No-mance

Date: 30 March 2013

Books Completed: 66

Books Left: 134

I recently finished reading a novel and hated every page of it. Turns out, it was a romance novel. In case you haven’t heard, I HATE romance novels! I’ve had people say to me, “But isn’t Pride and Prejudice a romance novel?” P&P is very much a romantic story, a Georgian-era rom-com even, but not a romance novel. So what do I have against the genre?

I’ll be honest, and confess that I’ve perhaps read only about a half-dozen actual romance novels in my life. This was mostly during family vacations when I was in high school/college. My sister loved romance novels and always brought several with her to the beach. I usually would pick one up during that week, get disgusted with it, vow never to read one again, and repeat the cycle the following year when my own supply of books ran out.

So while I don’t have an extensive experience with the genre, I do feel comfortable making some generalizations, considering that the few I’ve read all have the same traits which are among the very things that make me despise the genre.

The characters are fairly cookie-cutter. The hero is always dark (either physically, emotionally, or both), rough (especially his voice), exceptionally good at whatever it is he does, and in possession of a phenomenal physique. He is a bad boy who just needs the right woman to turn him around. The heroine is a high-spirited virgin who is far more sexually alluring than she realizes. She goes toe-to-toe with the hero whom she seems to despise but secretly loves.

A great deal of the novel is given to description. What people wear is important, especially as the hero’s musculature is so easily visible under his clothes (lots of rippling going on) and the heroine’s heart pounds so noticeably under the tightness of her blouse. Voices rasp and moan a lot (especially outside of sex), and a great deal of blushing occurs.

Then there is the boilerplate plot: Boy meets girl; boy and girl fight; girl is secretly attracted to boy; boy starts to come around; boy and girl are separated due to misunderstanding; boy and/or girl performs surprising deed; boy and girl admit true feelings and live happily ever after.

Perhaps surprisingly, the sameness of the novels is not what bothers me the most. After all, similar components are what define a genre. The plot structure described above can also easily apply to just about any romantic comedy that I actually love.  I can even appreciate the appeal of a dark-haired bad boy now and then. So what’s my beef?

I think it comes down to characters and intelligence. I am all about the characters when I read. If I can’t find a character I can identify with, or at least like or appreciate, I am so over the book. In romance novels, I have a hard time finding a character to like—especially the men. In the books that I’ve read, they are not simply bad boys who secretly have a heart of gold, they are downright cads. The double standard is in full swing. I know the historical settings of the novels play a part in that, but it still bothers me. Even more so as this fact is kind of glossed over as far as the heroine goes; she doesn’t mind or just accepts it. My 21st century feminist sensibilities don’t let me let that go.

I don’t really admire the female characters, either. They never seem to see things coming—things that I can see coming several pages or even chapters before they happen. This ultimately makes the females seem stupid, and again, my feminist side comes out and rebels at this. In fact, I feel like my IQ drops about 50 points when I read romance novels. Situations and characters just seem so unrealistic that I have to be dumber to accept the story for what it is to enjoy it.

I know plenty of very intelligent women (my sister among them) who relish romance novels. They can accept the stories as escapist vehicles and dive right in. I can’t. I appreciate escapist literature and have my own share of terrible books that are guilty pleasures. Romance novels just aren’t in that list.

No Joy in Fudgeville

Date: 24 March 2013

Books Completed: 60

Books Left: 140

When I was a ‘tween, I loved Judy Blume’s books. As evidenced by my Books Read So Far page, I am currently rereading my Blume collection. After rereading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, I realized that I’ve never read the other Fudge books. So, I checked them out of my library and gave them a try. Not so sure I’m happy I did.

Before I read the new-to-me Fudgers, I found out from Ms. Blume’s website that she wrote the additional Fudge books because readers begged her to. Apparently, kids couldn’t get enough of Fudge’s antics. When I first read about him, I thought Fudge was a brat whose parents let him get away with murder. In the subsequent books, as Fudge grows older, the reader is lead to believe that Fudge is likely gifted, and that his high-spirited ways are actually manifestations of his precocious mind.

Ummmm, right. Sorry, but I ain’t buying that. After reading all four Fudge books, I still think he’s just a brat.

I can’t remember when I first read Fourth Grade Nothing. It was certainly after reading about Margaret, Deenie, Sally, and Tony (among others), but I don’t know if it was when I was in junior high (as we called it back then) or beyond. I wish I could remember, because I’m wondering if it would shed light on my aversion to Fudge.

Children’s books are, of course, written for children. It stands to reason that some characters and situations they find appealing hold no interest for adults. Even for those of us adults who, in general, love children’s literature. So, my dislike of Fudge could stem from the fact that I was too old to appreciate him when I first encountered him. After reading the additional Fudge books, I appreciate him even less. The older he gets (and the older I get), the more I dislike him.

The truth is, I have a sneaking suspicion that Fudge would never have been my favorite character, however old I was when I first made his acquaintance.  I have always been someone who likes to please people; someone who does not seek attention but at the same time does not like to be ignored; someone who wants to do the right thing, even if I don’t always actually do the right thing.  In short, I probably identify too much with Peter, even though I am actually a younger sister, to ever truly appreciate Fudge.

Mercifully, my time in Fudgeville has come to an end. Judy Blume is a prolific author who has written many books I love dearly, so it’s OK that I am less than enamored with a few of them. I am, however, currently rereading Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson, about a gifted kid who is not a brat. While I am not in Rachel’s league, she is a character I so identify with. Joy has been restored to my world.

Books Redux

Date: 16 March 2013

Books Completed: 55

Books Left: 145

I’ve discovered that most readers can fit into one of two groups—one-timers and re-readers. A glance at my Books Read So Far page quickly shows me firmly in the re-readers group.

I find that many one-timers find it amazing (and sometimes even ridiculous) that a person would read a book more than once. Why so? People have favorite restaurants they revisit, often ordering the same item; they see movies more than once, vacation in the same spots, watch television reruns. How is rereading a book any different?

As I was growing up, my mother was a One-Timer team member. Some mothers and daughters argue over clothes, makeup, friends, or curfews. My mother and I had disagreements about my rereading books. She just didn’t seem to get the absolute joy I have in reading (and rereading) a good story. Whether living in a story for the first time or the 22nd, a good tale is always a delightful and at times a comforting experience. Heck, even in a mediocre story there are new things to discover in each rereading. I will admit there are very few books—good, bad, and somewhere in between—I have only read once.

I remember it used to annoy my mother to see me reading a book multiple times. She even went so far as to put my Little House books in donation boxes, from which I promptly rescued them. That was probably the most overt act of rebellion I ever committed, so if that’s what Mum and I had conflict about, I’d say overall we’ve kept a good and close relationship over the years!

Besides, I’m not convinced she hasn’t since switched sides and turned in her One-Timer’s cap. She recently told me about multiple books she read several years ago that she has rediscovered and reread—going to some lengths to do so as some are out of print. I seriously doubt she will ever enjoy any book 20+ times, but her recent reading practices at least place her on the reserves roster for Team Redux.

Becoming (A) Jane(ite)

Date: 9 March 2013

Books Completed: 49 

Books Left: 151

As a librarian, I am often asked to name my favorite book. I don’t have one answer to that question when talking about children’s books. Grown-up books are another story. My immediate and unequivocal answer: Pride and Prejudice.

Astounding as it now seems to me, when I first encountered the book in high school, I had no time for it. Then, nearly 20 years ago, for some reason I decided to watch the BBC miniseries. After the first night I rushed out to buy a copy, spent the day reading, and caught up to where the series had left off. And as much as I loved the miniseries, I found the book (of course) to be so much better. Now I literally don’t leave home without it—not hard since I own six copies. A friend recently asked me what I loved about the book. I was hard pressed to answer on the spot, but came up with the idea that Elizabeth Bennet was who I wanted to be.

I stand by that statement, but there is so much more to it than that. The story just works on so many levels. The characters are great—I enjoy them all. Even the ridiculous (Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine, Mrs. Bennet), the evil (Wickham), and the just plain mean (Miss Bingley) fill their niches and perform their roles so beautifully that I don’t dislike any of them. The interaction between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy is delightful—they just don’t get it about each other until they really get it. Quite reminiscent of Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing—the best play ever (but that’s another post!)—but in their own Georgian style.

Other story elements are as enchanting as the characters. The arcs of the plot rise and fall as good storytelling should, situations seem realistic, and, of course, there is the happy ending. Then there is the irony. In possession of my own ironic wit, Miss Austen’s wit and style are quite familiar and personal to me. Indeed, I just get it.

I think the book’s greatest strength is in the human-ness of the central couple: both are flawed, both evolve in a believable way, and both are not superlatives in everything they do. Characters today always seem to be the best at something. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are not “the best” at anything; they are great at some things, not so great at others, and even quite bad at a thing or two. They grow and leave room to continue growing after the book ends.

After reading P&P I went on to read all of Austen’s books. I enjoy them all in varying degrees. My order of preference (after P&P, of course) is Persuasion, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park. I also have a great appreciation for books about Miss Austen and her works—several of them have pride of place in one of my bookshelves. Not to mention that my DVD collection contains some familiar Austen titles.

Perhaps my zealous affection for all things Austen is amusingly stereotypical of the spinster librarian. Don’t care. It’s who I am. After all, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Departing the Comfort Zone

Date: 3 March 2013

Books Completed: 44     

Books Left: 156

Last summer I read a book called Glamorous Illusions. The book was about a young lady, her new family, and her Grand Tour of Europe in the 1920s, with a bit of innocent romance thrown in. I found the book a pleasant read–liked it, but didn’t love it. The book jacket described another series about an Irish family in Boston circa WWI. Thinking it would be similar in style to Glamorous Illusions, and trying to find a contemporary grown-up fiction style to like, I decided to get the first book in the series. I started it last week and was woefully misguided about the kind of book. It is not historical fiction with some romance thrown in—it’s a Romance Novel. I was aghast. I HATE Romance Novels. I seriously contemplated discarding it and starting a different book, but thought better of it. This was an opportunity to get out of my comfort reading zone.

We all have reading patterns and comfort zones. When I read books for grown-ups, I tend to read biographies, histories, and classics. I don’t really care for fantasy (see last post for details), sci-fi, or, God forbid, survivalist stories. I have read perhaps a half-dozen actual Romance Novels and find myself incredibly irritated by the characters and unwilling to suspend my disbelief at the events. In reading this new Romance Novel, I found myself having the same issues, yet I am still trying to plow through it.

I am often accused of not liking change, or not giving things a chance, or not being flexible. Yet here I am, trying something new, choosing to leave my comfort zone, going to a place I have historically disliked, and I am so not enjoying it. Am I set in my ways, or simply self-aware? Am I close-minded, or decisive and know my own mind? Where does willingness to take a risk end and being confident in who I am begin?

Not having answers to these questions, I am reading on. I often tell students that they should read a book all the way through, even if they find themselves not liking it. I tell them, you never know, something might happen in the story and you might change your mind at some point. And every time I pick up this new Romance Novel I tell myself, perhaps something will happen today that will make me change my mind. Perhaps. After all, tomorrow is another day.