Pride & Joy

One of my jobs as department chair is to re-read assessment test essays that fall into a specific gray zone (the essays are usually scored by a computer; don’t get me started on this). I find it difficult, because the writing prompts are so vague and anodyne that no one could write a good essay in response to them. Can any obstacle be turned to something good? How much free will do we have in our life choices? (I don’t see the actual prompts but I can infer them from the essays). I’m left going with “hey, they can write a sentence!” because logical structure and supporting examples, let alone interesting ideas, are hard to provide in these circumstances.

I was thinking about this as I pondered the theme of this year’s Read a Romance Month: joy. My biggest problem with RARM is that I think it’s a big promotional exercise. But I also think that if you’re soliciting 93 essays, 1. you shouldn’t limit them all to a single theme (won’t we be totally unsurprised by joy by August 31?), and 2. “joy” is so vague and anodyne that it’s hard to say something interesting about it. Celebrating the genre with a focus solely on positive, feel-good terms sells it short. To describe romance fiction, and reading and writing romance, as only about joy, hope, and happiness flattens the genre and our experiences of it, and leaves out a lot of what makes romance fiction great. It suggests such novels can’t, or at least don’t, include the breadth of human emotion and experience. Continue reading

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The Gallery of Vanished Husbands, by Natasha Solomons

Cover of Natasha Solomons Gallery of Vanished Husbands. A woman with red lipstick (the top of her head is cut off, of course) wearing a green sleeveless dress, gloves, and a beaded choker necklace.Natasha Solomons’ Gallery of Vanished Husbands was a browsing find at my favorite bookstore (yes, I still do find some books that way, and some great ones). How could that title and cover not catch my eye? I’ve been reading more paper books again lately because some are easier for me to concentrate on that way (“lighter” genre books are a good e-reading choice for me). That’s meant diversifying the kind of books I read, too, which has helped to pull me out of a long spell of feeling disaffected about reading–not exactly a slump, but a cranky period.

From the back cover:

“At thirty a woman has a directness in her eye. Juliet Montague did anyhow. She knew exactly what she wanted. She wanted a refrigerator.”

But in a rash moment, Juliet commissions a portrait of herself instead. She has been closeted by her conservative Jewish community for too long, ever since her husband disappeared. Now she is ready to be seen.

So begins the journey of a suburban wife and mother into the heart of ’60s London and the thriving art world, where she proves an astute spotter of talent. Yet she remains an outsider, drawn to a reclusive artist who never leaves Dorset and unable to feel free until she has tracked down her husband–a quest that leads to California and a startling discovery.

Continue reading

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Vacation Reading: Non-Fiction

Hey! So! While I was on summer vacation I had great reading mojo (aka not so great weather). I read a lot of good things, and I wanted to write about them in more depth than I’ve managed lately. But I’ve still got jetlag, so I’m starting easy with the non-fiction I can’t really review in depth (because one I passed to my parents and one was audio).

French tall ship Hermione in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia harborRandom (blurry) vacation photo: French tall ship Hermione enters Lunenburg, Nova Scotia harbour. This was quite the event and we just happened to be there for it. The smoke is from her 21-gun salute.





Molly Peacock, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72

I read this book–a hybrid biography of an 18th-century woman, memoir of poet Peacock, and reflection on creativity and/in old age–because of Rohan’s wonderful review, which I pretty much agree with. I had forgotten about the book until I happened upon it in a 50% off closing sale. Mary Delany created almost 1000 incredibly detailed and accurate portraits of flowers from cut paper. Peacock’s book reproduces several (it’s a beautiful object itself) and you can see a few at the British Museum site. Delany’s life is fascinating; I was less interested in Peacock’s, but I did like the way she talked about looking for role models–both for making art and for living–and what kind of model she found in Mrs. Delany. At times I felt she was over-reaching in her “readings” of the flower portraits and the connections she made to Mrs. Delany’s life, but I was willing to go along with her, in part because I saw that as a poet’s way of thinking. Continue reading

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TBR Challenge: Doukakis’s Apprentice, by Sarah Morgan

This month’s TBR Challenge them is “Lovely RITA,” a book that won or was nominated for a RITA (Wendy helped us find them). I had a handful of contenders in my TBR, but I dismissed the ones that are later in a series I haven’t started, because I’m a bit obsessive about reading in order. My initial plan was to read Laura Drake’s The Sweet Spota second-chance romance that won best first book last year (gosh, she’s been busy since then), just because almost no one I know read or talked about this one. But I was short on time because I’m getting ready to go on vacation, so I went with Sarah Morgan’s Doukakis’s Apprentice, a Harlequin Presents.

Morgan writes my kind of Presents: on the light and comic rather than super-angsty side. I’d never call her books parody, but I think she relates to the conventions of the line somewhat the way her heroines relate to her heroes: the heroine may roll her eyes at and gently mock his alpha machismo, but she’s attracted to it, too. Reading a Morgan Presents, I always feel like she’s saying to the reader, “Yeah, this is kind of over the top, but isn’t it fun?” And because of that attitude, I find that it is. Doukakis’s Apprentice was a delight, even when I was rolling my eyes at the 100th description of Damon Doukakis’s broad, broad shoulders and the way he “wore his masculinity like a banner, overt and unapologetic.” It’s over the top, yes, and it is a lot of fun. Continue reading

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Recent Reading: Summer Escapes

I’ve been reading in fits and starts: some days I read for hours, others I don’t open a book. I can’t really explain why my reading mojo is so erratic, but part of it is reading a number of books that started slowly but then really sucked me in. I’m calling these “summer escapes” because they immersed me in their worlds.

Uprooted, by Naomi Novik

I’d like to write a full review of this one, but I had an ebook from the library and returned it as soon as I finished, since others were waiting. I like Ana’s review at things mean a lot, though I’d say my feelings were more mixed. If you want a sense of the plot as context for my random comments, read it! I agree that Novik successfully builds from a quiet coming-of-age story to an epic fantasy–and then returns to a quieter note, and I too appreciated the way the “man vs. nature” theme of the Evil Wood gets reconsidered as the story goes on. But I definitely preferred the quieter parts of the story (this is almost always true for me. It’s like super hero movies: I like the origin story/discover your powers part, and then it’s all giant special effects action scenes and I get bored). Uprooted‘s battles used magic in some original ways, but there’s a certain sameness to the rhythm of battle scenes, and I found myself skimming as they took over the book. I did like that Novik acknowledged the cost of slaughter, though this wasn’t fully developed; it made the battle scenes less cartoonish. So often battles seem to have stakes only for the protagonists and everyone else is treated by the narrative as cannon fodder. Continue reading

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