A GIRL OF THE LIMBERLOST by Gene Stratton-Porter

If you have been following my blog for a while, you will know that in addition to sci fi and detective crime fiction, I like works written in the last part of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th.  Just something about their style and content that evokes the America and England that we are all so nostalgic about.  This book was written  in 1909 and is considered a classic of Indiana literature.

A Girl of the Limberlost takes place in Indiana, in and around the Limberlost Swamp. Even at the time, this impressive wetland region was being reduced by heavy logging, natural oil extraction and drainage for agriculture. (The swamp and forestland eventually ceased to exist, though projects since the 1990s have begun to restore a small part of it.)

It seems today to be a YA, yet at the time it was a best seller to a general audience.  It features a teenager, the only child of her widowed mother, whose mother does not want her.  The husband died in the swamp when Elnore was a baby, and the mother has mourned ever since, tuning bitter and miserly.

Elnore wishes to attend high school in the near by city, and is forced to find money for this on her own.  Fortunately, she is supported emotionally by neighbors whom she calls Aunt and Uncle.  She finds she can finance her academic career by selling moths, butterflies, dragonflies and other insects to a local naturalist who writes books, and can sell arrowheads she finds to the head of the bank, who is a collector.

At the end of her high school career, she meets the nephew of a townsman who is staying in the area to regain his health by spending time outdoors.  Although engaged, the young man secretly falls in love with Elnore, and she him.   After a disaster at a terribly fancy formal engagement party in Chicago where the socialite fiancée pitches a hissy fit in front of everybody and cancels the engagement, the young man returns to the Limberlost to claim his love, who also turns him down, worrying that he will eventually change his mind.

Of course there is a wonderfully sweet satisfying ending, and yes, it is really a very sentimental work, but it is filled with wonderful descriptions of the Limberlost Swamp, and the creatures who dwell there.  Wonderful characters to whom nothing really awful happens keeps us content, because sometimes we just want a story where everything works out  beautifully in the end.

Stratton-Porter was “one of the most popular woman novelists of the era, who was known for her nature books and her editorials on McCall’s ‘Gene Stratton-Porter Page’ as well as for her novels.  At the time of her death in 1924, more than ten million copies of her books had been sold – and four more books were published after her death.   She was a Wabash County, Indiana, native who became a self-trained American author, nature photographer, and naturalist. In 1917 Stratton-Porter used her position and influence as a popular, well-known author to urge legislative support for the conservation of Limberlost Swamp and other wetlands in the state of Indiana.

She was also a silent film-era producer who founded her own production company, Gene Stratton Porter Productions, in 1924.  Her novels have been translated into more than twenty languages, including Braille, and at their peak in the 1910s attracted an estimated 50 million readers. Eight of her novels, including A Girl of the Limberlost, were adapted into moving pictures. Stratton-Porter was also the subject of a one-woman play, A Song of the Wilderness. Two of her former homes in Indiana are state historic sites, the Limberlost State Historical Site in Geneva and the Gene Stratton-Porter State Historic Site on Sylvan Lake, near Rome City, Indiana.

 

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A future undated in a huge megacity of over 50 million souls called Metropolis, where it rains 80% of the time, so basically it is either raining or about to.   This cyberpunk dystopian story follows Cruz, a young fellow who has made himself a master of vintage hover-car restoration, and lives in a legacy apartment, one that is his for life without rent, in this city of colossal skyscrapers, hover-cars,  bustling skies and gray people walking  below on the grimy, flashy streets of this neon jungle where the dark dank days are made brilliant by the plethora of neon signs.  As Cruz tells us, “If we ever had an Extinction Level Event, it would be that no toilets would flush, and there’d be no one to pick up the trash.”

Cruz, after seeing an acquaintance of his mysteriously shot to death by cops for seemingly no reason, decides to investigate, and in the process, ends up opening up his own detective agency.   Cruz is a dystopian version of Monk, somewhat OCD, and a germophobe, who gets the skeevies when faced with dirt, grime, and general grunge and germs.  He has a mania for being cool, dressing not in the dark overcoat and hood and black umbrella like everyone else, but in a light color snazzy coat and a fedora.  Hence the name of his agency.

The mystery is interesting, if not engaging, but the fun of this book is not in the detecting, but in the world, and the characters who populate it.  They go by names such as Easy Chair Charlie, whose wife is always referred to as Mrs. Easy Chair, Prima Donna, Punch Judy, so named for having bionic arms and having punched someone so severely she ended up in jail for a time, Run-Time, who has a limo, Uber-type service,  Bugs, who does security – “listening device detection, motion detection security, intrusion defense security, video surveillance, door and wall defense security, door and lock augmentation, trap door and panic rooms.”  There is his girlfriend, China Doll, who is part cyborg owing to an accident that decapitated her, and Phishy, a sidewalk character, man of all acquisitions mostly illegal. He tells us that he tries to scam everybody, even his friends.  If he didn’t, that would be like discriminating.  Well, yeah.  I guess he is right.

It is a world of cyborgs, where people don’t often actually die but have parts replaced, and a criminal cartel called the Animal something or other, and each gang in it had an animal name and wore the appropriate masks.  There were the Rabbits, the Hyperpole Hippos, etc.

It is a book that has a cartoon feel and doesn’t take itself all that seriously.  Just a giggle to read.  My only cavel is the current day slang and expressions which appear from time to time.  This author is not the only genre writer guilty of this.  For me, it dates the book, so I guess if you are writing something that you feel won’t last the test of any time at all, so what.  But really, what are readers to think, 20 years from now as they come across expressions  which no longer have any currency?  Oh well, not my problem.

There appears to be six volumes in this series, plus a prequel short.  I think I am done at this one.  Enough coolness for me.

SNOWFALL ON MARS by Branden Frankel

“Although the terrain is a rusted red-orange, it is gashed at random internals with outcroppings of faded grey rock.  In the distance are snow-topped hills.  There are no plants.  There are no animals.  Just soil and rock and the train track, exploding out from beneath the train and into the hazy distance as though the track was as desperate to return to civilization as the outcasts transported upon it.

Out of the steel grey and cloudless sky, snowflakes drift gently to the ground…The snow I’m watching fall now is the result of a failed project undertaken by a failed people.  The first colonists came to Mars sixty years ago.  Forty years later, they tried dto terraform the planet by pumping chemicals into the air.  The intent was to create a breathable atmosphere.  All they created was acidic rain and toxic snow that served to break their impressive machines down into the same rust red dust that is the beginning, middle, and end of this place.”

Yep, Gentle Readers, it is that time again.  Time for another Mars book, because I AM the most Mars obsessed person you know. And let me say right from Jump Street that I loved this book.  It doesn’t have the detailed and imaginative science or the painfully serious politics of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, the fun goofiness of Kage Baker, the woo-woo factor of finding ruins on Mars of Dylan James Quarles, or the ultra reality of Mars in Andy Weir’s The Martian.  This book about Mars, my darlings, has SNOW!  Hot damn!

From the hundreds of thousands of colonists who came to Mars and procreated there, spread over a number of settlements, the population is down to about 500, huddled together in one section of New Houston, and they are barely keeping body and soul together, because you need high tech folks to keep things running, food growing and processing, etc.  They are down to only a handful who seem to be using my basic toolbox – hammer, screwdriver and duct tape.  Twenty years ago, Earth blew itself up —  mid-sentence during a broadcast.  This triggered nuclear winter on Earth, and whelp,  there goes your fallback position if you didn’t like life on Mars, and there goes your grocery delivery.  This event on Earth triggered on Mars mass suicides, and days of unspeakable violence and killings.  Those who were left were left to make do with damaged infrastructure and facilities.  The terreforming project after being seen to be a total failure, was shut down.  Life became constricted and bleak.

As we live through the days with our first person narrator, I am reminded of scenes of Soviet-era Russia, grim, bleak, sad.  One day after another, one foot after another, until one day he is awakened by a friend to tell him that the head engineer has been murdered in his lab over night.  The game is on to find the killer, and the reason for the murder.  In that process, we find there is an even larger problem.  A self-proclaimed cult leader has plans to blow up what remains of the planet’s population because of his own overheated sense of guilt and doom, and it is up to our narrator and friends to track him down and foil the dastardly plot.

Fun fact:  the food for the planet is manufactured in an underground facility.  At one time, this ‘substance’ was known as “sustainability rations”.  It was to hold colonists over in the event that a shipment from Earth was delayed.  It was never mean to be eaten as breakfast, lunch and dinner for a lifetime.  These rations are created by distilling the byproduct of a genetically engineered fungus brought from Earth years ago.  The fungus metabolizes Martian soil and creates a substance that can support human life.  In other words, they feed dirt to fungus and eat its shit.

A quote or two, to whet your appetite:

About a scammer,

You are aware that you can’t trust Wang, right?  You are aware that Wang has no scruples?  That he’d sell his own mother into slavery?  Assuming, of course, that he was born rather than spontaneously generated out of ambient spite.

About his dream for a life where there might be real food:

It doesn’t have to be the Land of Milk and Honey.  The Land of Beer and Cheeseburgers would suit me just fine.

So we have a mystery and a thriller all rolled up together, but the most interesting thing about this was the way we are forced to examine the ideas of identity, place, and I suppose grit and intrepidness.  Our narrator, who was brought to the planet by his parents at age 6, and thus has memories of Earth,and plans for returning there, views his future much differently than those young people who were born on Mars, for whom Earth is just a word, and for whom its destruction is essentially meaningless.  Our narrator views the future as ‘less than’, while the young people, having nothing to compare it to, simply view it as ‘future’.

Snow on Mars.  It just doesn’t get any better than this.

ESCAPING THE CIVIL WAR: A LOOK INTO DESERTION by Samantha James

A small book about desertion on both sides of the forces fighting the American Civil War.  Nicely and impartially told, filled with interesting tidbits about the war and life in the camps that I had not known.  I am not much of a Civil War buff, and have not read very extensively on the subject, so I found much to like about this work.

Here’s something I did not know:  apparently both sides engaged in propaganda issues to encourage fighters from the opposite side to desert!  Who knew.  War is hell.

Easy to read, not academic in tone, geared toward the general reader.  It would be a nice outside reading for the school levels studying the Civil War.  It has been so long since I was in school, I no longer remember when in one’s school life this part of history was taught.

It got me thinking about desertion in general, and what the rate was in WWI and WWII.  So I did what any red-blooded American chick would do — I googled.  Turns out desertion has been an ongoing problem over the millennia.  There is a lot of very interesting material on the subject for all the wars, and it seems that the biggest factors at work in desertion is not fear, as we non-combatants would assume, me being the Consummate Coward.  The biggest issues are worry about and missing family, and the other is poor conditions for the military personnel — poor food, poor sanitary conditions, poor arms supply, and finally, often, boredom.  These seem to be the uniting themes from the  Peloponnesian War right up to today’s skirmishes.

It has a substantial bibliography which made me happy. I would have liked to have seen a ‘Suggested Further Reading’ list, but that is just me being picky.

This is not a long book, and I felt it could have explored the subject more, and offered us more insight, but really, it is a lovely book.

I like books that make me think about the wider issues.  I consider a book a success if it sends me to googleland for additional material.

 

Sci Fi with an emphasis on the fi, with a lot of the sci  glossed over.  That’s fine by me.  I  don’t really need a course in astrophysics or quantum physics to enjoy a story about the final frontier.

The first third of the book concerns young Cornell, whose mother, we learn, was abducted by aliens when he was four and the family was out in the woods on a picnic.  I mean, think about it.  How many people do you personally know …. or have even heard about …. whose parent was abducted by aliens and never returned?   I thought so …. zero.  So right off the bat we know that weirdness will probably be the norm.

We meet Cornell and his father, and their neighbor and bff Pete as they are traveling to a site where a strange slick of glass had appeared overnight.  Cornell’s dad is a UFO buff.  He is obsessed with them, and some family money has enabled him to make it his life’s work, and the three travel around interviewing people and taking samples of the glass, and so forth, as one does if one is a UFO nut fixated person.  These glass ‘puddles’ have appeared all over the world, much like crop circles, and no one knows where they come from, or what they mean.  They are not some special material … they are just glass.

And so life goes for, as I said, the first third of the book, as we learn more about Cornell and his dad and then one night ……. BAM!!  the sky becomes inverted.  Like a mirror.  You look up at the sky and instead of seeing stars, you see a mirror image of say, Antarctica.  Well, talk about panic and terror in the streets!  For a while.  But nothing happened from then on.  Nothing.  No aliens arriving, no doomsday, no apocalypse.  Nothing but life as usual.

And if you thought that was weird, the remainder of the book was even weirder.  Cornell becomes estranged from his whack-o father, and eventually is recruited by a secretive company to …    you are so going to love this ……  go through a ‘portal’ or what they call an ‘intrusion’ which dumps them into other worlds.  Turns out there are a bunch of these anomalies all over, each one going to a different world, some very dangerous, some where the explorers never returned, and some similar enough to earth that the explorers can spend some time there trying to find advanced species so they can make first contact.

Cornell goes through an intrusion to a place where he becomes a sort of kind of humanoid insect-y thing which has a huge head housing the brain (the mind), and six bodies.  Think of having six hands to do your brain’s bidding.  The mind uses these bodies out in the world while it remains somewhere nearby in safety.  And, yeah, he does actually meet an alien …. I love it when there is an alien in the book.  This one is huge, powerful, and frankly, not all that bright.

I am not going to tell you any more about this plot in case you are a sci fi fan and want to read this.   But I will give you a spoiler hint about his mother……  oh, phooey, no I am not.   Read the book.

This whole premise of ‘intrusions’ calls to mind the idea of the trash chute in apartment buildings.  If these intrusions become well known, at least by governments or powerful groups, what’s to prevent them from tossing all the unwanted human riffraff into the intrusions where nobody returns?   Could be a nifty method for population control.   Egad.  Unintended consequences, and all that.  Here we naive readers are approaching it like a fun ride at the amusement park, what with us popping through  to look around at the weirdees, but hey, unwanted visitors could be using them to show up on earth and take a peek at us, too, not to mention that using it like an airlock thing.

I love sci fi, even bad sci fi, for the creative and unusual ideas that people have.  I really admire imaginations that go beyond aliens that all look like humans, humanoids or bacteria.   Really, think about it.  Think of all the strange and unusual creatures in our own oceans.  What makes us think that every life form is human?

ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’ by Rick Bragg

This is a memoir by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg about his life growing up poor, and I mean really, really, poor in the south, in the Alabama foothills of Appalachia.  His father was an abusive alcoholic, probably suffering from PTSD after his stint in North Korea, and his mother raised the three boys mostly alone, and mostly on money earned picking cotton, and ironing, etc.  It was a hard scrabble existence, the kind that either makes you or breaks you.

It made Rick, as he pursued his love of journalism, broke his younger brother who became a ne’er-do-well  alcoholic, and created a hard-working man, responsible and dependable but never prosperous of his older brother.

I wasn’t in love with this book.  The style waffled between humble brags, barely concealed vilification of his father, and almost saint-like worship of his mother.  He finally saved up enough money over the years to buy his mother a home,  which it seems tuned out to be a four-bedroom split level on an acre and a third.  Where she lived alone.  Eye rolling here.  But until that time, in spite of his adoration, yada yada yada, she still lived in a tiny shack and had no money, except what little he sent her every once in a while.  So, yeah, that big split level?  Too much, too late.

He has been praised for his poetic style, but for me, it felt a bit precious, you know, worked at.  But there was some fine writing, and some serious southern story-telling.  But it is tainted for me by his firing (OK he resigned under pressure)  from the New York Times in 2003 for writing a story that was basically written by an unpaid and uncredited intern.  One of those deals where the reporter flies in to a city for a short time to get the location dateline, then leaves and writes the article based on others’ info.  There was quite a controversy over this at the time.  It seemed right in keeping with also the barely concealed condensation and sense of superiority that flows through the book.  And An Ego Runs Through It.

So, bottom line, the writing itself, qua writing, is fine, as it should be coming from a Pulitzer Prize winner.  It is the content, and the agenda that grates.

But many people really loved the book, so keep in mind this is only my opinion, which is worth exactly what you paid for it.

 

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES by Lawrence Block

Another Matt Scudder crime novel, starring the ex-alkie, ex-cop, ex-husband, ex-father, not-quite-a-private detective, Matt Scudder who lives in a hotel in Manhattan back in the days when you could actually possibly afford a residential hotel room in a seedy, somewhat rundown hotel.  Late 80s, early 90s.   I say ex-alkie, because he has been sober as a judge for a couple of books now, and the ‘relationship’ with the Happy Hooker sort-of girlfriend is getting more serious.

This volume’s crime is kidnapping and chopping.  A drug trafficker, (“there’s a difference between a trafficker and a dealer.  A trafficker only arranges the importation of the large shipments of drugs and the sale of said shipment to intermediaries.” ) whose brother participates in AA meetings, contacts Scudder because his wife was kidnapped by a couple of guys in a panel truck.  After receiving the ransom demands, and following instructions, the wife is returned to him … chopped up, the parts  individually wrapped, like you get when you have a freezer plan.  He doesn’t want to go to the police because of his  ahem  profession, so he takes the body to his brother’s place of business, a veterinarians,  which has a cremation oven, and cremates the wife.   By the time Scudder gets involved, a week has already passed.

We meet TJ again, the kid from Times Square, (the Deuce),  who pesters Matt for more work, and we readers are happy to see that he gets involved, first with introducing Scudder to the Kongs, a hacker extraordinaire duo who are really the ones who make the first crack in the case.  TJ proves himself useful further on in the investigation, and of course, the ever-helpful cop friends of Scudder are still available to help move things along.

This gig with the wife of the trafficker turns out not to have been the kidnappers’ first rodeo, and they pick on another trafficker, and snatch his 14 year old daughter, but Scudder is called in immediately and gets to work.  Having involved himself in the telephone negotiations for the ransom, he arranges to make the exchange in a cemetery, hence the title for the book.

Love this series.  It’s great writing, really entertaining.  Want some quotes?

TJ, on finding his way around Brooklyn on an errand for Matt:

“Ol’ Brooklyn, it go on for days.  “There’s a lot of it,” I agreed.  “More than you’d have a need for.”

His Irish criminal friend, The Butcher, has been in Ireland for a while, avoiding unpleasantness at home in New York.  He tells Matt over the phone:

Have you heard? They’d come up with evidence that Our Lord was Irish.  “Is that so?”  “It is,” he said.  “Consider the facts. He lived with his parents until He was twenty-nine years old.  He went out drinking with the lads the last night of His life. He thought His mother was a virgin, and herself, a good woman, she thought He was God.”

And finally,

They say time takes time.

And so it does.