Wet Shirt and The Dandy

Eloisa James is a good romance writer; I won’t say she’s great because that’s a tremendously high watermark, but she holds her ground. Her heroines often find ways to mingle in society but still be contrary; often her characters are believable. Her heroes tend to be men’s men, and this I feel lets her books down a bit.

For example, in Wilde in Love, her hero (furthermore to be called Wet Shirt) is likened to a bull presented with a red flag when he sees that the heroine (Reading Glasses) isn’t totally into him. Reading Glasses isn’t indifferent, really; she doesn’t want to get swept up in the social pressure of all the other women bending over backwards to get in Wet Shirt’s good graces. But for some reason, this drives Wet Shirt mad with lust.

This is only the beginning of Wet Shirt’s hypermasculine behavior. He can give looks that scare lesser men away; in fact, all other men beside him appear to be boys: there’s no competing with his raw virility. He thinks virgins are sexy (hah), and he smells good all on his own. In fact, his smell makes all the virgins weep. When he does something girly – like carry a wicker basket with a cute baby skunk inside – it only makes him more masculine. (Yes, they do address skunky smells in the book; it’s the crux of the plot, and therefore not a floater.) Wet Shirt has “honorable eyes and hungry kisses” (200), an oxymoron if ever there was one. He thinks about Reading Glasses’s lips as though they are separate from her (she’s a whole person, dammit!), and he thinks that her sexually-awakened smile is girl-like. I am shuddering delicately.

So sure, Wilde in Love was pretty good, particularly because the next book in the series could be better – and might even be original. (GASP!!)

Fool for Love, an earlier book, is also okay; you have The Dandy and Gimpy. The Dandy isn’t looking for a life partner until he falls for Gimpy, a woman who isn’t slated for marriage because her limp implies that she wouldn’t survive childbirth. Of course, she’s fine birthing kids at the end of the book, but the whole procedure is fraught with the standard ‘I-mustn’t-but-I-wish-to’ and works out for everyone.

I have a few notes, though. First, you can’t taste emotions or sounds when you kiss someone. You can feel them, you can intuit them, but you can only taste…tastes. Second, the word ‘tummy’ should only be used in reference to toddlers. Period. Using that word to speak of a woman’s belly or stomach is creepy, particularly if you use it again to talk about a naked five year old a scant twelve pages later. It’s gross.

But really, what annoyed me about the book was how, when they first had sex, The Dandy told Gimpy that she would give permission at every stage: he would only do what she’d told him to. This is an excellent strategy to go for, but really only if you follow through. He did not follow through, and so ended up moving on his own schedule. Sure, she didn’t say no – but she didn’t say anything. That’s the problem.

 

I’m trying rather hard not to kvetch too hard about these books, because I did genuinely enjoy reading them. Unfortunately, they are like Mexican food. Great while it’s happening, but a dismal mistake later. I’m not going to say I’m going to eschew reading these stories in the future, but I will get flashes to Pop Culture Disorder’s episodes on the dynamics between men and women; there are a couple about The Big Bang Theory, and about toxic masculinity itself.

In these cases, I think about the difference between hegemonic masculinity and hypermasculinity. Hegemonic masculinity is James Bond: a buff guy in control of his situation who is good at what he does and who can hold his liquor like nobody’s business. Hypermasculinity is taking that trope much too far: masculinity becomes the marker by which men measure other men, devalues women and emotions, and is entirely goal-based. Most romance novel heroes are mainly the former, but can dip into the latter; they do this with regularity and they pander to what readers think they want. But is it really? I have read many romance novels that I have both enjoyed but at the same time questioned: Would I want anyone to treat me this way?

I’d rather not answer ‘no’ so much.

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John Green is a Poet

Reading one of John Green’s books is like sinking into a place completely real, where people throw up, break the rules, and wear on one another. But it’s also a dream world, because everyone is smarter than usual, and everyone is driven by their passions.

In 2015, I finished The Fault in Our Stars in a strip mall parking lot, and it felt right, because these were real people living ordinary lives, people who sat in depressing basements to have horrible meetings, people who felt the hot asphalt under them, drove cars with teenage abandon, and did the best that they could in their environment. So I cried in my car, because the book is sad, but in a cleansing way, in a way that justifies how absurdly popular the book is. And because it wouldn’t have been as good if I’d read it in the sunshine or cuddled into bed. Some books need to be read where they live.

More than that, I’m sensing that John Green’s books are entirely predictable. You know exactly what is going to happen, but it doesn’t matter. You know that it is still a story worth telling, a story you sometimes confuse, because there are moments when you can’t tell who wrote the book, John or his narrator.

I don’t know if John Green has published any poetry, but I do know he’s written it.

I won’t tell you what Looking for Alaska is about. I won’t tell you about the moments that particularly struck me, or how I first mistook it for 50 Shades of Grey at a church fair. I’m giving you poetry instead, lifted from the book and broken up into its lines.

“Page Eighty Two”

“Nothing’s wrong.
But there’s always suffering, Pudge.
Homework
or malaria
or having a boyfriend
who lives far away
when there’s a good-looking boy
lying next to you.
Suffering is universal.
It’s the one thing
Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims
are all worried about.”
I turned to her.
“Oh, so maybe
Dr. Hyde’s class isn’t total bullshit.”
And both of us lying on our sides,
she smiled,
our noses almost touching,
my unblinking eyes on hers,
her face blushing from the wine,
and I opened my mouth again but this time not to speak,
and she reached up
and put her finger
to my lips
and said,
“Shh. Shh. Don’t ruin it.”

 

 

~~~

John and his brother Hank keep a YouTube channel that some people have called the conscience of the internet, but which is also irreverent, introspective, and intelligent. Highly recommended.

Don’t forget to be awesome.

All Over Again

This blog’s existence is thanks to my last New Year’s resolution; surprisingly, I kept it. I have faithfully told you about every single book I finished, and one I didn’t; I shouted into the void innumerable frivolous nothings, and a couple people heard. It’s also been one of the best parts of my life, the part that reminds me that I am a writer, so long as I am writing something. Considering that I’m not exactly sure where my life is going, that has been an extreme comfort.

That is as touchy-feely as this is going to get.

In the year 2017, I:

  1. Got a boyfriend. My mother freaked out with glee. Other people did too, but Mom was/is the loudest.
  2. Ate so much pasta.
  3. Discovered that DeCecco is the best brand of pasta. (Silky, luscious. Even tastes good plain.)
  4. Did a lot of weeding.
  5. Gave up trying to eat all that swiss chard in the garden.
  6. Moved from my parents’ place into an apartment of my own.
  7. Began managing a small store and kind of learned what that entails.
  8. Built doors for the first time, which is harder than it looks.
  9. Sang, usually on key.
  10. Came up with some great dumb jokes.
    How much does it cost to see a calm rhino? No charge.
    What do you call an herb with an LED bulb in it? Thyme efficient.
    How did the ambassador feel when her house burned down? Disconsolate.
  11. Cooked, and cooked, and cooked.
  12. Traveled to Portugal.
  13. Danced around pretty much anywhere I didn’t think anyone was watching.
  14. Wrote some crazy lists.
  15. Read 65 books.
  16. Did a bunch of other stuff.

Of those 65 books, 33 or 34 were Real Books and 31 or 32 books were romance novels. (I miscounted somewhere, and I’m too lazy to go over it all again: we will have to live with uncertainty.) In January and February, I read a high of nine books overall; I read a high of five Real Books in February and May; in January and December I read a high of five romance novels. I read only two books in October. Statistically, I finished a book every 5.6 days.

2017 – on these terms, anyway – was a good year.

My resolution for 2018? Keep going. I’m not going to challenge myself to read more books than last year, and I’m not going to tell myself to read better books (though I’m going to have to read Ulysses at some point. I can feel it fomenting inside of me). My ambitions are set at a particularly low bar. My plan is to surpass them handily, to say snarky things in the process, and to feel proud that I am doing something purely for myself, just because I feel like it.

I’d better get going: I’ve already finished three books.

There Has Been Blood

I’m the sort of person who asks for a mandolin for Christmas.
(A foodie.)

I’m the sort of person who has recipes in mind for that mandolin, and knows how to use it safely.
(A cautious woman.)

I’m the sort of person who uses the mandolin once successfully, and in a flush of triumph, cuts the crap out of my thumb on the second go around.
(An idiot.)

That said, I have established that I’m going to finish out the year on time so that 2018 can start afresh. I am managing the keyboard with uncertain grace, so I only have a few words to say about Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation:

Crusie good.

Book real good.

Fully baked murder plot real good.

No floaters.

Characters painted in lush detail.

Feminism!

Reference to The Princess Bride super-dooper.

 

I’m going to sleep now – not solely due to the blood loss.

I’ll see you next year.

 

Tropes: 3, 6, 22

Ageist

The moment that you see the cover to this book, you’re going to think, “there has got to be a big blurry line between romance novels and porn.” And there is, sure. A line that’s blurrier than the eyesight of a shortsighted drunk who looked straight at the eclipse.

Eloisa James is one of the writers who most often has steamy covers, and Pleasure for Pleasure is no exception. (And in case you are wondering, the story has no resemblance to Measure for Measure – no severed heads in this one. Drat.)

I say this to get it out of the way.

 

This book gets full points for consciously dealing with age differences: one couple is between a thirty-five year old man and an eighteen year old woman; the other is between a thirty-two year old woman and a twenty-seven year old man. In each case, the older partner bemoans how unrealistic their relationship is, how their age differences means that they have less in common; they say things like ‘I was seventeen when you were born…’

HALLELUJAH!

It was tremendously satisfying to see an older woman with a younger man; it was more realistic, particularly in the light of a guy in peri-midlife-crisis and a girl who barely knows which foot goes in which shoe.

That said, James missed a huge opportunity. The 35 year old guy (The Geezer) is initially engaged to another woman (The Ice Queen), a lady of extreme elegance and poise. The Ice Queen prefers not to be touched; she is always perfectly presented, always knows just how to act. She does well socially, and is most comfortable in her sphere, around other women. Her role in the story is a little confusing: she is never fully vilified as most other love-rivals are, but never fully embraced, either. For a genre book like this, such waffling can be enjoyable, just not when so little attention is paid to it for it to be worthwhile.

Their engagement is broken when The Geezer tries to steal a kiss, and The Ice Queen slaps him good and hard. He’s left standing, aghast, wondering how he’s misread the situation.

I was pulling for The Ice Queen to be asexual. It’d be a first, and it would be genuinely interesting. There had to have been a number of women who never wanted to get married, who never wanted to be intimate with a man – or a woman, either. I was reading a book with a character who didn’t like passing touches, touches which were largely nonsexual. It made sense. Of course, James pulled a hat trick at the end and made her a lesbian. The Ice Queen left England, and that was that.

I like the idea of the contrast of a story that is all about pairing off, true love, and (ehrm) carnal knowledge that has this radical other perspective, the character who needs friendship and family but who doesn’t need matrimony. It would be the ultimate subversion of the genre while still egging it on. (Though you could argue that is what we are doing here.)

 

Tropes: 5, 6, 14, 16, 19

Dames Who Time Travel

I am a hopeless devotee of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. In the wake of World War II, a woman vacations in Scotland with her husband, but suddenly she finds herself zapped into the past through a portal of standing stones. She finds herself in a dangerous position – an English woman on hotly contested Scottish ground – and the story is about how she traverses this strange place, with the knowledge she has and her ability to develop relationships with others. No, the how of time travel was not explained fully – though it is dressed up a bit with ritual and witchcraft – but this doesn’t hamper the story in any way. Gabaldon dives headfirst into characters, fills out the picture with historical detail, and keeps us reading. In the end, time travel is the smallest part of what is going on.

But the book I actually mean to talk about today is no contemporary classic but rather Constance O’Day Flannery’s Time After Time. (I almost bamboozled you into thinking we were going to discuss a Real Book today. Sorry-not-sorry.)

It hardy goes without saying that it is a crushing disappointment that the classic song “Time After Time” is not mentioned, and that this work can’t hold a tea light to Gabaldon’s epic. Naturally, the intricacies of time travel are not discussed (would it be bad manners?), and the setup for the portal back are shaky at best.

The main character finds herself as a bridesmaid in a Louisiana wedding to a college friend she hasn’t seen in maybe fifteen years. That her dress is lime green takes up more of her concentration than a spare thought for why she has been invited – and to the wedding party, no less – in the first place. She goes through the ceremony and part of the reception before she wanders off. She has funny feelings about a tree, goes up to it, and falls back in time from 2000 to 1888. She lands with a splat on the ground and is immediately discovered by a precocious girl, who hauls the heroine back to her family home.

If that was too goofy for you, lower your standards. The heroine is a widow, and has been for about ten years. She enters the child’s home to find a guy who looks like a well-aged version of her dead husband. More than that, she looks like his dead wife. None of this is adequately explained, and has nothing to do with how much they want to get into each other’s pants. I have decided to call these plot points “floaters,” in a fit of bathroom humor.

The weirder parts of the book also happen to be the ones where the hero and heroine are intimate. On page 295, we see the phrase “He groaned and pulled her back into his arms, grinding his mouth against hers until she was the one to push at his chest, breathless and dizzy with excitement.” If you’re grinding your mouths together, you’re doing it wrong. I’d be pushing at him for entirely different reasons, though I might still be dizzy.

This is just Flannery getting started. Page 305 is a particular stunner, for two different reasons: the first is “frizzles of astounding aftershocks” (which made me giggle in a way that might make my neighbors nervous); the second is referring to ejaculate as “his gift” (the giggle died on that one; I had been reduced to nonplussed silence. Maybe my neighbors were worried at the sudden stillness).

Page 305 reaped one more bounty: “I never asked you properly…Kelly Brennan Gilmore…will you honor me and become my wife for the rest of your life?” Okay, so a few issues. This has way too many ellipses. She knows her own name. ‘Will you honor me’ is really an egotistical phrase. And finally, ‘for the rest of your life’ is also narcissistic. It assumes that he will live longer. Maybe it indicates that he has some knowledge of why he will live longer – what if he’s some weird serial killer who gets off on knocking off dames who time-travel? But even if ‘the rest of your life’ is an innocent assumption, who has all their vaccinations? What’s-her-face isn’t about to contract rabies, whooping cough, measles, polio, diphtheria, mumps (et cetera), diseases for whom only a few vaccinations would have been invented by that time period. Mr. Man would be fully prone to all those diseases we died of playing Oregon Trail.

All of this barely scrapes the first layer off of this book; we have the half-assed reference to Tom Sawyer, a very wise old black woman who speaks in stereotypes, an oblivious time traveler who insists on being given 21st century rights, a floater with ghosts, the taming of the girl, and your usual ‘I’m-a-man-therefore-I-access-no-feelings’ nonsense.

It was a very good read.

 

If you’re wondering what happened these last two days – when I said I would post blogs and didn’t – I fully planned on procrastinating. I only had three books to do, but now that I finished one this morning, it really will be one a day. Deep sigh.

 

For reference: 3, 6, 8 (more twinning!), 9, 10, 12, 21

Funny Ladies

I have been reading pretty steadily, finishing books like trays of fudge. The natural conclusion is that I am more than a little behind in this blog, so my goal for the next few days is to do a post a day, so that I can enter the new year with a clean slate.

[Battle cry]

 

Today’s edition will be Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me? and Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened. Both of these books are hilariously funny, brutally honest, and unexpected. They are the sorts of books whose non-target audience might pick up, read a few sentences of, go, “huh,” and read until someone knocks on the bathroom door in a state of inquiry. Mindy Kaling has a lot of references to this in the beginning of her book:

If you’re reading this, you are probably a woman. Or perhaps you’re a gay man getting a present for your even gayer friend. (4)

I’m going to gently assume that if you’re reading this book, you are a little bit of a nerd, or perhaps you’re a man whose nerd girlfriend is taking a long time in the bathroom and you can’t figure out how to turn on her television. (33)

You might know Mindy Kaling from The Office or from The Mindy Project, but she is as funny on the page as she is on screen; not only that, she debunks the stereotypes of what people might think about her and offers a very detailed description of herself, details the rest of us might not want to offer at first blush – or to a mass audience. Of course, this is in keeping with her personality: she tells anyone everything about herself within a five minute acquaintance.

But the book isn’t purely a self-love fest. She might tell us about her dating foibles, her punishing schedule while she’s filming her show – she even gives us the speech she gave at Harvard. But in the middle of a list in a chapter called “4 a.m. Worries,” number 19 of 25 is “Is my father lonely? Would he tell me is he was?” (214). Sure, she thinks about herself, but she thinks, and she cares.

She knows that frequently pitched television shows fall into a series of tropes – and she lists them! I didn’t realize there were many people doing the same thing that I have done, and I feel in great company. But the other major part of the book I loved was one in which she imagined herself on a different trajectory, one in which she’s a twenty-five year old Latin teacher at a private school in New York. It plays out a love story told in e-mails and text messages, something we’ve seen before, but not quite like this. There’s nothing but these electronic communications for us to sink into, which means that there is very little, and what there is is quality. It toys with you, it comes out of the blue, and it satisfies. Really, if the book were this chapter surrounded by a legion of blank pages, I would be happy.

 

Allie Brosh is much different than Mindy in her approach: her book is a compilation of many of the stories she tells on her blog, www.hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com, plus a few new ones. They are usually maniacally funny, and they’re usually about her childhood or her dogs. Not so unusual there. But the text is punctuated with these wild drawings, generated on a computer; they look slapdash, but really, once you have read through for a while, they make sense.

Allie gives us the bits of her life that are worth putting down in this painstaking manner, with brilliant pacing and an eye for what makes sense visually. She’s also got a firm grasp that her stories are read top-down rather than left to right. It’s basic, it’s spare, you could have done it, and it is genius.

It goes without saying that her comics became a book because of her fanatical following.

But even though Allie is completely different than Mindy in her storytelling, they share rather a lot: they’re both autobiographical, both mostly silly but sometimes searingly poignant. Hyperbole and a Half has become known for Allie’s childhood enthusiasms, the Alot, her dogs, and her pretensions to become an adult, but also for her two-part series on depression. That series is somehow entirely original – this considering the massive burden of all of the other people writing about their own experiences – and shows in utter honesty what it can be like to be depressed and marginally suicidal. The drawings interspersed throughout help you take a break from reading what must have been excruciating to write. This is a whole other level of honesty here, and while it is daunting, it is also personal and strangely welcoming.

‘Look, we’re all messed up. This is the kind of messed up I am.’

 

Mindy Kaling and Allie Brosh are a weird pair to stick together. Aside from honesty, mass appeal, and comedy, they float in separate spheres. It may well be that they’re together here because I am cramming all of my December blogs into the last few days, but I would like to think my non-procrastinating self would have done the same. These are two people who I believe would like one another. They mightn’t become friends, but I think they would see eye to eye, would be able to understand each other: that impulse to make a mark on the world and yell, “I EXIST!!”