Liar, 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.
After being introduced to Thrity Umrigar via her last novel, The World We Found, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on her latest book (neither could my mom, who promptly swiped my copy). The Story Hour hooks you from the beginning. Lakshmi, an uneducated immigrant woman from Indian who’s trapped in a loveless marriage, narrates her side of this story in broken English. She’s depressed and so desperately lonely that she tries to commit suicide. This event introduces her to the other narrator of the story, Maggie, the psychologist assigned to break through Lakshmi’s stony silence.
It’s a culture shock for Lakshmi, who has never interacted with an African American woman before. Meanwhile, this new assignment is somewhat of an annoyance to Maggie, who feels she was given Lakshmi’s case just because she’s married to a man from India. But the more the two talk to each other, the more each woman begins to change. For the first time in her professional career, Maggie feels like Lakshmi is getting under her skin somehow; she’s more drawn into Lakshmi’s story than she should be as a psychologist. Lakshmi doesn’t fully grasp the concept of therapy even though she knows that Maggie is trying to help her. She goes to Maggie’s house every week because that’s where Maggie’s practice is located, but so for Lakshmi, divulging her life to Maggie during this hour seems more like the beginning of a friendship rather than some kind of treatment.
Inevitably, that doctor-patient wall does come down. And I can’t say much more than that, because STUFF. HAPPENS.
Bartholomew Neil is thirty-eight years old and has lived with his mother his entire life. She recently passed away after a battle with brain cancer, and now Bartholomew faces life alone. He’s never had a job, and he probably falls somewhere on the autism spectrum. He spends his days at the library, harboring a longtime crush on a socially awkward woman he calls The Girlbrarian. A young counselor named Wendy recommends therapy to help him deal with his grief, but the thing is Bartholomew feels okay. Not great, but he’s getting by…with some help from Richard Gere.
The Good Luck of Right Now is written in epistolary format, each chapter a letter to Richard Gere. Bartholomew’s mother was a huge Richard Gere fan, and after finding a form letter from Gere that his mother saved, Bartholomew decides to start writing letters to Gere, whom he sees as a suave confidant. Through these letters, we learn more about Bartholomew’s life: he’s a devout Catholic with a close relationship to his longtime priest, Father McNamee. Soon after Bartholomew’s mother dies, Father McNamee has a very public breakdown during church service — he’s bipolar and an alcoholic, and he somehow winds up living on Bartholomew’s couch. Meanwhile, taking Wendy up on her offer to attend group grief counseling, Bartholomew meets a foul-mouthed man who believes in aliens. An unlikely friendship develops, and suddenly Bartholomew’s once-insular life is filled with all kinds of drama, adventure, and serendipitous connections.
What happened to Estrella? Why won’t eleven-year-old Luz speak? From the beginning, Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería is shrouded in this mystery. Luz’s older sister lies in intensive care and her father sits in jail. Her aunt is not a U.S. citizen and cannot take custody of her, so Luz is now a ward of the state, traumatized into silence by whatever happened. At her social worker’s urging, Luz’s only confidant becomes her journal. Using a deck of lotería (Mexican bingo) cards as her inspiration — each chapter is inspired by one card from the deck — Luz’s story slowly starts coming together.
The book’s exposition kind of reminded me of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Both feature a young Mexican American girl whose life unfolds through a series of vignettes. But where Mango Street follows its protagonist as she comes of age, Lotería is limited to a handful of years of Luz’s young life; Zambrano’s book is certainly the darker of the two.
In her eleven years, Luz has had to deal with domestic violence; she and her sister have witnessed her father beating their mother and have occasionally been the target of his abuse as well. Though Luz was born in the United States, her sister and parents came from Mexico; it’s especially awkward for Luz, who doesn’t speak Spanish very well, whenever they go visit family in Reynosa, Mexico. The sisters have a love-hate relationship that’s common with siblings their age, but they always turn to each other whenever things get rough inside their household. No matter their disagreements, whatever put Estrella in ICU has obviously taken its toll on Luz.
Like many of Shohreh Aghdashloo’s non-Iranian fans, I first became aware of her in 2003 when House of Sand and Fog was released. Her performance garnered a well-deserved Academy Award nomination, and she’s been working steadily in Hollywood ever since. But before being cast in House of Sand and Fog, Aghdashloo was already a beloved personality in the Iranian American community, working nonstop with her playwright husband to produce his Iranian-themed plays around the world. And before that, she was an established actress in Iran, fleeing the country and starting over in the United States after the Islamic Revolution.
The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines recounts Aghdashloo’s life growing up in pre-revolution Tehran (the title is a reference to this happier time and remains a symbol of her hope for a free Iran). Although “Shohreh” means “famous” in Farsi, her parents wanted her to be anything but: acting wasn’t considered an appropriate career for a young woman of her affluent upbringing, and she was expected to become a doctor. Still, she knew she wanted to be an actress ever since she was a child. Though her parents expressly forbid her from pursuing an acting career, her first husband, Aydin Aghdashloo, a worldly and forward-thinking artist, was supportive of her acting aspirations. They were a perfect match for each other, and both of their careers took off.
Then, in 1978, the Islamic Revolution began. Artists, actors, students, and educators were all disappearing or being taken in for questioning under the new regime, but her husband loved Iran and refused to leave. As someone who vocally opposed what was happening to her country, it was becoming increasingly apparent that Shohreh needed to leave; to stay would mean putting her husband, family, and friends in danger. She made the difficult decision to leave her husband behind in Iran and escaped to Europe, then eventually made her way to the United States to try making it in Hollywood.