A Few Brief Thoughts About Non-Fiction: Armchair BEA Day 4

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Design Credit: Nina of Nina Reads

As discussed yesterday in my post about genre fiction and romance, I mainly read for sheer enjoyment and escape. I’m happiest when a romance novel so thoroughly engages me that I can’t wait to talk about it, and if it provokes or challenges me in some way, so much the better.  So mine is not a pure escapism; I enjoy the fantasy, yes, but I also enjoy critical and/or contextual analysis, and I’m willing to look at problematic aspects of the fantasy/ies I’m reading.

Which brings me to today’s Armchair BEA topic.  Although I’m mostly reading romance, and don’t read much non-fiction anymore, I do still make time for reading history. Really, it goes hand in hand with my love of historical romance, and provides context for looking at challenging themes such as colonialism or other forms of oppression that historical fiction sometimes raises or addresses. I’m going to keep today’s post very simple and just suggest a few works of historical non-fiction that have captured my attention and/or imagination in the last several years.

Badass History Books I’m recommending:

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The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity, by Jill Lepore

Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War, by Nathaniel Philbrick

Liberty Tree: Ordinary People and the American Revolution, by Alfred F. Young

The Wars of the Roses, by Alison Weir – this one I just read last year, in concert with all 5 Song of Ice and Fire books by George R.R. Martin. Epic fun!

3085271Out of bounds for today’s consideration of non-fiction, but very much worth your consideration as a captivating work of historical fiction, with a strong romance at the center — and a lengthy, almost-believable-for-once cross-dressing deception! — is Blindspot, by historians Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore.

One of my favorite things about this book is that it’s an epistolary novel, like Pamela!  And the authors apparently also wrote it in epistolary fashion.  An absorbing, fun read for anyone who enjoys 18th century American/ Revolutionary history and/or romantic historical fiction.

As an aside, I do also occasionally read a non-fiction book about parenting or child development.  I am currently reading the excellent  Teach Your Children Well, by Madeline Levine, about raising resilient kids and avoiding the “extra-curricular credentials” trap.

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Blogging, Romance, Genre, “Art” and Feminism? Armchair BEA Days 2 & 3

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Design Credit: Nina of Nina Reads

I’m still so new at this game, I can’t really say much about how I’ve developed as a blogger.  The blog is still in its infancy, and I find myself every day wishing I had an extra hour or two to spend working on future posts, reading other blogs, and researching best practices.  ArmchairBEA is pushing me to post more this week than I would normally be able to, although this kind of navel-gazing post is not the same as a review post or commentary on a bookish theme.  It’s less than 2 months since I drafted my About Me and Why Badass Romance posts, and then I just spent eleventy-two hours doing the long Liebster post last week, so it’s feeling like ENOUGH about me and not enough about books right now!

For this reason I’m going to segue right to Day 2’s bookish topic, which is genre (what draws you to a genre?), and Day 3’s related focus which is literary (artistic?) fiction.  The literary fiction prompt asks: Which works of art have changed your life?  Be creative and make a list outlining books featuring specific subjects (i.e., animals, recommended prize-winners, outstanding authors, etc.). Hmmm. What is it with this “art” label?? Is genre fiction a lower order of cultural production?

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As a result of the Liebster chain letter last week, I met a fellow blogger who, like me, has an academic background, has read classics, literary theory, and criticism, and now – at mid-life – prefers to read… you guessed it: (badass) romance.  Miss Bates is quite loquacious on this topic! Her new blog is a must-read, if you haven’t already checked it out.

We’ve been chatting back and forth in comments, and it’s helping me re-formulate some of my rather inchoate thoughts about why I don’t like a literary hierarchy that sets genre fiction (romance along with others, like fantasy, science fiction, mystery, etc – not to mention sub-genres) in opposition to literary fiction, thereby declaring that genre fiction is not Art. I realize no one is saying that genre fiction doesn’t have meaning or merit, but let’s face it, there is still a literary hierarchy and the main reason romance gets taken seriously at all may be its badass sales figures. But the main reason I don’t read much “highbrow” fiction anymore is that I started to feel unhappy and uncomfortable with books that felt chore-like — at times opaque, depressing, and/or pretentious. Life is too short to read books that feel like work.  I am not saying, however, that I don’t want to be challenged by what I read — to read books that spark me to think deeply and broadly about my values and assumptions and priorities. I’m just saying that I want to have this experience as a reader with books I actually enjoy reading, and at this point in my life as a reader I’m looking for happy endings.

While I recognize the importance of individual preferences in terms of genre, and the reality that there are going to be groupings of readers who read and blog mainly around literary fiction vs. any particular genre fiction, what’s important to me is enjoying what I read, and applying the same kind of critical thinking and analysis in formulating my response — whether it’s a romance novel or a Booker Prize nominee.  As a serious reader, I don’t want to have to prove I’m serious in spite of reading and reviewing romance.  I was delighted yesterday to read Book Riot’s Stop Apologizing for What You Like to Read, via new Armchair BEA blog friend Cheap Thrills.

But on the other hand, I don’t think the romance reading and blogging community should be without a robust critical discourse, nor should we shy away from thoughtful exchange of ideas about what’s political and or problematic in the books we also enjoy and celebrate. This week Emma Barry has posted a provocative set of questions about politics in romance, and there are some wonderful comments.  Also this week, at Radish Reviews, Natalie’s challenging post about reader shame and extreme romance, along with the incredible discussion it’s generating, has really got me thinking.

Although I’m new to blogging, I’ve been participating in online fan forums about books off and on for almost a decade. I’ve always been somewhat frustrated by the strong negative response from such communities when a critical view of a challenging theme or book is put forth. Frequently, critical discourse is suppressed with “if you don’t really like this, why are you reading it?” Or, “how can you like this and call yourself a thinking person?” Of course I am thinking about polarization around the proliferation of erotic romance and erotica in the wake of 50 Shades. I’m also thinking back to a fan community where a post that critiqued a problematic aspect of a beloved book was frequently perceived as an attack. But this kind of suppression is side-stepping.

Why can’t we trust that we’re mainly going to read what we like and enjoy, and that it’s OK to enjoy reading something and yet still be deeply thoughtful and even troubled by it? And to express these “troubles” in the form of thoughtful interrogation of our own reading, in concert with the cross-blog discourse of reviews and commentary? Is it OK to be a romance blogger and say “negative” things about the genre?  My response is a hearty yes. But are romance readers especially sensitive to criticism of the books we enjoy, because there is always this problematic intersection of gender, identity, feminism, and the masculine hero archetypes which embody patriarchy?

I can’t conclude this post without mentioning the discourse around feminism and romance which was (re)launched with vigor back in March (B.B.R. – Before Badass Romance), by way of an article in the Atlantic, and a series of wonderful author and blogger posts such as this one by Cecilia Grant, from which I will offer a favorite quote:

But “romance that might appeal to feminists” and “romance that actually is feminist” aren’t quite the same thing.

I also found this post at Bad Necklace extremely challenging and provocative, in a good-kind-of-uncomfortable way.

So, badass romance readers – what do you think? Is it possible to enjoy reading a book, and to equally enjoy a respectful critique that challenges our enjoyment? Are we stuck reading romance through the lens of feminism? Are such “-ism” lenses limiting or liberating?

Finally, as an aside, I must add that I am on pins and needles waiting to get my hands on a copy of Cecilia Grant’s forthcoming new release, A Woman Entangled! A Gentleman Undone is among my top 5 favorite books of 2012 (or top 5 reads of 2013 so far.)

Introducing Badass Romance for Armchair BEA

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Design Credit: Nina of Nina Reads

I admit it, I love going to conferences.  I love the chance to get away from home, and laundry, for a few days and hang out with a big group of people who are all pumped up to get motivated and recharged and who share a commitment to a common field of endeavor.  Since my kids arrived on the scene almost exactly a decade ago, I don’t travel for work nearly as much as I used to, but I still make it a point to attend a couple of meetings a year, for the inspiration and connection they yield.

sfly3But as a new blogger with no other connection to “the industry” the idea of attending a literary conference is still just a pipe dream.  Sort of like my daughters’ active fantasy that  when they turn 11 they will receive letters from Professor McGonagle with instructions for Hogwarts matriculation.  Or perhaps just slightly more within the realm of possibility – that I will eventually break down about Disney and take them to Orlando for Harry Potter World.  It could happen, and we really want it to happen, but no one’s holding her breath.  Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure my fantasy book convention trip probably gets more and more wondrous, in my mind, in direct proportion to how much the daily grind of single mom-hood is getting to me in any given week.

But just when I was thinking how I’ll probably never have time to go to a big book convention, due to minor obstacles such as my job and my children, I heard about Armchair BEA — an online version of Book Expo America, which is happening this week in NYC.  For bloggers who don’t attend, Armchair BEA is the next best thing; a way to get connected, without leaving home.

Here are my answers to 5 of the Introduce Yourself post questions:

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself: Who are you? How long have you been blogging? Why did you get into blogging?

I’ve been blogging here @ Badass Romance for about two months. I do feel as though I’ve arrived rather late to blogging and I’ve also been forcing myself up a pretty steep learning curve with tweeting (which is how I heard about Armchair BEA).  I started talking about books online in fan forums  back in 2004-2005 when my daughters were babies and I was pretty much trapped at home all the time.  I didn’t have time or energy to be in a real life book group, but found a wonderful community of readers to engage with online. Now the girls are about to turn 10, they’re more independent, and I have some scraps of time back.  I have been kicking around the blog idea with my friends (both IRL and online) for about a year, and finally decided to jump in with it. We’ll see how it goes — so far, it’s been a lot of fun. The only downside is that the more time I spend reading posts, tweeting, and talking with other book bloggers and authors, the faster the TBR stack grows. I’m starting to accept that it will always be full, and full of promise.

2. Where in the world are you blogging from? Tell a random fact or something special about your current location. Feel free to share pictures.

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in Lexington, 2012 @ Badass Romance

I’m in New England, near Boston. Revolutionary history is one of my other passions.  We love celebrating Patriots Day by attending re-enactments in Lexington and Concord. As a romance reader, for me the ultimate in perfection is a 5-star historical set in 18th-century America.

3. Have you previously participated in Armchair BEA? What brought you back for another year? If you have not previously participated, what drew you to the event?

I never heard of Armchair BEA until this week.  After the blog had been up for several weeks, I joined Twitter right around the time of the big Romance Times conference (RT13) in Kansas City, and spent a week watching the tweets and realizing how much I’d love to attend a book convention.

4. Which is your favorite post that you have written that you want everyone to read?

I jumped in to the recent spate of interest in the fate of historical romance and met some amazing reviewers and bloggers via my newbie post: Historical Romance: Lament, or Let it Die?  It’s by no means the most eloquent or my last word on this topic, but it was fun and I loved all the wonderful comments.

5. What are you currently reading, or what is your favorite book you have read so far in 2013?

I’m currently reading several books, as usual. Just finished Untamed, by Anna Cowan, and I’m working on my review post (so excited about this one — it’s really different!). I’m also reading Silent in the Sanctuary, by Deanna Raybourn, and Teach Your Children Well, by Madeline Levine.