Recent Reading

Links are to the books’ Goodreads pages, if you want to know more.

Literary Fiction

Finally finished Zadie Smith’s NW. I find it hard to talk about a book if I don’t have a “reading” of it. I just don’t know what I think about NW, or what I think it was trying to do. I found it easy to put down and forget about, though I liked the ideas about place and origins and whether we can ever leave home. This would be great for a digital humanities project mapping the characters’ movements through London. I’m a reader who likes plot, and though I found the formal experiments here interesting, it lacked the narrative verve and forward drive of White Teeth. Yet each of the episodes did build to a climax, and in retrospect I could see the clues that it was going to.

Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard is an epistolary novel featuring a pair of writers. Yes please! My gold standard for this kind of thing is A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and Bauer didn’t hit those heights for me. But it’s hardly fair to compare a 200-page book entirely in letters to Byatt’s huge, dense novel. Frances and Bernard are apparently loosely inspired by Flannery O’Conner and Robert Lowell, two writers I know as little about as is possible for someone with a PhD in English. A writer who bases her characters on famous writers invites invidious comparison, and Bauer wisely doesn’t include any of their fiction or poetry. Whether or not her fictional letters rise to the level of her inspirations, I really enjoyed them. The early letters made me nostalgic for those late-night college talks that ranged from big ideas to aspirations to that hot guy in your English class. A couple of favorite passages:

I don’t ever want to feel touched or gifted spiritually. Or sense God moving about on the face of my waters. What a burden! . . . I think I prefer to live at the level of what the British call muddle. (Frances to Bernard, early on)

Ted says there’s no better time than losing your mind to cleave to the decencies and unremarkable sentences of the Victorian novel, sentences bearing plot to the reader like freight car after freight car carrying cargo to its destination in Leeds. (Bernard to Frances, from a mental institution after a manic episode)

I feel related to her still, familial, because she knew me when I was at my most Bernard and I knew her when she was at her most Frances. We’d read each other like books we were endlessly fascinated by. (Bernard to Ted, on meeting Frances a few years after the end of their affair)

As Frances and Bernard go from friends to lovers to ex-both, they move from writing to each other to, increasingly, writing to other people (their best friends, their mutual editor) about each other. One thing this shift suggests is that friendship can be more intimate and emotionally open than romance. As two friends talking to each other about art and faith, Frances and Bernard were more interesting than they were as lovers. The novel suggests that their love for each other consumed energy needed for their art, and that both were better off in marriages to quieter partners. This is sort of a coming of age story–it follows them from their mid-20s to mid-30s–and they are wiser and more accepting of their limits at the end, if also sadder and lonelier. I wished they had stayed friends; it’s not easy to find friendships of the mind and heart in books (or in real life). Failed love affairs are a dime a dozen.

I can see bits of Bauer’s biography in Frances and Bernard; I’ve added her memoir to my library wishlist.

Contemporary Romance

I listened to Jayne Ann Krentz’ Absolutely, Positively, first published in 1996. It’s kind of goofy and over the top, which reminded me that taking the romance genre seriously doesn’t have to mean “serious” books. Krentz is reliable fun for me, even when I don’t think her books are great (and I didn’t with this one). I liked seeing things like her love of the word sleek and interest in paranormal talents in embryo form.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Amy Andrews’ Innocent ’til Proven Otherwise, once past the clichés of the opening scene. I’ve been skimming sex scenes and regretting their seeming dominance in romance fiction (or at least discussion of it) lately, and there is a lot of sex and sexual tension in this book. It worked for me, though, I think because I enjoyed the way the characters talked to each other and because Andrews took a light-hearted approach, despite some serious issues (the heroine is a surgeon and the hero a lawyer defending her and her hospital in a malpractice suit). I think I’m a sucker for characters whose noble attempts to resist each other fail, too.

There was some annoyingly sloppy editing (c’mon Harlequin!), like this clanker of a misplaced modifier:

An errant [curl] flopped down to brush her eyelashes, which she absently blew away as she swished a straw in her glass.

She blew her eyelashes away?

During a phone sex scene, the heroine thinks “It had been many years since she’d done any kind of self-exploration” and feels “juvenile” for doing it now. This kind of thing is so common, and I think romance-writers are going for symbolism, since a partner is the goal of the story. But the idea that solo sex is a sad substitute for “the real thing” rather than a normal part of people’s sexual repertoire is not exactly sex positive.

Mystery

I listened to P.J. Tracy’s Monkeewrench, which I’d had in my TBL forever after hearing good things. My Goodreads review, because I am lazy: This was fun. Liked the slowly-developing puzzle and, especially, the Midwestern cop characters who weren’t cliches. Just the right amount of kookiness. The ending exploded into the kind of action scene that’s excruciating on audio because you can’t go faster and faster. (it was the most conventional bit, too, and while well-done, was less interesting to me than the rest).

What Now?

On audio, I’m not sure. Maybe time for more Bujold? I’m almost halfway through Gaffney’s To Love and to Cherish. I love her fully populated village–and yet, in the midst of all that life, Christy and Anne are still lonely and in need of each other. About to start Liza Palmer’s Nowhere But HomeAnd I’ll need something short and light, like another category romance, in there somewhere.

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7 Responses to Recent Reading

  1. Jessica says:

    I’m glad you like the Amy Andrews. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it given the low level of conflict.

    We talked a little on Twitter about how the “she was so meant to be a surgeon” was communicated in the text, namely, by having her run around with bandaids and concerned words of advice for stranger sin restaurants. Something tells me that this type of nurturing behavior is not how the same message would be communicated for a male doctor.

    But my real question about this book is: how is this a Presents? Do you know the back story? It’s not just that he’s not a billionaire, or an alpha, it’s that this is really not a very exciting story in the classic “soapy” Presents mold. Maybe Presents are changing? I notice it says “Presents Extra”… are “Extras” different?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Ali would have been way more believable as a GP than a neurosurgeon, I agree.

      Extras ARE different. I think that in the UK they were published as Rivas, and now a lot of these authors are writing for the new Kiss line (who can keep track of all this?). They tend to use fewer of the Presents tropes and to have a lighter tone. HQN marketing uses terms like fresh, flirty and (I think, shudder) youthful for them. But they also reveal the breadth of the lines, because someone like Sarah Morgan is similar to these books in tone, but uses more traditional Presents tropes. I tend to like Extras the best of the Presents I’ve tried. I’d recommend Mira Lyn Kelly if you liked this one.

      • Jessica says:

        Interesting! I looked at my Kindle content, and I purchased one Mira Lyn Kelly, Waking Up Married, in December, so I’ll move it up the TBR.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Is that the one that was free (it’s one of the first Kiss books, or a teaser for the line, I think)? I haven’t read that one yet, but I liked Wild Fling or a Wedding Ring? and I have more in my TBR. (I have more of EVERYTHING in my TBR).

  2. Jessica says:

    Yes, the one I have is Waking Up Married, a free Kiss book. If I don’t like it, I’ll pick up one of the others you mention.

  3. I enjoyed Innocent ‘Til Proven Otherwise. Amy Andrews usually writes in the Harlequin Medical lines (which I usually avoid). Her pirate in The Devil and the Deep was also one of my favourite books last year. I love her dialogue. It heightens the tension between her protagonists.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, the dialogue! I think the reason I enjoyed despite feeling negative about books with a high sex quotient right now is that they talked about / during sex. The phone sex scene was fun.

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