Book Bag

Last modified: Tuesday, February 19, 2013


By Leslie Maitland

Other Press

Leslie Maitland, a former investigative reporter for The New York Times, grew up fascinated by the story of her mother, Janine, falling in love with a young Frenchman, Roland, during World War II before escaping at the last minute from Nazi-held France. Janine, a German Jew, and Roland, a Catholic, had vowed to find each other after the war — but they failed to reconnect, and Janine ended up marrying an American, Leslie Maitland’s father.

In “Crossing the Borders of Time,” Maitland turns her reporter’s eye on this dramatic tale, recounting how Janine’s family fled Germany for France in 1938, then was forced to stay one step ahead of the Nazis after they invaded France in 1940. For Janine, the love she develops for Roland is a cocoon of sorts from the trauma of war and dislocation, but that ends when her family escapes to Cuba and then to the United States in 1943.

Yet that’s only part of the story. After the war, Roland and Janine attempt to find one another, but Janine’s father, disapproving of her continued attachment to a gentile, hides Roland’s letters. Janine, giving up hope, marries a charismatic American man who, sensing his wife’s feelings for someone else, cheats on her. Maitland dissects her parents’ marriage and the shadow of the past that lay over it.

Indeed, one reviewer praises Maitland for writing of her family “with exceptional candor, depicting her parents’ marital turmoil with brutal honesty and her mother’s yearning for what should have been, what might have been, with intensity. ... She writes of her mother’s love with a passion and intimacy so rare in the mother-daughter relationship.”

Maitland eventually tracked down Roland by combing through old documents, letters and photos and his family connections. She found him in Montreal and reunited him with her mother after her father’s death. In the end, says another reviewer, it’s a story that seems like “one of those sweeping, epic, romantic novels ... tailor-made for the Oscars and a long summer afternoon. Except it’s real!”

Maitland will read from and sign copies of “Crossing the Borders of Time” Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. Tickets are $5 or purchase of the book.


By Marjorie Senechal

Oxford University Press

Marjorie Senechal, a Smith College professor emerita of mathematics, takes the title of her biography of another Smith professor, Dorothy Wrinch, from the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem. It’s Senechal’s way of framing her portrait of a woman with a lively intellect and curiosity who looked for ways to bridge the worlds of science and mathematics but would eventually be “banished to the outskirts of the scientific community.”

Dorothy Wrinch, born in Argentina in 1894 to English parents, was a significant figure in early 20th-century mathematics and scientific theory. She was the first woman to earn a doctor of science degree from Oxford University; a friend and disciple of Bertrand Russell, the seminal British mathematician and philosopher; and a writer on subjects as varied as mathematical physics, biology and probability theory.

In the early 1930s, she also became involved with a circle of British scientists that looked at how proteins worked, seeing in those studies a possible explanation of life. In 1936, Wrinch developed a model for molecular protein structure that she called a “cyclol” and which attracted worldwide notice.

But her theory was attacked in 1939 by the American chemist Linus Pauling, who derided her lack of background in chemistry. Wrinch had her supporters, but many fell away as she continued to promote her model even as evidence mounted that it was incorrect. It didn’t help that she was a woman working in fields dominated by men: At times prickly and stubborn, she played into male stereotypes of “emotional” women.

As Senechal, of Northampton, also observes, Wrinch endured tragedy in her personal life. Her first husband had a mental breakdown and was confined to an asylum in England. Wrinch was granted a divorce in 1937 due to his insanity and moved to the U.S. in 1939 with her daughter, Pamela. Two years later, Wrinch married Otto Charles Glasser, vice president of Amherst College, and she taught at Smith from 1941 until 1971.

Senechal, who also has taught the history of science and technology, brings a personal note to her biography. She was a research assistant for Wrinch in the early 1970s, working with her on a book on crystal geometry. She notes that some of Wrinch’s theories and research, though dismissed at the time, have since been proven correct — just as some of Pauling’s theories have been proven wrong.

A review in Nature magazine says of Senechal’s biography, “She offers a gripping portrait of an era and of a scientist whose complications acquire a tragic glamour. It is a cautionary tale for which we must supply the moral ourselves.”

Senechal will read from and sign copies of “I Died for Beauty” Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Broadside Bookshop in Northampton.


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