Code Girls

Her Histories from World War IIcode girls Mundy cover

Researched and written with vibrant detail, the book runs a thriller’s pace. Blurbs call out “Astonishing…” “Captivating…” “Addictively readable.” Exactly right; I couldn’t put it down.

This book is not a novel, not espionage fiction and not a memoir. This book is about the history of World War II.  It’s about American Women’s History.

Secret teams of American women–thousands and thousands of women–were recruited before they graduated from universities and colleges or they were schoolteachers or intelligent young women in need of a job and eager to serve their country. More than 10,000 women were civilians working for the Army or enlisted in the Navy. All were trained in code-breaking, cryptology and sworn to secrecy. For years, they cracked multiple ever-changing German and Japanese communications code systems.

At the time, it was thought that women were more careful and had a better temperament for repetitive work than men. Yes, they could do the tedious repetitive analytic tasks and recognize patterns, compute numbers mentally and break cipher keys as well.  Mundy writes: “To a real extent, the same prejudice against women persists to this day. Even now, the disciplines that are hardest for women to break into–like math and laboratory and computer science–are the ones that are believed to depend on innate genius, a trait long, and wrongly, associated chiefly with men. … But all along there have been female geniuses whose contributions are as important.  It’s just that far less attention has been paid to them, and often these women were denied the top spots that would have brought them more recognition.”

WWII women Code Breakers at Arlington Hall
Code breakers at Arlington Hall, U.S. Army communications station during WWII.

 

Thanks to round-the-clock shifts of enlisted and civilian women (and men who were not assigned to combat roles) deciphering coded messages in Washington, the Allies kept just in front of German and Japanese maritime movements and supply chains. The majority of the code-hackers and linguists were women, working at the U.S. Navy Communications Annex near American University in Washington and at Arlington Hall in Virginia for the U.S. Army.  During 1943-44, hundreds of female recruits were  assigned to the NCR factory in Dayton, Ohio to build and test the Bombe code-breaking machines designed by Alan Turing to counter the German Enigma enciphering machine.  

 

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Code breakers at Bletchley Park, England.

 

By the run-up to D-Day, the contents of intercepted cables were solved and relayed by the code-cracking women in Washington to their counterparts at Bletchley Park and vice versa. Decoded communications reached Allied brass around the world almost as fast as encrypted messages were transmitted by the enemies.

During 1942-45, my Mother was working on arial photography interpretation and my Father on topographic models for bombing logistics at RAF Medmenham. Like many of the women profiled in Code Girls, my parents met while on active duty.

Liza Mundy has researched and written an outstanding book about the long-hidden achievements by American women who worked to defeat authoritarian dictators and fascism that exalts nationalism and race.

Resources:

CNN Interview with author Liza Mundy

National Archives and author Liza Mundy

Washington Post – The Brilliance of the Women Code Breakers of World War II

The National Cryptologic Museum

The National World War II Museum – Women in WWII

The Women in Military Service for America Memorial 

Code Girls The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II

Liza Mundy, New York: Hachette Books, 2017. 

Includes: Appendices, Reading Group Guide, Notes, Bibliography, Photographs and Index. 434 pages.  Paperback edition: $16.99 US, $22.49 CDN.

 

 

 

 

 

Shorewords

Shorewords, A Collection of American Women’s Coastal WritingsShorewords cover

 

The shore is a metaphor for women’s lives — fast changing, on the edge yet constant, healing and nurturing, rugged and gentle. In the preface, the editor explains she selected “women authors who struggle to understand the littoral of female identity. Some…feel trapped by the shore while others…explore the tidal ebb and flow of their lives.”

Designed “to add women’s voices to maritime literature,” Shorewords contains 73 pieces that span the 19th to 21st centuries including a play, poems, fiction and non-fiction. Some of these were extracted from longer works.

Perhaps I overlooked it, but I didn’t notice editorial classification noting whether a prose piece was fiction or non-fiction. Too bad; because the book could be a useful teaching resource. As a long time adjunct professor of writing and journalism (online and on the ground), I know there’s already confusion in the classroom about “creative non-fiction” (when the writing is loosely based on facts with fake bits added for gloss) and fact-based reported journalism (writing that is researched and verified with multiple sources).   Can we rely on teachers, students and readers to know the difference?  Readers often don’t know the difference between a novel and a memoir, an opinion essay or a news article. Call me old school, but I want to know if an author is describing real events or making up scenarios, characters and outcomes. If we can’t determine when a writer is reporting truth or spinning a yarn, how will we develop antennae to spot lies from more powerful sources? 

The anthology would benefit from writings that push the geographical coverage northward and southward on the continent as well as the inclusion of more Native American women writers.

On the whole, though, the anthology is a welcome collection of women’s reflections on water and observations of sea and shore. The editor provides a personal note, mentioning her walks with a dog named Kali. While it could be considered the editor’s intent is to stamp her fingerprints on the book, the recurring theme stitches together the eight sections in the anthology.

Includes: Jennifer Ackerman * Nancy Allen * Gloria Anzaldúa * Kerry Neville Bakken * Dorothy Balano * Andrea Barrett * Doris Betts * Kate Braverman * Mary Louisa Burtch Brewster * Mary Parker Buckles * Rachel L. Carson * Kate Chopin * Amy Clampitt * Lucille Sayles Clifton * Wanda Coleman * Rebecca Blaine Harding Davis * Jan DeBlieu * Emily Dickinson * Joan Didion * Annie Dillard * Gretel Ehrlich * Anita Endrezze * Diane P. Freedman * Tess Gallagher * Susan Glaspell * Mary Hood * Cynthia Huntington * Sarah Orne Jewett * Mary Karr * Susan Kenney * Carolyn Kizer * Ursula K. Le Guin * Denise Levertov * Anne Morrow Lindbergh * Nancy Lord * Sandra McPherson * Edna St. Vincent Millay * Marianne Moore * Ruth Moore * Sena Jeter Naslund * Gloria Naylor * Mary Oliver * Elizabeth Stuart Phelps * E. Annie Proulx * May Sarton * Elizabeth Spencer * Harriet Beecher Stowe * May Swenson * Sara Teasdale * Celia Thaxter

 

Resources:

Native American Women Writers

Mexican Women Writers

 

Shorewords,   A Collection of American Women’s Coastal Writings

Edited by Susan A. C. Rosen, Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2003.

ISBN 0-8139-2234-8 paperback

 

 

The Year of Magical Thinking

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Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, I traveled so far and deeply into her world during the first 53 pages that I was dumbfounded how little time had passed when I caught a glimpse of the library clock.

This is what writers do, deliberate and highly competent ones, anyway.  Suspend time, compress it, extend it.  Good writers eliminate time, a mundane human constraint.  There is no magic of higher wisdom. 

Sermons and religious ritual, drummed dances, goddess-driven examination of entrails — none are as elaborate a bulwark against time’s threats as this writer’s potion of thought.  Willingly submerged in the memories projected by this writer, we peek at her eternity mirroring our own.  Qualities the world’s religions have been promising as they dither with meaning and subjectivity, are dead leaves compared to the poetry of written experience.

Take solace for life’s wounds wherever you can find it.

French Gastronomy : The History and Geography of a Passion

 

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Opening with a tongue-in-cheek discussion on whether gourmandism is a sin in France (or anywhere), the author is equally at ease citing evangelical and Pauline epistolary evidence as the classical Greek and Roman philosophical commentators on how to live life well. For those concerned with the eating habits of Jesus, the author points out that once the fasts ended, Jesus ate and drank heartily with the best of them.

From there, the lively analysis moves to explain that French food is so varied because it lay on the path between the warring and striving clans of the past. Political changes brought trade and the next thing you know, wealth builds, which buys good cooks, fine ingredients and the leisure to stay at table.

The Parisian dedication to eating and measuring success by wealth of the table long predates the ostentatious 1890’s or the studious culinary minimalism of the 1980’s. The Venetian ambassador to the King of France in 1577, surely no bumpkin, commented on the diverse provisions and how rich and poor alike eat well. In the early 19th century Parisians could buy strawberries in January, grapes at Spring solstice and pineapples year round.

The big advance in French cooking occurred with the change in meat preparation from roasting on an open fire or boiling in a suspended pot to a raised prototype stove called a potager. Built of bricks and tiles, a similar cooking system existed in Italy a century before it arrived in French kitchens in the 1700s. Hot coals were arranged inside the potager and cooks could simmer broths, stir sauces, and braise meats. “Henceforth, cooking was done standing up, close to the source of heat, a position more favorable for producing complicated hot dishes.” Of course the elaborate presentation caused the food to cool by the time the dish reached the banquet table.

In more recent centuries, the author’s primary source archives expand. Chapters dedicated to the French royal and imperial kitchens extend to the rest of Europe because any duke worth his salt wanted a French chef. Contemporary French food nationalism, street eating habits and the revival of regional producers dedicated to traditional specialties come under Pitte’s scholarly scalpel, always leavened with humor and graceful translation by Jody Gladding. In the end the author is hopeful that the French will abandon fast food and nouvelle cuisine, returning to their gourmandizing  and sinning ways.

French Gastronomy: The History and Geography of a Passion, Jean-Robert Pitte

Columbia University Press, 2002, 207 pages with index.

Reviewed by L. Peat O’Neil who teaches Food and Travel Writing for the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program and L’Academie de Cuisine.

Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush

 

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While a Fellow at the New York Public Library, author Colm Toibin delved into the papers of Lady Gregory held in the Berg Collection and published this thoroughly entertaining biographical sketch in 2002. It may be a short read, but it reassess the literary contributions of Augusta Gregory, founder of the Abbey Theater in Dublin while also having a bit of fun with the mystique of W. B. Yeats’ role in Irish nationalism and the Celtic literary revival.

Augusta, Lady Gregory’s founding of the Abbey Theatre and her encouragement of Irish playwrights is well known. Her writing, especially her contributions to plays attributed solely to W. B. Yeats, is less known. Although Yeats gave Lady Gregory some public credit for this collaboration, he “never acknowledged the extent of her work on Cathleen Ni Houlihan,” which bothered her.

Yet Lady Gregory also let Yeats take the lion’s share of credit for stage management of that production, even though he led just a single dress rehearsal when press were present. In their collaboration on the cycle of Irish legend-plays, Lady Gregory had the better ear for dialogue. She drew on a lifetime of conversations with farmers, trades workers and servants.

Cultural nationalism can’t be the product of one or two persons, no matter how well intentioned or talented. Myriad influences contribute to bonding a culture to a nation or a political stream. Irish authorities thought the plays based on Celtic myths would incite the nationalists to bolder action. Against the advice of cooler conformist advisors such as G. B. Shaw, Yeats and Lady Gregory forged ahead with the Abbey productions. As Toibin explained in an essay for the New York Review of Books (v. 48, n. 13, Aug. 9, 2001, p. 40) written while he was working on this book, the enduring legacy of the Abbey Theater was the nurturing of fresh voices and producing mythic dramas rather than staging political plays that incited hot heads to riot and ruin.

Lady Gregory sustained creative friendships with many writers during her eighty years. The narrative is spiced with anecdotes about the curious habits and behaviors of several icons of 20th century literature culled from Lady Gregory’s letters and diaries. Toibin’s irreverent scholarship sheds light on W.B. Yeats’ inflated sense of self and Lady Gregory’s efforts to edit her public image in order to maintain ties to the Irish aristocracy while supporting revolutionary nationalists.

Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush, Colm Toibin

University of Wisconsin Press, 125 pages, ISBN: 029918000X

This review by L. Peat O’Neil appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.

Resources:  W. B. Yeats and the Occult

 

 

Stories from the City of God

Stories from the City of God: 

Sketches and Chronicles of Rome, 1950-1966storiesfromcityofgodcover

Pier Paolo Pasolini
Ed. by Walter Siti, Translation by Marina Harss.
Handsel Books, an imprint of Other Press, NY. 2003, ISBN 1-59051-048-8

In the years after World War II, Rome supported a scrappy demi-monde ravaged by the invasion and aftermath. Pier Paolo Pasolini lived that tooth and claws existence, scraping together food and work when he could, begging when he couldn’t. Later he would use those experiences to drive his creative products – films, novels, stories and articles.

This mix of short fiction and non-fiction sketches explore Roman people of that time.  What’s ugly and squalid shows its beauty to Pasolini.  He cuts through the outwardly pleasing cowards and hypocrites that repel him and celebrates successful thieves and  crafty con artists. The stories mark incremental successes in modest lives where the big picture is only to stay alive for another day.

The short pieces succeed as portraits of people and place during a certain time.  It’s full of timeless portraits of the fleet stealthy underclass that every big city hides.  The stories feature Roman boys — canny youths wise beyond their birthdays.  The author opens up a window on hidden Rome, a part of the city that continues to exist in certain dodgy corners and presumably always will. 

He also notices the timeless landscape of Rome. “Delirious Rome” (p. 25, uncorrected page proofs) opens with two trolley antennae sparking at a track crossing.  The image propels the author to a meditation that compresses time as he thinks about workers commuting all week, and then relaxing along the Tiber. The Roman landscape takes on mythic proportions in Pasolini’s reflection as he skips through history during the trolley ride. The story starts with a spark, a moment in 1950, yet the details of Roman life as illuminated by Pasolini remain. Decades later, the sparks still explode when trolleys cross track lines, sending a rider’s thoughts cart-wheeling beyond the immediate.  Pasolini captures ten seconds of mental musing in pages of robust description.

Pasolini captures smiles and smells, the empty places where the downtrodden hole up to sleep or sell their pilfered wares. By using dialect of the under class, Pasolini thumbs his nose to aristocrats and the fascist enforcers they so recently embraced and supported.  Still, he was no hero to the left, who saw his attention to the less savory aspects of poverty as a perversity.

-This book review originally appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.

The Deadwood Beetle

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Here is a love story between a retired science professor and an antiques dealer. It’s also a story of hiding and shedding the past, human behavior as it mimes beetle traits, and the seductive trap of obsession.

Dr. Tristan Martens finds his mother’s sewing table by chance in a Manhattan antiques shop owned by Cora Lowenstein. Tristan is obsessed with recovering the sewing table which he’d last seen during World War II in Holland. He recognizes the table because of a phrase written on the underside “When the Jews are gone, we will be the next ones” scratched long ago by Tristan and his sister Isolde. Might their names bear other meanings?

At times, Tristan seems too frail and vulnerable to be a retired NYC professor, albeit a solitary entomologist. More butterfly chaser than durable hard-shell beetle man, he embarks on a mildly calculated seduction of Cora as subterfuge to acquire the sewing table. Instead of persuading her to sell the cabinet, Dr. Martens becomes entranced by Cora. In time, Cora displaces the piece of furniture to become the object of Dr. Martens’ quest and she has a secret.

A compelling read from start to finish, the prose gleams with memorable allusions to entomological science. Tristan Martens wonders if he had never been born, would he be… “lying, an unfertilized clump in the honeycombs of the universe.” He imagines the academic progress of Elida Hernandez, the graduate student he mentors, “climbing her green reed. I watched her grasping, reaching, hand over hand.” His ex-wife was nearly killed when “the train slammed into our station wagon and sent it flying through the air with its green doors flapping like grasshopper wings…” Of himself, he decides that there’s “nothing enticing about the cracked carapace of a man. When he loses his front, he puts his robe on quickly… .”

Ultimately, Tristan’s life-long beetle collecting and Elida’s pursuit of minutely different evolutionary changes in the cerambycid species that she’s tracking in the Arizona desert become emblems the novel’s main characters. People may appear to be of similar age, upbringing, sensibility, but have profound differences only visible with microscopic inspection and focused attention. Tristan muses, “I wanted Cora Lowenstein to be exactly like me. Mistrustful of the world beyond the simplest, hardest evidence.” As the story deepens, Martens reflects on his family origins, their history in Holland and Germany and withholds the details from Cora.

Cora’s own secret is Sandor, her husband cocooned away in a nursing facility. After his heart stopped during minor surgery, he’d sunk into a profound coma and was “reduced to an empty shell.” Tristan is a shell too, an armored beetle covering his desire for Cora and shame for his family’s history. Perhaps the only dent in this polished novel is that occasionally the dialogue falters. A conversation between the young Tristan and his sister about general wartime poverty and waiting has Tristan asking “When do we get ours?” a colloquialism tuned more to the upwardly mobile late 20th century.

The novel ends in a filigree of disconnected and elliptical statements meant by the two friends, Cora and Tristan, to cover their discomfort in talking about their present day situation. As a cap for the story, this smattering of words confuses rather than clarifies. The Christmas Eve dinner scene with Elida’s family seemed off-base, as if the phrases were lifted from a different encounter.

Yet the author’s careful imagery is sustained throughout the book, providing technical structure and poetic allusion.  During the Hernandez family gathering, Martens mentions that he became interested in entomology by watching carrion beetles during his work as an apprentice butcher. “They clean up the dirty work. Absolutely essential to life,”  says Elida. Twenty-four pages later Cora alludes to the same tasks: “your people did the housekeeping” referring to Martens’ Nazi-supporting parents. Looming behind the story is always Tristan Martens’ past, growing up the child of Nazi collaborators in Holland, though Cora excuses him. “You were just a child,” she says, several times.

Yet some of Tristan is a child still. The boy who crawled under the sewing table to retreat from a disturbing world shows a child’s grasp of the complexities of adult friendships. His more recent past is also a puzzle to him – an ex-wife and a Christian zealot adult son, both living in Texas. Rather than examine the complexities of the human psyche, Tristan uses an insect explain his son’s harsh letters insisting that Tristan embrace the Supreme (Divine) Authority. The species is a New Guinean fly with “armored, spearlike protuberances that brandish from just below their widely separated eyes … [all] he can do then is wiggle his legs, unable to move, living in dread of the scavenger ants… .” Tristan hides in his apartment when events proceed in ways he didn’t anticipate and others’ take actions he hasn’t orchestrated.

At novel’s end, it’s not clear whether Tristan understands the world and its people are not beetles in a display case. The story bears witness to his coming out to take a look, and shows him ultimately going back to emotional hiding. Perhaps, like the scarabs placed atop the hearts of ancient Egyptian mummies to remind the heart not to bear witness against the self, Tristan decides against judging himself too harshly.

The Deadwood Beetle. Mylene Dressler BlueHen Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. 226 pages ISBN 0-399-14805-1

A similar review by L. Peat O’Neil previously appeared in The Bloomsbury Review.