasting Service, which the BBC ran from 1936 up to the 1948 war, but unfortunately there does ... not appear to be a ton of information available to build a really compelling history of the other PBS. So the book is quite dry, and spends a great deal of time doing deep textual analysis on, for example, ads for radios in Arabic-language newspapers. Not that this isn't interesting in and of itself! Especially if you happen to be interested in/invested in the history of public broadcasting and telecommunications, which I do in fact happen to be, professionally. But grippingly readable it is not exactly.

The book is significantly more interested in the Arabic-language broadcasts than the Hebrew- and English-language broadcasts, which is a little too bad, because I'm quite curious about all three. It's arguing that the decisions that the BBC made to split off and separate out departments focused on Arabic-language programming and Hebrew-language programming contributed in part to the increasingly sharpening divides between those communities, which ... is probably not entirely untrue, although, I mean, if I were designing a radio station for three different linguistic communities I would probably be tempted to make a significant number of my programming decisions around language as well. Anyway I wouldn't say it was my most compelling nonfiction read of 2015 but I learned some things, though there is still much more that I would be happy to know about the Palestine Broadcasting Service.

(Also, as always, history like this makes me want more spec-fic and historical fiction and adventure stories about broadcasting and radio and pirate radio. Such a rich vein, so little mined! Voices in the dark!)
skygiants: Nellie Bly walking a tightrope among the stars (bravely trotted)
Like basically everyone else in the world, I am currently kind of head over heels over Hamilton and definitely plan to read the Chernow biography at some point in the near future.

Currently I do not own a copy of the Chernow biography. I do own a copy of a biography of Abigail Adams that my great-aunt gave me for my high school graduation and I never got around to reading, so .... it seemed like the time had maybe finally come ....?

Anyway, I'm slightly retroactively annoyed because Abigail Adams: Witness to a Revolution is definitely way below my high school reading level, like, come on, Aunt Esther, you could have given me something a little meatier than this! (I should probably in fact go seek out something meatier than this.)

I mean, don't get me wrong, it's a good YA biography and I enjoyed reading it, but 200ish pages is really not enough to cover the complexities of Abigail Adams' life, and the elisions are fairly obvious. Here's a charming anecdote about how Abigail Adams defended her black servant's right to go to school! Leeeeeet's perhaps not talk about how Adams family BFF Jefferson was a slaveholder. Here's a couple sentences explaining the Alien and Sedition Act, OK, maybe those were kind of tyrannical and maybe not a great idea, but totally understandable that the Adamses would feel that way given how John Adams was being dragged in the press, now let's please move on!

...however other subjects, hilariously, are not at all elided, like the love letter in which John Adams complains that Abigail is too prone to blushing at "every violation of decency in company," like, dang, what kind of sneaky Colonial footsie were you up to, John and Abigail? No, no, it's fine, you don't need to tell me, I probably don't need to know, life is more than sexual combustibility. Natalie S. Bobet definitely enjoys her Colonial gossip, though. The Alien and Sedition Acts get three whole pages; James Lovell, another Massachusetts Continental Congress delegate whose only historical importance appears to have been that he wrote Abigail a number of flirty letters while John was away, gets more than twice that.

(To be fair, I then went and looked the letters up up, and as flirty letters to the wife of a major America political figure go, they appear to have been quite something. "I shall covet to be in the arms of Portia [TURN PAGE] 's friend and admirer [my actual wife.]" That's some A. Ham level sneaky sexy letter-writing. Portia, for the record, was one of Abigail's adopted pen-names. Her other, which she picked when she was a very young teenager, was Diana, which is kind of adorable and super Anne of Green Gables of her, bless.)

And, OK, even more fascinating Colonial-era sexy gossip which is only kind of elided: an offhand reference to a child (tragically stillborn) that "Abigail and John had planned," implying they ... planned at other times not to have children? Please tell me more about contraception and family planning in colonial New England, Natalie Bober! This is highly relevant information!

Anyway. It's a reasonable, if not particularly nuanced, preliminary overview of The Life Of Abigail Adams, Early Advocate of Women's Education, Semi-Official Presidential Political Adviser, and Frequently Single Mom. And now if my Aunt Esther ever happens to ask, I can finally say that I've read it.

(Also, for those, like me, who are in the grip of Hamilton-mania: Alexander Hamilton is mentioned ten times, and almost every time after his initial introduction it's with some variant on the phrase "Hamilton's treachery." WHICH IS HILARIOUS. Aaron Burr, alas, is not mentioned one single time, and I expect that somewhere he's really mad about it.)
skygiants: Audrey Hepburn peering around a corner disguised in giant sunglasses, from Charade (sneaky like hepburnninja)
I have some conflicted feelings about Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War as history book -- it does a thing where it really wants you to feel like you're reading narrative fiction, so she has a habit of interspersing her actual historical-record scenes with novelistic statements like 'Rose sat across from Adams, surmising his thoughts,' and it doesn't FOOTNOTE things, and then you go to the back and it finally tells you what the sources are for, like, everything on page four, and everything on page five, and so on. And by then it is too late! I wanted to know where Karen Abbott got her source for that thing she stated the woman was feeling while I was reading the page, not once I hit the end and had forgotten everything I was like "??? REALLY? But ... how do you know?" about. I mean, it's quite well-researched overall, and for the most part I believe most of what she's saying, but sometimes she draws analytical conclusions in which I would like SEVERAL more 'perhapses.'

(I also wish that she had set off/distanced her quotes a little more, especially when in dialect, especially when quotes in dialect come from, i.e., a wealthy Southern woman reporting her conversations with her slaves, because there were some cringeworthy moments.)

However, that said, she does achieve her goal, because as pure entertainment, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is GOLD. Romance! Spyjinks! Secret ciphers! Undercover agents!

Obviously my favorite story was Actual Crossdressing Drama Heroine Emma Edmonds, oh my God, I've never read about anybody whose life aligns so exactly with every single trope of romantic cross-dressing fiction. )

My second-favorite was Mary Jane Bowser, former slave and undercover agent in Jefferson Davis' house, reading all his letters and passing information onto the Union through her old boss Elizabeth Van Lew, and getting completely away with it because nobody knows she's literate!

Mary Jane Bowser is not actually one of the four main women written about -- Elizabeth Van Lew is -- but I feel she really should have been. To be fair to Karen Abbott, when we saw her speak last week, she said that if Mary Jane Bowser's diary had not been destroyed in the 1940s (ARCHIVAL TRAGEDY) then significantly more of the book would have been about her, but I don't know how much I want to let Abbott entirely off the hook for framing the narrative so significantly around white women, or at least not without pointing out that it's not like it's an accident that most of the primary sources that allow for the kind of work she's doing were written by white people. But that comes straight back to the historiography questions I was complaining about above, so.

Anyway, Elizabeth Van Lew, abolitionist, quiet spinster lady and mastermind of the Richmond spy ring, is also extremely interesting. And apparently much more effective than her Confederate counterpart, Rose O'Neal Greenhowe, who did a lot of very elaborate spying with ciphers and Morse Code and seducing high-ranking Union officials, but was arrested extremely early on in the war and spent much of the rest of the war in prison, which is rather satisfying given her ragingly racist and pro-slavery sentiments.

The last of the four women that Abbott writes about is Confederate spy Belle Boyd, a teenager whom Abbott at least characterizes as very consciously creating herself into a dramatic heroine. What's most interesting about Belle Boyd, to me, is the sort of freedom in which she operates -- like, there's lots of galloping around solo on horseback carrying messages and wielding weaponry and flirting with everybody she comes across in a way that I would probably view as moderately unrealistic if I came across it in a YA novel. But apparently not! I think? Come on, Karen Abbott, FOOTNOTES!
skygiants: Audrey Hepburn peering around a corner disguised in giant sunglasses, from Charade (sneaky like hepburnninja)
I liked Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War enough that I decided to investigate Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris' other film history book in which he talks about the 1968 Oscars. (Note: not to mislead anyone, there is no actual revolution in this book except a metaphorical and artistic one.)

So for the record, the five movies up for Oscars in 1968 were Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Doctor Dolittle. I have seen about one and a half of these movies, and the whole one was ... Doctor Dolittle.

NONETHELESS, I enjoyed this book a really enormous amount. It does exactly the kind of examination of film (and theater and literature and so on, but film in this case) that I like best, by a.) examining how the culture of the time period shaped the thing as it was being made, and b.) then examining how the thing turned around and shaped the culture, and c.) soldering the whole thing together with detailed, fascinating, and frequently hilarious anecdotes. Oh my God, Doctor Dolittle, what a cursed production, SO MUCH HORRIFIED LAUGHTER! An incomplete list of things that went horribly wrong during the filming of Doctor Dolittle:

- the producers decided to film on location in a tiny English village. They forgot that if they brought all their arduously, painstakingly, expensively trained animals from Hollywood to a tiny English village, they would then have to quarantine them for six months
- they also forgot that in England it rains ALL THE TIME
- while they were there, the set was SABOTAGED with EXPLOSIVES by a British BARONET named Sir Ranulph Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes
- who wished to "stop mass entertainment from riding roughshod over the feelings of the people"
- (maybe I lied when I said there was no actual revolution)
- anyway after endless failure and disaster in the UK they then went off to shoot on the island of St. Lucia, where they were attacked by stinging insects and cheerfully brought flea-infested sand back to the set
- and then, when they tried to do the final scene -- which involved a giant pink fake snail -- it turned out that the island had recently had an infestation of gastrointestinal illness CAUSED BY FRESHWATER SNAILS
- so the locals took the construction of the giant pink fake snail as cruel mockery of their suffering and THREW ROCKS AT IT

Also, apparently there was a point in time at which Sidney Poitier was almost going to star in Dr. Dolittle?! First they were on the verge of hiring Sammy Davis Jr., then Rex Harrison, threw an enormous hissy fit and decided he would only work with a SERIOUS actor, he REFUSED to share the stage with Sammy Davis Jr., he DEMANDED Sidney Poitier, so they fired poor Sammy Davis Jr. and were on the verge of hiring Sidney Poitier when they realized that they were already too over budget to pay him and instead wrote the role out of the script. DODGED THAT BULLET, SIDNEY POITIER.

Speaking of Sidney Poitier, by the way (and taking a break from hilarity) there is quite a lot of fascinating stuff in here about Sidney Poitier, and his absolutely impossible position throughout the 1960s as The Only Serious Black Actor In Hollywood; and also about Dustin Hoffman, Mr. "What, Why Did You Cast This Jewish-Looking Dude Though, Can We Maybe Do Something About His Nose;" and about a whole slew of other people whom I want to read dedicated biographies of now; and about how Hollywood does and doesn't reflect the world around it, what movies say, and what the Oscars say, and what people think they say or want them to say.

(By the way, and for the record, I am always in the market for recs of other nonfiction books like this. I LOVE in-depth examinations of how fictional stuff gets written or created or produced, and why, and who was involved, and all the fights they got into along the way, and all the fights people got into about it afterwards, and and! Masterpieces or hilarious trainwrecks, I don't care. I should probably listen to 'How Did This Get Made,' except I still have not figured out how to listen to podcasts.)
skygiants: young Kiha from Legend of the First King's Four Gods in the library with a lit candle (flame of knowledge)
Paper Cadavers: The Archives of Dictatorship in Guatemala is probably the best book I've read on archiving in as long as I can remember.

(Except -- very unfortunately -- in the area of digital archiving, but we'll get to that.)

In 2005, the National Police Archives of Guatemala were rediscovered, moldering in a basement of the police headquarters. 'Rediscovered' is not quite the right word, it wasn't as if the archives had ever really been lost -- the police always knew where they were! -- but in this case they were also found by the Human Rights Ombudsman's office, who had been hoping to get their hands on some, any state evidence about decades of political assassinations, state-sponsored human rights abuses, and forced disappearances of people whose fates are mostly still unknown.

Normally getting money for archives is like pulling teeth -- there's nothing 'sexy' or exciting about old records -- and the Guatemalan National Archives have apparently not even been able to take in anything since like the 1960s due to being so underfunded, but secret state archives with potential evidence of human rights abuse? That, you can fund. So international money came rolling in, and a team of former activists went to work, frantically trying to make sense of as much of the archive as they could in as short a time as possible in case someone in the government changed their mind and pulled the plug on the whole project. Or, you know, someone decided to set fire to the archives before they could tell anybody anything. After all -- as one of the activists said to the author -- "Even ten years ago, they would have killed all the people working in a project like that.”

The book is about human rights, and state terror, and archiving. It's about activists learning about archiving, and why, even though it is HELLA FRUSTRATING AND FINICKY, it actually is really important to follow proper rules about original order and chain of custody tracking and proper metadata and all of that, because sometimes those rules are all you have to use as evidence. It's about the things you always hope to be able to find in an archive and the things you so rarely can -- all the things that aren't stated, that you have to infer. The police archives existed because state terror doesn't happen without a bureaucracy, but of course they never came out and said "here are the abuses we have committed and where and how," because documents created by people in structures of power reinforce those structures of power. (I saw an archivist on my pro Twitter feed today making really good points about this interview, and the 'obvious' need to question the veracity of slave narratives when they come into conflict with state records -- because of course black people's narratives can't be trusted, but STATE RECORDS would never lie!)

Archives are not neutral. Archives can be a weapon. The fact that the archives existed at all is partly due to U.S. support and training of the Guatemalan police force, in the stellar U.S. tradition of "well torture and dictatorship is obviously better for our (economic) interests than than COMMUNISM!!!" And so U.S. state advisors came, and said, 'yes, hmmm, OK, what a police force really needs to be effective is more weapons, and training, and funding, and also better records management!" Hence the archives. The task force that this book focuses on had the goal of turning the records back into the weapon that went the other way, and with some success; the book talks as well about other purposes that archives can serve, healing and community-building and forging identity.

So as an archivist, of course, I'm going through and highlighting like every other sentence in this book, except for the moments I have to stop short because the author is talking about the need to get the records digitized and once they're digitized, they will be safe forever! The state can never destroy them again!

And oh, man, I wish it worked that way, but that's not how it works. If anything, digital records are easier to vanish than physical records. Digital records can vanish in an instant.

It sounds like the project does have a digital archivist on call, because they talked about doing digital forensics on some old floppy drives, so ... maybe just no one called it out in the manuscript? Because, like, on a theoretical level the author of this book clearly understands that you can't archive until stuff is done and then put away, stuff is never done and safe to put away, but the thing is that's not just theoretical, it is also VERY TRUE ON A PRACTICAL LEVEL. Preservation is an ongoing process and, unfortunately, it never actually ends.

...but that aside this is a really! really! good book about archives! And history, and activism, and human rights. Highly, highly recommended.
skygiants: Scar from Fullmetal Alchemist looking down at Marcoh (mercy of the fallen)
When it comes to nonfiction, the stuff I seem to be most drawn to these days is a.) books about WWII and b.) behind-the-scenes books about theater and movies and television, so it is exactly not a huge surprise that I ended up reading Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. GIVEN GIVENS.

Five Came Back is basically a braided biography of five directors -- John Ford, George Stevens, Frank Capra, John Huston, and William Wyler -- all of whom left Hollywood around the time of Pearl Harbor to enlist in the army and make war propaganda.

The stories of the directors are indeed fascinating, especially Wyler, Stevens and Huston. Huston faked/reenacted a bunch of footage for documentaries where the American photographers didn't manage to be on the spot to get anything worthwhile, despised himself for it, and then came home and made what he thought would be a redeeming documentary about psychiatric treatment for returning soldiers, at which point the Army promptly went UH NOPE and refused to let anyone see it for thirty-five years. Stevens, originally, a director of light-hearted comedies, ended up trekking around with the units that discovered the concentration camps, and made the documentaries that were shown at Nuremberg to convince the prosecution of the Nazi crimes; for the rest of his career, he pretty much never made another comic film. Wyler -- who was German Jewish to begin with -- almost got court-martialed for punching out a guy who made anti-Semitic remarks, tried so hard to get good footage from the inside of a fighter plane that he lost his hearing from the noise of the engine, and then had to come home and figure out how to be a director who couldn't hear dialogue or soundtracks. This story would be really depressing if he hadn't then gone on to make a bajillion famous films anyway and got more Academy Award nominations than any director in history. Also, his really cute-sounding marriage -- literally running into each other's arms when he first saw her while he was on leave! -- appears to have lasted happily until his death at the age of 79 (though the book didn't tell me that, I had to check it on Wikipedia.) Way to go, Wyler!

HOWEVER, as compelling as all these human stories of profound change during wartime are, the most interesting part for me was the story of the corpus of war propaganda itself -- all the back-and-forth between the directors and Hollywood and the government, trying to figure out what the heck they were even doing. Like, what kind of films are they even trying to make? What truths are not OK to tell? If you're making anti-Japanese propaganda, how racist is too racist? (Spoiler: you have to be really damn racist before you get too racist, but the LINE WAS APPARENTLY INDEED THERE.) And speaking of racism, how about trying to make a recruitment documentary for black soldiers in a deeply racist white America, what does that look like? What kind of things can you show to soldiers, and what can you show to the general public, and what kind of things can't you show to anybody? Sorry, Huston, but nobody wants to hear that going to war can fuck you up. Everyone who came back is fine. EVERYTHING'S FINE.

An added bonus: almost all the films discussed were produced by the government, which makes them officially public domain. If you're bored and you're curious about the time Dr. Seuss, Chuck Jones, and Frank Capra teamed up to make raunchy training cartoons, check out Private Snafu, aka Elmer Fudd Teaches You What Not To Do In the U.S. Army.
skygiants: Sokka from Avatar: the Last Airbender peers through an eyeglass (*peers*)
There are certain persons probably reading this ([personal profile] gramarye1971, I'm looking at you) whom I suspect already know everything about Kim Philby and probably have no need for another version of the same Cambridge Spies story. For everyone else, there's A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal.

I was vaguely familiar with the basic facts about Philby before picking up the book, but only vaguely, so Macintyre's version still had plenty that was new for me. For example: though I knew Philby was a double agent working with MI6 and reporting back to the Soviets, I did not know that MI6, in a move that was both ill-advised and horrifically hilarious, actually made him head of Soviet counterintelligence.

PHILBY: Wow, I ... literally am in charge of everything MI6 is ever going to do in re: the Soviet Union. I am the best Soviet double agent ... ever? Ever. Pretty much ever.
(THE SOVIET UNION: This guy is just passing us TOO MUCH information to even be believable. Triple agent, anyone?)

Though nonfiction, it's very easy to read the book like a thriller, so I'm putting the rest under a cut in case people don't want to be historical-record spoiled! )
skygiants: Clopin from Notre-Dame de Paris; text 'sans misere, sans frontiere' (comment faire un monde)
Somewhere in the middle of the recent string of disappointing fantasy novels that ended deep in the horrific bowels of Tepper-land, I took a break from fiction altogether to read Freedom Is An Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements. I forget why I picked it up; I think I saw it referenced in an article I was reading and was grabbed by the title? And I would generally like to know more about American social movements!

This was possibly not actually the book to learn more about the actual movements from; it's quite dry, with a very firm focus on The Question Of Whether Consensus-based Participatory Democracy Is A Potentially Valid Governing Structure For An Organization. (Spoiler: Francesca Polletta thinks yes, but it's hard!) This also is a relevant and interesting question, especially if you happen to work with any groups that do attempt to decide their direction by talking it out until everybody agrees -- and I do actually work with such a group -- but is probably less gripping than if the book was, as I originally thought from the summary, just straight-up history about some case studies in democratic social movements. (Also Francesca Polletta is not a particularly gripping writer. But a very thorough one!)

The case studies, for the record, are the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, the civil rights-era group that organized the Freedom Rides; the Students for a Democratic Society, another major (mostly white) 60's era progressive protest group; and various small collectives of the second-wave feminist movement. Dry prose aside, it is actually pretty fascinating to take a really deep look at the organizational structure and governance of radical protest activity -- the 'endless meeting' of bureaucratic discussion that is nowhere near as exciting as the actual stuff that's happening, but nonetheless needs to happen in order to make anything else happen. Polletta's trying to show that even when consensus-based participatory democracy results in meetings that go on for literal days (as it sometimes did!), there can still be serious value in it; when you're putting your lives on the line, it's really important to make sure that everybody agrees that the things you're doing are worth putting your lives on the line for.

On the other hand, meetings that go on for literal days. And weird interpersonal politics, and weird attempts at overcorrection of interpersonal politics -- apparently the Students for a Democratic Society had a thing where everyone got really paranoid about being accidentally manipulative and had a huge decision freeze thereby -- and people accusing each other of cliquey-ness and all the other messy, petty, mundane stuff that you can't really keep out of your revolution no matter how hard you try. Which is an important thing to keep in mind, I think, and I'm glad I read the book! Even though it took me ages to get through it, because, as I said, dry as heck.
skygiants: Jane Eyre from Paula Rego's illustrations, facing out into darkness (more than courage)
In winter of 2012, I rewatched Fiddler on the Roof for the first time as an adult and got unexpectedly emotional. In winter of 2014, I read the original short stories by Sholem Aleichem that Fiddler on the Roof was based on and got unexpectedly emotional.

This endless winter, I read Alisa Solomon's Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof, a NONFICTION BOOK ABOUT THE PRODUCTION OF A BROADWAY MUSICAL, which I figured should be pretty safe, right? NO, ACTUALLY. IN FACT, it turned out to be the most unexpectedly emotionally affecting thing of all? OK. THANKS, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

OK, actually, though, when I say that Wonder of Wonders is about Fiddler on the Roof, that is true; it is about Fiddler on the the Roof, which means that it's about the history of what it means to be Jewish in America -- and also what it means to be Jewish in places that aren't America -- and also what it means to see representations of Jewishness in places that used to have Jews, but don't anymore -- and what it means for someone to see themselves in a story, for someone to use a story to rediscover pieces of themselves they've lost, or didn't know they'd ever had -- and then, conversely, what it means when a single story comes to be identified so strongly with a certain piece of history that people forget that it's a story, and not the truth; that the "Bottle Dance" is actually Jerome Robbins choreography; that "Sabbath Prayer" is a Broadway song, and not an actual prayer.

Alisa Solomon starts, as you would expect, with Sholem Aleichem and the Yiddish theater (old friends to me by now!), and then moves to the 1960s and the collection of extremely assimilated second-generation Jewish dudes, who somehow came to the decision to transform a bunch of Yiddish-language stories into a mainstream Broadway musical because they thought it would be kind of cool, and then found themselves forced to terms with a heritage they had either wandered away from or actively shoved away.

I was expecting the stories of wacky Broadway hijinks, of obsessive directors and grueling rehearsals and conflict between blacklisted Zero Mostel and friendly HUAC witness Jerome Robbins. All of which I got! Along with extremely solid critical analysis of the ways that the show transformed Judaism into something friendly and digestible for American (and American Jewish) audiences, something that "handed over a legacy that could be fondly claimed without exacting any demands." (Do I feel like I resemble some of those remarks? YEP, SOMETIMES.)

I wasn't actually expecting the stories like the one about how at the end of the show, the book-writer gave the lyricist a mezuzah -- the first one that he ever owned. Stories like the ones about Jerome Robbins -- Mr. "I didn't want to be like my father, the Jew, or any of his friends, those Jews;" Mr. "Wash yourself clean of it -- bathe & scrub; change your clothes, cut your hair, alter your walk, your talk, your handwriting, recast your future, remold your life, your friends, your taste ... leave behind forever the Jew part" -- Jerome Robbins, who dedicated the show to his immigrant father. Jerome Robbins whose father came backstage after the opening night, asked 'How did you know all that?' and "threw his arms around his son and wept."


Now, at this point I'm having a lot of feelings about Jerome Robbins and I've already gotten a lot from the book, but, like, Solomon has gotten us to the point of the show getting on Broadway and I figured we'd talk a little bit about the movie and we'd be done?

We were not done. The chapters about the follow-up productions about Fiddler are in some ways harder-hitting than the section on the creation of the musical itself. Solomon starts with the first Israeli production, in a macho 1960s Israel that had for years been attempting to distance itself from the idea of the sad little weak victimized Jew of the shtetl and the Holocaust. From there, she jumps (in what is maybe her most hard-hitting chapter) to 1968 and a highly publicized high school production -- highly publicized, because it was performed by black and Puerto Rican students at a Brownsville school, in the middle of the ugly and incendiary 1968 Brownsville teacher's strike that was being framed by everyone involved as "blacks vs. Jews!" And after that (with a brief stopover to talk about the movie) she moves to a recent production in Poland, performed in a village that -- before the Holocaust -- was 50% Jewish.

Solomon is neither sentimental nor nostalgic about Fiddler. She's writing about the ways that this particular image of Jewish identity has been retold, recreated and reformed for various audiences and various moments, and she does so clearly and critically. Academically, historically, it's all fascinating. I think it would be fascinating for anyone. But it's about my culture, and in a very real way it's about me, so, you know, there's a lot that I wasn't reading academically.

I certainly don't agree with Solomon all the time, especially at the very end, when she makes some sweeping statements about contemporary Jewishness that are maybe true for New York Jews but I think are A STRETCH AT MINIMUM to apply to Jews in America overall. That doesn't mean I don't think she's brilliant, because I do; and it doesn't mean I'm not also a little upset to have been ambushed by all these feelings about my identity as an American Jew and all of the history that's gone into making me the kind of Jew I am right now, because that is definitely also true.


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