Recent Reading, On and Offline

Today is my husband’s birthday, and thus marks the official start of the holiday season in our family. Normally we put up our tree to celebrate, but as he’s giving an exam until 6:30 (so unfair!) that will have to wait. We do have the tree, though; we lugged it home from the garden store on the corner yesterday. Now that my son is taller than I am, he’s displaced me as assistant tree carrier.

My daughter’s school celebrates the last week by carol-singing every morning, with Miss Becky the kindergarten teacher at the piano. I love this ritual. I may be stressed and depressed at this time of year, but the kids are full of joy as they bellow out “5 GOLD-en riiiiiings” or “let it snow!” or their extra-special version of “Rudolph.” It’s a great way to start the day.

Work is winding down and I’ve mostly finished shopping and mailed off packages and cards. I am starting to relax and look forward to the holidays. I may hate shopping, but I love giving. The first half of my week was pretty crazy, so I’m tired and haven’t done much reading. Here are some random thoughts on what’s caught my frazzled attention:

In the Christmas Spirit: Generosity

Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had an interesting story on the importance of generosity for a happy marriage. Generosity means acts of service that go above and beyond what’s expected of a partner. Pitching in to raise kids doesn’t count, making coffee every morning does. The top three predictors of a happy marriage? Sexual intimacy, commitment, and generosity.

Once I’d congratulated myself for choosing a generous spouse, and realized I could step up my own game, I wondered whether that generosity is portrayed in romance fiction. I haven’t come up with specific examples yet, but I do think there’s a link, both in life and in fiction, between sexual intimacy and generosity. There are a lot of romance sex scenes focused on the hero giving pleasure to his partner, for instance.

Then I wandered on to the question of reading romance fiction in a generous spirit. Jessica of Read React Review read Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me with her Ethics and Fiction class, and remarked that “many readers went into the book unwilling to forgive anything, so negative was their impression of the genre.” Merrian’s comment on my last post made me take a more generous view of a romance trope I’d been thinking quite negatively about. And Pamela Regis’ manifesto for romance scholars, which Laura Vivanco links to and discusses at Teach me Tonight, strikes me as partly a call for a generous approach: for instance, “We owe the romance novel a good-faith effort to uncover the complexity that our discipline values so highly” and “We owe the romance a just consideration of its happily-ever-after or happy-for-now ending.”

Regis doesn’t argue that scholars should be uncritical, but she does suggest that they should not assume that one weak book chosen at random exemplifies the genre; nor should they assume romance fiction has shortcomings and focus on finding them. That’s standard good advice for romantic partners, come to think of it. Regis’ language (we “owe” this) is that of duty, not generosity, and it makes me wonder whether my concept of generosity is a little stingy. Am I a Grinchy reader? Maybe I need to practice generosity for a happier relationship with my reading material.

To paraphrase Augustine, “Make me generous, but not yet.” I’ve got some Grinchy thoughts to get off my chest first.

Holmes, Redux

I am listening to Anthony Horowitz’s House of Silk, the first new Sherlock Holmes novel to recieve the imprimatur of the Conan Doyle estate. I have loved Sherlock Holmes stories since childhood, wrote part of my dissertation on them, and regularly teach “Scandal in Bohemia.” I had high hopes for Horowitz’s book: I enjoyed his young-Bond-esque Alex Rider books and his WW II-homefront series Foyle’s War. That combination of high-octane action and cozy mystery seemed like it could lead to a fresh take on Holmes.

So far I am underwhelmed; as The Little Professor says, “we are always on familiar ground” (I haven’t read to the end of her review, not wanting to spoil whatever excitement may prove to be on offer). Conan Doyle famously tired of Holmes, killed him off, and had to bring him back. This novel seems as re-hashed as some of the late Holmes stories do. Much like an authorized biography, it (so far) lacks dirt and juice. Why resurrect Holmes without an invigoriating shot in the arm of something new? I’m fond of Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell books and TV’s Sherlock, for instance, both of which do something different with the character.

The byzantine history of the Conan Doyle estate, on the other hand, is a good story.

Inspirational History?

I’m not the first reader to note that Inspirational Romance has more diverse historical and geographical settings than the mainstream kind. Maybe that’s to demonstrate that God is at work everywhere and at all times? Whenever these settings tempt me to try an inspie, though, something like this thoughtful post by Danielle at The Romantic Armchair Traveller puts me off again: 1918 Liberia? Ooooh! A narrative voice that replicates the colonialist attitudes of missionary characters? Ewwww! Danielle, on the other hand, is always worth reading.


While a fictional folklorist may study demon lovers, my favorite story today was a piece from Inside Higher Ed about a real-life folklorist, Whitney Phillips, a graduate student in English at the University of Oregon, studying trolls: internet trolls, that is.

The Phillips article cited by IHE is on “RIP trolling,” in which trolls target pages set up to memorialize victims of death and disaster. According to Phillips, this kind of trolling is aimed not at victims or their families, but at “disrupt[ing]–or at least challeng[ing]–the sensationalism, narcissism, and vapid communitarian sentimentality fostered by the 24-hour cable news cycle and social media.” It’s hard not to sympathize with those aims, but as both the IHE article and some commenters point out, such trolling isn’t exactly victimless.  

This article reminded me of the spate of stories a few weeks ago on the perils of blogging while female. Those bloggers’ experiences show why studying trolling is important, but it’s awfully hard to see their trolls as providing some kind of useful social commentary.

“Book Club” Fiction

Two of my favorite reader-bloggers, Jessica and Rohan, recently posted on examples of “book club fiction”–books popular with book clubs that get a lot of buzz and praise. Neither of them cared much for the books, and Jessica commented that that’s “typical of [her] response to book club fiction.” Yep. The mere existence of a “discussion guide” for book clubs in the back of a book is usually enough to make me stuff it back on the shelf. 

You know that idea (where does it come from? My Fair Lady?) that aristocrats and working class people get along fine, but they both despise the middle class? That’s more or less how I feel about “book club” books. They may have a whiff of the exotic, but are solidly middle-brow and unchallenging, packed with a comfortable moral/nuggets of wisdom designed to make readers feel good about themselves. Blergh.

I dare you to suggest one I should try.

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8 Responses to Recent Reading, On and Offline

  1. VacuousMinx says:

    I have one! I have one!

    I loathe book club books. Just the sight of an Oprah Seal Of Mediocrity And Depression is enough to send me running from the room. BUT. It turns out monkeys CAN type Hamlet.

    A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. One of my favorite books on India ever. Alternately uplifting and depressing, and eventually horrifying, but really really good. Brilliant, even (not a word I use often). I know the places and the era both experientially and intellectually, and he totally nails it. But you never feel like you’re being lectured to or “educated.”

    And Happy Birthday to The Husband!

    • lizmc2 says:

      I actually read that! For a book club even! OK, to be honest, I read part of it. I was either about to give birth or just had, and I didn’t have the energy for it. But I did like what I read, and should go back to re-read/finish one day.

  2. Merrian says:

    I read the troll article and thought that it is about a very specfic instance and not the same thing as the comments trolling we saw discussed regarding the experiences of female bloggers. I don’t do book club fiction at all and see it as a genre that doesn’t work for me.

    Happy hubby’s birthday and tree decorating!

    • lizmc2 says:

      You’re right, she was focused on a very specific kind of trolling. But I had those examples of how hurtful trolling can be in mind, which meant that while I found the article really interesting, I wasn’t sure I could buy her argument (I’d like to track down the actual article to check out, though).

  3. Rosario says:

    My book club doesn’t usually read typical book club-type books (possibly because I’m the one who takes a list of suggestions for the following month, and I can’t stand them!), but we’ve still ended up with a few over the years. Some were awful (like Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper… eurgh), but I quite enjoyed Pigeon English, by Stephen Kelman, The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak and Room, by Emma Donoghue. Not sure if all of them would qualify, but all had questions at the back and are popular with book clubs, so I guess they probably would.

    • lizmc2 says:

      One thing I really like about belonging to a book club (which I do off and on) is that you read things you might not otherwise, and some of them turn out to be wonderful reading experiences, or challenging ones.

  4. willaful says:

    I so want to take that dare, but I have no idea what books are book club books. My first thought was Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand which just kind of smells like a book club book… or possibly it had discussion questions at the back and I’m subconsciously remembering that? Anyway, it was worth reading.

  5. willaful says:

    Aha! The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington. It has a Reader’s Digest edition, so it must count. Lovely book, and romantic too.

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