Book Review: The Western Tradition and Transgression in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland

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The title of Catherynne M. Valente’s first in the Fairyland series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, led me to expect a loud and wonderfully brazen feminism. That was not what I got from the story, but I was perhaps even more pleased. I am only as I’m writing this review realizing how feminist the text truly is.

Valente deals in the subversion of stereotypes male and female most prominently in the characters of September (female) and Saturday (male).

The protagonist, September, has long hair, wears a dress, uses the pronoun “she,” and before she leaves home is assigned the chore of washing dishes (all acts stereotypically assigned to women). She is Ravished, carried off by the Green Wind in the manner of Persephone by Hades, taking their another female role, but deprived of her escort, she must take on the hero’s role in her adventure. She uses the jewels from a scepter to buy her passage on her first quest: to steal back a witch’s Spoon from the Marquess, the despotic ruler of Fairyland. The Spoon she keeps for herself on the subsequent quests. The Spoon belonging to a female witch and through its association with the historically and stereotypically female domain of the kitchen and the act of cooking is feminine but it acts in its function as a weapon in a more masculine sphere. September wields the Spoon like a cudgel to break apart a lobster cage, like a grappling hook with which she wrangles an animate bicycle. Conquering her own Death, she wins a new weapon: a sword that manifests as her mother’s wrench. Her mother is an airplane mechanic while her father is away at the battlefront (of World War II), so September follows in a family tradition of women transgressing the feminine sphere to step into the masculine one in the absence of men.

September’s companion, Saturday, is rescued by September from the Marquess, taking the role of the damsel in the tower in the Western fairytale myth. He is quiet, gentle, pacifist, and emotionally vulnerable rather than exuding stereotypical masculine strength and emotional restraint of the Western myth of masculinity. He takes a backseat to September’s heroism, is rescued far more often than he rescues, and at one point presents September with a favor in the tradition of women to knights before battle.

September moves from a more feminine sphere, being Ravished and wielding a Spoon, to a more traditionally masculine sphere, being compared to a knight on a quest, saving others, being the hero, and wielding a sword-wrench, but all of these things without the world are more feminine. It is the Western tradition that she transgresses and not the world’s gender stereotypes, and that is why this is an important feminist book. What September does, the masculine roles she inhabits are not masculine, not feminine, but non-gendered in the world. This is the feminism of equality, the best and paragon of feminism.

There are several other characters transgressing stereotypes that I could examine.  I could rave about Valente’s answer to body shaming, her call to respect the elderly, the deviances from the man-woman marriage (two women, one man-wairwulf witch, then the Nasnas who are probably a paper in themselves and a reference to Plato besides)….

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the language of this book. The language is beautiful. It is comparable to Patrick Rothfuss’, particularly to Patrick Rothfuss writing in the voice of Auri in The Slow Regard of Silent Things. As Pat with Auri, much of what Valente says as narrator of this book (and she is a very present narrator throughout the text) seems outlandish but rings true nonetheless. This is the truth stripped of its science. This is the truth we saw before science. And it’s beautiful. Its fresh and timeless. It is the language of wonder and young eyes.

*****

Valente, Catherynne M.  Fairyland, Book 1: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making.  Illus. Ana Juan.  New York: Square Fish-Macmillan, 2012.  Originally published 2011.

This review is not endorsed by Catherynne M. Valente, Ana Juan, Square Fish, Macmillan, or Fiewel and Friends, the Macmillan imprint that originally published the book.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

If you’re thinking of purchasing an e-reader copy of this book, why not support me and purchase it through Bookgrail, a new site that let’s you support book reviewers with your purchases?

Book Review: Dark Moon Defender: Rereads and the Effects of Nostalgia

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Dark Moon Defender, third in Sharon Shinn’s The Twelve Houses series, is well written, its characters rounded and alive, its world expansive and deep, the cultures and religions and worldviews diverse and detailed, but when I tried first to write a review of this book based on those merits, I couldn’t find much else to say.

Sometimes the real value of a book is nostalgia, the times that it recalls, the friends with whom it is connected.

Such may be the case for me for Dark Moon Defender. This was the first of the series that I ever read, a recommendation from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master when we were still college kids. It was then passed around a group of us.

When I first read the series, I’d have said that Dark Moon Defender was my second favorite after the fourth and climax, Reader and Raelynx.  I hadn’t read it since.

Rereading Dark Moon Defender was like meeting a friend again—a friend introduced to me by friends and with whom I share friends, none of whom I’ve seen face-to-face in too long. It reminded me of all of those friends.

But since we last had seen one another, we’d grown apart a bit—Dark Moon Defender­ and I. Life happened. And while I enjoyed rereading the book, preferred it to other books that I had been reading, it was not the same book that I remembered—or I wasn’t the same person who had read it those few years ago.

Perhaps in some ways it is because of what this series means to me that this book did not sink as deeply into my heart this time around. This series—for all its many strengths—I like perhaps best because of the incredibly strong and warm friendships between the six main protagonists—a friendship that in some ways echoes that which I share with the friends with whom I first read the book. But the friends in this book are separated—not indefinitely but for large portions of the book. I found myself enjoying the book best when at least two of the friends were together.

Though I think Shinn would say that these books are meant as romances, the romances are just not as moving to me as are the friendships or as exciting as the overarching series plot of treason and war.

The Thirteenth House, second in the series, I realized this previous read-through is more bildungsroman than romance. When I read it as a bildungsroman, I liked it much better than when I had read it as a romance. It has perhaps not even surmounted Dark Moon Defender in the ranking of favorites. I suppose there is an aspect of bildungsroman in Dark Moon Defender if one assumes that a healthy marriage is a necessary step in growing up—which I’m not sure that I do, though certainly it can be a step in some people’s journey. I feel though that most of Justin’s growth and education had occurred prior to this book and would classify this more as a romance than any other genre.

Maybe I enjoyed Dark Moon Defender so well the first time through partially because I had not read the others and did not know what Shinn was capable of and so was able to enjoy it as a straight romance, expecting nothing else.

If Dark Moon Defender is read primarily as a romance then it has to be noted too that while Justin is, I know, the ideal hero to some, he is not the type of hero to whom I am immediately attracted, and because the story is primarily a romance, I think my “type” hindered my enjoyment of the story. I like adorkable and cute and brainy more than I like brawny, dutiful soldiers. My preference makes Justin no less of a wonderful character and no less loveable.

Perhaps because I was more apart from the world and the characters than I had been during any other reading of one of Shinn’s books, I found myself stumbling a few too many times on Shinn’s flowery prose—a strange critique from me (my own prose has received the same critique on many occasions). Sometimes “said” really is the best verb.

****

Shinn, Sharon. The Twelve Houses, Book 3: Dark Moon Defender. New York: ACE-Berkley-Penguin, 2006.

This review is not endorsed by Sharon Shinn, ACE Books, Berkley Publishing Group, or Penguin Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Little Red Dress (658 words)

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On the hottest day of the year, the skirt of my red dress flutters against my thighs in the breeze manufactured by the fan.

Mam bakes when she’s worried, and she hasn’t let the summer heat stop her.

I long for an excuse to escape the sweltering house.

“Mackie, take these cakes to your granny’s, eh?”

Just the excuse I’ve been waiting for.

I grab the basket that Mam holds out and bolt for the door, barely stopping to slam my feet into trainers and grab my purse. Mam’s calling after me. “Straight there and back.”

The heat glaring off of the pavement is only a little cooler than the heat radiating from Mam’s kitchen, but at least here the hot air moves, blown sideways by the wind between the high-rises.

Granny lives ten blocks away. Not far, really, but far enough to make a good walk, especially with Mam’s cake hanging heavy on my arm. I’ve lived in the city as long as I can remember, but still I love the jangle of it, the auto horns calling to one across the blocks like starlings, the groan and rumble of their wheels on the streets, the hawkers calling out wares, the sights, and smells of hot dogs and pretzels and baking asphalt and steel.

There’s a raw tingle up my spine each time I set out into the crowd knowing that I pass and am passed by people I’ll never see again, who’ll never see me again, but that I know these streets as if they were my own, as familiar as the flat I can navigate in the dark, but always changing, never mine, always their own.

Each street has a flavor. Some are bright and sunny and whitewashed: lemon-scented. Some are cluttered with shop fronts with fluttering, colorful awnings, a café, a flower shop with buckets of colorful blooms spilling onto the pavement and a watchful man who guards the merchandise from the wandering hands of couples and toddlers.

“Flower for you, Red? Free of charge.”

Well, maybe he’s not as watchful of his flowers as I thought. He holds out a red rose. I know I should walk past him, but I love red roses.

“Pretty girl like you must get a million flowers, eh? Where’s your boyfriend? Girl like you deserves an armful of flowers.”

Granny likes roses too.

I take the flower. Its been plucked of its thorns. The stem is smooth and cool to the touch. Its scent is heady. I bury my nose in the soft petals.

“There you are. That’s the smile I wanted to see.” The flower seller flashes me a white smile. “So where is he?”

“Haven’t got a boyfriend.”

“Aw, Red, that’s a real shame. Someone ought to pluck you up. You put that rose to shame. You hang onto that flower.”

“I might give it to my granny. I’m on my way to see her now, and she’s ill.”

“Red, you’re breaking my heart. Tell you what. You tell me where your granny lives. I’ll bring her a whole bouquet of red roses. Think she’d like that? Think that’d make her feel better, Red?”

“I haven’t got the money for a whole bouquet.”

“Discounted!”

“Would five dollars be enough?”

“I can do that, yeah.”

I shift the basket, shift the rose to my other hand and fish out the fiver. He pockets it and starts to gather a bouquet of red roses, carefully selecting each bloom.

“Now you just give me your granny’s address. I’ll make sure these get to her. Make her smile.”

I give him Granny’s address and thank him with a smile.

“You get off to Granny’s, Red. And don’t worry now. We’ll make her feel better.”

I thank him again and continue up the block, humming now and dipping my nose again into the aromatic bloom. The city streets look even brighter, a bit more cheerful with a rose in hand.

Mine was the line stolen this week.

Bek at Building A Door wrote “Heat.”

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Take Advantage” (768 words).

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Burning Rubber.”

Machete Diplomacy wrote “Drought.”

Book Reviews: March 2015 Picture Book Roundup

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Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light. Candlewick, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, PreK-K.

I’m a sucker for dragons—particularly friendly dragons (you may have noticed)—and for the idea that magic could be a little more commonplace than we believe, so I naturally had to pick up and read a book with this jacket. Light’s Have You Seen My Dragon? is a counting book with imaginative and whimsical illustrations, primarily busy, detailed line drawings but with splashes of color that highlight the objects to be counted. The counting book is well hidden within a text that gives the counting book plot, where the narrator—a young child—tours the city looking for his missing dragon, querying various adults at work him. There’s a lot of room for interaction in this book.  It could be expanded into a color primer as well, and a primer for professions.  The dragon hides among the intricately woven lines of each illustration, making a Where’s Waldo of him, though finding the dragon is thankfully not as difficult. The busyness of Light’s illustrations perfectly match the bustle of a city like New York City or London. I have to admit that I am more enamored of the illustrations of this book than the text, but the text does—as I’ve said—a good job supporting the mission of the counting book without losing plot—and that’s more than can be said for some.

****

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Richard Scarry’s Trucks by Richard Scarry. Golden-Random, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This book is written in the manner of a primer with a noun and then the illustration of that noun, but there’s an element of silliness here, with the inclusion of several absurd examples. Beside the usual examples (bulldozer, dump truck, fire engine), there is also a pickle tanker and Mr. Frumble’s pickle car. Richard Scarry’s world is one where things don’t always go well: Fruit trucks spill their merchandise and Mr. Frumble drives his pickle car into the path of an emptying dump truck. I suspect but haven’t been able to prove that these illustrations were lifted from other stories, mashed here into a new product to sell—much as was done with the Favorite Words books based on Eric Carle’s works. This is probably a book best for fans—parents who are fans—of Richard Scarry’s work already, trying to induce their children to like the same books that they do—and why wouldn’t you? I too have fond memories of Richard Scarry (I think a lot of us do). I would, though, have liked to see more cohesion, more of a plot in this primer. Some of the illustrations tell their own mini story, but I found no story connecting the illustrations.

**1/2

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Princesses and Puppies by Jennifer Weinberg and illustrated by Francesco Legramandi and Gabriella Matta. Disney-Random, 2013. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

This book was something of a disappointment. Each princess gets a page or two only, and the story about each princess and puppy is the same and without much action: The princess receives or finds a puppy and interacts with the puppy in a banal way: Merida gives hers a bath. Tiana’s falls asleep on her lap. The only story that breaks this pattern involves a puppy that performs a trick for Jasmine—and the author wisely or unwisely remains silent about Jasmine giving its ragamuffin child owners money in return for the trick—which is the logical conclusion to such an interaction. The puppies receive at the hands of the text more personality than do the princesses. Perhaps the absence of plot and character development could be attributed to this book being a Level 1 reader, but I hope not. I hope there are Level 1 readers with more of a story.  It’s impossible for me to forget how much more impressed I was by the Level 2 Disney reader, A Pony for a Princess.

**

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

An Untimely Post About Leftovers

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Well, one of these recipes is untimely. It’s very difficult to hold or attend a Thanksgiving meal without receiving leftovers. Turkey is not my favorite, but I recognize that it is traditional, and I would frankly miss it if I were to attend a Thanksgiving meal without it. The sides are what I love best. This year I discovered a wonderful remedy that helps me eat up all of the Thanksgiving leftovers without becoming tired of turkey or of any of the leftovers either:  I wrapped it all up in a tortilla. This year’s leftovers included turkey, stuffing, cranberry chutney, and Brussels sprouts (the last not shown here, but they were actually pretty tasty in this tortilla recipe; I had it several times in the weeks following the holiday).

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I never did quite figure out how long to microwave these tortillas for. The easiest thing seemed to be to microwave the fixings without the tortilla and then spoon all that onto the tortilla.

This next recipe is less seasonal, though perhaps it is more fitting for winter. One of my first roommates post-college used to buy roast chickens and from the leftover bones make some really excellent chicken soup. I got into the habit then of not tossing away the bones, knowing they could have some use. I don’t have her chicken soup recipe, but I found a recipe on 100 Days of Real Food for Crockpot chicken stock.

We had maybe two and half sandwich sized Ziploc bags worth of frozen chicken bones from various meals, fried and roasted, in the freezer. I used baby carrots because they are simpler to snack on and so more likely to get used in our household. The onion we had.  I bought a whole celery from the grocery store, but retrospectively, I wish I’d bought a more expensive but less wasteful carton of celery sticks.

I used what spices we already had: a bay leaf, thyme, and salt. I didn’t have parsley.

The recipe was simple—beyond simple. I minced the carrots and celery and tossed it all in the Crockpot without bothering to defrost the chicken.

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Then I filled the Crockpot with water to within about an inch and a half from its lip, and I turned the Crockpot on low.

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Because I’m still nervous about using a Crockpot and leaving it be, I did this all during the day instead of overnight as the recipe suggests, though my roommate did convince me to leave it on overnight to make more flavorful stock. (We tasted it before bed.)

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In the end, we had four full Tupperware containers of thick yellow stock, ladled from the Crockpot into a wire mesh strainer held over the Tupperware. (The remaining bones, overcooked celery and carrots, and all we had to toss in the trash, which seemed a sad waste. Maybe the carrots could have been edible if I’d been able to detangle them from the bones.)

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We kept one container in the refrigerator and froze the rest to be used later. Since then we’ve used it to cook chicken noodle soup, to add some flavor to rice and to pastas, and mostly to add to soup cans to make a can of soup last a little longer. I mixed it with both chicken soups and beef soups, and both were delicious.

There’s still some in the freezer.

All photos are mine.  Click to view them larger.

Challenge: Legal Theft: My Dad Taught Me (295 words)

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Someday I’m going to start a legal theft piece early in the week.  Someday I’ll remember that I have a post to write and that I shouldn’t let myself be talked into staying past sunset to learn this and learn that on the chance that I’ll have to use it again.  Someday I’m going to learn the days of the week.

Someday.

I hope you don’t mind that this is more… character study than story.

When charging into dangerous situations you can either be fast and silent or fast and prepared. My dad had lots of sayings like that, sayings that you wouldn’t expect to come from the mouth of a fisherman or from a tinker either when it comes to that.

I don’t know what dangerous situations he expected me to land myself in. The most dangerous thing in our village was the lake in a storm, and no skill with a sword or swing of my fist was going to save me if the lake took a mind to drag me under.

Maybe he saw the fighter in me and decided to train me or maybe he put the fighter in me. Either way, I found my causes, even as young as six, they tell me, and I put to use what my dad taught me. I heard an insult slung at another and took personal offense. I don’t think I was ever looking for a fight, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I was looking to practice. Maybe I was looking to prove myself to Dad. After I’d told my tale, he never once told me off for fighting. He’d nod and smile, and I’d know I’d done right.

It gave me purpose, but it wasn’t a purpose everyone saw as fit for anyone—especially me. I heard my mum tell more than one indignant woman that my dad wouldn’t be moved and she didn’t really disapprove either of her daughter knowing how to defend herself or others. They both of them taught me a sense of right and wrong. They made sure I knew I was never to use the skills Dad taught me to terrorize anyone. But maybe they did let me run a little wild.

This first line came from Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad, who wrote “Hindsight.”

It was stolen by Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, who used it to write “Foreknowledge” (496 words).

Bek at Building A Door used it to write “The Final Test” (393 words).

Welcome to legal theft Trebez from Machete Diplomacy, who used the line to write “Silence and Preparation”!

Book Reviews: February 2015 Picture Book Roundup: Evocative is Today’s Word

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Click, Clack, Peep! By Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2015. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades: PreK-3.

Cronin’s Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type has been fairly successful, frequently being displayed in various places in Barnes & Noble. This latest edition to the series takes on a far more relatable and age-appropriate topic, I think, than did this first book of Cronin’s, which I found a little too bureaucratic in its subject. In this, a new duckling is born on the farm, and like a child sometimes, he will not be quiet and will not sleep, so the animals can’t sleep. With a plethora of onomatopoeia’s and creative text formatting, this is a visually pleasing story and visually evocative too. There’s one page with so many peeps that I’d have been irritated if I’d felt the need to read each one, just as the characters in the story are irritated by the constant peep of the duckling. On another page the tension of waiting for duckling’s egg to hatch is palpable, evoked by the text and illustrations alike. This funny book will make a great bedtime story.

****

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Walking Home to Rosie Lee by A. LaFaye and illustrated by Keith D. Shepherd. Cinco Puntos, 2011.

A. is a professor of mine. I was in her class when or shortly after this book was released. She read the book aloud to the class and several of us were unable to keep our eyes dry, and while I’m sure some of that is attributable to the emotion that A. as the author put into the characters through her reading, the story remains evocative without the author’s interpretation. Gabe’s is a perspective little covered in texts for any age: the struggle for African Americans, former slaves, after the Civil War. Gabe’s syntax adds life to Gabe’s voice. Heartbreaking and finally uplifting, this is a story I think needs to be told. Gabe’s search for his mother, for family, for love, for home is universal as well as historical. Shepherd’s illustrations are bright and bold. There’s enough detail in the story to illuminate the suffering of African American slaves, but not enough to make it inappropriate for most children, especially on the older end of picture books.

****

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Disney’s Frozen’s Melt My Heart: Share Hugs with Olaf by Reader’s Digest. 2014.   Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

This book is a collection of lines of Olaf’s from Disney’s Frozen. The lines do not make a plot. I would love to see if this book makes any sense separate from the film, but I saw the film and so could add a little weight and meaning to the text and illustrations. I would have liked an original plot, a plot separate from the film, or even any connection beside the central character between pages. The board book does sport plush arms, but I have seen even this concept better handled. They are difficult to manipulate and still hold the book.

*

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The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2014.

This is the latest Caldecott Medal recipient, and this is a wonderful and wonderfully illustrated book. Santat’s imagination is, frankly, stunning. He built a world and culture here and peopled it with fantastical characters that might bear some resemblance to creatures and objects in this world, but are unique nonetheless. With equal prowess he captures our world, the “real world,” though in the absence of children and imagination, the world appears in grayscale. Beekle leaves the world where imaginary friends are born and wait to be chosen by a child in the real world. He sails alone to the real world and scours our world for his friend, finally finding her. Together they learn about friendship, and he helps her make other friends too.

****

These reviews are not endorsed by any one involved in their making.  They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

In Defense of the Small, Women’s, Liberal Arts College

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Hollins University.  Photo credit to myself.

Hollins University. Photo credit to myself.

Today is International Women’s Day making this attempt to process recent events seem particularly timely.  I hope this says what I want it to say.

***

The world is big. Like, really big. Most of you are not from our little valley, down here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Most of you probably have not heard of Sweet Briar College if you’ve heard of Sweet Briar College at all till Wednesday when the college announced that at the end of this summer, they will shut their doors forever.

But sometimes things happen, and you have to process them. I process by writing, and I have a blog, so I may as well share my thoughts. So welcome to my thoughts.

Sweet Briar College was my first choice until a somewhat disastrous overnight visit changed my mind. I ended up at Sweet Briar’s rival college, Hollins University, and I never looked back—or maybe only once or twice.

The girl I was who dreamed of marrying a landed nobleman and running a household while walking about in opulent clothes and changing to go riding through fields and woodlands that I owned, that girl loved Sweet Briar. Wandering the grounds feels like wandering through a Bronte or an Austen novel. The wooden banisters are worn smooth by thousands of hands over decades. There’s one room in the library that could have been lifted from my wildest imaginations of my manor house, all dark wood, plush couches, and pleasurable fiction. The horse barn is the nicest I’ve ever seen—and I’ve seen a fair few. I’d have loved to spend nights going up to the observatory, from which I could view the night sky with so much less light pollution than, well, just about anywhere I’ve ever been.

My opinion of Sweet Briar has been clouded both by that overnight visit and by the traditions and history of my own alma mater, which proclaimed the annual soccer game between our two universities “Burn the Briar Day” and sold student-made t-shirts proclaiming “Friends don’t let friends become Vixens” (the Vixen is the Sweet Briar mascot).

I never had the opportunity to interact with any of the Sweet Briar women or visit the college again after deciding to become a Hollins woman.

***

The announcement of the closing of Sweet Briar rings like death knells across the Internet (or at least within certain circles of the Internet) for a certain types of universities, or at least universities that, like Sweet Briar, share three qualities. Sweet Briar is a small, rural, women’s college. (And a liberal arts college besides, but enough large liberal arts colleges are thriving that I’m going to leave the argument alone for now.) Maybe the three stresses were too much, but each I feel has its benefit, and if the landscape of colleges becomes one where any of these three aspects is absent, we as a country will lack much. In this alternate universe where schools like Sweet Briar, schools like Hollins do not exist, social pressure probably would have found me in a college, but I would not be the woman I am, and I honestly don’t think that the woman I am now would much like the woman I would be.

I wanted a small university. I wanted a relationship with my classmates and professor. Coming from a town of 16,000 and a high school graduating class of 200, I was used to personal attention, and I was unwilling to give that up. I needed a small university. I would not be the woman I am had I not attended a small university. I am quiet by nature. I don’t like to be called on in class because I would rather reflect and observe and process and answer questions later, preferably in writing. Being in a small class and being called on even when I didn’t feel like the most qualified student in the room or the only active participant in a class (the reasons I’d have spoken out in high school) taught me how to express myself. The observation rather than participation mode of learning works for me, and I would have learned the class material in a large university setting, but I would not have fought for my turn to ask questions or to share opinions and I would not have become the more confident woman I am today, more unrepentant than my high school self about having opinions and more willing to share those opinions.

That town of 16,000 is a Connecticut suburb not long removed from its days of farming, with open spaces aplenty but shrinking and old stone walls dividing properties and crisscrossing the woodlands between. By the time I was looking for a college to attend, I’d been to New York City and Boston, and I knew I didn’t want that hustle and bustle or that gray. I am not a city-girl. I specifically avoided schools in large cities, as surely as I avoided schools that are cities, anything with a population to rival my hometown’s. The landscape of Sweet Briar stole my breath and nearly stole my heart—did steal my heart for several months, and I think in my heart, I always believed that Hollins never really did compare for all its green hills and lawns, and its shady garden, and cool creeks, and the woods that kept us bounded on two sides, and the horse pasture that formed the third side. Hollins’ grounds became home, and I felt and feel privileged to walk and run unchecked across them, to explore their crannies and surprises, but Sweet Briar’s grounds are nearer to what Heaven will look like, and I would have spent my four years discovering their secrets and communing with nature among the grasses and woodlands. I’d have been unhappy anywhere without greenery, and Sweet Briar offered me by far the best.

Lastly, women’s colleges. Let me tell you about women’s colleges. I stumbled across women’s colleges accidentally. I didn’t intend to go to a women’s college when I began looking for schools, I just didn’t exclude them, especially as my guidance counselor pinned Hollins as the school for me from the get-go. All of the colleges of which I became aware that happened to have the right climate (I wanted to move south and escape the cold) and environment (small, intimate, with caring professors, and enough greenery to keep me sane) also happened to be women’s colleges.

The small class size was necessary to teach me to speak out, but I think an environment entirely composed of women helped me speak out as well. We were women who shared ideas, ideals, and circumstances, and my classmates were supportive in ways that I think male classmates would not have been able to be, speaking as they would have been from a position of privilege that had been denied to us women since birth. My classmate and I were all of us in some way, however intentionally or unintentionally, coming from a background of repressed voices, and so we listened to one another and encouraged one another to speak out as some of us had never been encouraged to speak out.

In a women’s college, I learned to see the struggles of women, of myself that would have been repressed beneath the usual blanket of social etiquette in a co-ed environment.

It took a little while longer to sprout, but there’s a fighter in me planted there by my experiences at Hollins. My experiences there opened my eyes—or gave me the tools to see the truth when it was in front of me later in the work field, in relationships. That fighter learned to speak out. She learned to see the injustices that needed righting. She learned to be unafraid to get dirty, to not dislike the grease of fried chicken on her fingers, to be unafraid of paint splatter or the “herpes of all craft projects”: glitter. She left behind the prim and proper lady who wanted to be only another ornament in an ancient household and peerage of ornaments, that woman who first fell in love with Sweet Briar’s campus.

There’s one thing more that the Hollins environment did for me, the most important thing. And I hope this is true of Sweet Briar too.

I would not trade the friendships for anything. I have a solid group of friends, any of whom I would take a bullet for, and among whom I know for whom I shouldn’t take a bullet because they’d be too wracked with guilt. Six of us meet weekly to discuss our lives and whatever else comes up, anything from trifling matters like television shows to big things like current events and societal problems.

Those six are the bulwark that keeps me together, at least as important as my family. It makes me so sad that there are those who do not have this support network and when I try to explain to them what my friends mean to me cannot understand. Those six are an absolute and true Godsend. But they are a small, small part of Hollins for me. We are all of us family—the whole of the university—and while we have divisions, our cliques, at the end of the day, we are Hollins women—everyday. Living with these girls was like living among an eternal educational summer camp or slumber party.

Now that I am an alumna, the divisions have ceased to matter near as much. No matter where we are or how many years divide us, Hollins women support one another. I once met a Hollins woman in a tack shop in Connecticut. She offered to let me ride her horses during that first meeting, before we’d even realized that we were Hollins sisters; it was an instantaneous Hollins recognition. I was recognized as a Hollins woman by man who, as a young orphan, had been “adopted” by Hollins women, students who took him out and bought him Christmas presents and generally loved him even if they couldn’t take him home. He stopped me at work to confirm that I was a Hollins woman and then to reminisce about those years, ask after me, and advise me.

We call the alumnae network “the Hollins mafia” because they are everywhere, unexpectedly, and those in the network will move earth to help you once they realize that you’re family.

In the end, Hollins and Sweet Briar share much, both small, women’s, liberal arts colleges, and neither in a large city, though Hollins is in a much more active area. We need small colleges like these to give personal attention to our students, to tease answers out of the more reluctant speakers, and to teach them to speak. We need women’s colleges to continue to inform our women, to show them the world in a new light. As I write this, women are demanding equality, fighting again for our rights. We fight against microaggressions and violence towards women, the unequal social footing, and unconscious and conscious degradation of our sex.  I know the Sweet Briar Vixens and my Hollins sisters will all back me up when I say:

Please, please, let’s not let this one university’s closing spell the closing of universities with their qualities and of their caliber.

***

My heart goes out to the Vixens and residents of Sweet Briar, VA. I know the college and college town more intimately than some as someone who so strongly considered the college. I know how tiny, how rural is Sweet Briar, VA. My heart goes out to those who work in the town of Sweet Briar, the population of which is almost entirely college students and staff. Without the college, I don’t know what will happen to that strip mall. I don’t know what will happen to that town.

I know that if it were my college, if Sweet Briar had been my college, I would be heartbroken to know that soon there would be no home for me to return to.

Vixens, we’ve been rivals for a long time, and I’m sure you’ve enjoyed that rivalry as much as I did. In this trying time, I hope we can learn to be friends. I hope we can focus on our commonalities and not on our differences. I know that no home will ever replace your home, and that your home is what they’re taking away from you, I hope you can find a little solace elsewhere, at Hollins if Hollins is where you choose to find rest. I know it may be too hard to come to us.

Book Review: Eternity Road: Strong World Building and Weak Characters

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9780061054273

I was caught by the blurb on the back of Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road. It is not my usual genre by any standards. It is adult, post-apocalyptic, journey fiction. A plague tore through the population. Centuries on, humanity has grouped again into large cities though much of the knowledge of the eons has been lost—everything from basic geography to Christian philosophy to the printing press. The main transport is horseback though man-powered and current-driven barges and boats travel the Mississippi and Hudson. Recently several cities have formed alliances and unified their governments. People remain nostalgic for the time before the virus, awed by the giant and enduring ruins of that culture, called the Roadmakers.

It was refreshing to see a post-apocalyptic world that was neither technologically advanced nor dystopian. Life in Illyria is fairly civilized. There are not government-sponsored death matches or even a focus on government corruption within the text.

McDevitt does a very good job building new cultures and societies out of the scraps of ours. Language evolution is visible in the names. There are new gods and religious traditions. He uses the journey to explore several ways of living, and particularly several views of sexuality, with which he frankly seems a little preoccupied to me, but then I read a lot of kid lit.

I’d expected from the blurb, a greater emphasis on the power of fiction—or a greater connection between this plot and that of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, but Twain’s novel serves only as proof that a sanctuary might have been discovered by a seemingly unsuccessful expedition where Roadmaker culture—American culture of at least several decades beyond present day—might have persisted or been preserved. There is still however a strong undertone of the value of literature to dandle every reader’s soul.

Chaka and Avila seemed very promisingly feminist characters. As too many do though, I felt as if this male writer didn’t quite know how to handle them. I don’t like to criticize on that front when my own story features at least one male protagonist, but Chaka particularly had the chance. She is the first to call for an expedition and the one to gather the crew, but she is never considered for a leadership role and seemed to not consider herself for one either. She is too preoccupied with the male characters, to willing to rely on male protection and leadership, making her more of a male fantasy than a feminist role model. Avila’s curiosity, readiness to break tradition, and resourcefulness make her a more feminist model, but she is also given less time in the text. I do have to give McDevitt a few points for his attempts to write feminist characters in these and then the very briefly present Judge… who is never named.

In truth I think it is less a problem of not knowing how to handle female protagonists than a problem of not knowing how to handle characters or maybe a group of characters. None of the characters develop as fully as I’d have liked. I had a difficult time distinguishing between the men of the expedition. McDevitt made attempts to differentiate them and to have them exhibit growth, but the characters never came alive.

Without vivacious characters, I had a difficult time investing in the journey, which, granted, took the team through some interesting ruins but one ruin did not really build to another so that the journey read as scenes of excitement bridged by lulls filled all too often with the characters’ romantic and lustful relationships with one another. One Goodreads reviewer compared the book to a bus tour, and that’s not inaccurate. Journey fiction is difficult. The lull between adventures is difficult. It really takes at least one strong character to uphold the reader’s attention. Stronger characters are I think one of the reasons why The Lord of the Rings works better than The Hobbit, for example. The Lord of the Rings has a whole company of strong characters. For me, Bilbo is perhaps the only standout in his company, the dwarves mostly blending together in the text. For me, Eternity Road’s crew seemed more like the dwarves of The Hobbit, acting mostly as a group than a collection of individuals. That might be one more reason why the romances between the characters felt so jarring.

***

McDevitt, Jack. Eternity Road. New York: Harper Voyager-HarperCollins, 2011. First printed 1997.

This review is not endorsed by Jack McDevitt, Harper Voyager, or HarperCollins Publishers .  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.