Posts Tagged ‘nonfiction’

September Updates and August Reflections

September 1, 2015 2 comments
A lovely pond my fiancé and I rested near on one of our hikes.

A lovely pond my fiancé and I rested near on one of our hikes.

Hello my lovely readers!

I hope you enjoyed the variety of genres on the blog this month.  I know I enjoyed reading them!  I also just wanted to let you know not to expect a huge influx of product reviews.  I at most will have one a month, and then only if I’ve won an item from another blog (I like to give them the links back as a thank you) or if I receive an item for review.  Again, though, I will keep it to one a month at most.

The book of the month for September will be:

The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
First reviewed in September 2011
“Marlowe is someone whose presence it is always worth being in, regardless of whether his surroundings are perfect or not.  I recommend this to noir fans, highly.”

How was my reading, reviewing, and writing this month?

August books read: 4 (1 historic urban fantasy, 2 ya dystopian scifi, 1 historic fantasy)

August reviews: 7

Other August posts: 1 product review

Most popular post in August written in August: Product Review: Squatty Potty

My favorite post of August: Book Review: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman. I really enjoyed the discussion in the comments of this review.  It was a difficult review to write, and I was really glad it stirred such a positive response!

Most popular post in August written at any time: Book Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

August writing: I put my writing energy into the blog this month, as well as my reading.  This was intentional, as I was very limited on time, and I wanted my blog in tip top shape before fall.

Coming up in September: I have a 2015 ARC with a giveaway to post, as well as reviews for the reads named above.  For the first time in years, I won’t be participating in the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril challenge.  Instead, I chose to participate in the Once Upon a Time fantasy challenge in the spring.  But I encourage you all to consider participating in R.I.P. X!

Happy September and happy reading!

Book Review: Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology Behind the World’s Most Pungent Food — With Over 100 Recipes by Robin Cherry

August 27, 2015 4 comments

Book Review: Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World's Most Pungent Food--with over 100 Recipes by Robin CherrySummary:
A history of the world and medicine as seen through the eyes of garlic, plus a lesson on the many varieties of garlic, how to grow it, and where to find other garlic lovers.  Topped off with a collection of over 100 recipes from all over the world featuring garlic, both historic and new.

When I saw this book on NetGalley, I knew I needed a review copy.  I’m a passionate home chef with a love of garlic and a never-ending interest on the history of food.  This book’s title indicated it would hit all three of those interests, and its content did not let me down.

The book is divided into two parts.  Part One focuses on everything but the recipes. Part Two is the recipes.  Part One’s chapters cover the history of using garlic for health and for food, garlic in legends and lore, and how to grow your own.  This is the section that most entertained my friends and fiancé, as they found themselves the recipients of random facts about garlic.  One friend received an email of all of the types of garlic that originated in the country of Georgia; another a tip that growing some near her fruit tree might be beneficial for the tree.  Here are a few of my favorite facts that I learned in Part One:

  • The world’s first-known medical text also mentions medical uses of garlic (loc 129)
  • Garlic is designated as a drug in Japan (loc 222)
  • Spanish immigrants were the most likely to survive during the colonization of the Western hemisphere, thanks to their consumption of garlic.  Carrying the cloves protected them from disease-carrying mosquitoes.  (loc 309-313)
  • Garlic vodka is used as an antiflu remedy in Russia (Bonus: the book has the recipe for making this for yourself). (loc 392)
  • “In addition to preventing colds, garlic is effective in killing viral meningitis, viral pneumonia, influenza, and herpes.” (loc 423)
  • “Garlic also kills bacteria directly, by invading its cells and causing them to explode, thus bacteria has not opportunity to develop a resistance to it.” (loc 427)
  • “Green-colored garlic is stronger than white garlic because it contains more of the aromatic sulfuric compounds.” (loc 922)
  • The earliest bridal bouquets incorporated garlic to ward off the evil spirits. (loc 1067)
  • There are over 200 varieties of garlic. (loc 1203)

Part One ends with tips on how to cultivate garlic and a selection of the various types of garlic, including notes on where they grow best, how they look, and how they taste.  Garlic may be broadly divided into hardnecks and softnecks, but there are subvarieties within these two main ones.  (Softnecks are the ones that you can braid).  My one criticism of Part One is that I wish it had gone more in-depth into the history of garlic all over the world.  It left me wanting more.  Perhaps there isn’t more, but I certainly wish there was.  I would additionally note that, although I personally enjoyed reading about the many varieties of garlic and took copious notes, some readers might find the listing of the types a bit tedious to read and may not be expecting it in a book of this nature.

Part Two is the recipes.  It starts with notes on how to handle and prepare garlic.  The recipes are then divided into: dips, sauces, and condiments; bread, pizza, and pasta; soups; salads and salad dressings; appetizers; poultry; lamb; beef; seafood; vegetarian; side dishes; dessert; and historical recipes.    I marked off a total of 19 recipes that I definitely want to try, which is quite a lot for me.  Often I’ll read a cookbook and only be interested in one or two of the recipes.  The recipes cover a nice variety of cuisines, and the historic recipes are fascinating, although most readers will probably not try them as they require things such as fresh blood.  Besides the historic recipes, the dessert ones are probably the most surprising.  I actually did mark one off as one I’d like to try–Roasted Garlic Creme Brulee.

I have managed to make one of the recipes so far: Garlic Scape Pesto (loc 1649).  For those who don’t know, garlic scapes are the green stalks that grow out of the bulbs.  They must be trimmed (on most varieties).  They taste a bit like a cross between garlic and leeks.  Our local produce box happened to give us a bunch of them right around when I read the book, and I’m a big pesto fan, so I decided to try the recipe.

Garlic Scape Pesto on top of my pizza crust, before the rest of the toppings were added.

Garlic Scape Pesto on top of my pizza crust, before the rest of the toppings were added.

The recipe is supposed to make 2 cups.  I halved it, and somehow still wound up with 2 cups of pesto.  The recipe suggests storing the leftovers under a layer of olive oil.  I found that unnecessary.  My extra kept in the fridge in a tupperware container for a week without adding a layer of protective oil.  The pesto was truly delicious though.  I partially chose it since I have made garlic scape pesto before, and I must say I found this one much more delicious than the other recipe that I tried.  I am looking forward to trying the others I am interested in, although I will probably continue to halve the recipes, as I am only cooking for two.

Overall, foodies with a love of garlic will find this book both fascinating and a source of new recipes to try.  Some readers may wish for more information, while others may find themselves a bit more informed on the varieties of garlic than they were really looking for.  All will find themselves chock full of new information and eager to try new ways to use garlic…and perhaps even to start growing some heirloom varieties for themselves.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

Buy It

Book Review: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman

August 13, 2015 8 comments

Book Review: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma GoldmanSummary:
Emma Goldman was a Russian immigrant to the United States who embraced Anarchism and became an impassioned orator and pioneer in the movement for birth control.  She was deported in 1919 for her antiwar activities and spent the remainder of her life moving among multiple countries.  This book is a collection of a variety of her essays and includes a contemporaneous biographical sketch and preface. You may read more about Emma Goldman and her life here.

I picked up this essay collection due to my interest in both US and women’s history.  It then languished on my TBR pile for years until I heard about how the Emma Goldman Archive at UC Berkeley was going to lose its funding (source). The archive is currently still running thanks to charitable donations, (source) but I still wanted to invest some time in learning more about this important female historical figure, and what better way than by reading her own papers.

The essays in this collection are: Anarchism: What It Really Stands For, Minorities Versus Majorities, The Psychology of Political Violence, Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure, Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty, Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School, The Hypocrisy of Puritanism, The Traffic in Women, Woman Suffrage, The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation, Marriage and Love, and The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought.

The thing to understand about Anarchism (the historic early 20th century kind anyway, I won’t venture to talk about modern Anarchism as I have not studied it at all) is that the basis of Anarchist belief is that there should be no government and no religion.

Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination. (page 38)

Emma took this to the conclusion that fighting for rights within the governmental power structure was pointless since the government shouldn’t be involved anyway.  Modern readers may thus be surprised at how against women getting the right to vote she was.  The reasoning behind it, though was that she thought it was a pointless fight.  Like putting frosting on a shit cake.  It won’t make the cake any less shitty.  It’s interesting reading these papers how much faith Emma had in human nature to do good.  It’s the power structures she considered evil.

My lack of faith in the majority is dictated by my faith in the potentialities of the individual. (page 34)

What I found most interesting in reading these essays, beyond getting a firmer understanding of Anarchism, is how most of them are still highly relatable today.  They have not been particularly dated.  Only “Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School” and “The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought” came across as dated and a bit difficult to read to me.  The rest could have been pulled straight from a social justice Tumblr account, with just a few names and places changed.  The three essays on women were the most interesting to me, particularly for the rather prophetic predictions that Emma made about the direction women’s rights were heading.  In particular, one section discusses that women winning the right to work will just make everything more difficult because women are still seen as the primary caregivers and homemakers.  They will just end up working just as much at home and out and about.  Emma also pointed out that society would come to expect two incomes, making it impossible for women to not work even if they want to.  This has certainly come to pass.  Emma’s solution to this is more individual freedom, and her passage of advice to women still rings true today:

Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc.; by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation.  (page 132)

Sections that would probably stir up the strongest feelings among modern readers include frequent rants against the Catholic church, hatred of all patriotism or nationalism, very strong anti-military positions, and a strong negative view of marriage.  However, if the modern reader keeps in mind that Emma was for 100% individual freedom and individuality, it’s easier to see that it’s not an individual institution she had something against, but rather institutions in general.  Think of her as an extreme libertarian, and it’s easier to understand.  In the case of marriage, for instance, it’s not that Emma was against love or being part of a couple, but rather against the state being involved in that love.

One aspect I think was missing from these essays was more from Emma on what she thought the ideal world would really look like.  How would things work once total individual freedom was won?  This is not touched upon very much, beyond Emma’s belief that crime would disappear without crooked institutions and there would be no more war.  I found her belief in innate human goodness to be overly optimistic, verging on naive.  But I also found it to be endearing that she had so much faith in humanity.

Overall, the modern reader will still find most of these essays highly readable and may be surprised by how modern many of them feel.  Readers will realize how little some things change through time and also will come away with a better understanding of the stance of the often feared and misunderstood Anarchists.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

Buy It

Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge

Announcement: I Am Open to Review Requests Now Through December 30th for Review in 2016

July 15, 2015 Leave a comment

Image of confettiHooray!!

I am happy to announce that as of now I am open to review requests for books to be reviewed in 2016!!!

Now through December 30th, feel free to fill out the submission form if you are interested in being reviewed right here on Opinions of a Wolf at some point during 2016.

Here’s how it’s going to work:

  1. You lovely indie authors and indie publishers read my review policies to determine if your book is a good match for me.
  2. If it is, fill out the submission form.  I do NOT accept submissions via comments or emails.
  3. Between December 1st and 30th, I go over the submissions and determine which ones I will accept.  The number I accept will depend upon both the number that interest me, and the number I feel comfortable committing my time to in 2016.
  4. I send out acceptance emails to all the accepted authors/publishers anytime between December 1st and January 8th.
  5. By January 15th, accepted authors/publishers reply to this email either with a copy of the ebook or confirmation that they have sent out the print book to me.  If I do not hear back from accepted authors/publishers by January 15th, the review acceptance will be rescinded.
  6. By January 31st, I will write a post right here announcing the books I have accepted for review.  This means that if you are accepted for review, you have the potential for three instances of publicity: 1) the announcement 2) the review 3) a giveaway (if you request one AND your book receives 3 stars or more in the review).  You may view 2015’s announcement post here.  I highly recommend checking it out, as it reveals some interesting data on genres that have many versus few submissions.

I would like to note that I strongly encourage women writers and GLBTQA writers to submit to me, particularly in genres that do not normally publish works by these authors.  I was quite disappointed last year to get only 38% of my submissions from female authors.  I would like to get at least 50% of my submissions from women authors.  Although I received 14% of my submissions from authors who self-identified as GLBTQA, I would like to see this grow to at least 25%.  Please help me get the word out that I am actively seeking works by these authors.

If you are interested in the full breakdown of submissions I received last year and what was ultimately accepted, check out my 2015 accepted review copies post.

Thank you for your interest in submitting your books to Opinions of a Wolf!  I’m looking forward to reading through all of the submissions, and I can’t wait to see what review copies I’ll be reading in 2016!

Book Review: Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw

July 8, 2015 2 comments

Book Review:  Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John W.S. Bradshaw Summary:
John W.S. Bradshaw, PhD, has been studying the behavior of cats and dogs and their people for over 25 years.  In this book, he seeks to present the biology behind the modern domestic cat in the hopes of helping their humans understand them better.  He also presents theories about the possible future of cats and suggestions as to how to direct that the best way possible for better human/cat relationships.

I picked this book up because I wanted to understand my adorable talkative tortie fluffball, Ayla, better.  I certainly learned a few things about cats that I found useful in relating to my own, but I also learned a lot about the genetics of cats (not sure I really wanted to learn that), the history of human treatment of them, and theories on their future evolution.

The book is divided into 11 chapters, which could be casually grouped into the following general themes:

  • the genetic and biological history of the cat or just how did we end up with a domesticated tiger anyway
  • how the domestic cat thinks and feels or yes scientists are now proving that cats actually have feelings although maybe not quite to the extent that their most loving owners believe
  • how cats relate to each other or cats hate other cats except for random kittens that are dropped into their nest or possibly other females from their own family
  • how cats relate to people or cats think you are a giant mother cat who is possibly superior (possibly)
  • how cats relate to wildlife or no cats aren’t destroying your precious birds you overly upset cat-haters (um except for possibly the wildlife on small islands but the invasive rats are actually worse and cats hunt them so there)
  • the potential future of the cat or for the love of god stop spaying and neutering the bestest most loving kitties in the world and only allowing the anti-social ferals to breed.

Obviously this is a lot of ground, so I’m only going to touch on each one briefly.  First though, just let me mention that the author is both a renowned expert in this science (the science of cats), and his book also features extensive references.  This is thus a trustworthy source, however, potential readers should be aware that the author (just as every author) has biases, and Bradshaw’s are fairly clear in the book.  The man clearly adores cats, and thus sometimes may sway a bit to the side of positive representations of cats and optimistic beliefs about the extent of their feelings and internal lives.  Now, I love cats too, so that didn’t bother me in the least, but a reader just looking at the science should note this bias.  Additionally, some of the studies he cites for his findings were quite small (under 100 participants, in one case, only 8 cats were tested).  Studies this small show definite room for further research.  Additionally, all of the cat studies he himself has conducted were in Great Britain, so cultural biases and differences in how cats and people interact should be considered when thinking about how he analyzes cat/human interaction and behavior.

The section about the history of the domestication of the cat and the genetics of the cat is, honestly, a bit of a heavy place to start for the average person just looking to get along with their cat better.  There are sentences that go far more in-depth into the genetics of a cat than I really ever cared to know.  Given that this book is marketed toward the average cat owner, it may have been better to dial down the genetic information just a bit to make it easier and also speedier to read in the lead-in into the more modernly relevant information.  The most interesting things I learned in this section were that domestication of the cat happened in multiple different times and places, meaning multiple cultures saw the potential of the cat and domesticated them (loc 267).  There is Egyptian temple art of cats sitting in baskets (loc 634), something I found to be pretty adorable.  The genetics of just how we wind up with torties, which I admit to only being interested in because my own cat is a tortie:

If a cat carries one orange and one brown version of the gene, then both appear in the coat, in random patches: in one part of the skin, the chromosome with the orange version has been switched on, and in another it is it eh brown-black pattern that “wins,” producing a tortoiseshell-tabby (or “torbie”) cat. (loc 772)

If you found that quote a bit tedious to read, just bare in mind that that is the most interesting to me of the genetics information in this section.  The cat is a “hypercarnivore” (loc 1176), meaning that unlike the dog, it has lost the ability to live on plants.  Cats, unlike dogs, must eat meat.  I also finally learned why I shouldn’t worry too much if my cat doesn’t drink very much water:

Cats do have two notable nutritional advantages over humans. First, their kidneys are very efficient, as expected for an animal whose ancestors lived on the edge of deserts, and many cats drink little water, getting all the moisture they need from the meat they eat. Second, cats do not require vitamin C. Taken together, these make cats well suited to shipboard life: they don’t compete with sailors for precious drinking water, getting all they need from the mice they catch, and they are not afflicted by scurvy. (loc 1192)

The next four sections often blurred together, since how a cat thinks and feels directly relates to how cats relate to each other, humans, and wildlife.

Cats can develop a cat form of PTSD if they are abandoned by their mothers early in life:

Kittens that are abandoned by their mothers and are then hand-raised can become excessively attention seeking toward their first owners, though some subsequently seem to “grow out of” this. Based on what we know about other mammals in similar situations, we can assume that after the mother’s departure, the kittens’ brains endure high levels of stress hormones. These consistently high levels cause permanent changes in their developing brains and stress hormone systems, such that they may overreact to unsettling events later in life. (loc 1371)

I found this particularly interesting, since I know my cat was abandoned by her first owners in their apartment when they moved away, and it took weeks for anyone to find her.  I’ve often suspected my cat has some form of kitty PTSD, and I think this scientific information would support that, although the specific type of abandonment was different.

Cats can’t focus on anything closer than a foot from their nose.  Your cat is not being stupid when it can’t spot a piece of food on the floor, she really can’t see it.  It helps to move it around or tap the floor next to it, to get the cat to sniff that area. (loc 1644)

This section also addresses why cats are harder to train than dogs:

Cats are much more difficult to train than dogs are for at least three reasons. First, their behavior shows less intrinsic variety than that of dogs, so there is less raw material with which to work….Second, and perhaps most important, cats are less naturally attentive toward people than dogs are….Third, although dogs are powerfully rewarded by simple physical contact from their owner, few cats are. (loc 2086)

It goes on to explain how to do basic training with your cat, adapted to cats’ specific needs, primarily using a clicker (a device that makes a noise).

Feral cats have shown us that cat society is a matriarchy, with the females of the family sticking together and the toms getting booted out to go roam and make more kittens, although there are certain scenarios in which toms are tolerated living in close proximity, generally in a situation where the tom is valuable for protection of the kittens if the space is at a premium. (loc 2426)

In spite of the ability of feral cats to live in matriarchies, cats are not well-suited for a bunch of unrelated and gender-mixed cats living in one small space.  Cats generally don’t like most other cats, and Bradshaw talks some about how forcing cats to live with other cats they are not related to or don’t particularly like can put undue stress on the cats.

Cats appear to be incapable of sustaining a large number of friendly relationships, even when all their neighbors are close relatives. (loc 2438)

However, the bond the cat feels with its immediate family is strong, and scientists believe they extend that bond to their owners, who they perceive of as being a sort of mother cat. (loc 3080)  This section also offers potential reasons for why a cat may purr or lick their owner, but there is no definitive scientific answer yet.  It is also noted that cat personalities are the result of a mix of nature and nurture, and affectionate owners tend to have affectionate cats but whether they pick out affectionate cats or cats become affectionate in response to the owner is uncertain.

Bradshaw then addresses the concern some groups have that domestic cats are hurting native wildlife populations, particularly birds.  It’s clear that Bradshaw believes that this is mostly a bunch of hokum created by cat-haters as a way to get rid of cats.  This is potentially true, and Bradshaw does cite some good studies about the actual impact cats have on wildlife (very small, and in some cases, helpful since they eat the invasive predator of a native species).  However, it is difficult to believe everything he cites, since his bias in favor of cats is so clear, and I am saying this as a cat-lover myself.  I would find it more useful for his evidence to be presented in a more balanced fashion, as I would then feel more confident citing it to people who are concerned about cat impact on wildlife.

Finally, Bradshaw looks at the potential future of the cat.  He is clearly quite concerned that our current method of neutering pet cats will hurt future cats.

Because neutering inevitably targets those cats that are being best cared for, it must logically hand the reproductive advantage to those cats that are least attached to people, many of which are genetically predisposed to remain unsocialized. We must consider the long-term effects of neutering carefully: for example, it might be better for the cats of the future as a whole if neutering programs were targeted more at ferals, which are both the unfriendliest cats and also those most likely to damage wildlife populations. (loc 4039)

I found this argument to be quite moving and logical.  Bradshaw suggests both that owners might let their pet cats breed once before neutering/spaying them and also that breeders could begin to work at breeding pet cats with an eye on personality rather than looks.  He also suggests focusing spay/neuter programs on feral populations.  This is definitely food for thought, and I certainly will consider letting a future pet cat have a litter of kittens.

Bradshaw ends his book with this statement:

Cats need our understanding–both as individual animals that need our help to adjust to our ever-increasing demands, and also as a species that is still in transition between the wild and the truly domestic. If we can agree to support them in both these ways, cats will be assured a future in which they are not only popular and populous, but are also more relaxed, and affectionate, than they are today. (loc 4072)

A good summary of the overall themes of the book.

Overall, this book will definitely teach cat owners and lovers some new things both about the science of cats and cat behaviors.  Sometimes the science can veer a bit too in-depth for the audience of the book, and also sometimes the author’s love of cats can make him seem a bit biased in favor of them.  However, readers who are willing to skim over the science that they are not so into will still be able to gleam lots of information from this book that will be directly helpful to them with their pet cats.  Also, this audience probably won’t mind the love of cats bias in the science. ;-)

4 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

Buy It

June Updates and May Reflections

June 1, 2015 Leave a comment
View of the Colorado River and Austin, Texas, where I went this month for work.

View of the Colorado River and Austin, Texas, where I went this month for work.

Hello my lovely readers!

I hope you enjoyed the variety of genres reviewed here in May.

The book of the month for June will be:

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: The True Story of a Nice Jewish Boy Who Joins the Church of Scientology and Leaves Twelve Years Later to Become the Lovely Lady She is Today by Kate Bornstein
First reviewed in June 2013
“I strongly recommend this book to everyone, really, but especially anyone with an interest in GLBTQ history/theory/studies or an interest in the first few decades of Scientology.”

How was my reading, reviewing, and writing this month?

May books read: 5 (2 nonfiction, 3 fantasy)

May reviews: 5

Other May posts: 1 response to current events

Most popular post in May written in May: On Josh and Anna Duggar and the Fundamentalist Christian Culture of Forgiving Molesters and Abusers

Most popular post in May written at any time: Book Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

May writing: This was a rough writing month for me.  It was an incredibly busy month, including a business trip that meant I wound up working twelve days in a row.  I also this month really felt the stress of planning my wedding more so than other months.  So that meant a lot of evenings (when I usually write) I was too stressed out to get into the zone.  I hope that this month I can handle my stress better so I can get back into the groove.  I would like to finish the first draft of my current project by the end of June.

Coming up in June: I have three fantasy reads for Once Upon a Time IX to post reviews for.  I also have a review of a nonfiction book I got through NetGalley to post.  I also participated in the book blogger interview swap for Juneterviews over on Book Bloggers International, so be keeping an eye out for a link to that.

Happy June and happy reading!

Book Review: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott

February 3, 2015 4 comments

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen AbbottSummary:
Abbott looks at the little discussed role of women in the Civil War by highlighting the lives of four different women spies, two with loyalties to the South and two to the North.  By following their lives through the Civil War, Abbott demonstrates the critical role women played in the Civil War that is too often silenced.

Doing Dewey’s review of this book landed it on my wishlist, and I was really pleased to receive it for Christmas.  It was everything I’d expected it to be.  A look at the Civil War through a women’s history perspective and told in an easy to follow style with lots of respect for the historical source material.

Abbott notes at the beginning of the book that she only uses quotation marks around information she is directly quoting from source material.  I knew from that second forward I was going to enjoy this work of nonfiction, because too often authors stray either too far toward hearsay and imagining how people felt or too far toward distancing themselves from anything other than the driest facts.  Abbott beautifully switches among the four different women, following the timeline of the Civil War and telling their stories simultaneously.  This lends a clearer perspective on the Civil War than I had before.  It puts a humanizing eye on real events.

So who are the four women highlighted in this book?  On the side of the North, there’s Emma Edmonds, who had already been living as a man to escape a marriage being forced upon her by her family.  Emma enlisted as a Union soldier and soon wound up spying for them — pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman to cross the lines.  There’s also Elizabeth Van Lew and her freed slave Mary Bowser in Richmond who worked together to spy on the Confederate president.  On the side of the South there’s Rose O’Neale Greenhow, a socialite in DC who used her affairs with Northern politicians to spy.  There is also Belle Boyd, a boisterous woman at first more interested in notoriety than in helping any cause but whose loyalty to the South became ever more strong.

This book makes it clear that women made ideal spies thanks to sexism.  The men of the North and South both viewed women as the “delicate sex” that would never actually participate in anything so soiled as war, so when they attempted to cross the lines, they would be let through without being searched.  The more high class a woman, the more protection she was afforded, so even though women were under suspicion, they were always treated better than men under the same suspicion.  For instance, Belle Boyd was caught red-handed as a spy once.  The penalty for a man would be death, but she was sent to prison and then later paroled and sent back to the South, basically with a slap on the wrist and demand she not do that again.  Another example, in the case of Elizabeth Van Lew,

For now, at least, her social position and gender served as her most convincing disguise. No one would believe that a frail, pampered spinster was capable of plotting treasonous acts, let alone carrying them out right under the government’s nose. (page 47)

Abbott does a good job of presenting the reality of these women’s lives and their politics matter-of-factly with little judgment from the future.  The women are allowed to basically speak for themselves, and the reader can ultimately decide how they feel about them.  Abbott maintains the historic feel by referring to African-Americans as “Negroes.”  This may bother some readers, and they should be aware to expect it.

The only element of the book that disappointed me was how the author handled Mary Bowser.  First, this woman is not one of the four featured in the book description or the title, and yet she served as a spy inside the Confederacy presidential household.  Mary Bowser was freed from slavery at a young age by Van Lew’s family.  The Van Lew’s sent her North to be educated and kept her on in the household as a free servant.  When Elizabeth heard that Confederate President Davis’s household needed more servants, she talked to Mary about her serving there.  This educated and highly intelligent woman (she was rumored to have a photographic memory) proceeded to pretend to be the stupid, subservient person the Davises were expecting through their racism, and thus was able to do things like dust President Davis’s desk and memorize upcoming troop movements to report later.  It was thanks to her work in conjunction with Elizabeth, who organized how to get the information out of the South to the North, that the Union was able to know so many of the Confederacy moves ahead of time.  Yet, she is not featured as one of the four main women in the book.  She is not listed as one of the women spies. The end of her life after the Civil War is not mentioned, not even to say whether or not Abbott was able to find any information about her.  For a book highlighting the lives of those often erased from history, writing Mary as Elizabeth’s sidekick was quite disappointing.

The book ends by telling the reader what ultimately happened in these women’s lives after the Civil War.  It’s a bit of a sad note, particularly for the Union women who fought for freedom and yet wound up with little of it themselves.

At last Elizabeth retreated, withdrawing entirely from public life. She had no target for her ferocious will. Her one political act was to attach a note of “solemn protest” to her annual tax payment, declaring it unjust to tax someone who was denied the vote. (page 426)

Overall, this book covers the history of the Civil War from the unique women’s history perspective of women spies.  Those looking for an engaging alternate way to learn about Civil War history will enjoy this book and learning about the women who had an impact on history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Gift

Buy It


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,416 other followers