Tag Archives: Serena

LitBeetle’s Top 5: Man v. Nature Books

27 Mar

A few recent reads inspired me to make a list of some great survival stories. Many writers attempt to capture the age-old struggle against Nature’s tempests, but only a few succeed. The list below are some favorites of mine–new and old–that I hope you will enjoy! In the comments, let me know your own favorite books of humanity’s battle for survival!

FIVE

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash

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There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

FOUR

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant by Michael Punke

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Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant. The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself.

THREE

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian by Andy Weir

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In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that. As NASA scrambles to send a rescue mission to a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney uses his scrappy resourcefulness, will to live, and dark humor to guide him through one of the most entertaining survival novels of our time. Andy Weir’s debut shines as a thrilling, accessible science fiction story.

TWO

To Build a Fire Cover

To Build a Fire and Other Stories by Jack London

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The title story to this collection of Jack London’s classic short stories is as dark and robust as any of the full novels on this list. A nameless man travels through the Yukon with his wolf-dog. When the dog falls through the ice, the man dives in to save his companion. Now, wet and freezing in temperatures of fifty below, the man is focused on a single, life-saving task: building a fire. London’s steady, descriptive prose mirrors the Nature’s indifferent temperament in the face of a human being’s impending doom. Sounds fun, right? Don’t forget to pack those weatherproof matches the next time you go camping, is all I have to say.

ONE

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

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Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature. Frail humanity versus the open and indifferent sea? No thank you, but this–the most harrowing fight for survival–puts In the Heart of the Sea at the top of this list.

What are your favorite survival books? Leave me recommendations in the comments below!

On Ron Rash’s “Serena”

17 Feb

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

I can already feel it: 2015 is the year of the bear attacks and wilderness novels. Less than a month ago, I posted the review of Michael Punke’s The Revenant, and in a short while I will be posting the review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

It’s 1929. The Great Depression is in full swing, and Americans everywhere find themselves jobless and destitute. George Pemberton and his newly acquired wife and business partner Serena take full advantage of a desperate workforce in their logging empire in the mountains of North Carolina. The terrain is treacherous, and if the falling trees or mishandled logging tools doesn’t kill man, then the rattlers or the cougars will. And if the rattler and cougars don’t kill a man, then a vengeful, cold-hearted employer will. Serena and her husband rule their domain with an iron fist. Any and all betrayal is met with instant, lethal retribution. The only thing that equals Serena’s hate for betrayal is her derision for incompetence, but she has met her match with George Pemberton.

Logs and loggers (Photo by "paukrus")

Urban Outfitters made the whole lumberjack look cute again, but there was nothing cute about the constant peril under which loggers lived. A slip of the hand here, a falling branch there could mean a lost limb or lost eye or lost life in this lethal world. (Photo by “paukrus”)

One thing is certain upon Serena’s arrival at the logging camp, having recently married Pemberton and come down by train from the upper echelons of Boston’s high society, and that is Serena’s utter capability, her stark difference from the bodiced, high-heeled, prim wives of Pemberton’s partners. Serena steps off the train in pants and boots. When Pemberton is met with a disgruntled logger whose teenage daughter Pemberton knocked up months before, Serena cooly orders her husband to off the man with her wedding present: a one-handled steel knife. It turns out watching Pemberton kill a man is a huge turn-on for Serena, and the couple begin their married life with a long bout of passionate, if a little psychopathic, sex. The honeymoon carries on for months as the couple plots their way to world domination, one logging tract at a time, but trouble begins when politicians enter the scene on their campaign to create the first national parks of the country. Betrayal is the name of the game, but it turns out Serena–aside from activities like taming Mongolian eagles and supervising logging sites–makes a hobby of dealing with traitors. The honeymoon ends the only way honeymoons can: in a wake of the blood and bodies of your enemies. That is how honeymoons end, right?

In the backdrop to the “Serena and George Show” are several minor characters, but none more important than a motley group of loggers that makes frequent appearances to comment on the changes in the logging camp and the changes in their employers. The men–Snipes, Stewart, Ross, and Preacher McIntyre–make spirited attempts at intellectual or philosophical debates to cast light on main events. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this tragedy. Or maybe, more fittingly, it’s like Tucker & Dale vs. Philosophy, which I would watch in a heartbeat, by the way. As interesting an idea as they are–blue collar men in stark contrast to the educated, powerful Pembertons–the chorus of men seem to confuse the themes Rash presents rather than inform them.

I couldn’t help but admire Serena’s unflinching brutality. She isn’t wanton with her power or violence. Instead, she acts with a singular goal in mind and never waivers. Serena is as logical and scientific as a thunderstorm, and, like with most natural disasters, is impossible to turn away from. Rash explores aspects of Serena’s personality at great length, but it was as if he couldn’t decide if Serena is evil she breaks the laws of nature or understandable, good even, because she adheres to the laws of nature. In several passages, Serena is criticized by the chorus of peons for wearing pants, not riding horses with a side saddle, and for training her Mongolian eagle to hunt down all the rattlesnakes in the woods, making the work environment safer for the loggers. “You’re disturbing the natural order of things is what you’re doing,” one logger says.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers. (Photo by “cesareb“)

In another passage, Serena is one of “nature’s paradoxes,” and is compared to a tiger and the black widow spider for being both beautiful and “the most injurious.” Serena is one of the most capable people any of the men of Pemberton Lumber had ever known. She is strikingly beautiful because of her competence and confidence, but several people, including Sheriff McDowell and the doctor who made these comparisons, begin to recognize the threat lying just underneath Serena’s poised surface.

 “Serena’s beauty was like certain laws of math and physics, fixed and immutable. She walks in beauty.”

The foil to Serena’s hardness, her personality like a force of nature, is the impregnated teenage girl whose father was slain by Pemberton at the beginning of the story. Rachel gives birth to Pemberton’s bastard son and raises him alone while tending to the property left to her by her father. Young, motherly, sensitive Rachel is Serena’s antithesis. Serena–whose opportunity to bear children (obviously, the most “natural” act a woman could perform) passes her by, whose only offspring will be the animal familiars she consorts with–sets out to destroy the mother and child who threaten her dominion. I still have reservations about Serena’s treatment as the unnatural, sexual yet genderless, psycho woman, because this story should be more than a cautionary tale against marrying the “crazy bitch.” Told from another angle, this novel tells the tale of a competent, ambitious business person in a ruthless landscape, and Serena is someone to be admired–from a distance, naturally. But I think Rash missed a few opportunities to forge a fantastic, lasting antagonist (or protagonist, you might view her), and, in the end, finds a resolution that tempers the wild, adventurous story line rather than affirming it.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn't last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn’t last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

I’m interested to see how Jennifer Lawrence uses her angel face in this role as a ruthless, lethal business person. Serena is the more ambitious version of Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Even more intriguing is Bradley Cooper playing the brutish, capable, yet utterly smitten George Pemberton. I watched him play the puppy dog-eyed bff in Alias, so I know he can do it, and I guess Lawrence and Cooper’s chemistry in Silver Linings Playbook was too good to pass up again. They are equally messed up in Serena, but in an extraordinarily different way. The casting choices should be interesting to watch when the film adaptation by Danish director Susanna Bier is released on February 26.

Read It: Serena is a fantastic piece of historical fiction that gives the reader a view of a dismal time in the United States. The research Ron Rash executed to make this novel authentic had to have been extensive, and because of it, the story is immersive. The descriptions of the destructiveness of human nature and the constant threat of a lethal, angry natural world are captivating backdrops to an interesting story line, and I got chills reading Serena’s increasing violence and insatiable hunger for power.

Don’t Read It: If you’re in the least bit squeamish, steer clear of Serena. Aside from straight up people murdering other people, the novel is filled with the deaths of other animals. Whether an eagle is preying on–in gratuitous, excruciating detail–snakes in the underbrush or the Pembertons go hunting for deer, the blood doesn’t stop flooding in. This is not to mention the natural brutality of the profession of logging, where the smallest slip could mean the death or maiming of a fellow logger, so in case you didn’t get it the first time around, this book is about killing and death and violence.

Similar Books: The one book that comes instantly to mind is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which, if you haven’t read it, also features a married couple desperate for each other in a bizarro love-hate-lust-more-hate relationship. If you haven’t already read Flynn’s blockbuster novel or seen the film adaptation, get ‘er done, at least before Flynn’s novel Dark Places hits the big screen with its film adaptation later this year.