Recent Reading: Romance

June is always a busy month: I scramble to finish as much of my work as I can before my kids are done with school, amidst all their end-of-year activities. This year’s June included travel (followed by days of nasty sinus headache) and a teachers’ strike that meant my daughter had random days off and then got out of school two weeks early. So looking through my reading journal, I’m surprised to see how much I read and listened to, and with how much pleasure. This month’s reading successes and failures also have me thinking about how the “romance reader” label fits me now, and what place romance has in my reading life.

Romance (your mama’s kind?)

I really enjoyed the older romances I read and listened to this month: Joan Smith’s A Highwayman Came Riding, a selection of Heyer (Pistols for Two, Charity Girl and currently The Black Moth on audio), and Mary Burchell’s Take Me With You.  Continue reading

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Based on a True Story, by Elizabeth Renzetti

I read Elizabeth Renzetti’s début novel, Based on a True Story, for a completely shallow reason: I have a little internet crush on the author and her husband, Doug Saunders, both of whom write for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. I enjoy their writing, and they seem like interesting people with cooler lives than mine. (Shit. They’re probably also people with Google alerts for their names. But opening a review of Based on a True Story with a little self-humiliation seems fitting, since its protagonists, Augusta and Frances, face some humiliations of their own).

Renzetti employs familiar women’s fiction and chick lit elements, but there’s a bitter, satirical edge to her story (one reviewer describes it as “a faint taste of arsenic“). Just as I was thinking to myself “This is like chick lit written by, I don’t know . . . Evelyn Waugh?” Renzetti dropped in an allusion to Waugh’s Hollywood satire The Loved One. I felt quite smug until I realized that the novel’s epigraph is from Waugh’s book; it wasn’t cleverness, just my subconscious memory at work.

At her best, Renzetti rises to the tart-tongued aphorism of that epigraph, which reads “Her heart was broken perhaps but it was a small inexpensive organ of local manufacture.” Based on a True Story is often darkly funny, but it’s also serious about the consequences of bad behaviour (and addiction) and the pain of failure at work and relationships. Truer to its women’s genre roots than to Waugh, perhaps, the ending is hopeful. I enjoyed it very much. Continue reading

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The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol

When I picked up Molly Antopol’s début story collection, The UnAmericans, from the library, I discovered that it comes with a heavy freight of praise: on the front cover, there’s a sticker identifying her as a National Book Foundation “5 under 35 author” and a blurb from Adam Johnson describing her as “a writer of seismic talent;” the back cover is filled by other big-name blurbers like Jesmyn Ward, Abraham Verghese, and Lauren Groff. I’m not sure about this marketing strategy, because there’s always part of me thinking “Bullshit!” (or at least “Really? Show me what you’ve got”). I don’t know if I’d call Antopol “a seismic talent”–I think the language many literary writers use to praise each other is clichéd nonsense–but I liked these stories a lot.

The eight stories in this volume span decades and continents: teenagers in a Jewish resistance group in WWII Belarus; a pair of brothers in the contemporary Israeli army; Jewish characters in California, New England, New York whose ties to the Old World and its politics, however weak, still bind them. They draw on Antopol’s family history, including the dark parts her relatives won’t talk about, but which she wants to understand (that link has some really interesting reflections from Antopol on what kinds of historical truth the novelist is responsible to).

The narrator of “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story,” a young woman who keeps prying into the family past, could be seen as a stand-in for the author. At the end of that story, her grandmother, a former resistance fighter, says,

I don’t understand you. All your life you’ve been like this, pulling someone into a corner at every family party, asking so many questions. . . . It’s a beautiful day. Your grandfather’s on the patio grilling hamburgers. . . . Why don’t you go out in the sun and enjoy yourself for once, rather than sitting inside, scratching at ugly things that have nothing to do with you? These horrible things that happened before you were born.

These, I think, are the questions around which the stories revolve: why are the narrators/point-of-view characters obsessed with a past or a politics that isn’t their own? Why can’t they just let it go and be ordinary and happy? Or is it theirs? Is it really true that something has “nothing to do with you” just because it happened before you were born? Continue reading

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Reading Challenge

This week featured–as seems inevitable lately–someone telling people they should be ashamed about what they read. You probably surrendered, as I did, to the lure of Slate’s clickbait and discovered that if you’re an adult, you should be embarrassed to read YA books, because they are simplistic dreck for children. There have been lots of good rebuttals and I’m not going to repeat them here. But I’m interested in the idea that reading YA (and presumably a lot of other popular things) is bad for adults because it means they aren’t challenging themselves. I’d like to challenge some of the common ideas about what “challenging” reading means, or what makes a challenging book.

This week, Eimear McBride won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the style of which is widely described as “difficult,” and which was inspired in part by McBride’s reading of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I requested the book from my library. And then I read this comment from McBride:

Her experience suggests publishers have been underestimating readers, says McBride. “I think the publishing industry is perpetuating this myth that readers like a very passive experience, that all they want is a beach novel. I don’t think that’s true, and I think this book doing as well as it has is absolute proof of that. There are serious readers who want to be challenged, who want to be offered something else, who don’t mind being asked to work a little bit to get there.”

She hopes her success might lead to the publication of other seriously ambitious novels. “There is a readership there, they deserve to be catered to, and literature needs new blood pumped through it all the time, or it becomes stale and purposeless. It’s not a museum piece. It needs to be pushed forward.”

Continue reading

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Reunion Reading, or What I Did Instead of RT

I would have loved to go to the RT convention to meet blogger/Twitter/author friends in real life. But I already had an East Coast trip enshrined in my May calendar: my 25th college reunion, to which I had promised to take my daughter. I’m not sorry about my choice, though I’d love to do a romance conference one day.

Gothic-style dormitory with castle towers.

My daughter outside my favorite dorm. My room, where the arrow is, had French doors onto the roof for drinking and sunbathing. Sadly, it has since been reconfigured.

And actually, I thought a lot about how my reunion was like RT. True, there was less discussion in advance about pedicures and shoes, more about who was bringing her lantern for Step Sing. And we talked about work and parents and children and partners and old times, not books and blogging and genre romance. But it was a few days spent in a community of amazing, smart, accomplished, supportive women (I went to a women’s college), catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. I even managed to meet up with some online pals, Victoria Janssen and Natalie Luhrs. It was a pretty great time.

Of course, it did involve two very long travel days, and hours without internet access mean reading! I am not the best at concentrating while traveling so I read bits of lots of things. Here are the highlights:

Continue reading

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