Discovering Herstory

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

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

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Spies have long held a fascination for the American public. Ten or so years ago the television series Alias was a big hit. Even longer ago were the shows Get Smart and I Spy. Jason Bourne ruled the box office as did the Mission: Impossible and Austin Powers series. The current show The Americans is a popular and critical success. I myself loved the book Washington’s Spies by Alexander Rose and am hooked on the series TURN: Washington’s Spies, which is based on Mr. Rose’s book. No wonder I had to read this book which combined spying with another thing I enjoy, long-overdue recognition of the contribution women have played in shaping history.

This book traces the Civil War activities of 4 women. Emma Edmonds and Elizabeth Van Lew worked for the Union, while Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow supported the Confederate cause. Belle and Rose were out and out spies, while Elizabeth combined spying with providing her Richmond home as an underground station for Union soldiers to return to the North. Emma’s contribution was a bit more radical: she disguised herself as a man and became a Private Frank Thompson of the Union Army.

Miss Abbott takes us through the war and the activities of her ladies chronologically, starting in July of 1861 with Belle’s murder (or homicide in self-defense, however you choose to interpret it) of a Union soldier attempting to occupy her Martinsburg, VA, home through April of 1865 when Elizabeth was able to hang Old Glory on her house as Union soldiers drove out the last remaining Confederate troops. In between she provides great detail into the spy rings, the highbrow connections, the imprisonments, and the near death experiences of these four courageous women.

There are two things I’d like to address about this book—style and bias.

First off, style. For the most part, this book reads like a narrative. As the reader, I didn’t always feel like I was reading to learn about these ladies; it was more like I was reading their story. As an historical purist, that can be off-putting. Fortunately, before I began the actual book I read an author’s note in the front matter. In that note, Miss Abbott explains that the book contains no invented dialog, that in fact, anything that appears in quotes comes from a primary source of one of her subjects. She also notes that these ladies may have engaged in embellishments and notes when she could not verify something that came from their letters, journals, or autobiographies. After reading that note, I enjoyed the narrative style with a clear conscience: while the book might read like a story, it is actually a well-researched and authoritative history. Miss Abbott’s choice of a narrative style for this work of nonfiction was a good one. It immediately made the information more interesting, engaging, and accessible.

The other thing I’d like to talk about is bias. The question is, though, whose bias? I found myself not liking Belle or Rose but admiring Emma and Elizabeth, Elizabeth in particular. And as I was reading, I had to ask myself, why was that?

Certainly, I did not care for the characters of the Southern sympathizers. They seemed to be entitled, rude, egotistic, and condescending. They used their feminine wiles when necessary and saw themselves, Belle in particular, as queen bees. In contrast, Emma, by the confines of her situation, had to draw attention away from herself. Elizabeth, as an outspoken abolitionist living in Confederate territory, was immediately under suspicion and also had to draw attention away from what she was doing. I tend to shun the spotlight myself, so I identified more with Emma and Elizabeth. Perhaps that is why I preferred them.

Or it could simply have been because I also am a Northern sympathizer. Not only did I identify with Emma and Elizabeth’s characters, I identified with their cause. Pretty much anything connected to the Confederacy is anathema to me, so Rose and Belle entered the narrative with strikes against them, as far as I was concerned. So perhaps I disliked them merely for their ideology.

Maybe I just liked the names of the Union supporters more. I mean, come on. Elizabeth? Emma? Any self-respecting Janeite knows exactly what I’m talking about.

So perhaps I was biased against the Southern women. Or was the bias Miss Abbott’s? I did not do a quantitative analysis, but it seemed to me that Belle and Rose got more ink. As flirts and extroverts, certainly they must have been more interesting to write about. Did Miss Abbott give away her own bias in devoting more time to their stories?

Actually, I tend to think not. Although Rose did not survive the war, both she and Belle wrote much more extensively about themselves than Emma and Elizabeth. Belle went on to become an actress (no surprise there) and wrote multiple autobiographies. Rose had several major players in the Confederate cause as correspondents whose letters survived. Elizabeth and Emma kept journals and wrote letters, but overall Rose and Belle were more prolific. Miss Abbott had more information about Rose and Belle, so it’s natural that she herself wrote more about them.

So I suppose I like to think that the bias is in me, for any or all of the above-mentioned reasons. Admittedly, that the bias is mine does not reflect well on my character, but at least it means that Miss Abbott was an impartial author. That is so essential for a history/biography writer that I will willingly shoulder the responsibility and declare Miss Abbott an exceptional writer for her genre.

And talking of character, while I did not like Rose or Belle, they did earn my admiration for their courage. Certainly all these ladies took incredible risks to do their bit for the causes in which they so passionately believed. Rose and Belle were both imprisoned and neither one let that deter them from what they believed was their calling to do. I may not have agreed with their politics, sanctioned their lifestyles, or appreciated their essential characteristics, but that kind of bravery deserves respect.

Belle, Elizabeth, Emma, and Rose. Four hitherto unknown women who rose to the occasion and in the process changed their world. Their actions then, ultimately, helped shape who our nation has since become. Thank you, Miss Abbott, for bringing their stories to life.

A Shooting Star

Book: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction (Classic #5)

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Last autumn I made a confession—I never actually completely read The Great Gatsby in high school as I had always claimed I had. Now it’s time to make another one: I never actually totally read The Sun Also Rises, either.

I offer my apologies to Ms. Thomas, my Junior English teacher, since I was supposed to have read both of these works that year. Come to think of it, I know I didn’t read much of Huckleberry Finn, Ethan Frome, or The Scarlet Letter, either. Just what the heck did I read? I remember actually finishing Of Mice and Men because the final was going to be an essay on that. I think I actually did complete The Crucible and Death of a Salesman, but that’s probably about it.

Well, I did complete Gatsby last fall and I did complete the Hemingway book last month for my May classic. I certainly remember the overall plot from those high school discussions, but there were definitely scenes and events that I don’t recall not reading before at all.

Since the plot is so well known, suffice it to say that this is the story of Jake, American writer rendered impotent from a war wound living in Paris, his friends Bill and Robert, and their trip to Pamplona. They are eventually joined by Lady Brett Ashley and her fiancé Mike. The expatriates party their way through the bullfights and everyone loves Brett.

Instead of dwelling on the story, I’d like to comment about my favorite part of any novel, characterization. In particular, for this novel, I’m going to focus on Brett.

Brett is the sun around whom the worlds of the men in the book revolve. Or perhaps she’s burning bright, like a comet hurtling through their lives. Whatever the case, I find her extraordinarily unlikeable, yet it is fascinating to see how every male in the book is entranced by her. Interestingly, Hemingway himself seems ambivalent about her. In doing a little research, I discovered that the plot of Sun comes from events in Mr. Hemingway’s life and that Brett was based on Mary Duff Stirling, Lady Twysden, a woman to whom he was much attracted during his first marriage. My guess is that Mr. Hemingway was struggling with how he felt about Lady Twysden and that struggle manifested itself in the characterization of Brett.

As the action in the novel opens, Brett is in the midst of her second divorce and engaged to Scotsman Mike Campbell. She does not love Mike, so it seems that she is marrying him more for financial security, which is ironic since at one point Mike confesses that he basically has no money. She claims to love Jake, but they will not pursue a real relationship since it cannot be consummated. Later, she has a brief affair with Robert Cohn, more out of boredom and the novelty of having a Jewish lover more than anything else. Eventually she becomes intensely attracted to young bullfighter Pedro Romero and runs away with him. Her behavior with Romero causes Jake to lose the good opinion of the Pamplona locals, something he has worked hard to achieve. When the affair with Romero runs its course and she is left without money in Madrid, Brett sends for Jake, counting on the fact that he will rescue her so she can return to Mike.

Consistently throughout the novel, Brett behaves badly. So why are all the men fascinated by her? Perhaps, in part, they are attracted to the juxtapositions in her nature. Mr. Hemingway refers her beautiful face, yet points out that she has a boyish body and that she has bobbed hair. Brett seems to toss convention aside, marrying and divorcing at the drop of a hat, brazenly taking whatever lovers appeal to her as they come her way. Yet, she ultimately depends on a man to take care of her. Perhaps these contradictions make her so different from other women that the men have known that they cannot help themselves.

Indeed, compared to the brief outlines of the other women portrayed in the story, Brett’s character stands out even more. The two other notable women are Frances, Robert’s nagging fiancée, and Georgette, a prostitute. Or does Brett really stand out? Is she truly that different? Or does she simply embody both of their broad-stroke characteristics? While she doesn’t pick on any of the men as Frances does on Robert, Brett can be very repetitious until she gets what she wants. That’s kind of nag-like. Brett does not accept cash for her favors, à la Georgette, but she is extremely promiscuous. That’s kind of whore-like. Is Hemingway making a statement about women in general through Brett? If so, I can’t say I like what he could be saying.

Brett is unlikeable. Or, is she an object of pity? She seems to be desperately seeking love. Or, is she incapable of it? However you look at her, she seems to personify what Nick says about the Buchanans at the end of The Great Gatsby. Like Tom and Daisy, Brett is a “careless [person]…[she] smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back to [her] money or…vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess [she] had made…” And whether Mr. Hemingway is using Brett as an indictment against women, or simply working out his own romantic disappointment, or doing something else altogether, he has created a character who makes an indelible mark in the landscape of American literature. That’s quite an achievement. So despite the fact that I greatly dislike his female lead, Mr. Hemingway has earned my respect.

Truly Delightful

Book: Absolutely Truly by Heather Vogel Frederick

Audience: C

Genre: Fiction

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As a great admirer (and wanna-be member) of the Concord Mother-Daughter Book Club as created in the series of the same name authored by Heather Vogel Frederick, it’s a good bet I’ll be predisposed to enjoy her other work. That being said, I didn’t love Once Upon a Toad. I liked it, but I didn’t connect with Catriona or any of the other characters the way I did with the MDBC. Truly, however, was a different story (pun intended, sorry) and I truly loved both her and her book.

Truly Lovejoy is an Army brat, raised here and there by her parents Lt. Colonel JT and his wife Dinah, along with older brothers Danny and Hatcher and younger sisters Lauren and Pippa. The Colonel runs a tight household, with KP, yes sirs, military time, and scheduled chores. The Colonel is supposed to be completing his last tour before retirement when he is severely wounded, losing his right arm. The family plans to relocate to Austin with the Colonel as the wrestling coach at the University of Texas are scrapped, and they move instead to Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, where the Colonel grew up and where his parents still run a book store.

The new move is devastating to Truly. Her cousin (and best friend) Mackenzie was going to live on the same street, she was a shoo-in for the swim team, and best of all, the Magnificent Seven (as her father called the family) would all be together at last. Now Truly faces a new school situation, the possibility of not even being allowed to try out for the swim team (due to a poor math grade) and a stranger for a father who is trying to deal with being permanently disabled and not being able to support his family in the way he planned. On top of that, she is ridiculed for her size (she is extremely tall) and immediately makes enemies out of the two BMOCs at her new school, Scooter and Calhoun.

However, the move is not without its good side. Truly quickly makes friends with Cha Cha and Jasmine (who also happens to be Scooter’s sister) and discovers a mysterious letter in an old copy of Charlotte’s Web found in the family book store. She also is still able to indulge in her passion, bird watching, which extends to her classifying the new people in her life as birds (chickadees, bluejays, parrots, etc.). She also reconnects with the most colorful member of her family, eccentric Aunt True, and finds in her a bit of a kindred spirit.

This book had many things going for me—small town New England, interesting characters, family book store, set in middle school, hint of romance, Shakespearean references. Not to mention that it seemed a bit of a hybrid between two of my favorite contemporary middle-grade series, the aforementioned MDBC and Wendy Mass’ Willow Falls quartet. I found myself eager to see where the story was going and how Truly and her family would evolve. Yes, the end was as I expected it (although the mystery itself was not necessarily predictable), but, honestly, that’s what I wanted, and Mrs. Frederick did not fail to deliver.

So why only a 4 book rating instead of 5? For all its charm, Truly does have some flaws. Truly’s family was so large that some of the siblings got lost in the mix. It seems like Mrs. Frederick worked a little too hard to make the citizens of Pumpkin Falls diverse. Situations and patterns found in the MDBC series can be found here as well (e.g. Lucas=Kevin Mullins, Aunt True= Gigi, among others).  Each of these is a minor fault, but I was aware of them as I read, so they take just a little bit of shine off the story.

Although Truly and I have some significant differences (Truly is tall, I am short; her story takes place in a small town, mine in the suburbia outside of our nation’s capital; she is passionate about birds, I am passionate about books; etc.), I, pardon the pun, truly identified with her. I was on a swim team, was not great at math, was apprehensive about making new friends, was a military brat (although my navigator father was not nearly as military-inspired in child rearing as Truly’s helicopter pilot dad—perhaps the difference between Air Force and Army!), and so on. The subtitle of this book is “A Pumpkin Falls Mystery” leading the reader to speculate that this might be a first book in a series. (BTW—Only the title hints at a series. Mrs. Frederick gets props for not writing the story as merely a set up for further books. I hate it when authors do that. The first books in my favorite children’s series—Narnia, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables, Willow Falls, MDBC, Little House—are actually standalones. The authors may have had book series in mind, but the first story does not require another for resolution. Sorry, I digress.) I truly hope that this book does well enough to inspire more, for I truly would love another opportunity to spend more time in Pumpkin Falls with a Truly delightful character.

Mais Pas Pour Moi

Book: Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction

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I really do need to keep track of the books I choose based on my Goodreads newsletter. So many have been duds. Add this one to the list.

This collection of short stories is not about Paris, which I believe I may have thought. According to the front matter, these were written in Paris by. Mlle. Gallant. I’m thinking that having a European author may have contributed to my lack of enthusiasm for this book.

I haven’t seen many foreign films, but the few I have share a similar quality, once which I can only call disjointedness. This anthology, chock full of stories, was also chock full of disjointedness.

I’m not even talking about a disjointedness between stories. All but 2 of the stories were discrete. No, what I’m talking about was a lack of connection within a single story. I would be reading along and all of a sudden I would find myself saying, “Huh? Where did that come from? Who is this person? When did that happen?” I do wonder if some of this lack of cohesion is due to translation, but honestly, whatever the reason, it made for confusing reading.

In addition, it was frankly depressing reading. It reminded me a bit of the Virginia Woolf book I wrote about a few weeks ago. No one was actually happy, no one seemed to like anyone else, no one seemed content. Yes, conflict drives stories, but a little happiness here and there goes a long way to making reading the joyful experience it usually is for me. I was, in fact, reading this book at the same time I was reading To the Lighthouse. Thank God I was also rereading my Anne of Green Gables series at the same time, otherwise I might have sunk into a depression myself.

So, chalk this one up to once again reading a summary that turned out better than the book. Yet, I still use my Goodreads newsletter as source of book ideas and hope for a better result. I guess even after all my disappointments, I am still ever the optimist. How un-European of me!