Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Tour: Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy

When TLC Book Tours approached me late this summer with some fall book suggestions, I was immediately drawn to Karen Abbott's new hefty piece of nonfiction called Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy. Though the catchy title is at first an obvious play on the already-well-known Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I was happy to discover that it's also a completely relevant and accurate description of the four women she introduces in her 500+ pages.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy shares the stories of four women who refused to sit on the sidelines of the Civil War. On the Southern side, we have Belle Boyd who embroils herself in the rebel cause as a spy after shooting a Union soldier in her own home, and we meet Rose O'Neal Greenhow, the temptress of the set, who draws elicit information from her affairs with powerful Union men. Fighting for the North, we have Emma Edmonds who has disguised herself as a man named Frank Thompson and enlisted in the army, and then there's Elizabeth Van Lew—every bit Emma's opposite—who uses her wealthy Richmond upbringing to gain access to Confederate secrets that will help the abolitionist cause.

It's thrilling to read such detailed accounts of an event and era that is usually so simplified and abbreviated in our minds, a consequence of the 150 years that have passed, causing summation to replace specifics. Abbott tells the story of these women in such a vivid way that feels more like a fictional narrative than historical fact. The author states in the beginning that none of the dialogue is fabricated; any quotes can be found in the historical record—journals, letters, documents, and such. Abbott's use of them really adds a lot to the story, creating excitement and tension rather than presenting dry fact.

The book is divided into five parts, each covering a year of the war from 1861-1865. We follow the journey of each of these women, from their initial agitation through the development of the pivotal role they eventually play. It's interesting to see each of their perspectives and personal motivations. I found myself sympathizing with our Union heroines, and I was left wondering if that was a sentiment subtly weaved into Abbott's words or if it's just a consequence of their position on the meritorious side of history. At no point does the narrative feel particularly partisan; the focus is on the women themselves and the risks they took, not whether they were "right" or "wrong" in taking them. I was most surprised—though I shouldn't have been—at the horrors of war that existed on BOTH sides. War never seems an inculpable conflict.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a deceptively fast read that by no means feels bogged down with detail. It's an entertaining look at overlooked figures in history that feels more much like storytelling than 500 pages of nonfiction.

This post is a stop on the TLC Book Tour of Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy! You can visit the tour page to learn more about the book, its author, and find a list of the other tour stops. If you're intrigued, be sure to check out all the other blogger opinions, continuing through October 2nd!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Book Tour: The Story of Land and Sea

Katy Simpson Smith's debut novel, The Story of Land and Sea, features a fascinating time period that I was excited to experience. It spans the last two decades of the 18th century when the Revolutionary War is sputtering out and uncertain newly-coined "Americans" are trying to figure out where they belong. This story is set on the coast of North Carolina in a small town that sees war action simply because of its location on the water.

It's a quiet novel with succinct, often poetic, phrases and interactions that leave much unsaid. There are three main narratives going on here. The first, a 10-year-old girl Tabitha drawn to the sea from the stories of her father's, John's, voyages with the mother she never met; the second, that mother's, Helen's, coming-of-age with a slave companion and protective father, Asa; the third, John and Asa's reconciliations of life and loss in a changing world.

"If this is punishment, if God is looking down on her and witnessing her turned heart, then he will surely let her sink; the ocean is the space below the hand he pulls away, into which her body will drop."

The parts to this book aren't told sequentially but intend to provide perspective to, essentially, the same story. It's a present-past-future time frame that demonstrates the multitude of ways events and situations affect the people involved.

Looking at The Story of Land and Sea as a whole, I end up feeling rather confused as to the whole point of it all—the connections of the pieces and what Smith is trying to say. On a small level, it's about identity and finding your place, compared to the world around you and the people in your life. It oozes with religious influence and how it shapes responses and opinions. We can read about duty and family and sacrifice and freedom and expectation. It's about the relationships between spouses and between parent and child.

"This is what parents do: shape the emotions that will color memory."

With all these overlapping themes, it's hard to walk away with a clear takeaway. It's the reason I haven't shared much of the plot or the details of the characters and their situations—these things seem secondary. There's an overarching sadness to this story about things that can bring such joy. Mostly, to me, it seems to be about the holes, the places of emptiness—in your heart, in your soul, in your life—created by the people that usually fill them. While this wasn't a story that hinged entirely on its historical setting (the point that drew me to it in the first place!), it does demonstrate the universality of emotions and relationships, the experiences that draw mankind together from century to century.

This post is a stop on the TLC Book Tour of The Story of Land and Sea! You can visit the tour page to learn more about the book, its author, and find a list of the other tour stops. If you're intrigued, be sure to check out all the other blogger opinions, continuing through the end of this month!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Book Tour: Flings

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I am so happy that Justin Taylor's newest collection of short stories, Flings, came my way. It has been FOREVER since I read any short stories, and they were a welcome retreat back into books while also considering my now-limited attention span.

My one-time blog collaborator Sal read Taylor's debut short story collection and posted about it on this site. I never read it and thus can't make comparisons between that collection and this one, but Flings certainly feels like a more thorough, second glance at fleeting interactions; Taylor manages to move beyond mere introduction, to provide a great deal of insight into his characters, in the short time we spend with them. That, for me, is exactly the job of a short story—to leave the reader feeling satisfied with brevity, without a novel-long conclusion.

The collection opens with its eponymous story and a quick rundown of the shifting post-college relationships in a group of friends. Percy breaks up with Kat and Kat bemoans to Danny while Danny has a fling with Rachel. And Ellen and Scott are practically married until Scott leaves Ellen, and only Danny can find Rachel to comfort Ellen, and then somehow, years down the road, Danny and Ellen find themselves together, living in Hong Kong, hosting their old friend Rachel in town for a visit.

'Sungold' follows a minimum-wage, organic pizza franchise employee living a cushy life in a crap job with a terrible boss who finds inspiration in the store's most atypical employee. In 'Adon Olam,' a young man is reminded of his childhood friendship with twin brothers years after one of the boys died of cancer. A father considers the life he's given his children and their consequential relationship while at a Phish concert in 'Mike's Song.' And in 'Carol, Alone' a seventy-two year old woman in a Florida retirement community examines the life that brought her here.

I loved this collection because I didn't need to love the characters to understand their conflict. These characters are flawed; there's plenty of deep-seated emotional constraints like selfishness and immaturity, but Taylor's characters are also littered with surface issues like cheating, dishonesty, and excessive drug use. Faults like these are all but guaranteed in Taylor's characters, but it's not the character he's trying to get you, the reader, to sympathize with—it's the situation, and how its a product of these characters, that Taylor illustrates. These stories are by no means concluded—it is a short story, not a novel, after all—but they are wrapped up enough to satisfy the reader while also leaving an aura of uncertainty. We have no idea how these lives will end up, and neither do the individuals living them—and that is the point.

A thoughtful and enjoyable collection.

This post is a stop on the TLC Book Tour of Justin Taylor's Flings: Stories! You can visit the tour page to learn more about the book, its author, and find a list of the other tour stops. If you're intrigued, be sure to check out all the other blogger opinions, continuing through mid-September!