50 Things About 50 Shades (of Grey)

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Fifty Shades of Grey is an erotic novel self-published by first-time British author E.L. James in 2011 which has already spawned two sequels and, maybe, a movie deal. I just read it and have, naturally, fifty things to say.

Updated 10/12 to add:  Vintage is publishing all three books in the trilogy in e and paperback:

Now American publishers have just concluded a battle over the rights to re-release the book in the blockbuster fashion they think it deserves. This week, Vintage Books, part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, known for its highbrow literary credentials, won a bidding war for the rights to all three books, paying a seven-figure sum.

On Monday, the publisher will release new e-book editions of the trilogy. Weeks later will come a 750,000-copy print run of redesigned paperback editions.

Adults, read on:

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Review and Kids' Book Giveaway: Lost Trail: Nine Days Alone in the Wilderness

Like all Maine children, my boys have read Lost on a Mountain in Maine, the true account of a 12 year old boy, Donn Fendler, who, in 1939,  survived alone on Maine’s tallest mountain, Mount Katahdin, for nine days. My younger son, age 10, likes novels, but likes graphic novels even more. When we found out that a graphic novelization was published in late 2011 by Down East Books, I emailed them and asked for a copy. They were gracious enough to send it the next day, and I’d like to give it away to a random commenter.

Fendler’s story is one of resilience, fortitude, hope, luck, and faith. In an interview at the end, Fendler says he believes his faith in God was the most important component of his ability to endure the weather, dehydration, hunger, and, worst of all, black flies. But he also thanks his Boy Scout training and his will to live.

My son says “it’s a good book”, “an enjoyable read.” When asked to compare it to the book, he says it is “much better.” When asked why, he gave me an example. In the graphic novel, early on, Donn promises to bring his mom back a souvenir from his camping trip to Maine. In the middle of his ordeal, he finds a “souvenir.” Then, he loses it. In the original book, my son says, “the time is completely scrambled … the things that happen even before the trip happened when he lost the souvenir in the novel.”

My son thinks the illustrations are “very well done.” Unlike some of his favorites, such as the Bone series and the Amulet series, Lost Trail is drawn completely in black and white, but he says the graphics are just as good. The artist, Ben Bishop, is based in Portland, Maine. A third contributor is Lynn Plourde, a Maine children’s book author. I am no expert, but to me the graphics look more like manga than, say, straight comics like the Bone books. The images perfectly match the pace of the story, and really emphasize the emotional component. I also liked the way the manga influence seemed to take the story a little bit out of Maine, not with the big manga eyes and pert noses, but with the composition, the shading, the lines. I also think the graphic novel form works great for action stories with strong central characters, so the fit is perfect. My sons both say that the graphic novel version is much more exciting than the longer format.

But I am no expert, so here’s my photo of one page to let you be the judge of what drawing style it is:


I’m delighted that this beloved Maine story has been reworked in a graphic novel form, without losing what made the original so special. Judging from the reaction in our house, it’s a big success. As Stephen King has said, “Donn Fendler’s story of survival is both terrifying and uplifting. It’s wonderful to see it in a format that will introduce it to a whole new generation of readers. Here’s a graphic novel about a real American superhero.”

If you’d like to be entered to win (U.S. only) this book, please make a comment below before Friday February 3 at midnight EST. I’ll use Random.org to pick a winner and send it right off.

Review: Juliet, Naked, by Nick Hornby


My spouse is on a Hornby glom — we’ve got copies of High Fidelity, About A Boy, Fever Pitch and How to Be Good floating around the house — but nothing interested me until I heard the plot for Juliet, Naked (2009): Annie and Duncan live together companionably but without passion on the east coast of England. She’s a curator at the local museum, and he’s a teacher who lives for his leadership position in a tiny but rabid internet fandom devoted to American musician Tucker Crowe, who has been in hiding for twenty years. When a package arrives that contains a copy of Juliet, Naked, a demo version of Crowe’s biggest record, Annie decides to mount the first salvo in her rebellion against Duncan’s smug tyranny of taste in film, TV and books: she listens to it before he gets home from work. Outraged at her “malevolence”, Duncan nevertheless has work to do: he listens to it himself, several times, sometimes while crying, and then writes a long glowing post on his message board about the album: “Juliet, Naked means that everything else Tucker Crowe recorded is suddenly a little paler, a little too slick, a little too digested … And if it does that to Crowe’s work, imagine what it does to everyone else’s.”

In a moment of clarity, Annie, who thought Juliet, Naked was mediocre at best, radically revises her estimation of Duncan — and herself:

It wasn’t that he made her feel incompetent and unsure of herself and her tastes. It was the reverse. He knew nothing about anything, and she’d never really allowed herself to notice it until now. She’d always thought that his passionate interest in music and film and books indicated intelligence, but of course it didn’t have to indicate anything of the sort, if he constantly got the wrong end of the stick. Why was he teaching trainee plumbers and future hotel receptionists how to watch American television, if he was so smart? Why did he write thousands of words for obscure websites that nobody read? And why was he so convinced that a singer nobody had ever paid much attention to was a genius to rival Dylan and Keats? Her partner’s brain was dwindling away to nothing while she examined it. And he’d called her a moron! One thing he was right about, though: Tucker Crowe was important, and he revealed harsh truths about people. About Duncan, anyway.

She recognizes that Duncan’s review was meant more to prove his connection to Crowe’s “people”, his superiority to other fans, and his genius, than to share his love of music with fellow fans. She  decides to type a rebuttal on the website, which Duncan grudgingly posts, and receives, to her shock, a lot of positive comments from the regulars. In her private email, a short but grateful note appears from the reclusive Crowe himself.

As the book unfolds, it becomes the story of Annie and the story of Tucker, but not in the way you might think (“overly patient woman realizes she deserves more, jilts self-centered boob, rescues drifting, washed up rocker, lives happily ever after”). My sense, talking to my husband, and seeing three film adaptations, High Fidelity, About a Boy and Fever Pitch (the one with Colin Firth, not the one with Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler Jimmy Fallon), is that Hornby is very interested in a certain kind of male midlife stuckness as it intersects with some kind of obsessive fandom (music, soccer, etc.), and Juliet, Naked certainly continues with that theme. Duncan is a mostly unsympathetic, self-centered boy-man, whose character doesn’t change much, if at all. But Tucker is stuck more in the way that the Hugh Grant character in About A Boy was, not due to obsessive fandom, but just a crippling inability to take stock of unfulfilled promise, a fear that moving on will mean letting go — of nothing, but still, and a kind of lazy, self-induglence that is inherently masculine. Tucker, who has been hiding out in rural Pennsylvania, has a string of exes and five kids, and has to come to terms with all of it.

An interesting twist is the way the internet amplifies the perils and promise of human connection, especially among fandoms. What would the John Cusack or Colin Firth character in those films (sorry for not reading the novels) have been like with the internet? I confess that I saw a bit of myself in Duncan, especially the way he deifies his knowledge of something pretty obscure and unimportant  … a not very comfortable feeling. The way that Duncan reacts when he finally meets his idol is a mini-treatise on many of the questions about substance and surface, identity and fluidity, authenticity and fakeness that internet culture forces us to ask. But it’s not just about internet fandom: Annie and Tucker’s relationship unfolds via email as well:

Dear Annie,

I’m sending this email about five minutes after the last one. My advice, it now occurs to me, was entirely worthless and borderline offensive. I suggested that we can redeem wasted time by cherishing and nurturing our children, but you don’t have any children. Which is one of the reasons why you feel you’ve been wasting time. I’m not quite as perverse or obtuse as it might seem, but I can see that my pitch to be your guru could have gone better.

She has to decide: does she trust him? Is this really him? Can he trust her? What happens when an online relationship or connection becomes a real one, as it does for Tucker, Annie, and Duncan?  And what is “real”? The image of a person built up by others, or his self-image? Or neither? Or both? This last set of questions arises in particular in relation to Tucker’s musical legacy: has he made anything enduring and worthwhile? Who is to judge? Who is responsible for artistic creation? What, in terms of human connection, has been sacrificed to keep a musical “legend” intact?

I found this book to be a very astute reflection on relationships, digital and otherwise, especially the way a seemingly harmless long term relationship can suddenly look suffocating and even kind of horrific. There’s definitely a melancholic tone, an awareness that we get into ruts and can’t make up for lost time when we finally emerge from them, but Juliet, Naked is still a very, very funny book. Everything about the clueless Duncan is pretty funny, or it would be if Annie wasn’t such a sympathetic (maybe too sympathetic, my only complaint about the book) character. And Annie’s relationship with her inept, judgmental therapist had me the laughing out loud. In one scene, Annie decides to have some fun, and heads out to the pub with her friend Ros, who is gay, where they meet Gav and Barnesy, two “Northern Soul” dancers:

“A lesbian?” said Gav. “A real one? In Gooleness?”

“She’s not a lesbo,” said Barnesy.

“How can you tell?” said Gav.

“It’s just what birds say when they don’t like the look of you. Do you remember those two at the Blackpool all-nighter? Told us they weren’t into men, and then we saw them with their tongues down the throats of the DJs.”

Ros laughed. “I’m sorry if it seems like a brush-off, ” she said. “But I was gay long before you two walked in.”

“Fucking hell,” Barnesy said in wonderment. “You just walk around, gay, like.”


“I’ve got to tell you,” said Gav, with sudden excitement. “I …”

“You don’t have to tell me at all,” said Ros.

“You don’t even know what I was going to say.”

“You were going to say that, even though gay men make you sick to your stomach, the idea of gay women you find titillating in the extreme.”

“Oh,” said Gav. “You’ve heard that before, have you?”

“How does that work, anyway? said Barnesy. “If one of you’s gay and the other one isn’t?

There is much more to the book than I’ve mentioned here. In particular, I was so impressed with the way a central mystery, set in the bathroom of a Minneapolis club (the opening line is “They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.”) managed to be ridiculous, funny, trivial, intriguing, banal, meaningless, significant, and, moving, all at once, kind of like this book.

I’m on to How to Be Good next.

Randomness: the week that's over, links, blerghhhhhh

It’s Friday night. I’m enjoying a rum and Pepsi Joy.  We’ve ingested our homemade pizza, a tradition in our house* (*for the past three weeks).  Rather than focusing on my horrible taste in drinks, let’s move on to the week (or weeks) that was (or were…freshness not being my strong suit on the linkage):

Hypocrites of the week:

1. PIPA co-sponsor Senator Roy Blunt, using a copyrighted image without permission for his Twitter background (via a PHI 230 Ethics student)

2. Newt Gingrich, with the NY Daily News providing humorous commentary:

Gingrich treats Romney like some kind of felon, but nobody is supposed to care that while he originally led the charge against Bill Clinton on Monica Lewinsky he was conducting his own affair with a congressional aide, now Callista Gingrich.

Coward of the week:

Captain Schettino (via Gawker)

We happened to be doing Aristotle this week in ethics class, and what a great way to illustrate his concept of cowardice!

Literary Links:


Morality in Fantasy: 2012 Edition by Cora Buhlert (via @victoriajanssen)


Via The Advocate, the best new erotica and romance for lesbian, gay, bi, and trans audiences.


Wickedly Funny: the Humor of Anne Stuart’s Heroes, by Victoria Janssen at Heroes and Heartbreakers.


The Trouble With Productivity, from the TLSBlog.

Can you be productive by not being productive? Are there artistic possibilities in exhaustion, failure and laziness?

Do I need to explain the appeal of this article?


How To Read more: A Lover’s Guide (via @sallyheroes ) I really need to take some of this advice more to heart, especially:

8. Give up on a book if it’s boring. Reading isn’t something you do because it’s good for you — it’s not like taking your vitamins. You’re reading because it’s fun. So if a book isn’t fun, dump it. Give it a try for at least a chapter, but if you still don’t love it, move on.


A remembrance of the late Penny Jordan, by Jay Dixon at Teach Me Tonight:

She wrote well in many genres, yet remained unassuming, diffident about her own talent, but always keen to help new writers.


More authors talking about bad reviews:

Harlequin M&B author Wendy S. Marcus on Reader Reviews and What Not To Do. Loads of wrongness in the 71 comments, but the post author concludes with:

The most important lesson of bad reviews: Do not engage the reviewer. (At least I remembered that!!!)

Everyone is entitled to their opinion.


And YA Author Maggie Stiefvater, in a post about negative reviews that does what I hate more than anything else on the inerwebs, pretending to be the cool, educated, rational one, when everything about the post screams I’m hot, bothered, ignorant, and irrational!!!! Also commits my second most hated internet error, backpeddling in the comments section, while claiming that the readers just didn’t “get” your point. Oh, and my third: referring to oneself as an “academic” when one has a bachelor’s degree. Ms. Stiefvater, I will never, ever read one of your books.


Good responses from Jane at Dear Author and Azteclady at Karen Knows Best.

In case you missed it, the comment thread of this Strange Horizons review of Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan is worth a look, on the question of “review” versus “something authors don’t much like” (via @booksmugglers).

Liz, do everyone a favour and head down to Temple Bar, have a pint and seriously consider what it is you feel like putting out there for all to see. Because THIS is NOT a review. This is the ranting blog post of a post-pubescent bully without the forethought or the tact to do a PROPER review. Trinity College could do without folk like you on their student roll sheet. I’m not joking, I hope one of your professors reads this.


Via @meredithduran, How to become a romance novelist, an old (1996) article in the Boston Phoenix. Interesting reading. Sample:

You revile it. The bosomy “clinch” cover is the bête noir of choice for successful romance writers. The heroine’s cleavage suggests lactation; the hero clutches her from an angle that could bring little pleasure to either party; they are coupling frantically on a bed of rhododendrons. When you get together with other successful romance writers, your complaints about the clinch mount into a communal frenzy. You suspect conspiracy.

“In my darker moments, I regard them as a form of sexual harassment,” Chekani says. “It’s the distributors who want the sexy covers on the books. These are guys. And these are the people who put the books on the shelves.”


I love these T-shirts: philosophers, literary luminaries, film directors, astronauts, and others, from Caitlin Hinshelwood. My fave:

Borges by Caitlin Hinshelwood


The cure for thinking is work, at Prof Hacker:


thinking is the hobgoblin of big minds. Thinking, according to Stallybrass, is:

Hard,  painful
Boring, repetitious
Indolent (1583)

On the other hand, working is:

Exciting, a process of discovery
Challenging (1583)


Is this gossip, news, or am I in the midst of some terrible Pepsi Joy/Rum nightmare? Paul Rudd is set to play Wesley in the Princess Bride remake. (via @Milerama)



My week in ethics:

The bad:

1. Not knowing, for a minute, what to say to a student who claimed that it’s a moral duty for a US military to execute a child of a suspected Taliban member, in order to prevent him from growing up to become a terrorist.

2. Waiting, and waiting for my students in feminist philosophy to figure out what is wrong with Kate Millett’s formulation, “blacks and women” in Sexual Politics.

3. Driving through a snowstorm to get to my 9:00 am contemporary moral problems class this morning after a 7:30 am hospital meeting, only to find that someone has written on the board, “PHI is cancelled today” and most of the students have left.

The educational:

1. Getting annoyed at an email from an administrative assistant saying that some unnamed doctor has asked me to come to their hospital — 2.5 hours from my home —  to give a CME talk in bioethics at 8:00am, unpaid.

2. Talking to a surgeon this morning who will miss next week’s meeting because he is driving 2.5 hours to give a volunteer CME talk on breast cancer at a rural hospital 2.5 hours away. *gulp*

The good:

1. Meeting a new Hospice “friend” today, a WWII veteran, marveling again that someone has allowed me into their home, wondering how on earth I could help these amazing people.

2. Falling into inexcusable and immature paroxysms of laughter when the NP asks my boys whether they have experienced “constipation or diarrhea” at their well-child check-ups today. Nobody makes me laugh like those two:


Hope your weekend is groovy. See you tomorrow, I hope, with another review.

Review: Worth, by Adrienne Wilder

Worth by Adrienne Wilder (December 2011, Dreamspinner Press) combines the genres of m/m erotic romance, fantasy/paranormal, and horror. It may be the strangest book I read in 2011. I referred to it on Twitter as “the cannibalism book.” I received my copy free from Net Galley.

Worth begins with an author’s note that explains the City of Dragons, aka Atlanta. There are two kinds of natural science, physics and metaphysics (energy emitted by kin and Lesser-Breeds), and two kinds of being that have evolved from them, humans and kin. For some reason, kin are called dragons. When humans and kin breed, they produce half-breeds (male offspring of Kin and female human) and Lesser-breeds (Half-breed and human offspring; can be used as Food).  Dens are where the kin live, ruled by their Queen Dragon. The Dens are surrounded by walls built by humans to keep the two kinds of beings separated, and the Gray Zone is the lawless, decrepit, uncivilized area surrounding the Wall, inhabited by Lesser-breds and Humans. The Gray Zone books, of which Worth is one, are shorter, m/m and more erotic.

We then get a glossary which is an abbreviated version of the very long one on the author’s website. The author’s tendency to use italics and capitals in place of real worldbuilding interfered with the story. Just like J.R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood, cosmetic language changes do not new meanings create. Here are some examples of words that did not need to be glossarized, especially for regular readers of any of the genres the author is attempting to combine in this novella:

Alchemy: Magical Science

Blood Rage: Loss of control due to not Feeding.

Feed: The act of taking Blood, Flesh, or Metaphysical energy.

food: Substance that is consumed.

Halvsie: Slang for half-breed

mark or marked: The scar left by a Kin, Male or Female.

Owned: To be under the control/protection of another.

Taste: Flavor.

Whistle: A high pitched sound, made almost exclusively by submissives within a group or white-scales.

I think a skilled writer can communicate the meanings of these words in the usual way.

Please note: The rest of this review deals with adult themes.
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Underreading and Overreading in Online Book Reviews



I’ve been reading the Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, by  H. Porter Abbott, because I’m thinking about adopting it in the fall. I thought I’d summarize one bit, on overreading and underreading. This applies to any reader actually, not only those who write book reviews, let alone those who write online book reviews.

As avid readers, we know how vulnerable we are to the effect of novels.* Indeed, the pleasure of those effects is a major reason we seek them out. But as readers we, too, exercise a power over texts. One of the ways we do that is by underreading. As Frank Kermode once wrote,

It is not uncommon for large parts of the novel to go virtually unread; the less manifest portions of its text (its secrets) tend to remain secret, tend to resist all but abnormally attentive scrutiny, reading so minute, intense, and slow that it seems to run counter to one’s “natural” sense of hat a novel is (Art of Telling, 138, as quoted in Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, p. 86).

My own reviews, at least of genre fiction, tend to focus a lot of character and plot. Abbott’s long discussion of just two words in Madame Bovary (“elegeic epithelamium”) made me realize how much more focus I could place on specific words in the text. I recall hearing a paper by Eric Selinger on Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm, a book I love, and thought I had read carefully, that opened up the text in a mindblowing new way.  I had “missed” so much! I realize these are example of academic readings, which have a character and a vocabulary of their own, and I’m not suggesting I aspire to that with each book review here (in part because the audience and purpose are different), but thinking about underreading has made me wonder which parts of a novel I am more like to underread.

On Kermode’s view, we have to close the narrative to achieve interpretation, and we do so by exclusions. This is not just something a reader who is in a hurry, or uneducated does: even very sophisticated readings (the ones characterized by “abnormally attentive scrutiny”) have to posit an “embracing formulation” (in Abbott’s words) in order to move through the book.


One of the motives is to bring a text into line with our worldview, to make it more comfortable to engage with. Our own vested cultural or personal interests unconsciously influence this process. Abbott’s fictional example is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, a story in which an ancient winged man who arrives in the protagonists’ back yard is recast as something quite ordinary:

Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice. That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway from some foreign ship wrecked by the storm.

Abbott quotes Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which contends that narrative is inevitably underread, because we need a simple sequence of events in order to navigate “the overwhelmingly manifold nature of things” (Abbott, p. 88). And psychologists might point to “the primacy effect”, the tendency to let earlier interpretations dominate later ones. Abbott’s example is Wuthering Heights, a book many readers remember as the story of Cathy and Healthcliff, despite the fact that Catherine dies halfway through and the romance of Hereton Earnshaw and Catherine’s daughter is equally important.

I wonder how this point applies to our reviews. If the first few chapters of a book are problematic, do we let that unfairly influence our take on the book as a whole? And how about DNF “reviews”?

Then there’s overreading. This is finding things in narratives for which there is no direct evidence in the text. Again, we come to books with different backgrounds, experiences, and expectations, and these influence what we find in the text. Abbott’s example is of an ungainly, friendless girl with a beautiful but spoiled and ungrateful little sister reading Cinderella: she might see Cindy as a scheming hypocrite.

Abbott gives an example of “loading up a stranger with an unflattering moral character, cued only by the color of his skin” (p. 89), which is interesting. Is that overreading if the author him or herself was using that character as a shorthand for “bad”?

When I think of genre fiction, especially romance, I recognize certain signaling turns of phrase that help me identify in the first pages who the hero and heroine are, even when it’s not made explicit by the text. Is that overreading? Or experienced genre reading? I taught Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me in the fall, and after we read the first half of the book, one student opined that he wasn’t sure if Cal and Min would end up together, because they seemed to fight so often!



And every text has gaps. No character or setting is described in full, for example. I may get a sense of height, weight, hair color, eyes, or whatever else the author thinks is important, with the rest left to my own mind to fill in. In Asa Larsson’s Sweden-set mystery suspense Sun Storm, three pastors are interviewed by the police after a murder in the church. Rather than describing the men in detail, Larsson has the detective, Anna-Maria, take careful note of how they each shake hands (for example, “Gunnar Isaksson had nearly crushed her hand in his. And it wasn’t the unconscious strength you sometimes find in men. He’s just afraid of seeming weak, thought Anna-Maria.”). It’s very effective, but not exactly complete. My point is that what counts as “overreading” is going to be hard to determine.


On the other hand, what led me to write this post was finishing Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, and looking online for fellow reader opinion about some ambiguous parts of the text. The narrator remembers a weekend spent in Kent with his girlfriend Veronica’s family in college. He remembers them treating him as inferior. He remembers an oafish brother, a father who drank too much, a mother who inexplicably warned him not to let Veronica get away with anything. Tony speculates that Veronica was the victim of abuse — a leap I didn’t understand how he could make on the basis of such a small acquaintance with them, but this gets softened when he remembers his own mother saying everyone who survived childhood was abused in some way (this is kind of an echo of the point of this post.). At any rate, I did not think the abuse in Veronica’s family was that important.



But the readers on Amazon has spun tales of incest and violence in Veronica’s home that I found ridiculous. They took a line from the text: “gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house” and determined from that alone that the narrator had had sex with Veronica’s mother that weekend. I was outraged! Talk about willful overreading. I understand that nature abhors a vacuum, but let’s not ruin the book by turning it into a Lifetime movie!

Abbott says that one of the correctives to underreading and overreading is intentional interpretation in light of others’ readings. I think that’s what we do when we join book groups, Tweet about books, engage in discussions on Goodreads and on our blogs. Just yesterday on Twitter, I had my own view of a book by Adrienne Wilder revised by a fellow reader, Merrian, who suggested that what I found bizarre and offputting in some of the characters (“dragons”) was actually a welcome antidote to the safe, fake “otherness” (sparkly vampires, for example) we are presented with in most PNR. Although I don’t want to go far into the recent author meltdowns over critical reviews, to my mind, one of the more awful things about authors swooping in to shame and shut down critical readers is not just the effect it has on the reader (it doesn’t feel good to be called a “bitch” and mocked by a group of authors on Twitter as in this last kerfuffle), but on this wonderful process of filling in the gaps for each other and turning our solitary reading experience into a communal one.* [*Edited to add: I don’t think it actually has this effect in most cases, but I think the attempt shows a real disregard, even disrespect, for the process of communal interpretation, a process I think is tremendously important.]

Gaps are inevitable in any narrative, which is a good thing since, as Wolfgang Iser has written, “It is only through inevitable omissions that a story gains its dynamism” (as quoted in Abbott, p. 91). Our readings give narrative its power. Still, it can be interesting to think about underreading or overreading as we attempt to engage with the novels we love, and love to hate.

*This point can be made about texts in general, of course, but this is a book blog and I’m sticking with books.

A Disability Rights Critique of The Sense of An Ending: Or, What Does Tony REALLY not Get?


Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending made a big splash in 2011, becoming an international bestseller and, in October, winning the Man Booker Prize. I love this author, who tends to take up philosophical themes, and I looked forward to reading it. The huge proliferation of professional reviews was to be expected (here’s a list on Barnes’ website), but what surprised me, noodling around the internet, was the ton of book blogger reviews and the long comment threads they inspired.Here’s the book blurb:

Tony Webster and his clique first met Adrian Finn at school. Sex-hungry and book-hungry, they navigated the girl drought of gawky adolescence together, trading in affectations, in-jokes, rumour and wit. Maybe Adrian was a little more serious than the others, certainly more intelligent, but they swore to stay friends forever. Until Adrian’s life took a turn into tragedy, and all of them, especially Tony, moved on and did their best to forget.

Now Tony is in middle age. He’s had a career and a marriage, a calm divorce. He gets along nicely, he thinks, with his one child, a daughter, and even with his ex-wife. He’s certainly never tried to hurt anybody. Memory, though, is imperfect. It can always throw up surprises, as a lawyer’s letter is about to prove. The unexpected bequest conveyed by that letter leads Tony on a dogged search through a past suddenly turned murky. And how do you carry on, contentedly, when events conspire to upset all your vaunted truths?


After reading the novel I recognized that two features of the ending would generate a lot of comment: (1) Barnes leaves open a number of plot and character questions (an issue I hope to take up in a later post), and (2) more importantly, framing the bulk of the novel as a kind of emotional mystery (the bequest referenced in the blurb). All throughout the novel, it’s clear that Tony is an unreliable narrator, but at the end, there is a “double twist” that forces the reader to view herself as unreliable (or too complacent), and begs for a revaluation of what has come before (I would call it Shyamalan-esque but that seems too critical, and not really apt). Reviewers have referred to the novella, and especially the end, as “harsh”, “disturbing”,  and “unforgiving.”

***What I say in the rest of the post completely spoils the end.***

Continue reading

Review: Pricks and Pragmatism by JL Merrow *Free right now for Kindle and Nook*

Pricks and Pragmatism is a romance novella in the m/m subgenre (Samhain, 2010), set on the south coast of England. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it is free right now on Kindle and Nook. If you like this subgenre of romance, you’d be crazy not to download it right now.

How it starts tells you most of what you need to know about the plot:

I looked up from my Uni notes on Rakes and Libertines as Sebastian walked into the flat. He was a vision in Armani, as always, his sleek black hair allowed to grey artfully just at the temples and no further. He’d said once he thought it gave him gravitas; I’d told him I’d grab his arse any time he wanted.

I was lying on the rug in front of the mock fireplace wearing nothing but the Calvin Kleins he’d bought me. On the rug, because Sebastian would have thrown a hissy fit if I’d taken pens on the sofa; in my underwear, because there’s nothing wrong with giving a bloke something nice to look at after a hard day at the office.

I flashed him my best smile over my bare shoulder. “Hey, handsome.”

He didn’t smile back. There was a strange tension around his eyes that made me think that, if it hadn’t been for the Botox, he’d have been frowning. His gaze travelled down my body and stopped at my arse, and for a moment there was something almost like regret in his eyes. That was when I realised what was coming, before he even opened his mouth. “Luke, I need you to move out by the weekend.”

They always said it like that. Never “I want you to move out,” because if it was only something they wanted, maybe I’d try and talk them out of it. Safer to say they needed me to go, like it was out of their hands. Sometimes they added a bit, dressed it up with “It’s been fun”, or “Sorry”, but the bottom line was always the same. I never made a scene. After all, chances were whoever they were chucking me out for wasn’t going to last, and I might want to come back one day.

The narrator, Luke Corbin, is a university student who hopes to become a journalist. He’s already published a couple of freelance articles (one on domestic violence among gay men), but he needs to finish school and get a steady job. Luke is bleach blond, small but dense with muscle, well-dressed, and gorgeous. He loves sex, and he’s only too happy to offer it to a flatmate with means. He enjoys the good life, appreciates tailored suits and fine food, and at first seems not just resigned, but fairly content with his lifestyle.

After getting jilted by Sebastian, Luke moves in with Russell, a friend of a friend. Russell is a chemical engineer with a nice apartment near the docks overlooking Southampton Water. He’s polite and kind, but not the type Luke is used to:

Well, he was a bit of a geek. Actually, he was a lot of a geek. Round face and too-long mousy brown hair, although at least he’d washed it. An actual beard to match; and we’re not talking a neatly trimmed goatee, either. He wore a shapeless sweater over a shirt his mum must have bought him, and glasses from Nerds’R’Us.

Russell sets off Luke’s gaydar, but he’s not interested in sex, and actually seems a bit scandalized that Luke assumes their living arrangement includes it. Luke’s not sure how to respond to Russell, so he settles for making him dinner each night and trying to serve him in more platonic ways.

Slowly (or, as slowly as possible given the page constraint of a novella), over dinners, nights at the pub, and chats about their childhoods, they become real friends. Luke has to learn to value himself for more than a bit of fun, and Russell, well, there wasn’t much character development in Russell, as there was a slow unveiling of his character to Luke, and thus, to the reader.  But there’s no question that his association with Luke opens up new vistas for him, sexual and otherwise.

When I respond so immediately, and so positively, to a romance, I get lost in it, and it’s often hard to articulate what I loved about it. I’ll just list a few things here: (1) the geographical setting, used to great effect (2) the social setting, a believable and complex web of male relationships, gay and straight (3) the economic setting — working blokes, (4) the characters who popped, especially Luke, who was a lovable rascal from the first page, but also the secondary characters like Sebastian (5) a hero who was not very attractive or suave, and never had to endure a makeover, a nice change, (6) the author’s voice, economical yet lively.

Of course, things get wrapped up too quickly. And, as I mentioned, Russell could have used more development. Finally, the novella was a bit waffly on the question of why Luke was the way he was: the introduction of daddy issues was predictable in this subgenre, but as well done as it could be.

I will definitely be reading more by this author.

Review: Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal, by Julie Metz

I picked this one up in the Detroit airport on a whim. Perfection (2009, Hyperion Books, 344 pages) is a memoir about a freelance graphic designer and artist whose husband, Henry, drops dead at age forty-seven. The memoir begins grippingly with that tragic moment, and then takes us through the first six months of grief and healing, including a brief affair with a younger man in their circle of friends. It picks up steam when, six months later after Henry’s death, through gossip, friends, and an email trail, Metz discovers that Henry was having an affair with a close friend and fellow resident of the upscale Long Island suburb in which they reside. Worse, this woman’s six year old daughter was best friends with the author’s own little girl. In short order, Metz discovers at least five more affairs. She has to reevaluate her life and pick up the pieces, which includes tracking down and confronting the other women, conducting her own sexual and romantic experiments, and, eventually, moving back to the city.

This is a well-written and fairly compelling memoir. It served the purpose of getting me electronics-free through takeoffs and landings. Here’s the opening bit:

It happened like this: Henry’s footsteps on the old wooden floorboards. The toilet flushing. More footsteps, perhaps on the stairs. Silence. Then the thud.

I was working downstairs in my office on a bitterly cold Wednesday afternoon. My workspace was an enclosed sunporch off our living room, the small-paned windows on three sides framing a view of the snowy hills across the road. Wrapped in a shawl, wearing fuzzy socks on my chilled feet, I continued studying the project on my computer screen. I had been a graphic designer for nearly twenty years, a freelancer, specializing in cover designs for book publishers. Today’s project was a novel about hard-luck cowboys, due yesterday, as always. I stopped fiddling with type design possibilities as I glanced at the computer clock—in an hour I would have to make a dash out to the car to pick up our six-and a half-year-old daughter Liza just before school let out at 3:10. Henry had been sick in bed all morning. There would be the freezing cold wait and the daily social milling with the other mothers on the school playground, then the quick drive home to finish my work. I’d wear my new sheepskin coat today and feel guilty about its expense on a warmer day. On second thought, the distressed sans serif type worked better with the moody image of a cowboy leaning against a split rail fence.

Suddenly my brain rewound sharply.

It wasn’t a package dropped outside by the UPS guy.

My office phone rang. Instinctively, I answered. The photographer on the line asked me how I liked the images he had emailed.

It wasn’t the cats knocking groceries off the kitchen counter.

“I can’t talk now—something bad is happening.” I ended the call abruptly.

The rooms were silent as I ran up the stairs, calling for Henry. Two of our four cats skittered out of my way, their nails clawing the wooden treads. The bedroom was empty. I raced back down the stairs.

I found Henry on his back, spread-eagled on the kitchen floor, his head a few inches from the oven broiler.


So why didn’t I love this book? While I appreciated that Metz didn’t make her marriage seem perfect in order to highlight the tragedy of the loss or the shock of the discovery of his affairs, by the end, I had a portrait of such a vile man and an awful relationship that I couldn’t figure out why on earth she was, or ever had been, with this guy. He ignored and yelled at their kid, called her moody and neurotic and insisted she stay on drugs so she wouldn’t complain about him or their marriage, was basically unemployed (he blew through an advance he had to write a book on “umami”, or perfection), overspent, flirted outrageously, and was terminally pissy. Telling the reader over and over Henry was charming, a flirt, the life of the party, is not the same as actually showing it, and I could never see the attraction.

Memoirs don’t have to showcase bad things happening to good people, or chart the personal growth that results, but this is supposed to do both, and does neither. I developed expectations based on the title and blurbs, which were reinforced by the book club questions at the end of the book (as Metz says, “I hope it will provide comfort for those women who have experienced the intense shame and loss of infidelity. I hope my book can serve as a cautionary tale for younger women as they make partner choices.”). Yet, I found myself feeling very distant from the author, never getting a sense of who she really is.

I wondered how she could fall in love with this man, who first came on to her at a party while his girlfriend stood not ten feet away. While they dated, he had an affair with his massage therapist. I wondered how on earth this guy’s marital infidelities could have surprised her. During their marriage, he struck up intense friendships with single women he would fly thousands of miles visit. At one point, he met a very young stunner at a local party and hired her to be his “spiritual guide”. None of these rang alarm bells for Metz? Really? As for “Cathy”, the mother he was having an affair with, he’d go to her house when neither kid was there, just to “hang out”. The reader is also informed later that Metz herself had an affair with a married man prior to meeting Henry. Many of these revelations come late in the book. Certainly, if I had known all of this at the beginning, the “shock” of infidelity in the marriage would have been greatly lessened, and the narrative impact, such as it was, dulled.

Obviously, many women do get into bad relationships, but what I wanted more of was an answer to the question of what needs in Metz were met by Henry. Why did she stay married to someone whom she is sexually repelled by, and describes as “smarmy”. Inchoate gesturing to their young child really doesn’t cut it in this day and age, when divorce is as common and easy as pie. Even more to the point, what did she contribute to the failure of that marriage? What were her flaws? What did her claws sink into when she let them out? The reader gets a glimpse during an argument in which Metz remarks, “I don’t know what you do all day”, pointing out that she herself, as the breadwinner, doesn’t have time for gym visits and long lunches. Not in this memoir, but in an interview, I discovered that Henry’s one published book was actually about the “male pregnancy”, a memoir about Metz’s pregnancy with their daughter: he seemed to have more pregnancy symptoms than she did. In just how many ways did he depend on her? And how burdensome did that feel?  And why? Exploring that kernel, perhaps of some hidden resentment and anger, might have revealed something really interesting about the love-hate relationship Metz seemed to have with Henry, but she doesn’t go there. Or anywhere interesting, really, when it comes to her own complicity and agency in the life she co-created with him.

Metz has said she called the book “perfection”, not only as a reference to the book project Henry was working on, but to highlight the ways women are coerced into portraying their lives as perfect, leading them to downplay or ignore the flaws. Yet, at the end I felt this was a book about other people’s flaws. So, while I turned the pages to see who Henry’s next affair was with (torrid emails with lines like “I love the fact that you love me so much and I love that fact that I love you so much. I love it when the both of us are able to express this love.” made for wince inducing but entertaining reading), whether there would be a showdown at the school parking lot, or whether the author’s next date would pan out, I can’t recommend this as a meditation on grief or marriage or infidelity. It’s much closer to People magazine than to Didion.




Links: YA Kerfuffles, Lesbian Fiction, A Genre Awakened, a Rick Santorum Hey Girl

Lots of drama in the new year from Young Adult authors taking reviewers to task for critical reviews. The Bookpushers have a roundup with all the links, including caches of deleted posts (why, why don’t people realize that publishing something on the internet is like peeing in a pool? You cannot take it back!)  here.


YA Highway has a long post that attempts to find some middle ground for going forward here.


Thanks to KT Grant, author of erotic lesbian romance, we have the Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event, which began this weekend:

a 14 day event highlighting the Lesbian genre from the authors who write Lesbian fiction, the publishers who publish it and the bloggers who read it and promote it. Every day leading up to January 21st, there will be at least 2 posts a day promoting the Lesbian genre and why it’s so amazing.


Cecilia Grant’s historical romance debut, A Lady Awakened, is getting loads of buzz, in part for some genre-irregular features. Check out Liz’s post for links to some reviews and discussion. It was also reviewed by Willaful on Goodreads, as well as many other usual suspects, including Mandi of Smexy Books, romance author Moriah Jovan, Sarah the Brazen Bookworm, and others. And here’s another strongly positive review, from Animejune of Gossamer Obsessions.


From The Chronicle Review, Queer and Then?, an article that assesses the state of the field, and looks to its future:

At its best, queer theory has always also been something else—something that will be left out of any purely intellectual history of the movement. Like “I want a dyke for president,” it has created a kind of social space. Queer people of various kinds, both inside and outside academe, continue to find their way to it, and find each other through it. In varying degrees, they share in it as a counterpublic. In this far-too-limited zone, it has been possible to keep alive a political imagination of sexuality that is otherwise closed down by the dominant direction of gay and lesbian politics, which increasingly reduces its agenda to military service and marriage, and tends to remain locked in a national and even nationalist frame, leading gay people to present themselves as worthy of dignity because they are “all-American,” and thus to forget or disavow the estrangements that they have in common with diasporic or postcolonial queers.


Michigan State has a great Celebrity Lecture Series, with lectures by E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, and many other writers. For a list of noncelebrity lectures on topics like journalism, poetry, the state of art, and others, click here.



Remember those Ryan Gosling Tumblrs (Hey girl…) last year? Well, our feminist friends have done one for Rick Santorum. Hilarious. (via Feministe)


In a more serious vein, Great Christina, whose essay on the definition of sex I taught last fall to great results, has a terrific post, “Why “Yes, But” is the wrong response to misogyny.

“Yes, but… calling attention to misogyny just makes it worse. Don’t feed the trolls. You should just ignore it.”

“Yes, but… do you have to be so angry and emotional and over-sensitive about it? That doesn’t help your argument or your cause.”

“Yes, but… what about male circumcision?”

“Yes, but… Rebecca Watson or some other feminist said something mean or unfair in another conversation weeks/ months/ years ago. Why aren’t we talking about that?”


From Inside Higher Ed, Peer Review: Kill it or reform it?


From the Chronicle, Scholarly Reflections on blogging. I have to say, though, that the last bit reifies the distinction between blogging and scholarship in a way I find troubling:

I started blogging just last year. And I realized this: I am not a blogger. I am a scholar who blogs. Sometimes. And slowly. I like to think that I can move with the grace and speed of the hare. But I’m still guided by the mantra of the tortoise: “Slow and steady wins the race.”


At Salon, Laura Miller says we can thank Snooki for the death of the celebrity memoir.


Finally, as a professor of a possibly dying discipline, from The Atlantic, Don’t Let the Economy Pick Your Major For You, on a Georgetown report on majors and earnings.


Happy day!



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