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.

Elizabeth Hoyt’s Maiden Lane Series (Book 3)

This post is seriously overdue.  I read these books in August!  Quite a while ago, I wrote a post about the first two books in this series, and now I’m finally attempting to catch up.  My thoughts on book 4 are still to come (I know, right? Bated breath.).  If you’re one of those weird people (oh, you weird people) who cares about things like plot spoilers and surprise reveals, and you’re actually planning on reading these books, I suggest you stop reading this post and get to (but keep in mind that you ought not be put off by book 1 – it’s annoying, but the other books are quite good.  If annoying isn’t your speed: skip book 1 entirely.).

If you’re still reading, I’m just going to assume that you, like yours truly, don’t give two hoots or a holler about surprise reveals with dramatic music.  Or, well, not much.

A publisher’s blurb might actually be helpful here.  From Goodreads:

Can a pirate learn that the only true treasure lies in a woman’s heart?

Widowed Silence Hollingbrook is impoverished, lovely, and kind—and nine months ago she made a horrible mistake. She went to a river pirate for help in saving her husband and in the process made a bargain that cost her her marriage. That night wounded her so terribly that she hides in the foundling home she helps run with her brother. Except now that same river pirate is back . . . and he’s asking for her help.

“Charming” Mickey O’Connor is the most ruthless river pirate in London. Devastatingly handsome and fearsomely intelligent, he clawed his way up through London’s criminal underworld. Mickey has no use for tender emotions like compassion and love, and he sees people as pawns to be manipulated. And yet he’s never been able to forget the naive captain’s wife who came to him for help—and spent one memorable night in his bed . . . talking.

When his bastard baby girl was dumped in his lap—her mother having died—Mickey couldn’t resist the Machiavellian urge to leave the baby on Silence’s doorstep. The baby would be hidden from his enemies and he’d also bind Silence to him by her love for his daughter.

After telling Silence Hollingbrook’s back story over the course of the first two novels of this series, Hoyt finally gave Silence her own story.  She is married at the beginning of the series and just loves her husband all to pieces but feels vaguely disappointed in herself all the time.  She burns dinner and feels awful about it.  She wants fun sexy sexy times with her husband, but he’s somewhat reserved about that sort of thing (only in the dark, dear… Let’s think of England…), and she feels ashamed of her desire.  When her husband’s life and career are threatened after the notorious river pirate steals all the cargo from the ship he (the husband) captains, Silence goes to the pirate’s lair to ask that he return the loot (naive much?).  He agrees, with one stipulation: she must spend the night with him–talking–and must depart on foot the next morning in a disheveled state.  While it appears that she spent the night selling herself in exchange for her husband’s cargo, she didn’t.  Silence naively expects that her husband will believe her when she tells the truth about what happened, but, of course, he doesn’t.  No one does.  Instead, she becomes a ‘fallen woman,’ and her husband, ashamed of himself for not protecting his wife, ashamed of his wife for being defiled and for seeking to protect him (such a reversal of gender roles, that), leaves without ever resolving the issue.  Eventually he dies.

He had to die, right?  If they had experienced a healthy sexual relationship before he left, it might have been interesting to have him do the Angel Clare transformation (I know, I know… Tess of the d’Urbervilles, again?! Yes.  Much as I hated that book, it is an appropriate foil for many romances…) and come back to earn his wife’s trust, once freely given.  But they didn’t, and it wouldn’t be just, in a romance novel world, to  reward an interesting character with unsatisfying sex for the rest of her life.  In the interest of justice, then, Silence gets Mickey O’Connor.

Initially, I loved this book for being an entertaining, quick, and enjoyable read.  Silence’s blend of vulnerability and strength is engaging, and I enjoyed her bond with and attachment to Mary Darling, possibly because I have a child about Mary’s age and possibly because Mary Darling is a very well-written character, for a toddler.  Mickey O’Connor is a fairly solid anti-hero-turned-good-guy, and I thought he had a pretty good back story.  I’m not entirely sure why, but I liked Mickey O’Connor.  If I met someone like him in person, I’m fairly certain I’d take an instant dislike to him, but in what is essentially a fantasy novel, it’s safe to be drawn to personalities you’d normally despise, or, perhaps Mickey just reminds me a bit of myself.  Mickey self-represents as a Machiavellian dickhead, but he’s charming, and he’s a heck of a lot more interesting than Silence’s late husband.   While I expected the chemistry between these two characters to be a source of irritation to me, considering the harm Mickey did Silence in the previous books, I appreciated Hoyt’s take on the situation: her insistence that Mickey did not really harm Silence at all (and he didn’t).  In fact, it was Silence’s untrusting husband, family, society, etc. that actually harmed her.  In other words, all the people who had sworn to love and protect Silence ended up being the ones doing her harm with all their victim shaming.

Months after finishing the book, when I sat down to write a post about it, I discovered a giant pile of ambivalence had replaced my original, unconsidered “yup, I liked it.” response to the book.  I find that I am not completely content that Silence ended up with the man who was the architect of her betrayal.  Mickey acted in a remarkably selfish manner, and Silence ended up hurt.  It’s true that it was her husband and family who actually hurt her, but Mickey, bothered by Silence’s contentment with a life that was somewhat beneath her, acted to test that contentment, and Silence paid the price.  By giving Silence an HEA with Mickey, Hoyt forces me to ask some squirrelly questions about justice that don’t have any clear answers.  Was it really wrong for Mickey to test Silence’s husband’s love?  After all, if the husband had come up to snuff, had actually loved Silence (rather than an idea of ‘wife’), it would all be moot, a non-issue.  But he didn’t come up to snuff, and I’m tempted to blame Mickey for everything that came after, and that’s not right either.  Mickey poked at society’s view towards women, and it’s awful that he did so knowing how it would go, knowing that Silence would be unjustly punished and shamed by everyone, but shouldn’t my ruffled feathers and blame, as a reader, be directed against that society that shames victims and cares more about its wounded sensibilities than it cares about victims and what they might need?

If Silence’s story went a different direction, if she either continued on by herself (a respectable option, I think) or found someone else to love, it would be so easy to look back on Mickey O’Connor and consider him the true villain of the piece.  Instead, Silence finds happiness with Mickey (and he finds happiness with her), and the question of whether Mickey was right or wrong (or a mixture of the two) is forced to the forefront.  Maybe I liked this book so much because I enjoy uncomfortable conversations about difficult topics.  The more difficult and awkward the subject is, the more I want to talk about it, the more I think we need to talk about it.  But I digress.

I like adventures, stories with dastardly villains, and stories with the misunderstood hero trope (especially when he’s misunderstood by himself), and this book has all three.  That last is a bit of a conundrum, because I don’t tend to like stories where the heroine ‘saves’ the hero from his own dastardly self (he can change, ladies: keep the dream alive.); however, I want a hero character to go on a bit of an internal journey during the story, and an easy way to achieve that is to have the hero start out kind of a douche and, over the course of the story, discover that there is a value to changing his behavior.  Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough.  The point is, I like this book, even though I thought the ending was way too convenient (no consequences for a lifetime of crime? Really?) and even though I had to work through my own ruffled feathers in order to like it.

Feature and Follow Friday

Feature and Follow Friday is a meme hosted by Alison Can Read and Parajunkee.  It’s a blog hop–a way to connect with other bloggers and make new friends.  This week’s featured blogs are Head Stuck In A Book and Books and Blossoms.  So far, all four blogs seem pretty nifty, so if you haven’t checked them out, you should (assuming you have time to putz around on the Internet, that is…)

In addition to featuring a blog, the meme also asks participants to answer a question, and this week the question is: “If you could “unread” a book, which one would it be? Is it because you want to start over and experience it again for the first time? Or because it was THAT bad?”  

I’ve already posted this week about how much I would like to un-read Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, but it seems lame to me to answer the meme question with a post I wrote a few days ago…  So, if I could un-read a book, I would choose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami.  It’s an amazing book–mysterious and creepy–and if not for one particular scene, I’d be happy to read it again and again (rather than deleting it from my mind).  But I’m a total pansy, and ten years after I read the book, I still occasionally have nightmares about this one scene.  If you’ve read the book, I’m pretty sure you know what I’m talking about.  I really wish that scene could be removed from my head.  I’m sick of reliving it.

I’m on WordPress, so the following options, should you choose to follow me, are somewhat limited.  I’ve been trying to figure out the mysteries of the RSS feed but no cigar just yet.  In the meantime, if you’d like to follow me, please do so by email, or you can follow me on Twitter.  Happy Friday!

How Tess of the d’Urbervilles ruined me for (certain) other books

Have you ever thought, “Wow, I wish I could un-read that book…”?  I have that thought quite often, and you’d think it would be about the multitude of terrible romance novels I’ve read.  But you’d be wrong.  I really wish I hadn’t read Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  I wouldn’t mind un-reading Jude the Obscure either, while we’re at it, but it’s Tess that really broke my heart.

Here’s a list of the top five things that I despise about Tess:

  1. After a horse-injuring accident that is totally not her fault (but she thinks it is), Tess gets shipped off by her parents to visit a distant relative whom she doesn’t meet but whose scapegrace son, after much ado, rapes her.  Tess manages to escape and returns home, ruined and in despair.  That’s bad enough on its own, but the absolute worst part about it is that Tess (and everyone else, frankly) believes that it was all her fault.  And she bears a child out of the union who lives only a few weeks and dies after being christened (by Tess) Sorrow.
  2. After that godawful experience, Tess goes to work as a dairy maid on a farm some distance from her home.  There she meets (again) the would-be hero Angel Clare, son of a Reverend, who is young and carefree (and careless) and ‘falls in love’ with Tess.  After they marry, he confesses that he’s not coming into the marriage a virgin, so Tess feels safe to confess the same.  Angel isn’t a fan of equality, though, so he abandons Tess, hours after marrying her.  What is poor Tess to do?  She goes to find another place to work.
  3. Remember the rapist?  He and Tess meet again by an odd twist of fate (or the author just being a total asshole) and, after a good deal of coercion involving her mother and sister being absolutely destitute and Alec (the rapist) being the only person in a position to help them (but only for a cost), forces her to stay with him as his mistress.
  4. Angel Clare… I really hate him, maybe more than I hate the rapist.  After he abandons his wife, he decides to head off to Brazil to start a new life.  On the road, he meets up with one of Tess’ former friends at the dairy and asks her to join him as his mistress (GOD!!!); she agrees, but eventually he realizes it wouldn’t be a good idea.  In Brazil, Angel has a bad time.  His farming venture fails and he falls very ill, and after a while, he begins to realize that maybe he wasn’t the world’s best husband.  He decides to head home and reclaim his happiness.
  5. The ending…. I mean, I pretty much hate everything about this book, but I really hate the ending.  Angel eventually finds Tess, but it’s too late.  She’s already become the rapist’s mistress, and she’s so overcome with shame, she knows she can’t just leave the rapist and recover things with Angel (or exist on her own, really).  The only thing she can do is kill the rapist (stabs him repeatedly).  After the murder, she sets off after Angel, and they spend a few days together in happiness until the law catches up with Tess and she is arrested and executed.  Tess charges Angel to care for her younger sister, Liza-Lu, and hopes that he will be happy with her.  The book ends with Angel and Liza-Lu holding hands as they watch the execution happen in the distance.

It’s been about ten years since I read Tess, but it made an indelible impression on me.  It’s not often that I absolutely hate a book and everything it stands for, but that’s how I feel about Tess.  That book and everything that happens in it fill me with an impotent rage against the whole history of the world and against that inclination that may occur naturally in females or may be cultivated in us to internalize all the horrible things that may or may not happen to us and conclude that they are our fault.  Blech.

Cover image, Barely a Lady by Eileen Dreyer

Anyway, this rant about Tess of the d’Urbervilles is brought to you by Barely a Lady by Eileen Dreyer.  Great cover, right?  Actually, it sort of reminds me of some of the stylized poses of Titian or Rubens painting Venus and Adonis…


Anyway, back to Barely a Lady… Actually, I really enjoyed it until I finished the book and realized how very much it reminded me of Tess of the d’Urbervilles… then I got a little angry at it, but I still think it was overall a good book.  Unlike Tess, I recommend that lovers of the romance genre read Barely a Lady, because it is well written and unwraps its intrigue and mystery very slowly like the best kind of present.  Honestly, if I’d never read TessBarely a Lady would probably have gotten a 5-star review out of me.  Instead, Tess has ruined me for books about long-suffering females.

I don’t want to write about the plot of Barely a Lady.  Most of the fun of reading the book is figuring out what’s going on, and I certainly wouldn’t want to ruin that for anyone.  Suffice it to say, then, that Eileen Dreyer is masterful at unfolding backstory in a way that keeps you entertained and on your toes.  Most of the time backstory is murder on a plot, as all the action is on hold until the reader is brought up to speed on what are considered important details (but, usually, the backstory isn’t all that important to the reader’s experience).  But Dreyer weaves in the backstory very carefully, bringing in a bit here, a bit there, and always furthering the plot and character development (of the female characters, at least) with every pass.  There are a few flashbacks, but they didn’t annoy me very much.  Except the Mimi one… I could have done without that nonsense.

So here’s my problem with Barely a Lady: Jack.  He’s the hero, so you expect him to be heroic.  Or perhaps you expect him to be an anti-hero (those are OK too).  What you don’t expect is for him to have all the character of a petulant child who lashes out because he does not get his way.  And maybe he, like Angel Clare, at some point realizes that he was phenomenally in the wrong, but I just don’t think that he paid enough for what he did.  The ending was utterly implausible to me.  Maybe I’m just not enough of a long-suffering woman, but I think a lot more groveling was in order, and I would have enjoyed reading every page of it.  I know–way overkill–but the ending felt like a little betrayal, to me.

All that to say, damn you Tess of the d’Urbervilles!  I was really looking forward to that book, and you ruined it for me.

I like smutty novels

A decade ago, I worked for a now out-of-business bookseller.  My local store allowed employees to check out books, one at a time, for a two-week period.  I prefer to own books, really, because my memory is terrible and re-reading becomes necessary after a few years, but it was great to have the opportunity to read a book first to determine whether or not I wanted to add it to my growing collection.  Most of the employees took advantage of the program, and most of us recognized that we would be judged intellectually by the caliber of book we chose to read.  I checked out a lot of Joyce, some of which I read (all of which I bought), and Thomas Mann (the German novelist, not the political scientist), and, to break up all that twentieth century thought, a lot of Greek philosophy.  There was one girl there who boldly and bravely checked out a new romance novel every few days.  The rest of us tittered behind our hands and thought grand thoughts of our own superiority, but I think she had the right idea.

I have been a reader of romance novels since I was about twelve years old.  I read constantly, and, at that early age, I tended to read whatever I could find in my mother’s book collection that looked halfway interesting.  In addition to some forgettable historical romance novels (Lion’s Lady is one of the best of that group, just for its bizarre notions of “history” and astonishingly bad dialogue), some odd suspense/thriller novels that I did not understand, some Stephen King novels (that I also did not understand), I read nonfiction current-events books discussing such events as the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Nabisco/R.J. Reynolds Tobacco merger.  The pattern, here, is that I read anything I could find, regardless of whether or not it seemed to fit into any particular genre.  I was twelve; I didn’t have a favorite genre.

When I was fifteen, I discovered that I enjoyed classics written by European authors, and I’ve spent most of my life reading books that fit in that genre.  I soon discovered, though, that I couldn’t read these good, thought-provoking books constantly, because I did not allow myself enough time to think about them, to reflect, as Mrs. Thomas’ classroom quote exhorted.  Rather, I went from one to another, and all of that grand thought and all those new (to me) ideas became a bit of white noise crackling in the background of my mind.  Those ideas were there, but I was not assimilating them into the context of my life.  I was a fifteen year old girl reading Les Miserables.  What did I know about Waterloo or the subsequent revolutions in France?  What did I know about poverty, or religion, or criminal justice, or love, or redemption?  If I did not take the time to figure out what all of those concepts meant to me, I would have, pretty much, wasted the time it took me to read that sixteen-hundred page tome (nearly two weeks of almost constant reading).

But reading is a compulsion to me.  I honestly can’t stop–certainly couldn’t in my youth–and if I wasn’t to pick up another great book until I had fully digested the last one, what was I to do?  The answer: romance novels.  They allow one to pass the time, but they don’t require any real thought on the part of the reader.  They are feel-good fluff, often humorous (often unintentionally so), nearly always satisfying.  When you read a romance novel, you don’t have to worry about the threat of a Tess of the D’urbervilles-style ending.  Romance novelists don’t kill off their main characters after subjecting them–and the reader–to several hundred pages of torment.  I think romance novels can be fabulous (also horrifying).

So when I think back to that girl at Borders  (I can’t remember her name) who read so many romance novels, I understand why.  Sometimes you just want a story that will sweep you up and take you away to another life, perhaps to another time, that is more ideal than your life will ever be. There’s no real harm in romance novels, provided the reader doesn’t get so swept up in the fantasy that she expects Fabio to walk in the door at any time.