We’ve lived in our house for more than twenty years now—long enough to collect thousands of books without having to think about moving them and long enough, in ever-rainy Ohio, to have to spend thousands of hours and dollars to deal with storm drain issues in the finished downstairs level where most of the bookshelves are. Since April 2012, when we put our downstairs library back together after a big storm, we have been arranging the books and adjusting the drainage, kind of making sure we could trust the house to protect its contents if we slept or went away for the weekend.
Right now our shelves are as well-arranged as they’ve been since the 2012 upheaval, and I’ve been making sure to enjoy it before both kids come home from college and add the contents of their closets and bookshelves to the storage space we have downstairs. I thought you might enjoy a bookshelf tour of our house, which includes every room except the bathrooms.
Upstairs, our living room has a 4-shelf built-in bookcase that always ends up stacked two rows deep with other books in front of it on the floor, because we put some of our favorite and most frequently-consulted books in it, and then stack books we’ve just read or are meaning to read soon in front of them, and then the ones on the floor are mostly books I’ve read but Ron or Eleanor or Walker haven’t read and have been meaning to read. A few of these are borrowed books, so I want to keep them upstairs and handy for giving back when the time comes. Some of these really need to be carried downstairs, now that I look at them. Probably all of us who are going to read them anytime soon have already read them.
I have stacks of books on one of the tables, for various projects. I notice that one of the “projects” is a gift I’m bringing to another book blogger when I come to visit her in early June. I wonder if she can read the pink post-it with her name on it. Anyway, that item is waiting to be joined by the book I’ve ordered to give her parents, who have invited us to stay at their house, with its beautiful built-in bookshelves.
There are more stacks of books on my desk, which is an enormous Chinese antique handed down from a great-aunt. I’m doing something with all of these books, eventually. The blog piles tend to be on the right-hand side of the desk. Some of my teaching books ended up in the middle. There’s a raft of papers for my administrative job on the left-hand side of the desk, with some books I’ve borrowed from a colleague who will be team-teaching a course with me next fall.
Walker has a lot of chess books but also a fair amount of other kinds of books in his room. This is before he brings home all the books he has with him at college. I wonder if the chess library will stay with us for a while, or if he will luck into a job so lucrative that he can take it with him soon after he graduates from college.
Eleanor has a lot of the YA books which originally belonged to her on her shelves, and a rotating selection of books I’ve recommended to her or she’s brought home for me on the beside table. When she graduates next week, she will bring home a bookshelf full of books she likes to reread, plus any of the books from her English and History courses that she wants to keep.
My bedside table has books for when I’m not feeling well underneath, and books I think I might like before going to sleep on the top of it. I have to keep the front clear for Tristan, who likes to stretch out on it in the early hours of the morning. We also have a small bookshelf in our bedroom, stacked and double-stacked with books I’m just about to do something with, or so I think, anyway.
Downstairs, at the foot of the stairs, are our sturdiest bookshelves, bought from “Cargo furniture” in Maryland in the 1980’s. They hold most of our biggest hardbacks, and they also accumulate DVDs since they’re near the TV.
Most of the rest of the bookshelves are “Billy” shelves from IKEA. We’ve added extra shelves here and there to get in as many rows of differently-sized books as possible. As you can see, it’s a long, bright room. There are some DVD shelves nearest the white couch, which is angled towards the TV. We’ve had those arranged with movies in alphabetical order on the top and TV series on the bottom, but we’re about to clean out the TV series and let movies take over the entire set of shelves, with the TV series DVDs going out to be double-stacked somewhere else. We’ll have to think of where. These are so antiquated now anyway that it hardly seems worth the trouble to keep them in order, but the whole point is so that when we’re in the mood to watch Buckaroo Banzai, we can pull it right out, and even take it somewhere else.
We have a lot of children’s books, even though we gave away a lot of the ones we didn’t much like when the kids got too old for them. How could I ever give away the Mr. Putter and Tabby collection, though? We still read The Birthday Book on someone’s birthday, and Santa Calls at Christmastime!
We still reread the Swallows and Amazons books and the Harry Potter series, which we have in different volumes given to various ones of us at various times and in both the UK and US. And yes, there are a few VHS next to the children’s books, ones we couldn’t replace and keep because we do still have a dual VHS/DVD player.
Some of the YA books are kind of separate from the children’s books. Because we’re sorting by size as well as by topic, we haven’t made much of a distinction except between picture books and chapter books. Even then, you may notice some books for tiny hands lurking at the very top of one bookcase, where an extra shelf made room especially for very small books. And yes, we do have a Lord of the Rings chess set on top of the shelves here.
There’s a Tolkien section. It’s a bit double-stacked because some of the books were upstairs and we haven’t expanded the section yet to fit them in. The non-fiction may have to move out to another bookcase or get sorted more strictly into different kinds of non-fiction or something. There’s a space where some non-fiction got taken out already. I am not, as you probably already know, a big reader of non-fiction, so I mostly leave that to Ron. Every once in a while I can still amaze Walker by producing a book he’s expressed an interest in reading from these non-fiction shelves downstairs. A lot of our non-fiction has actually gone to live on bookshelves in Ron’s office at the college. That’s a sneaky way of expanding bookshelf room.
We have several sections of baseball books. These are Ron’s. He’s fun to go to a game with, because he can tell you things about the guy who’s coming up to bat, like what he batted last time and what kind of hit he’s likely to get. I’d never been to a baseball game before Ron took me to see the Orioles when we lived in Maryland. He said that part of the object of the game was to eat something different every inning. We passed this on to our kids when we took them to see the local minor league team, where you get to sit closer and there are a lot more foul balls knocked into the stands. No matter how we try to space it out, though, none of us have ever made it past the seventh inning, even for ice cream.
Here’s a section for classics, books on satire, and books written in the 18th century. I used to have a desk down here, back when I was working on my dissertation and could climb up and down the steps more times per day. Now we’ve filled in below the white shelves that used to fit over my desk with more shelves. There are plays in the small section to the far left. When we filled in the section we’re calling “classics” we put any book we’d ever studied or taught in a literature class, which ended up including some of the Otterbein “common books” from the years I taught there, like Bombingham, by Anthony Grooms.
This wall is mostly for novels that were fairly new when I first read them. A lot of the books I’ve read since I started this blog are here, and a lot of what I think of as kind of disposable contemporary fiction. John Grisham, for example. If we’re going to Half-Price Books in Columbus I will sometimes look at these shelves to see if there’s one or two I didn’t particularly like but bought at the airport or on impulse. Then I take it and get a little trade-in value towards buying something else.
Here’s some of the science fiction, in the shelves. On top of these shelves is a miscellaneous collection of books that was on the floor underneath the built-in bookshelves in our living room and we haven’t put them all in where they belong yet. We have to do that before we can bring down the next collection of floor books. So probably the next time somebody who doesn’t come to our house all the time plans a visit.
Here is another shot to show you how the walls of the downstairs are lined with bookcases. This is the left-hand side of the room. Do you see the empty table with bins underneath? That’s ready to receive the stuff coming home from college. The bins already have some winter clothing that came home at spring break. By the time the bins are filled up again, Eleanor will be graduated from college!
…How else would we know where a particular book is when we want it, unless we’re looking through them all the time?
The Antigone Poems were written in the 1970’s by Marie Slaight as a collaboration with artist Terrence Tasker, whose charcoal drawings appear throughout the volume; they were published in 2014. I got a copy of the volume from Australia, where it was published by Altaire Productions, because I agreed to take part in the blog tour with TLC. The title alone got me interested; I’ve always been interested in the character of Antigone, whose teenage defiance and purity of belief in how the gods would have things done raises questions about her uncle’s–King Creon’s– authority.
At first the poems seem loosely, if at all, tied to the story of Antigone. They’re very short, just moments of emotion. The first one is “tormented” and mentions “anguish.” The next has a line about those who “dare death with their insouciance.” Wait, this is starting to sound like the Antigone I know. And look, in the third poem she mentions “the disorder/I hold sacred.” There’s the defiant teenage girl!
By the end of the fourth poem she is asking herself “where is my tongue?” because “if this perfume doesn’t burst/it will twist into venom.” That evokes the first idealism of youth. It’s all-or-nothing belief. You either let the young person run with it, or you try to disabuse her of some of her more outrageous notions and risk the full force of her bitterness against you, the messenger.
The fifth poem is short, mentioning “hysteria,” and then the sixth one is a longer prose poem which reads very much like something a teenage girl would write, full of “so much pain” and “my hurting proves nothing, only that he has the power to pain.” After that poem, the first charcoal drawing of a mask, and then Chapter Two begins.
Now she is “daughter of a dark sun/my loins moving” and “bound in blood,” anguished over her “daemon ancestry.” Antigone, of course, was the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, the product of incest. The character in The Antigone Poems, like any adolescent, is feeling the war between biology as destiny vs. individual free will. Is she a strong enough individual to make her will known? She imagines herself as brave enough, saying “take whip to my wilds./ You lash fear. I burn.” And thinks that “the violence of gods” will intervene. She is sure she is right. The poems that follow are about memory, fervor, and her belief that “to touch death always,/That is the sun.” This is the sure Antigone we know from Sophocles.
Another mask. Another chapter. The next poems are about regret. A lonely adolescent has made her choice and now envisions the details: “bowels break/blood breaks.”
The next mask is darker. The next chapter is about fear and fantasies of what her life could have been like. “Find my earth” she says. “Reclaim my desire.” But then “I remember only the rage” she says.
The last chapter begins with new resolve: “The wound/Aches/To be released.” There is no more need for words, “only the gaping, silent scream.” And then the wish: “Let the silence break this wall.”
The final poem begins
I wanted everything.
To live all lives, all deaths, encompass all women.
To smash every confine.”
It’s as if the poet has become Antigone, and hopes that the experience of reading the poems has allowed readers to experience what it could have been like to feel the frightening, utter clarity of her female and teenaged belief in what was right.
There’s a final mask, the cover mask, and then one more, as if to emphasize the point that such conviction wears many masks.
We admire Antigone’s conviction when we read her story. These poems make us experience the force of it. And yet, when we take a step back, how many of us have ever let ourselves or those we love insist on such utter purity of belief, such idealism given form by action?
In honor of mother’s day, I’ve been seeing lists of “memorable mothers” in various kinds of fiction. That’s usually the term used, “memorable.” Because it’s hard to make a list of good mothers in literature.
There are some good reasons for that, especially in children’s literature, where the presence of a good mother would prohibit the children from going on the adventure. But when I started thinking about mothers that I considered, even briefly, as role models…there aren’t that many.
On the other side of the coin, there are a good many mothers memorable because we’re not to emulate them. The impetuous and possibly incestuous Gertrude in Hamlet. The superbly silly Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. My own personal category of mothers to avoid emulating also features the clueless platitude-spouting Mrs. Hopewell in Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People” and Rhoda Manning’s ineffectual mother in Ellen Gilchrist’s “1957, A Romance.”
Some mothers are memorable mostly because of how fiercely they fight to protect their offspring. From Molly Weasley’s “not my daughter, you bitch!” to “June’s” agonizing memories of losing her daughter to the state of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale. Christianna Wheeler’s attempts to keep her quintuplets alive in Bobbie Ann Mason’s Feather Crowns. Kate Redding’s attempts to keep it all together with a family and a job in Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It.
I could only think of six fictional mothers I thought of as good role models before I had children of my own, two of them from the same novel:
Taylor and Lou Ann in The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver
Pearl Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
Kate Murray in A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
Marmee in Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Ma in the Little House books, Laura Ingalls Wilder
None of these mothers are perfect people. “Ma” and “Marmee” have little identity of their own, as I recall, but function mainly as role models and sounding boards for their daughters. Kate Murray has a little more personality, as she has taught her children well, but her role in the story is confined to cooking over her Bunsen burner and waiting for the children to rescue her husband. Pearl Tull has many flaws as a mother, but she devotes herself to the task of raising her children thoughtfully and almost exclusively.
When I thought about Taylor and Lou Ann, I found that I had to reread Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, because I don’t remember reading it after I had kids of my own. My friend Carol and I have quoted Lou Ann for years about “the only safe way to eat potato salad was to stick your head in the refrigerator.” Lou Ann became, for us, a way of laughing at our own anxious tendencies as mothers. She functions that way for Taylor, too, in the novel:
“For Lou Ann, life itself was a life-threatening enterprise. Nothing on earth was truly harmless….she saved newspaper stories of every imaginable type of freak disaster. Unsuspecting diners in a restaurant decapitated by a falling ceiling fan. Babies fallen head-first into the beer cooler and drowned in melted ice while the family played Frisbee. A housewife and mother of seven stepping out of a Wick’N’Candle store, only to be shot through the heart by a misfired high-pressure nail gun at a construction site across the street. To Lou Ann’s way of thinking, this proved not only that ice chests and construction sites were dangerous, but also Wick’N’Candle stores and Frisbees.”
Later in their friendship, though Taylor tells Lou Ann that her worrying makes her a good mother:
“The flip side of worrying too much is just not caring….Dwayne Ray will always know that, no matter what, you’re never going to neglect him. You’ll never just sit around and let him dehydrate, or grow up without a personality, or anything like that….If anything, Lou Ann, you’re just too good of a mother.”
It takes Taylor the lessons learned from her own mother, the childcare strategies she learns from Mattie, Sandi, Lou Ann, and Virgie and Edna, and the example of the bravery of Esperanza to be able to be a good mother to her adopted little girl, Turtle. When she tells Lou Ann, at one point, that she’s “just not up to the job,” Lou Ann replies “well, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger….Nobody is.”
At the end of the novel, Lou Ann says to Taylor that she’s been thinking “about how your kids aren’t really yours, they’re just these people that you try to keep an eye on, and hope you’ll all grow up someday to like each other and still be in one piece.” Maybe one of the things she’s saying is that if you raise kids right, they’re not particularly aware of how difficult it is. It’s like how a good dancer can make high leg lifts look easy, or a violinist can make a fast passage sound effortless–even inevitable.
Maybe there are so few good mothers in literature because the good ones are not memorable. What you learn from them becomes a part of you and, thus, familiar.
Can you think of another good mother in literature? What makes her “good”?
I’m a fan of satire, and it’s been a long time since I read one that’s going to stick with me for a long time. The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfeld, is devastatingly on-target satire. It’s not necessarily the funny kind, but the kind that makes you think about where we went wrong, and what we could do to get back on a better track.
The term “subprime” is defined at the beginning of the story, as you are being introduced to the plight of Bailey and Jeb and their children Vanessa, and Tom, waking up under an overpass:
“They were all lumped together by the media into a category called ‘subprimes,’ a less descriptive label, perhaps, than ‘homeless’ but one that in this era of raw, rapacious capitalism gave all the information anyone needed: the credit rating of the men, women, and children…was subprime. Their credit rating made them unemployable; they were fugitives from warrants for collection and summonses to appear. Their immediate goal was to avoid imprisonment in Halliburton-, Bechtel-, or Pepper Industries-operated Credit Rehabilitation Centers.”
What has happened to the economy to produce such a result?
“The American economy had shifted from being consumer driven to energy exporting…Denied government assistance, the poor had gone past being poor. The recent American Empowerment Act cut benefits to a one-time $250 in vouchers to fast food outlets. They were cut off from health insurance. And they were denied any federal housing subsidy—the National Housing Freedom Bill had changed that program to a one-time $500 voucher for any of several major hotel chains.”
The narrative technique is a bit jarring, at first. The third-person omniscient narrator doesn’t let you get to know “subprimes” Bailey and Jeb very well before you’re thrown into seeing the world from a formerly rich person’s point of view—Gemma, recently-separated mother of two daughters–and then suddenly you get first-person narration from a marijuana-smoking hybrid-driving father of a girl and a boy, separated from his wife and barely scraping by, anxious because “our kids will have to live in all this shit, shit that we have all made.” The reason that these people would ever meet is not clear, nor is the reason that one of them should get to tell his story himself. It becomes clear, of course, but it’s not very well announced or set up.
The novel’s emotional center is the deserted southwest town of Valence, where houses had been repossessed “because of complicated and ultimately usurious financing that was ultimately judged to be the fault of the borrower. If those subpimes had not been so witless as to be unable to read a damn contract, then whose fault was that?” A small community of squatters forms there, eschewing drugs and sharing everything, and they’re led by a mysterious single woman who calls herself Sargam. She’s another part of the novel I didn’t particularly care for, as the plot requires her to perform messianic miracles for no obvious reason except that they’re needed to keep the plot from becoming tragic. If children don’t die for the cause, then the cause can still be fodder for ridicule, if only because it shouldn’t have to be the sort of cause that anyone dies for.
The unlikely-sounding bad guys are Pastor Roger and the Pepper Sisters, who profit from what he calls “energy independence for our nation.” The sisters provide the machinery and manpower for fracking on a very large scale. The viewpoint on fracking is clear when Jeb, who has found a job on the site, “realized that what they were doing was pumping water into the earth, poisoning it, and then dumping it on the surface.” The viewpoint on the extent to which organized religion has become a money-making scheme is clear from the silly scene in which Pastor Roger consoles a man who has been arrested for some kind of impropriety in securities trading and tells him he will get the charges dropped if he goes back to his wife and two girls, because “we don’t believe a man should be persecuted for seeking to create jobs, bestow abundance, and enrich his fellow capitalists.”
Smaller-fry bad guys are the officials in what passes for public school in this society. The satire falters a bit here, because there are few available ways to exaggerate what happens in a middle school when a twelve-year-old boy has trouble doing math the way the school system insists it must be done, touches a girl, or brings a comb shaped like a gun to school. The punishment for the comb incident is to attend an after-school program the kid says is way cooler than the program for boys who touch girls: “Shooters is way cooler than Freaks….I mean, what would you rather be? A serial killer who comes to the school and, like, totally kills people, or, like, some perv.”
The exaggeration ramps up when the father gets arrested for playing street football with his twelve-year-old son and some other kids. Everyone who hears about it asks how they can play football “without safety equipment? Helmets? Pads?” By the time the father, Mr. first-person narrator, gets to Valence, we’re a bit sick of the “in my day, kids played dangerous games outside on the street” theme, which is rescued at that point anyway, by seeing the children begin to play games they clearly don’t understand, like “gorilla” warfare.
Individual ways of dealing with the “national orgy of self-centeredness disguised as free market economics” are ridiculed along the way. Mr. first-person narrator describes his ex-wife as a person who has “withdrawn, totally, into her own self, via yoga and juice cleanses and shaman therapy and the picayune specificity of the foods she will put into her body.” Worse, her boyfriend “lives in an eco-friendly house made of sod….it looks like an igloo covered in grass, an abode fit for a Hobbit, but it has become a popular form of architecture for those who profess to care about the environment: many of the uber-wealthy are seeking to build such structures on their sanctuary islands.”
In the end, there’s a showdown between the people of Valence and Pastor Roger and the Pepper Sisters. “Pastor Roger was on all the networks, intoning in his soft, mellifluous voice the spiritual mission of the Pepper Sisters, and the socialist, progressive dystopia that would ensue if Valence were allowed to continue eking out its existence. ‘People helping people?’ Pastor Roger would ask. ‘I don’t hear any inch of room in there for God. This is secularism run amok, the gravest threat to God’s fabric since Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden themselves.’”
It is devastating satire with interesting characters and a well-knit plot, all tied together with passable, if initially awkward, narrative technique. It is above all good satire, though, showing us “the logical end product of our unregulated free-enterprise system.”
I got an advance proof of this novel from Harper Collins, who say it will go on sale next Tuesday, May 12. Plan a trip to the bookstore, order it, get on the list at the library….this is a book you should read.
I was looking for the kind of fairy story with fairies who like to trick humans and cause mayhem, and I found it in Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest. It has a lovely beginning and ends right where it began, with a couple of key changes:
“Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and a hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin. It rested right on the ground, and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.”
At first Hazel and Ben, who like to visit the horned boy, seem to be fairly ordinary teenagers, although they live in Fairfold, a town on the edge of a forest known to be inhabited by fairies. But then we find out that Ben was blessed with music by a fairy before Hazel was even born. And then we read the beginning of Chapter 5, which is where the extraordinary parts of the story really begin:
“Once upon a time, a little girl found a corpse in the woods.
Her parents had raised the girl and her brother with the same benign neglect with which they’d taken care of the three cats and dachshund named Whiskey that already roamed around the little house. They’d have their long-haired, alt-rock friends over, drink wine, jam on their guitars, and talk about art late into the night, letting the girl and boy run around without diapers. They’d paint for hours, stopping only to fix bottles and wash the occasional load of laundry, which even clean managed to smell faintly of turpentine. The kids ate food off everyone’s plates, played elaborate games in the mud outside by the garden, and took baths only when someone snatched them up and dumped them in a basin.”
So maybe not so ordinary. The corpse turns out to be a boy who had lived in Fairfold for only a year, so not as much fair game for the Folk as a tourist would have been. And then Hazel herself is caught by a hag, who rises from the water beside the body, and Ben has to play his reed pipe to allow her to get out of the hag’s grip, find a sword in the mud, and kill the hag with it. That is the start of their belief that “together they’re a knight and a bard who battle evil,” before Hazel is even ten years old.
And then one day Ben’s music falters, and he believes he needs to go to school in order to learn how to control it better. Hazel promises seven years of her life to get him the money to afford the school. He goes, but is frightened by his own power and breaks his fingers so they have to come home to Fairfold and live as ordinary humans. That is, until Hazel starts to get hints that she hasn’t been living entirely as an ordinary human. It turns out that the King of the Fairies has had an unexpected way of taking her seven years.
As she puts together the mystery, Hazel founds out that she has some unexpected talents and some unexpected and thorny alliances, like with the horned boy, who wakes up from the glass casket to ask her questions:
“’We left you some food and stuff,’ she said, trying to fill the scary silence of their walk and disguise the sound of her phone, which buzzed again. Ben must be calling her. ‘My brother and I, we’re on your side.’
He didn’t need to know she had doubts about his story.
A pained expression flashed across the horned boy’s face. ‘I am no hob or hearth spirit, to be obligated by gifts.’
‘We weren’t trying to obligate you,’ she said. ‘We were trying to be nice.’
Given the Folk’s obsession with manners, she wondered if he might feel at least a little bit bad about dragging her through the forest. She hoped he felt awful.
The horned boy bowed his head slightly, a thin smile on his face that she thought might be self-disgust. ’You may call me Severin,’ he said. ‘Now we are both nice.’”
Ben finds out things about himself and the fairies, too:
“It is mostly solitary fey who dwell in deep forests like those that surround Fairfold, and solitary fey are not well liked by the trooping gentry from faerie courts. They are too wild, too ugly, their violence too unrefined….Tricksy phookas. Green ladies who will strip a man’s flesh from his bones if he steps into the wrong bog….Hollow-backed owmen who inspire artists to heights of creativity and depths of despair. Trow men, with long, hairy tails and large appetites. Prankish goblins; homely hobs; pixies with their iridescent, stained-glass wings; and all the rest.”
In the end, they fight against sorrow, and the King of Fairie, and Ben saves the people of Fairfold with his music, and he wins the love of the horned boy. Hazel saves the people of Fairfold with her skills as a knight, and by giving up her sword to its rightful owner. She wins the love of her changeling friend Jack, whose fey mother warns him that “mortality is a bitter draught” to which he replies “and yet I would have the full measure.” The story ends where it began, as all such tales should, “down a path worn into the woods….”
I got a copy of The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering by Jeffrey Rotter from Henry Holt and Company, and was at first wildly diverted by the details of the near-future America after some kind of civilization-ending event has occurred (present-day American leaders are referred to as “gunts” which is probably not a word you want to look up, as I discovered, and if you do, it won’t tell you anything about the way the word is used in this novel).
The neologism place names broadcast the strangeness. Characters talk about Canaday geese, a Caribeen brogue, and Old Miamy, which is right down the road from Hiya City, “a geriatric stronghold” in Floriday. Later they find “Cape Cannibal” and a rocket ship, which they don’t really believe can penetrate the “night glass” that shows them the stars.
The description of modern life—which reminds me a bit of the picture book Motel of the Mysteries—is the main delight of the first third of the novel. The narrator likes history, he says, and likes to parrot what he’s learned on tours of the “Old Miamy Ruins” because “it is a comfort to know how swiftly and thoroughly a civilization can crumble when nobody wants it anymore.” The highlight of the tour is a place the narrator–who we finally find out is named Rowan–knows only as Pork and Beans:
“This was a gated housing compound built by the famed Commie Gunt called Roserfelt. He was a Chief in his own way, stinky rich and hitched up to the finest families, but old Roserfelt had a deviant attachment to the poor. It may have been sexual. He wanted to see them pampered and put up like sultans, so he gave them Pork & Beans. He gave them police and water at no extra charge. Men addicted to drugs and women hooked on pregnancy got free sirloin and sedans and potable water. Swimming pools, in-unit toilets, a doctor that made house calls in a hi-tech van: Pork & Beans was paradise for do-nothings.”
Rowan’s view of the ruins of a zoo are also enlightening:
“Beyond this gate…citizens would pay a tithe to gigantic rats, long-neck horses in pokey-dots, and virus monkeys. Excited with sugar drinks, children gave in to the rapturous worship of beasts.”
Because Rowan, his brother Faron, and his “Pop” have no impulse control, they get into trouble with the law, and the only way the mother, “Umma,” can get them out of it is to sign them all up to train for and test the Orion rocket, one that was found underground in the ruins of Cape Cannibal. This is possible because
“at the end of their run the Astronomers anticipated a brief exile before Gunt rule was restored. They buried the Orion until such time as it could be safely retrieved. In the case, however, that their learning did not survive the intervening age, they left behind detailed instructions. They prefabbed every piece of hardware and automated the guidance system so that even barbarians like ourselves could use their antiques.”
After their parents lose faith in the project and each other (Umma commits suicide and Pop gets himself run over and mutilated until he’s like a villain from a Carl Hiaasen novel, one who keeps coming even though he’s been gravely wounded and has a crab clinging to where his hand used to be, or something), Rowan agrees to blast the rocket off with his brother and the divine Sylvia in it, a girl they both love but who seems to reciprocate only Faron’s affection. He does this, and then the novel turns into the story of how he is on the run, all over this futuristic U.S.
Rowan’s running also turns out to be the story of how he came to be traveling with his daughter, who he calls Sylvia. It seems that he might be trying to pass along to her a few warnings about impulse control, as he says things along the way like “you think you can go fugitive forever, but they don’t tell you about the blisters” and “after what had happened to my own family, I could not be trusted with another.” Still, the last half of the novel is mostly a series of unpremeditated events, bleak and with no obvious point.
The end of Rowan’s journey, however, turns out to be an abandoned observatory in Chile (“Chilly”) where he has set up camp, hoping to get a signal from Faron and Sylvia that they have landed on Europa. It’s a nice blend of the bleak with the whimsical, as all the best parts of this novel are.
Overall, I’m glad I read it, although I could have used a little more whimsical to leaven the bleakness of Rowan’s tour of the futuristic U.S. Perhaps he has to hit those low points, though, to be able to finally bring up his daughter on the “Star Track, a switchback trail the Astronomers used for long contemplative hikes. The stones along the path are etched with alien images, of stretch-neck horses like they kept at Zoo Miamy, of human figures with multiple eyes and radiating heads, chiseled gray astronauts. You call them your ‘rock guys.’ They wave hello from the past, hello to Little Sylvia. You always wave back.”
A friend of mine who is on twitter more than I am heard an author say she would send her new book to anyone likely to review it, so he sent me a message telling me to look at it, because it sounded “right up my alley.” The author was Susan Jane Bigelow, and the book was The Seeker Star. On this occasion I echoed something I recall Jo Walton saying one time, that “I’ll read almost anything if it has aliens and spaceships in it.” These books do, and the aliens are unlike any I’ve read about before. Bigelow’s publishers, Candlemark & Gleam, were kind enough to send me the first book in the series, The Daughter Star, in addition to The Seeker Star, which takes up where the first one left off.
In The Daughter Star, Marta Grayline is a spaceship pilot for a trade fleet from a small country called Gideon that is ruled by the Church, on a planet with high gravity called Nea, where some of the people from Earth moved when aliens called the Abrax provided “windows” to Nea and the lower-gravity Adastre. When Nea and Adastre go to war, she is forced to return to Gideon for a while. Her younger sister Beth goes with her as an engineer when she returns to space to fly cargo for Nea’s side, but then they both get rescued and caught up in the activities of people who are neutral in the war and call themselves Shadow Runners. One of them, Janice, is from Gideon, and they trade stories about their sister Violet’s upcoming wedding and Janice’s father’s threat to “steal her eggs” since she didn’t stay home and reproduce like a proper young Gideon lady. When the Shadow Runners trust Marta with a ship, she sets off to rescue a group that includes her sister and some of the alien Abrax, and she gets entangled in a fight for independence from Nea and Adastre on a mining planet called Haven.
Finding Beth, who has merged with an Abrac, Marta finds out the secret about why her ancestors left Earth. Much of it is sung into her mind by the Abrax part of her sister:
“The Abrax, ancient and powerful, spread through space. They built amazing cities on far-flung planets. But…they weren’t the Abrax. Not the Abrax as Marta knew them. So different, they were tiny and gray, with a dozen long, spindly legs, four powerful arms, and squat, spiderlike bodies. They moved with such grace.
But this wasn’t the first, Beth said. We are many.
The scene shifted.
Now the Abrax were huge winged creatures, clumsy with tools but highly intelligent and evolved. They ventured forth into the stars, seeking others like themselves….
And then…they began to evolve beyond themselves, and their physical forms began to shift and change. They became unmoored.
They didn’t know what to do. They were both frightened and elated by what they were becoming. There was a terrible fear that they would lose everything that had made them who they were, that all of their technology, culture, and knowledge would be lost as they left their physical forms behind. The decision was made to split themselves.
The Abrax found another race, a new people who were just beginning their journey into the stars, and poured their essence into them.
And then the old Abrax vanished into nothing, while the new Abrax, the Alil Abrax, began to evolve.
It happened again and again, and billions of years passed.”
Marta and the other humans realize that, rather than the story they grew up with, which is that Earth was destroyed, the Abrax merged with the humans left on earth to produce Alil.
In the end, Beth is kidnapped by an anti-Alil group called “Humans First,” and Marta has to set out to find her and rescue her, once again an independent spaceship pilot.
At the beginning of The Seeker Star, Marta and Beth’s other sister, Violet, finds her attempt to fit in as a good Gideon wife and mother foiled by infertility, and so she sets out to find her sisters and bring them home. More than Marta or Beth, Violet believes in Gideon and the potential for women to make a difference in their patriarchal society.
Like her sisters, Violet can speak to and hear the Abrax, and she finds that there is one particular Abrac who has chosen to spend her life helping her, although sometimes the help comes in the form of influencing or manipulating her to do things she wouldn’t otherwise be brave enough to do, like finally reveal the truth about Earth to both the Adastrans and the people of her own home planet.
Because some of the human forces on Earth, including former Shadow Runners, are threatening to kill the remaining Alil, Violet comes up with a plan to evacuate them to Nea and provide sanctuary, partly because her sister Beth, now an Alil, should be protected under Gideon’s laws.
Marta explains to Violet that the Alil are
“a way of prolonging their species. They have a long evolutionary cycle they always go through, and they’re at the end of it now. They evolve into nothing but patterns of energy, I think, and they think that’s really bad. Like, a kind of death, only worse. So they need to transfer the things that make their species what it is to a younger species so the Abrax will continue.”
Although Violet continues to feel that every group she meets wants to use her in some way, she finally allies herself with a General whose aims seem to be similar enough to her own to make it worth tossing his way what ends up being her considerable influence. He tells her that
“my men and I have been frustrated with the slow pace of change. We fought for Nea and Gideon on Haven, Violet…thousands of us died….And when we came home, there were the same old travel restrictions, the same communications restrictions, the same attitude towards the women we love and respect….We fought alongside women on Haven, women from every other country on Nea but ours. They were our comrades and our friends. We remember their sacrifice. We came home, and were ashamed of how we’d treated our own women. So we pushed for change.”
By asking the right questions at the right times, Violet continually pushes for transparency, forcing the Abrax and Alil to live up to their admission that no matter how ancient and powerful their race might be, it has been wrong to try to manipulate the humans.
Violet rallies first the women, then the reverends, and then all the people of Gideon to her cause, reforming the government and providing refuge to the Alil who survive the war between the former Shadow Runners and the “Humans First” group versus the human allies of the Alil and the Abrax.
No one, including Violet’s family, is unscathed by war. Gideon can no longer hold itself separate from other Novan countries, and the Novan countries where Alil settled now “shared the bounty of their technological knowledge.” By refusing to let herself be used for anyone else’s purpose, Violet has helped to create a world in which humans and aliens can cooperate and thrive.
It’s a satisfying adventure, with plenty of detail about the rocket ships, and aliens that are quite complicated and interesting.