Monday Stepback: Even More Random Than Usual

The occasional links and opinion post, on the week that just was…

Links of Interest

In Slate, The Purpose of Science Fiction:

That said, our job is not to predict the future. Rather, it’s to suggest all the possible futures—so that society can make informed decisions about where we want to go. George Orwell’s science-fiction classic Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t a failure because the future it predicted failed to come to pass. Rather, it was a resounding success because it helped us prevent that future.

A response from The New Yorker’s Book Bench (Via @Book Bench)

Sawyer writes that it “raises profound questions about who should have the right to create living things and what responsibility the creators should have to their creations and to society.” This seems like a good prescription for writers of any sort, who are creators of “living” literature. Is Gary Shteyngart’s novel “Super Sad True Love Story” sci-fi or literary fiction? Who cares? In a reality increasingly permeated with science, as the lines between reality and manufactured reality, science and art, creator and created fade, it follows that genre lines should, too.

While I agree, I can’t help but find it interesting how literary types refuse to allow genre distinctions when they place anything good on the genre-only side of the divide.

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Robin @Tuphlos Bradford posting at Lauren Dane’s blog about libraries(via @Mike Cane):

The book culture is about sharing. The book culture is about falling in (and sometimes out of) love with books. Readers talk, extensively, about breaking up with series and authors. There is a stop, though, between “I love this series” and “I’m done with this series” and that stop is: the library. Long running series would be a lot shorter without the library. When readers are tired of reading the same book June after June, they stop buying. New authors have come along they would rather spend their money on. But if the library has the book, they may make an effort to keep up if they still have some interest left in the tank. Maybe the last two books were horrible, but this one looks promising, so they’ll check it out from the library. If it works, interest may be re-ignited. If it doesn’t work, the breakup may be final. But do you really think people will keep buying books they have no interest in reading? Really?

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I really enjoyed this Totally Hip Book Reviewer vid from WaPo book critic Ron Charles. My favorite bit is when Charles says: “Oh, I’ve just been handed a note by the 92nd Street Y asking me to speed things up” while a “Refunds available in the lobby” shows on screen. (via @mathitak)

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In the NYTRB, philosopher Ronald Dworkin’s essay on What is a Good Life? I thought readers of this blog might appreciate this bit:

If we want to make sense of a life having meaning, we must take up the Romantics’ analogy. We find it natural to say that an artist gives meaning to his raw materials and that a pianist gives fresh meaning to what he plays. We can think of living well as giving meaning—ethical meaning, if we want a name—to a life. That is the only kind of meaning in life that can stand up to the fact and fear of death. Does all that strike you as silly? Just sentimental? When you do something smaller well—play a tune or a part or a hand, throw a curve or a compliment, make a chair or a sonnet or love—your satisfaction is complete in itself. Those are achievements within life. Why can’t a life also be an achievement complete in itself, with its own value in the art in living it displays.

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Interesting: Author Pseudonyms: Helpful or Harmful, with lots of examples, at Don’t Talk Just Read.

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Read a Book for Ten Minutes Each Night and Save Publishing? Author Sean Cummings thinks so. So does my son’s third grade teacher.

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From the Online Education Database, the 50 Best Blogs for Humanities Scholars. Devoid of  the good feminist blogs, like Feministing or Feminist Philosophers, devoid of the good blogs devoted to race issues, like Racialicious, and a very heavy focus on blogs attached to print journalism. *sigh* (via Books Inq.)

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An amusing critique of the concept of author branding. What Color is Your Font, by Steve Weddle. Good discussion in the comments, too:

Think about what makes you buy a book. It’s the postcards, right? The bookmarks left behind at the signings? You know, that’s how most of the books on my shelves were bought. I saw a catchy postcard near the register at the bookstore and said, “Damn. Look at that postcard. That’s the same font I saw on a bookmark last week. That author must tell a damn good story.”

*****

Don’t ever interrupt me when I’m readin’ a book…

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A different look at piracy from an author in the Phillipines. (via @cjewel):

The problem with discussions of eBook piracy, or simply giving away your work for free, is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally. If you’re popular like J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, then it’s mostly a loss to you, since you’re not really after fame but income (to say nothing of the futility of stamping out each and every pirate). To obscure writers, like say a genre writer in the Philippines, it’s probably more of a gain, since we’re not popular enough in the first place to acquire a sufficient following to earn a significant amount from our writing. My friend Lavie Tidhar laments that his books aren’t being pirated and to a certain extent, piracy is a popularity metric; if no one is pirating you, then there’s little demand for your writing.

*****

A helpful video … How to Strip DRM from Your Kindle books (via @janel)

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A fun contest (closes some time on Tuesday I think) from Smart Bitches celebrating 6 years of blogging. Sarah Wendell asked entrants to post their 6 favorite things about romance. Over 300 entries provide an interesting — and fairly consistent — list of top attractions, especially “escape”, “HEA”, and “the men”. Wendell may or may not have promised to devise a contest post mortem pie chart.

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From Tricia of Literary Sluts, You’re Not a Traditionalist, You’re A Snob.

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Someone started a rumor that Ellora’s Cave doesn’t publish forced seduction stories and Kelli Collins sets them straight.

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Two authors make the case against writing reviews: Stacia Kane, demonstrating the fine art of digging a hole, here, here, here, and finally here. Also Jeanine Frost.

*****

I noticed a romance website that was formerly flash free has succumbed to the allure of the flash ad. Finding these ads a huge distraction from content, I decided to reintroduce Flash block. I soon became greedy and upgraded to Adblock Plus. Bliss!

*****

Personal

I spent the entire Sunday in bed, at first thinking I was hung over from my late night at the EURO LOUNGE (cue disco music and very bad martinis), and then, by 10:00am, realizing I was just sick. I read Michelle Reid’s The Italian’s Future Bride, at Tumperkin’s suggestion, which I found depressing, and we plan a post on it soon. I also hope to publish that post on Lover Awakened.

I also watched a few episodes of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. I can’t remember the last time the sheer power of good looking men kept me glued to the screen. But it sure happened yesterday:

Now that I am recovered, I am back to PBS of course.

HAPPY WEEK!

Should You Go To a Book Signing When You Didn't Like the Book?

I discovered recently that Janet Chapman, who has published at least 15 stand alone romance titles since 2004, lives very near me, and that she is having a book signing for Dragon Warrior, Book 2 of her Midnight Bay Series, tomorrow at my local Borders. Thrilled by the idea of meeting a New York Times bestselling author in my favorite genre, I decided to purchase a Kindle edition of the book and read it in preparation for attending the book signing.

Dragon Warrior blends two subgenres that have never much appealed me — time travel and Highlander romance –but I figured I would give it a try. Dragon Warrior is set in central Maine, and tells the story of Maddy Kimble, a single mom who works as a nurse in a nursing home, and William Killkenny, a 1,200-year-old former dragon whose humanity was restored in the first book in this series, Moonlight Warrior. Maddy’s immature ex husband is useless, and, since her father died, she has raised her younger brother, who is now 20. She also takes care of her mom, putting her own needs on the back burner.

William is bold, brash, demanding, protective, hardheaded, etc. — all the usual things you expect when a hero is referred to frequently as a “warrior.” He has to learn the ways of the modern woman in order to break through Maddy’s defenses.

Unfortunately, I could only make it halfway through Dragon Warrior before I had to put it down for good. I’ll try to explain why:

1. William is pretty much perfect, on a certain definition of what makes a hero perfect. I find heroes like that less interesting, because they seem less real.

2. I had a hard time reconciling the “Mayberry” feel of the book with the occasional vulgarity. So, for example, you have a conversation between Maddy and her best friend Eve like this:

“Omigod,” Eve said, covering her mouth again. “So you are going to wear your short shorts tonight!”

“No, I’m going to dress like a schoolteacher,” she said, poking fun at her friend.

Maddy says things like, “It’s all a bunch of malarkey”, and Eve thinks things like “What good was knowing about magic if she couldn’t share it with her very best friend?

But then, you have Maddy saying things — in the middle of a casual public conversation —  like this: “I swear I could come just watching those powerful hands roam all over me.”

The book had such an old fashioned feel, I actually thought it was set in the 1930s at first (a senior citizen says, “What in tarnation are kayakers?”), but then it has Maddy thinking and saying things that are very modern. It just didn’t gel well for me.

3. Like a similar book I didn’t like, Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux, there is very little worldbuilding. To be fair, part of this is due to the book being #2 in a series. William being a 9th century Irish nobleman* is almost an afterthought, and you wouldn’t know he wasn’t American if he didn’t say “ye” instead of “you” and “lass” instead of “woman”. But it bugged me that he was able to purchase and program a cell phone for Maddy without batting an eye. The only time William had trouble fitting in was when the plot required it, as when they are trying to escape predators and he can’t manage to drive a truck.

Reminders of William’s foreignness came at odd times. For example, at one point, William thinks:

Why in hell did everything have to be so bloody difficult in this century? For chrissakes, all he wanted to do was bury himself in Madeline’s softness.

*I don’t know what that means, either. Tribal chief?

4. The main reason I put the book down was the strong emphasis on William as protector and Maddy as needing protection. Maddy is always referred to by William as “maddening miss Maddy” or “lass”. She’s the classic feisty heroine, the kind where the line between brave and stupid is vanishingly small, as when she decides to drink 5 Long Island Iced Teas and impale herself on the hero’s ahem… sword …  without first removing her underwear, or carries a loaded gun around, despite having a young child in the house (Maine laws require the ammo and guns be kept separate, by the way, but a parent shouldn’t need a law to tell her that). Attempting to control Maddy is compared by William to “herding chickens” (herding chickens?),  “handling a prickly little hedgehog”, or cornering “a smart little hedgehog”  … all manner of dumb frightened animals.

The final straw is when Maddy asks William point blank to tell her the truth about his origins, and he tells her to wait “until she was ready.” — something it is clearly up it him to decide. He then proceeds, in the next scene, to tell Maddy’s cousin Trace (the hero of the next book) — whom he barely knows — the whole story.

I know so many romance readers just love this dynamic, the “too independent” woman who is in fact screwing it all up and just needs a strong man who can protect her and carry her burden, but it is just not for me. From my perspective, Maddy is living a pretty normal life for today’s American woman — stressful, uncertain, yes, but she’s not in the middle of a war or on the verge of starvation. If anyone needs to be helped and taught and protected, wouldn’t you think it’s the 9th century guy who just showed up naked and clueless in 21st century central Maine after having been a dragon for a gazillion years, who needs to fit in without revealing his true identity?

All of this said, it’s clear to me, despite the book not working for me, that Janet Chapman has a lot of fans. Here is what PW says about Dragon Warrior:

Chapman infuses her story with great humor, and subplots involving Maddy’s relatives and a dying patient provide necessary depth.

If you look at her books on Goodreads, you can see each one has between 250-400 ratings, all quite high (3.5 stars and higher). And yet, it is hard for me to find any recent reviews of her books in the online community. This has been a bit of a reminder how much of a disconnect there can be between the online scene and the millions of romance readers who actually turn a book into a bestseller.

Now I am wondering if I will attend that signing after all…

Help! How do you get out of a blogging slump?

Help! How do you get out of a blogging slump?

Real life is going great, but I am having a hard time getting back into the swing of blogging.

I’ve been reading, but the energy to write a review? Not there. And who needs a another review of a book a zillion people have already reviewed anyway?

There’s that post I’ve been writing: “Why Zadist is the heroine of Lover Awakened”.  But I can’t seem to finish it, and who cares about a book people read years ago anyway?

I could do a “this and that” post, a kind which seem REALLY popular this month (and which I enjoy reading). But I get tired just thinking about it.

There are links. I’ve been reading blog posts. Other people are writing GREAT blog posts. But the energy to link to them is gone.

I just feel really estranged from the whole enterprise. Like … sort of mystified as to how I could have written so many posts, and that I couldn’t write a blog post worth reading if I tried.

I know it doesn’t matter because this is just a hobby. And it doesn’t, in the scheme of things. But I am slightly worried that if I don’t force myself to write something soon, the thought of returning to this blog, like the thought of returning to the gym after a long hiatus, will never appeal again. Hence this uninspiring post.

It’s a bit of a struggle to hit “Publish” on this, actually, for obvious reasons.

But maybe posting this but of fluff will be like a baby step to a better post?

So, here’s a question: what do you do when your get up and go has got up and went? Any advice?

Top 10 Signs You Are Reading Too Much Paranormal Romance

Many moons ago, I wrote one of these for Historical Romance, and then one for Scottish Romance. I thought it might be fun to do another:

1. You hear that zombies are the new heroes, and, instead of “Ewwww. Smelly, rotting flesh,” your first reaction is, “As long as EVERY body part doesn’t fall off, I’m good.”

2. You have stopped wondering where the clothes go when shapeshifters shift.

3. You refer to living human beings as “breathers”.

4. You have suggested to your pastor that demons are not evil, just conflicted and misunderstood.

5. You may have read How to Date A Vampire, The Vampire is Just Not That Into You, and/or Vampire Seduction Handbook, but only for “research” purposes.

6. You think that the presence of penis barbs indicates thorough worldbuilding.

7. Naturally, you have read the Twilight Saga. You had to, for basic subgenre literacy. But you are so beyond the whole “Team Edward/ Team Jacob” thing.

7.5 Team Jacob.

8. In the name of multicultural tolerance, you have decided to “keep an open mind” on the subject of unicorn, gargoyle and dinosaur heroes.

9. You asked for a tramp stamp for your birthday. To go with your cute dagger.

10. When you consider global warming, you fear mainly for the mermen.

Monday Morning Stepback: Better Late than Never edition

The Weekly Links, Opinion and Personal Updates Post

Links of Interest

The funniest post I read last week: Tess Lynch on The World’s Worst Mommy Bloggers:

June 22, 2010

I love to look at Little Harrison while he’s sleeping. I just think…he’s so small, so perfect, and so innocent. His little tiny fingers swatting at his eyebrow tape, little precious digits smearing the mustache we drew on his upper lip, tiny lipsticked mouth making all sorts of different expressions like the most miniscule drag queen.

I really do not like mommy blogs, but I don’t want to get in a fight with anyone over it so I will stop there.

*****

This was the second funniest post I read last week: The Horrors of a 12-Day Internet Detox:

At breakfast one morning, I attempted to key in the status update: What have I done?!?! But when I looked down at my hands I was squeezing scrambled eggs between my fingers. My wife looked concerned. I laughed nervously, licking the eggs from my palm. “Everything will be fine,” I told her. “Why wouldn’t it?” she said, now scared.

*****

Nathan Bransford has advice on how to make good blog comments. Hmmm.

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Laura Vivanco profiles the new Mills & Boon Line, Riva, which does not sound enticing. A couple of authors show up in the comments to defend the line.

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An interview with Eloisa James at The Browser. I don’t think feminism means what she thinks it means, though:

They’re all pretty feminist – even historical heroines (who couldn’t hold a job) are forthright, strong women.

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At Get Yer Bodices Ripped Here, a fun post on Jan Cox Speas’ covers featuring the lovely artwork of Tom Hall.

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According to a study reported in the Daily Mail, you are more likely to remember your first kiss than losing your virginity. The best thing is actually this comment from a reader:

I can remember my first kiss, i can’t remember much of losing my virginity. But then i was sober when i had my first kiss. That claim cannot be said about my loss of virginity. I only remember saying ‘that’s a funny face’ at one point and being sternly glared at. I like to think i’ve improved since then.

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At Access Romance Readers Gab, Robin expressed skepticism about a $49 reader event with Susan Elizabeth Phillips in Selling the author: How Much is Too Much?. AAR has an interview and giveaway with SEP (contest ends Thursday).

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Robert McCrum in the Guardian books blog asks Do Creative Writing Courses Make Writing Too Literary?

Going in the other direction, Fiction Bitch has a series of posts from the Faber Academy folks, one of whom actually addresses the concern that these kinds of creative writing programs are taking people’s money for no very good reason at a time when the opportunities to make a living from writing are shrinking.

*****

A really good roundup of quotes, links and trackbacks on the Huckleberry Finn controversy at Racialicious.

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If you are interested in social justice issues, there is a new blog to read, Inequalities. Here’s good post on Michael Vick and the Politics of Second Chances.

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At Digiphile, Blogging Isn’t Dead, Influence Contests Should Be, and Hyperlinks Rule. (via @jafurtado).

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Downton Abbey

I watched Episode 1 (of 4) of Downton Abbey with my mom last night. We both really enjoyed it. If you missed it, you can click here to watch it online.

Here is a recap and review at Austenprose.

Check out this great Meet the Characters post at the descriptively named The Enchanted Serenity of Period Films.

Jane Austen’s World noticed several of the costumes for Downton Abbey were recycled from other period productions. Scroll down for links to individual posts on the “upstairs” Crawleys and the “downstairs” servants.

Personal

Classes start this week. I am teaching Ethics and the philosophy senior seminar, on Narrative Medicine. Looking forward to both of them. Blogging will return to its usual 3 or so times a week.

I am taking a break from Crusie, but will get back to her single titles later this month. I think it is time we figure out once and for all whether Bet Me or Welcome to Temptation is her best book, so I plan to host my first official Bookdown (I’m half joking there). I hope to review The Hunger Games . I have also been rereading J.R. Ward’s Lover Awakened. No review planned, but it has prompted me to draft a post, Top Ten Signs You are Reading Too Much Paranormal Romance.

I dropped my nearly two year old Kindle 2 at the gym, it broke, and Amazon is sending me a new K2 free of charge. Speaking of the gym, I started to worry that my trainer — who coaches a power lifting team — is trying to make me look like Starla from Napoleon Dynamite:

So I asked for a new program, and she put me on this “100 rep” thing, which I started today. Suffice to say, my fingertips hurt as I type this.

HAPPY WEEK!

Grouchy Review-ette: Trust Me On This, by Jennifer Crusie

Trust Me On This ((Bantam Loveswept #843) is the last of the Jennifer Crusie category romances, published first in 1997, and reissued in 2010. Click here for excerpt and buying info. Unlike virtually all of Crusie’s other categories, TMOT was not nominated for any awards. And I can see why. A brief review follows the cover images.

Original cover

2010 Reissue: there are no dogs in the book

Description: Dennie Banks is an investigative reporter chasing down the biggest story of her career. Alec Prentice is a government agent working undercover to catch an elusive grifter. When they meet by accident, it’s a case of mistaken identities at first sight. What they don’t mistake is the instant attraction they have for each other, an attraction they’ll do everything in their power to resist—because Dennie thinks that Alec is running interference for her interview subject, and Alec suspects that Dennie is linked to his swindler. As the confusion grows, so do their feelings for each other, and what begins as a romantic comedy of errors may just end in the love affair of a lifetime.

My reading of TMOT definitely suffered from being stretched over several days while I had a rough week, and from being my 7th Crusie category read in a row. But I still think it is the second worst, after Strange Bedpersons. The plot is not just implausible: it is insulting. We are supposed to believe that a fraud investigator tracks down a criminal in Ohio at a literature conference on the basis of the argument that “well, Ohio is the only state he hasn’t yet committed fraud in.” There was very little detecting, and a tissue thin plot involving a con artist.

The reader is asked to believe a reporter getting a story on a literature professor’s divorce will make her journalism career (naturally, it does). The heroine tracks this poor woman who has been jilted by her husband to an MLA type conference, harasses her, and when she can’t get her “big interview”, forges fake relationships with her close associates to rat her out, then calls her a coward and a fraud for refusing to bare her soul to some no name journalist, and the reader is supposed to cheer for her.

I have nothing to say about the FBI hero because … I can’t remember anything despite finishing the book two hours ago.

The development of their relationship is way more telling than showing. One thing that I have to bracket when reading virtually all Crusie romances is how unrealistic it is that two complete strangers would start bantering with each other, with a high enough level of comfort to know when the other person will realize they are kidding, serious, etc. It really bothered me in this one. The h/h declare their love after 72 hours together, despite spending 90% of their time under false identities. I felt there was not enough serious, honest interaction to provoke an HEA, not to mention for a second romance that was squeezed in.

I felt that other Crusie categories, which reached the “I love you sex scene” about 75-85% in, presented some left field conflicts to justify the last couple of chapters. But I longed for even the most manufactured conflict after reading TMOT, in which the heroine just leaves, ostensibly to strike out on her own, and, just as inexplicably, shows up again.

Yes, there were the one liners, but to me they felt very forced, and therefore not very funny.

Can you tell this did not work for me at all? Still, in my defense, I weighted the fact that it’s a Crusie and gave it three stars on Goodreads.

But I am in the minority on this one. It worked for a lot of others, so you should read these more balanced reviews before deciding whether to pick it up:

Keishon’s review at Avidbookreader

Book Books Everywhere

The Romance Reader (4 hearts)

Goodreads, average 3.41 stars

Review (and discussion): The Cinderella Deal, by Jennifer Crusie

The Cinderella Deal was published in 1997, a Loveswept by Bantam (#807). It was a 1997 Rita Finalist for Best Short Contemporary Romance Novel and a 1997 Holt Medallion Finalist for Best Short Contemporary Romance Novel. It was reissued by Bantam in 2010. Click here for excerpt and buying info.

Original cover. Perfect!

The reissue. When Crusie covers go cutesy...

Not sure of origin of this cover. But it sux.

This book was a real surprise to me. It is Crusie’s second to last category romance, her 8th, if you count Sizzle, although in her author’s note, she says she wrote it third, after Sizzle and Manhunting. Although the setup is classic Crusie, it has a very different tone from all of the previous ones, much more serious and emotional. The book begins with our hero and heroine living in the same apartment building. Lincoln Blaise teaches at City U, but he yearns for better students and a lighter teaching load (don’t we all!!), so he applies for a job at a prestigious small liberal arts college where, implausibly, the job is his if only he can present a picture of domestic bliss. In desperation, he asks his neighbor, Daisy Flattery, to come with him to the final interview, posing as his fiancee. He figures he’ll just say they ended it after he gets the job.

Daisy the free spirit and Linc the ambitious academic are not an obvious match.  She’s a down on her luck artist and “storyteller” who channels Stevie Nicks, fashion wise. The sign on her door reads, “Stories Told, Ideas Illuminated. Unreal but not Untrue.”  Her rock and roller boyfriend moved out a few months ago, and she has sworn off men. Linc has no romantic ambitions whatsoever, and plans “never to live with a woman.” Unlike the Crusie heroes of the previous 6 categories, this is not because he is immature or a typical guy, but something more serious. Thanks in part to his own upbringing, he is extremely closed off emotionally, only allowing himself to feel strongly about his career.

Linc describes Daisy as a “nutcake”, and “Little House on the Prairie on acid”.  Daisy describes Linc as a “big dark haired guy in a suit. No sense of humor. Flares his nostrils a lot.” Linc “liked calm and control and quiet” while Daisy thinks “Color and contrast. … Clash. That is what life is all about.”

Daisy agrees to pose as Linc’s fiancee for the interview, for $1000 which she desperately needs. The parallel between Daisy and Cinderella is presented as obvious to the protagonists themselves, with Daisy saying:

“So you pick me up out of the gutter, and I get a new dress, and I pretend to be something I’m not, and then at midnight I run away and turn back into a pumpkin.” Her grin widened. “It’s a Cinderella story.”

“I guess so.” Whimsy was not Linc’s strong suit.

“And you get the job of your dreams and the time to finish your book.” She tilted her head. “I like this story. Everybody wins.”

But Daisy is under no illusions: “this may be a Cinderella deal,” Daisy told the cats, “but trust me, he’s no prince.”

There’s little witty banter, and the dislike between Daisy and Linc is a little less fun and more mean spirited at first than the other Crusie categories. And when Linc gets the job, and Daisy doesn’t see him for months, I could almost believe the book would end that way. But — in a plot advancement that turns the initial implausibility into sheer fairy tale — Linc has to actually get Daisy back and marry her to get a promotion.

Why would Daisy agree to this? Well, she had become attracted to the Cinderella story: having a lovely home, financial security, a man to care for, feeling connected and settled. Linc and Daisy are both presented as being in a rut. Each needs the other to bring them out of it. Linc needs the color and chaos, and Daisy needs a bit more control. Luckily Crusie has planted the seeds, in their growing attraction and glimmers of appreciation for each other, even after just a few days. Linc thinks, “She was sloppy and round and uncontrolled, and she brought warmth and chaos into his life, and he was having a hard time forgetting her.” And Daisy thinks, “I felt safe.”

The book actually gets a little heavy. It’s pretty depressing to watch Daisy build a life in Linc’s house, separate from him. Linc is just so cut off from human connection he doesn’t even realize Daisy has established relationships with all of their neighbors, as well as his own students and colleagues. Worse, Daisy “embarrasses” Linc all the time. Although he chases that thought with “Maybe that said a lot more about him than it did her”, it is still hard to read the hero feeling that way about the heroine so far into the book.

Daisy is getting what she wants out of the deal — she has the freedom to paint without financial worry —  but she feels she can’t really be herself with Linc, that she must always repress something, and not just her attraction to him.  Daisy thinks, “You have more right now than most women have ever dreamed of … don’t get greedy.” Crusie walks a very fine line between Linc’s control of Daisy and Daisy’s self control, and indeed, comes close in this book to telling the stereotypical romance story of the emotional, passive feminine woman who needs a rational, strong masculine man to correct her excesses. And it’s equally depressing to see Linc missing out on a complete life. He can only allow himself to enjoy Daisy’s warmth from a distance.

When they eventually give in to their attraction, almost near the end of the book, it’s a much more emotional scene than any of Crusie’s published books to that point. It’s not just sex, or even just the expression of love. It represents a crucial moment for Linc’s character, a moment when he gives himself permission to lose control and show Daisy everything he has been feeling for her. In the interest of full disclosure … I cried when I read it.

Here is what Crusie has to say in her reissue note:

I wrote The Cinderella Deal a long, long time ago, but it’s still one of my favorites because it was so hard to write and I learned so much writing it. I’d written six romantic comedies before this one and in all the commentary on them, there was one recurring theme: my stories were a little . . . cold. More comedy than romance; no heart, no soul. That was a fair assessment; if there was one thing I’d learned in my creative writing classes it was to avoid melodrama, to never be sentimental, to go for irony and detachment whenever possible because otherwise I’d get killed in the critiques. But I think I knew all along I was wimping out, that if I’d had any backbone, I’d have gone first for the hearts and not the brains of my readers, so I decided that for my first book for Bantam, I’d try something new, something different. Hearts would be touched, tears would be shed. By God, I was going to be emotional.

As a romance reader, I would rate The Cinderella Deal pretty highly, even though it is not the romp Crusie is known for. But as an academic, this is the top Crusie category on my list. I think she is doing so many interesting things here with the Cinderella story, the genre, and the idea of story and indeed art itself. I didn’t spend any time on this, but a pervasive theme is the way Daisy looks at the world in terms of story. Sometimes the story veers closer to the truth, sometimes further away, but it is all a matter of degree. The relationship between truth and reality is complicated by the recognition of the role of narrative in creating both.

In terms of genre, in the consummation scene, Crusie inverts the meaning of “bodice ripping”, as the heroine demands that the hero do it, in order to satisfy her sexual desire. Daisy is wearing one of her costumy dresses, a green velvet thing:

She twisted against him, needing to be naked against him. “Rip it,” she told him through her teeth. “Rip it off.” He slid his fingers into the neck of her dress, and she felt his fist against her breasts, felt his fingers slide into her cleavage, and she shuddered with bone-deep pleasure. then he yanked hard on the old velvet and it split all the way down to her thighs, and the rush of cool air on her naked body was wonderful.

In “This is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella: The Romance Novel as Feminist Fairy Tale”*, Crusie argues that “there is something in the fairy tale that resonates in the romance even though the tales must be extensively revised to satisfy their female audience” (51). What is that something?

Crusie explains that fairy tale heroines lack both status and love. But the lack is always overcome, usually by magic, and she rises in status as she secures a marriage that provides both security and love forever after. although the HEA is an obvious similarity, Crusie thinks that the “deep structure” which fairy tales and romances have in common is this:

the fairy tale assures the reader that warmth and love are the rewards that a good woman gets naturally. She does not have to earn the reward; in fact, she can sit in the ashes and still get her prince. (55)

Here is how it works in romance:

The romance heroine pursues a worthy goal and achieves it on her own while the romance plot runs in tandem with her quest; therefore, the romance is something the heroine achieves inadvertently while working to win her external goal. She doesn’t have to earn her hero’s love; she gets it as a freebie, unconditionally, because she is intrinsically worthy of being loved, and her worth is demonstrated to the reader by the way she conducts her quest. Her hero doesn’t love her because she wins; he loves her because of the person she is.

This is what makes the fairy tale Cinderella, and the heroine of The Cinderella Deal “sisters under the skin.”

And it is why, according to Crusie, romance heroes can’t be fatally flawed”: they must, as in the traditional fairy tale structure, be able to offer something that raises the heroine’s status. What Linc offers Daisy in terms of status — marriage, home, financial security — is obvious.

Crusie writes:

The generic fairy tale theme is embedded so strongly in the structure and motif of the genre … [it is:] society is emotionally just and good, and therefore a woman will be rewarded with unconditional love is she remains true to herself (and her culture’s concept of a heroine).

Crusie uses the example of rape in the genre to defend this point. Rapes became less common in the genre from the 1970s to the 1990s because society became less tolerant of rape, in particular less tolerant of rape within relationships, or between known parties. Yet, in both a “rape romance” of the 1970s, and a romance of the 1990s, you had the same underlying structure: the heroine’s goodness will win her everything (56).

Making the connection between Crusie’s essay and The Cinderella Deal explicit, Crusie quotes Luthi (Luthi, Max. Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales. New York: Indiana UP, 1970.):

“Fairy tales are unreal, but they are not untrue: they reflect the essential development and conditions of man’s existence.”

Crusie notes that many women are both attracted to and repelled by traditional fairy tales. In particular, they reject that the female protagonist’s situation is resolved by magic or a handsome prince: something outside their own agency. While they can’t change the fundamental structure of the fairy tale on which their genre is based, romance writers can “revise it”. They revise “the detail without altering the central truth of emotional justice, thereby coupling the resonance of the story with the satisfaction of getting it right this time.” (57) In particular,

while there is always a prince, and the heroine always wins his devotion. … the romance delivers more, promising the modern reader that she will win love only if she remains true to herself — active and passionate.

This post is already way too long, so I won’t say too much more. But I want to point out a tension within Crusie’s argument. On the one hand, emotional justice sounds like an objective moral concept, whether that objectivity comes from society or the stars or God. On the other, “being true to yourself” may or may not be a moral concept, depending on what that self is. And whatever it is, “being true to yourself” is pretty subjective. So there are two claims here, one that the heroine must be “good” in an objective sense (and again, “objective” could mean society based), and the other that she need only be “active and true to herself”, which, unless we want to assume all women are essentially good, is compatible with all kinds of bad. I think if we want to understand Crusie’s point we need to cash out “emotional justice” and that’s what I plan to try to do for this project.

*Crusie Smith, Jennifer, “This is Not Your Mother’s Cinderella”, in Romantic Conventions, edited by Anne K. Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek, Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999.

Reading Fun Fiction when You're Grieving, Sad or Depressed

You might have noticed that my blogging has ground to a halt this week. There’s a pretty specific reason for that: I’m a Hospice volunteer, and my “patient”, whom I have been visiting since June, died yesterday. People often ask me: “How can you do that? I could never do that!”, and I try to tell them how much friendship, pleasure, laughter, joy and love is present in my Hospice relationships, not just with patients but with the rest of the team and other volunteers. And that is true.

However, there is one period in the Hospice cycle when I really feel the force of that question, and it is when the patient is actively dying and dies. As an advocate of the Hospice philosophy, I know death brings with it release from suffering, physical, mental and existential. Moreover, most of the families I work with are Christian, and for them, death means that their loved one has gone to God, which is a more than a relief or release: it is the highest blessing.

But there is no getting around the fact of loss. Of course, I experience the loss of a friend. But that is nothing compared to others’ losses. Bearing witness to the grief of family and friends is hands down the hardest part of being a Hospice volunteer, especially in cases, as this one, when a disease like cancer takes someone much too young. When you look around a crowded room, as the death vigil is underway, and see a spouse who will be made a widow, a newly married son whose future children will never know their grandfather, a mother who never wanted to outlive her own children… that is tough, tough, tough.

So, it’s been hard to read Jenny Crusie this week, and hard to read anything actually. If you’ve experienced loss, you know that you go from feeling totally ok one minute to crying the next. For me, I wonder if the feeling that I just can’t commit to a book is part of the anxiety of seeing what mortality means up close. Then there’s the obvious emotional exhaustion. It is times like these when I appreciate having 150 channels to passively flip through, no commitment, no mental effort.

This kind of experience reminds me that we read, even within one genre, for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes to escape, but sometimes to feel more intensely our own “negative” or scary feelings. It also reminds me that there are many diverse choices within one genre. Finishing Jennie Crusie’s “screwball comedy” Trust Me On This has not been possible this week. But I was able to pick up J. R. Ward’s Lover Awakened and read the first two bleak, violent chapters to fall asleep last night. I may be having a sad time this week, but at least I am not being held captive in a corrugated metal pipe by a deranged lunatic who bathes me obsessively and calls me “wife”!

One last thing: I had lunch this week with a friend, a retired English professor. In an odd bit of timing, we’re working on a presentation for next week on death and dying. She shared with me a few poems about death. I thought I would share one of them — which I had never read before — with you:

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering;
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement,
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument

Mary Oliver

Review and CONTEST: Anyone But You, by Jennifer Crusie

Anyone But You (click here for excerpt and buying info) is Crusie’s 5th book. It represents a shift for her from the Temptation line to the (short lived?) Love and Laughter Line.

I loved this book so much that I want to give a copy away. Alas, it is out of print (hey, TPTB: Can we get a reissue? Please?!) so the winner has a choice of (a) a digital version, or (a) a used version. Leave a comment by midnight EST on Thursday to enter.

1996 MIRA reissue

Anyone But You was was a Library Journal Best Book of 1996, RRA-L List Best Series Novel of 1996 and Best Romantic Comedy of 1996, an Under The Covers 1996 Readers’ Favorite Award for Best Series Romance, and a 1997 Holt Medallion Finalist for Best Short Contemporary Romance Novel. I’m kind of shocked it did not even merit a RITA nomination.

Help me out: would it have been up for a RITA in 1996 or 1997? According to Romancewiki, in 1996 the short contemp winner was Single Dad by Jennifer Greene, and in 1997 the winner was Cowboy Pride by Anne McCallister, with two of Crusie’s books (The Cinderella Deal and Charlie All Night) nominated.

Ok, enough trivia. Anyone But You is actually a very simple story: Nina Askew is a 40 year old woman who has recently left her life as “Mrs. Empire”, with an “overambitious ex-husband and overpriced suburban castle.” She is now living in a modest apartment and working as an editor, and she couldn’t be more pleased. She decides to adopt a frisky puppy and ends up with Fred, the dog on the cover above:

there was only one dog in the cage, and it was midsized and depressed, too big for her apartment and too melancholy for her state of mind. … The dog had huge bags under his dark eyes, and hunched shoulders, and a white coat blotched with what looked like giant liver spots. He sat on the damp concrete like a bulked up vulture and stared at her, not barking.

Naturally, Nina adopts Fred. She trains him to go outside using the fire escape, and in doing so attracts the attention of her very hot downstairs neighbor. Alex Moore is an E.R. doc, but his family of specialists (a neurosurgeon mom, heart surgeon dad, obgyn brother, etc.) want him to do more. He dates, but he doesn’t want marriage or kids. And he’s 30.

Anyone But You is often called groundbreaking, and that must be due mostly to the age of the heroine combined with the relative youth of the hero, because Cruise had already written two heroines who had been married prior to meeting the hero (Getting Rid of Bradley and What the Lady Wants). I also think the fact that Nina doesn’t want kids — “I’m just not the maternal type” — and that this is part of the basis for love between the hero and heroine, rather than an internal or external conflict to be overcome — was and is very rare.

Here’s how Alex sees Nina for the first time:

When she took two cans of soda out of the fridge and put the mugs and cans in front of him on the round oak table, he saw her face clearly for the first time, the tiny lines around her dark yes, the softness in her face. She was [his brother's] age, maybe a little older. Her face looked settled, not serene exactly, but not the searching, anxious look that Debbie’s face had. She looked wonderful and comfortable and centered in herself, and he wanted to tell her so, but he stopped in time. She might think it was a pass.

Which it would be, come to think of it …

Nina and Alex become friends, watching old movies together, while they continue to try to date other people. Nina worries that she is not young or attractive enough for Alex, and after they finally consummate their attraction, she worries that she is too recently divorced for another relationship. Nina’s hysterical adventures with “the Incredibra”, which dog Fred falls in love with, are worth reading this book for alone.

Alex wanted Nina from the minute he laid eyes on her, but first he was a bit intimidated by her, then didn’t want to ruin their friendship, and finally he worried that he wasn’t serious enough about his career to make her happy.

The last issue is one that only crops up after consummation, and it provided a barrier to the HEA in the last 15% of the book. That Alex could seriously believe Nina wanted to move back to the tony neighborhood and lifestyle she left after he spent so much time with her was the only part of the book that didn’t work for me.

Virtually every Crusie category deals with the issue of how careerism and wealth accumulation fits in to a good life inclusive of romantic love. While the heroines on the surface reject “the American dream”, in favor of apartment living, artsy clothing and chipped Fiestaware, the tension remains that in every case they end up financially quite well off by most standards. It’s a tension I can live with, but the contrast between Nina’s ex and Alex was too much of a stretch to believe.

Alex describes himself as “cruising through life and the video store”. Really? That’s how he got through med school and residency? Nina describes him as “immature and unfocused.” Really? That’s how he works an E.R.? While I believed that Alex’s family could put pressure on him, the idea that, from Nina’s or society’s point of view, an E.R. doc represents the rejection of ambition in favor of living the simple life was too much of a stretch. Often careers are supposed to serve as tokens of personality in category romances. I get that. But then don’t make the hero a doctor.

Ok, so enough of the analysis and criticism. I loved, loved, loved this book. First of all, it is screamingly funny, in both dialogue and situations. Here’s Nina’s friend talking about her own ex:

“I caught him in bed with his secretary”, Charity said. “I don’t think she was taking dictation. Not with what she had in her hand.”

Nina on her mother:

“I have a mother,” Nina said, not wanting to discuss it. “She’s not interested in children. She gave birth to us and then we took it from there.”

Nina eyeing herself in the mirror when she first puts on the Incredibra:

Her breasts had never been this high. Nobody’s breasts had ever been this high. Incredibras had so much lift they could get Fred off the ground. Well, that was good. And all that red confused the eye. She could get away with it.

If you like sexual tension, it is absolutely smoking hot. The scene when they break down and give in was one of the best – and funniest —  I have ever read.  I dare you not to fall in love with both Nina and Alex. It is a total pleasure joining them on the journey to their HEA. There’s a cute subplot involving a memoir, eventually called Jane Errs, about the erotic misadventures of Nina’s friend Charity, which Nina tries to get her uptight editor to publish. But mostly Anyone But You is a warm, sexy, funny, and wonderful story. I loved it.

Contest: Just leave a comment before Thursday at midnight EST.

PS. I was tempted to ask people to come clean about their experiences with Incredibra-type devices, but I don’t want to prevent the shy readers, the male readers, or the liberated readers who would never in a million years try such a thing from taking part.

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