WWI and the Birth of a Genre

J.R.R. Tolkien in uniform

J.R.R. Tolkien

This Saturday (October 21, 2017) I’ll be giving a presentation on WWI, Science Fiction, and Fantasy at Folsom Public Library at 10AM. In this presentation I’ll be talking about how anxieties immediately before and after the war led to a wave of invasion literature, such as H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and utopian and dystopian literature, such as Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

I hope I can see some of my California friends at this event! I’ve given this presentation before in Sacramento and had a great time. Loved the audience Q and A!

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Between the Lines Book Club: Wuthering Heights Vs Jane Eyre Smack-Down

between the lines book club logoThis month we are reading Jane Eyre, one of my favorite books and also a book I’ve done a lot writing about in the past. We’ll be meeting to discuss Jane Eyre at Arden Dimick Library on October 28th, 2017 at 10:30AM.

Today I raise the question: can a person be equally besotted with both Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, and Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte? Generally speaking I’ve found that the answer is “No,” but there are exceptions. In this piece written for Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, I asked readers this question after comparing the two novels. what do you think?

A Thought from Mary Shelley

I opened Frankenstein at random and found Elizabeth, Victor Frankenstein’s childhood friend, talking about the unjust death of their servant:

Before, I looked upon the accounts of vice and injustice that I read in books or heard from others, as tales of ancient days, or imaginary evils; at least they were remote, and more familiar to reason than to the imagination; but now misery has come home, and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood…When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?

To donate blood:

http://www.bloodsource.org/

To advocate for gun gontrol:

https://everytown.org/

To give aid to Puerto Rico:

https://hispanicfederation.org/

To fight climate change:

https://www.curbed.com/2017/6/7/15749900/how-to-stop-climate-change-actions

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poem Time

A young Edna St. Vincent MillayThanks to www.poets.org for reminding me about this lovely poem. It reminds me of my college friends and the road trips we took and the outings we scraped together from pocket change.

Recuerdo

Edna St. Vincent Millay1892 – 1950

  We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.

We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Between the Lines Book Club: Women in Science

between the lines book club logoThis month we’ve been reading Hidden Figures, which is about the African-American female mathematicians who helped win WWII and went on to work for NASA in the early days of the space program. We are living in a golden age of books about women who are or scientists. Here are a few suggestions.

 

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, by Dava Sobel

 

This book looks at the Harvard Computers, a group of women who did astronomical computations for Harvard Observatory beginning in the 1880’s. They were hired because they could be paid less than men, and they proved to be invaluable mathematicians and observers. Famous astronomers who were Harvard Computers included Henrietta Levitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Willamina Fleming. My review is here.

 

Harvard Computers group photo

 

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists, by Jeannine Atkins

 

This is a children’s book, but I enjoyed it and found it to be a great starting point when looking for Internet rabbit holes to fall under. This book profiles Maria Sibylla Merian, Anna Botsford Comstock, Frances Hamerstrom, Rachel Carson, Miriam Rothschild, and Jane Goodall. It’s easy to read, inspiring, and interesting, with lovely illustrations. I especially enjoyed the look at women who lived in different time periods, and how their struggles changed or remained the same.

51HFEAKWWGL

 

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World, by Shelley Emling

 

Remarkable Creatures is a historical novel about Mary Anning, a Regency-Era Paleontologist. The Fossil Hunter is an excellent biography of Mary Anning. Whether you prefer history or historical fiction, you’ll want to know about this remarkable woman who found fossils in the cliffs of Lyme and who laid the groundwork for the theory of evolution.

Portrait of Mary Anning and her dog

Book Review: These is My Words, by Nancy E. Turner

Cover of These Is My WordsThese Is My Words is a work of historical fiction (NOT a romance novel, despite considerable romance) loosely based on stories that the author, Nancy E. Turner, heard about her real-life great-grandmother, Sarah Prine. The story begins in 1881, when seventeen-year-old Sarah Prine and her family are part of a wagon train heading from the New Mexico Territory to Texas. Due to a series of calamities, the family ends up in the Arizona Territories, where Sarah struggles to run a ranch more or less on her own.

 

These is My Words: The Diary of Sarah Agnes Prine, 1881 – 1901 is one of our “family books,” that is to say, it’s a book that the women in my family pass back and forth and deeply love. These Is My Words has two sequels, Sarah’s Quilt and The Stone Garden. However, both my mother and I thought they were good but not as good as These Is My Words, which we have both read many, many times. This book is not a romance novel in the sense that the ending is bittersweet at best. However, it does contain a wonderful love story, and a wonderful portrait of a tough, smart, and frequently cranky woman, Sarah Prine.

 

From the start, Sarah is tough, fighting to defend her friends and family despite being uncertain about her life and being dazed with grief after seeing many deaths. I don’t want to spoil much of the story, but as she becomes a wife and a mother she develops a deeper layer of toughness beneath which there is a keen longing for education, a love of beauty, intense curiosity, and great affection for her loved ones. Sarah wishes she was more of a “lady” like her sweet sister-in-law, Savannah, but as Savannah tells her over and over again, her loved ones like her (and depend on her) just the way she is.

 

The best thing about the novel is Sarah’s voice and her character development as she grows from a naïve teen into a sharp businesswoman and rancher. Here’s an excerpt that shows off the keen business sense she develops as the story progresses, along with her sharp wit, and her independence. In this passage, Sarah is talking to a bank clerk in Tucson:

 

I went to one of the windows and introduced myself, and after I told the man what I wanted to do, he had the gall to sniff in my face and tell me to let my husband handle my money and not trouble myself with the confusion of it all.

 

Oh, I said, how confusing is it? If it makes you confused, I surely don’t want this bank holding my five hundred dollars.

 

Well, he perked right up and said, Five hundred dollars? I believe we can be of service to you after all.

 

I doubt it, I told him. I made this money with the sweat of my brow and the labor of my hands and I’ve got the rawhide to prove it. I don’t intend to leave it with any man that thinks money is confusing.

 

He puckered up his face kind of nervous and said, Oh, I assure you, Ma’am, we are not the slightest bit confused about money. We have a fifteen hundred pound safe, he says. Completely, one-hundred-percent theft proof…we offer one point nine percent interest, he said.

 

I stood up. Well, I told him, I can turn this around in supplies and stock and see about twenty-five percent interest on cattle as long as there’s no drought, and a hundred and fifteen percent interest on soap, more if there’s a drought. It’s a little at a time, but it comes right in steady as a clock. In case that’s confusing to you, Mister, it’s called profit. Thank you to you, and good day.

 

While the love story in this book is one of my favorites, this book is not and was not marketed as a romance novel. I don’t even want to spoil whom the romance is with given that early on there is more than one option. This is not a book that shies away from the realities of a hard and violent life and on many occasions you will need tissues and maybe some booze, although you will laugh a lot too. It’s a story about love, but it’s also a story about grief.

 

I want you to get to see the love story unfold for yourself. But I will say that it involves some banter, a lot of humor, brittleness and tenderness, and a lot of honesty. It also involves Sarah reading The Happy Bride, an instructional tome that advises Bible study as being “the first importance in being a wife.” But this book doesn’t end up being of much practical use to Sarah, who is very worried about an incident early in the book when she accidentally cries herself to sleep in a man’s arms:

 

As for that rainstorm and a certain soldier, I will just turn from my wicked ways and be sure never to place myself in a situation like that again. If I was, I would turn him away with a strong command rather than bawl like an orphan calf and fall asleep like I was safe with him. The book says “a young lady is never safe when in close physical proximity to a gentleman, and although he would pursue her, he thinks all the more of her of her if she rebuffs him heartily.” So I have thought of a hearty rebuff that I will tell that Captain Elliot if ever I see him again, or any man who presumes to be in close physical proximity.

 

The book doesn’t say what to do if you have slept in your underwear on top of a soldier in a wagon during a rainstorm. I will study this book so the first chance I get not to be an old maid I will be ready.

 

Best of luck with that book, Sarah.

 

One thing I like about this book is that while it stays true to Sarah’s perspective, it’s fairly even-handed in its treatment of Native Americans and in its treatment of other minorities. To be clear, Sarah is the narrator and this is very much a story told from a white pioneer perspective, which means that Sarah is often in deadly conflict with the Comanche and the Apache tribes. Initially, the attackers are presented as creatures of utter terror, raiding the wagon train and raiding local homes. They are nameless and faceless and everyone is terrified of them.

 

However, even early in the story, there are hints that Sarah is too smart and too curious to see people as caricatures. Early on, she has a silent moment of connection with a Comanche man who sees her kill a rapist. This man offers her silent respect, which Sarah clings to in the aftermath of guilt that follows the killing. Sarah is horrified to hear of massacred tribal women and children. She hears people arguing about how the wagon train people are encroaching on Comanche Territory, and she worries about it. Later, she hears about another character’s horrible sense of ambivalence in his job of chasing and capturing Geronimo. And eventually she learns more about the differences between local tribes after she hires an Apache woman to help her around the house, while she also becomes friends with a Yavapai man.

 

The book is very clear that the West wasn’t just a sea of whiteness. Sarah gets to know a Chinese family, and she becomes close friends with a Mexican family, from whom she learns Spanish and a lot of new recipes. It’s not that Sarah is incredibly progressive. It’s simply that Sarah tends to take people at face value. She likes people who share recipes and she likes people who chat with her on the porch and she dislikes people who shoot arrows at her even if she has some sympathy with their motives. She tends to see people as people, not as types, and she likes people who help her out and who let her help them in return.

 

I have a long list of trigger warnings for this book. First all, as much as I appreciate that Sarah sees Native Americans as individual people and does not look down on them, this is still a story about the white takeover of native lands, told from a white perspective. We already have a million stories about Indians attacking white people. This story is told better than most but it’s still the same story in many section of the book.

 

Also, there are multiple rape threats, rape attempts, and actual rapes. Children are frequently in peril and some children die. So do some animals. This book runs the gamut of emotions, and it doesn’t glamorize the hardships of the place and time.

 

I love this book for a lot of reasons. I have some family in Arizona, and that gives me some personal interest in the topic. I love the romance and the incredibly sense of place that is conveyed on Sarah’s ranch and in Tucson. I love the combination of dramatic events with every day life. But the main reason I love this book so much is because of Sarah and her unique and wonderful voice, and because of the different ways that female strength is portrayed in different characters.

 

This is an amazing story, beautifully and powerfully written and deeply feminist, but it’s not intersectional, meaning that it doesn’t address this lives of anyone other than Sarah’s family in much detail. However, if you want something historical that features more perspectives from non-white characters, here are some suggestions:

 

Wake of Vultures, and the sequel, Conspiracy of Ravens, by Lila Bowen

 

This Weird West series (not a series of romance novels) is narrated by a biracial, transgender man. The series includes characters of many ethnicities in its fantasy depiction of a West in which monsters, shapeshifters, and magic exist. I reviewed Wake of Vultures. Beware of literal cliffhangers.

 

The Girl With Ghost Eyes, by M.H. Boroson

 

I reviewed Girl with Ghost Eyes and loved the main character, a Chinese teenage girl who uses magic and martial arts to defend her family in gold rush San Francisco. Again, this is historical fiction, not a romance novel, although there’s some romance in it.

 

Bitter Springs, by Laura Stone

 

I wrote a capsule review of this book for RT Book Reviews. I loved this romance novel about Texas in the 1870s. Renaldo Valle Santos trains with Hank Burnett. Hank is Black, a freed slave who has made a name for himself as an expert on catching and taming wild horses. The two men fall in love and prepare to face the consequences with Renaldo’s traditional family.

 

Destiny’s Captive, by Beverly Jenkins

 

This book, which I reviewed here, is a romance novel that begins on the shores of Cuba but primarily takes place in 1870’s California. It involves a romance between Afro-Cuban Pilar and Afro-Spanish Noah. The book combines swashbuckling and shopping and a lot of female bonding, so catnip alert right there for most of our readers. The book is the third book in a trilogy that includes Destiny’s Surrender and Destiny’s Embrace, You can also enjoy Redheadedgirl’s review of another Western by Jenkins, Forbidden.

 

 

I also found this link, which features books by and about Native Americans.

 

http://www.bachelorsdegreeonline.com/blog/2011/the-20-essential-american-indian-novels/

Between the Lines Book Club: Interviews with Margot Lee Shetterly

between the lines book club logoThis month we are reading Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly. It’s a spellbinding nonfiction book about the women who made the space race possible. You can join us to discuss this book at Arden Dimick Book Club at 10:30AM on September 23, 2017.

Margot Lee Shetterly is a passionate advocate of preserving and publicizing the contributions that Black women have made to science. Here are some interviews with her:

New York Times

On the importance of imagination:

Writing this book helped me understand just how powerful imagination is: having the clarity of mind to see the world as it is and then to see it as it might be. That’s what this whole thing is. That’s what “Star Trek” was: We don’t know how to make an ideal society, but we’re going to portray that, and then we’re going to work backward. I think that’s why science fiction — despite the dystopian parts — comes out of this super ideal that, eventually, we will get to some better place where we actually live up to our ideals. Without imagination, I don’t think there’s any progress.

Shadow and Act

On growing up in the world of NASA (her father worked there):

I did know them growing up. My dad worked with Mary Jackson very closely at one point. I knew Katherine Johnson as well. They were all part of this group of Black engineers and scientists within this larger NASA community. So these people on one weekend would go to the HBCU Alumni Association Dance, and then the next weekend they would go off to the National Tech Association where they would put on their science hats and be together and talk about that.

There was no disconnect between those parts of their identities; it was very normal. But you know, while I knew the women; I didn’t know their story and how they got there. It was really my husband who helped spark the idea. We were visiting my parents almost exactly six years ago and had run into one lady who is a Sunday School teacher, and my dad was talking about the work that she’d done, and it just turned into this larger conversation about these different women. My husband was like, “This is amazing! Wait a minute nobody knows about this!” And I was like, “Wow, I don’t know this story.” That was really the beginning of me saying, “OK, I need to know this story.” Six years later here we are.

NPR

On Katherine Johnson and John Glenn:

She started working at Langley in 1953. … Johnson did many things, but among them was co-author a report writing the trajectory equations for putting a craft into orbit around the Earth. One of the most notable moments of her career was leading up to the orbital launch of John Glenn’s flight, which was really a turning point in the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

You know, the Russians had got a real head-start into space; America was playing catch-up. And this was also a moment where electronic computers were taking over the task of much of the calculating that was necessary for these increasingly complex missions.

But as sort of a handoff moment between human computers and electronic computers, John Glenn asked Katherine Johnson — he actually asked “the girl”; all of the women working at that time were referred to as “girls.”

And he said: Get the girl to do it. I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer, and if she says they’re good, you know, I’m good to go as part of one of my pre-flight checklists.

So the astronaut who became a hero, looked to this black woman in the still-segregated South at the time as one of the key parts of making sure his mission would be a success.