Friday, December 09, 2011

Base Ten by Maryann Lesert

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

• Paperback: 304 pages
• Publisher: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2009
• Price: $15.95
• ISBN-10: 1558615814
• ISBN-13: 978-1558615816

According to publishing industry research, women make up the majority of readers. I’m not going to argue the popularity of romance for female readers, as I have worked in libraries before and seen the bags of romance novels some women carry out of the library with weekly return trips for more. But there are a great many of us who, like me, wince and roll our eyes at the mere sight of that genre. We want something else, something more, something beyond, something deeper, something richer, and yes, something far more honest and real.

When author and playwright Maryann Lesert wrote her debut novel and sought a publisher, she was surprised and dismayed at the response. Publishers were not turning her away for lack of literary quality of her manuscript. Indeed, she received praise for her writing ability. They were turning her work away because, they claimed, women don’t want to read such stuff. After all, Lesert’s main character, Jillian Greer, is an astrophysicist. If there is a romance in this story—and there is—it is not the bodice-ripping lust of Harlequin, but rather the hunger for a relationship that allows both partners to achieve their dreams. This includes love, sure, and children, yes, but also achievement in one’s intellectual pursuits. For Jillian, that means hard science.

Jillian has been married for ten years to Jack. They have two bright and endearing children. Jack has a great career, and Jillian works, too, if at a held-back level that many women find themselves choosing in order to have time and energy left over to raise a family as well. Jack is not painted as a glaring chauvinist or some kind of bad guy. That’s too easy, and Lesert’s writing is far more subtle and nuanced than that. This is a man who is obviously attracted to his wife for all the right reasons of true intimacy, inside and out, the whole person. He is supportive, or at least, he tries to be. Yet Jillian finds that we live in a society that encourages one gender over the other in a myriad of ways that still end up, at the end of the day, requiring the sacrifice of self—and usually it is the woman making that sacrifice.

One of my favorite scenes in the book shows Jillian moving through her house at the beginning of the day, husband and children scooted off to work and school, and seeing for the umpteenth time open drawers with clothes spilling out in the bedrooms. If asked, husband and children will bring about order in their rooms. If asked, all will do their part. But here’s what gets Jillian’s goat: it is always, but always, on her shoulders to do the asking. Bottom line, it remains her responsibility to manage the household. And that makes her feel crazy. Silent, suppressed-scream crazy. Exactly the way that so, so many women have felt in so, so many households across the world for eons.

After ten years of marriage, at age 40, realizing that she is fast approaching the cut-off age to take part in a space program that has been her dream since completing her degree in astrophysics at Michigan Tech University in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Jillian takes ten days to go off into the wild and contemplate in solitude her predicament. She camps in Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, pondering the stars in the sky that she loves so much, and how to bring balance into her life. She loves her family very much, and she struggles with guilt at leaving them even for this short period of time—but she feels like she is dying a slow death inside.

Gazing at the starry sky, Jillian notes:

“In the beginning, the fracturing of light looks like life: bold, brilliant, unhampered. In the end, colors smolder with sadness, retreat. But in truth, the progression from bold to brilliant to pale is more about fracturing and reuniting. Colors separated yearn for wholeness. Colors of light, gases in the atmosphere, shards of yourself, yearn for wholeness.” (Page 37)

Base Ten is a story about an intelligent and accomplished woman scientist struggling with her unresolved dreams, her human longing for love, companionship and family, alongside her equally human longing to fulfill the hunger of a bright mind to expand its reach and fulfill its potential. It is a complex and wonderfully honest story about a struggle women face in finding life balance every day. Is it really possible to have it all? Or does trying to have it all merely make us into exhausted jugglers, desperately trying not to drop something of great importance.

I’m grateful to the Feminist Press of CUNY for recognizing that there is indeed a market for a book about women and science, and that very many women readers can relate to the struggles of Jillian Greer, as written so honestly and beautifully by Maryann Lesert. Although Jillian’s choice of career is astrophysics, Lesert manages to make her research understandable to any reader, showing a woman’s unique approach to scientific thinking and discovery, and interspersing short chapters of very nearly poetic scientific explanation of astronomy.

We need more books like this—for women and for men.

Lesert earned a BA in Art and English from Western Michigan University and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. She has worked as a graphic designer; medical writer, editor, and video producer; educational technology coordinator; and creator of a playwriting program funded by the Michigan Council for the Arts. Currently, Lesert teaches writing at Grand Rapids Community College.

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