Category: nonfiction

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War

Book cover: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen AbbottLiar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, Karen Abbott’s latest nonfiction work, tells the story of four women —  Elizabeth Van Lew and Emma Edmonds, Belle Boyd, Rose O’Neal Greenhow — who refused to sit idly by and watch the Civil War take its toll. There was little that women could do those days in any official capacity, but each of the women featured in this book, as well as several of their female servants, found a way to actively support their side.

In the Yankees’ corner, the wealthy and well-connected Elizabeth Van Lew was a Union sympathizer living in Confederate territory. She and her brother were abolitionists who treated their servants well and even sent one of them, Mary Jane, off to be formally educated in the North. By orchestrating a well-informed spy ring and finding Mary Jane work in Jefferson and Varina Davis’s home, Van Lew was able to send valuable information to the Union.

Emma Edmonds came from a much more humble background, escaping her abusive father by running away and disguising herself as a man. As Frank Thompson, she enlisted in the Union army, mostly working as a medic, but eventually also working as a spy and a messenger. She saw battle, and save for two confidants, had to keep her true identity a secret; plenty of women posed as male soldiers in order to serve their country and many fought in battle; however, women who were discovered were treated as little more than prostitutes and were cast out in shame. It wasn’t until old injuries flared up in her later years that Emma decided to come clean about her identity; she fought for the pension that male veterans took for granted.

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Quickies: The Year of the Hare & I Remember Nothing

Book cover: The Year of the Hare by Arto PaasilinnaThe Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna

Publisher/Year: Penguin, 2010
Format: Paperback
Pages: 194
Source: Library

What it is: While he’s on assignment with a colleague, a journalist named Vatanen realizes he’s tired of his life. The two hit a hare while driving down a road in the middle of nowhere, and Vatanen gets out of the car walks into the woods to check on the hare. He finds it, but rather than returning to the car, he prefers to stay on his own and walks off on a year-long journey around Finland with the hare. Meanwhile, his wife and co-workers have no idea where he went.

Why I read it: I was looking for a book by a Finnish author in preparation for my trip. This one won out because it includes a stop in Helsinki, where I had a day-long layover.

What I thought: This is one of those cases of, “It’s not you, it’s me.” This book is an international bestseller. It’s charming and distinctly Scandinavian. But more than anything, this book brought Anton Checkov’s Dead Souls to mind because of the humor and over-the-top scenarios. Mix that in with a small pinch of some Confederacy of the Dunces humor, plus a solid dose of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and you have this book. And the thing is, I liked those first two books — sometimes a lot — but I could only take them in small doses. Same here.


Book cover: I Remember Nothing by Nora EphronI Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections by Nora Ephron

Publisher/Year: Vintage, 2011
Format: eBook
Pages: 137
Source: Personal copy

What it is: A collection of memoir-ish essays — some of them very very short — about getting older.

Why I read it: I love Nora. She was great. I had this book for a long time and went back and forth on reading it when she passed away, but I ultimately held off. I read this on my flight back to the U.S. this summer.

What I thought: There were some essays in this collection that I really loved, including one that gave an interesting little back story related to When Harry Met Sally. I liked the humor and I’ll admit to liking the name-dropping. But. For such a short book, it pains me that the collection as a whole was so uneven! For every essay I loved, there were one (or two) throwaways that were either kind of pointless or just…dumb. It’s like she had half a solid book and then had to dig around for some filler. And that makes me sad because this was her last book.

Bad Feminist

Book cover: Bad Feminist by Roxane GayOn my first night in Naples, I went out to dinner with some kids (the thing about backpacking as a thirty-something is that almost all of the other backpackers are at least a decade younger than you). We were at a restaurant, and somehow the conversation briefly turned to “real feminists,” which, to the guy in our group, meant really believing in/fighting for equality and not being a hypocrite and expecting guys to buy you drinks at bars. There were a few good feminists out there, but too many “feminists” were hypocrites that gave the good feminists a bad name.

I chose to remain silent through this conversation, but this is what my internal dialogue sounded like: “Sometimes it’s nice to have drinks bought for you…haha, I’m Feminist Texican…Also, guys can be feminists…I should probably say something but I just want to drink beer and look at the ocean…Say something…Nope, I don’t want to have this conversation with strangers right now…Mmmm, beer…You are a bad feminist.”

It’s a recurring conversation I sometimes have with myself. I’ve had my Feminist Card revoked many times, sometimes by other Feminists, sometimes by myself, like when Jay-Z’s “Can I Get A” pops up on my shuffle and I’m filled with shame as I sing along (yes, I realize that song is about a million years old). And it’s this kind of feminist backsliding, among other things, that Roxane Gay addresses in her new collection of essays, Bad Feminist.

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HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton

Book cover: HRC by Jonathan Allen and Amie ParnesThere was a lot that went on behind the scenes after Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the 2008 presidential election. As one of the superstars of the Democratic party, she’d been expected to breeze on in as the front runner for the election, but as we all know by now, the Obama campaign crushed her in the primaries. HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton, written by political journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, look into what happened the the aftermath of this defeat.

The authors note that after her failed presidential bid, Clinton didn’t yet know what her next move would be. One thing was for certain: she hadn’t expected having to return to the Senate. Those still rooting for her encouraged the new administration to give her a position of importance, and when Obama offered her the Secretary of State position, both camps had to proceed cautiously. There was still a lot of animosity and mistrust between the Clinton and Obama worlds in the early days, but Clinton eventually managed to win most people over by working tirelessly to fill her new role and showing everyone that she could support Obama and his policies. She traveled the world, earned Obama’s trust and respect, and fulfilled her tasks as Secretary of State almost without a hitch until Benghazi happened. In the time since she’s stepped down as Secretary of State she’s laid low politically, but pretty much everyone is waiting for her to announce her intent to run in the 2016 presidential election.

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Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement

Book cover: Generation Roe by Sarah ErdreichRoe v. Wade legalized abortion 41 years ago, and access to abortion is a right that a lot of people living in the United States now take for granted. The reality is a lot more grim: the pro-life anti-choice movement has been hard at work chipping away at abortion access. They often rely on intimidation tactics, misinformation campaigns, and — especially during the 1990s — sometimes violence. In recent years, TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) have proven successful at chipping away at abortion access on a state-by-state level. At a cultural level, the picture is just as grim. 1 in 3 women will have an abortion by the time they turn 45, but abortion remains a taboo subject. It’s a common medical procedure that few are willing to talk about for various reasons.

Sarah Erdrich discusses all of this and more in Generation Roe. It’s a great primer on the current state of abortion access in the United States because of the way it outlines what the pro-choice movement is up against. She interviews abortion providers, clinic escorts, pro-choice activists, and the patients themselves to give a fuller view of some of the effects that TRAP laws and the constant barrage of intimidation tactics have created. It’s a terrifying picture, with the barriers climbing higher the further along a person is into their pregnancy. See, for instance, the hardships one woman had to endure in the wake of Dr. George Tiller’s murder; she needed a late-term abortion because of severe birth defects:

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