Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why I Will No Longer Read The Guardian

As an American, I believe very strongly in the importance of free speech. That means occasionally tolerating hurtful (but not threatening, slanderous or libelous) speech. An author who releases his or her work to the public must be willing to tolerate negative reviews. Author Cecilia Grant explained it very well in this blog post over the summer.

Last week, The Guardian published an article by author Kathleen Hale in which she admits to stalking a book blogger who gave her a negative review. You can read more about it at the Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog, Jenny Trout's blog, and Dear Author.

They all said it far more eloquently than I could. I have no influence nor power to change this ugly situation. However, as a former semi-regular reader of The Guardian (mostly via their app on my smartphone), I can vote with my feet. I thought it was only fair to let them know (not that they likely care), so I sent the following email to their Books team (with the same subject line as this post):

I am completely appalled by your endorsement of Kathleen Hale's disturbing stalking behavior toward a book blogger. How can any organization engaged in journalism promote something that will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on free speech? I am reminded of the Texas beef lobby going after Oprah Winfrey for daring to state that she would no longer eat hamburger in the wake of the mad cow disease scare. Now authors are using their publishing industry connections to similarly intimidate individuals who give them bad reviews. By giving Hale's actions your tacit approval, you have completely undermined your credibility in regard to book recommendations and also in regard to The Guardian's coverage of news stories involving stalking or bullying (since you seem to have a poor understanding of the meaning of both of those words).
I no longer consider The Guardian to be a reliable news source.  I have uninstalled your app from my smartphone, and I will no longer visit your website.
Elinor Aspen
I do not expect to receive a response. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Find Your Beach Read

The term "beach read" has long been used to describe a completely frivolous book with no literary value. The connotation is that it is best enjoyed on the beach while on vacation, when your brain can be turned off.

The term has often been used to describe romance novels and other genres, such as suspense and mystery, that are considered purely for entertainment.

I think we have been misunderstanding the function of beach reads. It is not that they are good for beach reading because they will not force us to think. Rather, they enhance our vacation by allowing us to escape our everyday lives and vicariously experience adventure and romance.

It was those Corona "find your beach" commercials that finally helped me make the connection. Just as Corona is supposed to help you escape the stresses of ordinary life and imagine you are on a sunny beach rather than a downtown watering hole after work, a beach read will transport you to another world and allow you to imagine a more exciting and romantic life for a little while.

I think that is why I enjoy historical romances so much more than contemporary romances. Contemporary romances deal with real-world stresses and emotions and do not allow the same level of escapism for me.

My beach is generally 19th-century England.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sharing Is Caring

When we discuss our feelings or experiences with another person, we are communicating more than just the information contained in those words. We are also saying: "I found this interesting and want to share it with you" or "this is important to me, and I hope you will understand why I feel this way."

Romance novels are often based on the premise of a Big Misunderstanding or a Dark Secret. As readers, we sometimes become frustrated by characters who could clear everything up if they just had an honest conversation. There are Reasons why they don't however, and it isn't only because there would be no story if they did.

We all wear social masks to some extent or other as we go through life. You may pretend that you really enjoy your Aunt Betty's pumpkin bars (even if they taste like she used last year's Halloween pumpkins). You probably avoid letting your BFF know that you really find her boyfriend annoying. In a new relationship, it is normal to show your best qualities and hide the more irritating ones.

No one is perfect, and we often carry around some heavy emotional baggage. Letting a loved one see one's vulnerabilities requires a great deal of trust. That's why, in a romance novel, the conversation wherein the hero or heroine reveals the Dark Secret often seems more intimate than their first sex scene (which may come either earlier or later, depending on the particular book). The stakes are high -- will the revelation result in rejection by the significant other? Will he or she respond with true acceptance, or merely tolerance and/or forgiveness? Will they even understand each other's reactions?

How many of us take the time to really listen to our own significant other?  Do we listen shallowly to the words and respond with conversational small talk ("That's nice, Honey" or "I'm sorry you had such a rough day")?  Or do we listen deeply to the words and also to the coded message they carry?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

How Courtney Milan Is Like Star Trek

I recently read Unclaimed by Courtney Milan. It is the second book in her Turner series (I had already read the first one, Unveiled).

I know that Ms. Milan does a fair amount of research for her books, but I have also noticed that she feels free to depart from that research. She also seems less familiar with the language of the era than authors who have read a lot of Victorian literature. There were a few casual malapropisms.

She is such a skilled storyteller, though, that I am able to overlook those lapses rather than being pulled from the story. I finally realized why I can stay immersed despite the anachronisms. Unclaimed is not really a story about Victorian England. It is a story about our own contemporary society told through the lens of a different era. It has a very strong message about slut-shaming and victim-blaming, and a more subtle message about the thinly-veiled misogyny in evangelical purity movements.

Why, then, does Courtney Milan not write contemporary romances instead? It is likely that many romance readers would be put off by strong social commentary about real life. That is not what most readers expect to encounter in a romance novel. However, by setting the story in Victorian England, Milan allows the reader to maintain a comfortable distance (and temper our outrage over some of the secondary characters' actions and attitudes, since those were different times) while still empathizing with the main characters and appreciating the book's philosophical lessons.

In much the same way, the writers of the original Star Trek series presented scripts about timely social issues like race relations and the rise of the military-industrial complex without incurring the wrath of the network, because it was science fiction set in the future rather than contemporary drama.

Well done, Courtney Milan.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life

"...for there is in London all that life can afford."  So said Samuel Johnson in 1777. The quote applies equally to women. The first time I visited London, I was reminded in some ways of New York City, particularly the theater district. However, I came to realize that NYC is like London's younger brother, trying on his elder brother's cool jacket and trying to look sophisticated. One must admire his energy and give him points for trying, but he is a somewhat paler imitation.

New York City can brag to history buffs of its Dutch colonial history and former identity as New Amsterdam. That's adorable. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The oldest part of the Tower of London was built by William the Conqueror nearly a thousand years ago.

I love travelling to London, even if it means staying in a small, overpriced hotel room, eating the abomination that is an English breakfast (complete with runny scrambled eggs and black pudding) and rarely finding a decent cup of coffee. I even enjoy spending time at Heathrow, although my flight home is always at least an hour late, and the repeated security warnings about unattended parcels delivered in a calm female voice with a perfect BBC accent makes me feel like I am in a dystopian science fiction film. Those minor inconveniences are a small price to pay for being in London.

Interior of The Orangery
During our first visit to London, we wanted to have a nice afternoon tea but had not made reservations in advance. Happily, we discovered The Orangery at Kensington Gardens, where we had delicious tea sandwiches, scones that were to-die-for, and decadent pastries with our tea. The building was originally Queen Anne's actual orangery. That visit started my addiction to fancy afternoon teas. One minor disappointment was the lack of a tiered service for the refreshments -- it was served in three courses instead (first sandwiches, then scones with clotted cream and jam, then dessert pastries).

St. Paul's Cathedral
Saint Paul's cathedral is truly magnificent. The influence on the U.S. Capitol building (and therefore numerous State Capitols, including Wisconsin's) is obvious. For those Mary Poppins fans out there, be warned -- they have posted a sign asking one not to feed the birds, in the interests of hygiene.

Being a fan of the late Warren Zevon, I also felt compelled to order a pina colada at Trader Vic's. The waiter seemed a bit confused, since they actually call that drink a Bahia at Trader Vic's. Also, the waiter was an immigrant and probably unfamiliar with the cultural reference. However, I eventually got a pina colada, and it was very good.

I recently discovered a fantastic travel guide -- Walking Jane Austen's London by romance novelist Louise Allen. It's a terrific book for aspiring writers of Georgian and Regency historical fiction, as well as being a delightful travel guide. I am looking forward to trying a couple of those walking tours myself.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Revisiting the Matter of Britain

I have vague memories of pop culture references to King Arthur and Sir Lancelot while I was growing up, but I first learned the basics about the legends in high school, when my English class read Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The teacher also told us about Thomas Malory's Mort d'Arthur, on which it was largely based, and some of the ways in which Tennyson departed from his source material.

I was hooked. In college, I took as many literature electives as a business major could manage to fit in and began reading some of the earlier medieval versions. For recreational reading, I devoured many of the modern retellings (some with a high medieval or fantasy setting, some firmly set in a realistic late-Roman-Britain setting). My favorites were those by authors who Arthur Rex: A Legendary Novel and Sharan Newman's Guinevere trilogy. No matter how many times I read the story, however, I always knew going in that there would be no happily-ever-after.
leavened the tragedy with humor and had a firm understanding of the medieval source material. I am particularly fond of Thomas Berger's

I got away from the Matter of Britain for a number of years, largely because the pressures of post-college life led me to want a happy ending in my recreational reading. My interest in Arthurian stories was re-kindled by a trip I took to Glastonbury last summer. I climbed the tor and saw the purported grave of King Arthur (conveniently found by the monks in the 12th century, when they desperately needed pilgrims and donations to help them rebuild the church after a fire). I remembered my love for the legends and their many retellings.

Over the years, a number of authors have written contemporary, fantasy or science fiction books that are based on or inspired by the Matter of Britain. The nice thing about a loosely-Arthurian story with new characters is the possibility for a happy ending. I remember reading Port Eternity by C.J. Cherryh and Excalibur by Sanders Anne Laubenthal when I was still in college. I decided to seek out more Arthurian-inspired books that have the possibility of a happy ending. In a bit of serendipity, I recently found If Ever I Would Leave You, an anthology of romance stories with Arthurian themes. I am currently reading it and enjoying it very much. I think I will make a habit of seeking out new Arthurian-inspired romances.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Lost Art of Letter-Writing

When I was a young woman, I never even heard of e-mail until I took a "Computers in Business" course at UW-Madison. The instructor told us about this new thing called "electronic mail" that was meant to solve the persistent problem of phone tag (this was also in the era before affordable and truly portable cell phones). We all seemed skeptical that it would ever catch on.

I kept in touch with friends and relatives who had moved out of state by regularly writing letters, in cursive handwriting on decorated stationery with matching envelopes. My correspondents regularly sent me handwritten letters in return. I still have many of them packed away somewhere (a handful of them were deliberately destroyed, like Lord Byron's memoirs, out of concern for the reputation of the author).

In 1991, one of my reservist friends was called up and sent to Saudi Arabia for the duration of Operation Desert Storm. For several weeks, I did not have a mailing address for him. By this time, I had access to a computer with word processing software, so I began typing letters to him in one big document, with each entry clearly dated. I chronicled all the gossip about our mutual friends (mainly who hooked up with whom -- we were in our 20s at the time, and our social circle was full of drama).

When I got an APO address for him, I began printing and sending the letter(s) in manageable chunks, with two or three days' worth of entries at a time, mailed a few days apart. He seemed to really enjoy getting them, and he wrote back to me whenever he could. No, it was not the beginning of a romance between the two of us (I was already dating my future husband by then). Another sort of drama was gradually revealed in the letters I received from him. A woman whom he met at a New Year's Eve party (just a week or two before he shipped out) was also writing to him. As the weeks went on, her letters became increasingly romantic and possessive. He swore to me that he had done nothing to encourage her to think of him as her boyfriend, and he was at a loss over how to handle it. I believed him, because I knew the woman in question, and she had a history of that sort of self-escalating relationship behavior. Some of us had to hold an intervention with her, and he decided to transfer to a different campus when he returned stateside.

Nowadays, that whole drama would play out in less than a couple weeks on Facebook, with conflicting relationship statuses and comments from mutual friends. But once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was possible to remain in touch with someone, and even become a close confidante, via letters that took days or even weeks to reach their destinations. Maybe that's why I am fascinated by epistolary novels, and why I felt the urge to write one (a novella, actually) this summer. There have been a number of great contemporary epistolary novels that make use of emails and social media posts. I'm going old school, though, because as useful as I find email and social media, they don't quite have the same magic as a letter written on paper and sent through the mail.