Monday, August 1, 2016

Book Reviews July 2016

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy:  Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.  I was thinking this book was fiction when I started it, but it is not.  However, Abbott writes about the four women as if she is privy to their thoughts, so it’s a nonfiction book with a very fiction feel to it.  Basically she switches between the lives of four women, two on the side of the abolitionists and two confederates.  At first I was frustrated with the two women she chose on the confederate side; but then I figured that of course it would be impossible to find confederate women with very admirable views – an intellectual disconnect goes with the territory.  So I was never too pleased when the switch was made to Rose Greenhow, the confederate spy in Washington society, or Belle Boyd, the annoying 17 year-old who fancied herself a great spy.  She was not, although she certainly did do some damage.  On the other side were Elizabeth Van Lew, a Richmond doyenne who worked hard for the unionists and at great personal cost, and Emma Edmonds, a Canadian who dressed up as a man and joined the union army.  Emma as Frank Thompson was a nurse and a spy, often dressing as a man dressing as a woman and crossing enemy lines.  I do feel like I learned a lot about the war and women’s role in it, and was surprised often (especially that when Rose Greenhow went to jail, her 7 year old daughter, little Rose, went with her).   It’s an interesting enough book and a fast read.

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey.  This was an excellent first novel and I really enjoyed it.  The narrator is an old woman named Maud, who is in the throes of alzheimers and cannot remember much from one minute to the next.  When the novel begins, she is currently still living in her home, but with her adult daughter checking in on her frequently, and aids coming daily.  She will eat a whole loaf of bread toasted, because after each slice she doesn’t remember that she already ate.  Maud has a friend, Elizabeth, and from time to time Maud remembers that Elizabeth seems to be missing and that she doesn’t know what happened to her.  So she will set out to her house, armed with little notes that remind her of things that seem important.  As we find out clues about Elizabeth and what Maud learns, we also get flashbacks to post-war London when Maud’s beloved older sister Sukey went missing.  Maud and her parents suspect that Sukey’s husband Frank has murdered her, but since it is post-war chaos and lots of people aren’t where they should be, the police are not able to devote much time to the search.  There are thus two mysteries being solved – Elizabeth’s and Sukey’s – and Healey does a really good job of letting each unfold slowly, while making Maud both hilarious, yet keeping her dignity as well.  I recommend it.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield.  I began this novel at the same time that the train commute in Philadelphia was thrown into chaos, so I admit to being a bit distracted while reading it, as I was usually doing so standing up in a packed crowd.  And on the whole I enjoyed the book, although I do think parts of it were too easy and manipulated.  I mainly had a problem with the characters, who veer toward caricature and don’t have much to them except their role in the story.  They didn’t seem real people to me.  It’s a gothic tale, more or less.  The narrator, Margaret Lea, is a young woman who, of course, works in an old bookstore owned by her father.  She’s a solitary thing, and is haunted by the death of a once-conjoined twin, who she never knew but for whom she found a birth certificate.  She’s never talked to her parents about her missing sister.  Anyway, in a nutshell, Margaret is out of the blue contacted by a famous novelist, Vida Winter, who wants her to be her biographer.  Ms. Winter is known for never telling the truth, having a long history of regaling journalists with tall tales about her past.  Margaret agrees to write Ms. Winter’s story, as long as she can prove that she is not being manipulated and lied to.  The rest of the book consists of Margaret’s narration of Ms. Winter’s life story, and then her own trips and researches as she tries to figure out the truth of what is being told.  It’s a story with many twists and turns and patches of inclement weather – rain on the moors, etc.  It’s entertaining, but not hugely skillfully written.

Around and Into The Unknown by Hillary Savoie.  This was more like a long essay than a book; it can be read in about an hour.  I came across Hillary Savoie’s blog, The Cute Syndrome, and found she had published this on Amazon in which she describes her daughter’s story in more detail.  Esme, now 6, was born with unknown health issues.  Each time the doctors think they have discovered which rare syndrome she suffers from, they would do cutting edge genetic tests only to realize they were wrong.  Savoie writes well about what it is like to have a sick child whose illness is unknown.  She is thus without a specific “community” that can be so helpful; she has nothing to compare her child’s progress to and she does not know Esme’s prognosis.  At the same time, she makes it clear that Esme is Esme – a happy child who continues on her own journey and has an impact on the people she meets.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousnessby Sy Montgomery.  This is an excellent nonfiction book – it turns out that I knew almost nothing about octopuses and that there is indeed a ton of fascinating things about them to know, beginning with you don’t say pi but puses.  I had no idea that octopuses were so smart, yet indeed they are so smart and so conscious that their abilities might even be beyond our comprehension (primarily in that it could be that their arms have separate intelligence).  The other main thing about them which I was ignorant of is that they can change colors and patterns in such detail that it puts a chameleon to shame, and this camouflage is thought out – octopuses decide on a hunting or hiding strategy and then become the color or pattern best suited to the circumstances.  Montgomery’s writing is delightful (I was pleased to see she has other books for both adults and children).  She sets out to learn about octopuses and befriends three at the Boston Aquarium.  She works with the keepers there, along with some octopus volunteers, and interacts with Octavia, Kali, and Karma.  When she first puts her arms in (or near) the tanks, the octopuses will taste her with their suckers, and then they develop a relationship.  She does a good job of writing about octopuses, will also pondering the question of consciousness that inevitably arises when interacting with octopuses.  How much do they know?  Scarily, much.  She learned how to scuba dive because of her octopus interest, and the chapters in which she goes on octopus dives were not as interesting to me as the other chapters.  But all in all this is a fascinating book – and I admit it shook the foundations of my world a bit.

Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe.  This new novel by Nina Stibbe is a continuation of sorts of her first novel, Man at the Helm.  Once again, the narrator is the delightful Lizzie Vogel, in this book a teenager, who gets a job at a nursing home down the street.  Her home life, rocky in the first book, has become rather stable – her mother is marrying her stepfather and she has a new baby brother – and Lizzie becomes swept up in the world of Paradise Lodge, to the point where she keeps choosing working there over attending school.  As with the first novel, the best part of this one is Lizzie herself – she is a wonderful and hilarious creation, with an odd blunt way of seeing the world that I found completely charming.  It’s a comedic novel, with the antics of the Paradise Lodge residents and workers providing much excellent fodder for Lizzie’s wry and earnest observations.  I will read anything else Nina Stibbe may care to write, and I hope there are more Lizzie books in the future.

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