31 October 2011

Everything I Know About Love I Learned From Romance Novels (Sarah Wendell)

Man, I feel guilty about not loving EIKAL. Esp. cause I went in on my day off to meet Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell at Posman’s, and she is every morsel as funny and gracious as in person as she is online. Let me hasten to add: I liked it, quite a lot. It’s a cogent defense of how romance novels—rather than giving women unrealistic expectations that doom them to unhappy relationships forever—give them an arsenal of tools to recognize and create happy alliances. Her argument is bolstered by quotes & weigh-ins from romance authors and readers, and she is absolutely right—since when could you say that about an opinionated book? Too, I kept getting all mushy-smirky about what a perfect Romance Hero my own boyfriend is: smart and charming and caring and supportive and all that good stuff. (MWAH, sweetie!)

A few things keep me from being All About This Book, though. First, the layout sucks. Pull quotes in a book make me think I’m reading a book For Dummies, and this is not a dumb or simplistic book! Second, I kinda got tired of reading quotes from folks who weren’t Sarah; the book often felt more like a comment thread, which is fine, but an entirely different style of reading for me, and I had trouble making the transition from screen to page. Finally, the very cogency and seriousness of EIKAL made it less enjoyable for me than the freewheeling snark of her previous book (with Smart Bitches co-founder Candy Tan), Beyond Heaving Bosoms, which made me laugh hard enough to disturb the cat, like, every other page. Obviously Sarah wasn’t intending this to be a humorous book (at least, not an entirely humorous book: lady can’t write 200 pages without being funny) —fighting the demonization/dismissal of romance novels is very important to her, and to me. So it’s not really a fair criticism—let’s just call it a preference.

30 October 2011

The Hunger Games Trilogy (Suzanne Collins)

Yeah, late to this party, but after chats with new (awesome) co-workers at Posman’s, I finally checked out this mega-bestselling trilogy—i.e. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. I really have trouble expressing my thoughts without sounding glib or dismissive (see apologia in previous post), but here goes: I think they’re beginner’s dystopia, solid young-adult novels. In this sense, they’re fantastic—goodness knows I want post-apocalyptic awesome and revolutionary sentiment inculcated into kids ASAP. Totes in favor of QUESTION AUTHORITY onesies.

But I don’t quite get the crossover appeal. There’s a lack of sophistication to the story (and the writing—the constant comma splices in the first book made me twitch), and I don’t think the structure of the dystopia holds up to scrutiny. The country founded on the ashes of North America consists of a tyrannical central Capitol—decadent and cruel—that relies on half-starved, oppressed districts for raw materials and consumer goods. The Capitol doesn’t produce anything, and yet it has technology like genetic engineering that the districts can’t match. This isn’t how economies work.  And its inhabitants are uniformly wealthy and comfortable, simultaneously frivolous and totally down for watching teenagers from the districts slaughter each other in televised blood sport (the titular Hunger Games, held yearly as punishment for a previous rebellion). This is an arguable point, but I just don’t believe that the silly party people we encounter, happily chattering about their hip new hairstyles, don’t feel any remorse over the on-camera deaths of children.

I also think the books would have been far better served by being written in third person rather than first. Our tomboyish heroine, Katniss Everdeen, has the unfortunate habit of being wounded and out of commission for weeks; she’ll regain consciousness and have to be told about everything that happened when she was out. It’s not a particularly skillful way to construct a narrative, and it got worse as the series wore on. The first book, concentrated mostly on the 74th Hunger Games, where Katniss and love interest Peeta are contestants, is definitely the best, especially in the arena. Maybe I’m contradicting my last paragraph, but it really picked up for me once the killing started. The second and third books deal with the districts’ rebellion against the Capitol—Katniss’s behavior during the Games makes her a powerful symbol of defiance. There’s some good ambiguity as she realizes the rebels are also using her for propaganda purposes. But then there’s also a pointless love triangle. And the resolution was both mystifying and unsatisfying.

Again: they’re not bad books. They’re books for kids. Adults who loved them should try out The Gone-Away World, Perdido Street Station, A Canticle for Leibowitz, or Battle Royale (the latter a Japanese novel about teenagers battling to the death for entertainment which must have inspired Collins. When I read it, I kept a spreadsheet!).

29 October 2011

Heiress in Love (Christina Brooke)

All right, there are going to be a couple of reviews here where I’m kind of “ehn” about a book BUT have to stress that this is wholly subjective and not really critical of the book qua book. Sometimes things don’t strike my fancy, you know?

Such was Christina Brooke’s Heiress in Love, the beginning of a series which will be guided by the Ministry of Marriage—a group of wealthy and powerful British aristocrats cold-bloodedly planning alliances without regard to the feelings of the parties involved. Jane, Duchess Roxdale, recently rid of one loveless marriage, now forced by her late husband’s cruel will into contemplating another arranged match, with notorious rouĂ© Constantine Black. She’s got to overcome her disgust with Constantine’s infamous immorality, and her own repugnance with the matrimonial act. Luckily, he’s got the patience and expertise to help with the latter, and as she gets to know him, she realizes the former doesn’t tell the whole story.

The only reason I didn’t adore it—because it is marvelously written, with a lot of striking metaphors—is that I’m just not into rakes. Lord Horndog is a common hero in romances, and I get it. First of all, he’s got the mad skills born of practice with which to pleasure the heroine beyond distraction. And there’s vicarious satisfaction in the Earl of Sexington’s being seduced into swoony monogamy.

But I don’t like it, particularly in historicals, where so much of the rake’s sexual proficiency stems from encounters with prostitutes, servants, and lower-class mistresses  with elements of both (I should note that this is not the case in Heiress in Love, which I appreciated). There’s an unequal power dynamic that squicks me out. And I sometimes yearn to read about a heroine who has actually had great sex before, so that the HEA is less founded on hot and cold running orgasms. I’m perfectly aware that virgin heroes and experienced heroines exist in romance, and I just need to read more of them. (Also writing one—my heroine is a widow whose marriage was loving and affectionate, and the hero’s . . . well, I need to do more research on the sexual mores of the Chinese merchant class during the Qing Dynasty. But he’s not gonna have much of an amorous history.) Suggestions are welcome.

26 October 2011

The Way Things Are (Lucretius)

Inspired by the success of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve—which describes the rediscovery of Lucretius’s ambitious poem about everything, claiming it helped spark the Renaissance—I pulled out my trusty college copy of The Way Things Are (Latinly De Rerum Natura) and re-had at it. I have to say, I didn’t love it as much as I did when I was nineteen. (I suspect this is the simple result of having read a lot of subsequent philosophy and science in the meantime, so that I’m too aware of what he got hilariously wrong.)

But it’s still an amazing achievement. Lucretius chose poetry as a medium to explain the universe through the lens of Epicurean philosophy, much of which is quite modern: atheistic, materialistic, logical. His oft-repeated refrain is:
Our terrors and our darknesses of mind
Must be dispelled then, not by sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.
Many of his deductions have since been proven empirically: atoms, void, even the conservation of matter. To have figured this out just by thinking about it? Wow.

And then there’s the swerve. In Lucretius’s (pretty accurate, at least to my non-physicist lights) view, the world consists of different kinds of atoms flying about, colliding and recolliding until they hit upon a useful combination. What keeps them from falling into patterns, always mixing the same way, is the swerve—the element of randomness that causes the universe. It’s a charming and mysterious way to characterize the chance and chaos that sometimes coalesces into order. Here, have a helpful illustration from my long-ago title page! I think it really says it all.

13 October 2011

Season for Temptation (Theresa Romain): Interview and CONTEST!

Season for Temptation
Back around the turn of the century, I landed my first summer job, at a Goodwill thrift store. It was great: first pick of all the clothes, 25-cent paperbacks . . . and I worked with my BFF Theresa Romain. One of our favorite pastimes was flipping through what I'm now aware were old-school romances--real bodice rippers--giggling and highlighting the naughty bits (or bits we could make naughty by highlighting selectively).

A decade-ish on, she's just published her first Regency (and thoroughly modern) romance, Season for Temptation. It's a delightful read, the story of Viscount James Matheson’s making a prudent engagement to kind, shy Louisa Oliver…before meeting her headstrong, scatterbrained stepsister, Julia Herington, who find herself as unexpectedly--and inappropriately—taken with him as he with her. The joy of reading a good romance is in knowing who will end up together but being mystified as to how; Season skillfully strings the reader along with moments of genuine anxiety and an impudent wit, largely exemplified by Louisa’s formidable aunt, Lady Oliver—who ranks with Jane Austen’s most redoubtable secondary characters.

I am pleased and proud as punch about her achievement! To celebrate, I had to do something special-er than just a review, something I'd never done before on this blog. Then it turned into TWO things: first, an author interview! I wrote a piece about her for her alumni magazine (Wichita State University), but there was so much great stuff I didn't get to put in, so it's publishing here in its entirety. Second, as part of her blog tour (oh these modern authors!), Theresa's graciously providing a copy of Season to one of you lucky readers. The procedure for entry? Just be a romance writer for a day! Comment below with your very best plot idea. I'll roll a d-something to pick a winner on Saturday at noon.

Without more ado from me, here's that interview. It's a good one.

So you've got this wonderful string of degrees [psychology, English, public history, all three from WSU]. Tell me about why you got each, what fascinates you about each discipline, and how/whether they're useful to your writing.

There was nothing systematic about what I studied, but I do think each field is useful to my writing. I started off studying psychology, because Plan A was to become a therapist. In my last semester before graduation, I suddenly became horrified by the idea (probably because I took a class in which I had to practice therapy and I realized how draining it was). So I studied English instead, just because I’ve always loved reading and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. From there, history was a natural leap since it’s so intertwined with literature—every writer is influenced by the social and political atmosphere in which they live.  And really, all three degrees are just different ways to snoop into peoples’ lives. That’s my ultimate goal: literary snooping and story-telling.

When did you start writing Season? How long did it take? Favorite scenes/characters?
I started writing Season for Temptation soon after finishing a nonfiction book, about 3-1/2 years ago.  The first draft took me nine months, though I didn’t know it was my first draft when I finished because I’d never written fiction before. I’d spent years writing scientific articles and even a biography, and unfortunately that first draft of Season sounded eerily like a scientific article too. I tinkered with it for a while, then after months away from the manuscript due to a house flood (ulp) I saw it with fresh eyes and revised the whole thing.

I like all the main characters, because they have traits I admire but don’t possess. Julia, the heroine, is optimistic and outgoing; James, the hero, has a dry wit. Lady Irving, the aunt and matchmaker, says whatever is on her mind—who wouldn’t love to do that?  And Louisa, the heroine’s sister, is socially insecure and bookish. OK, maybe she’s kind of like me after all.

Tell me about the agent/editing/selling process.
My first sale happened kind of backwards, because I actually had an offer before signing with an agent. I’d been querying agents with Season for a while, but I also entered some first-chapter contests sponsored by state chapters of Romance Writers of America. Not long after we finished the clean-up from the house flood, I got word that I’d made the finals of one of these contests, so I sent in my newly revised book for the final judge—an editor—to read. She loved it and made an offer soon after. I called my dream agents and gave them the scoop, and one agreed to take me on as a client after reading not just Season, but my other works in progress. An agent isn’t in the relationship for one deal, but for an author’s career.

What surprised you about "the writing life?" What would you want other struggling authors to know?
This might sound common sense, but it’s a good starting point: authors should treat a writing career as professionally and systematically as they would any other career.  For example, think of query letters as resumes; think of each agent as someone you’re interviewing for a job, and choose only “candidates” who work in your field (that is, agents who represent the type of work you write). Also, follow query and submission guidelines when sending your work to agents or publishers; this alone will set you apart from the crowd. And when you’re online, be professional—no public bad-mouthing. 

Are you planning to write more novels? Will they also be Regency? (If so, why this period? What does it have over other "old-timey" eras?)
I’m in this for the long haul, I hope. I’d love to make writing my full-time career, and I do write every day (well, ok, almost every day). Everything I’ve written so far has been set in the Regency. I think a lot of authors and readers get hooked by the Regency because of Jane Austen’s novels. I got intrigued by that world through her work, and the more I researched it, the more it appealed to me.  The Regency era in England is the last gasp of the pastoral, pre-industrial society, so in that way it’s very exotic to a modern reader—and yet the styles and fashions of the time appear very elegant to our eyes today. Playing the manners of the time off the expectations of modern readers is all part of the fun.

I also meant to ask about your social media presence. Can you explain to a non-industry insider why it's so important for an author to do this these days?
A social media presence—blogs, Facebook, Twitter—is an author’s supplement to a publisher’s marketing arm. Strictly from an author’s or publisher’s perspective, the goal of social media is to create awareness about a new book/series/genius-must-buy-writer. But the real purpose of social media is to connect with people, and it’s essential for an author to keep that in mind. Readers will be put off by a presence that’s just about self-promotion.

Most open-ended of all: why romance? Here's where you get to Bust Stereotypes and Defend Awesomeness. Can't wait.
Romance is fun to write and to read because it’s optimistic—yet it’s realistic, too. At its heart, a romance novel is a story about how a couple works together to overcome obstacles to a healthy relationship. It’s rarely easy, and it often involves struggle. I think the popularity of romance shows that this type of plot is something we can all connect with, because we all struggle sometimes with our own relationships (whether romantic, friendly or professional) and want a healthy, hopeful resolution.

The best romances I’ve read are among the best books of any type I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, the romance genre gets a lot of snark, mainly from people who haven’t read a modern romance novel. I’m not sure why that’s the case, because pretty much everyone likes romance, even if they don’t know it. For example, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter movies had romance subplots. What’s not to like about people working out their problems and supporting each other?


09 October 2011

Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev)

It happened with Anna Karenina, again with Brothers Karamazov, finally with Fathers and Sons: read the book, was worried the other WORD Classic book-clubbers were wholeheartedly into it and I'd be the odd one out. And for the third time, nope--we were all in puzzled agreement. But this wasn't the frustration we felt with AK, or the irritation we found in BK, just a certain gentle bemusement. I'm not sure what to make of Fathers and Sons. It's not a bad book at all; I didn't not like it; I didn't like it either. I have a near-perfect neutrality towards it, in fact.

As the title suggests, it's largely concerned with intergenerational conflict, at a particularly crucial time in Russian history (then again, I can't think of any non-crucial times in Russian history. "Volatile" is putting it mildly)--right before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. The sons are self-styled nihilist ("Sounds exhausting") Yevgeny Bazarov and his naive hanger-on Arkady. These kids were hilarious, let me tell you: completely recognizable as early-twenties reject-everything quasi-philosophers. Yet while Turgenev is clearly smirking at their earnestness, he's got a nostalgic affection for them as well, which saves the satire from being mean-spirited.

But while the characters are sharply observed, they're not emotionally compelling. That's more or less the issue we had with the book: it just didn't engage us, for good or ill. Stephanie wonders--brilliantly, I think--if much of our shared trouble with these 19th-century Russian novels is simply having readers' brains attuned to modern English-speaking fiction, which is constructed so differently as to be an entirely different mental experience. It is, essentially, hard for us to read. This is definitely a factor: all three of the novels mentioned above contain unnecessary scenes, operatic melodrama, digressions into philosophical argument, and little concern with character development or kinetic prose. Of course, these are not bad things! Nor, obviously, necessary for The Novel as Form. Still, it goes a long way towards explaining why we didn't have much to say about these books. The mere practice of reading them, though, is flexing literary muscles little used, and can only make us better readers. Thanks, WORD, for giving us this opportunity! Best book club I've ever been in.

05 October 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susanna Clarke)

What a lovely, fun book this was!

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell takes place in an alternate Georgian England in which magic--though real--has not been successfully practiced in Britain for a couple of centuries. There are still gentlemen who consider themselves magicians, though only theoretical ones; they gather to read each other long boring papers on the proud history of English magic, including its greatest practitioner, the Raven King, who was raised in a fairy court and ruled northern England for three hundred years. One member of the York society of magicians, curious about why magic no longer works in England, asks the question of the reclusive Mr Norrell--who shocks him by asserting, and later proving, that he is indeed a competent practical magician.

And with that, the magical renaissance on the sceptr'd isle is underway. Soon Mr Norrell has been enlisted by the government for what aid he can offer in the war against France. Later, he acquires a pupil, Jonathan Strange, and as time wears on their magical philosophies begin to diverge on certain points: Norrell wishes magic to be proper, gentlemanly, and above all English. To him, this means turning his back on the wild fairy magic of the Raven King and his followers; but Strange isn't so sure. The decisions each makes in favor of his views drive the narrative.

Such a wonderful narrative it is, too! Clarke writes in the formal-yet-conversational tone of Austen or Trollope, and serves up footnotes to fill in the gaps of our thaumato-historical knowledge. I love the old-schoolness of her fairies--child-stealers and tricksters--and the ease with which she incorporates the Napoleonic wars into her bewitching tale. This is that very rare novel for fans of fantasy and comedies-of-manners alike.

02 October 2011

In which I am a crank about Banned Books Week.

So last week was Banned Books Week. I know as book folk I should be all gung-ho about this; but while of course I support the freedom to read, every year I get curmudgeonly about the way BBW is celebrated. And every year I intend to write about why. This year, I'm doing it.

My objections are twofold. First: Challenging is not banning.
When you read the lists of "banned books" posted in libraries or bookstores or circulated online, what you're mostly seeing is challenged books, meaning (according to the ABA website) someone filed a written complaint about them, asking them to be removed from a library or school. OK, fine. How much, really, does that mean? Anyone can object to a book (that's the other side of free speech), but objecting--even officially airing said objections--does not keep anyone from reading, shelving, or assigning a book. And while the ABA compiles lists and statistics of frequently challenged books, they admit that "most" and "a majority" of these challenges fail--yet they don't provide numbers, which seems disingenuous to me, as there's a difference between, say, 55% of challenges not resulting in bans as opposed to 85% . . . and, honestly, in the absence of such statistics, I'm inclined to believe it's closer to the latter. I can live with that.

Two: Schools and libraries are not governments.
Let's assume, though, that a challenge does go through, and a book is removed from a library's shelves, or a school's reading list. That's a shame, but does this honestly prevent access to the book? Only from that one source--which I strongly doubt is the main source for books for most teenagers. Even I, bookish to a fault, never checked anything out from my high school library--I went to the public library, or the Borders down the street, or just hopped online. Books--in the United States--are not hard to get, and their being challenged does very little to make this harder. Look back at that list of frequently challenged books for 2010, for example: it contains both Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, both of which have sold millions of copies. How on earth can anyone refer to these as "banned books"?
To me, a banned book is an illegal book: a book whose sale or possession results in criminal charges. And in the United States in 2011, I am unaware of this being the case for any book whatsoever. Even The Anarchist's Cookbook is $5 on the Kindle.
However, many countries do outlaw books, even countries we think of as progressive and free. Mein Kampf is illegal to own in Austria, with a possible jail sentence of 5-10 years. Australia won't sell American Psycho to people under 18. And Iris Chang's Rape of Nanking took ten years to be published in Japan. Matters are worse in some parts of the Middle East--a co-worker* from Palestine to whom I complained about the U.S. BBW said that it's definitely a problem there.
I think we should talk about this, here, during Banned Books Week. We should post lists of books that couldn't be published in their author's home countries, that found a home here. We should read from them at BBW events, instead of The Catcher in the Rye or Harry Potter. We should celebrate how incredibly free we are.

*Oh yeah, did I mention my triumphant return to bookselling September 15? Full-time weekdays at Posman Books in Grand Central Terminal! I cannot express how happy and relieved I am: it would require interpretive dance or several LOLcats.
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