Monday Stepback: The Glowing Review with the B- Grade

The weekly links, opinion, and personal updates post

1. Links of Interest

I was feeling pretty spiffy a few months ago when I added the WP  Touch Pro plugin so that viewers of this blog could have access to a clean, scaled version for their mobile phones. But now I have to wonder, Is Your Website Ready for the Coming Tablet Revolution? (via @jafurtado).

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Novelist Emily St. John Mandel on Bad Reviews at the Millions.

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The kerfuffle of the week: Bitch Media posted a list of 100 Feminist YA Books, got some heat for a few titles, considered the complaints, and removed them. I think Bitch should not have put out a list they couldn’t defend, about a reading genre with such a passionate online community, and should have had a better plan in place for handling criticism and discussion. While creating a list of 100 is fine, because it doesn’t follow that all the books left off aren’t feminist, taking books off that list does imply that about the books removed. So removing books is much more fraught and needed to be handled a lot more deftly. I think authors have every right to chime in and ask that their books be removed from the list, but I think it’s Bitch’s list and they have the right to keep them on. I also think the reaction is overblown on all sides. The folks at Bitch made some mistakes, but nobody’s killing puppies. For a great response, see this terrific post by The Book Smugglers, who got dragged into it when one of their reviews was used as the basis for complaints about one of the offending books. Both posts have long long threads, which include comments that might well make you sad and/or angry.

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From reader Liz, Sexless Novels, in Esquire, which demonstrates clearly what happens when you exempt half the writing population based on gender:

Today, many writers have largely abandoned sex as an area of concern. There are exceptions. Predictably, the French are still capable of producing an enfant terrible, though in the case of Michel Houellebecq, he is no longer particularly enfant nor terrible. The best writing about sex I’ve read recently comes from England, where Geoff Dyer seems to have a right and healthy attitude about the way these things can work — a little cocaine, some free booze, a chance encounter over a few days in Venice — voilà … healthy, happy orgasms for all!

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Are eBooks heralding the End of Ownership? An interesting interview with Librarything’s founder:

Once you realise your Kindle book is not fully yours, you’ll accept it being mostly not yours. Google Ebooks are a further step away from ownership. Eventually you get to a faucet model, as music has done, either low-price (Netflix) or free (Pandora, YouTube).

“By itself, such changes might be culturally and economically neutral. Ownership of paper books wasn’t so much a consumer preference as a side effect of their physical nature, and law followed and solemnized that state of affairs. Maybe the faucet model will produce more readers, more reading, more good books, more paid authors, etc. Or maybe it will produce less. Who knows?”

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I’ve been thinking about doing a video blog (Be afraid. Be very afraid.), and have been interested in how others do it. There are some deadly boring ones out there. But author Nicole Peeler shows us how it’s done with this video review of Andrew Shaffer’s Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love (a book I will do a writeup on in the near future). I mentioned in my last post that I am writing an essay for a Hunger Games and Philosophy volume, and am pleased to say Andrew is making a contribution as well, on schadefreude!

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Can authentic social media engagement sell books? Well, Sonomalass bought Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile based on a tweet about Dray’s post on the relationship between historical romance and historical fiction.

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Tweeter extraordinaire and former reviewer at TGTBTU, Limecello, has struck out on her own and has a blog, with reviews, contests, and more serious posts. Check it out.

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Not book related, but via The Awl, I found this great website that collects links to cover performances of various artists, from Lucinda Williams to Phil Ochs to Ani Difranco. Love it!

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From When Falls the Coliseum, a teenager faces an uphill battle when she tries to convince her persuasive writing teacher father to buy her a cell phone. Very cute.

2. When Reviews and Grades Don’t Add Up

I think we all know that sometimes the book review itself and the final grade (or number of stars, or number of wineglasses, books, roses, etc.) don’t match. Usually, this is because the grade seems high given the serious criticisms in the body of the review.

But lately, I have noticed the opposite trend. The grade might be a B- or C+, but the review contains nothing but positive or neutral comments. Can you imagine if I handed a paper back to my students, with a B- grade, that didn’t explain why it’s not an A? I feel the same way about reviews.

So this is a plea. If a book is not an “A” or “A-” read, please let us know why in your review. Thanks!

3. Personal

Nothing much to report. I did have a great time with 15 other people last night celebrating Chinese New Year with a 25 course meal. Too good of a time to take pictures, sorry to say. It turns out I am a Rooster, and thus will not have such a good year, according to our host, whom I subsequently did not tip.* ** ***

I’m teaching parts of Tod Chambers’ The Fiction of Bioethics this week in the seminar, and finishing up Kant and giving an exam in Ethics.

I’m reading His at Night by Sherry Thomas and No Souvenirs by K.A. Mitchell and enjoying both tremendously.

Have a great week!

*that’s a joke people.
** what I meant to say was that I would have withheld a tip, but it was included in the price.
***again, joking.

This and That: What I'm Up To, Books Read but Not Reviewed, Etc.

A little birdie told me that the key to avoiding a blogging slump is to “lower my standards”. Hence this post.

1. My friend Elizabeth and I are giving talk on campus in April. She’s a faculty member in the English department who specializes in Minerva Press and the sensation novels of the 18th century. She plans to discuss The Mysterious Warning, by Eliza Parsons, which I am now reading.

Some of you might know this book through your reading of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. The following is from from Wikipedia:


The Northanger Horrid Novels are seven early works of Gothic fiction recommended by Isabella Thorpe to Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (1818):

“Dear creature! how much I am obliged to you; and when you have finished Udolpho, we will read The Italian together; and I have made out a list of ten or twelve more of the same kind for you.”

“Have you, indeed! How glad I am! — What are they all?”

“I will read you their names directly; here they are, in my pocket-book. Castle of Wolfenbach, Clermont, Mysterious Warnings, Necromancer of the Black Forest, Midnight Bell, Orphan of the Rhine, and Horrid Mysteries. Those will last us some time.”

“Yes, pretty well; but are they all horrid, are you sure they are all horrid?”

“Yes, quite sure; for a particular friend of mine, a Miss Andrews, a sweet girl, one of the sweetest creatures in the world, has read every one of them.”

Elizabeth and I are going to discuss critiques of Minerva Press novels, and compare them to critiques of today’s romance novels. Both types of novels, despite being separated by two centuries, share many features: female authors and readership, mass market publication, female protagonists, somewhat scandalous plots and characters, happy endings, not taken seriously as literature, etc. And the critiques also share similarities: conventional, formulaic, unimaginative, bad for women, etc.


Elizabeth is going to focus on Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminist critique of Minerva Press books, and she is going to argue, using the Parsons, that in fact the books are more complex and more subversive than Wollstonecraft gave them credit for. I’m going to do the same.



I’d like to focus on one specific book as well, and I think it would be neat to find a romance published in the past 20 years which bears some similarities to The Mysterious Warning. Elizabeth will read whichever book I choose. If you have any suggestions, feel free to make them here.



2. I decided to contribute an essay to a forthcoming book, The Hunger Games and Philosophy. Here’s the title and abstract. Of course, the finished paper will likely look a bit different:

“She has no idea, the effect she can have”: The Gender of Success in the Hunger Games

In contrast to other wildly popular young adult SFF series, such as The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games features a triumphant female protagonist who succeeds in virtue of her intelligence, strength, and loyalty. Katniss rejects many feminine norms: she is not forgiving, nice, or humble, she refuses to cry, she is untrusting, “sullen and hostile”. She enjoys hunting, her appearance is androgynous, and she has no desire to marry or have children.

Yet, undeniably, Katniss’s gender becomes significant to her chances of success when her fellow competitor from District 12, Peeta, declares his love for her.  Regardless of her gender neutral, or even masculine, self-image and lifestyle up to that point, Katniss is positioned as a “feminine lover” for the Games. As she prepares to win the favor of the audience, she adopts traditionally feminine mannerisms, such as giggling, “sitting like a lady”, twirling in a pretty dress, and,  later, during the Games, only allowing herself to show emotions appropriate to a young woman in love.

The proposed paper will explore the ways The Hunger Games both relies upon and subverts traditional notions of gender, with a focus on Katniss, as a means to explore the philosophical question of what gender is. Attention will also be paid to Peeta, and how his positioning as masculine, as “active lover”, is challenged by his status as passive recipient of Katniss’s ministrations and aid. The essay will help illuminate some contemporary issues in gender theory, including the social construction of gender, as well as challenges to the very concept of gender posed by some postmodern theorists such as Judith Butler.

3. I registered for RWA in New York City this summer, and I am so excited I can hardly stand it. I actually have family all over the city and on the Island, but the chance to room again with Carolyn Crane was too tempting to forgo. We already have all kind of exciting plans that include matching shoes, an in room fridge, and granola bars, but I can’t say any more about them right now. One of the most pathetic things I have been doing lately is searching for the hashtag #RWA11 on Twitter just to see who else is going and what they are planning to do. I’m so excited to meet several online friends I feel like I have known forever, and to see some of the folks I met at Romcon again.

4. Just prior to RWA is IASPR, also in NYC. I was privileged to read through the abstracts and am so excited for the presentation of some really diverse and fascinating work in popular romance studies. Thinking about IASPR will have to get me though the terrible withdrawal fits I will have when everybody is in Texas in April at the PCA/ACA.

5. I’ve been reading but not reviewing lately. I really liked What the Librarian Did by Karina Bliss, although I am not sure I loved it as much as so many other did. One book I absolutely loved, and wish I had time to review, was Collision Course by K.A. Mitchell. Another book I loved but cannot seem to write a review of was Ziska, by Marie Corelli. Obviously, I also read and really enjoyed The Hunger Games.

6. This has been a cold snowy winter in Maine, and I am so ready for it to be over. Unfortunately, winter sticks with us through at least March. We are heading to Disney World in TWENTY NINE DAYS, not that I am counting. As a result, I am back on the Disney forums, getting into debates about whether the installation of lap bars on Splash Mountain ruins the ride, and whether one should jog left or right to beat the rope drop crowds to Toy Story Mania in Disney Studios. Naturally, I have lunch and dinner reservations for every meal already and have had for weeks. And a spreadsheet.

7. I’ve been working out very enthusiastically, and am consequently suffering terribly from illiotibial band syndrome. I seem to spend half my time lying on the floor rolling on a foam thing. Ugh.

8. I have a new Hospice friend, a retired Melville scholar. He is awesome.

9. I’ve been pretty busy with a variety of things. I am teaching the senior seminar on narrative medicine, and I am so thrilled with the students. I think I will make this a regular part of my teaching rotation. I’ve given lots of talks and had lots of ethics calls at the hospital. I gave a talk to the OR recently and I used an  Alternative Pain Chart by Hyperbole and a Half. It went over very well.

10. I changed the pic in my About page. I took the new one yesterday in my office. I was motivated to do so after reading the dead on What People Are Trying to Communicate With Their Profile Pics. I am not sure what I am trying to communicate now.

11. We are going to a 25 course Chinese New Year party Sunday night. You can tell our friends are really into football. A few people on Twitter asked me to take pics, so look for those.

12. I really am going to write that Lover Awakened post, now called “10 Things I Noticed on a Reread of Lover Awakened”. Maybe even later today.

Time to make the breakfasts…

Happy Friday!

Joint review: The Italian's Future Bride, by Michelle Reid

Tumperkin read this one and asked me to chime in. I did, with my usual brevity.

First, Tumperkin:

Jessica, don’t take this the wrong way, but when I read this book, I thought of you.

Before I say more, let me contextualise the comments that are going to follow a little bit:

* Whilst Michelle Reid is not an autobuy author for me, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of her books in the past;
* She writes a particular brand of angsty, contemporary category romance (squarely within the HQPresents-paradigm) that I rather enjoy;
* This book suffers from “camel-back-breaking” syndrome i.e. the things I am going to complain about crop up in lots of other romances but sometimes, as a reader, a particular issue will come to a head when you read a particular book.

So what was the issue here, for me?

It started, when I read the following passage that takes place after the H/H have had a one night stand and realise they have not used a condom:

“Marriage comes before babies in my family,” he enlightened.

Marriage – ? “Oh, for goodness’ sake.” It made her feel sick to her stomach to say it, but – “I’ll take one of those m-morning after pills that – “

“No, you will not,” he cut in.

She stood up. “That is not your decision.”

His silver eyes speared her. “So you are happy to see off a fragile life before it has been given the chance to exist?”

“God, no.” She even shuddered. “But I think it would be – “

“Well, don’t think,” he said coldly. “We will not add to our sins if you please. This is our fault not the fault of the innocent child which may result. Therefore we will deal with it the honourable way – if or when it comes to it.”

Do I even need to say why I find this passage so objectionable?

Firstly, there’s the positioning of the morning after pill as equivalent to cold-blooded murder. Clearly there’s a whole debate about the morning after pill that segues into the debate about abortion. However, it’s not really that that I want to address. The thing that offends me here is the positioning of this complex issue, on which there are different views, as something which is essentially a “no-brainer”. Whilst the heroine raises the possibility of taking a morning after pill, it made her feel sick to her stomach to do so.

As if that’s not enough, we get a patronising, oppressive hero who decides that the heroine oughtn’t to have a say in what happens to her own body. Well, don’t think, he tells her, charmingly. And “We will not add to our sins if you please” … a prissy, paternalistic statement that made me want to eviscerate him.

For me, this strayed beyond the vocabulary of the standard domineering hero. This was the hero as a figure of authority (high status, older, male) and he was saying: don’t think, you have no say in what happens to your body, you will do as I say. To say it was a clear affirmation of the patriarchy circa 1956 would not, I think, be far off.

I want to emphasise again that this is not precisely an unusual passage to read in a romance of this type. And I don’t want anyone to infer that I am projecting particular views onto Ms Reid. I have no idea what Ms Reid makes of this particular issue. Further, many category romance plotlines (particularly in the Presents line) depend on core notions/ values that aren’t consistent with the social mores of the real world the reader lives in. (See this recent post on Teach Me Tonight, in which Laura Vivanco explores the divergence between reader values and book value ).

The passage above was extreme enough to prompt me to tweet about it, but even then, I think I’d have forgotten it had there been nothing else of note in the book As it was, however, the particularity of the morning after pill scene then proved to be just one example of a wider issue: the alarming control exercised by the hero over the heroine’s physical body. He has her followed when she goes out, telling her when she returns “I know where you have been… Tony works for me, not you”; When he takes her out to meet his friends and she strikes up a conversation with them, he takes her chin in his hand and turns her to look at him to say “You are here with me … don’t ignore me.” He acts as though he owns her:

His scrutiny paused right there and suddenly something else was adding to the turbulent mix. Rachel knew what he was thinking. She felt the muscles around her womb clench tightly as if it was acknowledging that it already belonged to him.

But if the heroine is a uterus on legs, at least she’s an attractive one. The H/Hs mutual lust in this book is – as is again typical in this paradigm – extreme. If only it wasn’t so completely rooted in the body, I might be able to believe there was something between them that might last more than five minutes.

So those were my thoughts.

Jessica?

************

Hey T!

Well, the scene you started with — the morning after pill — jumped out at me as well. In later passages that view of the morning after pill is concretized:

She felt like screaming! He really, truly and honestly believed that she was ruthless enough to calmly take something to rectify the wrong they had done, his wonderful fatalist attitude giving him the right to believe that his morals were superior to his own.

Why not tag her off as a woman who was capable of seeing off a baby before she was even sure there was one?

Later, the couple uses condoms, but this is inconsistent. If it is morally wrong to “see off” one possible (nonexistent, potential) baby, why is it not morally wrong to use condoms, which, like Plan B, attempt to “see off” another possible baby? In fact, it may be her moral duty not only to not attempt to prevent a contraception, but to have as many pregnancies as possible, a position memorably satirized by Monty Python.

Every sperm is sacred
Every sperm is great
If a sperm is wasted
God gets quite irate.

Perhaps they believe, wrongly, that Plan B not only prevents contraception, but prevents implantation in the uterus after conception, which would make it not a contraceptive but an abortifacient, at least under Vatican law (but not according to the AMA, which considers anything that prevents pregnancy in first 7 days after intercourse, regardless of whether conception and implantation has taken place, contraception). They would be wrong, by the way, on that. But characters can be factually wrong, as real people so often are.

And of course, characters can be conservative. Rachel is definitely very conservative sexually, at least when not actually having it, several times, with a complete stranger. For example, after their first conception-free interlude, Rafaelle — sensibly — asks Rachel about her sexual history, and she thinks, “she now had to endure the kind of conversation that belonged in a brothel!”.

Also, characters can be logically inconsistent, just like real people. Sometimes this makes for great reading.

Finally, also, as you say, none of this necessarily reflects the writer’s actual beliefs, and it wouldn’t matter to me if it did. The author’s actual beliefs are not relevant for reasons I set out in some detail here.

While I agree with you completely on the chilling and probably illogical nature of the ethical assumption in the Plan B scene, I think the failure of the hero and heroine to even consider Plan B was also problematic from a literary point of view in two ways, the first of which is minor, and the second of which goes to the major problem I had with this book.

First, these two do not know or like one another. Put aside their failure to use or even consider contraception. The big question is: how likely is it that a sexually experienced American woman of no discernible religious conviction, who is comfortable enough to sleep with a stranger, would feel this way about Plan B? And that the hero would as well? Very unlikely, but they have to feel this way for the plot to unfold. So, as a reader, it feels very forced.

Second, as you say, he takes control of her body and mind from the get go, and never gives it back. When they first meet, she kisses him (as part of an elaborate plan which I won’t go into) and just that one public kiss apparently licenses kidnapping her (“she’d never felt so afraid in her entire life … the panic had not subsided”), holding her hostage, and surveilling her for the rest of the book. After he literally drags her back to his apartment, they talk, and then she finds herself “being dragged down the hallway… her wrist still his prisoner … she had to follow where he pulled…”.

This woman gets nowhere except by being dragged or otherwise compelled by a man:

How did she get to Europe in the first place?

“No wonder Mark [the brother] dragged me back here.”

Rachel’s old boyfriend Alonso shows up at one point, and he, too takes immediate physical control of her: “Rachel found herself engulfed by the pair of arms…then found herself being kissed … She tried to pull back but he was not letting her. … And it was, just like old times, when he had used to sweep up in one fast car or another without a care while he waited for her to scramble in next to him. … Now it just scared her witless…”. And on and on.

You have already pointed out she is not allowed to think. He doesn’t let her speak, either. As you pointed out, mid book, he asks her if she enjoyed her day without him, and when she tries to answer, he interrupts her:

“I know where you have been,’ he cut in. “Tony works for me, not you.”

This takes place well after we are told that their relationship is now based on more than sex. Um, yes, it is also based on his power and control of her. Even in the last scene, he interrupts Rachel as she is trying to explain something, and instead of being annoyed, she thinks, “What a waste of breath.”

Rachel is constantly off balance, literally and figuratively. Reading about Rachel’s adventures was like reading about a bowl a bowl of jello, not a human being (these quotes span the entire book):

“the little tremor he could see happening with her lips”
“tense, apprehensive big blue eyes.”
“her legs had gone hollow”
“Rachel tensed … a strange little laugh”
“beginning to feel disturbingly hollow”
“taking a few shaky steps away from him”
“Rachel bit down hard on her bottom lip to keep it from quivering.”
“Rachel found herself coming to a trembling halt in yet another doorway.”
“Rachel’s stomach started rolling sickly.”
“…she tossed out helplessly”
“Her pink upper lip gave a vulnerable quiver.”
“… leaving her trembling and shaken…
“Rachel hovered, wanting to go to him but still too scared to move.”

She can’t even decide how she feels:

“She was too busy trying to decide if she was dizzy with relief because he hadn’t thrown her out to face the paparazzi alone, or if she was dizzy with fear over what was still to come.”

“Rachel stripped off her clothes and walked into the bathroom, not sure if she wanted to throw things or cry her eyes out.”

The woman cannot even pick a drink, answering “I don’t know — anything” when he offers one.

When Rafaelle forcibly kidnaps and confines her, she thinks: ““He had every right to be angry. She had no right to be anything at all.”

Rachel does eventually gain one active desire, that Rafaelle “want her for herself, and not just because she was here for the taking.” But she never questions why she is “here for the taking.” Why does this modern woman believe that one stolen kiss allows him unlimited access to her body?

And yet, in Rafaelle’s eyes, Rachel is not scared, uncertain, or worried. She is a femme fatale. A seductress who holds all the cards. He refers to her as “a fantasy siren most men would kill to possess”, “the sex nymph”. And how’s this for a good example of the double bind: “He’d been tempted by sirens far more adept at their craft.” If she’s bad at seduction, she’s bad, and if she’s good at it, she’s worse.

Another example of the double bind, and of twisted thinking, while I’m at it: in the opening scene, Raffaelle looks around at the women at a party, and thinks “Expensive tarts in expensive dresses were ten-a-Euro to buy in this room.” He mocks the women with “breasts implants and carefully straightened and dyed blond hair. They circled the room eyeing up victims…”.

And yet, Rafaelle, disgusted as he is with women, is obsessively interested in how they look. When he first meets the heroine, Rafaelle looks her up and down and wonders if the carpet matches the drapes. He checks out her cleavage. He even wonders about his stepsister, “Were Daniella’s breasts her own?”

Gee, why do some women expend so much effort on their appearance? Attracting a male partner has no bearing on anything in a woman’s life. And besides, men do not even care about these things. So inexplicable! Must be because they are greedy and vain. Ayuh.

But the main thing is really that this heroine begins and ends as a non-person, a trembling, reactive, rudderless ball of mush. A ball of mush who is supposed to be grateful that a handsome hero takes any interest in her at all, no matter how controlling and autonomy-defeating that interest is. And, because she appears in the romance genre, I am supposed to at least cheer for her, if not identify with her. I know that it is cool to like Presents. I know I am supposed to be clever and hip and ironic enough to read this thing as a coded fantastical message of female empowerment. But I just couldn’t.

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