So… I wrote a sermon…

* waves *

It’s been a while. I seem to have some writer’s block, and I’ve been extra busy at work and home. But I did, in fact, write something, and it (sort of) relates. Ish. Very tangentially. Also, some very kind folks on Twitter expressed an interest in reading this (after, I should note, I asked if anyone would be interested. I’m not pretending to unsolicited interest, here.)

In late August, I gave a sermon at my church. I’m of the Episcopal persuasion, so I was assigned a set a readings on which to write a reflection. I don’t talk about my faith all that often — there never seems to be much point, and the risk of getting into an argument with someone who feels very passionately that I Am Wrong is just too high — but I’m hoping that sharing my homily will help me push past my lame writer’s block, so I can get back to talking about awesome romance novels. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, read on if you’re interested in what I said to a bunch of people at my church. (I managed to do it mostly without cursing… a miracle.)

A few weeks ago, Deacon Ann preached about the power of names and identity. I’d like to share one of the (many) names that identifies me: I am a reader.

I read a lot. While 24% of American adults surveyed by the Pew Resource Center earlier this year reported not having read a book in all of 2013, I read well over 150 books. I don’t just read, either. I write about books online, I talk about books to anyone foolish enough to ask, and I edit. Words, stories, and narratives are a huge part of my life, and I devote a considerable amount of my attention span to thinking about the stories I encounter from a personal and political perspective.

Let’s talk about story for a bit. Stories and humanity go hand in hand. They help us relate to each other and to make sense of our world. You know how it is: The world is huge and full of information, but stories allow us to organize and prioritize all the data in our lives to make quicker, theoretically better, decisions and to feel more in control of our lives. Data points — information — without stories to explain them are bewildering. Stories can be as simple as causal relationships — for example I might witness my daughter Allie attempt to be a bossy pants to her sister, and I might see Sophia pull her hair, and I can safely assume the two events are connected — or stories can be elaborate retellings of past events or fictional ones. The important thing to consider is that no story — even a simple one — is strictly true, in an absolute sense. All are influenced by the storyteller, by what she found important enough to tell or by what he hoped to accomplish with the story.

I am concerned about the messages that lurk in stories, in the truths those stories reveal, whether or not those truths are the intent of the narrative.

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

It’s time for full disclosure: I have a hard time with the Bible. As a woman, I feel like it is full of negative messaging. “Hey women,” it seems to say, “here’s a whole chapter on what it takes to be a perfect, virtuous wife: be quiet, keep a good house, and work on your embroidery.” (There is not, to my knowledge, a corresponding chapter on how to be a perfect, virtuous husband, and that’s unfortunate.) Don’t get me started on Esther, Ruth, and, especially, Bathsheba. And you might not want to know what I think about the ending of Miriam’s story. And that’s all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, sure, we have all the faithful (but mostly unnamed) women who stuck by Christ to the bitter end; we have Jesus’ at the time radical views toward women — that we’re fun to be around and that maybe uncleanliness isn’t such a big deal — but we also have some of Paul’s more vitriolic writing and lots of fun gems from the gospels like the hypothetical woman who has to marry seven brothers.

I do not think the Bible is actually anti-woman, nor do I think that God is opposed to lady folks — quite the opposite — but I do believe that Biblical scholars throughout the centuries have tended to focus on some of the more troubling narratives (or have obscured and conflated some narratives about women to make them more troubling) and have tended to use the Bible to support their own narrow views toward women. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all caught in an elaborate and rather ironic (in a dramatic sense) game of telephone involving the messages God actually wants us to receive, the way those messages appear in writing, and the way they’ve been interpreted throughout the centuries.

Consider the story we heard this morning from Exodus. It’s a familiar story, right? It’s also a clear example of dramatic irony. The Pharaoh’s adoptive grandson ends up — with some significant woo-woo courtesy of the great I AM — overthrowing the status quo and leading the Israelites to freedom (via 40 years in the desert, but who’s counting?). I see a bit more more dramatic irony when I look at the story from another angle: The Pharaoh’s entire plan for maintaining the status quo — once forced labor proved ineffective — hinged on removing all the young males of Israel from the equation, but his downfall was ultimately orchestrated by a bunch of women. That’s funny.

I watched the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments a lot when I was a kid. So when I think about the story of the Exodus, I think about it from the context of Moses as the main character. After all, in this passage, he is the only — other than the super awesome midwives — the only character who is actually given a name (rather than just a title; and Wikipedia suggested that even the midwives’ names are titles.). You have the Pharaoh, his daughter, the Levite man, the Levite woman, but Moses gets a name, so obviously he’s the main character.

In this passage, Moses is the least interesting character in the story, and not just because he’s a baby. Yet he’s the character that we always think of. He’s the central figure, the one who was raised apart from his family and his people and eventually is sort of like a spy, right? He’s sent to be raised among the very people that he’s going to end up vanquishing. And that is an interesting narrative in a lot of ways… it plays into our concepts of what are compelling characters and stories, the types of narratives that we want to hear about.

Anselm Feuerbach - http://www.bildindex.de

Anselm Feuerbach – http://www.bildindex.de

But I want to hear about Miriam, his sister, who was older than her brother and was already born, maybe, at a time when Hebrew boy babies were to be killed, and she was allowed to live, essentially because she is unimportant. And to grow up with that knowledge, to grow up knowing that the only reason you’re alive is because you’re so far beneath the notice of the ruling elites, because nobody expects you do anything… that… that is interesting to me, and that’s what I want to hear about. And of course that’s not the story that we get, but in the narrative of this passage from Exodus, she’s one of the most important characters. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby, sure, but it’s Miriam who comes forward and is sort of sly and tricksey, saying, “Hey, I see you found a baby… I know a wetnurse,” and then taking Moses back to his own mother to be nursed. And no one knows, right? It’s very sneaky. And that from somebody whom nobody expected to upset the status quo. The narrative does not name her; she’s not considered important; but she’s as crucial as her mother and the Pharaoh’s daughter in enabling the disruption that is to come.

Sometimes we get stuck in the perspectives we bring to bear on a narrative, on whatever we expect that story to tell.  If we are stuck thinking that Moses is the main character, the important one, even as a baby, so fortunate and lucky to be found in those circumstances, or perhaps that God was looking over him and graced him as the central figure of the story; if we get locked up in that, then we are missing another part of the story. God can use unlikely characters to bring about disruption. But I want to add a caution: while it behooves all of us as a society to give some attention to stories about unlikely characters, maybe we should stop thinking of them that way, as “unlikely.” After all, it shouldn’t be in any way shocking or surprising that it’s the women in this story that brought about so much change… the midwives, who defied the Pharaoh’s orders; the Levite woman, who hid her child; the sister who made it so that Moses didn’t starve; the Pharaoh’s daughter, who defied her father by harboring and raising the instrument that would bring about his downfall; all of these women…  it should not be surprising. We should not go, “Oh my God, that’s surprising!” because, well… of course they were able to do it, and I don’t think it was in any way surprising to God… but as long as we continue to be surprised by it, we buy into the casual sexism — that elaborate game of telephone — that exists both in the narrative and in our culture, and it’s time for us to move beyond that.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Today’s Gospel lesson is also an example of dramatic irony. In that passage, Jesus declares Peter, the same dude that will later deny him thrice, “the rock” on which the church will be built. That’s hilarious, when seen from one view. Modern readers of the scripture can approach that passage the same way we would Romeo and Juliet. You know, the entire time, that these two crazy kids are going to off themselves, but you still get caught up in the action. (That’s dramatic irony for you.) So Peter being called “the rock” can, if you’re cynical enough, be a bit of comedy when you consider what’s to come. (Also when you consider that Peter is “the rock,” but all the faithful women are unnamed and largely ignored by history… Ha.) But that’s if you focus only on Peter’s failure and neglect to remember what he does with failure once he reaches it and repents of it.

I’m cynical, sure, but I also believe to the depths of my soul in the redemptive power of Christ’s love. So here’s how I view that passage: I think Jesus is showing us just how deep his forgiveness goes, and he’s giving Peter the means to get past his eventual failure. I don’t know if Jesus knew the future or just knew human nature — I’m no authority on that kind of musing — but I like to believe that Jesus knew the possibility of Peter’s human frailty and chose to bolster his spirit with a glimpse of some of the better things Peter was capable of. I mean, yes. Peter, like all of us, was capable of acting through fear and littleness of spirit, but he was also — like all of us — capable of great things, of courage and love and resolute action. And maybe Jesus knew that Peter, once he had failed, might — like all of us — despair and worry that he was good for nothing. And maybe his words, that label, “the rock,” are what helped Peter climb out of it, find his courage and hope, and Act.

Maybe.

And maybe that’s the real dramatic irony, that God can take a scene that would set a cynic’s heart aflame with bitter mirth and make it — seen from another view — an example of unending redemption, acceptance, and limitless love.

That’s my perspective, and it definitely impacts my interpretation of various stories. I have to admit that it’s terrifying to put it all out there for you. Thanks to my background, cynicism and general irreverence, I make an odd biblical scholar. (In fact, I’m not one.) But that doesn’t make my perspective less valid or even less interesting. It is good for us to listen to one another, to learn slightly different versions of the well-known stories. And the more we all — even those of you who are like, “Wait… what did she mean by that reference to the end of Miriam’s story?” — the more we all share with each other what we think about the stories collected in the Bible (or the stories omitted from it), the more we’ll learn about each other, ourselves, and our relationships with God, and we’ll break free of that game of telephone. The truth lies in there somewhere.

Let’s talk about sexism, violence, and culture

OK, so I was totally going to continue with Armchair BEA and do a post about author interaction (I’ll summarize: it’s super neat to interact with authors on Twitter), but — let’s face it — this weekend was rough, and there are some important things we need to talk about.

I woke up this morning to an awesome post on my friend’s blogs, Defies Description and Beauty in Budget Blog. She’s right: we need to talk about this stuff.

I was out of town this weekend with limited internet access, but I spent some time last night reading through a tiny portion of the #yesallwomen tweets. Many of them I found affirming, like not only are all these women speaking up about the countless ways sexual violence and the threat of danger touch every woman’s life on a daily basis but also the sheer volume of tweets, blog posts, Tumblrs, Facebook posts, etc. is having a somewhat surprising result: people are listening.

(I mean, let’s be honest, it’s not like women suddenly discovered this weekend that they have a voice and can speak up about life. We’ve been speaking up and speaking out all this time, but I don’t think we’ve been heard, or maybe it’s just been so easy to explain away individual women’s individual stories as isolated incidents. But it’s kind of overwhelming when more than a million women share eerily similar stories. Maybe we do have a pervasive cultural problem that affects not just half the population but all people.)

But I want to back up a little bit, because this conversation isn’t just about the events of last Friday evening in Isla Vista, Calif. It’s also about the epidemic of rapes that occurred at UCSB during the recent academic year. In fact, it’s also about the epidemic of rapes and sexual assaults that occurred (read: is occurring) at college campuses all over the country and how college administrations responded. It’s about how perpetrators (and alleged perpetrators) of sexual violence are viewed with sympathy while victims are shamed. It’s about how rare it is to find safe spaces within our culture for the discussion of all these things.

For example, if you hop on over to Twitter and browse through the #yesallwomen tweets, you’ll find a whole spectrum of responses to the conversation, from women sharing their stories and men responding humanely to men responding badly (and, sadly, unironically). I do have to point out that however irritated I am by some of the less-than-stellar responses out there (ranging from sympathy for a mass murderer to calls for all women to open their legs and prevent mass murders to calls for women to stop it with the #yesallwomen nonsense because not all guys are douchebags to MRA defenses), I do think these voices need to be heard. I mean, there’s an obvious reason, right, in that it might be easy to pretend that we live in an equal society with no more pesky sexism except… oh, right.

T-052714-1418

Never mind; there’s some sexism right there. But beyond the demonstrative value of these responses, it’s vital for all of us to engage in this conversation, because the broader this conversation is, the better. I mean, just taking that one Twitter interaction as an example, we can talk about “nice guys” (and why those words often appear in ironic quotes), the overall tone of public discourse and whether or not it’s disturbing (I tend to find it very disturbing), the use of the word “mangina” to invalidate other men’s humane reactions, etc.

Let’s talk about all of it, because as long as we all stay silent, the status quo is maintained. And, I don’t know about you, but — for me — the status quo kinda sucks.

I don’t know about you, but I’m uncomfortable bringing up my daughters in a culture that turns a blind eye to street harassment, that objectifies and sexualizes women and girls and then punishes women and girls for being sexual objects, that ignores the horrifying statistics of reported sexual assaults and rapes on college campuses (to say nothing of the assaults that are not reported or are actively hushed by administrators), that perpetuates the myth that most reports of sexual violence are falsified (because, what, hell hath no fury?), that finds it easier to blame and shame victims than to talk honestly about the culture that nurtures the sexual assault epidemic.

So let’s talk about it, because this conversation is important for so many reasons. It’s important for women to share their stories and feel — maybe for the first time — that they aren’t alone, and it’s important for men to hear those stories and respond in any way they can, whether with defensive anger (stop sharing your stories, women, just shut up, because not all men do that!) or wonder (wow, I can’t believe that these things have been happening this whole time while I’ve been blithely living my life.) or compassion (my heart goes out to #yesallwomen). Let’s talk about what feminism actually means (gender equality) and maybe talk about how the word has become a pejorative byword over the past few decades. Let’s talk about all the truly awesome men in our lives and how wonderful it is to feel supported by them and by our friends, sisters, and strangers on the Internet whose experiences are so similar to our own.

Let’s talk.

Review – A Lady Risks All by Bronwyn Scott

This rant has absolutely nothing to do with the book I’m about to discuss. At all.  The following can just go to hell:

  1. fleas
  2. ants
  3. the sun
  4. my hair
  5. dirty floors
  6. deep cleaning projects that I put off for months
  7. the madness that infects toddlers and makes them whine
  8. the madness within me that makes toddler whining my kryptonite
  9. hormones.

It’s entirely possible that 8 and 9 are actually the same thing.  Anyway, I’ve been trying to write about this book for a few weeks, now, but stuff just kept coming up.  Like I’d intend to sit and write the review, and then I’d notice that the floor was filthy.  Then my kids brought fleas home from preschool, and hormones attacked me, and my youngest started an excessive campaign of whining, and I lost my prescription sunglasses only to find them days later in the diaper bag (WHY did I put them there?), and my hair is evil, and I just didn’t have anything to say other than all this.  It happens.

Cover image, A Lady Risks All by Bronwyn Scott

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

It would be unwise to mistake me for an innocent debutante—for years I have graced the smoky gloom of many a billiards club and honed my skills at my father’s side.

But now he has a new protégé—Captain Greer Barrington—and while my father would see me attract the attentions of an eligible lord I, Mercedes Lockhart, have other ambitions.… Even if that means seducing the captain to earn back my father’s favor! I know I must avoid falling for Greer’s charming smile…but his sensual kisses could be worth the risk.

When I saw A Lady Risks All on NetGalley, I waffled for a few weeks on whether to request it.  I worried, based on the publisher’s blurb, that it would be told in the first person, and I’m not the biggest fan of that narrative format.  Eventually my curiosity won out, and I actually loved the book, partly because it is, thankfully, told in a more standard third-person narrative.  Also, it’s fantastic.

It’s about billiards, mostly, which isn’t a phrase I ever expected to write when talking about a romance novel.  It’s also about a difficult father/daughter relationship and historical gender politics that gave men the freedom to be go-getters but fettered women to serve some purpose for their families — they could marry well, perhaps, or serve the household or, as in Mercedes’ case, use whatever technical skills they possess to further their families’ self-serving interests.  It’s a story of a woman who is done with being defined by her usefulness to her father, a woman who wants to establish her own place in the world and start being useful to herself.

I’ve got to say, I applaud these types of stories.  I may have mentioned here and there on this blog (read: in almost every freaking post) that I love how subversive the romance genre can be; this book is an excellent example of that subversion in practice.  Mercedes is the very opposite of the innocent miss we (the cultural we) tend to associate with the genre: she’s experienced (if you know what I mean) and shrewdly intelligent, plays billiards better than both Greer and her father (which means better than anyone in the history of ever), and teaches Greer how to hustle.  But while she’s lacking in the softness and innocence that tends to signify femininity in our culture, she’s all woman.  In other words, she tolerates the limitations of her gender and class until the time is right to break free.   (In other words, it’s possible that our culture has an inaccurately narrow view of feminine traits.)

Did I love everything about the book?  No, not really.  There was a wee bit too much billiards talk for me, and sometimes it seemed that the billiards story eclipsed the romance storyline.  It’s more accurate to say that it felt more like Mercedes’ story than Mercedes and Greer’s story.  Greer possessed a fine smolder, but he wasn’t quite a strong or vibrant enough character to contrast favorably with Mercedes, who is simply fantastic.  Finally, the ending, while satisfying, was a bit abrupt.

But, you know what?  I enjoyed the heck out of this story.  Readers who are interested in billiards, gender politics and stories with strong heroines who triumph over all, and — of course — lovers of historical romance should check this one out and keep an eye on Bronwyn Scott.  I imagine she’s got many more interesting stories in store for us.

A Lady Risks All was released on June 18, 2013 as an e-book and mass-market by Harlequin Historical.  For more information about the book, click on the cover above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  For more information about Bronwyn Scott, visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Harlequin via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Review – A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant

So, I’d heard of Cecilia Grant, of course.  I read her amazing post about feminism and romance, and I admired her for opening up a discussion on the issue to explore the nuances of culture, feminism, romance, love, gender, story, ideology, etc.  But I hadn’t read any of her books until last month when I saw this book come up on NetGalley and thought, gosh, that author’s name seems familiar, somehow.  I think I’ll read that one.  I didn’t put the dots together until after I’d finished the book (and bought and read her first two books).

Cover image, A Woman Entangled by Cecilia Grant

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Kate Westbrook has dreams far bigger than romance. Love won’t get her into London’s most consequential parties, nor prevent her sisters from being snubbed and looked down upon—all because their besotted father unadvisedly married an actress. But a noble husband for Kate would deliver a future most suited to the granddaughter of an earl. Armed with ingenuity, breathtaking beauty, and the help of an idle aunt with connections, Kate is poised to make her dreams come true. Unfortunately, a familiar face—albeit a maddeningly handsome one—appears bent on upsetting her scheme.

Implored by Kate’s worried father to fend off the rogues eager to exploit his daughter’s charms, Nick Blackshear has set aside the torch he’s carried for Kate in order to do right by his friend. Anyway, she made quite clear that his feelings were not returned—though policing her won’t abate Nick’s desire. Reckless passion leads to love’s awakening, but time is running out. Kate must see for herself that the charms of high society are nothing compared to the infinite sweet pleasures demanded by the heart.

You know how sometimes you read on autopilot, without devoting your full (or even a majority share) attention to the book?  Other readers will have a different mass of distractions, of course, but here’s my typical list: when reading at home, my kids playing and calling for my attention, TV on in the background, the mountain of housework I don’t feel like doing sitting there staring at me with judgement in its figurative eyes, my husband looking back and forth between that mountain and me with a book in my hands, my thoughts about the day I just had and the one that faces me tomorrow, my never-ending to-do list scrolling through my mind, etc.; when reading at work on a break, emails popping up on my screen, music playing in one ear, my phone, Twitter, my never-ending to-do list scrolling through my mind, etc.  And most of the time I can enjoy a story even with that distracting and desperate soundtrack playing in the background, but sometimes I stumble upon a book that is so much bigger, in its narrative, than my life’s soundtrack.  These books drown out all that background noise and leave me feeling refreshed and energized, the way I’m supposed to feel after reading a book.  (Also, I can’t read them around my kids, because I don’t feel right completely ignoring them…)

A Woman Entangled is one of those books.  It grabbed my interest by the fourth page, and it didn’t let go until I’d finished the book.  Even then, I was still caught up with thinking about it.  It has:

  1. Pride and Prejudice references galore, and the story foils P&P except that the roles are a little bit reversed with Kate playing proud but vulnerable Darcy and Nick playing worthy but mortified Elizabeth.  That makes Kate sound just awful, but she isn’t.  
  2. Humor, but the author’s voice is rather serious.  The humor is witty and a bit wry, and I loved it.
  3. Discussions about women in (Regency) culture (that have applications to our culture today).  Kate and Nick have a memorable conversation about the impossible cultural need for women to be beautiful (and thus receive the attention of countless menfolk) yet remain in ignorance of their beauty (despite all that male attention).  There are plenty of other discussions, but that’s the one I bookmarked.
  4. Friendship between women whose conversation does not revolve around the male characters (this book passes the Bechtel test with flying colors.).  Even better, the book proffers the idea that friendship with a worthy woman could be just as desirable and helpful to a woman looking to find some security in the world as marriage to a worthy man (more, perhaps, as friendship doesn’t involve the transaction of one’s self into another’s keeping).

It’s that last point that is so interesting and important.  As the romance builds between Kate and Nick, I found myself waiting for the moment when Kate would realize that all her goals were less important than the power of love or that Nick was a more worthy prize than social acceptance.  I kept waiting for Kate to have to compromise her values or to discover that her long-held values were actually wrong somehow.  I waited in vain.  I even began to worry that the book (a romance novel!) wouldn’t have a happily ever after.  The ending was so unexpected, and in a way that’s sad.  It’s sad that I kept expecting the novel to bow to patriarchy — to devalue Kate’s feminine drive towards social acceptance, to force Kate to subject her desires in order to have a relationship with Nick, to confirm the idea that Kate’s happiness can be achieved only through her relationship with Nick (and her letting go of her other goals) — and it’s sad that I was so surprised by the book’s resolution.

Bottom line: I loved this book, and Cecilia Grant has earned a spot on my auto-buy and my ‘authors I want to high-five’ lists.

A Woman Entangled was released as a mass-market paperback and e-book  on June 25, 2013 by Bantam Dell, a division of Random House.  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  To learn more about Cecilia Grant, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Bantam Dell via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

On literary fiction – Armchair BEA 2013 – Day 3

It’s day 3 of Armchair BEA, and today the topic is literary fiction: What books have you read this year that would fit into this category? Is there anything coming up that you’re particularly excited about?What authors/novels would you recommend to someone new to the genre? Are there any misconceptions or things that you’d like to clear up for people unfamiliar with literary fiction? What got you started into this kind of book? Name a novel that hasn’t received a lot of buzz that definitely deserves it.

I ranted yesterday about my reservations with distinguishing between literary and genre fiction, so today I’ll (try to) content myself with answering the question.  I don’t read a lot of literary fiction — some years, I don’t read any.

What is literary fiction, anyway?  It’s a non-genre genre, and perhaps it’s best defined by one thing that it isn’t, and one thing that it is. It isn’t genre fiction, and it is (must be) identified as literary by an accepted critic whose merit as judge and gatekeeper everybody who is anybody approves.  It tends to be written by men (for a variety of reasons, including: books by women tend to be sidelined as chick-lit or the slightly better-named women’s fiction, and most reviewers bestowing literary status are men and may be less inclined to review books written by women, though probably not for nefarious reasons… in our culture, we tend to assume that books written by men are for everybody, but books written by women are for women and thus are not mainstream), and I suspect the idea is that the books that are touted as literary fiction today will end up being the classics of tomorrow.  I wonder how many of them will actually make the cut.

So why don’t I read more literary fiction?  I like good books, and I recognize and appreciate quality writing where I find it — why wouldn’t I read a genre that is vetted for quality?  Honestly, it’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ fault (everything is, actually).  I know, I know – Tess is a classic and bears no resemblance to modern literary fiction.  The thing is, having spent the better part of a decade reading the classics, that sea of venerable men and a few worthy ladies, I’ve come to associate literature with sexism/misogyny.  Tess is just a fine example of it, even if Hardy was being ironic (and I’m not entirely convinced that he was).  So I’ve been making a concerted effort to avoid misogynistic literature and cultivate a more feminist library.  I’ve been a lot happier, in general.

I know — I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and I’m terribly wrongheaded and all that — I know!  But I’m just being honest, here.  It’s probably a temporary thing, but for now, that’s where I’m at.  Have any of you gone through anything like this in your reading, where you purposely avoid an entire section of the bookstore because those books make you angry?  Did you grow out of it after a while?

Lastly, these books are probably not considered literary by the gatekeepers at the NYT, but they certainly struck me as being more literary than otherwise.

Review & Author Interview – The Beauty Within by Marguerite Kaye

I work at a college of science and engineering, and I am surrounded by folk who understand the world as a set of mathematical equations or as a great engineering problem requiring a creative solution or as a fabric woven of nano particles, elements, and covalent bonds.  Sometimes it amuses me to think of all these students and faculty using the power of science and math to make sense of the world – often to attempt to make sense of one another – within a hundred yards of where I sit.  I am not terribly scientific; narratives move me, and I’m rather stuck in my own humanity.  People are interesting to me, and the things people create — literature, music, art, politics, discord, destruction — drive my imagination and rivet my interest.

I loved another of Marguerite Kaye’s books, and I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to read this one for review.  The Beauty Within is a blending of two ways of looking at the world – through the lens of art and the lens of mathematics – and it knocked my socks off.

Cover image, The Beauty Within by Marguerite Kaye

First up, the blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – Considered the plain, clever one in her family, Lady Cressida Armstrong knows her father has given up on her ever marrying. But who needs a husband when science is the only thing to set Cressie’s pulse racing?

Disillusioned artist Giovanni di Matteo is setting the ton abuzz with his expertly executed portraits. Once his art was inspired; now it’s only technique. Until he meets Cressie….

Challenging, intelligent and yet insecure, Cressie is the one whose face and body he dreams of capturing on canvas. In the enclosed, intimate world of his studio, Giovanni rediscovers his passion as he awakens hers….

Review

When I read The Beauty Within, I was struck by how subversive it is to traditional gender roles and societal norms.  Cressie is a brilliant mathematician who is disinclined to place her fate in a man’s hands; her stepmother Bella, while fully embracing the female role of the time (lie back, think of England, make plenty of male babies), digs in and demands the right to have authority over her reproductive healthcare.  Giovanni is intimately and personally aware of how degrading sex can be when mixed with commerce and how destructive it is to feel that others may have ownership of one’s own body.  Although the focus of Kaye’s writing is always on the characters and how they develop individually and together, these nuances add greater depth to the story and increased my enjoyment of it.  I always love a good love story, but I love one even better if it makes me think and broadens my understanding of the world.  The Beauty Within is just such a book.

This book exists at the crossroads between art and mathematics, two of the languages we can use to describe the beauty of the world.  The story, while a bit episodic, unfolds over a series of painting sessions that result in three paintings using Cressie as the subject.  Cressie and Giovanni both evolve apace with the paintings, each coming into a fuller understanding and acceptance of his or her self, each coming into a fuller appreciation of the beauty within the other.  Kaye’s writing is layered and rich and a little bit decadent, and I can’t wait to read more.  (You should, too!)

Interview with Marguerite Kaye

While I could have written at least a thousand words about this book, how much I loved it, and how I think folk should drop whatever they’re doing and go buy it, that would make for a very long blog post (too long).  Besides, I am very pleased to include an interview with Marguerite in this post, especially because her answers to my random smattering of questions are so engaging.

1.  RwA:  You mention in your historical note that Cressie is based–at least in part–on Ada Lovelace.  What about her life and history inspired you to base a character on her?

Kaye:  I first read Benjamin Woolley’s biography of Ada, Bride of Science, a number of years ago. Ada’s mother, Annabella Milbanke, endured a miserable marriage to Lord Byron, and dreaded her daughter’s inheriting Byron’s artistic temperament and wild, impulsive nature. As a result poor Ada was raised subject to a strict disciplinary regime and an education steeped in logic and reason. I was intrigued by the consequences such an upbringing might have on someone’s personality, and why, unlike Ada, a person might willingly turn to mathematics and science as a sort of antidote to their life. Cressie’s life was turned upside down when her mother died, and then her two elder sisters left home. She turns to numbers, theories, proofs, because they are dependable, they won’t ever let her down. But of course love is one of the most illogical things it’s possible to experience. It can’t be explained, it can’t be rationalised, and emotions are notoriously unreliable. And if you add into the equation an artist, a man who appears to be the antithesis of all Cressie believes in, you’ve got the basis for a very eventful romantic journey indeed.

2.  RwA: How did you conduct your research for this book, particularly your art history research?

Kaye:  Right from the outset, I saw this book very clearly as a sort of contest between art/beauty on one side and reason/logic on the other. I wanted the paintings to define the structure of the story and to reflect the developing relationship between Cressie and Giovanni. The various portraits demonstrate the way their relationship changes their understanding – he of her, her of herself – but I also wanted to show how Giovanni’s art was changed by his feelings for Cressie. At the start, he’s a highly accomplished, much sought-after portrait painter, but his paintings are glossy, perfect and in his eyes facile. By the end of the book, his paintings are much more ‘impressionistic’ and emotional and therefore ‘true’, though he’s not, in the historical sense, an Impressionist since he pre-dates that particular art movement.

I saw the romance as consisting of three stages, which suggested, in artistic terms, a triptych to me. I’m personally always fascinated by the triptych form, which is used quite a lot by one of my favourite artists, the Scottish painter John Bellany. I am not in any way artistic myself so I had to do quite a bit of research on early-19th century painting methods and materials. The portraits that Giovanni paints are all based on real works that I was familiar with, and which I chose because they matched the change in Cressie wrought by her relationship with Giovanni. My working title for the book was actually The Three Faces of Lady Cressida. I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but you can find them all on my Pinterest board for the book.

 3.  RwA: I love that your books include some exotic locales — what are some of your favorite geographic areas to write about?  Does your writing change when you change story locations?  Do you ever get to travel in the name of research?

Kaye:  Sadly, I don’t have the luxury of travelling in the name of research – how I wish I could afford to – so I have to rely on my imagination plus a bit of personal knowledge. Aside from my sheikh books, all of my stories are set in places that are familiar to me. I love invoking ambiance, I love incorporating buildings, names, scenery that I love, into my stories. When I’m writing anything set in Scotland, I do find that my style changes because I know it so well. I want to make readers love it as I do, I want them to say, I’d love to visit there – though I do worry sometimes that I sound like a tourist guide! Funnily enough, my sheikh books are often picked out as the most colourful in terms of ambiance, and though I’ve done a deal of research into what the Nineteenth Century Arabian world might have been like, I’ve never been there. Maybe it’s because my home is in one of the wettest parts of Scotland that I can let my imagination run riot when it comes to the sultry heat of the desert.

4.  RwA: I’ve been seeing some headlines lately about romance as feminism, and I wonder if you’d be interested in weighing in on the matter.  Is the romance genre necessarily feminist, being written primarily for women, about women, or is that generalization a bit too broad?  Do you consider your books to be feminist? (I certainly think so, which counts as a compliment from me.)

Kaye:  Difficult one. I write romances because at heart I’m a romantic. I would also consider myself a feminist, though I confess not such an ardent one as I was in my twenties. I write about strong women who take control of their own lives, and who find that love strengthens them and completes them. My heroines would survive on their own if required, they’re not clinging vines, and the relationship between hero and heroine is very much a meeting of equals, though not necessarily in an economic sense (which would be almost impossible, in terms of historical accuracy). My heroines find their happy ever after on their own terms, which don’t necessarily conform to what society requires of them, they are true to themselves first and foremost, and they instinctively rebel against boundaries set by other people. In that sense, which is pretty much my own personal idea of feminism, then they are feminist. But I would be hesitant about claiming any overtly feminist political purpose for my stories because that’s not why I write them.

RwA: (This topic is just too interesting for me to keep out of it…) Oddly enough, what struck me as most feminist about this book was the very lack of any overt feminist political purpose.  Your focus, in the writing, remains on the characters, their development, and the development of love between them — but each character’s acceptance of certain ideas (that Cressie can, despite her non-male status, excel at mathematics; that Lord Armstrong is wrong to so undervalue his daughters and wrong to be so unconcerned about their futures; that Cressie may have a life and a value all her own and may have the choice of how to spend that life), while never drawing the focus of the story, affirms the basic principles of feminism in an understated, and therefore more powerful, way.  This book presents a picture of how the world could look if we stopped seeing feminism as the opposite of patriarchy and instead saw it as a truly egalitarian perspective.

 5.  RwA: What are some of your upcoming and/or recently released projects?

Kaye:  Rumours that Ruined a Lady is the story of Cressie’s younger sister Caroline, and will be out in November. It deals with a very common situation – a woman in the ‘wrong’ marriage –  at a time when divorce was not only extremely rare but almost guaranteed to make a social leper of the woman, no matter how ‘innocent’. Caro is the dutiful sister, the only one to marry the man her father chose for her, but things have gone very badly awry indeed for her – so badly, that the book opens with Caro unconscious and near death in an opium den…

I’m currently working on a trilogy of linked novellas set during the First World War to be released next year, the centenary of the commencement of the Great War. It’s a tragic period in world history but also epoch-changing, which is why it provides such a fascinating backdrop against which romance might flourish. The effect of war on society generally is a theme that runs through many of my books, but the scale of this particular war, the suffering of civilians as well as those doing the fighting, the pace of change, both social and technological, are almost overwhelming. It’s a bit of a challenge (serious understatement!) to write believable romances without detracting from the harsh reality of the war, and I’d certainly say it’s my most taxing project yet, but then I say that about every one of my books!

6.  RwA: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered in any recent research?

Kaye:  Researching the Great War, one of the things I discovered was that the horrific injures suffered by soldiers on both sides forced the medical profession into trying out some radical solutions. A sculptor was employed in one British hospital to make masks for men whose faces were beyond repair, for example. In Lyn MacDonald’s amazing book, The Roses of No Man’s Land, I read that blood transfusions were introduced to British and French field hospitals by a team from Harvard. They required the donor and donee to be placed together in the same operating theatre and involved a warm flask and rubber tubing. Primitive stuff to us, but they saved countless lives.

Once again, I want to thank Marguerite for her graciousness in participating in this interview.  You can bet that I’ll be picking up Rumors that Ruined a Lady, and I’m very interested in reading her romances set against The Great War and will be keeping an eye out for them.  The Beauty Within was released on April 23, 2013 as an e-book and mass market by Harlequin Historical.  If you’re interested in learning more about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  To learn more about Marguerite Kaye, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-book ARC of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.*

Now let’s be reasonable…

I’ll be honest: there are a lot of things people say that I dislike hearing.  A few phrases come to mind.  “That’s a tall drink of water,” is one of my least favorites, both because it is an objectifying phrase and because it never refers to a glass of water.  While I’m on the height thing, it’s also extremely annoying when people tell me I’m tall.  “You’re tall!” they tell me, as though I somehow missed that fact.  I never know how to respond to statements like that, especially when the person making the statement is a stranger to me.  Is it rude if I say, “Really? I’d never noticed!”  Yes, probably.  I hate being rude, but I’m OK with awkward, so I usually just agree, “Yes, yes I am,” and then wait expectantly for the person to say something to which I can actually respond.

I am very tall for a lady (tall for a man, too, actually), so I get these comments a lot.  I strongly dislike them, but I understand that height is generally considered favorable in our culture, and most of the folk commenting on my extreme height are trying, in a strange (to me) fashion, to compliment me.

There are, of course, plenty more phrases that I dislike, but there are also a few that I outright hate.  One of them is, “Let’s be reasonable,” or any variant thereof (e.g., “I think, if you could be reasonable about this, that you’d see…” or “You’re being unreasonable…” or “Let’s think about this rationally…” or “Let’s put emotion aside for just a moment, shall we, and talk about this like adults…”).  I truly hate these types of phrases, and it amuses me to provide a list of reasons why, a rationale, if you will (hardy har).

  1. Reason and rationality are not absolutes but are subjective.  What is reasonable and rational to one person will not be so to another, so the phrase, “Let’s be reasonable,” contains within itself a logical flaw.  The person saying that phrase might as well say, “I wish you would just think like I do.”
  2. Building upon that first argument, “Let’s be reasonable” is pejorative, implying that the receiver of the phrase has succumbed to all manner of irrationality and needs to be brought back to a reasonable track.
  3. While not strictly logical, I find that my dislike of this phrase is influenced by some of the particulars of circumstance under which I have heard this phrase throughout my life.  When I think about the phrase, it’s always a man’s voice that I hear in my head.  The logic, reason, and rationality to which I feel chastened to stick is always a man’s logic, reason, and rationality, and, now that I am well and truly an adult, I most often hear this phrase uttered whenever I attempt to explain what it is like to be a woman in today’s world to a man.  It has become a gendered phrase to me.

Cover image, Unclaimed by Courtney Milan

Oh, come on… you knew all this would somehow relate to a romance novel.  (First, a distraction: the dude’s ring on the cover is laughably huge, right? You know what they say about giant rings…)  Anyway, don’t judge this book by the cover model’s ginormous jewelry–the book is fantastic.  After reading The Governess Affair, I went on a bit of a Courtney Milan reading kick and read all four books in the Turner series (Unveiled, Unlocked, Unclaimed & Unraveledon four consecutive days.  She has several more books out that I haven’t yet gobbled up, books that I am holding in reserve to savor while I wait for her upcoming books to be released.  Milan’s writing is like the best wine I’ve ever had: intoxicating but best enjoyed slowly and with deep appreciation for all of the nuances of flavor and texture.

Unclaimed is a beautiful love story set in the early Victorian era between two unlikely lovers, a man famous for his virtue and lifelong chastity and a courtesan who intends to seduce and betray him.  My favorite moment in the book comes near the end when Jessica (the heroine) confronts the villain of the piece, a former protector who did a bad, bad thing to her.  He, somewhat predictably, does not recognize that he did anything wrong, so she clues him in.  His response is to reject that any harm was done by suggesting that she’s just being unreasonable.

“Come now, Jess. You’re upset, I see that. But let’s be rational about this.”
Her voice was shaking. “I am not your victim. And I am being rational. The only way to win is to rid myself of you. You look at me and the only thing you can see is a possession, something that you can pick up and use however you want.”

When I read that line, I was reminded of a few lines from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Women can’t add, he once said, jokingly. When I asked him what he meant, he said, For them, one and one and one and one don’t make four.
What do they make? I said, expecting five or three.
Just one and one and one and one, he said. (175)

What the Commander said is true. One and one and one and one doesn’t equal four. Each one remains unique, there is no way of joining them together. They cannot be exchanged, one for the other. They cannot replace each other. (179)

I am reasonably certain that there is not only one form of reason, only one way to be rational.  There may be different perspectives that one cannot understand, but one’s inability to comprehend another’s rationale is not in itself a sufficient argument that the incomprehensible rationale is flawed or invalid.  Sometimes it just means that one is a bit slow on the uptake.

I wanted to write that we as a society seem to have lost touch with our ability to validate perspectives that we do not personally share, but then I wondered if we ever had that ability in the first place.  Perhaps to be human is to presuppose that one is correct and that others are not only wrong but also stupid and crazy.