Siege’s #CBR5 #7: They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook

As you all know, I’m an avid Civil War buff, and am always on the lookout for a new and interesting slant on things. They Fought Like Demons focuses on women who disguised themselves as males to join in on both sides of the conflict. Though primary sources and also reported anecdotal evidence, the authors demonstrate the methods and motivations of women in the Civil War trenches.

This definitely reads more like an academic paper than a book, but that’s okay. The authors managed to cram in an amazing amount of facts and research into a fairly small amount of space. A lot of it was fascinating, though there were sometimes SO MANY facts that it got a little hard to follow or in a few spots a bit repetitive. 

The only thing I found a little questionable was the authors’ adamant denial that any of these women (even the ones who lived as men both before and after the war) were lesbians. While I see their point, which is that women had so few options at the time that some might choose to continue to live as men because they preferred a more independent lifestyle, I think it’s a bit silly to think that none of them would be what today would be referred to as “transgendered”. In all, it’s an excellent piece of research on an overlooked area of history.

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Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #20 The No. One Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

This one was on my to read list for a while so I’m glad to finally have a chance to read it. It jumps around in the beginning, in both a non-linear way and with narrators and so that’s a little jarring at first. Because of the format it took me a little while to get into it but once I got the rhythm and pacing I really enjoyed it.

Precious Ramotswe is a woman in Botswana set on making her own way. Quietly and with purpose, she is a woman who has lived life and really just wants to use what she identifies as innate female skills to solve mysteries and help others. The other main narrators include her closet confidant and childhood friend, and her father. I really thought this was going to be a mystery novel and while it is obviously about a detective agency, that’s really only one facet of the story. It is more about reflections of daily life in Botswana, and the connectivity of people and life. I’m incredibly naive about that corner of the world, so it was great to read about it and notice the similarities and differences to my own experiences. The mysteries are really a back-drop for telling the story, and add more layers. At the start, what may seem to be so black and white isn’t so easy because Ramotswe isn’t just interested in the mystery, at her core she is really interested in fairness and finding a satisfying conclusion for all parties. Her holistic approach leads the reader to think about the bigger picture, and not view detective work from the traditional victim/suspect angle.

I just love the story of a woman, breaking cultural barriers to follow her passion and make a happy life for herself. It is satisfying and sweet and filled with moments for quit reflection which makes it a great read for summer, or really, any time. I can’t wait to read the rest, and possibly check out the TV series.

Ashlie’s #CBR5 Review #19: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors and she does not disappoint in this novel. At this point I read it over a month ago so I’m struggling to remember it actually. It was solid, but not one of my favorites from her because I didn’t find it as moving, and it didn’t stick with me like many of her other works. I think it jut because I couldn’t relate as closely to the subject matter, but it’s a great read.

This is the story of Taylor and her journey to adulthood and understanding in the real world. She lives a gritty existence in Kentucky but want to set out on her own, in her own frontier, and just be her on person, and branch out from her small town life. She falls into being a parent and happens upon caring people along the way that change her, and she in turn changes them. This novel is filled with strong and complex female characters which I am always excited to find. I also didn’t realize that this novel was the beginning of a series, so I’m excited to find and read the rest

Unlike a lot of what I have read of Kingsolver, this was a tale of hope and triumph. Although there were several devastating circumstances and situations, it was overall uplifting and a book that upon its conclusion left a smile on my face.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #57: The Hot Flash Club by Nancy Thayer

First of all, this is a book for women. So if you’re a guy, don’t bother because you just won’t get it. A take-off on Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, this book is about women when they reach that certain age—and you’ll know it when you get there! It’s about loss of self-confidence, loss of memory, loss of hair (except in the wrong places), loss of elasticity, loss of sleep, loss of sex drive, loss of jobs. It’s also about gain—weight gain, anxiety gain…  Get it?  The Hot Flash Club is a bunch of overlapping feel-good stories about re-starting  your life just when it feels like it’s time to curl up and die and, while not especially illuminating, it’s a little like getting a great massage. It won’t solve our problems but it sure feels good.

Four women from totally different walks of life—flamboyant masseuse Shirley, nerdy MIT professor Marilyn, control-freak businesswoman Alice and lonely widow Faye—cross paths at a party for a mutual friend who is retiring. They discover that they urgently need to get their fears of aging off their chests, and who better than with total strangers who have just that one thing in common? After indulging in a frenzy of chocolate desserts, they decide to form the Hot Flash Club and meet on a weekly basis. Uptight Alice, a wealthy 62-year-old African-American divorcee and vice-president of a giant multinational corporation, is terrified she is about to lose her job to a young and ambitious up-and-comer at the firm. Smiley and optimistic Shirley, who went through three bad marriages, just had her jerk of a boyfriend walk out on her, and is convinced she’s stupid, nonetheless has a dream of starting a wellness retreat for struggling souls but not money. Faye’s only daughter is overwhelmed with her new baby, relies heavily on her mother, and is convinced her husband is having an affair, while Faye struggles with an empty house and artist’s block. Marilyn’s scientist son is engaged to a gorgeous socialite who Marilyn is convinced can’t possibly love her son and will break his heart.

The four women decide to take on and find an answer to eachother’s problems, with predictably funny, screwed-up but mostly satisfying consequences. These smart and sassy women come out of their shells and inspire each other to overcome their fears.  Makeovers, affairs, divorces, marriages, living out fantasies, sexual jokes—and, of course, chocolate–figure heavily in this book, and while Thayer is rather heavy-handed with every cliché in the book about what jerks men can be, she also weaves in a few good ones to keep us women ever hopeful that it’s not a total desert out there. All in all, light but fun reading for the hot flash set among us.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #11: The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

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Set at the turn of the last century, The Orchardist is a novel whose main character, William Talmadge, is a successful middle-aged apple and apricot grower in Oregon who has spent most of his life alone. His parents died by his teenage years and his younger sister mysteriously disappeared while herb-picking in the forest, leaving Talmadge devastated. He has few close friends other than the local midwife/healer Caroline Middey and a mute Native American named Clee, who comes through the territory a couple of times every year. Clee and his men capture, break and sell wild horses and help Talmadge with harvesting. It’s a predictable and satisfying life that becomes unsettled when a couple of teenaged girls, both pregnant, begin hanging around Talmadge’s orchards, taking his fruit and steering clear of contact with others. Talmadge takes pity and tries to help them, remembering his younger sister and her fate. As a result, Talmadge’s life undergoes some rather dramatic changes.

The structure of the novel is mostly linear, with occasional flashbacks to the main characters’ personal histories. Chapters shift among Talmadge’s story, Della’s (one of the pregnant girls) and Angelene’s (one of the babies). I would characterize it as a psychological novel, demonstrating the effects of abuse, neglect, hunger, fear and loss on children and young adults, and how the effects then play out through the course of their lives. Control is another theme: whether it’s men trying to dominate the landscape or tame horses, or individuals trying to assert control over their own lives or someone else’s.

I was impressed with Coplin’s character development. As the story progresses and the layers are peeled back, the reader catches glimpses of what motivates each, but  without fully knowing or understanding them. That might sound like a criticism but I think it’s good. We never fully know other people, their thoughts and desires; we can only guess, and that’s what the characters in this book, particularly Talmadge and Angelene, do vis-a-vis each other and Della. Della is a complicated young girl/woman. She seeks danger, independence, control, and revenge but she can be naive and flirts with mental illness. The chapters devoted to her were by far the most interesting in the book in my opinion. Actually, all of the female characters seem to be rather strong, extraordinary women. Talmadge’s mother defied convention by moving alone with her children out west. Caroline Middey is a successful single woman, respected in her community. Still, opportunities and rights for women were limited and could lead to extreme actions when a woman felt powerless. This is demonstrated several times in the novel.

Coplin’s writing, particularly descriptions of landscapes (which can be tedious and distracting in some novels), is lovely and evocative. A lot of this novel is pretty heavy and sort of depressing. The characters all contemplate the meaning of life and death at some point, but there’s still an edge of hope, such as in this passage:

Around her the garden was in verdant bloom; the smell of the air was almost sickening with odor, and although it was late in the day the last bees were industrious in the crocus, the birds had started their racket in the trees…. she was going to die, like all the others, and the knowledge was absorbed by the garden, which simultaneously cradled her and drew her out of herself, into the perfume, into the noise. 

This is one of the better novels I’ve read this year and would be a great pick for a discussion group.

Kira’s #CBR5 Review #10: Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg

LeanInSherylSandbergCoverThe woman of Sheryl Sandberg’s world is a timid creature. She’s smart but not savvy, ambitious but afraid to appear so, confident and driven but plagued by self-doubt. She’s wary of participating in meetings, wary of asking for promotions, wary of taking on new assignments. And don’t even get me started on motherhood—this woman has been ruminating on the work/life balance basically since she learned where babies come from.

For this woman, Sandberg has a wealth of advice, which in its entirety boils down to the central conceit of her book: Lean In. This woman—this hyper-sensitive, underutilized and challenge-averse woman—needs to stop sitting in the back row at meetings, stop taking flak from colleagues, and stop turning down opportunities because she’s unsure about her abilities. She needs to build organic and mutually beneficial relationships with coworkers, and worry less about being liked and more about being respected. She needs to speak her mind with colleagues and bosses, and if and when she decides to throw a bun in the oven, not start sacrificing her career the second she realizes she’s pregnant. She could also stand to snag an understanding, supporitve and equally driven husband, who won’t hesitate to pitch in on 50% of the child-rearing and housework. In short, Sheryl Sandberg wants this woman to sack up (which, incidentally, would have been a way better book title.) Continue reading