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text 2018-11-11 19:15
Not a formal status report, but . . . . .
The Tulip Tree - Howard Rigsby

I knew I wouldn't be able to stay up and read very long because I was really, really tired when I went to bed.  I did, however, want to start this book.


There's no question that this is a gothic romance.  The publisher put it right on the cover!  It's compared to Du Maurier's classic Rebecca. The artwork is almost typical gothic, with the spooky house and single lighted window.  The young woman, however, is in close-up portrait rather than full-length with windblown hair and gown.


And the author is male.


There are also quotes from a number of reviews published in real newspapers.  Hmmmmmm.  Gothic romances did not get reviewed in the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner in the 1960s.


I only read 12 pages, not quite the first whole chapter, before I just couldn't keep my eyes open any longer, but that was enough to confirm my suspicions that I had read this book before, decades ago.  One small incident ticked my memory, something I would not have consciously remembered but that came back to me the instant I read it. 


There were only two ways I could have read this book in the 1960s.  It was either condensed by Reader's Digest, or it was a Doubleday Book Club selection.  My parents subscribed to both for a number of years at that time.  I read the condensed version of The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant by Douglas Wallop as well as his later novel, Ocean Front, though I don't know if that was book club or condensed.  I do remember the cover, however, so maybe it was a book club edition.  I also read two other book club offerings, The Daughter of the Pangaran and Summer Doctor.  I remember details of both those books, and they were published about the same time as The Tulip Tree, so I'm more comfortable guessing I read a book club edition.


So in 1963, a gothic romance written by a man would be published in hardcover by Doubleday and be reviewed numerous newspapers, be selected for their subscription book club, and later be republished in paperback.  No doubt Howard Rigsby earned a great deal more for his gothic romance novel than most of the women writing paperback gothics.

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review 2018-11-10 18:42
The Everyday World as Problematic . . . and a problem
The Everyday World As Problematic (Northeastern Series on Feminist Theory) - Dorothy E. Smith

This is a superb analysis of the intertwined issues of gender, gender roles, and power.


One of the most interesting graduate classes I took at ASU was "Sociology of Everyday Life," for which this was one of the texts. 


Sadly, much of our time in class was flat-out ruined by a trio of middle-school teachers who were more interested in chatting (loudly) than in listening to any discussion.  They became an informal example of how "ruling relations" affect our everyday lives: Accustomed to being in charge in a classroom, they transferred their sense of authority to our classroom.  The professor, being only an adjunct and therefore lacking in authority, hesitated to demand their attention or call them out for their disruptive behavior.


I had no such reticence.  I got sick and tired of it one evening (it was a night class) and told them to shut up.  They were sooooo insulted!  Who was I to tell them to shut up when the professor himself hadn't said anything?  Well damn it, I was paying for that class and I wanted to get something out of it beyond hearing their problems with their students.


We were treated to a special Saturday session for which Dorothy Smith and another sociologist were brought in.  One of the things I remembered most about her presentation was a diagram showing how texts -- meaning books, magazines, movies, advertisements, etc. -- are never static because they get interpreted by those who consume them.  Therefore it's virtually impossible to evaluate any text solely on its own merits without considering the context of both the producer of the text and the consumer.


Needless to say, this applies to the reviewing of books: Regardless what the author may have intended the book to be or to mean or to do, the reader's reaction is an independent and valid context.



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review 2018-11-09 18:11
All the Happy Endings - and the power of popular culture
All the Happy Endings - Helen Papashvily All the Happy Endings - Helen Papashvily

If popular culture weren't so politically powerful, we wouldn't have so much of it.


I read All the Happy Endings as part of the research for my master's thesis, and it was one of those old books that I could never find a copy of for myself.  So I brazenly photocopied it.  Now that I'm scanning these photocopies into PDF format, I'm taking another look at some of my notes, too.


Papashvily focuses on the "domestic novels" of the 19th century, but also on the writers and the readers.  She sees enormous social and -- more important -- political impact from these seemingly harmless tales.  She claims they were in essence guidelines for domestic revolution.


If indeed they were, but if their influence only went as far as a revolution confined to the private space of hearth and home, did they encourage women to become independent, or did they instead reinforce the patriarchal status quo by making women believe in an illusion of domestic - and therefore matrimonial -- power?


There has been so much talk lately about why women -- and yes specifically white women -- so often vote against their own best interests.  It may in fact be that they aren't, because those women have a very different definition of their own best interests.  And that definition may lie in some -- but not necessarily all -- of those happy endings.


Shelved for a re-read.








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text 2018-10-28 15:17
The Darkest Road, or how to get fired from an unpaid reviewing gig
The Darkest Road - Guy Gavriel Kay

Somewhere along about 1988, a friend who had connections with Romantic Times got me my first reviewing job.  Kathryn Falk, who owned RT, controlled who got what romance novels to review, and most of that was done in-house, but she spun off another magazine that she hoped would do for every other genre what RT had done for romance -- make her some money.  The new venture was called Rave Reviews, and I became one of the reviewers.


I can't say I enjoyed all the books sent to me for review. None, of course, were romance, so at best I got my second choice which was fantasy.  Further down the list was horror and science fiction, as well as the occasional non-fiction.  The Portuguese cookbook, for example.


For paperback originals, we usually got uncorrected page proofs, which had absolutely no value at all, not on any market.  Most of the authors were unknowns or relative unknowns, and in those days before the internet, these 8 1/2 by 14 inch printouts were just so much text.  Sometimes we got a cover flat to go with them.  Often we didn't even get that.  Our only tangible compensation came in the form of hardcover books sent out in advance of the paperback reprints.  (The Portuguese cookbook, for example.)


Because my friend knew nothing at all about fantasy -- there's a story to that, too, but I'll save it for later -- she passed almost all of those along to me.  Here I got lucky.  One of the books I reviewed was Judith Tarr's The Golden Horn.  Though it was the second book in a trilogy, it was enough of a stand-alone that I was able to enjoy it and give it a good review.  I also got Bruce Ferguson's The Shadow of His Wings, which still ranks as one of my all-time favorites.


We reviewers weren't required to give rave reviews, though that was the title of the magazine.  Like Goodreads years later, RR was intended to sell books for the publishers, so they'd buy ads.  Favorable reviews therefore were much preferred to unfavorable ones.  Sometimes it wasn't easy to find something good to write about a bad book, and often I just refused to be nice.  But I always justified why a given book didn't work for me, and no one seemed to complain.  Most, but not all, of my reviews made it into print.


Then came the one I simply couldn't review.


Our turn-around time was short, since everything had to go through snail mail.  It wasn't unusual for me to get four or five books to read and write reviews for in a week.  And in those days without internet, research was virtually impossible, pun intended.  So when I got the third book of a fantasy trilogy that wasn't a stand-alone, I didn't have sufficient time to order the first two books on inter-library loan and wait a week or two or three for them to arrive.  So I wrote back to whoever it was at RR that I simply couldn't review this book and it was grossly unfair for them to expect me to do so.


They weren't happy.  They wanted a review of some kind.


I don't remember now if there were phone calls back and forth or letters or what, but I was ticked.  Because I was also a writer, I felt an obligation to the author of the trilogy to give a fair assessment.  And I couldn't do that.  However, I also felt an obligation to myself.  I liked reading fantasy, and this looked like a wonderful trilogy.  I didn't want to ruin it for myself by reading the third book and not having the background and then hunting up the first two books but already knowing the end.


And now, almost 30 years later, I don't even remember if I wrote any review at all or if I completely refused or what.  I do remember that that was just about the last time I reviewed for them and they were pretty ticked at me.  Of course, eventually the whole experiment failed -- only the romance genre really played Kathryn's game -- and that was that.


I've become Twitter friends with Judith Tarr, who actually lives not too far from me.  I lucked out and picked up a paperback copy of the first book in The Falcon and the Hound trilogy recently at the library book sale, then bought the final book in Kindle format.


I've also become a follower of the author of that other trilogy, the one I have only Book Three of.  I never read the book, because I didn't want to ruin it for myself.  Yesterday, after doing some clean-up work in the studio, I came across that book again and thought, gee, I should see about getting the first two books and reading the whole set.


When I first looked to see if there were a Kindle edition, the three book set was something like $22 and I just wasn't comfortable with that.  Not now when my budget is stretched to transparency.  Even though I have a little bit left on a gift card, I'm extra tight with it.


I'm not sure why I decided to check on the prices of the individual books as opposed to the complete set, but I did that this morning.  Aha!  Book One is only $2.99 and Book Two is only $5.99, but Book Three which I already have, is the deal breaker at $12.99!


So I'll buy the first two books of Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry series in Kindle edition, and finally, after almost three decades, read that free hardcover edition of the third book.

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text 2018-10-26 18:56
The return of the classics
The Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy,Alexander Theroux

There was an interesting thread on Twitter this morning about the pros and cons of teaching "the classics" in high school (or younger grades).  Some people felt the dead white male canon was no longer relevant, others thought there should be a new "mixed" canon, and so on.  Some tweeters made comments regarding whether or not the classics should be enjoyed on their own or just as cultural icons.


I'm not sure exactly when we began to have assigned readings of full-length novels in school.  In eighth grade (age ~13) I remember being assigned Conrad Richter's A Light in the Forest.  I never read it.  We also had to read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Black Arrow, but I'm not sure exactly what grade that was.  I didn't read that one either.  Somewhere along the line was Esther Forbes' Johnny Tremain.  I had seen the Disney movie on TV, so I didn't read that one either.  Oh, yeah.  And we had to read The Pearl by John Steinbeck.  It got the same treatment from me.


In high school we had the usual: Dickens' Great Expectations in an abridged version in our literature book along with Romeo and Juliet. Nope and nope on those, too.  I think Julius Caesar came in sophomore year.  Another nope.  Junior year was American literature, with Miss Cobb, which meant Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea.  Maybe The Scarlet Letter was thrown in for good measure, but I'm not sure.  I didn't read them.  Senior year I had Miss Leonhard with her Thomas Hardy obsession, so that meant The Return of the Native.  I managed maybe 40 pages of it before I gave up.


This was not an issue of getting a student to read or to like reading.  I loved reading, and I devoured books like potato chips.  I read Michener's Hawaii during American history class because Miss Black's teaching was too boring.  For my senior English research paper, I read most of Tolstoy's major works -- Anna Karenina, War and Peace, The Cossacks, The Kreutzer Sonata -- and even if I didn't completely understand them, I read them.


Later, years later, I read The Return of the Native and found it fascinating enough that I've reread it several times.  I read an unabridged version of David Copperfield and loved it. 


Why is it that more than 50 years after I graduated high school, these same issues keep coming up?  Why are kids still being taught depressing "life's a bitch and then you die" crap like Steinbeck and Hemingway and Shakespeare?  Why can't the canon be expanded to include women writers and writers of color and books written in the 20th and even 21st centuries?


I clearly remember hating The Old Man and the Sea because there was absolutely nothing in it I could relate to.  Not the fish, not the old man, not the lions that Miss Cobb said had such immense symbolism.  I didn't get it, and I didn't like it, and I couldn't concentrate on it.  The same with Thomas Hardy.  Egdon Heath was a living, breathing entity to Miss Leonhard, so much so that she and her two equally unmarried English teacher sisters made biannual pilgrimages to England and Hardy country to collect fresh specimens of gorse and heather and other plant to show their students.


Johnny Tremain probably had more relevance to our teenaged selves, but The Pearl sure didn't.  Yet these stories are classics.  There's something about them that has transcended the popular culture of their time to become universal.  Why didn't the teachers then -- or the teachers now -- manage to convey that universality to their students?


When my daughter was in high school and her freshman English teacher handed out a list of acceptable books for book reports, there were virtually no women authors on the list.  Not even Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte.  Just a bunch of dead white guys.  When I confronted the teacher, she looked at me like I was nuts.  These were the books that had always been on the list and no one had ever complained before.  Well, honey, I complained.


The following year, when my son was a freshman, the high school canon had been expanded, but not by much.


And the kids still didn't read it.


I'm not sure kids are even capable of understanding most of the themes of classic adult literature unless the teacher knows how to make it relevant to their limited experience.


There's a certain similarity between The Pearl and a silly horse story I read in fifth grade, Silver Saddles.  The ending is the exact opposite, of course, because the horse story ends happily and the Steinbeck classic is a monumental tragedy.  But is the tragedy the whole point of the story?  Is that what eighth graders should be taught, that life is a never ending struggle and you shouldn't hope to have anything good come of it because more than likely you'll just end up worse than you were before?


Romeo and Juliet is another tragedy.  Why is it still being taught to teenagers who are maybe just starting to experience romance and love and sexual desire?  I still remember that English teacher's rapt expression when I said I didn't think kids needed to see love and suicide in the same context without some kind of warning.  "Oh, but I just love Romeo and Juliet!" she exclaimed.  "It's so romantic!"


Yeah, suicide at 14 is so romantic.


We're a diverse society and we need a diverse canon.  But if we're going to impress the importance of that canon or any canon on young readers, don't we have to make it relevant to them?  If Jane Austen's universal truth is truly universal, shouldn't there be other examples from literature, from popular culture, from the news, from the kids' real lives?


Maybe I just see all this through the lens of 70 years, or maybe I'm just nuts. 

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