Wednesday, October 29, 2014

How to Have Historical Hair

Over the years, I have dabbled in various types of historical re-enactment and attended retro conventions and theme parties that gave me the opportunity to experiment with the fashions of many different eras. I often tried to do something appropriate with my hair but lacked knowledge of the necessary techniques.

Thanks to "hairdressing archaeologist" Janet Stephens, I now know how to do those tight spiral curls (and loosely frizzed hairstyles) that were so popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Check out her brilliant instructional video:

Stephens' area of specialty is ancient Roman hairstyles. I found those videos on her YouTube channel to be equally fascinating, and many of the braid-and-loop techniques are easily adaptable to Victorian hairstyles as well. Watch them and you will be the envy of your friends at the next Halloween party (or the other mothers at the next Latin Club gala).

You can find additional useful information about early-19th-century hairdressing here.

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.