Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Painting, Birthdays, and All of that Stuff

I am a bit out of it right now! Yesterday was my birthday and I actually took the day off!! YAY!

Also, I am working from home this week, because the office is being painted...so, I am trying to adjust to that right now. Anyway, will try to post soon!

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Revolution" by Jennifer Donnelly: My Review

(Source: http://www.oblongbooks.com)

As I said, I read Revolution for a book club selection. Our meeting is tonight, and I am still trying to figure out how to describe this one in a couple of sentences. This is the first time in a while that I am thinking back to my YA lit class in library school, where we were trained to give a two-three sentence summary of a book that would hold a teen's interest. It isn't easy.

But I digress.

If I wasn't speaking to a teen, and if I only had one sentence to describe this book, I would say: This book was really busy. So much was happening. When I began to read it, I fell in love with the ideas swirling around in the plot. The protagonist, Andi, was tortured and dark in a believable way--not the predictable, angst-driven way. She is going through a really hard time following the death of her brother. When he died, her mother fell further from reality and her father flew further from the home (he wasn't there much to begin with). Andi, taking anti-depressants, becomes suicidal and finds refuge in her music.

Basically, Andi is a musical genius. She goes to a ritzy private school in New York City and has always been a good student--until now. Now she is skipping school and popping anti-depressants like they are candy, all the while attempting to care for her mother who is slipping into a deluded world.

One evening, Andi attends a party, attempts suicide, and arrives home to find her father has committed her mother to a mental hospital. He also discovers that Andi is failing her senior year and scoops her up (much to Andi's dislike) and takes her to Paris for the Christmas holidays so that she will be forced to work on her senior thesis project.

Andi's father is not a likable character.There is no resolution to their relationship, and, actually, I am okay with that considering how much else was going on in the book. To fix their problems, even in 500 pages, with every thing else going on would have been unbelievable.

In any case, Andi and her father are staying with some old friends of the family (Andi's mother was French and Andi spent a lot of her childhood there). Andi's father is a genome specialist who just won the Nobel. He is there to test a heart found in a small box. The box belongs to G, the family friend they are staying with, and he believes the heart belonged to Louis XVII, the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. G. has asked Andi's father to test the heart (along with strands of Marie Antoinette's hair) to determine if the heart indeed belonged to the little prince.

Meanwhile, Andi, desperate to get out of Paris and back to her mother (very co-dependent relationship that is never addressed), makes a deal with her father that she will finish an outline and introduction to her thesis within a few days. If it is good, he will allow her to go back to New York.

So, from here, to make a long story short: As Andi is researching her thesis, she finds an old diary written by a girl (Alex) who was a caregiver for Louis (the prince) and becomes obsessed with it.

(Hardback Cover. Source: http://rhapsodyinbooks.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/n349924.jpg)

Of course, the similarities between Andi's story and Alex's diary revolve around the death of a child who is a young boy. The premise is good and the story had a lot of potential to be a powerful narrative of finding peace and closure after the unimaginable pain that accompanies the death of a child/sibling.

There is also a lot of good mystery and history (though the book is firmly on the side of the monarchists, something that, I think, makes it interesting).


The last 100-150 pages were not so great. I mean, I kept expecting Andi to really make some kind of transformation. Instead, I got this strange time-travel thing and a quick "Epilogue" where the author just told me, "Everything is great, now!"

had so much potential! I mean, I was really into it for a long time. The writing is fantastic, I learned a lot, the pacing is good, and the characters are portrayed very well. I liked reading about them. But I felt shortchanged at the end. It is like someone got the manuscript (which in my mind had to be close to 800+ pages for it to work), chopped it off around page 400, made the author add in some kind of paranormal moment so that it would sell in the teen market, and then decided that was going on for too long and just chopped it off with a cheesy Brady Bunch ending. I was angry when I finished it. I wanted so much more.

Clearly, this author is capable of emotionally significant moments. I mean, I CRIED when I read parts of this book (at the beginning). I NEVER CRY. Seriously. It takes a lot. If someone can make me cry when I read a book...well, they have done something. So, yes: Donnelly has an amazing talent. But I felt like someone else wrote the last fifth of the book. It was so strange, and I am really bitter that I didn't get anything significant. The set-up, from the beginning, was that Andi was seeking closure. She has closure in the "Epilogue," but there is never a moment where I witnessed her transformation.

I am not trying to bash the book, but I am confused. I am glad I read it, in some ways, but investing that kind of time into a book of significant length...well, I just wanted more.

That being said, what do I know? I mean, Donnelly is an award-winning novelist. Everyone raves about A Northern Light. (I haven't read that one.) As of today, there are 77 five-star reviews on Amazon, and I think it is great that so many people loved it...but there are people who feel as I do. I clicked on the "2-star reviews" and saw this title for a review pop up first thing: "Started out as four stars..." Yes. Exactly. Oh, well.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Do you have "Cover Crushes"??

I admit it. Sometimes, I buy a book if it has a gorgeous cover. Now, this doesn't necessarily mean that a gorgeous man must be on the cover (though I have been known to buy those, as well). No, I just like beautiful or interesting cover art.

I have mentioned this one before, but I LOVE it. It is my new "Cover Crush":

The Clockwork Prince
By Cassandra Clare
Release: December 2011 (YAY!!)

What I am reading before I tackle the TBR pile: "Revolution" by Jennifer Donnelly

By Jennifer Donnelly

So, along with everything else that I am doing, I am also helping one of my former students with a book club. It is a lot of fun, but this month has been so crazy that I just didn't have time to begin the novel I selected for the book club until this weekend. We all had to choose a teen novel that had something to do with history and mystery. So, I chose Jennifer Donnelly's Revolution.

I will write a full review of it later this week, but for now let's just say that I really like it...but it is VERY dark. Most books don't make me cry, but this one has (and I am not even 1/3 of the way into it). I don't have it figured out yet, but there is plenty of mystery and the history tie-in has to do with the French Revolution.

More to come later...

Monday, August 22, 2011

Another great recipe from Allrecipes.com:


Vegetarian option. You must try them. Soooooo good.

Vicky Dreiling Commented On My Blog!!!

I am super excited right now!!!!

Thanks, Vicky!

The To-Be-Read pile photo:

No, this isn't the extent of my TBR pile! I just decided that, because all of this is pleasure reading, I am only going to do small groups of books at a time. I don't need to be overwhelmed in my life any more than I already am. :)

So, this is it. I will post my responses to these books as I read them...but they will be slow coming, because I am also reading so much for the dissertation/conference/magazine/MyVampFiction.com (and you would have to go to MVF to read those reviews, anyway!). Actually, the Becoming Jane Eyre book is for the online class, but I consider it pleasure reading! Well...most of it is pleasure reading when you get right down to it. With the exception of literary criticism, I like it all!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Must

...Ellen Gilchrist. I love her. I first encountered her work after reading a review of Net of Jewels in Sassy magazine. (Now I am nostalgic--again--for Sassy.)


Favorite Ellen Gilchrist novel: The Annunciation. Wow.

The Ominous To-Be-Read Pile

It haunts my room, my office, my bookshelves, my extra storage space: the "To-Be-Read Pile!"

...yes...it is the definition of American instant gratification: see a book I love and buy it right away. Never mind that I have five hundred others (an exaggeration, thank goodness) that I need to read. I always feel guilty, because I have some really wonderful novels just waiting for me to crack them open! I love books, though, and frequently can't stop myself.

I have taken a note from a fellow blogger. Amy, over at I Ponder the Page, had a great idea. She has taken her books and categorized them, placing them on shelves at eye level so that she will begin working her way through books that she has always wanted to read. Excellent idea, I say. I plan to do this over the weekend...when I am not reading the book for my next review at MyVampFiction.com, or finishing up some reading for the online class I am participating in this semester, or working on my conference paper, or working on my article that is due....ugh...you see? I just need to stay out of bookstores for a really long time. With all of this, I will never be able to get to my TBR pile! I also need to finish the book I am reading for the book club. It is great, but with everything else going on...geez. I am so exhausted! I will put a review of it on this site, though, once I am finished.

Anyway, once I decide what will be on what will become one of many to-be-read shelves, I will take a photo and post it up here...just to keep me on track, you know? :)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

This is why I don't watch the news...

On the way to work today, I made the mistake of tuning my XM radio to CNN. I wish I had stuck with the CD I was playing before I made that decision. There was yet another segment about America's failing schools. The emphasis in this report was on the fact that only 35% of American students are college-ready for science and only 45% of them are ready for college math. The rest of the conversation revolved around how poorly teachers perform and how we have to get a better system in place from which we can evaluate these teachers.

This is insane.

The problem isn't something you can boil down to one issue. All kinds of things come into play (family situations, economic situations, students, teachers, ability, etc.). What I hear NOTHING about is the fact that we as Americans might just have it all backwards. Yes, there are some bad teachers out there. But many of them are working like crazy and doing the best they can. There are good students out there, but there are also many lazy and spoiled ones, too, who are products of worlds built on materialism, easy and instant gratification, negative work ethics, and the "Oh, sweetie! Everything you do is amazing!!" parenting styles. There are many great parents out there, but there are also those who invest nothing in their child's education and see the teacher as completely responsible for the child's learning. NO. It all has to come together. In this world, that just isn't going to happen in most cases.

But that isn't what I mean by all of us thinking backwards. Here is the thing: not a single one of us is talented in every single subject. No matter how hard a parent or teacher pushes, if a child isn't interested or able to understand a subject...well, there really isn't much you can do about it. And we shouldn't look at that as a negative thing. We are all different. We are all blessed with wonderful gifts. Not all of us are meant to engage in fields related to math or science.

I consider myself to be a moderately successful person. I have a lot of education, a good job, wide interests, etc. I contribute to society and try to be a good person (though it took everything in me not to indulge in road rage this morning). But...OH, HORROR OF HORRORS!...I am absolutely horrible at certain types of math. In the tenth grade, I barely made it out of geometry with a C. I was kicked off of the National Honor Society because of it. I went to class every day, had tutoring by a college professor two days a week, studied and studied...and still...a C. Here is the thing: My teacher was just fine. My tutor was just fine. My parents were great (and they never made me feel inferior over this incident, either). And you know what else? I was just fine, too. I just cannot comprehend geometry.

And you know what else? It isn't a devastating personal failure. I am doing wonderfully well. I went on to do amazing things. My talents are not in math and science. I don't love math, but I do love science--reading about it, watching documentaries, etc. But I also know that I wouldn't want a career in it. I knew from the time I was in seventh grade definitely (but probably before) that my talents were in the English and languages fields. I understood English inside and out at that age. (I hate to say that I think my grammar skills were much better then than they are now!) I would beg my English teacher (who was also my homeroom teacher) to let me skip pep rallies to stay in her room and diagram sentences. No lie. That is what I did.

In the eleventh grade, I idolized an English teacher nearly everyone else I knew hated. She taught me so much, and I was there to absorb it all. I stayed behind after school three days a week for two, sometimes three, additional hours for writing tutoring. I didn't need it. I already had an A in the class, but I knew that she had more to teach me and I wanted to spend as much time in her company as possible. Crazy. I mean, it was my first year to drive and I stayed after school until nearly six o'clock, then I would just go straight home. Why? Because I loved it. It was my passion. You don't have to convince or prod someone to do something if that person is truly driven to do it. No one told me I had to stay after school.

What do I do today? I write. I edit. I taught literature and writing for years (and will again, I am sure). I am working on a dissertation in English. I go to conferences and present my research to other scholars. I am active in my intellectual community.

You know what else? I made WAY, WAY BELOW AVERAGE on the GRE math section. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the GRE, it is the exam most undergraduate students must take before getting into graduate school. At first, there was an English section, a logic problem section, and a math section. Now, there is an English section, a writing section, and a math section.). I took the test twice. The first time, I studied the math part, passed barely, and went about my merry way. By the time I wanted to enroll in a PhD program, my scores were out of date and I had to retake the test. This time, more confident in knowing who I am and what I think of these tests, I didn't study for the math section at all. You know what I did? I randomly clicked answers. I didn't do a single problem. My score? Only slightly worse than my original, but still in the passing category.

These standardized tests are insane and the people designing them are crazy. They do not test general standards of knowledge. For example, let's look at the GRE subject test in literature. Seriously? Most people do not encounter this test until it is time to apply to a PhD program. The problem? The test has questions about all time periods of American lit, world lit, and British lit. There are questions about authors and literary criticism and all kinds of other things. What is wrong with this? Well.... By the time you get to the point of taking this test, you are already specializing. You already know, for instance, that you wish to study Southern gothic or British Romanticism. So, you have spent the majority of the last two years immersed in those time periods, learning good basics but what really amounts to a small amount of knowledge. So, please tell me why someone who...oh, I don't know...specializes in British Victorian literature must be able to answer highly specialized questions about American literature? Or world literature? Or even British modernism, for that matter? I know generalities about these other areas, but I can't identify passages on the spot after spending years studying one particular time period. AND: that doesn't make me any less smart or less qualified. I don't know a single British literature professor in my field--and there are some amazingly smart ones--who are experts in world literature or American literature, too.


But back to the general GRE and the subject at hand: My response? Screw it. I am not interested. It isn't who I am. In fact, I resent the fact that I had to pay money to take a test with math in it at this point in my career--and that is just one more example of how our thinking is backward. Why, at the graduate level, does someone planning to go into the literature field as a PhD student have to take a math test? This does not make sense. I don't need to know the area of a triangle to be able to average grades. I am not an idiot when it comes to numbers, but I am not skilled in advanced math....and, again, that is just how the cookie crumbles.

So, my message to anyone out there who happens to stumble across this post: accept that your children have amazing gifts and talents--but not in every subject. That is a load of crap and completely delusional. If you push them to be perfect in grades (and, I hate to tell you, but with grade inflation the way it is...well, an A means nothing these days...teachers hand them out like candy), you are not allowing your child to develop into the person he or she is meant to become. This does not mean that you allow your child to slack off or be lazy or someone who doesn't try their best to learn every possible thing he or she can learn. With effort, they, too, can pull out a C in a subject that remains completely foreign to them. If we raise generation after generation of children who are "college-ready" for all subjects, then this just means we have raised generation after generation of mediocre scholars. What we need in each field of study are people who have intellect, ability, and, above all, passion to make sure that the field endures and humankind advances. If all of us are supposed to go into the maths and sciences, then what will happen to literature? To writing? To art? To music? To languages (and no...listening to a Berlitz tape of going through a Rosetta Stone CD doesn't count)? To culture? BASICALLY: What happens to humans knowing about who we are and how we got here? These questions are equally important to the maths and sciences. They help balance us out, raise ethical debate, and boost creativity....and, make no mistake, creativity is completely necessary in ALL fields of study.

So, again, recognize that each one of us is not meant to succeed at all things. Love your gifts. Encourage your children to follow the path that is right for them...not one defined by a news report.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

(Source: www.bn.com)

I am participating in an online class taught in another class by a former professor of mine. I am experimenting with his new web technology and also using the class as a sounding board for ideas related to my dissertation. This is easily done, by the way, because the course is about the Brontë sisters and identity.

I have read nearly all of the novels by the Brontë sisters...

By Charlotte Brontë I have read:
-- The Professor
-- Jane Eyre
-- Villette

By Emily Brontë I have read:
-- Wuthering Heights (her only novel)

By Anne Brontë I have read:
-- Agnes Grey
-- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

In other words, the only novel I haven't read is Charlotte Brontë's Shirley. Oh, well. One day.

I have read the others multiple times, and I can say that Wuthering Heights is the book of genius. I love Jane Eyre, but when you consider the intricacies of Emily's story and the sheer depth of emotion and character of everyone in that book...well, in my opinion it is the better novel. Of course, others would disagree!

Still, Emily's book, for most people, takes some effort. I mean, just keeping the cast of characters straight...as well as the generations and and narrators...wow.

Charlotte Brontë is very readable, but I do find her pretentious at times. Don't get me wrong: I love Jane Eyre. I even liked The Professor (but, even though most others love it and consider it to be Charlotte's best novel, I really don't like Villette...I find it very disturbing and I get angry every time I read it).

But as far as an easy read that still is important in the literary world, readers should invest some time in the often forgotten sister, Anne Brontë. I read Anne's books quite quickly, though I enjoyed the experience very much, because I was preparing for comprehensive exams and had a huge reading list to get through. As I reread Agnes Grey, I am reminded of how much I enjoyed it, and the experience is so much better this time around because I can take my time.

Because the online course is built for undergraduates, the reading is not overwhelming, so I am taking it by the schedule. The first assignment, due on Sunday, has to do with the first seven chapters of Agnes Grey. I started reading it last night...and, wow.

If you have never heard of the novel, it is basically an exposé of the lives of nineteenth-century governesses. I really had forgotten how vile the descriptions of the children in the novel actually were...in fact, the Brontës, in general, are never very flattering in their descriptions of children. Charlotte hated teaching them, and this is shown in the portrayal of Adele in Jane Eyre. ALL of the children in Wuthering Heights are completely vile. And in Agnes Grey, things aren't any different.

Like I said, this course is built around identity, so I have been thinking about the portrayal of children in these novels, because, obviously, our time spent in childhood greatly forms our identity. I don't know exactly what I would want to say about all of this just yet--the fact that children are vilified and seem to have identities out of control (not just improperly molded)--but I find it fascinating! There are so many discussions of children and childhood in this novel that, after slowing down in the reading process (what a luxury!), I am seeing all kinds of things!

In any case, if you haven't read Anne Brontë you should give her books a shot. Though Agnes Grey is about a governess, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall exposes Victorian domestic violence. Both are amazing reads, and quite unusual (not to mention controversial) for their time. Anne Brontë is often the forgotten Brontë sister--but she shouldn't be!

More to come about all of this as the semester progresses, I am sure!


So, the weekday themes did it for me for a while (to get me out of my slump) but things are getting so busy that I just don't see that working out well anymore! So, as usual, because this is my blog...and because it isn't as if I am trying to make any money off of here...I am going back to my old format of posts and book reviews/discussions. The old plan was nice for a while...but I am sick of it. :)

So, once I get over being sick in actuality, I will be back on the blog. Have a great day!

Monday, August 15, 2011


I never got a chance to come back and update because I have been under the weather. As soon as this passes, I will be back!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fan Friday is coming...but it will be tonight!

Today is a writing day! Am deep in article writing (another for the magazine...this time about a pirate). So, I will post later this evening. Cheers, everyone!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Tasty Thursday: Better late than never!

So, I am postponing the majority of this post until the weekend. I plan to make this:

Apple Pie by Grandma Ople

It is a top-rated recipe on AllRecipes.com. So...I will update when I actually make it!

I hope everyone is having a great day!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Awesome!!! Emma Watson is going to Oxford for a year!

Emma Watson to attend Worcester College, Oxford!!!

We were at Worcester during for the UA at Oxford program! It is a gorgeous campus. In the photo on the link, you will see a building I walked through every day!

In defense of a genre: Yes. I read romance novels.

I am always amused by the raging debates about romance novels. No other genre receives such disparaging criticism as does the romance genre...and, yet, it accounts for a huge percentage of book sales and printings. I constantly hear people making fun of romances, see women sneaking glances around the aisles to make sure no one sees them pick up a new release, and read countless arguments as to why romances are bad for women and that they are written by ignorant housewives who have nothing else better to do. Well, from my experience, not many housewives qualify as ignorant. That is completely anti-feminist. And, most of them have plenty to do. That being said, romance novelists--just like romance readers--can't be stereotyped.
Guess what? I am a really smart woman. I am not a wallflower. I am not obsessed with finding Prince Charming, nor do I have a desire to get married (never have). I am college educated (um, several times over and with multiple advanced degrees). And...Yet, OH MY! I READ ROMANCE NOVELS!

Here is the thing. Lots of novels published in the past that we now view as classics would have been considered romance novels or chick lit. Wuthering Heights? Romance novel...in fact, a romance worthy of a cheesy Fabio 1990s cover. Pride and Prejudice? Romance novel. Jane Eyre? Romance novel.

I have found myself apologizing throughout much of my life for reading these books, but I stopped doing that years ago. In fact, I stopped immediately after meeting and talking with Jayne Ann Krentz. I love her. She is smart. Really smart. She edited and contributed to a book called Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, basically one of the first (if not the first) critical studies of the genre. You should read it. And, by the way, how amusing is it that the book is FINALLY considered important enough to place in a Cultural Theory series?? Geez. I bought the original...a cheap paperback that barely had enough buyers to make it worth anyone's time. You rock, Jayne!!
Then, I met Susan Elizabeth Phillips. She is also a really smart lady. In fact, nearly every romance novelist is college educated, and most of them have advanced degrees. I don't put a lot of stock in being college educated because I think you can be amazing and brilliant without it; but the point is that these women meet every visible criteria for "looking good on paper"...and yet they are bashed for what they write. And not just by men! Usually, the criticisms against romance novels come from women.

Strange, isn't it? I mean, for example, I hear more people putting down Harlequin romances than any other type of book. Stop yourself a minute. Even if you don't enjoy them, you have to give Harlequin a lot of credit. That publishing house has a long history of publishing women when no one else would--of giving women an opportunity to make money and be independent in a way that no other organization would. Did you know that Harlequin (Mills and Boon) began in the early 1900s? Oh, yeah. It is Victorian, for goodness sake. And they are still one of the biggest publishers of fiction and non-fiction by women writers in the world. If you want to know more, you should check out The Romantic Fiction of Mills and Boon, 1909-1995, another title that is now considered scholarly. (It was a dissertation and has always been scholarly, but not many paid attention.)

(Source: http://www.bellbridgebooksblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/flameflowercopy.jpg)

I can understand some of the arguments, especially those that relate to the old bodice-ripper style romances that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s. Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower, the book often cited as being the first novel in the genre as it is seen today, is full of violence against women and an alpha male hero who is a bit scary at times, but I don't even have a huge problem with these. In fact, oddly enough, hers was the first romance I ever read. I was at a very impressionable age: 16. But, you know what? I didn't go out looking for a man like Brandon. And I was certainly not a Heather.

Do some of those books go too far? Yes. Some written today go too far. Just like some movies, plays, and any other media can go too far. Interestingly, one of the most frequent arguments about romances is that they are just pages of sex scenes. Not true. I can't remember which author said it, but when asked this question, she always asks the questioner: "Did you read the book?" Sometimes he/she will say no. Sometimes yes. She would say: "Well, if you did, you would know that the book is 300 pages long. Out of those 300 pages, there are 30 pages of sex." Last time I checked, books full of constant sex scenes are called erotic fiction. This is a genre even older than the romance, depicted by pictures when a written language system hadn't been developed yet and that thrives today online in various forms. I don't enjoy erotica. But, I find it so amusing that there are countless scholarly studies on erotica. Sometimes, there isn't even a plot in erotica...it isn't exactly necessary for its purpose. And that is fine. No judgment, but it just isn't what I look for in a book. Yet, a romance novel is inferior and of the devil? Please.

I also don't buy the argument that women read these types of books and characters (which, by the way, are making a huge resurgence today after being rewritten into beta males for nearly twenty years) are preparing themselves for a life of unrealistic expectations, abuse, or manipulation. If that was the case, then we should also shelter women from all movies, television, songs, plays, books, magazines, advertisements, etc. as they have existed throughout the ages.

AND, by the way: The argument that women "can't handle" what they read has been used by men throughout the centuries. Now the same argument is being used by women, and I find that disgusting.

Fantasy is an outlet. Reading in the various genres provides that outlet. I love reading about an alpha male. God, I missed them in the books for so long. In fact, I stopped reading romances because I just couldn't get into reading about a man who cried and felt everything. It isn't that I scorn that in real life. I want a man sensitive to me and the world. But in my escapist reading, I am looking for that which isn't me. I am looking for extremes and the other that is represented through images and thoughts and words. It doesn't at all make me less of a feminist. Really, we are attracted to the characters in romances because they are often acting in an extremely heroic way. No, we don't see that everyday. And that is what makes it appealing. Just like reading about a Greek warrior is appealing. In our world where we rarely see someone doing anything heroic, it is nice to read about people who put everything on the line for another person. They take risks. And, we might say that the portrayal of these risks is cheesy...but, you know what? I don't see many people in real life being bold or brave enough to truly stand up for another person--even when that person is their romantic partner. And these men do. Not in an Edward Cullen, scary kind of way either. That is a complete myth. Edward Cullen is in his own category. It is personal--and,again, no judgment...read on if you love him--but I don't like him and I don't think he ever really redeems himself.

Anyway...back to the topic at hand.

Romance novels are important for so many reasons. For example,romances often draw women together into a very unique community. The moment you find a fellow romance reader, there is a connection, whether it is in the aisle of the bookstore or in casual conversation. Some of my best moments of bonding with friends have taken place during discussions of romance novels. When I was a senior in college and finally living in my own apartment, my roommate, Stephanie, and I would rush out to buy books by one of the three "J's" as I called them (Jude Deveraux, Johanna Lindsey, Julie Garwood). We read aloud the reviews from what is now called Book Club Magazine.

I have big problems with this magazine's format now. Don't get me wrong, the material is still helpful and fun to read and I buy it. Originally, however, this publication was called Romantic Times Magazine. When the named changed, I really became angry, because I see it as yet another expression of avoiding some kind of shame associated with reading romances. The magazine originally ONLY covered the romance genre, though today it includes all genres except for westerns.

Other ways publishers tried to "help" women avoid shame? They changed the covers. For example, here is a 1980s cover by popular romance novelist Johanna Lindsey:

(Source: http://johannalindsey.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/1985loveonlyoncecv-lindsey.jpg)

And here is the same book in a 1990s cover...

(Source: http://img51.imageporter.com/i/00359/gukgb48ukdc7_t.jpg)

Obviously, an attempt is made to change the cover so that the reader feels less embarrassed to buy the product. Absolutely insane.

Ladies: BE PROUD. Buy whatever the heck you want.

(And, yes. I know I am assuming an all female readership. This isn't true. Many men read romances, and I can't imagine what they go through just trying to purchase one...the lies they feel they have to tell. But, I am a woman and I am talking about a group of books written largely by women for a predominantly female audience. Get over it if you don't like it. That being said: Guys, go buy one. If you don't know what to choose, shoot me a message or read some reviews. Who knows? You might learn something interesting.)

But, covers weren't the only romance novel casualties in the later twentieth century. The novels themselves died a bit. In the 1990s, romances changed: the heroes (sometimes in great ways, but usually not) morphed into something unrecognizable and not at all attractive (you should have seen the letters and reviews for the last 15-20 years). These men became softer and expressed so much emotion and inaction that I wanted to scream...and not in a good way. Gone were the adventurers and in their place were men whining about their lives. Again, not that there isn't reason to do this in real life. I think expression of these emotions and traumas are important for men to experience...and, it is appropriate to write about them in other genres, too. But not in romance, people! Not unless something else balances out his character.

Well, just like everything thing else, the pendulum has swung back and we now have crazy alpha testosterone raging (equally disturbing, in my opinion). I see clear cut reasons for this happening, but I will not go into it here. That being said, even with the return of the alpha hero, there has been a decided shift in his portrayal that I don't always enjoy....but I see that changing a bit, too...so we will see.

In any case, I just read (and tweeted with the author about it) Vicky Dreiling's How to Seduce a Scoundrel. It is a Regency romance, but it does contain sex scenes (in other words, those of you used to old-school Regency romances will find all kinds of things in here that you aren't used to reading).

(Source: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-eWDDnj8IxCc/TVT2PEVs3nI/AAAAAAAADFQ/9nJeT5bz3V0/s1600/d5.jpg)

In any case, I mention it because it is one of the most amazing romances I have read in a long time. Now, when I say that, I don't mean that everyone would love it. If you want a hero who becomes perfect, then this isn't the book for you. The hero is flawed until the end. He does a lot of things I don't like, but that is why I liked reading about him. He is realistic and fantasy-driven...all at the same time. Dreiling's novel is, in my humble opinion, the perfect mix between old-version romance and something new. Even though she is playing with a long acknowledged plot device, the story has details and characterizations that are refreshing.

AND P.S.: A big shout out to whoever had the guts to design her cover in that way. Cheers, mate.

So, pardon my outburst, but I just had to say something. If you are wondering, all of this was brought on after I read this article. Complete rubbish.

Travel Tuesdays: Godstow Abbey

(Source: http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/alicepic/alice-in-wonderland/1book41.jpg)

Calling all Alice in Wonderland lovers!

If you ever make it to Oxford, England, the place where Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) lived and worked, you must make sure to experience all of the "Alice" related sites.

Of course, the easiest ones to find are in the city--Alice's Shop, Christ Church College, etc. These locations are where the real Alice lived and spent time with Dodgson. There are, however, many other places you can see. They are a bit out of the way and you need to make sure you have your walking shoes on (and check the weather, too), but it is totally worth it to venture out of the Oxford city center and wander throughout the surrounding countryside to see some of the other places associated with the story. The walk was long (though we stopped at two pubs along the way), but it is still one of my very best memories of the whole trip! Just walking in the quiet, green countryside with sheep and horses and cows roaming all around us was perfect. The weather felt more like a spring day than a hot July afternoon. I just can't explain it. It was one of those perfect times spent sometimes in solitude walking behind the group, sometimes chatting with friends I came to love.

(You can read more about the day and see my photos in this post.)

Dr. Bob Halli and his wife Allen Jones took all of us willing to hike the 7+ miles (famously known to UA at Oxford students as the "Alice Walk") to see where the real Alice's governess lived and the treacle well mentioned in the book. This is actually St. Margaret's Well.

From there, we went to Godstow Abbey, the location where Alice and her sisters used to picnic with Dodgson after he would take them in the boat down the river.

(Source: http://s0.geograph.org.uk/geophotos/01/90/77/1907729_1e3fbdb7.jpg)

Godstow is a very old site dating from the 1100s. There is a bit of Wikipedia information about it, and a great post about getting there (well, sort of...I think you have to buy the book)on the Thames Pathway site. Actually, just get someone at the tourism office in the city center to tell you how to get there. It isn't hard!

I am a big believer in experiencing books in any way that I can--not just on the page. I also think that for children, especially, these kind of literary-related outings are incredibly important.

Of course, you don't have to go to Oxford to have this experience. Chances are, you have a children's writer living somewhere in your neck of the woods. Get to know about them and their books. Try to go to a book signing. Or, even better, if the author uses locations around your area, visit them. Before you go on any trip or to any big city, read books that have scenes in that city. They don't have to be nonfiction. Just think...you could read the Eloise books before going to New York City and then take your child to The Plaza! Talk about bringing a book to life! You can also do this with museums...think dinosaur stories before going to an exhibit...or a space story before going to the planetarium! These are all simple ideas, for sure, but we forget about them.

Reading isn't just for school or to get bare bones facts. It is an experience that is meant to live beyond the page. So, take a literary trip or two!

Monday, August 08, 2011

Mystery Monday: A Personal Mystery Solved

From kindergarten through fourth grade, I attended a private school--called West End Christian--here in Tuscaloosa. I have very mixed feelings about my time there. On the one hand, I had (well, excluding the crazy woman who taught me in second grade) excellent teachers. The school in the early 1980s was one of the best in the state, and its academic programs were rigorous--at least at the elementary level. I credit my teachers with instilling in me the essential basic skills that helped me excel in English courses and for allowing me the luxury of reading. I also learned hard work at an early age. I will never forget the fourth-grade Alabama history project that kept me working for weeks from six o'clock at night until well past eleven. It was excessive and difficult, and even my parents objected to it. But, in the end, I learned about sticking to something to make it good.

I got an A+.

Other good things I remember: we had a close-knit community there. In the afterschool program, high school girls took care of us and were amazing (I only went to afterschool care for two years, I think). We had amazing school spirit and tons of school activities. I remember homecoming celebrations (especially the shower of candy at the homecoming parades), fall festivals, seasonal activities in the classrooms, walking to our playground (kind of far away from the school...or at least it seemed so at the time!), field days, excellent lunches (wow...those peanut butter and honey sandwiches served with homemade soup were to die for), movie Fridays, and, in the beginning, a certain amount of freedom.

When I was in third grade, I was allowed to skip science class one day a week to take piano lessons. Now, I would die if my child did this today, but I would leave my building, cross a street open to traffic, and walk by myself to the high school building where I took my music lessons.

(From Facebook. A black and white image of our school logo. I remember seeing this. It was in green and gold.)

But there came a time when I didn't like it so much anymore. I never knew what was going on and it was always explained to me as politics, but during my time there, our beloved head master resigned and many of us, even the younger ones like me, were devastated, because we loved Mr. Sumner. I always wondered what happened there...and then things started to change.

Now, we always attended short chapel sessions during the week, and I don't remember anything horrible about them until sometime in my late second grade year or early third grade. The moment I knew something had changed was when the preacher started telling us that we would go to hell if we used a nightlight in our bedrooms. (The rationale: you should trust God enough to get you through the night. Using a nightlight is an example of not being truly faithful.) Well, even at age seven or eight, I knew this was complete crap. No. God gave me a brain and tools to use, and it is just smart to have a nightlight on to help me see in the middle of the night, preventing what could be a painful accident. I am in favor of religion. But I am not in favor of manipulation.

Well, these incidents increased, and, according to my parents, they noticed academic changes as well. The school began favoring religion over academics in extreme ways, and, especially concerning to my parents, was the fact that the school was populated only by white children and faculty.

So, at the end of the fourth grade year, I happily left (I hated it by this time) and ended up in public school. I traveled every day for a year to Bessemer, Alabama, to attend the school where my dad taught. In sixth grade, I returned to Tuscaloosa (there was a reason for this...here, everyone in the city at that time went to one school for sixth grade...so, everyone was new, in a sense and provided an easier transition for me).

Well, my fifth grade year in Bessemer was great. But during that year, something really bad happened back at my old school, West End Christian. In February of 1988, two men burst into the elementary school building and took students and teachers hostage. I remember watching it on the news and being terrified. The good news, everything turned out okay. You can read a brief account here or here. Turns out, that man took over the WRONG classroom. He took over Mrs. Blanton's classroom. I love her now (actually saw her a few months ago), but I was terrified of her as a kid. She was very stern and suffered no fools. She wrote an article about the experience, and it is amazing...but I can't find it! If I do, I will post it. Meanwhile, you can see a photo of her in this article about the parole hearing for the man who took her and the students hostage.

Shortly after that happened, however, the school closed. I always wondered why. I mean, I could understand that such a situation could scare people to death, but I always thought that there had to be more to it.

Well, every now and then, I get a little nostalgic for that school...well, for the good times, I guess. Because you just don't find that kind of atmosphere in many places. There is a Facebook group, but I didn't join because I wasn't a graduate and no one would know me on there anyway! I also found a site for the school about two years ago...yep, it has never changed or been updated. It just keeps saying, "Coming soon." Well, folks, I am ready for someone to get back to work on that one!

Anyway, today I felt a little longing for it again, so I typed in "West End Christian" and "Tuscaloosa" into my trusty search engine, and I found this recent Tuscaloosa News blog post. It really solved a lot of mysteries for me and it makes perfect sense. Here is an excerpt:

Two years before [the hostage situation], however, controversy began between the church and the school that was the beginning of the end for the school that at its heyday had 800 students.

Several teachers and the headmaster, Buddy Sumner. resigned over the membership of the school board and new requirements put into place by them. The board originally had five members and was expanded to include all the deacons of the church and three women.

Among the rules they put into place was the requirement that all teachers attend church and that their church attendance should be verified before their contracts would be renewed.

A letter signed by Rev. Ken Cheek, church pastor, listed 11 policy items, including the church attendance, saying that the statement was approved unanimously by the deacons at a special meeting. Included in the list were: No plays other than religious plays with prior approval in sanctuary and chapel twice a week. School chapel that all teachers attend and take roll to give to the church secretary weekly (and if that didn’t work they would go to assigned seating). Also included was the statement that the School Administrator will work with and cooperate with the pastor.

Honestly, you don't know how much better I feel after reading this. To know that, even at that age, I wasn't alone in my resentment. And, to know that so many people took a stand.

Yes, the school was not perfect and represents a lot of bad things about that era in education history, but in many ways it was everything I wanted and needed in a school as a kid. I can only hope that, should I have one, my child will have the same experience.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Fan/Fandom Friday: Why Charles Dickens and I Share an Angry Bed

"Sad but true" fact about me: I have spent more time with this man than with any of my boyfriends/male companions...

(Charles Dickens. Source: Wikipedia)

Charles Dickens and I have a love/hate relationship. I love his writing (hence the reason for including him the fan/fandom post), but I could never have sustained a real-life relationship with the man. He is the centering focus of my dissertation, so we spend hours together on a regular basis...and I think we have had some serious knock-down, drag-out fights, too.

I hate to admit to this, but other than reading and watching A Christmas Carol, I didn't have much to do with Dickens until graduate school. In high school, the only British Victorian author I was assigned to read was George Eliot (Silas Marner...I loved it). When I went to college, I was never assigned Dickens as an undergraduate my first time around. And, now that I think about it, I find that strange, because I took many English courses. (Note: I was not an English major for my first degree. I was a double major in Journalism and Spanish.)

When I left my job at Southern Living magazine in 2000, I came back to the university as an undergraduate again and started the English degree. My first semester, I met Dr. Myron Tuman, one of my most favorite professors ever, and he assigned Oliver Twist for our class in Victorian literature. I enjoyed it, but I also fell in love with the Brontes and George Eliot all over again. Dickens hovered in the background and I didn't think much about him. In fact, he never appeared again during my undergraduate time or my master's courses. When I started graduate school as a master's student, Dr. Tuman had already turned me into a Victorianist, but I was more interested in Eliot. So, I did my final paper and defense on George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life, and I never even thought about Dickens. In fact, I was so attached to Eliot, that I planned to do almost all of my dissertation research on her one day.

Well, a couple of years later, when I finally began PhD work, I had to register for classes at the University of South Florida (where I began my doctoral studies). My first semester was heaven. I signed up for a Victorian literature survey and an eighteenth-century literature course with another most favorite professor, Dr. Laura Runge. (If I wasn't a Victorianist, I would totally be an 18th-cent. scholar. Dr. Runge is amazing.) But, at USF, you must sign up for a third class...and I debated about this one for ages. There was a seminar course offered that drew my attention: this one on Dickens. I wasn't exactly opposed to taking it, but when you are a nineteenth-century scholar, then you end up reading REALLY long books. I already had classes with REALLY long books, and I was worried about being able to keep up. Still, I couldn't turn down the opportunity to take two Victorian literature classes! (USF was a haven for course selection compared to UA!) So, I signed up for the Dickens seminar.

As I bought my books, I inwardly groaned. My experience with Dickens was limited and all of the novels on the list were long and completely new to me. Still, I sucked it up and prepared myself.

The first class was on a Tuesday evening, I believe. Our professor, the amazing Dr. Pat Rogers, came into the classroom, and from the moment he opened his mouth I was hooked.

Yes, all I did that semester was read and teach. I actually had a reading schedule. Our first book in the Dickens seminar was The Old Curiosity Shop. I started reading it and I couldn't put it down for long. I love that book! I still do. Then, we read Martin Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, and Our Mutual Friend. I didn't like Martin Chuzzlewit, but I did like Our Mutual Friend.

However, I LOVED Bleak House. I think this is my favorite novel. Period. As in of every novel ever written.

Though I feel in love with The Old Curiosity Shop, Bleak House fed my soul and made me cry and feel. I actually hurt when I read parts of that book. The only other reading experience I have had that is comparable: when I read Antony and Cleopatra (Shakespeare's) and "Medea" by Augusta Webster (really, anything by her).

I guess what I am saying is that if I only had to take a few books to a desert island, I would choose Bleak House, Antony and Cleopatra, and a book of Augusta Webster's poetry.

But back to the point. Dr. Rogers made me love Dickens's writing. I say "writing"...because Dickens the man? Not such a big fan. Most of the time, when I read about him and his controlling nature, I just want to hurt him. :) And he is such an imposing figure. I mean, in spite of the fact that he had not been assigned as required reading during most of my educational career, Dickens is still THE Victorian author. So, when I began to write about him, I felt extremely nervous. But Dr. Rogers thought that I was doing good and important research, and he really encouraged me.

Even after the semester was over, I couldn't get Dickens out of my head. I kept coming back to him, and Eliot no longer fed me in the same way.

You see, all of scholarly research is really selfish. Literature students are probably the most narcissistic people in the world and we don't realize it, necessarily. But, it is a good kind of narcissism, if practiced in the correct way. In order to seek and grow, we have to be narcissistic, a bit. The books we pick up help us along the way.

When I was working on my master's degree, the religious aspects of Eliot drew me to her, because I was confronting certain issues in that area. But, in the background of my paper, I was also writing about an orphaned child.

The orphans in Dickens...they are what drew me in. I suppose we all feel like orphans in some ways, and I won't go into all of that here. But let's just say that the orphan metaphor is complicated and can mean lots of different things to lots of different people. It is no wonder that when I was in Tampa, hundreds of miles away from friends and family, that I latched on to these children in Dickens's writing. When I came back to UA, after my dad got sick, I continued to write about orphans (in all of Victorian literature, but still thinking of Dickens) with a new perspective. Dickens allows me to explore my interest in this topic in so many ways because his works are richly composed and so multi-layered. Also, he is talking about a world very similar to our own. We like to think the Victorians were so different from us, but they weren't. In many ways, they are strangely like us. It is scary.

But, Dickens...wow. He really is amazing. And I do recommend that everyone should read at least one Dickens novel in their lifetime. I like most of them, but here are my three favorites: The Old Curiosity Shop, Bleak House, and Great Expectations. Of the three, Bleak House is a harder read because of the dual narration, but give it a chance. It is amazing. If you just can't handle a novel that is over 800 pages long, then try reading some of his short stories, for they are usually pretty good as well!

Or...if you don't want to read Bleak House, you can always check out the incredibly well done BBC version. Gillian Anderson plays Lady Dedlock, and she is PERFECT!

ALSO: Here is a trailer...featuring (at the very beginning) a favorite scene with Anderson!

Thursday, August 04, 2011

My Vamp Fiction: Original Fiction Contest

Calling all aspiring writers!!!

As some of you know, I have just started reviewing books for a great site called My Vamp Fiction. The site is holding a contest for best Original Fiction.

Here are the details:

1. We will be accepting pieces that adhere to a Fantasy, Paranormal or Dystopian theme, or a combination of these genres. All sub-genres and ratings welcome.

2. Minimum word count of 5,000 words, with a maximum of 25,000 words.

3. If a submitted piece does not follow the word count guidelines, it will be disqualified.

4. All pieces must be edited for grammar and punctuation before being submitted. Judges will be very strict when it comes to grammar guidelines, so please make sure you have taken the time to have your piece properly edited.

5. Each story must be original. Fan fiction or re-worked fan fiction will not be eligible.

6. All characters must be original, however the use of historical figures is permitted.

7. Limit two entries per author

8. Collaborations are allowed, but the prize will be split between the authors.

For more details, check out:
My Vamp Fiction: Original Fiction Contest!

Tasty Thursday: Check out this blog!

A great friend of mine from high school has a spectacular food blog. Now, granted, she hasn't had a lot of time to update, recently....because she just had a baby boy! But, you should check out her blog because it is so awesome.

You Are What You Eat...Or Reheat

If you scroll down, you will start seeing recipes. You can also look at other pages on the blog or the archives for some excellent meal ideas.

Plus, Katie is an amazing photographer, so the blog is just really pretty to look at as well. :)

Monday, August 01, 2011

Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem Monday??

Yeah...not that much to say about any of those three topics right now, but I did use the word "murder" at least once today.

Back in April, I was supposed to travel to Mobile for an event about Augusta Evans Wilson. I wrote an article about her, and Robert Clem, a great documentary director, has a new project centered around Wilson. He asked me to come to Mobile to discuss the author and her books, but it was the weekend right after the tornado hit Tuscaloosa. We had a tree on the house and our lives were in chaos...so, needless to say, I couldn't go. Bob was nice enough to come to me today, and we filmed my segment (yes, I am a talking head, now!) at the Gorgas house, here on campus.

I hope he got something useful.

Honestly, after everything that has happened recently (esp. about Casey's death), I still feel a little spaced out. And, it has been so long since I researched the article...so, I hope I didn't screw up too badly! It was a lot of fun and Bob is so nice.

In any case, I did briefly discuss Augusta Evan Wilson's book At the Mercy of Tiberius. She claimed it was her favorite book that she ever wrote, and I have to agree. The plot revolves around a murder mystery early on in the story, and I enjoyed it much more than some of her other books. But, as you read this, you are probably saying: Who is the world is Augusta Evans Wilson??

So, that is our "mystery" topic for today. Indeed, it is a mystery as to why this woman--the first female author to earn over $100,000 for her work--is virtually unknown today.

(Source: Wikipedia)

Augusta Evans Wilson was born in Georgia in 1835, but Alabamians lay claim to her because she made Mobile, Alabama, her home from the time she was a teenager until her death. In fact, she wrote her first novel, Inez, when she was fifteen, completing the novel in secret and writing by candlelight. Unfortunately, that novel isn't so great, but her second book, Beulah, is a definite improvement.

Her Civil War novel, Macaria, has legendary status as being banned by the Union, because it was rumored that soldiers were deserting in favor of joining the Confederate army after reading it. There were also stories that copies of Macaria saved Confederate soldiers--a copy in the breast pocket stopped a bullet. Yes, probably not true, but she had some serious cultural capital.

Her most famous novel--and the one that made her extremely wealthy and a household name--is St. Elmo, a very romantic story with a Rhett Butler-like hero (in fact, it has been claimed that Margaret Mitchell based Rhett on St. Elmo). Personally, this is not my favorite of the novels. I enjoyed Beulah and At the Mercy of Tiberius, but St. Elmo drives me nuts.

But what does my opinion matter? The book was so popular that the only recent phenomenon I can compare it with is the Twilight phenomenon. People were obsessed with this book, naming their businesses and children after the characters. And, there was even a parody written: St. Twelmo.
In any case, the book made her famous, and, according to some statistics, Augusta Evans Wilson was the number three author ranked in popular sales--right behind Harriet Beecher Stowe.

So why don't we know anything about her?

Of course, most people today would find reading an Augusta Evans Wilson novel a real challenge. She has a lot of purple prose, she is wordy, and she preaches--a lot. She was more than a temporary fascination, though. People demanded her books until she died. St. Elmo was produced as an early film, and it has only been recently that the books fell out of ready availability.

Is she worth studying?

In my opinion: ABSOLUTELY. Just because we may not be able to relate to a writing style of the past or because a particular novel may not be as amazing as another popularly accepted canonical text does not mean that we should not pay attention to it. As usual, a huge part of the reason we don't know about her is simply because she was a woman writer. Quite often, she wrote love stories and she was overly sentimental. No, she probably would not appeal to a general audience today. The prose, as I said, is difficult to manage, but she also presents us with dated portrayals--but only in some ways--of women. Now, this is a point of contention with many--including me. I won't get into it here, but there is something much more complicated going on in her portrayals of women than most would like to give her credit for in the end.

Still, she is a Victorian writer...so, if you hate the Victorians, you will hate her...even though she isn't British!

Here is a brief listing of her novels:
Inez (1850), Beulah (1859), Macaria (1863), St. Elmo (1866), Vashti (1869), Infelice (1875), At the Mercy of Tiberius (1887), A Speckled Bird (1902), and Devota (1907)

Of course...and this isn't self-promotion at all (RIGHT), you can always read my full-length article by ordering this issue of the magazine: Alabama Heritage, Issue 99.