Bound Feet & Western Dress by Pang-Mei Natasha Chang

Pang-Mei Natasha Chang has written a very moving book about the astonishing life of her great aunt Chang Yu-i. Yu-i was born to a prosperous family in China in 1900, the year of the Boxer Rebellion. Fortunately, before she died in New York City in 1989, at the age of 88, Yu-i told her story to her great-niece, the author of this book.

I’ll refrain from spoiling the story for readers who hope to read this book. Hopefully it is enough to say that Yu-i’s story and her challenges were unique. The author does an excellent job of interviewing Yu-i and received thoughtful and generally unsentimental answers about her personal saga, but I have been left with hundreds of questions. I feel the need to know more about Yu-i. Why did she do something? What was she thinking? I really need to know what made Yu-i tick.

The twentieth century was a tough time for China and for all the Chinese who emigrated. Given her sheltered upbringing, Yu-i would seem to have been far less prepared than most to meet the challenges she faced, but in fact she prospered. Although political events were obviously swirling all around Yu-i during this turbulent period, but her story focuses more on her personal challenges and the social system into which she was born.

This lovely book is further enriched by relatively brief references to the author’s own life story. As Chang tells her great aunt’s story, she also reveals aspects of her own life, including the family pressure she felt growing up, as well as the racial slurs she endured. Her life lacks the drama of her great aunt’s life, but this book is a testament to her own upbringing and her struggles to find the right career path.

It is worth noting that I have written this review just a few hours before my book club meets to discuss it. It will be fun to discuss it this evening without worrying about spoiler alerts!

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Dance to the Piper — Agnes DeMille’s Remarkable Account of How She Invented Herself as a Unique Dancer and Choreographer

Agnes DeMille, the amazing choreographer of Oklahoma, Rodeo and many other ballets and dances, wrote a number of memoirs, the first of which is Dance to the Piper. In this first installment of the story of her life, DeMille recounts growing up in early Hollywood as a member of an early and highly renowned motion picture dynasty, headed by her uncle Cecil B. DeMille. She writes movingly of her early fascination with dance and her watching and meeting the great Anna Pavlova, when DeMille was a child and Pavlova was at the end of her career. DeMille’s family pushed her in many ways but was downright hostile to her dancing aspirations.

DeMille was a pioneer. She forged a career doing what she really wanted to do. There were no roadmaps for an aspiring dancer born in 1895. Indeed, in the face of family opposition, a late and sporadic dance education and something less than a classic ballet dancer’s body, it is bewildering to read about how DeMille created her career. It wasn’t like today where there are ballet schools everywhere and a significant number of ballet companies are scattered across the United States. DeMille wanted to dance and created dances for herself, in part because she saw no alternative.

DeMille’s writing is clear and unsentimental. She manages to write a story about herself and her projects without coming across as an obnoxious braggart. She sees the humor of her failed efforts and the sleezy producers and impresarios determined to fleece her. She also acknowledges people such as Martha Graham, who gave her sage advice. The backstory to this brilliant memoir is that DeMille pretty much knew everyone in dance during the first half of the twentieth century and beyond.

DeMille acknowledges her family’s failings (and strengths) and then moves on. Her gift is to appreciate what her family has given her whilst still recognizing where and how she feels her family fell short. Ultimately, DeMille’s gratitude toward her family overpowers the negative and is very moving.

Anna George DeMille, Agnes DeMille’s mother, is a fascinating side story throughout the memoir. She transforms from being a successful Hollywood wife actively trying to sabotage her daughter’s dance aspirations to becoming a stunned and shattered divorcée. Ultimately Anna is her daughter’s biggest booster, and one can see see that her ultimate gift to her daughter was instilling in Agnes the confidence and determination that took her to greatness.

If you love dance and dance history, this book is a must. Even if you aren’t a big dance fan, this is a great story of someone who went from having an unformed idea of simply wanting to dance and to create dance to blasting through the conventions of her day and making a huge contribution to the dance world.

Yet Another Little Known, Yet Very Consequential Woman –The Woman Who Smashed Codes

Jason Fagone’s The Woman Who Smashed Codes — A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikey Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies is a significant contribution to women’s history and to the history of code-breaking.  Elizebeth Friedman (1892-1980) carved out an amazing career for herself.  She was raised in a small town in the Midwest.  She only went to college because she insisted upon it.  Ironically, Swarthmore rejected here.   Upon graduation from a relatively obscure college,  Friedman insisted upon looking for a job befitting her talents and interests.  She had studied poetry and philosophy in college, so non-teaching jobs did not readily present themselves.  Undeterred, Friedman kept looking.  Code breaking wasn’t exactly on her radar screen, but through luck and perseverance she started working for a rich eccentric with an interest in code breaking as it related to Shakespeare.  Ultimately she broke from the eccentric’s private colony and moved on to crack bootlegging codes and then to breaking Nazi codes during the Second World War.  Very few people came close to being able to do what she and her similarly talented husband William Friedman were able to do, but their story — particularly her story is little known.  Happily J Edgar Hoover and his FBI come out looking vainglorious and feeble, as the the Coast Guard and Elizebeth Friedman shine.

The book is well written and extensively researched and provides a fascinating story about a woman most people have never encountered and whose tracks were pretty well covered by confidentiality agreements and the likes of J Edgar Hoover. Friedman herself contributed to her undervalued obscurity by generally avoiding attention and insisting that her husband was more worthy of notice.  Coming on the recent movie about Alan Turing, this is yet another important contribution to understanding how World War II espionage worked, on both sides.  This important biography also shines some light on what it was like to live and work in Washington during and the 1930’s and the war period.

Every time I run across a biography of a highly consequential women who worked in obscurity, I wonder how many more are out there.  Thank you, Mr. Fagone for bringing Elizebeth Friedman the attention she deserves.

Little Ladies — Bold Women in Black History, An Inspiring, Informative and Very Important Book for All of Us

You really need to get this book, for the children you know and for yourself.  You will learn something, and you will be inspired!

Biographies are my favorite kind of history — always more fun and memorable than lists of battles and elections.  As a child, I read probably hundreds of biographies published in the Childhood of Famous Americans series.  Those highly entertaining books gave me my first understanding of  American history from all sorts of perspectives.  I particularly focused on the books about women who were famous for what they themselves had done, as opposed to those whose fame derived from their husbands, inspired me to think about what was possible.  Their stories were really important to me.
Vashti Harrison’s wonderful Little Leaders — Bold Women in Black History is similarly important and inspiring.  Little Leaders is written for children, but everyone should read it.  Really.  I guarantee you will learn something and you will be impressed.  I wish this book had been around when my daughters were young because it is designed to  spawn countless conversations about the struggles these women faced, the difficulties they surmounted, the sources of their inspirations and then their amazing contributions.   Harrison offers up capsule biographies and appealing illustrations of 40 remarkable black women.   The title Little Leaders, together with the simple illustrations of these women as girls, make the point that all the featured women started out as girls, and that their childhood interests often led directly to their later achievements.  These stories also provide lots of good background information about what life what like for these women and others of their time.  The happy result is that the reader ends up knowing a lot more than just what happened to a particular individual.  This is such a good way to inform children about their history and to provide context for their own times and their own opportunities and responsibilities.

Harrison includes famous women, as well as women who may not be so famous but clearly deserve to be.  It is no criticism of the book that I kept thinking of other black women who might have been included.  In fact the books just made me think of a whole host of people that deserve to be better known and celebrated.

This book belongs in every child’s library.

A Murder of Magpies — A Highly Entertaining Mystery Set in London’s Publishing World

I loved Janet Flanders’ A Murder of Magpies, a clever mystery set up London’s publishing world.  Samantha (“Sam”) Clair is a marvelous protagonist.  Sam is an established, somewhat jaded middle-aged editor with few illusions about her authors.  Because she is a woman, middle-aged, competent and unflashy…..  Well you can imagine how she is frequently treated and ignored.  When a friend goes missing, Sam she proceeds with curiosity and the help of her equally accomplished and exasperating mother and a rumpled detective.   Sam’s reactions feel so very human and she looks at things just a little differently because of her own experiences and intellect.  The London setting and the politics of the publishing and fashion worlds supply additional substance to this fun mystery.  Janet Flanders is clever, funny and charming, and deftly inserts sly feminist touches.

This is the kind of mystery I particularly like.  It has great characters with unexpected depth, courage and talents.  The settings are interesting, as is the plot.  As it happens, the fact that A Murder of Magpies is a mystery  is less inportant than the characters and how they interact with each other and their environments.  This is a fun, decidedly non-noir story, and I recommend it.

The Song and the Silence — A Strong Account of Looking for Roots and Belonging — by Yvette Johnson

Yvette Johnson has written a brave and vivid account of her own personal struggles growing up as the African-American daughter of a professional football player and a fierce mother.  In The Song and the Silence —  A Story about Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Writght, Johnson analyzes her own substantial problems and conflicts.  She didn’t get what she wanted or thought she needed from her parents and found herself adrift.  She also struggles with mental illness.  But fortunately, curiosity and a great deal of personal strength prevail.  Johnson starts to dig into the remarkable story of her maternal grandfather, Booker Wright, who was the subject of a short but epic television documentary filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1960’s.  Understanding what her grandfather’s world was like in the Jim Crow South leads Johnson to keep investigating.  Booker Wright may have been an icon, but he also led a very complicated personal life.  He did some fine things for the community and he spoke out bravely on television, but he also inspired alot of resentment within his community.

Johnson has written a great story in and of itself.  The writing is clear and compelling.  What makes this a great book is the author’s determination to keep working at unraveling the past and acquiring a better understanding of what happened and how the tragic effects have never completely gone away.  She forces herself to dig into the past, even when it tells her things she would rather not know.  She develops and shares a profound appreciation for just how horribly, horribly hard it was to grow up in the Jim Crow South and how those scars shaped people such as her emotionally remote mother.  This information is not obtained in one fell swoop.  Johnson’s patience in visiting repeatedly and lingering in Greenwood during some hot summer months yields a far greater understanding than a more sharply focused investigation might have done.

Determined not to settle for the hand she has been dealt, Johnson ends her book with some sound and encouraging recommendations for people struggling with mental illness.  I’m inevitably inspired by people who are candidly struggling with their own problems and still reaching back to help and inspire others.

I strongly recommend this book.  It goes beyond what I’d expected.

Not Just Jane — Shelley DeWees Identifies Seven British Women Writers Who Are Probably New to You

Shelley DeWees’s Not Just JaneRediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times.  I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book.  Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day.  Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times.  Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living.  They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes.  Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well.  Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different.  She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence.  Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.

I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments. 

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!