Archive for January, 2014

January 30, 2014

Shoma Narayanan, The One She Was Warned About

Rather scrappy; this feels like notes towards a larger and better piece about desirability in the romance novel and how both names and tropes (the bad boy, the uptight businessman, the … man with unwitting mafia connections trying to make good?) act as signifiers within that framework. Or something. Anyway. This week’s column.

 

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Perhaps the most romance novel-ish of Georgette Heyer’s considerable body of work is The Nonesuch. The title character is as much of a paragon as his nickname implies; he’s fabulously rich, good at sports, attractive, dresses well without looking like he’s trying too hard, has perfect manners and charms everyone around him. Faced with all of this perfection it’s understandable that our heroine (nobly impoverished, clever, attractive) suspects that he has a dreadful secret and that he is out of her league. She turns out to be wrong on both counts—the terrible secret only makes him look even more noble, and he is deeply in love with her. There’s only one drawback- His name is Waldo.

Fashions in names change, of course, as do the traits we assign to particular names. A casual observer of this romance in Regency England might not find Waldo a particularly incongruous name for a romantic hero. And obviously people named Waldo do have romances and find love and hopefully happiness. Our belief that certain kinds of stories happen only to people with certain sorts of names is irrational. Presumably this is partly why early attempts at fiction by Indian schoolchildren so often feature characters with names out of Enid Blyton—we have absorbed the idea that certain sorts of literary adventures only happen to middle-class, mid-twentieth-century British kids.

When major romance publishing houses first broached the idea of books set in India, many people (myself among them) found the idea rather amusing. Romances involving American cowboys, Greek tycoons, various members of minor European nobility and Sheikhs of fictional countries all seemed, if not realistic, at least familiar—the prospect of these plots featuring men and women with names like our own was faintly ridiculous. The first India-set romance novel I read was indeed awful, less because of its protagonists’ names than because the author had decided to imitate the sexual politics of the 1950s.

But in the few years since, things have changed; there’s enough Indian romance that one is able to read individual books on their own merits. My copy of Shoma Narayanan’s The One She Was Warned About proclaims on its cover that the author is an international bestseller.

The One She Was Warned About features Shweta, an engineer-turned-MBA (of course) with an uneventful personal life and dubious taste in clothing. She runs into childhood classmate Nikhil, who since getting expelled from school has started a successful business and hangs out with movie stars. Naturally, romance occurs, though Nikhil’s complicated family affairs must be sorted out before any sort of Happily Ever After can be achieved.

Genre romances often fall back on a finite set of well-worn, yet effective plots: men and women are attracted to one another; there’s some serious obstacle or; everything works out in the end. Narayanan’s book is a bit unusual in that the misunderstanding (and by implication, the romance?) is between Nikhil and his family; the relatively uncomplicated Shweta becomes something of a bystander in her own romance.

Too often the complications of a plot could easily be solved simply by the protagonists actually listening to one another for once. Narayanan goes a step further in just about eliminating conflict altogether. The disapproving prospective father-in-law doesn’t disapprove, the bad boy hero hasn’t actually been a rebel since he was a teenager. In a way this only adds to the wish-fulfillment aspect of the whole thing; no parent would ‘warn’ its child about this wealthy, successful businessman; Nikhil has all the romance-novel appeal of the rebel with none of its considerable disadvantages. In a story that must somehow come to a happy ending no conflict must be too hard to solve. Unfortunately in this instance it results in all plot being squeezed into a chapter or so at the end of the book.

By now it’s a bit of a cliché to suggest that the hero is the most important aspect of the romance. It’s an idea it’s possible to take to extremes—in The One She Was Warned About Shweta is barely present. But at least Narayanan manages to make Nikhil Nair sound like a reasonable hero-name.

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January 9, 2014

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door

This is what I was reading while almost everyone else in the country was watching the first new Sherlock (she said smugly. And then Sherlock was available to watch online and then I did almost immediately so please feel free to mock any further smugness).

On the subject of Miss Marple’s greatness, I’m fond of this piece by Sarah Rees Brennan.

A version of last weekend’s column.

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The question of who wrote the first detective novel, like all questions of genre-origins, is one that probably isn’t worth answering, though it’s always worth discussing. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is often given this credit (Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is sometimes cited as the first English language detective novel), and it’s as good a place to start as any. Poe’s Dupin is a genius, the sort of person who is regularly consulted by the police, and has an admiring audience at any time in his companion, the narrator of the piece. It’s a convention that shows up in later detective stories as well—Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings being particularly well known examples. It makes sense; a story narrated by Holmes or Dupin would verge on incomprehensible (and probably quite annoying) without someone more like the reader to interpret. Agatha Christie takes it further and provides in Hastings a narrator whose words generally make the reader feel considerably more on top of things than Hastings himself. I love all of these fictional detectives but a thing in common they have is an assumption that they will be listened to. The very presence of their narrator-companions attests to this; these men exist within the books as listeners, their presence is proof that there is something worth listening to. And yet I prefer the ordinary witness who has to struggle to be heard, who cannot take for granted a world in which her opinions are immediately worthy of respect; the detective who doesn’t look like one. I am suspicious of an Agatha Christie reader who prefers Poirot to Marple.

Long before Christie (and before Conan Doyle) there was Anna Katharine Green, the American author of a number of nineteenth century detective stories. Most of Green’s stories focused upon another great detective, Ebenezer Gryce. But her hero is fallible, and in The Affair Next Door Green introduced Amelia Butterworth, a nosy, middle-aged woman who manages to out-deduce even Gryce.

It’s not easy to be a woman and be taken seriously in nineteenth century New York, and Amelia is very aware of this. Modesty is not an option; only a very strong sense of self-worth can survive her constant setting-aside. Amelia may not have had the opportunities for experience that her male counterparts have had but, she says, “though I have had no adventures I feel capable of them”. She must constantly be on the alert lest compliments she receives have a patronising tone, she changes her name to one she thinks sounds more sensible, she is ridiculed as a busybody. And yet it is she who finds the vital clues, she who proves Gryce wrong and saves two innocent men from wrongful arrest.

The Affair Next Door is wonderful because Amelia is wonderful. She is exactly what she seems to be—a woman in her fifties, concerned with appearances (she purposely feeds two young guests poor meals so that she won’t appear to be trying to impress them), far too nosy and unaware of how ridiculous she often appears. But it’s okay that she is all of these things, and these traits help her, and we’re never allowed to forget that she’s more than that. She’s acerbic, prejudiced (“I don’t like young men in general” she informs us), worried about her writing style (“Excuse the metaphor; I do not often indulge”). In some ways she reminds me of Miss Marple; the two women are vastly different in temperament, but in neither case are appearances deceptive. Whether it is Miss Marple’s gentle Victorian demeanour, or Miss Butterworth’s pushy society spinster, these women’s greatest strengths are exactly the things for which others dismiss them. By the end of the novel Amelia Butterworth has won Gryce’s respect (she collaborates with him in two more mysteries) but we’re under no illusions. With or without his support, she will still have to push to be heard, every time.

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January 4, 2014

2013 (in reading and in bulletpoints)

(That up there is a zeugma)

 

Things I did in 2013:

  • Moved to another continent and started a PhD.
  • Became a parent. [Okay, not really. Ollie the puppy a) is technically my grandparents' dog and has my grandfather's surname b) is no longer a puppy. But I did the important staying-awake and saying "no!" a lot bits, and at some point I started saying things like "mummy's hair is not for chewing!" so I guess that's me. Mummy.]
  • Was forced to autograph a book.
  • Helped judge an award.
  • Won a prize for knowing about pigs.*
  • Started writing about movies in bulletpoint form but I don’t know why.
  • May have done some other things also.
  • Read 186 books. I’m not counting academic books because that would just get complicated.
  • I’m also not counting short stories, for the same reason.
  • Read 114 books by women (as a subset of the 186 above, I mean).
  • Read 57 books by non-white writers.
  • (The above stats are a bit off –I can’t always be sure what race or gender particular authors identify themselves as, and in things like multi-author anthologies I just go with the editor. But still, it’s nice to have a broad idea)
  • Was in a book.

 

Things I did not do in 2013.

  • Too many and too disappointing to name.

 

This time last year I was looking at reading stats that suggested a mere 10% of the writing I read was not by white British and American authors. I’ve graduated to almost a third, but that’s still something that I should be doing better at. Luckily there’s some fascinating stuff coming out this year, and … we’ll see?

*Here is a picture of a small piglet. It played a major role in getting me through 2013; I hope everyone’s 2014 is peaceful and pig-filled.

January 3, 2014

Excuses

Over Christmas I did not read much. And I did not write a column about The Once and Future King. This is that not-column. It is a bit silly.

 

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December is the cruellest most stressful month. Year’s Best lists loom, and if you’re not racing against time to finish your own list of things to read before January, you’re reading other people’s recommendations and adding to your own impossible task. Every year in late November I panic and start trying to schedule my reading for the coming month; this year I convinced myself that reading a book every evening would keep me on top of things. (I entirely failed to achieve this.)

This obsession with reading things on time is probably silly in the larger scheme of things, but matters a great deal at a particular moment. Thousands of books are published every year; a few dozen (more, depending on where you look) get talked about a lot. Very few of those books are destined to be enduring classics. To some this might seem like a good reason to read less, not more. But there’s a point at which reading, and talking about books, extends further than you and the page; it is to participate in a wider conversation (or several conversations, if your tastes are wide-ranging enough). If you don’t read the big books of the moment (and perhaps that moment went by a lot more slowly before the internet, but perhaps the conversations were also different) you may not need to read them at all, but you certainly will never get the chance to read them like this again.

And yet. It’s December, and it’s cold, and winter and all that comes with it (particularly Christmas) makes me want nothing more than to revisit old, familiar things—ideally from under a blanket. I have my Christmas reading rituals—books that must be read every year, books that must be read aloud, books that can only be read when it’s cold outside and I can fully appreciate the sheer indulgence of them. This year I’m away from home with access to only one of my regular Christmas reads, so I’ve gone and made a new one. I’ve abandoned all thoughts of a book a day; for the last few evenings I’ve been rereading, in tiny, joyous increments, T.H White’s The Once and Future King, a book that in my childhood felt perfect. (As an adult I can see it isn’t, but I only love it more for that.)

January is the proper time (assuming we’re all following the same calendar, which we’re probably not) for resolutions and grand ambitions. My new year’s resolutions are always contradictory and impossible; I vow each year to read more new things and more old ones, to read slowly so that I’ll have more time to do each book justice, to read more quickly so I can fit more in. More classics, more poetry, more bestsellers (because if one is going to write about books perhaps they should be the books people actually read). More rereads, because rereading is so often the best part of reading. In January I will look back on what I read in 2013 and I will inevitably be disappointed in myself.

But 2014 is some days away still, and while I could spend what time I have left desperately trying to do the impossible, I don’t think I will. January is for reckoning, and counting things and making resolutions and (inevitable, disproportionate) guilt. For now I’m going to enjoy the luxury of reading something I love, and tell myself that there’s some deep human urge behind all this, some need to retreat into a private space in the darkest, coldest days of the year and to warm ourselves with things we know and love, and to wait for spring.

It’s a better excuse than most, anyway.

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January 2, 2014

December Reading

I’ll do a proper round-up of my reading in 2013 (with numbers and everything!) in a day or two, but for now, this is what I read in December.

 

Nicola Griffith, Hild: Was excellent.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw: Was excellent.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things: Was excellent in some ways, and less so in others.

Manjula Padmanabhan, Three Virgins: This needs a longer post–Three Virgins collects some of Padmanabhan’s recent short fiction along with a few older pieces and the results are a bit odd, but also frequently really good.

Jared Shurin (ed), The Book of the Dead, Unearthed: I’ll have a review of these (mostly of the first) in Strange Horizons at some point in the near future.

Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion: Fluff, happy fluff. Everything is quotable and delightful, though as I’ve said before, regency protagonists who attempt social work tend to be a bad idea.

Nicholas Blake, Minute For Murder: Someone murders someone and it’s all very clever and (spoiler!) it turns out to all be the fault of a frigid intellectual woman (who is not the murderer) because bitch, I guess? Yeah. Bitch. At least the murderer had a warm and loving heart!

Georgette Heyer, Powder and Patch: I will always love this for the way it treats the heterosexuality as an elaborate game (I recommended it to an ex-boyfriend a few years ago; he did not appreciate this aspect of it) and its condemnation of Phillip’s unthinking dismissal of this; whereas I’m made really uncomfortable by the later parts of the book, in which Cleone is caught in an impossible situation and the general reaction of those around her is that she asked for it and must be brought low.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: Still great.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Kennelmaid Nan: Wholesome, healthy girl who is no good at exams learns to be kennelmaid, has rival in bad girl who spends too much on beauty products. Bad girl turns out to be in love with a criminal … who is bribed to marry her in the end because being saddled forever with someone who steals, cheats and doesn’t love you is presumably better than being dumped by such a man.

Garth Nix, Newt’s Emerald: Magical regency romance with crossdressing. Not a big fan of the ugly, sinister maid actually being evil, but the rest of it was nice.

T. H. White, The Once and Future King: Perfect.

Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales: Perfect.