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Book Review: ‘Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868’

As Cokie Roberts shows in this spirited book, a follow-up to her best-selling “Founding Mothers” and “Ladies of Liberty,” the assertive and adventurous women of pre-Civil War Washington were not going to retire to their boudoirs when the fighting began. Focusing on 27 formidable dames, whom she divides into political, literary and activist actors, Roberts presents the war as a covert crisis of gender, as well as a momentous confrontation over slavery and race, accelerating change in the roles of both women and men. By the end of the conflict, Clara Barton wrote, “Woman was at least fifty years in advance of the normal position which continued peace . . . would have assigned her.”

At the start of the war, journalist Mary Clemmer Ames wrote, Washington was “a third rate Southern city.” Political women exerted social power for their husbands and fathers in an exhausting round of strategic partygoing and competitive party-giving. They gathered at an extravagant farewell party for the British ambassador and his wife at Willard’s Hotel, with desserts from a French caterer in the shape of pastry chariots drawn by spun-sugar swans. They gossiped about the first diplomatic delegation from Japan and the visit of the Prince of Wales. They worked across party lines to preserve and restore Mount Vernon and erect a monument to George Washington. And they went to the National Theatre for “everything from Shakespeare to Chinese acrobats.” Plus ça change. None of this activity, however, challenged women’s traditional roles; Virginia Clay, a busy hostess and wife of a senator from Alabama, was only amused to see radical dress reformers in the city wearing pants under their skirts: “Bloomers are most as plenty as blackberries.”

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However, after Secession Day — Jan. 21, 1861, when Southern senators said their farewells to Washington and their wives and families were sent back to their home states — everything changed. Union women, led by Mary Lincoln, gamely tried to keep up their social activities, but there were much more urgent concerns. Union troops swarmed in to defend Washington and were barracked all over town, to the residents’ disgust. “You would not know this Godforsaken city,” one woman lamented to a departed secessionist friend, “our beautiful capital, with all its artistic wealth, desecrated, disgraced with Lincoln’s low soldiery.” An architect complained to his wife that the city was “one grand water closet — every hole and corner is defiled.”

Then came the waves of wounded soldiers and the need for nurses, medical supplies and hospitals. Dorothea Dix came to advise on sanitation and to organize a corps of female nurses; Louisa May Alcott went to a Georgetown military hospital as a nurse in 1862, until she contracted typhoid and then wrote the widely read “Hospital Sketches,” about her experience and her longing to be of use.

Women in the capital city cared for war orphans and started schools for liberated slaves. Lizzie Blair Lee worked in an asylum for abandoned children: “I took in the Asylum a Secesh baby — whose father was killed in the Army South & the Mother died & left it destitute so I shall call it Secessia.” Jane Swisshelm was among the female journalists who came to cover the war, and she stayed on as a clerk in the War Department. There were also jobs for women in the post office and the Treasury Department, where they cut greenbacks; the U.S. treasurer, Francis Spinner, declared that “a woman can use scissors better than a man.” Of course, the new female workers were paid half the salary of men, and scandalous rumors flew that the Treasury Department was “the most extensive Whorehouse in the Nation,” a “perfect Sodom” of pretty young women recommended for cushy jobs by lascivious congressmen.

The women of Washington were employed at all levels. The number of professional sex workers of course increased; there were 4,000 prostitutes on the streets, and Mary Hall kept “the best house of prostitution in Washington four blocks from the Capitol.” By 1864, women were also visible in more respected political roles. The abolitionist and suffragist orator Anna Dickinson addressed an audience of 2,500 in the House of Representatives. Dickinson competed successfully with men in an era of strenuous rhetoric; Connecticut Republican officials said she had held 1,500 people “breathless with admiration and astonishment” in a dramatic two-hour speech. Sojourner Truth came to meet President Abraham Lincoln, and Mary Lincoln defied critics of her extravagance by hosting lavish, morale-boosting parties in the Red Room, dressed in crimson silk.

Roberts is a gifted narrator of Civil War history, weaving the experiences and perspectives of the women into a fresh and illuminating account of key battles and events, from John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry to the assassination of the president. She concludes that “the services and sacrifices, the abilities and accomplishments of women in the Civil War, had changed the face of Washington, just as Washington had changed the place of women.” Certainly the war changed the aspirations of women, but changing their place in American society took much longer. Clara Barton spoke too soon in claiming how far American women had advanced. Roberts provides an epilogue about the fates of 14 of her main female characters that suggests that on the contrary, even the best-known had a hard time putting their new capacities to work after the war. Mary Lincoln’s friend and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley ended her days in a home for destitute colored women and children; the tireless hostess and political player Kate Chase Sprague sank into poverty and died in Europe at 58. A few belatedly joined the women’s movement; Virginia Clay, who had mocked the bloomers, wound up as the first president of the Alabama Women’s Suffrage Association.

It’s not surprising that many women after the war were unable to turn their experiences and expertise into new roles. Political careers, one obvious path, were closed to them; higher education was available to only a few. Their full story makes very clear why women’s suffrage became a powerful movment after 1865. Given a taste of freedom, purpose and agency, many capital women could not go back to their domestic and secondary prewar lives. After the war, they would extend Julia Ward Howe’s stirring anthem by joining the fight to make women free. That struggle for equality would take much longer than any of them expected.

Capital Dames
The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868

By Cokie Roberts

Harper. 492 pp. $27.99

Book Review: ‘Bold’

Just as an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs that ruled the Earth and made way for small furry mammals, a new wave of planetary disruptions is about to occur. The new asteroid is called “exponential technology.” It is going to wipe out industries in a similar manner to the rock which fell on Earth during the Cretaceous Period.

That is the premise of a new book by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World. It makes bold predictions and teaches entrepreneurs how to thrive in the same way as our mammalian ancestors: by being nimble and resilient.

In their previous book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, Diamandis and Kotler discussed how advancing technologies are making it possible to solve problems that have long plagued humanity, such as disease, hunger, and shortages of energy. The authors analyzed the exponential progress of fields such as computing, medicine, 3D printing, robotics, and artificial intelligence and postulated that shortages of material goods and knowledge would soon be a thing of the past; that humanity is heading into an amazing era of abundance.

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As most people still are, I used to be pessimistic about the future. I feared overpopulation; worldwide shortages of food, water, and energy; pandemics and disease; and a bankruptcy of our health care and social welfare systems. Then, about three years ago, I joined the faculty of what is effectively an “abundance think-tank,” Singularity University, which had been founded by Diamandis and legendary futurist Ray Kurzweil. I learned that the future that Diamandis described in Abundance is actually coming true — and doing so faster than we would expect.

But I have also come to fear that Singularity University’s futurists are overlooking some of the risks in exponential technologies, particularly the legal and ethical dilemmas they are creating. As well, automation and industry disruption will have many negative social consequences — such as the elimination of the vast majority of jobs. Humans may have their physical needs met and live healthier and longer lives, but what about their social and professional needs? This is what I would criticize Bold for: it looks only on the bright side. But I know that in their hearts Diamandis and my futurist colleagues believe that mankind will rise to the occasion and better itself; that it will avert the catastrophes.

I am counting on their being right.

The key premise of Bold –that entrepreneurs can solve global-scale problems — is based on a framework called the “six Ds of exponentials:” digitalization, deception, disruption, demonetization, dematerialization, and democratization. These are a chain reaction of technological progress, the path that technology takes, to create the upheaval — and the opportunity.


Digitalization.  Everything is being digitized these days, with the pace of information exchange increasing and causing acceleration in the pace of innovation. Bold explains that this type of exchange was slow in the early days of our species when all we had as a means of transmission was storytelling around the campfire. It picked up with the invention of writing and later, of the printing press and the photocopier, then exploded with the digital representation, storage, and exchange of ideas that computers enabled. Anything that could be digitized could spread at the speed of light (or at least the speed of the Internet) and became free to reproduce and share. This spreading has followed a consistent pattern of exponential growth.


Disruption. This is what happens when an innovation creates a new market and disrupts an existing one. Kodak became a victim of its own invention, the digital camera; Uber is wreaking havoc in the taxi industry; AirBnB is challenging hotels; self-driving cars will disrupt the transportation, delivery, insurance, and many other industries; and robotics and 3D printing will cause upheaval in manufacturing.


Deception. This is a period during which exponential growth goes mostly unnoticed and incumbents downplay the threat of advancing technologies. The doubling of numbers on an exponential curve is at first so small that the numbers seem insignificant or linear. Kodak underestimated the threat from the digital camera because the earlier versions of the technology were so limited. Its first digital camera had 0.01 megapixels—which posed no threat to film. Then this doubled to 0.02, 0.02 to 0.04, 0.04 to 0.08. Then it exceeded a megapixel and doubled several times more, resulting in millionfold improvements—and the end of photographic film and the company (Kodak having filed for bankruptcy in 2012). This is how solar energy is progressing today. By reaching the 1 percent mark in U.S. installations, it is only six doublings—or less than 14 years—away from meeting practically all of today’s energy needs.


Demonetization. Technology makes things practically free. Digital cameras made film free in a way; it became digital, measured in megapixels. Computers are becoming cheaper and cheaper, with our smartphones having more processing power than multimillion dollar supercomputers once did. Many sophisticated apps are already free. It wasn’t that long ago when video-editing software — such as you can get for free in the Instagram app — cost about $2 million. Knowledge is practically free now. You can find almost any information on the web, and you can read articles such as this one for nothing.


Dematerialization. Technology advances are making entire product lines disappear. Take your smartphone, for example. It does the work of a camera, a watch, a GPS receiver, a VCR, music player, a video-game console, a calculator, a flashlight… and you can download apps that turn it into an encyclopedia, a medical assistant, and a book reader.


Democratization. The cellphone used to be an object of luxury—for the privileged few. Now, practically every family in the developing world owns one. Photographs were also for the well off—because the paper and color printing were expensive. Smartphones eliminate the need for paper, and their cost has fallen to the same level that cellphones were. Billions more people will come online in this decade and gain access to the same apps, knowledge, and technologies as we have. Medical devices that connect to smartphones already cost a tiny fraction of what their hospital counterparts do; 3D printers will become as affordable as laser printers are; energy prices will fall exponentially in price through access to sunlight. As technology advances, it becomes cheaper and more powerful. Companies such as Google and Facebook become worth billions by reaching billions. That is the key point that Bold makes: “the best way to become a billionaire is to solve a billion person problem.”


Entrepreneurs can, I am certain, make all of these advances happen and profoundly affect billions. We just need an exponential advance in humanity’s social consciousness so that technologies find roles in bettering humankind, not just in creating wealth for their founders and owners in the way that some Silicon Valley technologies do.

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Book Review: ‘The Making of Zombie Wars’

“The Making of Zombie Wars” doesn’t have much to do with the undead, but it’s a comic novel with BRAAAINS. That intellectual heft is to be expected from Aleksandar Hemon. For the past two decades, the MacArthur “genius” from Sarajevo has been writing smart essays, short stories and novels sparked with wit. (Three of his books, including “The Lazarus Project,” have been finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Award.)

His new novel may be filled with marginal survivors of war, cancer and unemployment, but it’s all richly carbonated with madcap antics.

Our hapless hero is 30-something Joshua Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago who dreams of writing scripts for Hollywood. For the past 10 years, he’s been starting and abandoning scripts while attending a writing workshop conducted by a pompous, vaguely anti-Semitic instructor who boasts of connections to people who know people in the film world. Procrastinating in a coffee shop, Joshua sees “all the endless possibilities, all the overhead and wide shots, all the graceful character trajectories blazing across the spectacular firmament.” But invention comes easier to him than completion, and one of the novel’s running gags is Joshua’s accreting list of script ideas, e.g. “#185: A teenager discovers that his girlfriend’s beloved grandfather was a guard in a Nazi death camp. The boy’s grandparents are survivors, but he’s tantalizingly close to achieving deflowerment, so when a Nazi hunter arrives in town in pursuit of Grandpa, he has to distract him long enough to get laid. A riotous Holocaust comedy. Title: Righteous Lust.”

Okay, so maybe not every script idea is a winner, but, like George Romero’s flesh-craving hordes, Josh never gives up. And once he hits on the concept for a movie called “Zombie Wars,” he’s determined to carry his corny, apocalyptic treatment to its painfully derivative last line. Every chapter begins with a brief excerpt about Major Klopstock and his battle for humanity’s survival. (“What kind of name is that?” his instructor scoffs. “Do you really think Bruce Willis would agree to be named Klopstock?”)

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But these are merely necrotic accouterments to a story that’s a lot more Mel Brooks than Max Brooks. Hemon sets up Joshua as an indolent, “drama-deprived” American whose life is about to topple in a series of careening disasters that he keeps imagining he can arrest in mid-fall. That demolition begins just as soon as he returns home late one night from another inane workshop session. Realizing someone has broken in, he creeps toward the dark bedroom and discovers his landlord fondling his dirty boxer shorts. This is disturbing. That his landlord is an unstable Desert Storm vet who carries a sword makes it more disturbing. Fortunately, Joshua can abandon his apartment and move in with his “hot Japanese-American girlfriend, his beautiful Zen mistress,” who’s also a doctor.

This seems a lucky break, indeed. So why would Joshua almost immediately jeopardize that paradise — and the “natural and therefore moral order” he believes in — by sleeping with one of the students in his ESL class?

Funny — that’s the same question Joshua asks himself when he’s racing across “a tightrope stretched between arousal and despair,” pursued by the student’s brooding husband, who has a barbed-wire tattoo around his bulging neck.

Some of this may strike you as unlikely, possibly as unlikely as mutilated bodies lumbering around in search of human flesh. Could a marginally employed couch potato with an “emaciated, bony frame” really attract not just one but two lissome beauties to bed? (Have you not seen any of Woody Allen’s comedies?)

All this zombie-spiked zaniness is boosted by Hemon’s adroit style, his ability to re-create in written language the comic timing of a flawless oral delivery. As poor Joshua’s life gets snarled in more absurd complications with ever-more bizarre characters, his deadpan reactions grow funnier and more bewildered.

But Hemon is also a master at camouflaging the deeper elements of this novel amid its tomfoolery. Among the strangest aspects is Joshua’s devotion to the work of 17th-century Dutch thinker Baruch Spinoza, whom he regards as “da man.” Through even the craziest passages of “The Making of Zombie Wars,” Hemon stitches in allusions to Spinoza’s rationalist philosophy. Drunkenly lusting after his girlfriend, he suddenly thinks, “In the body there is no absolute, or free, will, but the body is determined to desire this or that by a cause that is also determined by another, and this again by another, and so on to infinity.” In the quick flow of Hemon’s prose, those isolated philosophical insights can sound like insects hitting the windshield, but they’re clearly part of the author’s thematic scheme. In fact, that tension between Joshua’s farcical love life and Spinoza’s insistence on causal necessity is a running joke that five or six graduate students somewhere will find hilarious.

But even if you don’t keep a copy of “Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata” at your bedside, there’s plenty of depth to plumb beneath this comedy. Joshua may be the one scrambling through “rococo hopelessness,” but he’s an endearing slacker insulated from real tragedy. His landlord has already survived the 1991 Persian Gulf War; his students endured the carnage in Yugoslavia; his grandparents escaped the Holocaust. For much of the world, the zombie apocalypse is not some absurd fantasy; it’s a recent memory.

Hemon suggests as much in the novel’s conclusion, which cleverly switches around his own narrative and Joshua’s outlandish movie script. “The basic task in everyone’s life,” he realizes, “was pretending it was more than mere survival.” In the macabre farce of human existence, we’re all hopeful zombies, plodding along, “uneasy, rumbling with hunger.”

THE MAKING OF ZOMBIE WARS

By Aleksandar Hemon

Farrar Straus Giroux. 307 pp. $26

Movie Review: ‘Survivor’

You’ve seen the movie “Survivor” before, although it may have had a slightly less mundane title, such as “North by Northwest,” “The Bourne Identity” or “The Fugitive.” “Survivor” borrows heavily from all of them; it’s a taut yet hackneyed thriller about a wrongly accused fugitive with the authorities close behind.

At least there’s a tiny twist here: The person on the run is a woman.

Action staple Milla Jovovich plays Kate Abbott, a recent hire at the American Embassy in London. She’s in charge of security, making sure potential terrorists don’t score American visas. She’s good at her job, too, which makes her unpopular with a group of killers who are plotting an attack on American soil. The crew sends a relentless assassin (Pierce Brosnan) after her. He goes by the code name Watchmaker, and when his plot to blow up Kate in a restaurant bombing goes awry, the terrorists try a different approach: Make her the prime suspect for the deadly blast.

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Suddenly Kate’s face is flashing across every television in England, and she has to figure out how to evade both corrupt police officers and the icy, unyielding Watchmaker. Meanwhile, she has to solve the mystery of what these terrorists are plotting so that she can stop the attack before it kills a million Americans.

That’s a tall order, but any fan of the genre knows it’s completely doable.

There’s no question where any of this is going, and although the chase can be entertaining at times, the movie is ultimately forgettable. “The Fugitive” felt fresh because of its well-drawn, wry characters, and the “Bourne” franchise has heart-pounding action sequences and car chases. “Survivor,” by comparison, is a shell, following the rules of the genre without adding anything new. When Kate escapes from an evil police officer (James D’Arcy) into the tunnels of the London Underground, it seems like a perfect opportunity for a thrilling and death-defying chase involving near misses with fast trains. No such luck.

Director James McTeigue frequently collaborates with the visionary Wachowski siblings, and he directed “V for Vendetta.” How the man who blew up Parliament in such memorably spectacular fashion can’t add some originality to Philip Shelby’s script is the movie’s only real mystery.

★ ★

PG-13. Contains violence and strong language. 96 minutes.

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