Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

From Goodreads:
Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.
 History isn't always my go-to in terms of non-fiction.  I'm much more likely to pick up something science, medical, psychological, or sociological than I am to pick up a strict history text.  That said, something about this one just called out to me and I am so very glad it did.  It's certainly one of the best non-fiction works I've read this year and I'd venture to guess that it'll wind up on my top ten overall list for the year.  It's just brilliantly done.

I was hooked form the author's opening note, before the book even begins.  She makes a point to tell us that the book contains "no invented dialogue.  Anything that appears between quotations comes from a book, diary, letter, archival note, transcript, or...from stories passed down by her descendants."

One of my biggest problems with historical non-fiction, particularly works that purport to read like popular fiction, is that the author embellishes, intentionally or unintentionally, and that the facts take second place to the story.  This is certainly not a problem for Abbott.  Her research is intensive - there are almost fifty pages of notes at the end and a complete bibliography over ten pages long.  There is not a single bone to pick in terms of research, accuracy, and attention to nuanced details.  Abbott clearly did her research and let that guide the book.

Entertainment Value
In addition to what I've said above regarding the attention to historical detail and the intensity of research, I could not put this book down.  The four women profiled are absolutely fascinating.  Abbott had no need to deviate from historical fact because the facts are just so very compelling.  The lives of these women are extraordinary.  I can't even begin to start telling you how intriguing and compelling their stories are, and Abbott tells them in a way that reads like a narrative, while staying true to her research.  I'm so impressed with the way she was able to avoid creating any dialogue outside of historical record, but the book still manages to read like something straight out of fiction.

I've already recommended this to the Nesties as a group and to individuals who I think will enjoy it, and it's one that I'll be pushing hard whenever anyone asks me for a non-fiction recommendation this fall.  It's just remarkably well done.  I think it will appeal not only to history buffs, but also to those who enjoy historical fiction and biography.  And of course, it would be a great choice for anyone with a particular interest in the Civil War.  We're only looking at three months till Christmas, and I think this is an excellent option for gift-giving.

Thanks to TLC for having me on the tour.  Click here to see the full list of bloggers participating.

What I Read in September

Reader Friends, this was an absolutely abysmal reading month for me.  In fact, I had to go all the way back to June of 2013 to find a month where I read as few pages as I did this month.  I only read 9 books this month and only one in physical format.  Because analyzing my reading statistics is what I do for fun, I've determined two main causes for the reading slump I didn't even realize I was in until I counted up September's stats.

One reason I've fallen behind in reading is yoga.  I'm spending anywhere from forty-five minutes to two hours a day working out, including weekends.  I live a half hour from the gym, so that means up to three hours a day are being spent going to the gym and exercising.  It also means I'm more tired at night and can't stay awake past midnight reading when I've got a yoga class early the next morning.

I am totally fine with the impact this has had on my reading.  (FYI: I'm planning another post about yoga soon, with some information and links on how I got started, since so many people responded that they're interested).  This is the first time in my life that my exterior life, particularly the functioning and strength of my physical body, has been anywhere close to as important as my interior life.  I've spent 30 years focusing on developing my mind and personality and accepting myself on the inside, so I'm overdue for spending some time developing strength in my physical body.

However.  The other reason I've fallen behind is a bit less noble.  What happened this month is that Netflix acquired every season of Criminal Minds.  And I acquired the Netflix app on my telephone.  Addiction is not even the word for what I'm caught up in.  I watch Criminal Minds on my phone during every.spare.second.  Doing the dishes, cooking, brushing my teeth, ANYTHING that doesn't require my full attention has been done to a soundtrack of Criminal Minds.

I've devoured three and a half seasons this month and there are nine seasons total, so you can do the math.  I may have a few more slow months ahead of me before I finish.  Since I almost always eschew television for reading, I'm giving myself a pass for a while to enjoy this series for as long as it takes.

All said, I read less than usual this month (for me) but I thoroughly enjoyed almost everything I read:

The Hidden Girl by Louise Millar
The Reason I Jump by Naoshi Higashida
The Good Girl by Mary Kubicka
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
One Kick by Chelsea Cain
Evil Eye: Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong by Joyce Carol Oates
Reality Bites Back by Jennifer L. Pozner
The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
V-Wars, Volume 1 by Jonathan Maberry

What did you read this month?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV by Jennifer L. Pozner

From Goodreads:
Nearly every night on every major network, “unscripted” (but carefully crafted) “reality” TV shows routinely glorify retrograde stereotypes that most people would assume got left behind 35 years ago. 
In Reality Bites Back, media critic Jennifer L. Pozner aims a critical, analytical lens at a trend most people dismiss as harmless fluff. She deconstructs reality TV’s twisted fairytales to demonstrate that far from being simple “guilty pleasures,” these programs are actually guilty of fomenting gender-war ideology and significantly affecting the intellectual and political development of this generation’s young viewers. She lays out the cultural biases promoted by reality TV about gender, race, class, sexuality, and consumerism, and explores how those biases shape and reflect our cultural perceptions of who we are, what we’re valued for, and what we should view as “our place” in society. 
Smart and informative, Reality Bites Back arms readers with the tools they need to understand and challenge the stereotypes reality TV reinforces and, ultimately, to demand accountability from the corporations responsible for this contemporary cultural attack on three decades of feminist progress. 
Very well done in terms of research and documentation.  I'm a huge stickler for showing where your information comes from in non-fiction, and Pozner does a great job of this.  You can tell that she has put a lot of time into her research and analysis of reality TV.  Not only is the research done well, the analysis is spot on and done with humor and wit.  It's dense at times, but very readable and the tone makes it fun.

Entertainment Value
I will confess that reality TV is one of my weaknesses.  Especially the Real Housewives.  It's the one thing I miss about having cable, since we turned ours off last month.  I've also been known to revel in the drama of America's Next Top Model, Project Runway, and the "documentary" shows of TLC (Sister Wives!).  Of course I know that much of it is staged and directed, but I haven't given much thought to it, outside of regarding it as mindless entertainment.  So when I saw Roxane Gay mention this in Bad Feminist, I knew I needed to try it.

It wound up challenging a lot of my ideas about just how mindless the entertainment is.  I hadn't every really spent time considering the racist and sexist undertones of reality programming, but this book really brings to light how troubling many aspects of the programs I enjoy are.  And while I can't say that I'll be giving up reality TV altogether, I'll certainly be viewing it with a more discerning eye.

I highly recommend this for fans of reality TV as well as those who are interested in racial, sexual, and body image issues in popular culture.  It's absolutely fascinating and the author's sense of humor makes it fun rather than dry.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee

From Goodreads:
In a desperate bid to escape the trenches of the Eastern front, Peter Faber, an ordinary German soldier, marries Katharina Spinell, a woman he has never met, in a marriage of convenience that promises ‘honeymoon’ leave for him and a pension for her should he die in the war. With ten days’ leave secured, Peter visits his new wife in Berlin and both are surprised by the passion that develops between them.

When Peter returns to the horror of the front, it is only the dream of Katharina that sustains him as he approaches Stalingrad. Back in Berlin, Katharina, goaded on by her desperate and delusional parents, ruthlessly works her way into Nazi high society, wedding herself, her young husband, and her unborn child to the regime. But when the tide of war turns and Berlin falls, Peter and Katharina find their simple dream of family cast in tragic light and increasingly hard to hold on to.

Reminiscent of Bernard Schlink’s The Reader, this is an unforgettable novel of marriage, ambition, and the brutality of war, which heralds the arrival of a breathtaking new voice in international fiction.
The writing here is absolutely stunning.  I first heard about this last month in Library Journal and was thrilled to find it available on NetGalley.  It's just beautifully done.  I'm blown away by how the author uses such sparse language to convey the deepest emotions.  It was on the Women's Prize for Fiction shortlist alongside Americanah, Burial Rites, and The Goldfinch, along with several others (the winner was A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing).  The Undertaking rightfully earns its place there in my opinion.  I'll be dwelling on this one for a while.

Entertainment Value
I absolutely devoured this one in two sittings.  It's not long (approximately 300 pages) and it's made up of lots of short, terse dialogue.  There's plenty of action and the story and characters are enthralling.  I couldn't put it down.  That said, it is by no means an easy read.   It's set in World War II Germany and Russia and we get unrelenting and brutal violence on all sides.

As much as we want to root for our main characters, we're continually reminded of their heartlessness when dealing with Jews and Russians.  Then, as the tide of war turns, we see them face the brutality they enacted on others in unflinching detail.  We aren't spared any amount of suffering, from starvation to violence, to rape.  It's hard to get through, and readers don't have hope of a happy ending to pull them through, since we know how things end for the Germans.

While the story itself is wonderful, it's our German characters who completely captivated me.  They're both monsters and average citizens.  We forget for a moment who they are and hope that they will find success and happiness, only to be shocked by their casual disdain for human life around them.

And if you're hoping for redemption, it's not to be found.  What will stay in my mind is the way that our characters, as much as we liked them, don't have a redemptive moment.  They only feel guilt when they are themselves treated as they have treated others.  And we're left to wonder whether or not their guilt is genuine or based only on their sorrow for their own suffering.

This is bleak in so many ways.  The writing itself, blunt and sparse, echoes the cold and desolate setting of the Russian front.  And our characters themselves resemble both the style of the novel and the setting.  They are alternately cold and hostile and warm and human in ways that will challenge the reader's own empathy.  I hope that some of you will read this and discuss it with me, because it's one that I need to talk about.  It's beautifully done and will appeal to those who enjoy literary and historical fiction.

It gets my wholehearted endorsement, with the caveat that it is brutal.  It's not for those who are put off by cursing or violence and it does contain unflinching scenes of rape.  It depicts the realities of war in a way that I found haunting but beautiful and a reflection of humanity that I am anxious to discuss with other readers.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: The Friend Who Got Away edited by Jenny Offill and Elissa Schappell

From Goodreads:
Losing a friend can be as painful and as agonizing as a divorce or the end of a love affair, yet it is rarely written about or even discussed. The Friend Who Got Away is the first book to address this near-universal experience, bringing together the brave, eloquent voices of writers like Francine Prose, Katie Roiphe, Dorothy Allison, Elizabeth Strout, Ann Hood, Diana Abu Jabar, Vivian Gornick, Helen Schulman, and many others. 
Some write of friends who have drifted away, others of sudden breakups that took them by surprise. Some even celebrate their liberation from unhealthy or destructive relationships. Yet at the heart of each story is the recognition of a loss that will never be forgotten. 

From stories about friendships that dissolved when one person revealed a hidden self or moved into a different world, to tales of relationships sabotaged by competition, personal ambition, or careless indifference, The Friend Who Got Away casts new light on the meaning and nature of women’s friendships.  
Written especially for this anthology and touched with humor, sadness, and sometimes anger, these extraordinary pieces simultaneously evoke the uniqueness of each situation and illuminate the universal emotions evoked by the loss of a friend.
Done well across the board.  I enjoyed each story and identified with so many of them.  There's a good range of styles and stories, which I think will lend a broad appeal to various readerships.  There's something for everyone represented here.

Entertainment Value
Obviously, this is probably going to appeal to a mainly female audience, although there are a few stories that cross genders and sexualities.   Within the female demographic, however, I think there's going to be a broad range of readers who will find the topic interesting and who will be able to identify with the subject matter.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one and think it would make for great book club discussions.  I personally identified with the idea of a female friendship lost and grieved in the way that one might grieve the end of a romantic relationship and spend years wondering what might have been.  My personal friend who got away is someone I haven't spoken to in years, but who I still think about and wonder how we could have saved the relationship.  

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Book Review: One Kick by Chelsea Cain

From Goodreads:
Kick Lannigan, 21, is a survivor. Abducted at age six in broad daylight, the police, the public, perhaps even her family assumed the worst had occurred. 
And then Kathleen Lannigan was found, alive, six years later. In the early months following her freedom, as Kick struggled with PTSD, her parents put her through a litany of therapies, but nothing helped until the detective who rescued her suggested Kick learn to fight. Before she was thirteen, Kick learned marksmanship, martial arts, boxing, archery, and knife throwing. She excelled at every one, vowing she would never be victimized again. 
But when two children in the Portland area go missing in the same month, Kick goes into a tailspin. Then an enigmatic man Bishop approaches her with a proposition: he is convinced Kick's experiences and expertise can be used to help rescue the abductees. Little does Kick know the case will lead directly into her terrifying past…
Chelsea Cain is one of my favorite thriller authors.  I think she does a great job of creating flawed characters that the reader can truly root for, but believe at the same time.  I mean, within limits - this is thriller writing, so yeah, we do have to suspend our disbelief a bit.  She also does a great job of creating creepy, loathsome villains.

Entertainment Value
This is where the novel shines.  I read the entire book in one sitting, staying up till 2 AM to finish. I'm not typically one to sacrifice sleep for reading, so it says something about how much I was into the story.  Loving the characters was just part of the pleasure - the book is also fast-paced and keeps the reader (or at least this reader) on the edge of her seat.  Lots of fun, particularly with Kick, who knows how to do everything except take care of herself.  And I loved her relationship with both her birth family and the family of her own creation.

If you like Chelsea Cain, then you definitely have to try it.  I also recommend it to fans of the thriller genre.  In addition, I think it's worth giving a try if you're not looking for anything ultra-dark or intense.  And by that I mean you're not going to get anything darker than the typical fare from shows like Criminal Minds or Law and Order.  It does center around a child pornography ring, but there are no descriptions of child porn or abuse, just the knowledge that that is what is going on.  If you're particularly squeamish about the subject, it may be one to avoid, but, again, you won't be exposed to anything not seen on the typical network hour crime drama.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Review: A Call to Action by Jimmy Carter

From Goodreads:
President Carter was encouraged to write this book by a wide coalition of leaders of all faiths. His urgent report is current. It covers the plight of women and girls–strangled at birth, forced to suffer servitude, child marriage, genital cutting, deprived of equal opportunity in wealthier nations and "owned" by men in others. And the most vulnerable, along with their children, are trapped in war and violence...
Throughout, Carter reports on observations of women activists and workers of The Carter Center. This is an informed and passionate charge about human rights abuses against half the world's population. It comes from one of the world's most renowned human rights advocates.
Well done.  No complaints with the quality of writing and certainly none with the research and documentation.  The Carter Center is well known for its humanitarian work and all of Carter's statistics and research are backed up with their data.  This isn't a critique of the writing, but it reads more like a collection of essays and less like a cohesive work, which isn't what I was expecting.  That said, it certainly didn't hurt the quality of the writing in the least.

Entertainment Value
I found it fascinating, but I think it's going to be one that you need to come to with an interest in the subject matter.  Carter covers all his bases with various world religions, politics, and the violence faced by women at home and around the world.  It's incredibly engaging and accessible to the lay person, but if you don't have an interest in current world events and the way they affect women, this may not be something you want to pick up for fun.  It's not a difficult read, but it's also not a light read.

Fascinating, challenging, and very well composed.  I have to confess that I'm not very educated on the Carter administration and what was or was not accomplished while he was in office.  I will say, however, that I highly respect the opinions he puts forth in this book and his efforts to educate the public on social justice issues while maintaining his faith and respecting the faiths of others.  I recommend it if you're interested in women's issues, current events, or social justice issues.