Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Nights in Rodanthe

This book wasn't worth the time it took to read it, the time it's about to take me to review it, or probably the few minutes it will take you to read this review. And if Nights in Rodanthe hadn't made Nicholas Sparks a barrel-full of money by becoming a bestseller and a movie, I'd feel a little sorry for him for having taken the time to write it.

Actually, I still feel a little sorry for him, as I would for any other sub-normal developmentally disabled protozoan. As this is an equal opportunity review website, however, with authorial human chromosomes and/or compos mentis not required, let us soldier on.

Nights in Rodanthe is the love story of Adrienne and Paul, two generically wounded middle-aged divorcés with lives as thrilling and fresh as two rotten cabbages cradled in the arms of a dentist from Toledo.

Her wounds:

It hadn't helped, after all. She was busy from the moment she woke until the moment she went to bed, and because she'd robbed herself of any possibility of rewards, there was nothing to look forward to. Her daily routine was a series of chores, and that was enough to wear anyone down. By giving up the little things that make life worthwhile, all she'd done, she suddenly realized, was to forget who she really was. (126)*

To translate this load of pop-psychological garbage into normal English, Adrienne got married, had three kids, and didn't have time to take long relaxing baths and gaze endlessly into her navel any more. Well, welcome to the fucking human race.

His wounds:

At one time, he had thought he had it all. He'd run and run, he'd reached the pinnacle of success; yet now, he realized he'd never taken his father's advice. All his life, he'd been running away from something, not toward something, and in his heart, he knew it had all been in vain. (31)

This is doubly meaningful because Paul's been figuratively running and he's also a literal cross-country runner. Deep, man, like the bottom of my septic tank. Also, his father was a simple country man with simple country ambitions, and is dead when the novel starts. Awwww. Are you crying yet? Well, you didn't pay for the book, so I guess probably not.

Anyhoo, these two walking tear-jerks meet up at a bed and breakfast where he's the only guest and she's managing it while the proprietor goes on vacation. They have a passionate weekend affair while a hurricane rages outside (the force of the howling wind and pounding waves, you see, is supposed to metaphorically echo the violence of the reader's projectile spew), and then they lovingly part. They plan to meet up a year later when he gets back from Ecuador, where he's on his way to reunite with his estranged adult son.

The novel opens a few years after this, and the whole story of their dalliance is told in a flashback** as Adrienne relates it to her daughter, who is grieving the untimely loss of her young husband to cancer. Since only someone with the mental capacity of Nicholas Sparks would have a moment's doubt about the twist ending after reading six pages, let's just throw it out there: Paul dies in Ecuador -- while saving his son's life, natch -- after spending a few months writing endless, endlessly whiny letters to Adrienne. I presume that he figured out he was the hero of a Nicholas Sparks novel, realized that his days were numbered, and wrote the letters so that she would have something to remember him by after his inevitable tear-jerky death. Either that, or the editors of Seventeen rejected them from their letters page on the basis that they were too girly, and Sparks had to get them published somewhere else.

Adrienne then uses these letters and the story of her loss to comfort her daughter and show her that true strength comes from love, you have to have strength and love for your children's sake, loving your children gives you strength, or strong children are more lovable, or something something along those sickening lines.

You may have gathered that I found the content of Nights in Rodanthe just a little on the saccharine, wimpy side. But execution is everything. After all, Anne Rice's vampires are just as bitchy and emo as Stephenie Meyer's, but Rice's books are entertaining -- so it's just vaguely possible that in the hands of a decent writer, Nights in Rodanthe could have been more than the waste of perfectly good wood pulp*** it turned out to be.

Unfortunately, I had three major issues with the writing in this book: the dialogue, the sections of summarized dialogue, and the remainder.

Since there's so much damn talking in this book, the first two issues were impossible to overlook. When you get to passages like this:

     "You okay?"
     "I don't know," he said. "I'm kind of numb right now."
     "That's not surprising. It was a lot to absorb."
     "Yes," Paul said. "It was."
     "Are you glad you came? And that he told you those things?"
     "Yes and no. It was important to him that I know who she was, so I'm glad for that. But it makes me sad, too. They loved each other so much, and now she's gone."
     "It doesn't seem fair." (151-152)****

Or this:

     "That's a tough one," she admitted.
     "I know."
     "But this isn't all your fault, you know. It takes two people to keep a feud going."
     "That's pretty philosophical."
     "It's still true, though."
     "What should I do?" (131)

It makes you long for Sparks to paraphrase something, anything, and spare you just a few lines of unbearably inane and tedious clichés. And then you get your wish:

The words stung. They had an argument. Mark made bitter accusations, Paul grew furious, and Mark ended up storming out of the restaurant. Paul refused to talk to him for the next couple of weeks, and Mark made no attempt to make amends. Weeks turned into months, then into years. (28)

Well, look at that! Just what I ordered: unbearably inane and tedious clichés, hold the quotation marks.

Not that the clichés stop when the dialogue does. Sparks likes to show off his originality and command of the English language at all times:

In her brief absence the sky had grown darker, and the wind cut past her as she stepped out of the car. It had begun to whistle as it moved around the Inn, sounding almost ghostlike, a spectral flute playing a single note. (117-118)

Just in case the readers don't know what the word "spectral" means, we get a handy synonym, too. Thanks, Nicholas Sparks. I'm not quite sure how you managed to both condescend to your audience and insult our intelligence at the same time, but I surely appreciate it. At least the simile/metaphor repetition above has a clear meaning, though:

Outside, the moon was rising, hard and brilliant, making the sand glow with the color of antique pots and pans. (173)

So the sand's the color of cast iron? No, wait, maybe copper? But considering the usual color of moonlight, maybe he meant pewter? Although I didn't think pewter was used for pots and pans, and aluminum wasn't used in "antique" pans. Perhaps Sparks should have included an appendix listing the typical materials used to make cooking vessels before the twentieth century.

Although the descriptions and dialogue are bad enough, they're only about a third of the book. The rest takes place inside our two protagonists' heads, and two drearier, duller, whinier locations would be hard to find. Blah blah blah, she thought. I wasted my life, she realized. Why did I do that, he wondered. Well, the past is the past, she mused. Sparks doesn't seem to get that third-person limited POV is the standard in most fiction. We don't need to be mused at in order to get that we are looking at the world from Adrienne's perspective. I get it, I thought. I understand, I mused. Why did I read this book, I wondered.

But since I did commit that grievous error, I should at least attempt to profit by it. So allow me to summarize what I have learned from reading this book, so that you, my dear readers, can profit in your turn.

Lesson #1: Nicholas Sparks is a sensitive guy who understands the inner workings of the human heart and can express them in clear, poetic language:

But there was something about Adrienne that made him feel she would understand what he was going through. He couldn't explain why he felt that way or why it mattered. But either way, he was sure of it. (65)

Lesson #2: Nicholas Sparks is a sensitive guy who understands what women want:

Not only had Paul held her for hours afterward, but his tender embrace let her know that this was just as meaningful to him as the physical intimacy they'd shared. He kissed her hair and face, and every time he caressed a part of her body, he called her beautiful and told her that he adored her in the solemn, sure way she had so quickly come to love. (141)

Ladies, try to imagine a man doing this with you. [Kisses cheek] "I adore you" [Kisses arm] "You are beautiful" [Touches leg] "I adore you" [Touches hair] "You are beautiful" Now tell me if that creeps you out. Gentlemen, try to imagine doing that. Yeah. Awkward.

Lesson #3: Nicholas Sparks is a sensitive guy who understands that all of humanity is one gentle, tender, throbbing heap of sensitivity just waiting to put down their machetes and come together and love one another, right now:

Adrienne sometimes wondered when Amanda would realize that for the most part, people weren't all that different. Young and old, male or female, pretty much everyone she knew wanted the same things: They wanted to feel peace in their hearts, they wanted a life without turmoil, they wanted to be happy. (164)

I encourage any readers who'd like to hear more about Sparks's philosophy to check out this talk he gave recently about his oeuvre:

Nights in Rodanthe gets a full star: one half for containing words, and the other half for being printed on paper.

* Page numbers are from this edition.

** There are also, as one might expect in a tour de force of this caliber, flashbacks within flashbacks scattered throughout. These are supposed to metaphorically echo the taste of the reader's previous meal, which is constantly present during the reading process.

*** They could have given that pulp a nobler destiny. Do you know where I'm going with this? I bet you do.

**** Hey! Hey guys! I'm Nicholas Sparks, and I'm an author, and I know what foreshadowing is! See? Look at me, mom!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Gum Thief

Douglas Coupland is the Quentin Tarantino of the book world. Both of them rode the wave of early-nineties postmodernism, experimenting with narrative form and commenting on contemporary culture. Tarantino was integral to the zeitgeist a few years ago, and he's only 49; he might as well be 99 for all the influence he now has on pop culture. Tellingly, when you type Tarantino's name into the IMDb search field, he pops up as "Quentin Tarantino -- Director, Pulp Fiction (1994)". He's directed five full-length films and parts of three others since then.

Now 50, Coupland has managed to remain only slightly more relevant by developing a sense of humor about his and his contemporaries' stylistic games. Tarantino, sadly, seems to have lost whatever sense of humor he once possessed. Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs (1992) are both hilarious, if you happen to find inappropriate reactions to extreme violence funny. The over-the-top vampire B-movie From Dusk Till Dawn, that Tarantino wrote and Robert Rodriguez directed, is just impossible for anyone, even its makers, to take seriously. In contrast, the Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) have their moments but are as awkwardly self-conscious and earnestly stylized as a hipster teenager standing by the wall of the gymnasium at junior prom.

Since its author has followed the opposite trajectory, from overly-earnest I-am-the-now zeitgeist-peddler to ironist with at least some sense of humor, The Gum Thief (2007) managed to dodge some of the criticism I was fully prepared to throw at it when I cracked the cover. Much of it is charmingly silly. Some of Coupland's best authorial skills are fully displayed here: his sense of the weirdness of ordinary objects, his ability to write characters with tragic pasts without trying to jerk the reader's heartstrings out with pliers*, and his simply decent prose.

The Gum Thief is about Roger and Bethany, two Staples clerks who get to know each other by writing letters back and forth in a diary Roger forgetfully leaves out in the break room one day. Roger's 43, an alcoholic with a bad family history. Bethany's a Goth in her early twenties who's afraid she's going to follow in her mom's footsteps, working forever at a job she hates and looking back on a life of failed marriages and overeating.

Roger also uses the diary to write a novel called Glove Pond, the story of a middle-aged alcoholic English professor and author of five "critically acclaimed but poorly selling novels," and his alcoholic wife. It's written in the style of every other bad twentieth-century novel about alcoholic faculty and their dysfunctional home lives, and Coupland's satiric touch here is perfect, from the pointlessly cryptic title to the cliched characters.

The opening lines of Glove Pond were enough to hook me completely:

     "You're drunk again."
     "I'm always drunk, you combative harridan. Shush."
     "Don't shush me, you failure of a man. You manfailure."
     "At least I don't sleep with a lawn sprinkler repairman as an act of retaliation sex."
     "At least he's a man."
     "Meaning what, Gloria?"
     "You figure it out. I'm having more Scotch."
     Gloria and Steve were being drunk and witty.

This nails about half of the most pernicious stylistic faults of the "literary" novelists of the last forty years: the rapid-fire dialogue with no tags or attributions, the repetitive and unrealistic language ("... you failure of a man. You manfailure," "You're drunk ... I'm always drunk," "At least I don't ... At least he's a man"), and the upper-middle-class middle-aged protagonists whose bitterly expressed feelings of inadequacy and drunken musings are viewed by themselves and by the author as the height of witty, bantering sophistication.

A few pages into Glove Pond, which is interspersed with the main narrative of The Gum Thief, a much more successful and much younger novelist arrives for dinner with his wife. When the doorbell rings, Steve and Gloria argue over who should open the door; Gloria agrees to discuss his books with him if he opens the door while she glamorously descends the stairs. The ensuing send-up of the world of literary fiction should be forcibly tattooed on the foreheads of every book reviewer for the New York Times and The New Yorker:

     "Not so quickly, Meryl Streep. You agreed to discuss my five novels."
     Gloria shrugged. "Very well, then. Shall we go in chronological order?"
     "Okay, novel number one, Infinity's Passion."
     Steve's face bore the expression of a kindergartner just moments before the commencement of an Easter egg hunt. "Yes?"
     "Potent but impotent. A cuckold's vagina."
     Steve protested, "What the hell does that mean? Infinity's Passion established my career. Without Infinity's Passion, how would we have been able to live in a stately home built of Connecticut slate, with a steep staircase that allows you to descend to the front door like a hostess from another, more gracious era?"
     "Novel number two: Less Than Fewer. Forced. Anticlimactic. Emotionally arid and repetitive."
     "Nonsense. Critics compared it to Henry James."
     "Yes," taunted Gloria. "If I remember correctly, an embalmed Henry James--inasmuch as words can be embalmed."
     "Jesus, Gloria," shouted Steve, "Why do you have to be so caustic?"
     "Novel number three: Gumdrops, Lilies and Forceps."
     "That was a good book!"
     "Yes, well, whatever. Novel number four--Eagles and Seagulls--the story of my family, which you pilfered as easily as if it were a pack of gum."
     "Not true. Merely because its heroine has copper-tinted kiss-curls like your mother's does not mean I strip-mined your family for material."
     "If you need to believe that, then please do. Let's discuss novel number five, Immigrant Living in a Small Town, which began your final decline into the creation of meaningless compost mounds of spew."
     Steve removed his hand from the door handle. "How dare you! The Times Literary Review called it a masterpiece of miniaturization. 'A Five-Year Plan of the Microscopic.'"

When Gloria criticizes Steve's first book and he responds with "What does that mean," it's a perfect send-up of the pompous, overworked verbiage in novels of the Philip Roth type, novels that I suspect have no real meaning at all: they're just meant to sound like they do, if only one were intellectual enough to grasp the point. Steve doesn't care that Gloria's statement about the novel is meaningless; he's upset that it's negative. The equally inane but positive "A Five-Year Plan of the Microscopic" doesn't bother him at all.

Coupland adds another layer of meta-fiction when Steve reads the beginning of the younger novelist's new book, Love in the Age of Office Superstores. The first paragraph is a gem of contemporary prose:

     Shimmering amber millipedes of dawn light chewed on the office superstore's blank stucco outer walls. A lone pigeon fell to the parking lot, scavenged for edible grit, found none, then returned to the roof and out of sight, possibly to die of boredom. Formless overcast clouds the colour of Korean paper-shredding machines inched in from the west. In the spotless front seat of his Chevy Lumina sedan sat Norm. He was no longer young, his pot-belly emblubbered roughly to the extent of a large Thanksgiving turkey. His scalp grew hair like virulent beige bread mould. His hands clasped a Diet Coke filled with house-brand vodka--breakfast and lunch folded together into one meal.

The absurd "overcast clouds the colour of Korean paper-shredding machines" alone are worth their weight in thesauruses. Coupland does this passage one better, though, in his treatment of the last category of literary criminals: creative writing teachers. When Roger falters in his dedication to finishing Glove Pond, Bethany encourages him by showing him an essay she wrote for a community college creative writing class. The teacher told the class to write from the perspective of buttered toast, and then graded her effort as follows:

Bethany, I didn't totally feel like I was being buttered, like I really was the toast.** As a writer, you have to empathize. At Thursday's workshop, I want you to listen to some of the other butterings that will be read aloud. They'll give you a better feel on how to connect with your protagonist. I think that, collectively, we will arrive at a satisfying creative solution.

Only a writer of great skill can skewer dreadful writers so neatly and cleverly and with such a sharp wit. Unfortunately, Coupland succumbs to his own greatest authorial weakness in the latter half of this book when he insists on trying to impose spiritual growth and epiphanic understanding on his characters. His first novel, Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture*** (1991), is about the search for deeper meaning in a world of McDonald's, crappy short-term jobs, college-educated kids with divorced parents and no futures, and rampant consumerism. All of his other books -- or at least, the ten or so that I've read -- deal with similar themes, ideas that seemed fresh in the early nineties and are far past their sell-by dates now.

Coupland grew up during the Cold War, when the possibility of nuclear war formed a part of the background of daily life. Even so, his obsession with the imagery of the end of the world is extreme. Many of his characters use ideas of barren, scorched earth, dead animals, crisped humans, and the sudden end of civilization to represent their own confusion and despair. In The Gum Thief, published twenty-six years after Generation X used these images, this feels both gimmicky and anachronistic. If the apocalyptic blather had come out of Roger, I might have shrugged and let it pass, but Coupland chose to give those thoughts and fears to Bethany, who's 24 in the novel. She would have been seven or eight when the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991, too young for those images to resonate so strongly for her.

The novel's other great weakness is its form. The end of The Gum Thief leaves some doubt as to the number of its meta-narratives. I count a minimum of four meta-layers to the book, and a maximum of six; other readers can decide for themselves. It's just too much. Like Tarantino, Coupland goes off the rails when he begins to take his narrative pyrotechnics and his moral messages too seriously. Both of them are at their best when taking only the most superficial pot-shots at the spiritual and mental hollowness of accelerated contemporary culture. Ironically, their efforts to instead seriously examine that culture have made them both obsolete within it.

If this book had been written in 1994, I'd give it four stars. Final verdict: two stars for the main narrative and three and a half for the inserted narratives; I'll average it to three.

* This is a highly underrated skill, given that most movies and books are dominated by Spielberg-esque dramatic techniques. You could duplicate the experience of watching almost any one of his movies by painting a steamroller with the words "Nazis are bad" and then running yourself over with it repeatedly, and since that's the mainstream approach, comparative subtlety like Coupland's is indescribably refreshing.

** As a former community college creative writing student, I can tell you that this is almost too close to reality to be satire.

*** I'll save you the trouble of looking it up: no, he didn't invent the term Generation X; that was Hungarian photographer Robert Capa.

Friday, July 6, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love HBO

A few posts back, I promised (threatened?) to rant about TV shows versus their literary source material. So rant ahoy.

Adapting a book is tricky, and film and TV writers and producers generally take one of two attitudes: they either attempt to be as faithful as possible to the subject matter, or they make changes and then spend the rest of their lives defensively whining about their "vision" in interviews conducted by hostile purist nerds. The team behind the Harry Potter movies exemplifies the former; they did their best to stay true both to the letter and the spirit of the books (with one major failure in the eighth movie*). Peter Jackson's a good example of the latter. His Lord of the Rings movies failed so signally to capture either the letter or the spirit of the books** that he and his filthy, vile Vichy Hollywood collaborators have spent the years since trying to justify their wholesale slaughter of most of the books' good points.

I would review the movies, but I won't, for two reasons. 1) Most of my readers have already heard this rant, and I do have a small grain of pity left in my cold, black heart; 2) the perfect review of these movies already exists. NSFW.

But back to adaptations. I'm slightly in love with HBO, mainly because they've chosen a third and wonderful path***: they change whatever they want, they say to hell with anyone who objects, and they're actually good enough to get away with it. The fifth season of True Blood, HBO's adaptation of Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries series, premiered a few weeks ago. The first few seasons irritated me; they stayed just close enough to the plotlines and characters in the books that I noticed every little divergence. Now the show has finally gone so far off the rails that, even having read and reread each of the books published so far, I couldn't spoil the show's plot for its viewers even if I wanted to.

In the case of True Blood, paradoxically, the drastic changes work well because the source material is excellent, for what it is. My review of the most recent book makes most of the points I'd want to raise about the series, but in brief, they're sexy, funny, and violent, the perfect light entertainment. Since the books are just right as is, small changes could only lessen them -- and hence my reaction to the first seasons of the show. Big changes, on the other hand, when made by writers as talented as HBO's, just leave the fun setting and let fans of the books enjoy the over-the-top blood-soaked boobiness of it all without having to critique every little moment of unfaithfulness to the text.****

In the case of HBO's other hit adaptation, Game of Thrones, the major changes were made necessary by the source material's irritatingly amateurish structure. Not so coincidentally, the changes have been awesome.

Yes, the gauntlet has been thrown, and I fully expect to meet several of my friends and relatives at dawn in the near future: the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is unbelievably better than the books. So there.

Allow me to make my case before the stones and battleaxes start flying. If you were a screenwriter, what in the world would you do with a series of books that's organized into chapters that are from many different characters' points of view? There are far too many viewpoint characters for the screen, for one thing. Each book would have to be adapted into five hundred episodes to do it faithfully. And in many chapters, the same plot is also rehashed, given to the reader through a different pair of eyes. That's not even limited to chapters: in books four and five (see my review of book five), the same chronology is rehashed and given to the reader through a different credit card transaction, ka-ching!! -- I mean, excuse me, through another whole set of pairs of eyes. That's just not going to fly on the screen.

So, what's a hardworking HBO writer to do? Well, what Martin and/or his "editor" should have done in the first place: condense the living crap out of the series, changing the story so that more main characters are on stage together at any given time and deleting or combining a few characters for good measure. And in the process, since the same people are no longer in the same places, the writers have had to generate new dialogue for many of the scenes.

If I were Martin, honestly, I'd be pretty damn embarrassed by how happy the results are. Every time I laughed aloud while watching, or thought a line was particularly clever or intelligent, I'd turn to the person I'm watching the series with. "Was that in the books?" I'd ask. Invariably, it was not. The second to last episode of the second season, "Blackwater," was turgid and slow, with the scenes lingering far too long on tertiary character-building and dull exposition. Martin wrote that episode. I felt bad about how hard I laughed.

I will willingly give Martin credit where credit is due, however. Writing that many words ain't easy, even if they're "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." And there are a few characters I liked before Martin ruined them in the fifth book. So there you go.

I can't wait for the third season of Game of Thrones in 2013. As a book reviewer, I wish I didn't have to say this, but the further they stray from both the letter and the spirit of the source, the happier I'll be.

* This digression will be interesting only to Harry Potter fans; everyone else, as you were. Okay, so remember the bit at the end of book seven, when Harry's heading into the Forbidden Forest to confront Voldemort? He takes out the golden snitch and says, "I am about to die." Now remember that same scene in the eighth movie, when he takes out the golden snitch and says, "I am ready to die"? Way to turn a poignant scene of a terrified teenager sacrificing himself for the good of all despite his reluctance into lame, pompous, self-righteous martyrdom, guys.

** Hi, my name is E., and I'm a hostile purist nerd.

*** The incredible production values, good casting, witty scripts, and lots and lots of very attractive people wearing almost no clothes really don't hurt, either.

**** Yes, I am just that much fun to watch film adaptations with.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Romance: Porn for Women?

I have a problem -- in fact, multiple problems -- with the way romance novels are viewed by both the general public and academia, something an alert reader may have gathered from the long rant in the last review I posted. The most basic misconception about romance is that it's all trash. I covered half of that issue in my last post, but the word "trash," in this context, can have two meanings. Meaning one: bad writing. Covered that.

Meaning two: pornography, and two main groups of people take delight in condescendingly or disgustedly dismissing romance as "porn for women." This label is interesting to me in a couple of ways. First of all, there's already "porn for women"; it's called "erotica," and sex is the primary focus of that genre. In a romance, love is the primary focus, and there's (almost) no sex without either a) pre-existing love, b) commitment, or c) overwhelming attraction that inevitably leads to love. There are also romances that contain no sex at all: inspirationals, older Harlequin Romances, and classic Regency romances, to name a few.

But all romances (as opposed to erotica), with or without sex, take the following as a given: you can certainly have love without sex, and you can have sex without love, but most well-adjusted adults combine the two and enjoy them more that way. Women, it turns out, really like to read about people in love who have healthy sex lives.* Hence, romance novels.

So, since it's demonstrably true that romance novels are not the same as either erotica or porn, who would want to dismiss them that way? Feminist scholars** would argue that society almost always devalues the feminine in every sphere: housework is considered less valuable than paid employment, female-dominated professions are less important than male-dominated professions, and books read almost exclusively by women are lower-quality than books read by men. Feminist scholars say a lot of things.

My view is simple: there are always those who dislike sexually explicit anything, be that magazines or websites consumed primarily by men or novels consumed primarily by women. Those people may or may not have valid reasons for their points of view; that depends on the person, and it's not relevant here. What is relevant is that those people will disapprove of anything sexually explicit, no matter what medium it's in, who sees it, how much it costs, or how it's dressed up with plot or scenery.***

The other group that loves the "porn for women" label is, predictably, men. For what feminist scholars would say about men's view of the value of the feminine, see above. But my theory is that the real truth is much simpler than that, and it involves one of men's, as a group's, highest and dearest goals: not being frickin' nagged when they're just trying to have a beer and zone out for an hour. Because the fact is, a large number of men consume some form of porn. They may or may not admit it, and they may or may not approve of porn in the abstract, but they do it anyway.

All of those men have one thing in common: they don't want to be nagged about their porn consumption by women. If they're married, they don't want to hear it from their wives; if they're gay, they don't want to hear it from their moms; and if they're single, they don't want to hear it from either their moms or from attractive girls. So what could be better than proof that those women are all consuming porn themselves? That would sure spike their guns, wouldn't it? In my admittedly unscientific opinion, that's why men like to fondly believe that romance novels are porn for women.**** And as for women who don't object to sexually explicit material, and who still dismiss romance novels as trash -- well, ladies, you don't know what you're missing.

Since romance need not be either chock-full of purple-prose groaners or pornographic, my next romance review's going to be about a well written Regency that contains no sex at all. Like much of the romance genre, it inhabits that vast middle ground between literature and trash. There should be a name for that. Wait, there is! Fiction! Someday, perhaps both the general public and academia will learn to apply that term appropriately. Until then, I will be a proud reader and reviewer of trash.

* Not all women, of course, but if you look at the sales figures for romance novels, a set of statistics I've looked at before and am not going to bother to find at the moment (try the Harlequin website if you're really dying to know), you'll see that it's an excellent generalization. And men like to read about this subject too. They just have to have something else going on in the book as well, so they can pretend they don't enjoy that part of it.

** Tania Modleski, Janice Radway, etc., ad infinitum.

*** Feminist scholars would then say to me: but they're probably extra disapproving of those explicit materials being consumed by women, because the patriarchy doesn't want women to have orgasms. To which I would reply: 1) if you find the seven craziest people in the world and spend your entire career arguing with them, you need to buy some better cable channels and 2) if a tree fell in the forest and hit a feminist scholar, would five hundred feminist proto-scholars write their dissertations about the phallic symbolism of vegetation and its resulting inherent hostility toward women?

**** Sorry, fellas. But you have my blessing to say, "Hah! You do it too!" if your wife is reading Fifty Shades of Grey. And if you're reading Playboy at the same time, you have my blessing to argue that your reading material is both less pornographic and much more sophisticated.

Monday, July 2, 2012

All Through the Night

I've been on a historical romance binge lately, for reasons that will remain shrouded in bosom-heaving mystery, so brace yourselves for a tsunami of corsets, carriages, and historically inaccurate sexual relationships.

Let's back up for a second, though, so that I can offer a few disclaimers to this review and all others that deal with the romance genre. Disclaimer the first: there are two types of romance novels, those that are romance first and novels second and those that are novels whose plots focus primarily on romantic relationships. Disclaimer the second: love and sex are two of the most fundamental human preoccupations, right up there with food and shelter. Therefore, anyone who dismisses romance as an unworthy subject for fiction simultaneously demonstrates their complete ignorance of what literature is.

Disclaimer the third: there are writers of all skill levels in every genre, including romance. True, for every hundred thousand E.L. Jameses there's probably only one Jane Austen, but that doesn't make Jane Austen just magically go away. And last disclaimer: if something can be classified in a genre, that does not mean it's not literature. The Lord of the Rings? Fantasy, but also literature. Heart of Darkness? Horror, but also literature. And Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre are two examples of books that are both romance and literature, and I will gladly argue anyone who wants to debate this point with me (Hi, Mom!!).

That said, Connie Brockway's All Through the Night is far from being literature. It is, however, a novel that is primarily concerned with a romance, rather than a few hundred pages of incoherent drivel arranged into a vaguely novel-like form in order to give some cardboard-cutout characters the chance to get it on in a four-poster bed.*

In other words, for those of you too lazy to read the last few paragraphs: romance is not always bad.

All Through the Night is one of those that's not bad at all, although it does suffer from one terrible trope of the historical romance genre. I think I've mentioned a distressing gross-sex trend in fantasy novels, which are generally not published unless someone gets raped by an orc, or molested with a wizard staff, or probed by a nixie, or at the very least bedded by a flea-ridden trollop. Historical romance, which also has its share of flea-ridden trollops, for anyone who perked up during the last sentence, has been going through a similarly annoying everyone-is-a-spy phase. If you took historical romance at face value, you would think that 75% of the population of Regency England was employed as secret agents.**

The heroine, Anne Wilder, a respectable and well-off upper-class widow, is not a spy. It's worse: she's a professional jewel thief in her spare time. Even worse than that, she steals because of her sad, sad emotional issues. Yes, I know. You don't need to say anything. The hero, Jack Seward, is a spy, surprise surprise. When an important letter gets stolen, supposedly by the mysterious thief who's been preying on the Prince Regent's friends, Jack is sent to learn the identity of the thief and recover the letter.

Now, if you can swallow the setup -- and to be fair, Brockway does endeavor semi-successfully to provide a rationale for all of this nonsense -- the book is one of the best in class. If I thought E.L. James were capable of learning how to write a character with more than a quarter of a dimension (see my review of Fifty Shades of Grey below), I'd send her to this book to see how a tortured hero is actually written.*** Jack has the usual fictional-spy baggage: bad childhood, creepy father-figure, war trauma, scars, and so on and so forth. The difference? He also has a distinct personality, something too often missing from heroes of this kind.

And although Anne's success as a thief may be just a little unbelievable, on a level with unicorns flying out of my left nostril, she's a fantastic heroine: witty, smart, an incredibly sexy tease, and a good mix of the virtues publishers must have in a romance heroine (like generosity and kindness) and entertaining flaws. I think I need to emphasize the "sexy" part again; the sex scenes in this book are hands-down some of the best I've ever read in a romance. This is, as aspiring (and, sadly, also well-established) writers in the genre should take note, because the structure of the novel and the interaction between the original characters leads to sexual tension, excitement, and the reader's investment in what's going on.

Let's recap: romance novels should be novels first, and romance second. Connie Brockway got that memo, while many of her colleagues apparently don't have the skill-set necessary to read it, and so her book gets three and a half stars overall and five within its genre from the Indiscriminate Reader. Meanwhile, E.L. James's three books are in the top four spots**** on Amazon, All Through the Night is currently ranked #219,124, and my desk has a large forehead-shaped dent in it.

* Review of one of the latter bad boys coming soon.

** Sort of like how, if you calculate the probable wizarding population of J.K. Rowling's fictional England based on the number of students at Hogwarts and the typical fertility rate in a first-world nation (not that I would ever take the time to do this, of course), you realize that all of England's wizards are either employed by Hogwarts, the professional quidditch league, or the Ministry of Magic. As a side-note, you also realize that all of them must be at least second cousins, so there's that, too. Maybe that explains Luna.

*** Hint: if he's a handsome playboy billionaire with doctor parents and a private jet, he's probably not that tortured, mmmkay?

**** The fourth item is a box set of all three. Wow, I can't believe I'm oozing this much sadness about a book. Oh my . . . it feels so bad. What is it about box sets? My subconscious is hiding behind the couch hugging herself, but my inner goddess is thinking about feet. A box set. Wow.