Summer Reading: In Wilderness, by Diane Thomas

So my non-romance reading kick continues…. and I’m going to try to write more regularly about the diversity of books that have captured my attention recently. My biggest challenge as a blogger has always been balancing the urge to capture my reading experiences as they are happening (sort of the blog-as-reading-journal approach) with the intellectual challenge of searching for larger connections between the books and other things I’m hearing and thinking about. And in general I’ve ended up with a painfully slow process of reading, digesting, writing, and posting. Oh, and slacking.  There’s also just been my blogslacker ways, which are hard to reform. A new friend, who is a writer and critic, gave me a helpful kick in the head this summer about writing more regularly, with an eye toward the discipline of capturing some kind of response to each book right away.  So we’ll see how it goes…

In Wildnerness / Diane Thomas

I’m not really sure what made me pick up this book.  It was one of those hanging-around-the-library-waiting-to-drive-a-kid-home browsing times, and I found it with the New Books.  Maybe because I recently read two Gillian Flynn novels I was just in the frame of mind for another twisted, semi-psychotic mystery thriller with problematic protagonists who fall for each other in the wrong ways…

This book turned out to be much less twisted and much more reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver (Prodigal Summer) than Gillian Flynn.  Though this novel does have a scary, violent young Vietnam vet, a hidden gun, a lot of weird-sounding craft projects (involving looms, yarn, dirt, wood, and leaves), and a woman running away from a failed marriage.

wildernessKatherine is like Mad Men’s Peggy Olson, an unusually successful woman in advertising during the era of Lucky Strike and sweater sets.  But Katherine has lost her first love to Vietnam, then married an advertising colleague for convenience.  When their baby dies and she becomes horrifically ill with an undiagnosed ailment, the marriage fails.  When the story begins, she’s been told that although the doctors can’t determine the cause of her intense chronic pain and inability to digest food, she probably has only 3 months to live.  She’s in the process of dissolving her life, selling her interest in the agency and making plans to disappear. Instead of suicide, she decides to buy a remote cabin in the mountains of Georgia.

What Katherine doesn’t know is that the property she’s purchased already has another refugee from “civilization” living on it — a shell-shocked soldier nearly young enough to be her son. Danny’s hardscrabble mountain childhood and brutal, violent tour of duty in Vietnam have equipped him with mad skills in wilderness survival, stalking, and grandiose fantasizing.  The novel is structured to alternate between both Danny’s and Katherine’s POVs, and there are frequent passages where one or the other is having some sort of hallucinatory fantasy about the past or an implausible future together.

In Wilderness is definitely NOT a romance (according to the usual genre criteria), and it was interesting to read a harsh novel like this that so easily could have been a May/December romance, including a (very) few scenes where it actually seemed as if Danny and Katherine might together manage to be something good for each other. For a brief moment it’s as if the narrative “tries on” some romance tropes having to do with two damaged souls finding comfort in nature and each other. In the end, his PTSD proves more damaging than her supposedly fatal illness, and the fact that for more than half the book he is basically stalking her, before she even knows he exists, makes this much more like a creepy thriller.  But it does have its Annie Dillard moments. Some of the passages describing Katherine’s visceral, intimate foraging relationship with the forest and her food garden are almost shockingly brutal, while others have the perhaps more predictable lyrical, meditative feel.

The early ’60’s setting and the evocation of the Appalachian wildness are the other elements that intrigued me.  I loved the brief scenes set in the town that’s a day-hike away, where they go to buy supplies and food, in large part because of the small yet  important ways in which the period setting rang true — there are a full service men’s clothing store and a dress shop on the main street.  Mall culture hasn’t killed off local shopping districts yet.

Katherine gets a post office box which she checks infrequently and the fact that she is so isolated at the cabin doesn’t involve any sort of elaborate scheme for getting off the grid. Because:  Pre-cell phones, and she doesn’t even have electricity or a land line. So there is a powerful atmosphere of isolation and vulnerability, while at the same time it was a relief to know Danny couldn’t cyber-stalk her texts or phone calls.  The period setting with its lack of technology sort of cut both ways in creating a backdrop for this intense narrative of a wounded, raw love affair. Without going too far into spoiler territory, I will just conclude by saying Look Not Here for HEA. At least not for Danny and Katherine the couple.

Rent burdens: crumbling mansions, trailer parks, recent reading

Hello!  Here I am, and the blog is not entirely defunct…!  But I haven’t been reading very much romance this year.

This spring I started reading a lot outside the romance genre. It actually started at New Year’s during our annual New York City holiday visit. My cousin — who is English — was reading Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. She said she loved the way Waters captured the small details of post-war frugality, domesticity, drudgery and repressive class consciousness. Plus, she can be counted on for a rippingly suspenseful tale. Fingersmith, Waters’ Dickensian novel of thwarted love and pickpockets, is a longtime favorite.

Sometime in March I found a copy of the new book at the library. This turned out to be one of those times when reading one book sets a certain mood which carries over into subsequent reading choices. It was partly that The Paying Guests evoked a Pym-ish shabby genteel world I still find inexplicably appealing. Then more recently I read We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas, and I realized that for several months I’ve been steeping myself in stories — both fiction and nonfiction — about houses.

I can’t stop thinking about these shabby, difficult domiciles, and their centrality in stories from both ends of the socio-economic spectrum.

A brief digression… A household may be characterized as “rent burdened” when it spends more than one third of monthly income to cover housing and utilities. A troubling, and rising, share of US households use up as much as half of their income to cover housing costs. Many academic and policy experts believe that, in the US in particular, the recession and subsequent economic recovery has intensified the housing affordability crisis, with increasing shares of low- and moderate-income households forced to make impossible trade-offs among food, clothing, education and healthcare expenditures in order to stay in their homes. Homeownership is down, rents are unaffordably high and going higher.

OK, that’s enough of the dayjob-related digression.  But with all this as a backdrop, I found myself thinking a lot about literal and figurative “rent burdens” in the stories I’ve been drawn to lately: agonizing choices when the too-high rent (or balloon payment) comes due; the strain of keeping up appearances; struggling to stay in a house, or trade up to a better one; making ends meet, or what happens when they don’t; the psychic and emotional toll of housing insecurity of one kind or another.

ourselvesWe Are Not Ourselves / Matthew Thomas

This incredibly affecting novel has received so many good reviews, it seems superfluous for me to recommend it. I will just say that while I was utterly taken in by the slow reveal of Ed’s erratic behavior, and the emotional impact of early onset Alzheimers for his wife and son, it was the careful portrait of Eileen’s lifelong governing obsession with real estate that lingered long after I’d finished the book. Eileen’s toughness masks her deep vulnerability and feelings of inadequacy, and she’s convinced that living in the right neighborhood, in the right kind of house, will “fix” all of the bad feelings she cannot even give name to, except to blame the newcomers in their working class neighborhood, with their markers of difference from skin color to cooking spices. It is a powerful meditation on “white flight” from urban neighborhoods and inner ring suburbs, that manages to be both damning and compassionate, though it’s difficult to feel sympathy for Eileen because she’s so wrongheaded. When she finally achieves her goal and moves her fragile family into a suburban money pit of deferred maintenance, her emotional isolation is mirrored by her dysfunctional house. She maxxes out credit cards to fix up one downstairs room — a public mask for the crumbling emptiness, broken fixtures and dingy surfaces throughout the rest of the Learys’ new home.

miserablePerfectly Miserable / Sarah Payne Stuart

This is not a novel, but in her memoir of New England WASP privilege Sarah Payne Stuart pulls no punches in casting herself as an Eileen-like figure of house proud self-absorption. Although Concord, MA is far from Queens and Bronxville, Stuart’s tale is evidence that no matter where you go, the American obsession with “trading up” to a better house is tremendously powerful, and it motivates people to make choices that affect marriages and children in all kinds of potentially damaging ways. It’s sort of a bizarre mash-up of nostalgia, pretension, humility, Yankee ingenuity and charm, bad parenting, self-awareness, mental illness, empathy, and self-delusion.  For me, it was rather compulsively readable, probably because I’m familiar with the neighborhoods described in nearby Concord, and with the quest for approval from an emotionally detached, puritanically self-important, and snobbish mother figure.   Having grown up in Concord and then returned to raise her children there decades later, Stuart admits her somewhat delusional obsession with the Alcotts, and disapproving Marmee figures throughout her life, but the long meditations on Concord’s famous writers, their houses, families, and burdens, became tiresome at times. Stuart’s essays for the New Yorker are probably enough for many readers who won’t be interested in a book-length memoir that comes off as more than a little self-important. But I admit, I was impressed by her ability to capture and articulate (and ruthlessly skewer) a certain set of astringent New England attitudes about old money, genteel poverty, and conspicuous consumption, and what happens when house = identity.

handtomouthHand to Mouth / Linda Tirado

In an accidental offset (I picked up both books at the library one evening) to Stuart’s almost ridiculously self-indulgent eulogy for the succession of historic Concord homes she lived in but could barely afford, I read this book about what it’s like to really not be able to afford to live where you want to, or even to remain in the same undesirable but affordable place with any sense of security. As Tirado points out here at Slate, ANYTHING can make you lose your apartment, because there’s no cushion for household nuisances with financial implications, from the high cost of having your car towed to the loss of income when someone’s sick and misses work. The book is an extension of a blog post Tirado wrote in 2013 that subsequently went viral, was picked up at Huffington Post, and then, predictably, was backlashed across the internet by people suspicious of the veracity of her unvarnished minimum wage story. It’s a bit of a stretch to say this book is about a house, but it’s a powerful narrative about what it’s like to live, now, in “bootstrap America”, in clear and present danger of becoming unhoused, on a paycheck to paycheck basis.

Tirado effectively demonstrates why middle-class judgments about healthy food choices, childcare arrangements, healthcare, and living arrangements are basically meaningless for people who work two or more minimum wage irregularly scheduled shift jobs. She comes across as angry, but rational, and makes her basic point effectively: It’s not being unstable (eg. bad choices) that keeps poor people poor. It’s being poor that forces people into (so-called) bad choices, making stability next to impossible. My background is middle class and I read this, as I read everything, from my position of privilege and relative financial stability. I thought about leaving it out of the post because it almost seems disrespectful to include it with books — novels — I read recreationally, for pleasure. But this was one of those books that ended up powerfully affecting my responses to everything I was reading thereafter, even novels set in remote historical periods, and it’s well argued and hard to put down. I am glad I read Tirado when I did because it offers a clear framing of issues around class, and the disconcerting ease with which we make assumptions about people based on socio-economic status, now just as in earlier periods.

220px-The_Little_Stranger_Sarah_WatersThe Little Stranger / Sarah Waters

I’m a huge Waters fan, though I hadn’t been keeping up since I tend to read in phases, and when this book came out I barely noticed it. At the time I was deep in romance reading, glomming Jo Beverley and Liz Carlyle. But it came along for me this spring at the perfect time — a fantastical gothic tale of a house possessed. But it’s not just an elegantly eerie ghost story. There’s an economic story here that grounds the narrative in very real conditions of postwar deprivation, the declining fortunes of the landed gentry, and subtle but powerful class tensions. The (unreliable) narrator views the residents of the Hall from his position as an outsider of inferior social standing, and the obsessive desire to attain insider status and privilege has a toxic effect far more damaging than the peeling walls and leaking roof.

And of course, as great houses do, Hundreds Hall possesses its people to a much greater extent than the Ayres family can be said to “own” the crumbling country house.  The disconnect between the viscerally unpleasant condition of the grimy living spaces, and the forlorn yet unsympathetic attempt to maintain a certain traditional manner of living in the vast and once-lavish spaces, creates a powerfully tense backdrop for the ghost story. This post is already getting too long, so I just want to say that I really loved this ambiguous, slightly creepy novel, and I agree with almost every word of Abigail Nussbaum’s epic review of The Little Stranger (it does contain spoilers).

rivertonThe House at Riverton / Kate Morton

I don’t usually go in for elaborate past/present time-hopping narratives where there is a Big Mystery lying dormant and information is doled out in ways that feel arbitrary and not altogether organic to the characters or circumstances.  In this case, the device is rather obvious, in the character of the documentary filmmaker who is working on a project about a famously tragic post-war suicide that occurred during a glamorous 1920’s house party. I’m including this here because in spite of the artifice, I rather enjoyed the moody atmosphere Morton created in the Riverton scenes and let the house convey both the pretension and the decline of its aristocratic residents. Similarly, I quite enjoyed Morton’s The Forgotten Garden, in which a beautifully evoked Cornish country estate also serves to ground the plot and (maybe) save it from its own secret baby melodrama.

guestsThe Paying Guests / Sarah Waters

Finally back to the book that seemed to set the theme for much of my reading this year. I found it less compelling than The Little Stranger, in that I could put it down and come back to it several days later, rather than stay up too late reading.  But I do think it’s interesting to see Waters returning to the notion of the house as the canvas upon which she paints a picture of subtle class distinctions with very fine strokes.  The genteel middle class Wrays, mother and daughter, having lost their men (husband/father, and son/brother) to the war, must take lodgers in order to get by and keep their large-ish house in a nice south London neighborhood. The “paying guests” are also middle class, but not “quality.” There is a love triangle and a suspense plot which ends up revolving around a murder trial, but for me the equally fascinating thing about this novel is Waters’s ability to convey the anxious and painfully futile experience of “keeping up appearances.”  Lacking sufficient funds to pay the grocer’s bill at times, let alone keep a domestic servant, Frances strives to manage all the cleaning and household drudgery single-handed and surreptitiously, shielding her fragile mother and their neighbors from the shame of having to see her doing menial work that is “beneath” her.  It’s not that she’s ashamed, but she can’t help feeling worried about her mother’s shame. This self-inflicted pressure to maintain the appearance of a socio-economic status that’s a reach up a rung or two reminded me a lot of Matthew Thomas’s central character, Eileen.  Eileen used her house in the suburbs as the means of reinventing a middle class version of herself, far from her working class roots, but it was more house than she could afford. Similarly, Frances and her mother cling to their genteel way of life in a house they can’t afford, sweeping under the carpet such unsightly details as lodgers and housework.

So many great novels have a house at the center of the story, it seems almost silly to focus on this across these disparate books.  But what I’ve really been thinking a lot about lately is the way in which we rely on information about where and in what circumstances people live, in order to think we understand who they are and how they fit in the world and in relation to ourselves. Where does she live? Do they rent or own? Is that the neighborhood near the park/country club/strip mall/subway stop…?  How long have they lived there?  And for ourselves — how secure is my tenure? Do I wish I lived someplace “better”? What are my housing trade-offs?  Even without the gothic mystery, houses and housing circumstances — the ones we grew up in as well as the ones we end up in — loom and haunt so many of our choices and interactions.

RevWar Espionage: Nobody Does It Better

RevWar reading: an early favorite

RevWar reading: an early favorite

America’s “first” spies seem to be all over the place these days. Spy thrillers in general are ever-popular  — how many times have you read recently that The Americans is “the best show on television“? But I keep crossing paths with fresh storytelling around America’s much earlier spymasters and secret agents.  Revolutionary War tales have always captivated me, and been a mainstay of my decades as a romance and historical fiction reader. Now there are swashbuckling RevWar tales coming to life on screens and in new genres and media, from television to graphic novels to interactive living history experiences.

I don’t know how to measure whether these productions represent a significant trend toward renewed mainstream interest in 18th century American history, or part of a larger trend towards historical drama (the TV series in particular) but I do know I am enjoying the chance to see heroes in tricornes and mobcaps match wits and swords with villains who don’t always reveal themselves merely in the color of their red coats.  Here’s my list of new RevWar spy stories, probably incomplete (I’m pretty sure there must be RevWar fans who are gamers, hence games, but that’s foreign territory for me), with just a few brief impressions.

AMC’s Turn  This high profile series from AMC follows in the footsteps of HBO’s John Adams, but takes real history in a more traditional direction for television — towards twisty plotlines, sexy intrigue, constant threats of danger, and violence.  It’s coming back for Season 2 in about a month (April 2015). I admit I probably had overly high expectations for this show, given the sheer numbers of romantic and heroic novels set in this period that I’ve read. I’m a fan, but largely because of the setting, the attention to details of social history and everyday life in British-occupied North America, and quality of the production, rather than any sense of emotional connection to the characters. My connection to the story feels as if it’s happening via the evocation of history I already know and care about, rather than happening through my experience of these individuals and their particular stories.

The bad guys seem more interesting, in spite of Simcoe's sociopathic behavior, than the good guys...

The bad guys seem more interesting, in spite of Simcoe’s sociopathic behavior, than the good guys…

It’s an ensemble cast, and I have some favorites – dueling spymasters Ben Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) and John Andre (JJ Felid) are a delicious contrast – but the two principal leads, Abe Woodhull (Jamie Bell) and Anna Strong (Heather Lind) just don’t make a strong enough impression, and as they occupy the center of the plot, it all somehow just feels too flat. I keep wanting to like Abe more, or care more about him as an unsual/unlikely Everyman kind of conflicted hero, but … it’s not happening. Anna is the more ballsy hero here, with nothing left to lose, but again, it’s not powerful enough. The center doesn’t hold. Fortunately, there are enough charismatic secondary characters, especially those fighting for the “wrong” side (not in the pic, but well worth mentioning is Angus MacFadyen’s Robert Rogers), and connections to historic events and places that I find compelling, for me to keep watching.

Sleepy Hollow OK, this show with its OTT apocalyptic horror elements is not a true spy drama, but it’s supernatural time travel mystery is embedded in RevWar history and myth, and spins a hilariously fun yarn that links Washington’s inner circle of strategists and spies to saving mankind from satanic forces of evil and the Four Horsemen. It’s the opposite of Turn in that it’s got a charismatic relationship at its center that kept me watching even after I tired of the surrounding elements, which in this case involve a lot of crazy antics with zombies, witches, sin-eaters, and curses.

tom-mison-1024_zps327669edMore of a badass than he appears on the surface, Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane is the embodiment of an 18th century scholar soldier, an eminently watchable hero in the Dunnett mold (though I suppose I am stopping short of a full-blown Lymond comparison here, because the supernatural elements of this show are too silly for me). As brass tacks foil for Crane’s hilarious encounters with 21st century customs and technology, Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills strikes just the right balance between eye rolling and empathy. Cryptography and code breaking are important tools for driving the storyline, so I’m counting Sleepy Hollow in my collection of RevWar spy storytelling.  While we’re talking about television, I haven’t yet seen History Channel’s Sons of Liberty, but it may end up here on the list too, if there’s enough spying going on.

RevQuest @ Colonial Williamsburg I’m the kind of parent whose children are likely to complain that every family vacation was interrupted by detours and pit stops at every national historic site or house museum that could be crammed in to the itinerary. So we’ve been to a LOT of these places, including the biggest and most well regarded of the big living history attractions (for those interested in early American history) like Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village. And I’ve probably adopted the Massachusetts habit of dissing places like “Tory” Virginia when it comes to comparing bragging rights about Revolutionary sites and significance. So I wasn’t expecting to be as wowed by Colonial Williamsburg as I was when I took the tweens there last April. A huge element of the wow factor was their tremendously fun and elaborate interactive real-time spy game —  RevQuest.

d140aac835f780c3ff1abeed3b0f7e0dScavenger hunts for kids are ubiquitous at educational and historic museums these days, but RevQuest takes that kind of experience to a whole new level. You get props, you must pick up and decode secret messages, you have to notice and approach other members of the “resistance,” and you send messages to your handler via secret system (there are segments of the quest that test your codebreaking skill via text messaging). It’s challenging and fun enough for older kids — we saw lots of teens and young adults on the sprawling quest that takes the better part of a day to complete (participants wear a bright scarf you’re issued when you sign up) — and families can play along together (there’s also a more traditional scavenger hunt map for younger kids). It’s a fantastic lens through which to experience a day in the revolutionary city, and each year the quest is re-framed with a new storyline and set of clues. Last year’s “The Old Enemy” placed participants in the role of senior agent responsible for brokering the alliance with France, to obtain much-needed stores of gunpowder. My daughters were captivated by the experience, and the piece that really made it work was learning some spycraft along with real history about the American situation and strategy during the early days of the war against Britain. I can’t tell you how great it was to see my reserved, somewhat shy daughters, emboldened to approach and interact with the interpreters playing the roles of fellow secret patriots.

5137bd1ed9ecf.preview-620Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales Another YA-related phenomenon, this series of graphic novels was launched in 2012 with the story of American hero spy, Nathan Hale. In truth, only the first book, One Dead Spy, and the cleverly arch conceit that frames the series, has anything to do with RevWar spies, but we think these books are so much fun, I had to include them. And get this, the extremely gifted author/illustrator is actually named NATHAN HALE. For reals!

Donner Dinner Party and Big Bad Ironclad are also, rather unbelievably given the subject matter, very witty.  Each tale is a meticulously researched and illustrated volume that delivers an unusual blend of black humor, middle school age-appropriate gross-out japery, and serious historical storytelling that explores and explicates the how and why of some very hazardous (and dark) episodes in US history. The girls and I are eagerly anticipating Hale’s newest tale – forthcoming in April – The Underground Abductor — a tale about Harriet Tubman and her perilous journeys on the Underground Railroad.

Mistress_FirebrandBaloghRenegades of the Revolution I’m going to wrap this post up with a teaser — I have recently finished reading Donna Thorland’s Mistress Firebrand, the third volume in the Renegades series of swashbuckling romances grounded in authentically tumultuous Revolutionary America. Thorland’s dark and dangerous spy romances (The Turncoat, and The Rebel Pirate) weave a complex and glittering web of honor, deceit, loyalty, treachery, violence and courage around her beautifully imagined characters. For me, Joanna Bourne sets the bar pretty high when it comes to historical spy romance, but Thorland delivers, and I’m looking forward to sharing more of my response to the seemingly impossible romance between reckless rebel playwright Jennifer Leighton and ruthless Crown agent Severin Devere in a forthcoming post.

(Full disclosure: Donna is a twitter acquaintance, and was kind enough to send me an ARC of Mistress Firebrand. In accordance with my policy, I’m not under obligation to review, and if I do write about the book, it will be my honest opinion.)

So what do you think? If you’re a reader of American history and historical fiction, do you notice a resurgence of multi-media re-tellings of our Revolutionary history, with an emphasis on the clandestine goings on? Are there aspects of the collective past that are being reframed and/or repackaged, and to what end(s)?

Of Michener and McCullough: A Brief Remembrance, with Links

download (1)In 1977 when The Thorn Birds was published I was fresh off a junior-high year of obsessively re-reading Jane Eyre and addictively consuming hundreds of Barbara Cartland category romances for my 7th grade reading log (fortunately, I had some understanding of the quality/quantity distinction, which is probably why my English teacher let me inflate my numbers so cravenly as long as there was a diversity of other literary selections mixed in with the formulaic Cartlands). I was also sneakily reading Harold Robbins paperbacks and other similarly torrid material I found stashed in the guest room. And I’d discovered James Michener and the lengthy escapism of the place-based epic historical novel/family saga. I still have an incredibly dog-eared copy of Centennial with heavily doodled inside covers – I was practicing signing my name in different handwritings, and designing monograms. I loved that book.

But I think Colleen McCullough’s sweeping Australian saga of the sheep-ranching Clearys and tormented fallen angel Father Ralph de Bricassart was probably the first mega bestseller and cultural phenomenon in which I was old enough to participate as a reader while it was happening – buying a copy while it was on the bestseller lists, re-reading it several times while waiting for the TV miniseries. So I had a moment of intense nostalgia when I heard news of Colleen McCullough’s death, on the radio during my morning commute one day last week. With commute time nearly doubled due to the heavy snow congestion on all the roads here in metro Boston, I had plenty of time to try and remember details about Drogheda and the impossible, illicit romance of heiress Meggie and vow-breaking Father Ralph.

It’s not a book I’ve thought about continuously over the years, and I haven’t re-read it since high school. Still, as Sarah MacLean pointed out in her USA Today tribute to McCullough, The Thorn Birds is “one of those books” — fiction readers of a certain age all know it and have a response to it, and for many romance readers it probably was a formative literary experience in centering so fully and unapologetically on a doomed, star-crossed romance.

Screen_Shot_2015-0_3182522cTo be truthful, I probably wouldn’t have felt moved to do a post about this book, except as it comes up tangentially when people talk about romance novels with clergy heroes.  Sitting in traffic listening to the NPR obituary  I had a random thought about how it would be nice to chat with other romanceland twitterfolk about McCullough’s passing, and the influence of The Thorn Birds. But then I got to work and forgot about it, until the next time I was on twitter and saw the uproar over her obituary. I mean the misogyny and sexism embedded therein was so egregious the retweets were crossing all my tweet streams, even my “serious” work twitter where I mainly follow economics eggheads and policy wonks far from the world of book talk and literary criticism.

So this has all been stewing for me, and I thought about how vividly I can remember reading The Thorn Birds as an utterly immersive experience. But I read Michener the same way, at the time. And can you even for one minute imagine a similarly offensive framing of his life’s work?? Actually, people all over started to do just this kind of thing, with some hilarious results. Just google #MyOzObituary. Even when pointing out Michener’s populist rather than literary pedigree in the hierachy of publishing, The Economist’s obit leads with an admiring: “Spurned by many but read by millions.”

Then today I read this good essay by Danielle Binks  (via @RomanceProf) that explores the various facets of literary sexism that are exposed (again..) by this latest episode, with particular focus on persistent denigration and snobbery around the most-read genres, which happen to also be the most female-oriented genres, of romance and “women’s fiction.” This is a marvelous synthesis, and contains an thoughtful articulation of the relationship between broad cultural sexism and particular forms of literary elitism, especially the ambivalent position of the romance genre in the literary establishment.  Binks also pulled together many good links and many wonderful quotes from around romanceland, offering contextualization of anti-romance literary snobbery within broader considerations of sexism, and outlining a history of centuries-old disdain for “silly novels by lady novelists.” Against all this, there is the empowering narrative of women’s shared experiences of reading, expressed by Sarah Wendell, among others, and quoted by Binks as well:

Sarah Wendell asked a similar question of her followers – if The Thorn Birds was a gateway romance book for them – and the response was overwhelming; ‘For many, many readers, it was the book that introduced them to the genre. For some, it was a book given to them by their mothers or aunts, and for others, it was the book their moms hid from them so they wouldn’t read it (which of course they did anyway)! When I asked on Twitter, many women told me that they remember clearly seeing their moms reading the book, and that the miniseries was an event.’ (Danielle Binks, “When will we write an obituary for literary sexism?” Daily Life, 2/2/2015)

I haven’t got any larger deeper insights here. I might quibble about the fact that while the novel does tell the story of a powerful romance, the lack of a happy ending among other things sets it outside the bounds of conventional genre romance, and it reads more like a Michener than a Woodiwiss, at least in my recollection.

But I do share this feeling of connection as a Thorn Birds fan of a certain age. I’m thinking there may be similarly powerful nostalgia around other memorable book-to-screen “events” from the 70s, from Garp to Scruples.  OK, maybe not Scruples. (I liked Princess Daisy much better.)

Today I’m just taking a few more words than I can fit into a 140-character tweet, to offer my small personal contribution to the powerful tradition of reading and remembrance that is finding expression this week in talking about Colleen McCullough, her life, her books, and her impact on a generation of readers. I’m grateful for her literary legacy, and I’m glad to share in celebrating it with many other lifelong readers.


An Unexpected and Very Badass Romance Is Why I Kept Watching AMC’s The Killing

tk-s3-gallery-linden-holder-760-21Let me confess up front that one of the principal reasons I haven’t been blogging much is that I haven’t been reading as much as usual this winter. And this is primarily a book blog, right? There’s still a part of me that feels guilty about watching television instead of reading. But the availability of streaming television series, whole seasons and even whole series available for the bingeing, is changing how I consume media, as it is for so many people. I used to occasionally binge on a whole season of something good, back in the days of waiting for the DVD release. These days, hardly a week goes by without a streaming binge of one show or another, from OITNB to GoT to Boardwalk Empire.  I’ve become obsessed with new content from new producers – Sundance (Rectify, An Honourable Woman, The Red Road), Amazon (Transparent, Mozart in the Jungle), Netflix (House of Cards, of course). Downton, Sons of Anarchy, The Good Wife and The Americans are among the few remaining shows in which I didn’t or can’t overindulge.  Oh, and Mad Men, which is maddeningly STILL not back to wrap up its serialized Great Expectations tale of Don Draper.

The thing is, being able to keep watching numerous episodes in one evening, bingeing on a serial television program is starting to feel more and more like my old reading habits, staying up into the wee hours consuming chapter after chapter of an engrossing novel.  Of course tv and books are not the same, and neither is watching vs. reading, but there’s something about some of the most compulsively watchable series that feels a little bit like reading an intricately plotted, un-putdownable novel.

10860051_375675945890414_535456110_aAnd this is how it was for me with watching AMC’s The Killing. At first it was just beautiful and moody and arrestingly sad. Then it bogged down with its own pretension, and some ridiculous plot points, but the relationships, the characters and the actors, and the gloomy vision of a rain-soaked Seattle kept me hooked.

The other key ingredient was following episode by episode commentary from Vulture’s Starlee Kine. Her recaps full of pissed off commentary (about gaping plot holes, leaps of logic, cops being terrible at their jobs, implausible medical miracles and lack of appropriate law enforcement technology) resonated and deepened my attachment to the show. The show did garner a lot of critical attention, both positive and negative, for some of its risky and/or groundbreaking elements. But it seems I am not the only one to fall under the spell of the relationship at the center of The Killing, so much so that you’re willing to put up with all kinds of nonsense, just to keep watching this pair of damaged souls find their way. Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) and Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) kept me mesmerized.

SPOILERS BELOW ….. (but here’s a spoiler-free review of Season 4 by Jeffrey Bloomer for Slate) 

And at the end of the final season…. a Happy Ending!  As in a real live, romantically-together-at-the-end-of-the-story, HEA, or at least an HFN, for the series’ two protagonists. It turns out Holder and Linden really were the main couple in a four-season-long, made-for-cable-and-netflix, contemporary romantic suspense thriller. This was one of the most emotionally satisfying television finales since the brilliant end of Six Feet Under.  But it felt very different, because of its close focus on just the two main characters, rather than showing us a montage of all the characters and their various fates.  It felt like the end of a very long, very suspenseful, almost-DNF’d-when-it seemed-to-go-off-the-rails, romance novel.

Here’s how four seasons of a moody, pretentious crime drama (based on the Danish drama Forbrydelsen, or The Crime) ended up feeling like a romance novel, in a good way (and I find I don’t care about the tv noir fans who decried the happy ending as “too American” or too cheesy):

2f02f3be-d214-b142-d53d-ed227fa777b7_TK_307_CS_0429_0186.jpgTortured Hero Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman), silver-tongued smoldering Swedish 12-stepper. He had a rough childhood, made his way onto the police force as an undercover narcotics officer, got addicted to methamphetamine, got sober, got promoted to Homicide, and has the most amazing soliloquies that are themselves an addicting blend of American street slang, laconic delivery, 12-step taglines, irony, self-deprecating humor, psychological insight, and Kinnaman’s nascent Swedish accent slipping in from time to time. It’s not that he’s always got his shit together, but he manages to rise above even his own most horrible behavior, to own his bad acts, make reparation, and see through his own posing. When he’s crushed by grief and guilt and doubt (there are some really bad and tragic things that happen to people in this show), he somehow even seems to embrace these as necessary steps on the path. His most vulnerable moments are heartbreakingly simple: when he’s forced to let down his nephew on the boy’s birthday in order to support Linden in a terrible circumstance; when he visits the grave of a murdered teen runaway he had tried to help, used as a confidential informant, and ultimately failed to protect.

downloadEven more Tortured Heroine Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos), enigmatic single mom; a supposedly brilliant detective whose empathy for victims pushes her to extreme lengths to catch killers even as she neglects her own tween son so much she almost loses him. A hard-knock child of the foster care system herself, she is a mass of denial and self-delusion/self-confusion about what she really wants, where she really belongs. For the entire first season she’s supposed to be leaving Seattle to move to sunny California and get married, but you can tell from the outset that she’s never really going to go that easy route, and that the guy who’s her intended mate is All Wrong For Her. But it’s done with such intensity and misdirection in terms of the writing that it actually feels stunning when it’s finally revealed that he was her psychiatrist during her most recent lockup — she has a history of compulsive obsession with a closed case she’s convinced put the wrong guy in jail, and it’s wreaked havoc with her mental health.

10808688_1406921106271566_586127293_nMeet cute  Still, she’s a star homicide detective, so even though it’s her last day on the job, she gets assigned to mentor the new kid just promoted from Narcotics when they land a high-profile case of a murdered teen who may have been killed by one of half a dozen of Seattle’s leading citizens. The scenes where she’s trying to clear out her desk and leave while he’s trying to chat her up are fantastic. She gives him NOTHING, she’s so convinced she can walk away from the case and all she wants to do is get on that plane to California. Their boss does keep pressuring her to stay for this case because he doesn’t know/trust Holder yet. She insists she will give him only one day, then one more day. But somehow she just keeps missing the damn flight…. And Holder can tell she’s not going anywhere. His self-awareness gives him the compassion and capacity to “get” her before she can begin to get herself. There are numerous times when, in spite of his youth and charisma and hoodies, and her horrible mom sweaters and measured pace, he shows himself to be the more emotionally mature one. Meanwhile, she’s busy writing him off as a recovered-tweaker hipster who happens to have mad getting-street-people-and-teens-to-share-information-and-secrets skills. Their conversations are the best part of the show, and the episodes devoted to watching them ride around talking and smoking were some of my favorite hours of storytelling in a long time.

10729214_773357939410073_326592516_nRescuing each other, literally and emotionally It’s a darkly intense crime drama, so there are a lot of other things going on, from the raw pain of the victim’s grieving parents and siblings to corrupt politicians, snarky campaign operatives, and enough creepy possible suspects from all walks of life to fill at least a dozen different Law & Order cases. And like all noir-ish detective shows, the plot places the protagonists in grave personal peril – there is one beautifully produced sequence involving a kidnapped Linden secretly keeping her radio on and talking to her abductor for hours, using clues and codes that only Holder will comprehend, so that after a whole incredibly intense episode he is finally able to locate her and bring in the rescue operation.  Of course this kind of thing is a metaphor for the ways in which they can rescue each other emotionally, if they are willing to be honest with one another.

A Happy Ending It’s not a surprise that Holder is the first to recognize and acknowledge their deep connection. The challenge, both for the characters and for the viewer, is having the patience and trust to wait for Linden to get there. The final episode delivers with a classic romance novel trope — the last-minute capitulation. It’s a year since they have survived their final horrific case, which includes some very bad business for which both of them have risked prosecution. Linden’s been drifting around the country, visiting her son who she’s finally placed in the more stable environment of his father’s (out-of-state) home. Holder’s been recovering his equilibrium and grounding himself further as a Narcotics Anonymous staff leader. She “stops by” to see him. They talk about how much they mean to each other. But she can’t see herself putting down roots anywhere. They embrace and he lets her go, but not without ratcheting up the sexual tension a couple dozen notches. Still, she walks away. And he loves her enough to know she can’t be chased. All seems dire. But then it’s several hours later and she’s there on the sidewalk waiting for him at the end of the day. And she’s finally all in. And that’s the end of the show – just some quick shots of their joyful faces, and not even a cliche’ clinch. (Not onscreen anyway – show creator and director Veena Sud has said that Enos and Kinnaman did in fact kiss during the final take, but the camera had moved on so it wasn’t captured.)

tumblr_n9omjwbxeJ1ql3i4oo3_250The heroine’s journey It was reading this Veena Sud interview that really affirmed the connection for me between the story of Linden and Holder, and the romance genre. While Holder was the more charismatic character, making it easy to focus on the ways Kinnaman made him really leap off the screen, the overarching narrative is Linden’s journey. Which connects The Killing to one of the ways the romance genre is often read, as a narrative formula that comprises the heroine’s journey from a state of incompletion and lack of self-knowledge, to wholeness, integration, and her emotionally proper place in the world.  Linden finally tells Holder that she’s found her home, and it’s not a place, it’s him. Sud references this directly when she’s asked about a possible fifth season for the duo:

We brought her to the end of her journey. She found the thing that she was looking for all along. It’s the end of the story.

As is right and proper for a satisfying romance. It was such a treat for the show to end this way. Somehow they managed to pull off the happy ending in a way that feels believable, yet unexpected. I did stick with this drama even when I knew I was watching a show that was going off the rails in many ways, because of the chemistry and emotion between these two.  It was often so bleak and damp and dark I certainly did not expect an HEA out of the experience. I don’t know if this is because I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or because Sud and her team just decided very late in the game to give fans the satisfaction.  But I for one thoroughly enjoyed the emotional payoff – and I think people like me who hung in with this show deserved it.

ee866e46c16c6dbae2dd20f768dad275I’m casting around trying to think of other shows where the two leads end up together when the show ends…. Maybe Moonlighting? I honestly can’t remember how that finally ended. How about the fun US Marshal drama, In Plain Sight – nope, that one ended disappointingly for some fans, with Mary and Marshall agreeing she was better as his work wife than she could possibly ever be as his real spouse/lover.

How many other tv shows are there where the ending has the look and feel of a romance novel HEA for the two main protagonists?


Gritty in Glasgow: Carrie Lofty’s Starlight, Matters of Class, and Historical Romance

It’s hard to review, write about or even read, really, a historical without feeling the weight of all the heavy “what’s wrong with historical romancediscussions of the past several years. (Discussions that are both very valuable, I think, and very frustrating.) I find myself wanting to just think about this book in isolation, as a recent reading experience. Well, good luck with that… it’s the first traditional HistRom I’ve read in months, and, for better or worse, it’s arrived here at the blog with some baggage.

I first became aware of Carrie Lofty during RT14 in a discussion of “Gritty Historicals”  which also featured Courtney Milan, Zoe Archer, and Lorelei Brown. I wrote a bit about this panel, and the dearth of historical romance hoopla at the convention overall, shortly after returning from New Orleans. I must say that while I was very pleased to receive a signed copy of STARLIGHT just for being in the audience, I kept looking at the cover and feeling stymied. Gritty? Really? I can think of a lot of other adjectives that better describe the mood this cover evokes. If I had to pick just one, I’d go with “dreamy” (not dreamy as in a dreamy movie idol but dreamy as in twinkle, twinkle late at night, come hither bedroom eyes, backless boudoir wear, cool moonlit color palette and floral satin bedding strewn about).

downloadBut interestingly it was Lofty who made the excellent point about the disconnect between the publishing assumption that HistRom readers rely on the ballgown cover as the signifier for “historical romance,” and the issue of discoverability — that there are historicals which do indeed go “beyond the ballroom” into tough, gritty settings and/or themes, but they are often hard to identify if one relies on the marketing imagery. In this case it’s hard to imagine a book with a greater disconnect between content and cover. I know, cover disconnects are so commonplace it’s dull to even mention it, but I still really. Don’t. Get. This. One. At. All. Unless it’s some kind of working-girl-made-good fantasy…. but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since I do still harbor a soft spot for Scottish-set historicals (especially if there is NO time travel involved, and NO heavy-handed kilt ogling), I decided to give Starlight‘s Victorian Glasgow a go. The opportunity to discover a new-to-me author with a nice backlist is always appealing, and now I wonder how I missed Lofty prior to the RT panel. This book certainly delivers on the grainy history, and a believably smoldering attraction and romance. There were distractions that prevented a wholly immersive reading experience, but I think these are as much about my HistRom baggage as about Lofty’s well-crafted romance. That is, although this was not sheer perfection for me, I admire the effort to tackle many of HistRom’s problems head-on, and the romantic energy and sexual tension of the central relationship worked.

The setting Glasgow, Scotland in the days of the Industrial Revolution — the book is permeated with Victorian-era urban squalor, class conflict, union-busting, corruption and capitalism. No dukes, no debutantes. Tenements, row houses, back alleys, pubs, and mills – no ballrooms, not even a lowly assembly room.

The master Alex Christie, widowed astronomy professor and reluctant mill owner. He’s thoughtful and fair, but doesn’t back down from a fight; an interesting mix of intellect, sentiment, and street tough. He didn’t expect to inherit the mill, and is forced to fight for its survival, and to retain custody of his infant son, due to the ill will and evil machinations of his dead wife’s abusive father.

The organizer Polly Gowan, mill worker, skilled orator, union leader,  and vigorous advocate for justice. I’m trying very hard to not use the word “feisty.” She’s unusually progressive (unmarried, but not a virgin), a dutiful daughter and respectful, caring leader within her community. She is politically savvy enough to be OK with being elected to lead the union while letting the mill owners and outside world think she is merely a stand-in for her ailing father, the longtime union boss.

The tropes Opponents to Lovers (Mill girl and Factory owner);Terms of Dictatorial Will set up hero’s Mission to Save Estate (must make mill profitable or lose it all); Fate of an Innocent Child at Stake; Pub Brawl requires Hero and Heroine to Fight Thugs Together; Heroine is Unusually Clever and has been raised by Wise Father who Recognizes Her Potential to take over His Life’s Work (leadership of the union).

The Weight of History?   It felt thoroughly fresh to read a period-piece Victorian-set romance about middle class and working class people that doesn’t rely on an upstairs/downstairs contrast with the ornate luxury of the haute bourgeoisie and aristocracy. I found myself rooting for Starlight as an effort to reframe historical romance in terms of ordinary people, ordinary lives, and ordinary jobs.

Both Alex and Polly come across as likable and deserving of each other, and I found their romance emotionally satisfying. They’ve got a lot of physical chemistry and Lofty got good mileage from casting Alex as a strong-shouldered Scotsman who reminded Polly more of the men in her family than of a professor or pampered factory owner. Her plotting and character development also managed to avoid wallowing in childhood trauma/redemption backstories or psychobabble, for which I’m grateful. This narrative choice in particular sets Starlight apart from what Dear Author reviewer Sunita and others have dubbed the “ahistorical historical.”  The class conflicts, financial straits, and labor relations issues that must be resolved in order for the romance to prevail are appropriate to the historical setting and organic to the circumstances. These obstacles make sense in the period setting, grounding the narrative rather than transplanting a modern thicket of angst-y pasts and/or inner demons.

While there were times when the mill setting, along with the chemistry embodied by this couple, caused dreamy North and South film-inspired imagery to mingle here with the particulars of Lofty’s tale, I kept having stray thoughts about the tension between the emotional aspects of the story and the socio-economic circumstances. Would these rank and file union men really defer to Polly’s authority? Even with the cover story that she was representing her ailing father, I felt skeptical about the union election where Lofty set up Polly’s male opponent as a flawed choice, rather than a serious, and in all likelihood successful, challenger.

What about Alex’s class status and worldview? He’s meant to represent the educated upper middle class of owners and investors, but he’s at home in a pub brawl or a bruising soccer match with the workers. And it turns out he eludes an easy label because he’s only a generation removed from the tenements of Calton, as he often reminds Polly. Do I really believe in the upward mobility and fluid identity this character embodies? Or is this “misleading whitewash” about the bitter history of classism in Britain, as Polly Toynbee, writing for the Guardian, recently asked in the context of much-adored Downton Abbey?

Actually, some of Alex’s traits seem deliberately deployed by Lofty in order to give him an ability to blur the line of class distinction between him and Polly. Here, when they’re sharing a bed, she asks him not to shave because she likes how he feels:

He sat up. “I’ll look like just another Scotsman if I keep the stubble. Seems like my father passed on a touch of ginger I hadn’t known was there”   …

“But I like Scotsmen. They look burly and strong, like I’d be protected forever.” She pressed her lips down along his nape. “Isn’t that what you’ve offered me, Alex? What you’ve promised my da?” (p.325)

What’s also interesting is that in spite of her personal ambition, independence, and level of autonomy, it’s clear that Polly not only honors tradition and family in considering the protection of marriage and a man, but that, as an authentically 19th-century character, genuinely desires a husband who makes her feel protected, at least as long as she feels she can love him …. and he respects her choices, of course. That’s always the rub, and one of the things that makes a historical romance succeed or fail for me is whether the hero comes across as plausibly respectful and respecting of women’s rights and personhood, within the context of the time and place in which the story is set. So much of this is as much about the male characters as it is about the female ones.

In spite of the intense financial pressures he’s facing, Alex is remarkably noble; the clear exception as a humane employer in a city where his fellow mill owners are a pack of standard-issue greedy, corrupt, self-interested bad guys. Because how could Polly fall in love with a man who would cut wages or jobs in order to turn a better profit?

Hard Questions  I admire the ways in which Lofty’s story tackles inequality and class along with gender, embodying a valuable, if not 100% successful, intersectional awareness.

Here’s a particularly interesting passage that demonstrates both the virtues, and the occasional missteps in Lofty’s historical contextualizing:

…she smiled at the sounds of her life. Her family. Her safe, familiar place.

Although she loved the security, a small part of her wished for some quiet – a place of her own. Then she imagined how lonely such a life would be. She needed the vigor and purpose and brazen, devil-may-care happiness of her community. She pushed out of her pallet and headed behind the curtain to change into her gown and apron.

After a quick trip to the communal bath…  The family living space was a hazard of rumpled blankets that needed to be layered in the corner. She picked her way over her brothers’ boots. (p.116)

I love the way the details of how a large family lives in a tenement flat are sketched out in a few sentences that suggest intimacy along with inconvenience, lack of privacy, discomfort and hygiene challenges. But I stumbled over the willful characterization of the working class community as happy-go-lucky, hard-working, “secure” poor people. While I applaud the deliberate and unusual (in a romance) strategy of choosing not to make this a grinding poverty, rags-to-riches story, and to show Polly’s home life as stable and happy, if poor, there were times when the vision of tenement life and the the plucky factory workers just felt off. Something about the casual language seems to replicate, rather than interrogate, an Every(wo)man factory worker stereotype, and I’m again reminded of Toynbee’s Downton critique about the happy servants and benevolent masters.

I’m having trouble deciding how much to dwell on the things that bothered me, because I really liked the idea of this romance and this couple, but maybe it’s just too much of a stretch — maybe they just both had to be so exceptional that it doesn’t quite hold together.

Still, exceptionality can make for terrific storytelling.  And here I can insert my customary Outlander reference: the tale of Jamie and Claire is a ripping good yarn and a romance for the ages, but as Abigail Nussbaum so effectively points out in her wonderful essay on the Starz series, it is “…nevertheless the story of a woman who is unique, who wins love and respect by not being like those other girls.”

This is the problem with Alex and Polly — in spite of the careful research and well-crafted historical setting, in order to make the story work they each have to be so unique, so “not like those other girls” (or boys) that it feels almost forced.  Polly is a lot like Nussbaum’s take on Outlander’s Claire:

Her success was achieved not by toppling the system that discriminated against her, but by being the exception to that rule, gaining the admiration of men and the love of one particularly hunky and special one. (Asking the Wrong Questions, October 9, 2014)

Even as I have an id response to charismatic couples and unique heroes and heroines like Polly and Alex, Jamie and Claire — they’re all true badasses in their own way, after all —  I feel tired of the sameness of the pattern. Romance between Two Exceptionals, and exceptionality itself, is more exposed in the context of HistRom than in contemporary romance, for example. Even if at the end of the story the Christie mill tops the list of Victorian Glasgow’s “Best Places to Work” survey, the compromise and change Alex and Polly achieve is still exceptional, because a happy ending with a side helping of systemic change is too tall an order.

Lofty is associated with the Unusual Historicals blog (she founded it, though is no longer an active contributor) and she outlined her strategy for “unusual historicals” in romance during the RT panel discussion. Yes, the genre finds itself forced to grapple with the tension between the historical status of women and contemporary post-feminist ideals of female agency and autonomy. To work within that tension, while preserving historical authenticity, immersing the reader in a place and time and avoiding the refuge of “lite” wallpaper-style fairytales, presents a real challenge. Lofty’s solution is to dig deep into the historical record to find intriguing and unusual circumstances, settings, and stories where an empowered heroine, or a feminist hero, could plausibly be situated. Nussbaum sees parallels with the “special girl” proto-feminist heroines of YA historical fiction my generation grew up reading. It’s a step in the right direction, and can work to make for a good story, but it takes a very nuanced and thoughtful approach to deliver both the charismatic, “special” protagonists while simultaneously interrogating and exploring the systems and conditions above and through which these exceptional people are held up.

So I’m left with a feeling of ambivalence, and I think this is why it’s taken me so long to make this post. It’s always easier to write a rave or a rant, and as with so many historicals I read nowadays, my response is necessarily happening on two levels. If the characters are strong and compelling and the romance sparkles, I find I still prefer historical romance, even when I find myself challenged by ahistorical content or considerations.

Starlight is book two of a series about the Christie siblings. Book one, Flawless, tells the story of Alex’s sister Vivienne, who must earn her inheritance by profitably running a diamond mine in colonial South Africa. Talk about going beyond the ballroom to an unusual historical circumstance ripe with possibility for intersectional exploration. I’ve also heard good things on twitter about her earlier medievals, so I’m looking forward to reading more Lofty.

Books, Blogs, Blackout: a small post for solidarity

Some of the people who find their way here to my intermittent and idiosyncratic romance/book blog will already be all too familiar with the story behind the book review & blogging blackout that has affected much of my online romance reading community this week. My dear friend in bloggery, Miss Bates, posted a succinctly perfect summary, and there are some very good lengthy analyses, both from within the book blogging community, and from broader online commentary and criticism sites.

Late last week a well-connected published YA author wrote, and The Guardian published, a lengthy memoir about her obsession with a negative online review of her book, subsequent research and identification of the psuedonymous reviewer, and her in-person unsolicited interactions with said reviewer. I’m sort of happy to report that until this controversy broke last weekend, I’d never heard of this author, or her apparently well-received debut novel. The bookish corners of the internet and twitter have exploded with the spectacle of an online feud (Salon called it a “battle of the trolls”) between an author and a reader that got taken way way offline into stalker territory.

thou shaltI don’t have much to add to the good summaries I just linked to and it’s a near-meaningless gesture for me to “blackout” Badass Romance for a week. Even at my most prolific, I barely manage a post a week, and lately it’s been barely a post a month. Plus, I don’t actually post very many straightforward book reviews. And here I am finally getting this post up on Friday – ugh, what a week! Still, I want to put this book blog on the record in this matter.

I am speaking up to add my voice in saying that as a lifelong reader (and bigtime consumer of the product that we call fiction), it’s not OK with me when authors seek to control reception and interpretation of their published work. If you’re not up to the challenge of either staying away from or putting up with whatever ideas and responses your published prose generates, then you should keep your prose to yourself and not ask people to pay for it. Even if someone is saying really “mean” things about your book, there’s no insisting that they’re wrong or that they “misread” or “misunderstood” — your prose is out in the world and is subject to review, criticism, and interpretation. I do understand that trolls do exist on the internet, but in terms of reviews that “attack” your book, please remember that once your book is published you are no longer in control of the “meaning” of your words. Every time someone reads them, meaning is created in the interaction between reader and text. Sometimes that interaction, or meaning, will be a compelling or profound insight. Sometimes it’s going to be a DNF. Either way, you get paid to put your words out there, and most online reviewers are there for the love of books and reading. If I want to speak/blog/review on condition of anonymity (or psuedonymity), so be it.

(I’m not going to waste time addressing the Goodreads mess in detail. I have an account but I never really spend time reviewing or discussing there and yes, I do know that some authors feel “bullied” by people who post 1-star reviews when they haven’t read the book. Is there meaning in that? I guess it depends on what else is going on that would cause someone to bother to do that for a particular book or author. I will say that I do believe book reviewing ought to involve a response to the words on the page and not so much engaging in critiques of an author’s persona or behavior, except inasmuch as they are in some ways public figures whose IRL words and actions are sometimes quoted/cited.)

The leap from twitter or Goodreads pushback against negative reviews to offline, IRL stalking of a so-called “bully” blogger (just to be clear, I think this is an appalling misuse of the term “bully”) is in some ways just an extreme (and illegal) extension of the misguided notion that when you put a product in the marketplace it’s somehow OK for you, as the seller of that product, to confront and harass consumers of your product into liking it, using it, and talking about it, only in ways acceptable to you. Were these authors who want to call reviewers and bloggers “bullies” all just overly helicopter-parented and endlessly “good job!!”-ed?? The behavior enshrined in the author’s memoir last week really does speak to me in some way of arrested development, though I hesitate to use such terms since I am so far from an expert in psychology.

The other way to look at the episode, and in particular to look at the case of a serious print and online media outlet that has legitimized the voice of a self-admitted obsessed reader-stalking author and given her a platform for her self-absorbed complaints about the online “bullies” and trolls of Goodreads and other book forums, is to frame it in the concise and terrifically apt words of Danielle Binks, on the writers/writing site Kill Your Darlings, as a case of “privilege feeding narcissim.”  And this is the element which I find so insidious and odious that it’s pushed me to stick my toe in the water of the controversy and join in saying #HaleNo by making this post.

I have other thoughts about author/reader spaces and authorial control of interpretation (yes, Outlander-related, for those who may be reading between these lines…) but will have to save them for another time since starting now, and for about a week (ETA: well, OK, probably longer), I’m not blogging.