Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: THE SUSPICIONS OF MR WHICHER by Kate Summerscale

On the morning of June 30th, 1860, a toddler named Savill Kent was discovered missing. Later that day, his body, throat slashed, was found on the grounds of the Kents' home. Suspicion pointed everywhere--including the parents--but the police were unable to discover who the murderer was. Enter Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher, one of the stars of the newly formed Scotland Yard detectives division, who was assigned from London to close the case. Although Whicher believed he knew who killed Savill Kent, he was never able to prove it.

audiobook cover

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is a true crime book detailing a case from Victorian England that bears striking resemblances to the murder of Jonbenet Ramsey in our own time, including the media storm surrounding the investigation. I had a few problems with this book, and the major ones aren't really the book's fault. First of all, I listened to it audio. The reader, Simon Vance, did a great job of indicating imbedded quotes using accents and making the text interesting to listen to. But I don't read non-fiction books in the same way I read fiction books--I tend to read them back-to-front and out of order, so listening to a non-fiction book where I couldn't jump around from chapter to chapter at will was a little difficult for me. It also drove me CRAZY that I couldn't see citations (which I certainly hope Kate Summerscale included) or read footnotes.

Secondly, the subject. If anything else, The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher reminded me why I avoid true crime. Killing a toddler is some hardcore shit. For some reason I thought, since the murder was a really long time ago, it wouldn't be so bad; but trust me, it is. And if hearing every single detail about the death of a little kid doesn't depress you enough, Whicher's investigation will nicely send you over the edge. Summerscale invests a lot of time in making Whicher appealing--unfortunately, this case is what's called a career-ender, and it isn't likely to end happily or bring about justice for anyone. I suppose, being one of the first detectives to ever investigate a murder like this, Whicher didn't realize that; but still, it doesn't make for cheerful reading.

That being said, if you have any interest in the nineteenth century or Victorian detectives, you should consider picking up this book. There is a ton of delicious detail concerning Scotland Yard in the 1860s, what types of crimes they fought against, how they investigated, what a detective's work routine was like, and so on. Since I never got a look at Summerscale's footnotes or bibliography, I can't swear to the historical accuracy of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, but based on what I already know her research seems very solid and thorough.

That being said, some of her conclusions, particularly in regard to Whicher and his influence on Victorian literature, seem like a stretch. Summerscale draws connections between Whicher and detectives in novels by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Arthur Conan Doyle. The Big Three of Victorian writers, no? While it seems likely Whicher might have provided some inspiration for some aspects of some of the detective characters in the authors' novels, the direct and pervasive influence Summerscale argues for in this book isn't backed up by solid evidence, in my opinion. Evidence of a solid and pervasive influence would include being close friends with the authors, meeting with them on a regular basis, and plot points in said authors' novels directly mirroring events in the detective's life--which IS the case with Eugène François Vidocq, the world's first private detective and several very popular writers in early 19th-century Paris (see my post about Vidocq at PGP). A random turn of phrase or investigative technique that was probably shared by all of Scotland Yard, on the other hand, isn't entirely convincing. One gets the feeling that if Summerscale would have logically been able to argue Whicher influenced Edgar Allan Poe's mysteries, she would have thrown him into the mix as well.

Meanwhile, her focus seems to be on the über-famous male writers of this era. I started reading Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon around the same time I began The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher (completely by coincidence) and there are a lot of similarities between the Kent case and Lady Audley's Secret, as well--more direct similarities, it seems to me, than any novels by Dickens or Collins. Yet Summerscale only briefly addresses those parallels, I suspect merely because Braddon isn't as famous a writer as Dickens. Not to get all nitpicky or anything, but there are only 6 mentions of Braddon in the book, as compared to 46 mentions of Dickens and 24 mentions of Collins. Even Poe, who at the time of the Kent murder was long dead, receives over 20 mentions in the book. Based on these numbers, I think Summerscale's goal is to elevate the fame of Whicher, not truly investigate the Kent murder's influence on Victorian literature.

Other than that, however, I was impressed with the level of research in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. It's certainly not a book I would recommend to everyone--it is not history that reads like a detective novel. It's more of a true crime novel meets historical research. If you don't like true crime or those history books where there is massive infodump, you should probably not read it. But I did learn a lot and think it's a good resource and a fascinating case.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

TSS: Characters I'm Supposed to Hate but Actually Love

character collage

Hello, Sunday Saloners! I decided to go with something lighter this week, since I've been encountering a lot of characters in the past few weeks who are villains so awesome I kind of secretly root for them.

Do you have characters you know are loathsome but you still like them? Maybe the writer sets us up to sympathize with the devil, so to speak, or maybe there's just something about the character that you identify with. Either way, despite that fact that you know you're supposed to be rooting against the character because they do Bad Things, you find yourself disappointed when the story just kind of dumps in the dirt of Villain Hell and moves on.

  • Lady Audley from Lady Audley's Secret--Lady Audley is pretty evil. But I have to admit a part of me was kind of rooting for her. Can anyone really blame her for taking advantage of the men who treat her like a child? If it wasn't for one action--which I still don't quite believe--I would have been happy to see her get away with it all.
  • Brian de Bois-Guilbert from Ivanhoe--The book may be called Ivanhoe, but the character of Bois-Guilbert gets more page time and is more interesting than the hero. Despite the fact that Sir Brian participates in some questionable activity, he's really not a bad guy. His biggest mistake is falling for a woman who clearly isn't that into him.
  • Julian from The Forbidden Game trilogy by LJ Smith (also: every bad boy character from every LJ Smith novel)--I picked Julian because he was the character I was most flabbergasted didn't wind up with the heroine--whatever her name was--but this could really go for any bad boy in any LJ Smith novel. They're always more interesting than the do-gooder heroes.
  • George Wickham from Pride & Prejudice--Am I the only one who isn't convinced Wickham's that bad? Yes, I suppose by Mr. Highfalutin Darcy's standards he's super flighty, but maybe he just likes to have a good time and is misunderstood. I keep waiting and waiting for an Austen adaptation where Wickham's the hero and it never happens.
  • Bananach from Wicked Lovely--Bananach is the embodiment of war and discord, but practically speaking she's what the Beatles would call a mixer. She likes stirring things up. And that's what keeps the books interesting! Plus I think she's really funny.
  • Rumpelstiltskin from Once Upon a Time (yes, I know that's not a book, but it's a bookish character)--Rumple is the only person on this show who has any sense of humor. That's worth my loyalty right there. Plus he looks good in a suit.
And these are just the characters from the top of my head--I'm sure there are a lot more characters out there who are so bad they're good. What are some of your favorites?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


I watched two movies last weekend that took on the similar subject of a fragile, aging female star. One was excellent, the other less so. Can you guess which one I preferred?


Originally released: 2010
Starring: Tim McGraw, Gweneth Paltrow
Directed by: Shana Feste
Based on: the script by Shana Feste

A country singer named Kelly, who OF COURSE has alcohol problems, gets out of not-rehab to go on tour with her husband; the Luke Bryan wanna-be she's sleeping with, Beau, whose beard looks like it got chewed on by a squirrel; and the Taylor Swift wanna-be her husband is probably sleeping with, named Chiles (that's Chiles as in child, not Chiles as in chiles that you eat). Then not-Luke-Bryan and not-Taylor-Swift start sleeping together, but Kelly and her husband don't, because that would solve all the problems. Then everyone's like, "Fame! I'm gonna live forevaaar!" and the most ridiculous yet predictable things you can imagine happen.

Is my fake beard in the right place? It keeps moving.

You know that movie about Johnny Cash, Walk the Line? That was a good movie. If you have the urge to watch Country Strong, I recommend skipping it and going straight to Walk the Line instead. I'm still wondering what Tim McGraw was doing in it and why he didn't say, "Hey, you know, not ALL country singers are major drinkers or think they can solve problems with their vaginas/penises." Or, "Most tours make more than three stops in the space of a month and it doesn't take THAT long to drive across Texas." Or, "Where the heck are they finding the time or the studios to make records while they're on tour?" Or, "What is my character's motivation, because it seems like I just do whatever will be most convenient for this ridiculous plot." Or, "You do realize I'm the only person with actual musical talent in this entire movie, yet also the only person NOT singing, right? Does that make any sense to you?"

Did I fast forward through all the songs and some of the conversations in Country Strong? Yes, I did, especially the duet between Beau and Chiles, because that song is not good enough to be heard three times in the space of an hour. I also couldn't help but notice that whenever Gweneth Paltrow sang, her voice was either really soft or drowned out by shouting fans.

ANYWAY. This movie was über cliched and unrealistic, except for the part where Kelly's husband makes it clear that she's not getting any younger and she's a failure because she can't pop out the babies. But instead of getting pissed off, Kelly's like, "You're right, life ends at forty." The end. What a great movie! /sarcasm


Originally released: 2011
Starring: Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Dominic Cooper, Dougray Scott, Emma Watson
Directed by: Simon Curtis
Based on: The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark

I usually avoid movies about Marilyn Monroe because it seems like even in death she can't get away from being objectified. But I was bored, so I checked this one out from the library. I was really pleasantly surprised! My Week with Marilyn isn't just about Marilyn Monroe, it's a coming of age story story that captures the atmosphere of the British film industry in the '50s.

Colin Clark is the youngest in a family of overachievers, and somewhat of a disappointment. So at twenty-three he decides to "run away and join the circus"--i.e., get involved in movies. Through sheer doggedness he gets a job as the third assistant director on The Prince and the Showgirl, an absolutely horrible movie starring Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe, and then becomes Olivier's assistant as well. Through the filming, Colin witnesses first-hand the glamor and troubles that surround Monroe, including her sycophantic acting coach, narcissistic hubby, and controlling manager. Even her driver gives her pills "to keep her quiet." Who knew a cooing blonde could be so troublesome? Eventually Colin and Monroe develop a relationship of sorts, and Colin tries to be her knight in shining armor. I really don't want to speculate on how much of a man Monroe actually makes out of him, but I'm going with "admired from afar" for the sake of my own ick factor.

I loved this movie! The performances were absolutely great. Kenneth Branagh, who played Olivier, and Dougray Scott, who played Arthur Miller, both seemed to be channeling their respective characters from beyond the grave (weirdly, Branagh as Olivier reminded me of a depressed Gilderoy Lockhart). I also thought the portrayal of Monroe was really nuanced and thoughtful. Yes, she is still pretty much objectified, but even with her status as a screen goddess, there is some sense of her as a real person who knows beauty doesn't last forever. Early on the film Vivienne Leigh tells Colin, "I'm forty-three, darling, no one's going to love me for very long," and that sense of insecurity when you believe looks is all you've got sets the tone for the entire film, especially Monroe's desire to be a Great Actress.

marilyn monroe in a bath
Let me just roll around naked in this tub with the door open. *giggle*

Monroe remains a mysterious figure, however--how much of her act was an act? Obviously she wasn't an idiot, but then why did she continue in a situation that made her miserable? Why did she surround herself with the people she did? Was she using Colin for her own ends? The movie leaves these questions open-ended and I think does a fab job of showing how no one knew the "real" Marilyn Monroe, possibly not even Marilyn Monroe herself.

My Week with Marilyn was a brilliant movie--entertaining, great performances, fascinating story, and it really makes you think. Definitely worth a rewatch!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: ENCHANTMENT by Thaisa Frank

enchantment cover

Thaisa Frank's Heidegger's Glasses was one of my favorite books of 2010 (review here), so I happily accepted Enchantment: New and Selected Stories for review, despite the fact that I usually avoid short story collections. If I had to compare the tone of Enchantment to something, I'd say it's similar to the HBO series Carnivàle (IMDb page): there's a strong sense of nostalgia, the wonderful and marvelous, dark humor, and just a hint of the supernatural.

The stories in Enchantment deal with themes like death, transformation, and trying to find meaning in life--which makes them sound a little stuffy, but they're really not pretentious at all (I am allergic to pretension, anyway). A few of my favorite stories were "The Cat Lover," "The Girl with Feet That Could See," about a circus that bloggers become obsessed with because it has actual magic; "Poland," and "The Dungeon Master's Mother," which is about a woman who turns herself into a dog after reading her son's D&D books. There are also some interconnected short stories in the second half of Enchantment that you could read as novellas.

My favorite, however, is the title story, which is about a woman who orders an enchanted prince from a catalog. His name is Lars, he's from England, and he comes with instructions like, "Mist me twice a day." I loved this story because it was fun, but at the same time you could read it in different ways. Since I watched Guilty Pleasures (post here) around the same time, I naturally thought of how Lars is like a hero in a romance novel, the kind of fantasy that can supposedly keep women from being good wives and mothers. And in fact the heroine of the story IS resisting marriage to her partner, a man who has completely given up on his ideals and now sells cell phones because it makes money. Not exactly Prince Charming material. Really, "Enchantment" is about the struggle between romanticism and enlightenment, idealism and practicality, and I love that it entertains while still making you think.

I really enjoy Thaisa Frank's writing and can't wait to read whatever she comes up with next! Thanks so much to Julia Drake PR for sending me a copy of Enchantment to review.


To win your own copy of Enchantment, fill out the form below or go here.

Guest Post and Giveaway: NURSING SECOND CHANCES by Maggie Greene

Maggie greene tour banner

Today Maggie Greene, author of Nursing Second Chances, is here writing about the appeal of small-town romance and offering a giveaway basket! Go to the end of the post for giveaway information.

Why I Love Small Town Romances

I admit to being a city girl. I might have grown up in middle-of-nowhere Wyoming, but my dream was always to get out. At eighteen, I moved to Seattle for college and never looked back. Since then, I’ve lived in a couple big cities and can’t dream of living somewhere small again.

I’ll tell you a secret though. I love small town romances. There is something about the dynamics of a small town that are perfect for love stories. There is always lots of gossip, plenty of strange characters and a few surprises.

The best part, to me, is that everyone thinks they know everyone in a small town. That’s why love should be difficult to find. If you’ve already met everyone, then who’s left? Then one day, they run across that person they’ve never met before. The one didn’t know was in town. Maybe they just moved there or maybe they’ve been there all along, but either way there is an instant attraction. The only thing the author has to do is sit back and allow things to run their course.

**Why do you love small town romances?**


All right, time for the fun part. I’m having a large giveaway as part of my blog tour. Comments on each of the stops will count as an entry in the contest. Winners will be drawn on August 1st and will receive a gift basket from me complete with some book swag, bath products, and honey. For more details (and chances to enter), you can visit my blog (http://www.authormaggiegreene.com). Please make sure you leave an email address.
(I.e., comment on this post for a chance to win. Winners will be chosen and contacted by the author, not myself.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

TSS: It was like a movie

The Sunday Salon.com

Super-rambly and pointless post this Sunday: I've been thinking about reality versus art a lot this past week. What, really, is reality? This is something I wonder about a lot. How permeable is the line between ideas and actualization, and how do movies and books influence how we interact with the world, not just as individuals but as a society?

Last month we had devastating wildfires, and I remember the newscasters saying, "It's like watching a movie." Did they make this statement to separate themselves from what was really happening, because they couldn't believe what was in front of their eyes, or because of the voyeuristic experience of watching something happen on a screen? I think it was probably a combination of all three.

Just for the record, I am 100% in support of movies and books feeling "real," and the audience moving that story forward. That's the entire point of telling stories, isn't it? No one wants to make a movie where the audience leaves thinking it was completely unrealistic, or to write a novel where the characters stay firmly on the page. People want to be transported through art, and generally the success of a film or book depends on how much they can pull people into the story and make them feel a part of that of that world. But the important element is they reinterpret the original through their own experiences.

To be sure, there is an objective reality, and what we personally observe constitutes our immediate reality. Stories aren't "real," but the experience of becoming involved in them and the emotions of the characters can be. I think it's definitely a part of our reality--not necessarily the strongest or most important part, and definitely not the most stable. You can interpret events in a lot of different ways. The goal of life should be to look at it from as many viewpoints as possible, and art can help us do that.

Are people sometimes unable or unwilling to face reality? Yes, but I don't think art or stories have much to do with that; it has to do with the individual and their situation. Maybe they can't face a reality because they haven't seen something that opens their eyes to it yet.

How much do you think books or movies impact reality?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Book to Movie: IVANHOE

(Really a Mini-series)
Originally released: 1997
Directed by: Stuart Orme
Starring: Steven Waddington, Ciaràn Hinds, Susan Lynch, Christopher Lee
Based on: the novel of the same name by Sir Walter Scott

After spending about a month reading Ivanhoe (review at PGP), I really wanted to rewatch the 1997 miniseries starring Ciaràn Hinds as Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert. Luckily, I had it on DVD!

If you haven't heard of the story before, Ivanhoe is about Wilfred of Ivanhoe, a knight who returns from the Crusades wanting to marry his true love and win the respect of his father.

ivanhoe and rowena

Ivanhoe has everything you could possibly want in a story about 12th-century Britain: jousting, Robin Hood, Prince John, Templar knights, Richard the Lionhearted. And the mini-series follows the novel pretty closely (at 5 hours, it should). But while there aren't any major plot differences, the miniseries creators did make some interesting choices in the way they altered the story.

  • Love Triangle--Who doesn't enjoy a love triangle? Probably just about everyone these days. In both the book and movie, Ivanhoe's true love since childhood is Rowena. In the novel, Rebecca (Jewish woman who's a doctor) develops a crush on Ivanhoe when they're imprisoned together and Ivanhoe is wounded, but it never goes farther than that, especially on Ivanhoe's end. In the miniseries, on the other hand, the writers give Ivanhoe and Rebecca a lot more scenes together and they definitely develop feelings for one another. Of course nothing can come from it, because Rebecca's Jewish. And even if she wasn't, Ivanhoe would honor his promise to wed Rowena because that's what he does. Ensue bitter-sweet ending.
  • Brian de Bois-Guilbert--Probably the biggest alterations between the miniseries the original story are points dealing with Brian de Bois-Guilbert, a Templar knight who's kind of a badass and kidnaps Rebecca. For some reason the miniseries creators decided to make him more of a villain, in that he betrays Richard the Lionhearted and lets Ivanhoe take the blame for it. SIR BRIAN WOULD NEVER DO THAT. For one, he values his honor as a knight more than anything. For two, if he did betray King Richard, he wouldn't lie about it. He'd be like, "Yeah, I made sure he landed in an Austrian prison. And I'll do the same to you if you don't stfu." As much as I love Ciaràn Hinds in this role, it seems like the script plus his performance really wiped out a lot of Sir Brian's personality. Hinds has two modes in this show: scowling while talking in a normal speaking voice, and shouting while stomping about. A lot of Bois-Guilbert's gentler and more honorable personality traits, meanwhile, were transferred to Maurice de Bracy--WHY I DON'T KNOW. I do like that Ivanhoe has to redeem his reputation and hide his identity because he's been wrongly accused of treason (which isn't in the book); I just think making Bois-Guilbert the person who betrayed the king is redic. Not that he isn't still awesome, of course.
  • A shout-out for the ladies--There aren't a lot of women in the novel Ivanhoe. Actually, there are two. I do have to give the miniseries creators some props for giving the female characters stronger roles, especially Rowena, who has an awesome scene in the first episode where she tells Brian de Bois-Guilbert off. However, making Rebecca more "modern" only made her more annoying and self-righteous (I wouldn't have thought that was possible); and while it was fun to see Eleanor of Aquitaine travel all the way to England to tell Richard and John off, 1. I don't think she would have done that and 2. I didn't see what the point of that scene was.
bois-guilbert and rebecca

Honestly, Ivanhoe is a pretty good miniseries--probably as good as 1995's Pride & Prejudice, although it seems a little dated now. But it's not as good as the book. And trust me, there were times when the book drove me CRAZY, and I'm so glad the filmmakers cut the crazy-making parts out. Still, even though the miniseries actually added a lot of plot to the story (because that's what Ivanhoe needs, more plot!), the book felt more complex because of the richness of the historical detail and the characterizations. The miniseries kind of feels like Ivanhoe Lite now.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: LE ROAD TRIP by Vivian Swift

le road trip cover

Are finances, family, or work preventing you from taking the vacation you so desperately need this summer? Then allow to me to humbly recommend this book.

In 2005, Vivian Swift went on a honeymoon to France. Le Road Trip is a memoir-slash-sketchbook of her trip through Paris, Normandy, Brittany, Bordeaux, and the Loire Valley. I don't usually go for travel memoirs, but this one included illustrations, so I figured it was worth a try. Plus: France.

map of france from le road trip

Le Road Trip immediately won me over, before the book even started, with the fronticepiece where Swift warns, "This is not a book with a lot of really useful information in it... what--do I look like Rick Steves?" Swift states the purpose of Le Road Trip is to inspire people to plan their own adventure or remember previous trips, and in that the book succeeds completely. Swift's stories and illustrations brought back my own experiences traveling in France, and soothed the escapist fantasies I get some all a lot of the time. It really does feel like a travel sketch diary, and because of that, it seems as if you're in a conversation with the author.

For example, packing--I am a bit obsessed with the elusive perfectly packed suitcase, so I was immediately taken in by Swift's packing advice. We're both proponents of the single carry-on bag. I lived in Europe for a whole semester with clothes from a single carry-on. Not that I wasn't sick of my wardrobe before a week had passed, or that there were times when I was woefully unprepared for certain weather conditions, but the woes created by a small selection of clothes pale in comparison to the misery of jumping onto a midnight sleeper train with a suitcase the size of a small dresser and discovering you can't even get to your seat because the isles are packed full of stowaways and it will barely fit in front of the bathrooms at the end of the train, let alone in the hallway (yes, this happened to the woman I was traveling with. Never have I been so glad I packed a small bag. Also, never have I been so glad dogs like me, because the stowaways had a lot of them. Most hellish train ride ever!).

vineyards of bordeaux

Aside from the lovely watercolor illustrations, Swift's writing is fun and irreverent, interspersed with a few quotes and facts, but mainly focusing on her interactions with other people. I loved her "travel tips"--e.g., have a bottle of champagne waiting for you when you get home--and how she approaches travel. A lot of travel memoirs like this might draw pseudo-meaningful connections between travel and life, but Swift deliberately avoids this. She makes it clear she's on vacation as a tourist, trying to have fun and relax, and her experiences are ones nearly any tourist can relate to.

Not that there weren't some things that bothered me, of course. Swift does her fair share of perpetuating stereotypes--Parisians are more rude than New Yorkers? Color me doubtful on that one. And I have never heard of anyone having so much trouble with train station ticketers as she does. But when she isn't making sweeping generalizations about French people--and the incidents of that are pretty isolated--Le Road Trip is delightful and interesting, and gorgeous to look at. Definitely something I'd recommend for Francophiles or armchair travelers.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

TSS: Guilty Pleasures

Shumita at the beauty salon. Credit: Julie Moggan

The other night there was a documentary on PBS about "the deeper personal and social meanings of the [romance] genre's allure," with the unimaginative title of Guilty Pleasures. As much as the title gave me pause, I naturally got very excited--as I always do when books are discussed, but most especially romance novels. You'll probably be equally unsurprised at how annoyed I was at the documentary. Here are a few things that really struck me:
  1. Romance is a genre by, for, and about women. Yet the ONLY romance author featured in the entire documentary was a male. Now, said author (Roger Sanderson, writing under the pseudonym Gill Sanderson) seemed like a good guy and gave some sound advice about writing--other than the comment, "Women want to be told the same things over and over," which made me a trifle stabby--but in the only literary genre where women are both the primary consumers and producers, and damn proud of that fact, why would you choose to feature a male author? WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? Because you don't really want to make a film about the romance industry at all? Gotcha.
  2. Moving on to the readers, the filmmakers once again made interesting choices in the subjects (or, as director Julie Moggen referred to them, "characters") they interviewed. Naturally, all the readers were women, and the world-wide appeal of romances was highlighted through a selection of women from the UK, India, and Japan. Despite their cultural differences, however, all these women seemed basically the same: they were all bored housewives. Or, if any of them did have jobs, they weren't featured doing them. They also had less than satisfactory love lives: Shumita, a rejected first wife, is dating a man-child more in love with his car than with her; Shirley is a housewife with a husband who's a manic-depressive bloke; and Hiroko is yet another housewife whose inadequate husband does not get her obsession with "ballroom dancing." Lonely, undersexed women of the world unite! Mommy porn, anyone?
  3. I know what you're totally not thinking right now and would never think: how do romance novels affect the men in their female readers' lives? Well, it's a good thing you don't give a rat's ass, because the filmmakers made sure to focus on that. Basically, the men-folk were left feeling isolated and mystified by their partners' interest in romances--even when they were more or less supportive of their partner's little hobby. In fact, I was a little perturbed by how the filmmakers implied the women's interest in romances--Hiroko in particular--was selfish and resulted in them neglecting their families. Hiroko's husband is the one shown parenting their children--even in the scenes where they're in the same room, Mr. Hiroko is playing with their kids while Hiroko herself ignores them. Other scenes show her watching dance videos on TV and lying on the couch reading, sans-offspring. Shirley is supposedly a mother as well, but I don't recall seeing any scenes of her with her kids. I do, however, remember her lying on a couch and eating bonbons.
  4. The filmmakers also implied the readers have trouble separating fantasy from reality (which I find ironic considering this entire documentary is a fantasy). Hiroko seems to conflate European (i.e., romance hero) looks with good dancing, is having an affair in her head with her dance instructor, and wants her husband to act out scenes from romance novels. Shirley is given kudos for not rejecting her hubby despite the fact that he's not perfect (like a romance hero), even though she had to think about it for a while.
  5. The male cover model--now I may be outlier here, but I really do not care about the models on the covers of romance novels. AT ALL. I try my best to ignore romance novel covers, and I don't see how the model is pertinent to this topic. Why not interview the paper supplier and the person who designed the book's font while you're at it?
  6. I did like how the conclusion of the documentary showed Hiroko's husband stepping up to the plate and learning how to ballroom dance so he could spend time with her, and Shirley's hubby going out of his way to make them a romantic dinner. That was really sweet. But notice it's the MEN going through a narrative evolution here, not the women.
Overall I found Guilty Pleasures to be an extremely lackluster and boring look at romance, because it relied on stereotyping and there was practically no research. I've seen better segments about romance novels on Nightline. NIGHTLINE--the show that cites The Daily Show with Jon Stewart as if it is a factual investigative source. Talk about having trouble separating fantasy from reality!

Guilty Pleasures did not reflect anything I personally know about the industry or the genre, such as the fact that people of both sexes read romance, and that romance readers come from all walks of life, careers, interests, education, religions, and so forth. A five-minute look at romance blogs should be able to tell you this much. But then Guilty Pleasures isn't really for romance readers; it's for suits who would never dream of picking up a romance. It wants to reinforce the stereotypes about romance readers, not shatter them, and chooses to treat the subject with sentimentality, not honesty. The final message seems to be, "Aren't romance lovers cute?"

At least they didn't refer to romance as porn--I suppose that's a step in the right direction?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Review: WAIT FOR WHAT WILL COME by Barbara Michaels

wait for what will come cover

Go to the western gate at set of sun
On Midsummer Eve, and wait for what will come.
Like most Americans, Carla Tregellas knows very little about her family's European roots--that is, until an unknown relative in Cornwall dies, leaving her an isolated and crumbling cliffside mansion. Carla knows she'll have to sell the property, but decides to visit before she does. Not a day into her arrival, she finds out the women of the Tregellas family are cursed--every 200 years, a demon rises from the sea to reclaim the soul of his ancient bride. And Carla just happens to be there on the 200th anniversary of the last Tregellas woman's disappearance. Dun dun dun! More importantly, there are a bunch of handsome and very available men hanging out in the village who are more than willing to show Carla the Cornish scenery. The list of available bachelors includes:
  • Alan: the Tregellas family solicitor, and the local catch. He drives a fancy car and is very handsome, but unfortunately is also a controlling chauvinist pig. Or as the heroine puts it, "masterful."
  • The Vicar: nice guy, is young for a vicar, and has an awesome house.
  • Simon: the village doctor and self-proclaimed expert on local folklore. Charming in a bumbling country doc sort of way.
  • Michael: (former?) ballet dancer and grandson of Carla's housekeeper, he's visiting for the summer to help out in the garden. Or so he says.
  • Tim O'Hara: a friend of Michael's, he's backpacking around Europe and taking advantage of few days weeks worth of free lodging.
It's been a while since I read Wait for What Will Come, which is one of my favorite books by Barbara Michaels. When I recommended it to Becky at One Literature Nut a few weeks ago, I suddenly realized that I really wanted to read it again. If you're looking for a great summer escape novel, you can't go wrong with Barbara Michaels; and you especially can't go wrong with this book, which transports you to an obscure little village in Pirates of Penzance country and introduces a young woman to a heritage that goes back to Ancient Rome. Literally, there is a Roman mosaic in her backyard.

I first read Wait for What Will Come when I was eight, and I've reread it so many times since then I'm not sure I can effectively review it for someone who picks it up for the first time. I have my favorite scenes and I basically just read those and skim the rest. But there were a lot of things that surprised me on this reread. For one, I found Carla to be extremely annoying--she's so smug about being practical and logical, and looks down her nose at anyone who believes in legends or stories. By the time I was about a quarter of the way into the book, I was pretty sick of her Holier-than-thou attitude, especially since all the other women in this book are treated as total neurotics who need medical attention. Also, the tricks played on Carla to scare her out of the house, which seemed very creepy to me as a kid, seem laughable now.

That being said, Wait for What Will Come is still very romantic--not in the boy-meets-girl kind of way, which is a pretty minor part of the book, but in the sense of Carla going to Cornwall and discovering her family's history and place in the world. As a kid growing up in the middle of Colorado, things like cromlechs (standing stone circles) and Roman ruins seemed impossibly exotic and fascinating. And they still do! It probably says a lot about this book that the food and history Carla encounters in Cornwall are the things I remember most from the story. The suspense may be a little flat, but as a romantic escapist novel, Wait for What Will Come definitely succeeds.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Originally released: 2011
Starring: Ewen McGregor, Eva Green
Directed by: David Mackenzie
Based on: the script by Kim Fupz Aakeson

It's the end of the world, but it's not happening in the way one would expect. Instead of fire and four horsemen, people are gradually losing their senses due to a strange and incurable disease. It starts with smell and burns through the other four senses from there. One of the people most effected by this epidemic is Michael, a chef at a fancy Glasgow restaurant. When he loses his sense of smell on the same night as Susan, a woman who lives across the alley from the restaurant, they form a bond. But will their relationship survive the loss of all their senses and the collapse of society?

perfect sense poster

I picked up Perfect Sense on a whim from the library. It was described as a "post-Apocalyptic love story," and if I expected anything it was for the film to be a little pretentious. But it had Ewen McGregor in it, so I decided to give it a try. I'm so glad I did! I have to say that I honestly loved this movie.

Ewen McGregor is adorable (when is he not?) as Michael, the nicest chef ever; and I loved the meet-cute scene between him and Susan and how their relationship developed over the course of the movie. The loss of her senses makes the normally prickly Susan vulnerable, and because of that she gives a nice guy like a Michael a chance she normally wouldn't. It was uber-romantic.

Even beyond that, though, I think this movie was so creative in how it reimagined "the end of the world." What does the world consist of but what you can see, hear, taste, touch, and smell? If you lose all of that, the world has effectively ceased to exist. To me Perfect Sense isn't just about what the world would be like without senses, but what the world would be like without art. No matter what, people need creativity: they need to be taken out of their own reality and transported into someone else's through art, and this is demonstrated strongly through Michael's job at the restaurant. When the movie starts, meals at the restaurant are about all the senses--texture, taste, smell, sound, and appearance. As people lose those senses, the restaurant simply relies more and more heavily on their remaining senses to fill in the gap of what they've lost. No matter what, they want to avoid what the restaurant owner calls "flour and fat," which is basically all people need in a diet in order to survive. But what they need to LIVE is beauty, music, creativity, and the connection with another human being that art provides. The sign that society has broken down completely is when people are shut away in their homes with nothing on TV but PSAs, as if there's nothing left to experience or share in the world.

Not that Perfect Sense is a perfect movie--there are segments full of stock footage that don't make any sense (Kim Jong Il, really? What does that have to do with anything?), and the whole "love is everything" message is a little heavy-handed. But I enjoyed the rest of the film so much that these flaws didn't really bother me. I thought Perfect Sense succeeded as both a romance and a very thoughtful and creative take a post-Apocalyptic story. If the premise sounds at all interesting to you, I highly recommend checking it out!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

TSS: Literary Heroes

The Sunday Salon.com

Guten Morgen, Sunday Saloners. I'm doing more of these posts lately, are you proud of me? You should be. It's finally July (I know we're a week in already, but to post this in the first week of July I would have had to write it in June, and I'm superstitious about celebrating that something's over before it actually is), and I think hope that the dog days of summer are finally past. It seemed like June would never end. My mom has a magnet that says, "Time flies whether you're having fun or not," and that might be true, but it certainly doesn't feel like it. What with wildfires, the absolute worst class I've ever had to teach in my entire life, and 14 straight days of 100+ degree temperatures, I'm just happy the month is over.

Today I want to talk about your first literary heroes. I'm not talking about the heroes of the books, but rather the people who write them. Right now I'm rereading Wait for What Will Come by Barbara Michaels, who was the first author I really glommed onto as a kid. My mom has tons of her books and I worked my way through them all during fifth and sixth grades. She's also the first author I wrote to. Basically, when I was a teenager, I aspired to be half as good a writer as Barbara Michaels.

But sometimes I wonder if my view of Barbara Michaels as The Greatest is really fair. For one, she basically wrote the same story over and over: young woman goes to a spooky old house, is threatened by mysterious people in a supernatural guise, falls in love with a mysterious man who might be a danger to her, and along the way learns about history. Of course, the stories vary from book to book, and to me--who loves reading genre fiction and seeing variations on a formula--this is what makes them interesting. I guess what concerns me is the idea that Michaels was selling out--rewriting the same book because she knew it would sell. On the one hand, they are good books; on the other hand, why so little variation? Two, she seems determined to under play the romantic element of her novels even though they ARE romantic novels and the romance is the only interesting thing going on! And three--is just me, or does every character have some connection to Sir John Smythe?

My point is on some level I know there are (probably) better writers out there, but because Michaels made such an impression on me as a kid, she set the standard for authors who are my literary heroes.

Who were some of your first literary heroes, and do you still think of them in same way?


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