Tag: Sonia Purnell

Top 5 Non-Fiction 2019

This year proved to be a great year for reading non-fiction, with many wonderful books to choose from. These are my favourite non-fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2019. Click the title for a link to the full review where applicable. See the previous post for my top five fiction reads of the year!

The Best We Could Do

Cover image for The Best We Could Do by Thi BuiThi Bui’s haunting, beautifully illustrated graphic memoir opens on the birth of the author’s first child in an American hospital. Her arrival at the milestone of parenthood prompts her to reflect on her family history, and the difficult choices her parents had to make as refugees who came to America from South Vietnam in the 1970s after an unlikely courtship. The reality of creating her own family prompts new reflections on the one she was born into, and sympathy for choices she had previously struggled to understand. The result is a poignant reckoning with both her family history and her heritage, and the fraught relationship between the two countries at the root of her identity. The Best We Could Do captures the dreams that parents hold for their children, contrasted with the harsher realities those children are often born into, and yet pervaded by hope for the next generation. The result is a moving work that seeks to bridge the gap of silence between those generations.

Categories: Memoir, Graphic Novel 

Covering

Cover image for Covering by Kenji YoshinoKenji Yoshino is a legal scholar of civil rights, known for his work on marriage equality. Covering addresses what he perceives to be the next frontier for civil rights. Today, the gay people who are most often penalized for their identity are those who act “too gay,” who refuse to cover behavioural aspects of their identity in order to make those around them more comfortable. In the legal sphere, Yoshino cites numerous cases in which “courts have often interpreted these [civil rights] laws to protect statuses but not behaviors, being but not doing,” thus creating a legal enforcement of this state of affairs. Yoshino is arguing not only for our rights to our identities, but our rights to say and express those identities, and reject demands to convert, pass, or cover our differences. Although Yoshino is a legal scholar, his style is literary. Because he integrates elements of his own story within the broader argument, it is possible to locate this stylistic choice in his earlier dreams of being a writer or poet. His command of language, both legal and literary, puts him in a unique position to articulate the gaps that remain, and the legal challenges that stand in the way of bridging them.

Categories: Social Justice, LGBTQ+

The Five

Cover image for The Five by Hallie RubenholdIn 1888, in one of London’s poorest neighbourhoods, five women were murdered between August 31 and November 9, setting off a panic amongst Whitechapel’s residents, and an obsession in the public mind that survives to this day. The five women, Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly were the victims of the killer who would come to be known as Jack the Ripper. In The Five, historian Hallie Rubenhold places the five so-called “canonical victims” of Jack the Ripper at the centre of her narrative, focusing not on their deaths, but on the lives and social circumstances that brought them to a common end. Although Jack the Ripper’s victims are remembered as prostitutes, Rubenhold contests this narrative, laying bare the cultural assumptions that gave rise to an equivalency between homeless women and sex work that is difficult to substantiate. The Five felt neither voyeuristic or nor obsessive, two qualities that often leave me feeling uncomfortable with true crime narratives. Rubenhold’s stylistic avoidance of the killer is clean; he is elided and deemphasized at every turn. The substance of the work is given up to their lives, and their surrounding social circumstances, not their gruesome ends.

Categories: History

Range

Cover image for Range by David EpsteinMost people by now are familiar with the ten thousand hour rule. Journalist David Epstein examines an opposing approach to learning, putting aside the concept of early specialization, followed by many hours of deliberate practice, in order to explore the potential benefits of wide sampling for learning, creativity, and problem solving, before specialization takes place. His inquiry takes the reader through the unconventional career paths of famous innovators such as Vincent Van Gogh, tracks the surprising scientific breakthroughs made by outsiders in fields in which they have no formal training, and highlights how the ability to integrate broadly remains a uniquely human strength. It is important to note that Epstein is not dismissing this earlier research, or discounting specialization altogether. Rather, Range is interested in dissecting our mythologization of this one method of learning, and figuring out in which realms this strategy is applicable, and in what areas it puts us at a disadvantage. The resulting reporting reveals a fascinating range of situations where unusual training paths, and outside collaborators have had an outsize influence on innovation, creativity, and problem solving.

Categories: Science

A Woman of No Importance

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia PurnellIn the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Sonia Purnell’s fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read.

Categories: History

Honourable mentions go to Because Internet by Gretchen McCulloch, and Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells. I really was spoiled for choice this year, and it was terribly hard to narrow it down!

What were your top non-fiction reads of 2019?

A Woman of No Importance

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnellby Sonia Purnell

ISBN 978-0-7352-2529-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “Valor rarely reaps the dividends it should.”

In the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was eventually forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. But her war would not end there, and she would go on to become one of the first women recruited into the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency after the war.

A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Still hoping to do field work after the war, she did not wish to draw public attention to herself. The tight-lipped policy that served her well in the war carried on throughout her life, so that she is little known today outside of intelligence circles. However, film rights for this book have reportedly been optioned, with J. J. Abrams directing, and Daisy Ridley attached to star, though no doubt both have been busy with Star Wars Episode IX.

An aspiring diplomat, Hall lost her leg in a hunting accident while stationed abroad as a clerk with the State Department in Turkey. Struggling for advancement, and repeatedly refused entrance to the diplomatic corps, she turned her back on the Department and went in search of other opportunities. She tried to join the women’s branch of the British army when war broke out, but since foreign nationals were not accepted, she eventually found herself in the French ambulance corps. With the United States remaining neutral at the start of the war, she began her work as a spy with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as the Baker Street Irregulars, or Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Purnell’s previous book focused on the life of Clementine Churchill.

A Woman of No Importance recounts the accomplishments of a confident woman with a talent for cultivating sources and allies who trusted her implicitly, a feat many of her male peers struggled to imitate. Virginia’s confidence was also her downfall, however, in the form of a priest called Alesch, who passed off his German accent and appearance by claiming to be from the border region of Alsace. He avowed himself as an enemy of the Nazis because they had killed his father, and he spouted anti-Nazi rhetoric from his pulpit every Sunday. In fact, Alesch was a spy for the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. Virgina was suspicious of him, but believed that she could handle him. This self-confidence would prove fatal to many members of her network when she was forced to flee the country. In her absence, Alesch had enough information from his contact with her to infiltrate her circuit, and Virginia was not there to gainsay him to her more trusting contacts. Because she failed to trust her gut, much of her network would be burned, a guilt which stayed with her, and compelled her to go back into France after a narrow escape. In the Haute-Loire, she would become a legend for organizing and arming the maquisards.

Most of Virginia’s fellow field agents were men, with whom she had relationships that ranged from collaborative to adversarial. The women she worked with were largely French recruits into her information network. Initially distrustful of sex workers, viewing them as collaborators if they took Nazi clients, Virginia eventually came to rely on the resourcefulness of such women. One small but fascinating aspect of this book shows how these women quietly participated in the resistance by such unorthodox means as getting enemy soldiers addicted to drugs, or deliberately infecting them with venereal diseases. This was in addition to more traditional means of assistance, such as providing safe houses, access to black market gods, or spiking an officer’s drink, and then rifling his pockets for information when he passed out.

This fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read. After struggling to find her place as a young woman, Hall achieved great success in the war, only to struggle to advance in her later career. What was forgiven under the exigencies of war held her back at Langley. That she is today recognized as one of the greats is but little consolation for the failure to fully utilize her talents.

You might also like Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy by Karen Abbott

ALA Midwinter Non-Fiction Preview

At the end of January, I had the chance to attend two days of the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference in Seattle. I had a great time attending panels, meeting up with book blog and librarian friends, and browsing the exhibits.  As usual, publishers were spotlighting some of their upcoming titles. Here are a few of the non-fiction titles that I am excited about!

Midnight by Victoria Shorr

Cover image for Midnight by Victoria ShorrA biography in three parts, Midnight examines three famous women at moments of crisis and reflection. Jane Austen’s moment comes at the death of her father, and a proposal of marriage, a critical choice between securing home and hearth, and a writing career. Mary Shelley finds herself on the shores of an Italian lake, five days after the disappearance of her husband in a storm. Going still further back, Joan of Arc reckons with meeting her fate at the stake for the second time. Midnight captures three notable women at their darkest hour, including two of my favourite authors, and a religious figure who fascinated me in my younger years. Coming March 12, 2019 from W. W. Norton Company.

Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

Cover image for Biased by Jennifer L. EberhardtSocial psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer L. Eberhardt studies unconscious racial bias, and its implications at the the institutional level, particularly for the criminal justice system, such as policing and prisons.  It seems especially important for those who consciously believe in equality to consider how social training and subconscious impulses may be affecting our behaviours and perceptions in ways we are not fully aware of, and the cascading effects of those behaviours on the lives of those around us. Other early reviewers have touted Eberhardt’s clear explanations, and her ability to combine academic research examples with personal stories to illustrate her point, an ideal combination for an academic publishing a general interest book. Biased is due out March 26, 2019 from Viking.

Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells

Cover image for Shakespeare's Library by Stuart KellsIn literary scholarship, the books, letters, and papers of famous authors become, after death, invaluable treasure troves for those who study their work. But in the case of the English language’s most famous wordsmith, no such legacy remains. Stuart Kells follows the many efforts that have been made in the four centuries since the Bard’s death to locate his papers, and the various searches and expeditions that have tried to track down William Shakespeare’s library. But the itinerant playwright seems to have left little trace.  I’m a sucker for books about books, so I expect this one will really hit the spot. Originally released last year in Australia by Text Publishing, the US publication comes April 2, 2019 from Counterpoint.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia PurnellInvestigative journalist Sonia Purnell digs into the secret life of Virginia Hall, one of World War II’s most accomplished spies and Resistance organizers. An American woman who lost her career in the diplomatic service to a hunting accident that led to the amputation of her leg, Hall found a second chance working as a spy for the British after the fall of France. She continued her work even after her cover was blown, and she became one of Germany’s most wanted, a bounty on her head, and posters of her face calling out for her arrest. I continue to be endlessly fascinated by this period of history, and I particularly like fresh perspectives that challenge our assumptions and expectations about the roles people played. Look for A Woman of No Importance April 9, 2019 from Viking.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” So when I saw her forthcoming memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. After struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts for many years, The Valedictorian of Being Dead follows Armstrong’s decision to participate in a clinical trial for an experimental treatment that would chemically induce a coma and brain death, before bringing her back. Coming April 23, 2019 from Gallery Books.

Did you have a chance to attend ALA? What forthcoming non-fiction titles are you excited about? Let me know in the comments!