Links are to the books’ Goodreads pages, if you want to know more.
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.
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.
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).
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 Home. And I’ll need something short and light, like another category romance, in there somewhere.