Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Travel Problem

I'm away to Spain in a few hours—or, at least, through two other countries and then, eventually, finally to Spain. (In theory my trip starts today. In terms of actually walking, it will probably start three days hence.)

Books are always an issue when I travel. It's just impossible to carry enough of them to see me through a trip. (I am the sort of person who packs three books if I suspect it will be a slow day at work...and as often as not get through at least two and a half of them). I don't have (or want) an e-reader, which means that for more than a month of backpacking...

Well. I've always been fond of Jane Eyre. Here's hoping that that's still true by the end of June. My bigger concern at the moment is all that travel time before I actually get to travelling...which means bringing 'disposable books', or copies of books that I won't mind leaving on planes or trains or hostels. (Or maybe I'll love the books and regret having to leave them behind. Who knows?) On this trip ransacked my shelves and came up with This Won't Hurt a BitSaba, and Phenomenal...and now I have to go worry about whether or not I should add to the stack and, you know, whether or not I forgot anything Absolutely Crucial when packing. (Answer: probably.)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Romance and the Evil Ex

I finished that slog-book that was giving me so much trouble (a good book in many respects, but not for me), but not before speeding through one or two more mass-market romance novels. I read some other things...and now I'm back to romance (I had my hopes pinned on a library book that neither I nor two separate librarians could locate), this time of the lesbian variety.

I was thinking about this before I started the lesbian romance, but it's proving true here as well: the ex is evil. The ex seems to always be evil—or sometimes dead.

It makes some sense, to a degree; if the ex is too appealing or reasonable, maybe the hero or heroine won't look so appealing. Plus, it gives them some conflict. But sometimes it's a little...overkill. Instead of showing how appealing, say, Hero Jack is in comparison to Evil Ex Joey, it can make Heroine Jill's taste look questionable* or just look wildly unrealistic. In one of the het romances I read recently, the evil ex is a deadbeat dad who shows up near the end of the book to demand partial custody and substantial child support to go with it (the heroine is a wealthy princess—and, while we're on tropes, the hero is her bodyguard). When he learns that his son is deaf he says some offensive things and the hero boots him to the door. The evil ex exists so that the heroine can have a child and so that the hero can do that booting.

(Wouldn't it make just as much sense if the heroine was just like, 'yeah, he's not a bad guy but he's not in the picture anymore'? And that was that?)

If the evil ex is female (and the book is het), chances are that she's a conniving, cheating bitch who only wanted the hero for his money. If she's dead, there's still a substantial chance that the hero is not truly mourning her—because she was a conniving, cheating bitch who only wanted the hero for his money, but only the hero knows that (and he's too good a person to smear her name now that she's dead).

Meanwhile, in this lesbian romance, the evil ex (well, soon-to-be, but for simplicity's sake...) is a professor who constantly belittles her ladyfriend, flirts with anything with breasts (including the ladyfriend's sister), and possibly gives top marks only to students who sleep with her.


(In the last lesbian romance I read, the evil ex was not so much evil as deeply closeted and neurotic. Better, perhaps,** but again—wouldn't it have been simpler for them to have just grown apart or wanted different things?)

Of course there are plenty of unhealthy relationships in real life, and people who are really not fun to be around (or to be dating, or to have dated)...but I think it's just as well that I don't live in a (or at least this particular type of) romance novel. I like the people around me to be three-dimensional.

* Not to insult anyone who's ever dated someone who turned out to be a dud...

** Although it would be markedly better if these books did not so often fall to homophobia as the greater conflict and closetedness as a character flaw.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Week Is Not Enough

I've been reading mass-market romance novels on weekends recently, less because of a significant interest in romance novels (nothing wrong with romance, but I find the predictability frustrating...which begs the question of why I read so much mainstream YA) than because...well. First it was on a weekend when I got home from my day job on a Friday afternoon and then spent Friday evening and all of Saturday and Sunday on other work, and my brain felt too much like mush to read anything else. (This weekend it's because the book—memoirish nonfiction—I am trying to read, which I've been looking forward to for ages, has turned out to be something of a slog, and even though I only have about sixty pages left I'd just...like to procrastinate a little longer.)

I get virtually all of my romance novels at thrift stores,* so by default I am reading only those that somebody else didn't think were worth keeping, and yet sometimes...I mean, I can't complain about tropes (e.g., princesses), considering that I actively seek out princess romances at thrift stores (still seriously considering renaming my kings-and-queens shelf on GR 'princess-fantasies'), but when you have a princess (common romance trope #1) falling for a rancher (common romance trope #2) who has been hired to be her bodyguard (common romance trope #3), what is that? (If it's a trifecta, it's not my trifecta.) Why do these characters keep falling in love and proposing over the course of about a week? And why do the women in these books never truly get the upper hand?

* Crowning (relevant) achievement to date: finding, over the course of a few days, three Harlequin romances featuring two heroines and a hero with my name, my sister's name, and my brother's name...none of which is common.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

On Being an Adult or Something Like That

There I go, neglecting the blog already. Shame on me.

I went on my first (of two) grad-school visit earlier this month, and while there I had a chance to talk with the department head. A very pleasant chat—it helped, I imagine, that I'd already gotten in and thus didn't feel quite so much pressure. (I do have to say that any conversation that begins with 'So you edit romance novels?' is going to go either very well or very awkwardly. Am happy to note that this was a case of the former...with only a dash of the latter.)

In any case, towards the end of the conversation, the professor asked what I was reading; at the time I was working my way through Tamora Pierce's Beka Cooper series (again), and I mentioned that and the reading I was doing for the class I'm auditing. We talked a bit about YA lit, and the prof asked if I had any recommendations for a twelve-year-old daughter who is into dystopia at the moment, and some sci-fi.

Lesson learned: even if you don't read much sci-fi yourself, it is worth paying attention to all those books your sister read in high school. Anne McCaffrey! Mercedes Lackey! *phew*

Also, The Handmaid's Tale, because if you're going to read dystopia, you might as well read some of the good stuff. (I'm reminded of a book that I won't name that basically has the same plot of a classic teen dystopia...but with romance and spread out over three books.)

Moral of the story there is no moral of the story. Off I go to read more books or visit another grad school or something...

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Mythical Trifecta

I finished reading Not Otherwise Specified yesterday, and it got me thinking about 'trifecta' books—those that hit three of my reading interests. My s.o. and I have a joke about them, because they're so rare. Easy enough to find, say, a book that deals with boarding school and LGBTQ characters (e.g., Rapture Practice) or dance and Africa (e.g., Cape Town), but boarding school and Africa and dance? Uhh. Good luck with that.

Part of it, of course, is that my interests tend to be fairly specific; another part is that books that fit neatly into one category don't always have easy room for certain other categories. But I keep looking.

And yet: the trifecta doesn't always work. (Or rather, the trifecta book doesn't always work for me.) I looked through my shelves on GR and came up with a new trifecta shelf, and...the results are a little surprising. One: I've read more trifecta books than I would have thought, although in some cases I stretched the definition a bit. Two: some of them I loved, but most of them fell at least a little flat.

The Jack Bank is the book that I usually cite as an example of a trifecta book. It's a memoir set in South Africa (1), with boarding school as a featured setting (2), and it deals heavily with the narrator's sexuality (3). All of which pleases me greatly. The reality of it, though, was that I didn't care for it that much—boarding school was a relatively small part of the book (much smaller than I would have expected from the flap), and he left big questions unasked. Good ingredients, but I wasn't crazy about the way they were used.

Not Otherwise Specified worked much, much better for me, perhaps because (as the author said on her blog) the book is not about the narrator's problems. It's about her. Yes, there's dance and eating disorders and numerous queer characters, but it's less about any of those than it is about Etta figuring things out.

Turns out there are more trifecta books than I thought...but what makes Not Otherwise Specified a mythical trifecta book is that it works.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


I'm (still) auditing this class on black women writers, and one of the best things about doing so is that I have a reason to take copious notes. I really have no idea, now, what my note taking looked like in college—class notes, yes (in the rare class that threatened to put me to sleep—usually because of time of day rather than subject matter—my notes tended to wander, ever more illegibly, almost off the page...I do remember hiding Uncle Tom's Cabin under my desk during Horticulture so that I could stay awake, with the added bonus of getting my reading done), but not reading notes. I'm sure I didn't highlight my books. Did I underline? I have no earthly idea. Most of the students in the class seem to highlight and/or underline, though.

But I'm reading library books, and, well, I couldn't write in those even if I wanted to. So instead I'm taking note after note. Quotations for preference (especially useful if I ever need to cite a given book for a paper...or a Goodreads review, for that matter), but also thematic bits and the like. For Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, I (very) briefly summarised each chapter. But for Ghettoside, which was supplemental reading of a sort (to what end, I do not yet know, although I've already sorted out one way to connect it to Incidents—clearly I am desperate to write a paper), it's mostly quotations, because they explain the book so well.

Being in class again is wonderful. I miss taking notes and arguing points in class (though, as an auditor, I am keeping my mouth politely shut) and being told by the professor that I'm wrong. (Or right. Right is just fine too.) When I read just for myself, I still take down lots of quotations, but...this is a different kind of fun.

Monday, February 16, 2015


I've been thinking a lot about POV and, in particular, unreliable narrators. It started with What We Hide, in which the story is told from a large number of narrators; none of them is unreliable per se, but each of them sees events slightly differently. I didn't love the multiple-narrator thing—made it harder to get into the story sometimes, and to sympathise with any given narrator—but that was also, I think, kind of the point. Hard not to respect that.

But then, also, it's books like A Perfect Ten: The protagonist, the POV character, could just as easily be the antagonist if the story were told from another character's perspective. It would be an interesting writing exercise—write a story from one perspective, and then flip it around and write from another perspective. A third. It's not the newest of ideas, but it does make one think.

I'm taking a creative writing class at the moment—personal essays. The focus is on 'risky' essays, which tends to (though doesn't always) mean hard topics—abuse, sex, lies, etc. Some of the essays we've workshopped in the class have been really good, and hard, and complicated...and I'm reminded of something (I think) Dorothy Allison said of Trash and something else that (I think) Alison Bechdel said about Fun Home: The former, that she'd never expected it to have so wide an audience or to be so readily available to, say, people in her hometown; the latter, that her mother was less than thrilled with Bechdel airing out the family skeletons.* How much of our stories is our own? How much belongs to, or is shared with, other people? The books I mentioned in the first two paragraphs are fiction, so the authors can craft the characters any way they please...but in memoir it's trickier; you can tell a certain slant of story, but you can't rewrite history or know exactly how somebody else experienced the same things you did.

I'm quite keen on unanswerable questions, I'm afraid...

*I believe I have the gist right in both cases, obviously, but suffice it to say that I am paraphrasing heavily.