In which I rant about Insta-Lust

So. I started with Eloisa James’s latest, Seven Minutes In Heaven, but ended up DNF-ing it about 50-60 pages in. I find I have little or almost no patience with most of the insta-lust stories out there. I mean I’m fine with you falling in lust with someone as soon as you set eyes on them (though really? but then again, who am I to say that that’s not a thing that happens a lot) but when your entire interaction is predicated on this lustiness then I HAVE NO PATIENCE WITH YOU CHARACTERS. OR YOU, AUTHORS. ESPECIALLY, YOU, AUTHORS.

I LIKED the premise—a successful lady running a governess business, and a mad-scientist hero who is born on the wrong side of the blanket. But when EVERYTHING BECOMES ABOUT hoo-boy, I can’t take my eyes off those ginormous man-and-lady-parts, then I AM DONE.

It’s not like insta-lust can’t be done right. I also happened to read Simona Ahrnstedt’s All In a while back, and though I was not as wild about the last quarter of the story as I was for the initial three-fourths, I definitely liked this insta-lust story!

David and Natalia have sizzling chemistry, and sleep with each other pretty early on in the book, but their physical relationship feels like an extension of the intellectual chemistry that they share. Their attraction to each other is of course about the physical but also so much more! (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with just the physical either, just that I find it utterly and completely uninteresting to read about) There’s enough meat to their interactions, right from the start, that I WANT to read more about their COMBUSTIBLE ATTRACTION to each other!

I’m someone who usually skips the sex scenes in romance novels. Generally speaking, there’s not enough of a build-up of the relationship itself for me to feel interested in reading the sex scenes. And I get that sometimes authors use those scenes to further the relationship but I don’t always find that to be the case. (Marriage of convenience in hist-roms fits this bill though, I think). HOWEVER, the scenes in THIS STORY?! I read through every letter, sentence, and smoking hot paragraph, believe you me!

So, have you guys read either of these books? What did you think? Which side of the insta-lust line do you fall on? Or are you more zen-like with insta-lust than I am apparently capable of being? (Confession: I’m more of a slow-burn girl!)

Romance and the Appeal of the Alpha Male

Romance is a genre that I have read the maximum number of books in. For the longest time I was leery of bringing this fact into conversations with other readers. Over the last few years this has changed.

A part of the reason is because I have come to believe that more than the inherent complexity of the narrative itself (the lack of which is an accusation often leveled at the romance genre), it’s about the individual who’s reading the said narrative. Engaging meaningfully with a piece of text, while being a function of the text itself, is also very much about the person who is involved in the act of reading.

So when Michelle Sagara wrote this article on Alpha males over at Dear Author, I found myself contemplating my own enjoyment of this archetype. I am pretty sure that I could not abide by this kind of a person in real life. But I’m interested in the conversation that takes place after I accept that I know the difference between fantasy and reality. I love what Liz McCausland said about this:

There are two things people say when discussion of this kind of hero comes up:

  • I guess I’m just too feminist, but it bothers me.
  • Of course in real life I’d run screaming from this guy/get a restraining order, but swoooon, he’s so hot. (otherwise expressed as “women can tell the difference between fantasy and reality”).

These are both pretty much conversation-stoppers, in part because they are personal. They make this an issue simply of reader beliefs and fantasies (which of course it is, in part) rather than of broader cultural ideals, messages, or scripts, which maybe can be discussed more neutrally.

What she said.

I can see why a person might be reluctant to continue with the conversation—they might believe that there’s a need to defend their particular preference(s) which in turn could trigger all sorts of defense mechanisms, bringing any further interaction to a complete halt.

And that makes me wonder what the person who initiates such a discussion can do to create a space which disarms the need for any such defensive tactics, a space where one feels safe to explore why a thing that is comfortable is comfortable; what lies at the basis of that enjoyment; what biases and assumptions inform that enjoyment.

As far as the alpha hero is concerned Miss Sagara defines the alpha hero as one who is basically comfortable in his own skin. (Or that’s what I took away from it, anyway). Therein lies the appeal of the alpha hero for me—the fact that someone that sure in his sense of self falls for you is not only incredibly sexy but also makes one feel really really good about oneself.

I enjoy the alpha hero type probably because for the longest time I had the shittiest sense of self-worth. And having my then boyfriend and now husband believe in me was definitely a boost to my battered sense of confidence. What I have come to realize though is that while my husband is always there to support me, any lasting change has to be driven by me.

In other words, while the transformation of the heroine may begin with the someone “powerful” falling for her, at some point, she will need to take the reins in her own hands.

I also realize that such a change can be facilitated by really anyone in one’s life. Within the limits of genre romance, the hero (or the heroine) is the likeliest candidate to affect such a change but they definitely are not the only ones who can do so.

And this brings me to a major reservation that I have when I read stories with alpha heroes (despite my enjoyment of them). Instead of allowing the heroine to develop at her own pace and rhythm, a lot of times, alpha heroes have a tendency to bulldozer through and sort of take control of the narrative. This always makes me question the tenability of such a relationship.

But going back to what I said earlier, as I am writing this, I am very cognizant of the fact that some woman out there might like what I find questionable and question what I like. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe I have to find a way to be ok with a position so starkly different from mine before I can understand where they’re coming from.

If romance really is the literature of women, written by women then shouldn’t it be a space where every woman can explore what it means to be her?

Nooks & Crannies: The Fall Version

Autumn ReadsIt’s been a while since I finished Guy Gavirel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne but for some reason I haven’t particularly felt like writing about it. And then I started feeling that till I reviewed that book I couldn’t read or write anything else—which is just stupid.

I have been reading of course.

Let me start with Patricia Wrede’s Cecilia and Sorcery book 3—a fun and fluffy read that while I enjoyed was also slightly contrived in its plotting in my opinion. I will probably read Miss Wrede’s other books when I’m in the mood for some light historical fantasy.

Then there is Jess Walter’s The Financial Live of the Poets that is quite simply howlarious. I’m about 40% of my way through and have been reading it on the Oyster app that has a lovely interface but that I haven’t found myself using a lot. The app has an instant gratification component to it in that I can start reading any book that I want the very moment I want but I would much prefer a Kindle to Oyster for that. At least the Kindle will let me highlight the text. Plus, Kindle has a bigger screen and feels easier on the eyes. So what exactly is Oyster’s place in it all? What niche, if any, does it cater to amongst the public libraries, Kindles and Overdrives of the world? Perhaps it’s of particular use while commuting? But a Kindle or an e-book reader would do as well as Oyster for that. Not something I am particularly keen to think through right now but I definitely don’t see a defining need for Oyster. I also seem to have discovered a new love for paper books with the New York Public Library. (Perhaps, Oyster would be good for markets that do not have comprehensive library systems? Oyster should certainly look at international markets for that!)

I also finally found my way to Ursula K. Le Guin, starting with A Wizard of Earthsea. Oh what a lovely person she is! I loved that Ged’s quest is more about finding himself (something that I suspected early on) than about a fight between good vs. evil. I would love to recommend this book to my youngster friends and have already put a hold on book 2!

The past month has also seen me letting go of books while half-way through. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek had to be returned to the library since someone else had it on hold. I found it a difficult book to start with but once I got in the flow I found it to be a strangely liberating read—there is something compelling and freeing about a life lived only in contemplation of nature. I could read only a few pages at a time—my preferred reading time was right before I fell asleep—and yet it was an immensely relaxing and peaceful experience.

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is another book that I found myself enjoying and yet one more book that I could not hurry through. It’s a text that demands a slowing down and falling in rhythm with its cadence to get its full flavor. And then I left it at a friend’s place while visiting and by the time I receive it, it has to be returned. Gilead has so many lovely bits:

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample on it.

and

There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is power in that I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. . . . Not that you have to be a minister to confer the blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you.

Parnassus on Wheels is one more book that I’m reading on Oyster—I love the Professor and find myself grinning through his impassioned speeches about ‘the Good’ that books can do! To use a cliché: It’s a delightful romp!

October is such a beautiful month for reading. I’m loving the mantle of chilly weather that’s slowly settling over the northern hemisphere and find myself in a contemplative mood. I was reading about Miss K. Le Guin and also Margaret Atwood (whose Oryx trilogy is now on my TBR pile after seeing her live in a discussion with Carl Hiassen—she is so graceful and wise and erudite) and one thing that struck me about both Miss Atwood and Miss K. Le Guin is their reflective nature.

It’s as if in the allowing of your thoughts and your encounters and your musings to sort of seep through and settle in your experiences become a fertile ground for your writing. I find this fascinating because I’ve always felt that the only stories I would ever write are the ones I dream about (yep, I’ve dreamt stories and while dreaming also thought that hey, this would make a jolly good tale).

On another note, I’ve been contemplating issues of identity. There was an article in NY Times a while back about the “opt-out” generation, a generation of highly successful women in high-powered jobs who left it all to take care of their kids and who for various reasons found themselves returning to the workforce and subsequently found that they had to start at levels that were sadly nowhere near where they had left. There’s a lot to unpack there but the thing that struck me the most was how much each woman’s identity stemmed from what she had done i.e. her work persona. I think this is true for either of the sexes and I have this at the back of my mind as I embark upon Rosalind Miles’s The Women’s History of the World. I’m looking forward to seeing the identities that women have forged for themselves over the course of the last few centuries.

photo credit: dbtelford via photopin cc

Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Synopsis: “Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right–and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.”

I had had Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey on my TBR for the longest time so I was really glad when I was finally able to get my hands on it. Imagine my dismay then when I found myself dragging my feet (so to say) through the story, wanting to scream at the main protagonists and trying to forage through the happenings to get to the meat of an actual story. I know! I know! The book has not been publicized as anything but a “novel of manners” and a take on Jane Austen and I have absolutely no problem with that. I enjoy romance and some of my favourite books are what I call “quiet books,” books that are not so much about big action and jaw-dropping plot developments as about the story being revealed through the everyday experience of its characters.

But hey if you’re going to market your book as a “Jane Austen-anything” then you better have that first part down pat. The problem is Shades of Milk and Honey has all the fluff of Pride and Prejudice but none of its substance.

The comparison between Shades of Milk and Honey and Jane Austen’s books holds on surface—regency era, preoccupation with getting the girls married off, protected young damsels with a whiff of scandal in their pasts, an older mature woo-er versus a young, dashing beau with the possibility of some evilness lurking in his character—but what makes Pride and Prejudice work is that it’s not just a story about two protagonists who find love; it’s a story about how those protagonists find love and why they find it the way they do. The process of reaching their happily-ever-after is rich, complex and nuanced enough to furnish a good story.

With Shades of Milk and Honey the underlying story is just not engaging enough. Moreover, the havey-cavey way in which the main leads’ coming together is achieved left me vastly dissatisfied. The change of heart that Jane undergoes right at the end of the novel was hard to believe. It made me question the constancy of her character and her judgment. All this compounded with certain awkward phrasings, especially at the beginning of the book, and phrasings that jarred me right out of the story made Shades of Milk and Honey a ho-hum experience at best.

Perhaps I am being too harsh – I profess to not really warming up to either Jane or her twaddle of a sister, Melody. Or to Vincent either now that I think of it. (Vincent is the ‘hero’)

The thing that I did enjoy the most and that I wish had received more airtime was Miss Kowal’s imagining and descriptions of glamour—magic that the upper class uses to beautify their homes and awe their guests with. Yes, Shades of Milk and Honey is supposed to be “the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen… if she had lived in a world with magic.” What I would like to see in her future books is how this magic shapes up the lives of women who practice it and the society that they live in. I want to read about the history of glamour, about men working in a profession that comes across as womanly and all the bells and whistles that Miss Kowal has imagined as a template for the framework of her magic.

And that perhaps may well be the reason why I might try out the second book in the series. To see if she indeed does expand on glamour in the subsequent books. That and the fact that from what I read about her, Miss Kowal seems likeable enough and so I am willing to try her once more before I give up on her books.

NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibition – The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter 

The New York Public Library is home to a wonderful exhibition these days: The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter.

The first thing that struck me as soon as I entered the Gottesman Exhibition Hall was the sheer colours on display: you feel submerged in utter gorgeousness as soon as you enter—from beautifully illustrated picture books to silvery handmade embossments on indigo-violet coloured hardbacks (the name of which I now forget) to William Blake’s elfin-like watercolours in Songs of Innocence to the lush greenliess of the mock “Secret Garden” from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden—the exhibition is a feast for the eyes. (Unfortunately I was so entranced that I forgot to take pictures except one or two. I plan on rectifying that when I go again for the free guided tour. Yes, free. Isn’t NYPL simply awesome?)

I have experienced only a very tiny slice of the authors and the books featured in the exhibition and I had absolutely no idea that there exist such exquisite picture books for kids. I don’t know if my unfamiliarity was primarily due to a preponderance of books-famous-in-America or simply a result of my doleful exposure to children’s literature. Perhaps most likely, as is the case with all things in life, it’s a case of both-and: a glut of books popular in US and my general ignorance of kids’ books. The one glaring exception to my ignoramusness though was Amar Chitra Katha! Yes!! They had Amar Chitra Katha comics too as a part of the exhibition and that of course brought back all the happy memories of summers spent swaying back and forth on the tiny swing at my grandma’s place while breezing past through the stories of Ramayan and Mahabharta and Shakuntala in a comic form.

NYPL's Children's Literature Exhibition Amar Chitra Katha

Amar Chitra Katha @ NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibition
Photo Credits: Juhi @ Noooks & Crannies

NYPL's Children's Literature Exhibition Amar Chitra Katha

Amar Chitra Katha @ NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibition
Photo Credits: Juhi @ Nooks & Crannies

There is also interspersed through the exhibition quotes on libraries: from Ray Bradbury’s “Libraries raised me” to ““But why’s she got to go to the library?” “Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.””

The theme of the exhibition is of course Why Children’s Books Matter. The question makes me sort of gurgle with speechlessness. I mean, isn’t it sort of obvious why books and especially children’s books matter? But then again maybe it’s a good thing we’re actually having conversations about such important issues. So apart from the obvious that instilling a love for reading during childhood (something that children’s books play a huge role in) ensures a life long love affair with the written word, here’s what the exhibition had to say on the matter: there are two opposing camps on why children’s books matter.

One train of thought follows the puritanical view that reading should not only have a Purpose (yes, purpose with a capital P) it should also instill in the child good old moral values. Case in point: the biblical version of the ABC primer, one of the very first such books to be published in US that was in exhibition (by the way it was really really tiny)

A is for Adam: In Adam’s Fall/We Sinned all.

B is for Bible: “Thy Life to Mend/This Book attend.”

To counter is the singularly beautiful and illustrated collections of poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Mr. Blake of course is a firm believer in espousing and encouraging a child’s innocence and nothing else.

The funny thing is that this argument which is essentially a battle between an activity having no purpose other than the doer’s sheer enjoyment of it and there being no purpose to an activity unless it has a well defined objective can be extended from books to their more glamourous cousins, the iPads and all such new-fangled technological inventions that today’s kids find themselves in the midst of. The viewpoints that the exhibition is putting forward about children’s books can be extended to almost all forms of technological inventions that have been on offer for kids since technology happened to humankind.

I am not sure what and even more if there is a right answer to such a question. Certainly, assigning a purpose to each and every new “device”/technology that a child experiences sounds extremely militant while having fun for fun’s sake sounds much more appealing. Then again intending to learn while having fun does not sound all that nefarious. So I am not sure. Perhaps, it’s one of those things for which the answer lies somewhere in the middle?

Talking Through A Post Comprised of Bullet Points (NYPL, Neil Gaiman, Cecilia Grant, Charles Yu & David Whyte)

1.

Schwarzman Building - NYPL

Schwarzman Building – NYPL
Credits: Juhi @ Nooks & Crannies

So the relative silence was due to some upheavals in my life. I’m now a baby New Yorker and so far I’m in love with the city. One of the best things it has to offer? The New York Public Library! Where one can borrow up to 50 books at a time. And from where I always borrow more books than I can possibly read at any given time. Which leads to the pleasurable task of deciding which book to renew and which to finish right away. And oh of course, the putting of books on hold and then checking up on them to track their progress as they make their way to me! As you can see, all momentous tasks that I have to tend to with utmost gravity and precision.

The NYPL also includes the gorgeous Schwarzman building with its two majestic lions, Patience and Fortitude, guarding the entrance to the hallowed world within. The marble halls, the intricate woodwork and the hand-painted mural ceilings are a sight to behold. I am in awe of there being a public space of such beauty.

2.

I finally read Neil Gaiman. The Graveyard Book to be precise. At first, I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was – most likely because my childhood was tethered to the adventure stories and mystery tales of Enid Blyton sans ghostly fables that took off on flights of imagination and otherworldliness.

I couldn’t connect to the tale emotionally. The whole premise was too alien and I was not really interested in finding out why Jack wanted to kill Nobody Owens. Or who the mysterious Silas was. And yet, halfway through the story I looked up and discovered that I had become so engrossed that it was past the time to get back to my chores. Something had clicked. The strangeness of it all was suddenly not so, well, strange anymore – I was vested in Nobody Owens’s future and wanted him to be safe and happy. All this to say that yes I want to try out more Neil Gaiman. And will include him in the list of authors-my children-have-to-read. (Yes, I have such a list).

  1. I also read Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened and quite enjoyed it. Like the hype about Mr Gaiman, I see why the romance reading community has made such brouhaha over this author.

  2. Part science manual, part a meditation on memory, and part an exploration of a father-son relationship, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe  is the other book that I read and I have decidedly mixed feelings about it. Mr. Charles Yu sure loves words and sentences–some of which went on for more than a paragraph. The story takes place in a universe where time travelling has been invented and as the narrator tells us almost everyone chooses to travel back to his or her worst day, hoping to redo it and start all over even though they can’t really. I found this particular facet thought provoking. It left me wondering if Mr Yu’s fiction has any basis of reality to it. Is that what we would really do? Given such a choice would we really go back to the days that housed all our regrets and mistakes instead of visiting those that had our most treasured memories? While I cannot know what posterity will choose I can certainly hope that it will be the latter.

Mr Yu’s musings on memory being a vehicle for time travelling which makes time travellers of all of us was certainly lovely. If the story had not been jettisoned into a hasty and not-properly-resolved ending and had had less ramblings (the pitfall of first person narratives I guess) I might have enjoyed the book more.

5.

Currently Reading – The Three Marriages by David Whyte. His discussion on work, relationship with your significant other and spirituality being the three marriages of an individual’s life as opposed to just the one that we normally think of is unique, interesting and will hopefully give me a new way of thinking about my own life.

Here’s Whyte, on the three marriages:

These are the three marriages, of Work, Self and Other.

A word on this word marriage: Despite our use of the word only for a committed relationship between two people, in reality this book looks at the way everyone is committed, consciously or unconsciously, to three marriages. There is that first marriage, the one we usually mean, to another; that second marriage, which can so often seem like a burden, to a work or vocation; and that third and most likely hidden marriage to a core conversation inside ourselves. We can call these three separate commitments marriages because at their core they are usually lifelong commitments and, as I wish to illustrate, they involve vows made either consciously or unconsciously.

And here’s a bit that I really liked:

Work is a constant conversation. It is the back-and-forth between what I think is me and what I think is not me; it is the edge between what the world needs of me and what I need of the world. Like the person to whom I am committed in a relationship, it is constantly changing and surprising me by its demands and needs but also by where it leads me, how much it teaches me, and especially, by how much tact, patience and maturity it demands of me.

Hiatus

Till things settle a bit.

Lots of things happening right now – all good and exciting and lovely. However, I do not feel like writing in the midst of all of this. Reading has also decreased though I am keen on starting Megan Whaler Turner’s The Queen Thief series.

I did love R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, a book for 8-12 year olds that deals wonderfully with the whole theme of being different. Will pen down my thoughts on it in the next few weeks.

Till then, a happy thawing and warm summers to you! See you (hopefully) in about a month’s time!