I read an honest-to-god romance novel and my brain needs a thousand showers

Spoiler alert: I read a Nora Roberts novel and I hated it. If you don’t like snark, judgment, and possible myopia, click away my friend. Click away.

I now have only one book left in my staff reading challenge: a Western. That means I have conquered a romance novel.

Before I start talking about the actual book I read, I want to point out that there are a lot of underlying issues here that I want to dig deeper into with time. Sexism in the publishing industry is an issue I don’t take lightly. I mean, Jane Austen writes about read novels being dismissed as a silly, “female” past-time, and two hundred years later Austen’s books are still dismissed for their being “girly” and so are many other books aimed at female readers.

That being said, the romance novel I read was fucking awful. Like, maybe the worst novel I’ve ever read. Like, I’d rather re-read The Sacred Fount ten times than re-read this one. So I’m going to be honest and say that I had a hard time trying to actively deconstruct the issues in place surrounding the genre because trying to finish The MacKade Brothers: Rafe and Jared caused me to expend the majority of my mental energy trying to keep my eyes from rolling all the way into the back of my head.

I knew at the outset I would have to read a romance novel for the staff reading challenge I’ve been on about for months now. I had no idea which one. I decided to try to pick a novel that was only a romance, i.e., did not blend with other genres like urban fantasy, mystery, or historical fiction. No naughty dukes for me. But I still suffered over what to pick. I’m almost never about the love story. Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, and Mr. Tilney are pretty alright, but secondary to Austen’s wit. I rarely watch movies where romance is the focus. There are exceptions to this rule, of course (even if I argue romance isn’t at the center of my beloved costume dramas, I still love Rushmore). So picking a book with no pretense other than the love story made me a little crazy.

When I tried to do research, I discovered this list of romance writer Bella Andre’s ten favorites. Her Number 1 book wasn’t available in physical book format from the library where I work and I don’t have an eReader (the reading challenge needs to involve books available in our catalogue). I picked up books with hunk-a-licious entanglements on the cover for months and put them all back.

One day, I couldn’t take my own over-analysis any longer and pulled The MacKade Brothers: Rafe and Jared out from the pack of Nora Roberts novels. The book is actually a twofer, containing both the short novels The Return of Rafe MacKade and The Pride of Jared MacKade. It was like the worst piece of Wrigley’s Double Mint Gum ever.

The Return of Rafe MacKade

Nora Roberts has published over 200 books and something like 175 of them have been #1 bestsellers. I am about to say a myopic, judge-y thing: this fact makes me lose faith in humanity. Even with troubling social tropes in play throughout the novel, it’s very badly written and it’s very boring. In short, I’m offended as a feminist, as a reader, and as a writer.

The Return of Rafe MacKade is the first book in a series about the four chiseled, green-eyed MacKade brothers of Antietam, Maryland. But they’re all different. Their eyes are even four different shades of green because symbolism. Bad boy Rafe comes back to town after a decade-long absence in order to restore a decaying old house to its 1862 splendor. And who better to help him than Antietam newcomer Regan Bishop, the local antique dealer and the only woman possibly ever to rebuff Rafe MacKade’s advances…at least at first……

Let’s start with the bad writing. The book certainly does. Chapter One opens thusly:

The bad boy was back. The town of Antietam was buzzing over it, passing fact, rumor and innuendo from one to another, the way guests at a boardinghouse passed bowls of steaming stew.

It was a rich broth, spiced with scandal, sex and secrets. Rafe McKade had come back after ten years. (18)

So his return is like an awkwardly executed, overly specific soup metaphor? Like, a friend stayed over at my apartment on Valentine’s Day and in our own stew of ironic zeitgeist, holiday spirit, and chardonnay we tried to read this book out loud to each other for the lulz but it was too bad to continue.

I will just  briefly list some of the problems: the perspective shifts are scattered and jarring, the characters are drawn with such broad and divergent strokes that they’re both clichéd and confusing, and a pretty major subplot about Civil War past life/ghost business appeared suddenly and then was dropped. And so much telling-not-showing—Rafe is a bad boy but he’s also sensitive. What about his own character drives him forward? It’s pretty much not answered. We get the allusion to some daddy/mommy issues, but other than that he’s a bad boy stereotype who goes against type at periods that occur seemingly at the author’s convenience. Even as someone whose knowledge of the genre comes from pop culture osmosis, it felt like Roberts was going through the motions.

Also, I found The Return of Rafe MacKade to be sexist in a lot of troubling ways. I give Roberts credit for at least attempting to cast Regan Bishop, the female lead, as someone who treasures personal independence. you know, when it’s convenient. Rafe MacKade, again, is a “bad boy”—he picks fights and lets out his aggression by committing violence (or threatening to). For example he threatens and/or beats up on his brothers for talking about Regan’s physical attractiveness and for one having gone out with her on a couple of chaste dates before Rafe knew she existed. It bothers me that Rafe’s possessiveness and aggression make him somehow heroic, especially because Rafe is contrasted with another character’s physically abusive husband.

And let’s see…at some point, aforementioned physically abusive husband attacks Regan for getting . And what is Rafe upset about? Regan didn’t call him to come rescue her. I mean, what kind of woman is so preoccupied with stabbing an assailant in the eye that she doesn’t think to call her knight in shining armor? And she lets his butt-hurt over this fact actually convince her that she’s in the wrong. The couple also discuss how they have few things in common and make a friendly bet about something I’ve forgotten. If Regan loses, she must appear in a pool hall in a leather mini-skirt. If Rafe loses, he’s supposed to recite Shelley. Because no woman can love pool and no man could love poetry. And because they both want to prove how much they love each other, they each hold out the loser’s end of the deal. Of course, Regan’s is public and humiliating. But it’s okay if Rafe just privately recites the four lines of Shelley it took his dumb ass a week to memorize—because it would be embarrassing for a man to recite some sissy poetry in front of anyone but the woman he intends to marry.

Oh, and the sex scenes are boring. I know this isn’t erotica, but come the fuck on (pun intended? ew). If the love story made any sense, maybe I could get behind the more romantic-as-opposed-to-erotic inclinations. But then I mean, Charlotte Brontë has written some prose that makes my hair stand on end and my soul ache.

Also weird: not that many sex scenes even occur, especially if you think about the instances of antique/decorating talk in the book. Here’s a passage:

Her nerves strained as she stopped by the settee. It was a gorgeous piece, and it had had a price to match. However much she coveted it, she would never have made the bid if she hadn’t had a customer in the wings.

Now, she thought of that customer—the scarred boots, the ripped shirt, the potent aura of man. What had she been thinking of, she wondered frantically, imagining Rafe MacKade approving of an elegant, curvy, and decidedly feminine pieces such as this?

“Ah, it’s walnut…” she began, running a suddenly icy hand over the carved arm. “Around 1850. It’s been reupholstered, of course, but the material is very much in keeping with the era. You can see the double-shaped backs are centered by a circular upholstered panel. The workmanship is first-rate, and the seat is surprisingly comfortable…It’s sixty-nine inches wide, and well worth the expense.” (82)

Um…yeah does anyone else need a new pair of underwear after reading about this couch? I mean, clearly Regan is thinking about the settee as a metaphor for herself, seeing if she’s worthy to hold up Rafe MacKade’s bad boy butt. But then the details again get oddly specific. So let’s read part of a sex scene:

The climax slammed into her, a bare-knuckled punch that knocked her senseless. Reeling from it, she sobbed out his name. And, shuddering, shuddering, hungered for more.

He gave her more. And took more. Each time she thought he would end it, must end it, he found some new way to batter her senses. There was only him, the taste, the feel, the smell of him. They rolled over the floor in a wild, glorious combat, her nails digging ruthlessly into his back, his mouth searing hers. (110-111)

Remember, these two characters are supposed to just be naturally drawn to each other through preternatural sexual chemistry (hereafter referred to as PSC). I know more about that damn 1850s couch than I understand how they connected or what the hell was going on during their incredibly abstract sexy times (wait, did he actually punch her? no? maybe?). I also threw some major shade on those really violent metaphors through my yawning (if they are metaphors).

The Pride of Jared MacKade

So once Bad Boy Rafe gets his happy ending, it’s time to tell the tale of Lawyer Jared (the second twofer book in the series relays stories of Sheriff Devin and Farmer Shane, if anyone is interested). Jared gets in a tizzy because of a defiant, independent single mother who, like all women, apparently wants nothing more than to just be dominated and then taken care of. And I shit you not, her name is Savannah Morningstar, which is okay because she’s part Native American and therefore “exotic.” She’s also an artist and he is a boring lawyer with the worst color scheme of all time in his office (this is a major plot point).

The Pride of Jared MacKade wasn’t as awful, but the bar is set pretty damn low. This story is less about the “bad boy” trope and more about the persistent approach. It’s cool that Savannah is independent and all, but again the plot is really pretty sexist. Jared gets his undies in a wad because she used to support herself through exotic dancing and “he has a right to know” if she was ever a prostitute. He also gets mad at her secretiveness surrounding her past. Savannah gets upset by the perfect appearance of Regan as an ideal she can never measure up to. And I’m not sure either of these plot points would even be unbearable as they are if they were handled differently, i.e., not in a ham-fisted, unimaginative, melodramatic way that doesn’t seem to have much root in the characters. Or if Jared even really changed at the end. But even under his “heroism,” his possessiveness and obvious dominant position in the relationship as “the man” stay the same.

So yeah. Bad just bad. Boring and awful, so much so I can’t turn on the critical, lets-unpack-these-tropes part of my brain. Just crap. Crap I say.

Okay, now that I’ve had my temper tantrum, I’d really like anyone with anything to add to step in and help me understand the popularity of novels like this and Roberts as an author. Granted, I’ve read one book from the 200 she’s produced in the past 30-plus years. Are there any people in the audience who have more to add about things like theory or the perception of the genre? Are all romances this bad? Is this one even bad or is it relatively good to those familiar with the genre? I’m just baffled. Please help.


I Read an eBook and I’m Not Sure How I Feel About it

One of my favorite videos out of the past couple years is “B*tches in Bookshops,” a parody of a Yeezy/Jay-Z collaboration that contains the line: “You use a Kindle? I carry spines.” These are words I live my life by. I don’t really care how the technology has changed so you can highlight, annotate, not get as much eye fatigue, whatever.

But. To complete the staff reading challenge I’ve been participating in, I had to read an eBook. Part of working in a library means evolving with technology, so the idea is to understand all the resources we have available to patrons. My mother lent me her iPad.

I chose to check out a children’s book, which may have been cheating. I picked more or less at random from our online catalog and settled on one with a beautiful cover illustration, Emily Winfield Martin’s Dream Animals.

I was disappointed in my experience, and not because of the content of the book. I specifically chose to read a picture book to see how the transfer of the images felt to me . I don’t really like kids, but I loved to read when I was young and I’m still astounded by the beauty of some of the illustrations I see in the genre. And even with a zoom feature, that teeny little iPad screen simply cannot compare to having a bound copy in my hands that’s huge and where I could see the brush strokes. Maybe if I had one of those iMacs the size of a TV screen the experience wouldn’t have been so alienating…but I wonder. Maybe I just need to get over myself on this matter, but my thought as I turned those e-pages was, “Just….no.”

I don’t think I can realistically stay a Luddite forever. And maybe it is unfair to have tried to read an eBook with little text. And as someone with a strong interest in writing, I can’t deny the possibilities the eBook revolution could afford me. But as someone who has watched her favorite local independent bookstore get smaller and smaller every year and seen the big box comforts of my suburban adolescence shrink and vanish, I’m not sure I’m there yet.

I always welcome comments, but in this case I actively solicit them. I want to know where you stand on the issue of Kindles vs. Spines and where I’ve got it wrong.

For Hers is the Power and the Fury: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel

Earlier this year I listened to the audio version of The Bell Jar and it unleashed a whole can of worms that I posted publicly. If you don’t want to revisit it, the bottom line is that after years of being a little ashamed of my admiration for Sylvia Plath, I say fuck the haters and Sylvia Plath is awesome.

In high school, we read “Daddy” in one of our poetry units and it knocked the wind right out of me. I wrote a paper on “Lady Lazarus.” In a college class, we read “Tulips.” I loved all of these poems, and all of these poems come from Plath’s posthumous collection Ariel. Most of the poems written in Ariel came from a creative burst in the last six months of Plath’s life. In fact, the anniversary of her death—February 11—just passed.

For my staff reading challenge, I was supposed to read a book of poetry. I chose Ariel: The Restored Edition. This edition re-orders the poems to Plath’s original notes. Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, posthumously edited and published Ariel after her death in two versions: one for the UK and one for the US.

I think perhaps one of the greatest assets of the restored version of Ariel is the introduction, written by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. Frieda wasn’t yet three when her mother died, so she’s mostly had to live with her mother’s legacy. She argues that her parents were human beings, instead of the public’s preferred casting of her father as a villain and her mother as a saint. It can be hard to remember to think about authors as people and not as archetypes. Here’s a quote from her Foreword I found especially compelling.

I did not want my mother’s death to be commemorated as if it had won an award. I wanted her life to be celebrated, the fact that she had existed, lived to the fullness of her ability, been happy and sad, tormented and ecstatic, and given birth to my brother and me. I think my mother was extraordinary in her work, and valiant in her efforts to fight the depression that dogged her throughout her life. She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress, she wasted nothing of what she felt, and when in control of those tumultuous feelings she was able to focus and direct her incredible poetic energy to great effect. And here was Ariel, her extraordinary achievement, poised as she was between her volatile emotional state and the edge of the precipice. The art was not to fall. (xix-xx)

But then there’s the poetry in the collection, too, of course. And Ariel is like a good blow to the solar plexus.

Someone told me that Plath’s poetry in particular is very autobiographical—to the point where someone not privy to certain details is unlikely to understand them. I read in the introduction, for example, that the poem “Lesbos” was omitted from the original British publication because the people Plath spends the poem scorning would recognize themselves. Part of me thinks that’s fair because “Lesbos” contains some of the most scathing language I’ve ever read. Before I knew more about Sylvia Plath than that she had committed suicide, I kind of thought of her as a wilting flower. Now I view her as one of the Furies.

Mostly, after reading this collection I wish I’d taken more than my required Intro to Poetry and Poetics. I’ve always been afraid of poetry and I still kind of am. I had an amazing professor for that class (and for my Renaissance lit class, which involved a lot of sonnets and whatnot), so it wasn’t the instruction. I see my anxiety as two-fold: first, most poetry I’ve read just hasn’t spun my wheels. Every once in a while, a poem will grab me. For example, I got really stuck on “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” in a crazy way. But I have also enjoyed Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, and Frank O’Hara.

So there is poetry out there for me. Mostly, though, I often see poetry is scary. It’s dense, it’s rich, it goes deep. I’m much more comfortable with a lot of text to chew on. With poetry, it feels harder mine the riches just from the page. Sparse stanzas and profound metaphor give me headaches. One of my friends took a class on poets like Wallace Stevens and just hearing about it was rough. I’m not smart enough for poetry and I’m not a person who does well outside my comfort zone. (Which then brings me into a bunch of stuff I don’t like about myself that there’s not even enough room on the internet to talk about.)

I’m ashamed to be as undereducated on the subject as I am. But I would also eat Sylvia Plath if I could, even though at best I understood about 50% of what these poems even could possibly be about. I still felt drawn to them because Plath’s diction is so exacting and precise (the sign of reading too much nineteenth-century lit?), but I felt really stupid for not understanding them. It wasn’t just not understanding them…it was feeling like I was looking for gardening tools in the kitchen.

But the power of Plath is that I relate to her work with so much of my heart and soul. Is it her confessional mode? Is it the moods she invokes? Is it that the critics are right, that I am a depressed piece of shit wallowing in my depressed shittiness in any way that I can?  I don’t know. I really don’t. What I know is that when I read Ariel I could see things I’ve felt but beautifully on the page before me. And what I know is I want to read more poetry. And I know I want to know more.


Janeites Unite: Deborah Yaffe, Austenmania, and Me

2013 was a banner year for me as a Janeite, and not just because it marked the bicentennial year of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I finally read Sense and SensibilityNorthanger Abbey, and Emma for the first time, cementing my own personal baseline of Janeite cred. I wrote an article about my love for Jane Austen at Renegade Word and purchased my first piece of Austen fan art. I went to my first JASNA (Jane Austen Society of North America for those not in the know) event: a series of lectures featuring Claudia L. Johnson, Susan Celia Greenfield, and Sandy Lerner. I transcribed an 1815 novel for Chawton House Library’s Novels On-Line Project (founded by Sandy Lerner). I saw Austenland in theaters (spoiler alert: hated it). I joined JASNA officially and went to my chapter’s annual Jane Austen birthday tea. On a trip to England, I went to Chawton to see the Jane Austen House Museum, saw Jane Austen’s writing desk in the British LIbrary, and on my twenty-fifth birthday I got to see the only known portrait of Austen in the flesh in London’s National Portrait Gallery. I received two books on Jane Austen for Christmas. One of these books was Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom by Deborah Yaffe.

Before I talk about the book, here’s my own Janeite tale, with apologies for the long intro:

While I was a lonely young nerd, I came to Austen later than many. I read Pride and Prejudice for the first time until I was sixteen or seventeen, an assignment for eleventh grade Advanced Placement English. I don’t remember my preconceived notions of Austen beforehand—they were probably of the erroneous “the nineteenth century is hard you guys” variety. I may very well have repressed them because they would embarrass me now. I had seen the Wishbone version, but that was about it. I laughed out loud at the first sentence, and a love affair began slowly.

My junior year of high school happened to be in 2005, and we finished Pride and Prejudice about a month before the Keira Knightley version hit theaters. We went to see it as extra credit as a class. I saw it a second time. I didn’t really care a fig for Mr. Darcy and his unflattering pants scared me a little. I loved the film visually and I liked that it was funny. But the book was better. I distinctly remember our class discussions being among those that really illuminated the world of literary analysis for me, the this-description-of-Pemberley-is-pretty-reflective-of-Mr.-Darcy discussion.

In college, I read Persuasion in my first English class and Mansfield Park in my last. Persuasion was simply amazing. I did a video presentation highlighting Patricia Rozema’s postcolonial treatment of Austen’s text in her 1999 adaptation of MP—a controversial topic among Janeites (a tangential dimension to the famed Fanny Price wars). I confess that in between finishing and defending a thesis, worrying that a Shakespeare paper would blow up in my face, and the fact that I was about to pack up my earthly possessions, clean out a rental house, and leave all my friends to move back in with my parents to enter the so-called “Real World,” I could have given Mansfield Park and the paper I wrote on it a little more attention.

The Janeite facet of myself became more or less dormant in practice. I watched the movies, but I didn’t read much of anything after graduation. And then I wanted to save face for a day of Jane Austen lectures put on by two nearby JASNA chapters and the rest is history. Well, one year of history. But a banner year.

I’ve had the pleasure of reflecting on my own identity as a Janeite in part due to Deborah Yaffe’s excellent new book, Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom. Here’s a great summary from the book’s purpose from the introduction (sorry for the long quote):

…I set out to examine Janeite obsessiveness from the inside, and maybe to figure out along the way what kind of Janeite I was myself. I didn’t go looking for a single Big Theory that would make sense of Jane Austen’s appeal; I wasn’t planning to collect quantifiable data and fashion it into an explanation rigorous enough to satisfy a social scientist. My task was more impressionistic: to explore what Austen obsession looks like and feels like for people who are living with it, and perhaps to tease out some of the common threads that weave this diverse array of individuals into a community. I’d spent enough time immersed in online Austen discussions to know how differently her works could be read by people who all considered themselves Janeites. Were all of us just seeing what we wanted to see, finding ourselves relfeted in an Austen-shaped mirror? Or did our divergent interpretations reflect something real about Austen herself? (xxv)

I think two things really make this book work: 1) Yaffe’s training as a journalist is apparent and she does a great job of conveying facts while painting a compelling portrait; and, 2) Yaffe has been a Janeite for most of her life. Her affinity for Jane Austen gives her a good baseline: she gets it because she’s one of us (gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble). Austen fandom is so widespread (especially in this Information Age we’re all talking about), but it’s also a very private thing. Everyone’s love for Austen presents in a different way, but we all feel like she speaks to every one of us.

This is a task best handled by a Janeite, and Yaffe does a wonderful job. There’s a great balance of humor and affection throughout the book. I think Yaffe and I have similar Janeite styles: pretty middle-of-the-road, tending on the side of Austen purists (i.e., preferring Austen’s work to the myriad of sequels, adaptations, fan fictions, etc.), and not really into costuming or conspiracy theories. There is an overarching narrative of Yaffe’s exploring another dimension of Janeite-ism by buying a period dress for the ball at JASNA’s Annual General Meeting.

Yaffe’s book starts on a Jane Austen tour of England and ends at a JASNA AGM. The bulk of her book tells about the subjects she meets along the way and they are fascinating: they are the costumers and the conspiracy theorists. They’re also the fan fiction writers, the academics, the speech pathologists (yes! Austen is used therapeutically), the roller derby academics, and on and on. Sandy Lerner makes an appearance. I loved reading about how each person carved out her or his respective Janeites paths and the places their Austenmania has taken them. (And, let’s be honest, it made me feel pretty normal, which was good or bad depending on the chapter.)

I also got the pleasure of seeing Yaffe speak to my local JASNA chapter this weekend. I wish I’d taken more notes during her talk, but a) I was spellbound, and b) I couldn’t write due to having an injured thumb and a plate full of cookies. The talk was a great supplement to the book. One illustrative example in particular has stuck with me: Austen leaves a lot open to interpretation in her novels. Yaffe brought up the end of Sense and Sensibility: in the film versions from 1995 and 2008, Edward Ferrars comes to confess his love to Elinor Dashwood and asks if she’ll still have him after his missteps. Poor, repressed Elinor loses her shit on the spot, assents, and they live happily ever after. But in Austen’s actual words, it’s hardly the romantic scene the films make it out to be. Austen’s blend of romantic plots with dry wit is widely open to interpretation and appeals to lovers of romance and satire alike. Basically, you get Jane Austen or you don’t, but there are also as many different ways to get Austen as there are Janeites.

Through all these experiences and Yaffe’s book, I’ve gotten to know myself as a Janeite: I don’t think I could ever dress up, I might buy some Austen fan art here and there, my adaptations must take place in the period, and I have no stomach at all for the fan fiction (except, for some reason, the movie version of The Jane Austen Book Club, which I will talk about at a later date). My Austen is the feminist satirist, and okay, some of the romantic interests are pretty alright, too. I look forward to really growing into myself as a Janeite: re-read more, plumb the literary depths deeper, and maybe even take a strong stance in the Fanny Price Wars.