Written by a Dude

The dumbest word I’ve read these past couple of weeks is ‘unfoldment.’ The worst blow was looking it up in Merriam-Webster to find…it’s a real thing. If I were to say such an inflammatory thing as ‘God is dead,’ it would be now.

Of course, I encountered this slimy little node in a romance novel, in the midst of a cold that struck me as lightning strikes a denier in the middle of a field. I don’t read Real Books when I get sick, so I hunkered down with a box of tissues and The Sinful Nights of a Nobleman by Jillian Hunter (#s 4, 9, 14, 19). I knew from the cover (which has a repellent pink Cupid on it) that it would be a lulu, but nothing makes a cold recede faster than vicious complaining. I’m feeling better now, but the bug has bitten me, so I might as well keep on going.

Most of what we know about the hero is that he’s part of a powerful and lecherous family. We also know that he’s at a house party to bag a large-titted widow, but that he can’t stop thinking about the heroine, who is innocent, virginal, and apparently (in modern terms) ‘bangable.’ He thinks about the heroine’s appearance on page 4, twice on page six, again on page nine, and then on page 11. We get it: he’s fixated on her. (Not like a sexual predator or serial killer – of course not! Noo. He’s a good dude, even though he has no scruples.)

Of course, she’s not precisely what she seems: she’s meant to be lily-white in reputation, but at one point her nipple is almost visible under her gown (11), and just before her wedding she makes a bawdy joke in front of all those assembled during a toast. (This is believable! Yes yes!)

I snorted in surprise and blew bubbles in my tea.

When these two nightmares get slammed together by a shoddily-arranged scheme, the results are predictable. On the wedding night, he says, “’ I don’t have to do anything to arouse you’” (188). Later, he says that he could never hurt a woman, disregarding the emotional damage he leaves in his wake (202). And then he blames her for a sleeze coming up to her and seeing how far he could get (234). All of these are problems with the hero: there aren’t any problems with her because she’s not enough of a character to signify.

I blew my nose heartily and in consternation.

The whole mess rounds itself out with the completion of its half-baked intrigue – and calling it half is being generous. When the Bad Guy is taken into the custody of the head of the family, the Right Honorable Lord instructs his underlings to “get him the hell away from the house…or finish him off for that matter. The footmen can dump him alongside the other offal in the Thames” (318). This is a pretty shocking morality to be operating under, particularly from one of the ‘good’ characters in the book, one softened by marriage at that. (It makes you wonder what he would have done if he were unmarried – flay the culprit alive?)

Aside from the clear and casual brutality of the situation, we can’t forget that the law in 1815 would have been extremely in favor of titled gentlemen, and rich ones at that. There’s no way that the plotter (who was also mentally ill) would have survived that hangman’s noose, and the Boscastle family would have only had to deal with the sweetest commiseration of Society. The sort of treatment more in line with a frontier town is nasty and unnecessary in those circumstances.

So I huffed and breathed through my mouth.

I’ve done some reflection, having decided that God, while perhaps among the living, needs a crutch and an IV drip; that this book was for-sure written by a dude; and that the poor slop who was meant to edit it was tied to a chair and gagged, in one of those disused but smoky abandoned warehouses you see in film noir, surrounded by guys with uzis, lit by a single droplight from the ceiling. I hope wherever he/she is now is free of gangsters, bad literature, and artfully draped children archers.

Sneeze.

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A Credentialed Person

I listened to The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie at work last week and had a thought: of all of the detecting duos of fictional history, there is a pattern that emerges. On the one hand, you get the brilliant one, the art-forger-cum-informant, the mentalist, the Mr. Holmes, and on the other hand, you get the F.B.I. agent, the police detective, or the military doctor. The sidekick in each scenario happens to have some sort of military or police credentials, is good with firearms, and has the patient doggedness to run down all the mundane details that the Amazing Sleuth can’t be bothered to deal with. This person also has to have a degree of patience to wait for his or her partner to do the big reveal, and perhaps play an unwitting part in that reveal.

Consider Monsieur Poirot and Colonel Hastings: Poirot gets all of the accolades (and rightly so), while Hastings later compiles the summary of the cases in his memoirs. What struck me is that Poirot repeatedly calls Hastings shortsighted for clearly missing the obvious, but also congratulates him for stating the apparent, something that often leads Poirot to the solution to the mystery. More than that, it’s Hastings who is narrating these stories: he is letting us know in the clearest terms the outer limits of his mental abilities.

Poirot wouldn’t let just any old idiot hang around him, so that means that Hastings is in some sort of sweet spot of intelligence: not smart enough to compete, but intelligent enough to keep up most of the time. And let’s not forget, he has to be humble, in order to put down his experiences in such a frank manner, putting himself in a sometimes unfortunate light.

In short, if you wish to be the sidekick to a maverick detective, you have to be:

  1. Affiliated with some sort of military organization.
  2. Able to shoot firearms of various descriptions.
  3. Patient by the truckload.
  4. Able to follow orders blindly in the hopes that everything will turn out fine, even in high-risk situations.
  5. Dumb, but not too dumb.
  6. Humble, self-effacing, and honest to the point of doing yourself an injury. (Prepare for therapy!)

I think I will take another career path.

 

P.S. I also listened to David and Goliath by Malcom Gladwell. It’s a great book, I just don’t have anything to say about it, except that Goliath probably had gigantism rather than acromegaly, as with acromegaly your bones fuse together and grow wider; with gigantism, the bones keep growing in length.

(All that did was make me feel smart, and I’m not taking it back. If you’d like, you can now have the knowledge that this brainy woman is going to clean out her bathroom sink’s drain, which has some sort of black goo living in it. I know. Gross. Time for bleach and Q-tips!)

Two Typewriters

I fell in love with Julia Child when everyone else my age did, upon watching Julie and Julia, the excellent film with Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Stanley Tucci. (I include this list on the chance that you are like me and have a middle aged housewife’s retention of names.) I then delved into The French Chef, Julia’s excellent television program; watching her make bouillabaisse was one of the foundational moments of my comedic life. You have Julia, six feet tall, with a button-down shirt and an apron, speaking in her falsetto, cultured voice, slamming a meat cleaver into masses of fish. “It’s really very – ” slam slam “ – easy to make this traditional – ” slam whack “ – soup, which you can find in the south of France…” WHACK!

I suppose you really do have to be there.

But what Julia gave us was an enthusiasm for cooking, particularly because she was able to show us how to do it in exacting detail without seeming like a taskmaster. She could flip an omelet on her program and it would go all over her stovetop. “You, alone in the kitchen…Who’s to know?” She’d piece it back together and keep on going. Of course, she’d get all the others perfectly right, and there might be this little suspicion in the back of your mind that maybe she missed that one on purpose, but really, she doesn’t make any production out of her mistake. She suavely goes on, unfazed, in love with the camera and all of the people behind it.

That was the real trick about her, I think. She loved people; she was receptive.

 

As Always, Julia, a selection of letters, shows you just how lovely a person Julia was in private as in public. In private, she’s witty, acerbic, and deeply loving – not to mention an abiding perfectionist. There’s also quite a lot that you did not expect to know. Julia delicately couches the effects of all that French food on her digestive system upon entering that country – a thunderous upset akin to her experiences with the amoebic dysentery she got in China during WWII (43-44). While living in Marseille, Julia describes the pleasures of naked sunbathing on their terrace there (150). And Paul, the sainted husband so brilliantly portrayed by Tucci in the movie, was occasionally known to go on severe cleaning-out binges; one such episode resulted in the elimination of their marriage license (77). (Which goes to show that their marriage was on extremely solid ground.)

Of course, Julia had to be writing to somebody all that time, and anyone who’s seen the movie upwards of twenty times knows immediately who it was. Avis DeVoto answered Julia’s letter praising Avis’ husband’s article on the relative quality of cooking knives found in America; soon they were passing letters back and forth, Julia sending Avis knives, cookery, cookbooks, and other ephemera, and Avis sending American ingredients, books, articles, and her own brand of wit back.

Over the course of reading this 399-page tome, I got to know not only Julia better, but also Avis. Avis’ mind roves intellectually; she knows many important people in her sphere of influence: writers, politicians, and, most importantly in this context, publishers. She ends up working for Harper’s for a time, and manages then to get an in with Knopf, the company that eventually printed Julia’s cookbook. Avis, though, was more than this paragon and this mover-and-shaker. She rants against dishwashers for being shoddy, but later praises hers for doing such a good job (I can only conclude she bought a radically different model). She goes into a flurry of hustle and bustle, then comes home and enjoys her domestic bliss. But not for too long – after a certain point she is tired of being The Housewife, and decides to put her feet up for a couple of days. And when her beloved husband dies, she is disconsolate. It’s not like she weeps through her letters and makes a big production of her grief: Avis describes how she feels in pared-down prose and hits you where you live. After his death, Avis mentions him every now and then, wondering what he would have thought or would have said.

Avis also wrote, “I like every part of growing older except what happens to your feet” (67).

 

Of course, there’s a lot about cooking in the letters, a lot about current events, a lot about what it’s like to live abroad and to live in Cambridge. One thing I noticed over and over, though, didn’t seem to have much to do with what we think of Julia and Avis.

It’s the words “special problem,” “special friend,” “special kind of life.”

They never use the word gay. And they are nothing but sympathetic to the people they know who are either in the closet or living with ‘friends.’

There’s the man who has never admitted the truth to himself with a wife gripping onto her life with both hands; there’s the man in denial but who marries anyway. Avis speaks about the first with pity (113) and with cautious hope for the second (248). It’s an odd contradiction, and seems to show that in the 1950s it was permissible to be a gay man, so long as society knew you were married. Being legally bound to a woman was safer, perhaps, and held the possibility for a close friendship, if not a very intimate one.

As for the lesbians they knew, it seemed to be less perilous to remain unmarried, living with a woman ‘friend.’ Lesbians are described as being courageous, as having the fortitude to go against the grain and do as they liked. But then, it has always been less threatening to have lesbians in a society than to have outwardly gay men. [Insert a very long opinion piece of specific social commentary, which I’m not doing because we all have to sleep sometime.] It was quite gratifying to see that neither of them were above gossiping about who went out with who – “Interesting your seeing May Sarton and Cora Du Bois dining together. Hope they aren’t two-timing their friends” (Julia, 294).

 

In the end, the book is a great comfort, to see great achievements unfolding, to see a friendship grow, and also to note that each woman despaired of her typing skills, sometimes spelling a word wrong and immediately typing it again to get it right. It is in no small way remarkable that they struck up a profound and involved friendship, only meeting each other after three years of correspondence.

Through it all is the behemoth, the cookbook. At the beginning, Julia predicts that cooking and teaching “will keep me busy well into the year 2,000” (10). She died in 2003, two days before her 92nd birthday; there is no indication that her prediction fell short of the mark. As for Avis, she continued to work more or less behind the scenes, enabling others and having a good time whenever possible. Strangely enough, Avis’ name does not appear on the Wikipedia page for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I wonder if that is how she would have wanted it.

Jewelry in the Loo

I am attempting to find something witty to say about It’s in His Kiss by Julia Quinn, but really, I’m coming up dry. Because it’s written by Quinn, we know it’s pretty good: it’s a Regency romance written about interesting people and there are no goofy carriage chases or half-baked intrigues. You can count on a few really good lines and an overall good time.

I’m not saying much more because I moved into a new apartment last weekend, and all I can think about is that I still need end tables, at least one bookcase, a table, a soup pot, and a toaster oven. Not to mention there’s boxes and bags all over the place, which you would think wouldn’t drive me nuts – given that I have been living in a storage-locker-cum-bedroom for the past six and a half months – but it does, bigtime. (Biiigtime.)

So instead of a drawn-out thesis on…something, I will do the hit-and-run version:

Best point – the first line of chapter 7, sans context: “Gareth generally had little use for large balls…” (It does go on, but does it have to?)

Worst point: So the whole book is spent attempting to find a sack of jewels before the hero’s jerk dad finds them. The sleuthing brings the pair together, but it’s also a motivating factor, as the sale of these gems would get the hero out of financial hot water. Sure, by marrying the heroine, things get a bit more rosy. (Because even though she has seven other siblings and a relatively extravagant lifestyle, there’s still plenty of money to go around. Don’t you just love the aristocracy?) BUT it isn’t likely to be enough, because the dad is spitefully spending as much money as possible before he kicks it. At the end of the book, the seven-year-old daughter of the happy couple finds the jewels in her bathroom (even though, quite frankly, the beginning of the 19th century is NOT when bathrooms come into play in wealthier homes, because they have servants do that duty. Pun intended) – and then she smiles. AND PUTS IT BACK. So what kind of monster doesn’t think to go to her parents with it? Who isn’t filled with such enthusiasm that she HAS to tell someone? Who doesn’t maybe think that this is the savior of the family? And when is she going to bring this up? There’s only one answer: she’s a sociopath.

Anyway.

Tropes this story falls into: 6, 14, 17, 18. It’s almost a #22, but not quite.

So perhaps in a couple days, I won’t have the medical condition my doctor calls ‘crazy eyes’, as I have been tearing through books lately. Teaser: two ovens per kitchen, proofreading, and typewritten letters.

Sandra Dee

Romance novels have this…thing about virginity. They love it. They adore it. They go ga-ga over a woman who’s either too young, too principled, or too unlikely to have had a sexual encounter before. They are allowed a few tepid kisses, and that’s about it. Men are allowed a tasteful amount of experience, though it’s always clear that there may have been mistresses or discriminating widows, but no ladies of the night.

Eloisa James’ A Wild Pursuit (#6, 19) has decided to take on the issue, full force. In between forgetting the proper use of the words breath/breathe and loath/loathe, James turns back the clock and reminds us why being totally inexperienced is a great thing for a woman to be.

We are confronted with, or lack of a better word, a trollop. She’s loud, brash, wears makeup, and is known to have assignations with men. She draws some people in and repulses others, but always seems so fascinating that it’s hard not to look at her. But let’s not forget – she’s had sex with two people, once each time. It’s not like she’s Doña Juana.

Her counterpart is commonly referred to as puritanistic – even though he’s had a few sexual relationships in his life. Certainly, in his guise as a devoted public servant he can’t parade about town with someone new each week, and nor does he want to. He has an appetite, and he discreetly addresses it.

Who’s the lightskirt here, really? If you look at the two of them on a completely equal plane, you’re throwing tomatoes at the member of the House of Commons. Naturally, when he finds out, the rotten vegetables are flying in the other direction, with no thought as to why she would have had sex the first place. I’d consider her reasons valid: she wanted to see what sex was like, and if she would be compatible with her partner. That her experiences weren’t in any way satisfying apparently has no significance in the book. She still did it, with that high school sense of drama.

The cruelest part of the story was when the two of them somehow bumble themselves into bed and he figures out that she’s not the jaded hoyden she seems, that she’s never had an orgasm: “She was a virgin, in all real senses of the word” (335). Of COURSE she hasn’t had an orgasm yet – not even solo – if so, she would really be beyond the pale.

So it’s sexy not to know your own body? Not to know what sex is? To be terrified of what might be happening? To hide beneath the sheets or some frail bravado? I don’t find it particularly sexy. Anyone who has been a virgin knows it’s uncomfortable, like the rest of the world has been in on a secret you haven’t been able to plumb. So why make it a central feature of romance novels? And really – there’s plenty of evidence to show that women are as sexual as men – which makes sense, considering that it helps perpetuate the human race – so suppressing the truth for the sake of fantasy is nothing but a masochistic exercise.

 

These are awfully large questions to ask of a book in which the hero licks the heroine’s face when she’s covered in mud.

I can deal with virginity issues, but not grime fetishes.

 

Quicksand in England

I could say any number of snarky things about Jane Ashford’s Nothing Like a Duke – for example, the hero isn’t a duke, meaning that the title is unwittingly correct in its estimation of the hero. That’s just the title: the smug dog in the story does nothing that pure chance couldn’t also conceivably do; the hero is comically charismatic; and the book perpetuates the stereotype of the female character hell-bent on undertaking a seriously dangerous task on her own, with dubious results. (Not to mention that she’s supposed to be the responsible one!)

Oh yes – for reference, this is a number 7, 16, 19, 20, 21, and 22.

The story did have a few redeeming features. The heroine managed to stand up for herself without help – though she did have her sweetie standing by in the shadows, overseeing everything. The hero also freely accepted that she was more intelligent than him, a fantastic role reversal. It’s really an okay romance novel, as far as that goes.

One thing I did notice, however, that there was the same strange relationship between the hero and his valet, a kind of dependence and awe on the hero’s part. For example, on page 257, a young man falls in quicksand. (In pastoral England, on a manicured estate. I know. I know. It hurts me, too. Not to mention that quicksand isn’t likely to kill even foolish people.) The hero is midway through saving a life, and thinks of how angry his valet would be to see his ruined clothing.

The assumption is that the valet, who is required to be fastidious and neat as a central part of his job, would rank cleanliness and impeccable dress over a life. Ashford isn’t alone in using this kind of character: almost all heroes in historical romance novels have this odd relationship with their personal servants, one that is emotionally distant and completely focused on the perfection of the master’s attire. Additionally, the valet is meant to serve as the genius behind the good looks of the hero, the one who ensures that his coat is lint and hair free, the one who keeps a mirror shine on his boots.

I don’t get it. Most heroes seem to be capable of tying their own cravats and dressing themselves – after all, what they wear is generally very simple and directed mainly by their tailor – the only help they truly need is in getting their impractical boots off their feet. And for that, you could have anybody. So what’s the big deal? Why place such credence in someone who doesn’t need to have that superhuman desire for exactitude? Why not simply replace that megabeing with…a dude? One who helps arrange those minor details, in order that the main character can get on with his…charactering?

(Of course, here I only refer to fictional valets. In real life, they were an integral part in the functioning of a household. Just look at Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs.)

To leave you on a positive note, I’ll give you the best phrase out of the book, without context. It’s good enough to shine without it.

“You have ravished my mind” (310).

Roll that over your tongue for a while. It somehow reassures us that life is worth living.

Snippets

When I get excited about what I read, the people around me tend to hear passages lifted out of the book I’m in. Their reactions are generally lukewarm, and mainly put on for my benefit, a slight come-down from what I expect: screams of joy and laughter, or perhaps deep and utter contemplation of the subject.

This has led me to believe two things:

  1. I am a master at reading bits of books, and nobody acknowledges it. There must be some sort of tacit agreement or conspiracy, considering the universality of their responses.
  2.  People are befuddled by hearing things at random and out of context.

In light of this, I’m going to experiment on all of you, with passages of the subtle and deep novel, The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington. It’s about two people who have to figure out their lives and then figure out if they love one another. It’s not a romance novel and it’s not chick lit, it’s a Book. The difference here is that a single mother rents her in-law apartment to a man who’s just quit the priesthood after twenty years: so the book is about family, seclusion, religion, trust, and all kinds of love. I’m not kidding when I say that it’s deep, but it’s the kind of depth that you can see in everyday life if you look for it, and perhaps easily miss considering the slow pace. You can’t miss it in this book.

But is it there in parts clipped out of the rest of the book? Let’s see.

The characters you will have to know are: Rebecca, the single mother who hates her job; Mary Martha, her six year old daughter; and Mike, the ex-priest.

“In four good puffs, maybe five, she knew, she would stub the butt into the shell and her life would seem very small and sad to her again. It was the evil magic of nicotine that buoyed this little moment of peace. But it was lovely, nevertheless, to sit quietly, fingering the guitar pick that hung from a silver chain around her neck and listening to the untrimmed bushes rustle in the breeze that blew in from the sea.” (19)

“Across the circle, on the shore of the stream, [Mike] stood flanked by Sherilou and Phoebe, looking somber and absorbed. His habitual hunch looked odd out of doors, as if the sky itself might be a little low.” (80)

“Maybe that was what real love was, being willing to charge toward the busy, noisy place that someone else inhabited and find what comfort there you could.” (104)

“He sat down and tugged a sock on. His feet in the morning light were extraordinarily ugly. How could she ever have imagined she could live with feet like that? She’d been desperate, apparently. She’d been so lonely.” (156-157)

“Inevitably, the weightless moments with Mike began to seem unreal. All her furniture said that love was a bubble and a fake.” (159)

Of Beanie Babies: “’You see?’ Mike said. ‘That’s special. I bet Patricia can’t remember all hundred and seventeen names of hers.’ Mary Martha walked in silence for a few steps, then said crossly, ‘Well she can remember more than eight.” (180)

[I leave out any moments in the latter part of the story. Because.]

“There was nothing ahead of her but the cathedral, its upper reaches drenched in sunset gold, and the plum trees in the evening hush, waiting for spring. There was nothing ahead of her but all the steps to be taken.” (274)

What do you think? Did you get anything out of it? Either way, it’s a great book – with very shiny legs on the cover.