Spies in Palestine — James Srodes’ Account of Early Jewish Settlers Who Spied on Behalf of Britain During World War I

James Srodes’s Spies in Palestine — Love, Betrayal, and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn is a concise account of a relatively obscure bit of Israeli history — the spying activities of Sarah Aaronsohn and her family during World War I.   Sarah Aaronsohn stands out as a liberated woman from birth.  Her confidence and initiative were strikingly uncommon for women of her era and made her an unusually placed and fascinating feminist hero.  A very active horsewoman, Sarah  roamed widely with little apparent regard for convention.  The book recounts her relationships with various men in her life.  Although it does not appear that she and T.E.  Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had an affair, Lawrence keeps wandering in and out of Sarah and her family’s milieu.  In comparison to boisterous energy of Sarah and her family, Lawrence comes across as a bit of an ineffectual wimp, not at all like the strong, gorgeous hero portrayed by Peter O’Toole in the epic movie Lawrence of Arabia.

The Aaronsohns were Romanian Jews who settled in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire in the 1880’s.  Sarah was born in Palestine and lived there most of her life, except for a short, unfortunate marriage that took her to Constantinople.  Her family was based in Zichron Ya’akov and was relatively well known.  Indeed, Sarah’s eldes brother Aaron developed an international reputation as an agricultural expert and used that to leverage international contacts and ultimately to begin spying on behalf of the British.  The Aaronsohns’ spying effort were inspired by the Turks’ oppression of Palestine’s Jewish settlers during World War I.  As it happens, the intelligence provided by the Aaronsohns  through their spy ring was largely unsolicited by the British and sadly lacked discipline.  In fact, it was almost comical how difficult Aaron and his family found it to help Britain.  The Aaronsohns aggressively acquired information on Turkish positions in Palestine in order for the British to plan an effective invasion, but the British did not particularly trust the information and were not particularly interested.  Even when the British decided to accept the Aaronsohns help they showed little concern for their safety and their military efforts were ineffectual.

Sarah become involved after she fled her marriage in Constantinople and returned to Palestine.  On her way home she had observed first hand the Turks’ outrageous treatment of Armenians, and her entire family was appalled by the Turks’ treatment of Jews.  Her brother Aaron had left Palestine to engage in efforts elsewhere, and so Sarah assumed leadership of the spy ring upon her return to Palestine.  Although the information provided the Aaronosohns was good, the group’a execution was amateurish, particularly since the British mixed their lack of interest with a healthy dose of incompetence. They were easily betrayed, and tragedy ensued.  

This is the story of successful espionage, but rather the story of an unbelieveably brave woman who voluntarily led a major effort to gather intelligence for Britain.  Although it did not end well, Sarah’s heroic efforts deserve to be known and honored.

I liked this book for a lot of reasons.  It was well-written and kept a good pace.  More importantly, I learned about an early Jewish feminist who played a significant part in the early history of Israel.  The historical backdrop of early twentieth century Palestine, Turkey and Britain, combined with the presence of the international Jewish community and a fantastic cast of characters made this a compelling read.

Leon Stein’s Epic Book about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is a Timely Reminder of How Poor Women Suffer When Rich Male Employers Make Their Own Rules

Leon Stein wrote The Triangle Fire in 1962.  Stein, who died in 1990 was the editor of Justice, the official publication of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.  

The Triangle Fire recounts the horrific story of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, when 123 young women and 23 men died in a New York sweatshop that had locked doors and utterly inadequate escape routes.  This is a very timely book.  This kind of tragedy is what happens when employers of defenseless and desperate poor women ignore fire laws (which weren’t all that great anyway) and lock their employees into their workplace, just to maintain complete control and perhaps make a few more dollars.  While industrial accidents are scarcely unknown in this country, they happen regularly and often on a much larger scale in third world countries where so many of our clothes, electronics and other consumer goods are made.  (William Greider’s excellent introduction to The Triangle Fire does an excellent job of recounting some of these more recent tragedies.)

 Stronger unions, better fire laws and arguably better fire enforcement all ensued after the Triangle Fire, but the fire didn’t need to happen and all those workers certainly didn’t need to die.  Ironically, Stein writes that because of the way the owners were permitted to overinsure their buildings, they may well have profited from the fire.  The sad fact remains that 146 immigrant women, mostly Jewish and Italians, were killed  — many of them by jumping out the windows of the sweatshop to avoid being burned to death.

This book is a strong reminder that workers need protection from their bosses, who cannot be relied upon to put safety first.  Safety regulations, effective enforcement and constant vigilance are required to prevent industrial tragedies.  Unfortunately the strong anti-government, anti-regulatory fervor that has gripped Washington doesn’t bode well for protecting our workers, and this country’s current leadership has given no indication whatsoever that it cares about the safety of American workers, much less the safety of third world workers who make so many of our products.  To the contrary, the focus seems to be on freeing the rich of all those nasty curbs on their freedom to get richer on the backs of everyone else.

This is a relatively short and very clear book.  I recommend it because it tells an important story about one of this country’s most disastrous industrial tragedies and because it reminds us how vulnerable this country’s workers still are.

The Queen of Katwe — The Improbable Story of a Ugandan Chess Champion

Before it was a successful Disney movie (which I have yet to see), The Queen of Katwe was a book by Tim Crothers.  Crothers initially came to Uganda to do a story on Phiona Mutesi, an impoverished teenager from the slums of Katwe who had become a chess champion through an improable series of events.  Crothers correctly recognized that Phiona’s story deserved a book, and he has written a fine one.  The Queen of Katwe does an excellent job of filling in the back story of Phiona’s family, as well as the story of Robert Katende, her coach and mentor.  

Crothers does the research and asks the fundamental questions — how and why does a barely literate young girl from one of the worst slums in the entire world creep into the world of chess and use it to launch a different life?  There is no satisfactory answer.  Despite Crothers’ diligent interviews of Phiona and the people around her, Phiona remains an inigma.  What is clear, however, is that many different people contributed one way or another along the way.  There is Katende, who couldn’t get a job as an engineer after he managed to graduate from university but then somehow lucked into a job with a Christian philanthropic community because of his soccer skills and then got the idea to teach a unlikely group of slum kids chess.  (Phiona wasn’t the only impoverished, hungry child to benefit from Katende’s inspired decision to teach kids who could barely read the fundamentals of chess.). Phiona’s impoverished family helped, too. Her mother calculated that it was better for her children to attend chess classes and get something to eat there than to earn a pittance in the marketplace.  It was also no small thing that Phiona’s  brother let her tag along.  Fundamentally, at important times, there were people who looked out for Phiona as she learned chess and as her success with chess led to her engagement with the world outside Katwe.  The list of helpers and mentors goes on, but ultimately Phiona was the one who decided to follow her brother to Katende’s class and to dig in and learn the game.   Other Katwa kids may have been equally diligent, but Phiona had a gift.

This is an inspiring book.  Even if Phiona remains an unknowable figure, her story and her unprecedented accomplishments are completely fascinating.  I was left wanting to know what happens next in her life.  (Wikipedia was moderately helpful here, so we will keep contributing!)

Finally, I really appreciated the author’s ability to take a back seat in his interviews, as well as his diligent efforts to talk to so many people and to keep trying to find out more about Phiona.  Also, as Crothers notes, the book could never have happened if Robert Katende hadn’t attended the bulk of the interviews to provide translations skills.  So kudos to Katende as well!

In the Land of Invisible Women — A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom

Quanta Ahmed’s memoir In the Land of Invisible Women – A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom is an absorbing tale of Dr. Ahmed’s two years spent as a physician in Saudi Arabia.  The author, a Muslim woman of Pakistani descent, was educated in Britain and trained in the United States.  Her decision to go to Saudi Arabia just two years before 9/11 came about when she had to leave the United States at the end of her training.  Ahmed was a modern Muslim, who had never covered herself or been subject to male domination, so being enveloped in a stifling abbayah and losing her freedom of movement outside her apartment and the hospital in Riyadh was a considerable shock.  At times Ahmed got plenty mad, but fortunately she also got curious.  She used her time well and met and spoke with as many Saudi women as she could find during her time there.  

Ahmed was continually horrified by Saudi women’s lack of freedom and their vulnerability to the dangerous bullying of the religious police.  At the same time, she grew to appreciate the women’s devotion to their religion and their country and their insistence on enjoying their lives, no matter how circumscribed.  The female-only parties Ahmed attended sound like great fun and proved excellent opportunities for her to observe and speak with an impressive number of Saudi women when they literally had their hair down and their abbayah’s off.

The book is a huge mix of good and bad times.  Ahmed was tremendously moved by making the hajj to Mecca and reminded of all the things she treasured about Islam.  On the other hand, she hated and feared the religious police and was troubled by the extent to which her Saudi colleagues meekly accepted their abuse.  To some extent, the hospital provided a safe haven and rewarding opportunities to practice medicine, but even there Ahmed noted how hyper-strict religious observances and male supremacy often prevailed.  Sadly, there was a particularly jolting event at the end of Ahmed’s stay, but I won’t spoil it by divulging it here.

So the book convinced me that I won’t be going to Saudi Arabia unless they have an unforseeable turnabout on human rights in my lifetime.  At the same time, I loved the book and appreciated all Ahmed had to say.  Much of the book involved her sitting down and posing thoughtful questions to many different and very interesting Saudi women.  At times there is a bit of awkwardness to prose because of all the Q and A, but Ahmed asked the questions I wanted to know.  Her genuine respect and curiosity shines through.  In the end, I learned a lot and came to appreciate these Saudi women and their perspectives even as I thought of Charles Grodin’s immortal line to Kevin Kline in the movie Dave:  “Get out.  Got out as fast as you can.”

Ahmed currently practices medicine in the United States and is frequently seen on CNN.  I really recommend this book.

Garnethill — The First, Very Troubling Mystery in Denise Mina’s Garnethill Trilogy

The wonderfully insightful review I had written of Denise Mina’s outstanding Garnethill has somehow vanished.  I’m sure it is my fault; I probably pushed the wrong button somewhere.

Anyway, this is a great and unusual murder mystery set in a seedy, struggling Glasgow.  This was Denise Mina’s first novel, and it was also the first book in her Garnethill trilogy.  Maureen O’Donnell is compelling protagonist.  Maureen has had a tough life, and it doesn’t seem to be getting much better when her married lover is found murdered.  She is worried for herself and her brother and starts getting curious.  She doesn’t really know how to investigate a crime, but she keeps poking around and thinking it through.  This is one of those great books where a very flawed and undisciplined character is thrust into a dangerous situation and thrives!  I rooted for Maureen O’Donnell every step of the way.  Her good heart, her curiosity and her previously untapped intelligence and good heart make her a stellar heroine.  There was enough hanging at the end of the book to suggest that the other two books in the Garnethill trilogy will be equally compelling.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry — Another Wonderful Book by the Author of A Man Called Ove

Fredrik Backman, the author of the remarkable A Man Called Ove, has written another remarkable novel, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.  Told from the point of view of Elsa, a  grieving seven-year-old girl, this novel brings together an odd collection of characters who are struggling with their lives.  When Elsa loses the one person who “gets” her, she is forced to look elsewhere.   The story is in the nature of a quest, with frequent references to Harry Potter, Spider-Man and other fantasy figures.   Elsa is a remarkable, heroic child, who faces bullying and grief with a compelling mixture of stoicism and sarcasm.  This is a wonderful book!  It celebrates quirkiness, bravery, compassion and holding oneself accountable.  I loved it!

How To Be A Heroine — In Which the Author Attempts to Make Sense of Her Life Through a Study of Famous Fictional Heroines

Samantha Ellis is a playwright, journalist and avid reader of novels featuring intriguing women protagonists. It is a fine book that discusses Anne of Green Gables, Pride and Predjudice, Gone with the WindValley of the Dolls, Franny and Zooey, and a host of other classics; and that is the feast we have been given here.  Ellis, the British born daughter of Iraqi Jewish refugees, populates her book, How to Be a Heroine – Or What I’ve Learned from Reading Too Much, with an energetic roster of literary heroines.  Some, like Elizabeth Bennet, are pretty much completely wonderful without being annoying about it.  Others, like Scarlett O’Hara, are pretty reprehensible but their boldness and determination still take your breath away.  Many are insecure and of course most of them have been dealt a bad hand in life.  Ellis does a masterful job of looking at all these girls and women and their stories as she describes her own efforts to break free of a confining family and learn to be bold.  Ellis’s views change as she grows and makes her own way.  Indeed her defense of Mrs. Bennet as an inherently practical woman has considerable merit, although I will always have a soft spot for Mr. Bennet.  In any event, Ellis increasingly loses patience with the “good girls” and is more inspired by the brave and the bold, even if they are self-centered and obnoxious and their behavior is outrageous.

This book made me wish I had read certain classics, such as Anne of Green Gables.  I don’t think I’ll read up on Scheherazade, but Ellis’s evaluation is intriguing.   Ellis’s discussion of all these powerfully drawn heroines also gave me pause in some cases — perhaps my initial readings were too glib.  It is definitely time to reread a few of these great books and to try at least a few of them for the first time.

Most importantly How to Be a Heroine reminded me how important it was for me to be able to read about  strong women and their stories.  They inspired me and caused me to think outside the confines of my own life.  Feminism didn’t just happen — millions of us were inspired by reading about strong girls and women who dared to be brave and rescue themselves.  Hopefully How to Be a Heroine will give you the same powerful memories of your own reading adventures and obsessions.

To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells — A Life Long Crusader Against Lynching

Ida B. Wells’s life is well-told in To Tell the Truth Freely – The Life of Ida B. Wells by Mia Bay.  Ida B. Wells is one of those African American leaders whose name is familiar, but I didn’t know enough about her.  Mia Bay’s excellent biography solves the that problem.  Much of it is based on Wells’ own unfinished autobiography.  This is a clear, focused book that fills a gap in civil rights history.

Wells was born a slave during the Civil War.  Her parents were sort of middle class by reconstruction standards, and they made sure Wells received an education.  Although she never received a college degree, Wells taught school for much of her early life.  Her relatively secure life was shattered when her parents both died and left her an orphan at 14 with a bunch of younger siblings.  Wells succeeded in keeping her family together and supported them by teaching school.  All that is remarkable enough, but then her life gets amazing.

From he beginning, Wells had a firm sense of who she was and her own personal liberties, so she didn’t hesitate to sue a railroad that refused to allow her to seat in the ladies section despite the first class ticket she had purchased.  The litigation was protracted and, although Wells prevailed at the trial court level, ultimately she lost on appeal.  It is really hard to imagine an African American woman having the nerve to sue a railroad for not treating her as she deserved in the late 1870’s.  Wells was tough and she was determined.

Wells was a writer and ultimately ran an African American newspaper in Memphis.  At the same time she found her lifelong cause – anti-lynching.  She called out lynching for what it was and never let go of the subject.  It wasn’t a particularly popular topic, but she pushed it relentlessly and actually helped save some potential victims.  Thanks to her anti-lynching activities she was run out of Memphis and her newspaper was burned out.  Along the way she became friends with Frederick Douglass and knew many of the other civil rights leaders of her day.   She and Booker T. Washington never got along — he was a sell-out in her view.  As the NAACP and other civil rights organizations were formed, Wells was frequently left behind.  She was female and she was not of the college educated African American elite of her day.  When others saw promise in enlisting white allies, Wells blazed on with her pamphlets and her lectures.  She never got the memo that she was supposed to sit down and shut up and let the men take the lead.    In that light, she was a precursor of Diane Nash, the amazing civil rights activist of the 1960’s who never got her due as the likes of Martin Luther King, Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson took center stage.  Unlike Nash, Wells refused to fade into the background.

Wells lectured all over the country and in Britain.   She ultimately settled in Chicago where she married in her 30’s and had four children.  Supported by her family, she kept up her political activities in Chicago and nationally, even as she had to take time out to make a living.   As a last point, she also engaged in direct social services activity for her community in Chicago and stymied lynching in Illinois — she was no “mere” journalist and lecturer.

There is obviously much more to her story.  I recommend this book about a strong, focused woman who was insufficiently appreciated in her day or in the years since.