Well, that month was particularly ghastly—mostly because Real Life came a-calling. And when it does that, things go very silent around here. But not just in the blog, mind you—but my reading life as a whole.
No, that wasn’t a reading slump—that was Real Life wresting this little joy away from my cold, hard hands. It’s been a crazy month at my job; many times, running like a headless chicken was the only source of respite. And, ugh, there were some two weeks that I read next to nothing—just limply picked up a book here and there, even as I did so, getting that sinking feeling that I’ll abandon it—not really because it sucked, dammit, but because my schedule [read: life] sucked. Gone were the days I’d stay up all night to finish a book—ooh, defiance, dork-style! The past couple of weeks have been so exhausting that all I could do was [a] stare off into space before sleeping, [b] giving a grunt then sleeping, [c] crashing into bed and sleeping.
I had such noble reading-and-blogging plans at the start of the month (especially considering that June was also mostly a no-show for me). I read Greg Baxter’s much talked about memoir about self-destruction [A Preparation for Death], and found enough brain cells to give credit to my experience with it. I followed up with a classic Laura Kinsale [Flowers from the Storm]that I still can’t seem to talk about. Then, I reunited with a writer I first met in high school [Guy de Maupassant’s Pierre et Jean], and reunited with an old favorite (as in, The Red Garden is the sixteenth book of Alice Hoffman that I’ve read).
And then I decided to put my dorkier cap on and read two books, in succession, about how our brain works when it’s reading. Which is, well, hard—working real hard. The two books are in agreement [or, well, jump off from common ground]: the brain was not wired for reading, there’s no specific gene in charge of decoding squiggly lines. Reading was a cultural and evolutionary adaptation, yes, but the brain hasn’t exactly fine-tuned it—so it worked around it: reading in the brain as a convergence of neurological pathways. Consider me awed.
The first book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf, enjoyed quite a bit of wee-fandom in the blogosphere—and, really, nothing like reading and science thrown together to warm my cackles. But, unfortunately, Proust was bust. Bust. More science than story, and not very engaging science at that. Yes, so much literariness was hinted by that title—Proust! Squid! Brains!—but it was all but invisible. It came off as a shoddily assembled technical treatise on the brain and reading—stiff language, I-don’t-see-your-point organization, and no human element whatsoever. Nothing to make this reader go, “Hey, yeah, that’s me, that’s exactly what reading is. Golly, my brain thinks that way when I read Jane Eyre’s rejection of Rochester?” Which was too damned bad. I mean, hell: an already difficult-to-explain melding of science and culture became just as inscrutable and alien to the reader. Bah.
The second book, Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read, by Stanislas Dehaene, was the surprise. I thought it perfect—it’s just a beautifully crafted, competently written work. It was accessible, approachable, charming, and more interactive—without sacrificing the concentration demanded by complex science. Dehaene shows you how the brain works. For example: he plays around with type, and then tells you how berserk your brain had gone. Anecdotes are used as vivid illustrations, a concrete marker on so lofty a concept as neuroscience. And I felt so goddamned smart! And, Dehaene—you could feel that he loved reading. He was good at all this science stuff, yeah, of course—but you could feel that he’s familiar with all the rollercoaster emotions that involve holding a book in one’s hands. Gah. I went all dorky with this one, love it.
Aherm. So. See? Promising. Right? It kind of stopped there. Again, not just the blogging, but the reading. Egad. What was probably the busiest event concerning my job run roughshod over a lot of people’s lives [including mine, however tangentially], and it just really really really got hectic. As in: stare off into space in the middle of a Serious Discussion, and wail in one’s head, “Oh, wait, I think I can hear my books. My babies! They’re calling for me!” Sleep, too, liked to summon me.
When I did get to find the time to read—actively hunt for time, dammit—I turned to romance novels. Oh, sweet, sweet fuzzy blanket of goodness, I love my romance novels. I read six romance novels this July, and one anthology dressed up as a novel.
I’ve said before that the genre was my go-to genre whenever I feel like life’s goading me to tear my hair out. It’s the genre that I “call home—the don’t-bother-bathing-during-the-weekends kind of home, the put-your-feet-up-while-eating kind of home, the I-will-burp-when-I-need-a-breather kind of home. I realize that I occasionally get tired having my hands clasped in front of me when facing Ooh Literature. Whatever conventional/cliché dichotomy there may be between the literary and the genre—hell, I love ‘em both—but the romance novel’s one of the few things that will allow me to parade around in my underwear and furry slippers. So to speak.” [Yeah. That probably needs elaboration—I’m dying to write something exhaustive about why exactly I love romance novels—but, alas, not today.]
I followed up the reading-brain books with two Loretta Chase favorites. I began my Chase-Reeducation with The Last Hellion. I kind of feel bad for this one, because it came on the heels of Kinsale’s Flowers—and god knows I’ve got a monster post on that book stewing inside me—but, ultimately, I feel bad for The Last Hellion because it failed for me, regardless of whatever novel it followed.
That is, hell: it’s kind of a mediocre book, in my opinion. Fun, yes. Unconventional-ish, yes. But so-so—we’ve got your usual hellion rake with the heart of a marshmallow, and a heroine who’s an orphan-saving virago. And these two, they like to fight for no apparent reason. Because they’re supposed to have an impetuous romance? I’m all for that, dammit, but can we please have a point to these quarrels? Our hero’s a rake because he’s a rake, and, gah, Grenville, though a great character, just won’t relent. Huh. I guess that’s what’s wrong with it: there’s so little relenting, or timely vulnerability, and so much conflict-for-the-sake-of-conflict that I just couldn’t enjoy it. I just couldn’t swoon. And y’all know how much I look swooning.
Chase’s other fan-favorite, Lord Perfect, was, um, okay. Was it because of my emotional deadness when I read it that I can’t seem to remember if I like this novel or not? Ugh. Is this yet another “classic” of the genre that failed to elicit the appropriate reaction from me? Yeah. Probably. I mean, I think I liked it. I think I liked our headstrong and too-notorious-for-her-own-good heroine [named Bathsheba, good lord]. I think I liked Benedict Carsington, the gentleman. I liked his composure, haha. I liked how the two of them, ya know, bonded.
I should like this book more, really. I mean, I laughed several times, I squealed several times. But did it reverberate? Nope. I don’t think so. It contains what I’m suspecting is a ginormous pet peece when reading romances: when the story’s principal conflict stems from the idiocy of secondary characters—in this case, her daughter and his niece. Take note that this is an en route road trip love story, historical romance novel style. Gah. I mean, I know that a lot of romance novels deal with conflict of the life-and-death situation.
But I really want to know, too, how this couple loves in quiet times. I want to know how they love when nothing else is at stake but them. Is that too much to ask?
And, non-resonating [this is retrospect, yes] books aside, I went on reading romance novels. Because they were the only books that made me feel alive during Hell Month. That is melodramatic, yes. Okay then. Because I want this infernally long blog post to end on a happy note, I’m saving the better books for last.
Consider the Mary Balogh double feature [concerning brothers, naturally] a rung higher than Meh and a rung lower than Great. Both novels—More Than a Mistress and No Man’s Mistress—deal with uncommon arrangements. The first one has a duke and his nurse getting it on. The second one is the duke’s son living in a contested house with a virtual stranger. Both stories were okay enough, yeah. Both had too many unnecessary details, and far too many surprises re character insight. Both had me going, “Why do I really read romance novels, when this particular chunk of paper makes me feel like a mere observer?” Did I like ‘em? Sure, I guess. I don’t know.
* * *
Impulse paid off with one book: a completely unknown to me author and her book that I picked up because I, blindly, liked what I read at the back of the book: Anne Gracie’s The Accidental Wedding—despite it containing usual pet peeves. Huh.
It’s a twist on the amnesia trope—because, well, our hero regains his memory before shit truly hit the fan. And our heroine is this genuinely capable, really strong young woman—she’s trying to make ends meet, taking care of her half-siblings. Our heroine has been through the wringer, and our hero’s chill enough to help her out without it being all weird of him. [Note: Sasha, your prose is deteriorating!]
Yeah. I really liked this. It’s quietly romantic, compelling, with just enough angst thrown in. And I swooned here and there. I did. See? You can put your characters’ lives in danger, throw in some precocious children, and have them spend quiet times behind curtains, or holding a funeral for bees. See? It can be done!
Thankfully, the happy juju of Gracie’s novel was carried over to the Frankenstein’s monster that is the novel composed of three interconnected stories by three romance novelists. That was a compliment, okay? But, yes, The Lady Most Likely—penned byJulia Quinn, Connie Brockway, and Eloisa James [individually? huddled around a lone laptop?—defies categorization. It is not really a novel, no matter what the cover says—that would demand, at the very least, cohesion or wholeness. Not just have the three stories take place in a romance-infested house party. Because, ya know, it feels like the camera just pans, regardless of how good the stories are. It was not a novel to me. Why not just call them interconnected novellas? Just saying.
I sound really grumpy and snarky, but it’s the fact that this post is growing to alarming proportions. Because, really, I like this little monster of a book. Kudos to Quinn, Brockway, and James, for managing to trace distinct stories, all of them really, really good in their own way. All happy and light without being silly about it.
Julia Quinn’s, in particular—gahd, that novella needs to be elaborated on, it needs to breathe and frolic and do hanky-pankies in the expanse of the novel’s structure. A painfully shy diamond of the first water, and this lord who’d been a younger son all his life until, until. Although the story still worked given the limitations of the form, I wish the shyness had been explored and slowly chipped away—even to the people that matter. I wish I knew more about our hero, other than that when he falls in love, it’s so adorable how dumbstruck he gets. Sigh.
Augh. Exhausted, here. And sighs of relief abound as well. A part of me regrets having to lump it all here—my poor romance novels, I cannot do you justice! I wish I had more time, more space, more energy. I wish I could tell you how, say, Mary Balogh’s More Than a Mistress reminded me so much of Jane Eyre, down to the dialogue and the heroine’s name. Or that I could write a more convincing appeal against the popularity of Proust and the Squid and champion Dehaene forever.
Ah, but it’s here. It’s done. Bye, July, at last. We’ll see where this goes.
PSA: The books mentioned in this post were all bought from National Bookstore. I hoard, okay?