Fuck you, The Flame and the Flower

Pardon my French. But really, The Flame and the Flower, fuck you.

I was reading snippets of Social Sister’s copy of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, which she got for Christmas, and it mentioned that the romance novel genre was kicked off by this one book, The Flame and the Flower. And I am interested in the ways genres develop, and I read and enjoyed Forever Amber a few years ago, so I decided to read The Flame and the Flower. I told this to Mumsy and she said I wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t believe her. I also had this conversation:

Jenny: I’m going to read The Flame and the Flower. I expect it will be extreeeeeemely rapey but I shall press on.
Captain Hammer: Well, how else would you know who the bad guys are?

I thought Captain Hammer was the naive one in this conversation, for thinking the rapist would be the book’s villain. But in fact I was nearly as naive as he was in my wild underestimation of the rapidity with which the rapeyness would commence. I was swiftly disillusioned. Like, 28 pages swiftly. No lie.

My notes for this post are massively indignant, because as I was reading and jotting down notes, I started noticing more and more things that pissed me off. A third of the way through reading it became clear to me that there wasn’t going to be any actual flames or actual flowers, and that the title in fact referred to the hero and heroine, respectively. That just couldn’t be any worse. In fact many things about this book just couldn’t be any worse.

Apparently Kathleen Woodiwiss gets praised for writing strong heroines? Says Wikipedia? How can that be? Heather, the “heroine” of The Flame and the Flower, decides to help bathe her husband so he won’t rape her quite so hard because she’ll be a dutiful wife or something. And then she’s sad that she’s such a coward. Heather, we are all sad about that. But for, like, five hundred pages. In the first sixty of which, be it said, Heather gets raped like four times and her mean aunt inexplicably rips her clothes off in front of a bunch of people to reveal her nakedness. The book talks about her nakedness a lot. She’s always trying to cover up her breasts because all her clothes are badly fitted and/or translucent so she’s constantly popping out of everything. Oh, and also? The “hero”, Brandon, tells her he’s going to teach her about pleasure, but the book’s from 1972 so he just means, like, nipple-tweaking. Heather’s not that into it but she’s too scared to tell him so because he flexed his jaw muscles and she finds that very frightening. I can’t even begin to tell you how unsexy the sex scenes are.

The cardinal sin, though, is that the whole book’s boring. I will forgive a book many many flaws if it’s got an engaging plot. Forever Amber had many of the same problems with gender issues, and rape specifically, although at least Amber did things on her own initiative and made everyone uncomfortable by wearing too-sexy clothes. But Forever Amber was so over-the-top packed full of plot that I hardly cared.¬†The Flame and the Flower is sooooooooooooooooo boring. Even describing the plot points, predictable and idiotic as they are, makes them sound more interesting than they actually are. Heather gets kidnapped off the streets of London after accidentally killing her uncle, and as I was reading that part I was like, yawn, ho hum, when are we going to get some action up in this book? There’s no reason for that. Really. A murder and a kidnapping in quick succession should not face heavy competition for the reader’s attention from the motionless cows the reader can see out of her car window.

How, how, how is this the book that launched a thousand rapes? How did anybody read this book and say, Wow, this book’s so great it should be a whole genre? It’s so relentlessly boring and awful. It’s awful and it’s boring. Everyone in it is awful and boring. Everyone! If you ever think some character is going to be unawful and unboring you can think again, because I promise you they will turn out to be awful and boring in the end.

If you’re wondering why I bothered carrying on in this ranty way about a book that was published in 1972 in a genre that has moved miles past this rapey bullshit, I will explain that to you right now. It turns out Kathleen Woodiwiss is from Louisiana. Her and her rapey historical romance novels are apparently my state’s fault.



Review: Psychic Blues, Mark Edward

There are two main threads of subtext (well, not always so sub-, as examples below will prove) that run throughout Mark Edward’s memoir of being a psychic, and they are these:

  1. All psychics, including Mark Edward, are frauds, and some of them do harm by being deceitful and wicked.
  2. Mark Edward does no harm but always tries to do good.

That sounds okay, except that Mark Edward fails to distinguish between the deceitful and wicked psychics and himself. Whether this is because there is no difference between them, or because Mark Edward is incapable of articulating the difference that exists, I do not know and could not discern from reading his book. He talks frequently about psychics (including him) being frauds, but only rarely does he seem to worry that he, himself, in a specific instance, a specific reading, is being shady to the point of immorality.

I know that part of my problem with the book arose from the Dreaded Expectations Gap. The subtitle of this book is “Confessions of a Conflicted Medium,” and that made me think Mark Edward was really going to wade into the ethical dilemmas inherent in being a psychic. I’d have loved to read a book like that! I love ethical dilemmas! As someone who reads Tarot cards for fun and precedes every Tarot card reading with a stern look at my readee and remarks along the lines of “Remember, this is a pretend thing that somebody made up,” and who still feels the qualms about doing Tarot card readings because people still take them seriously and then I feel like I’m deceiving them, I am especially interested in the ethical dilemmas of fortune-telling.

But in fact, this isn’t something Mark Edward is interested in exploring, at least not in this book. Instead he tells anecdotes about different beats in the psychic world he’s worked in his time — psychic hotlines, Hollywood parties, private readings — and the kinds of readings he’s done, the kinds of clients he’s encountered with the attending quirks. These stories aren’t uninteresting, but Edward doesn’t have a talent for dialogue or setting a scene, so the stories often come off more whiny/indignant than funny/self-deprecating.

Mark Edward obviously has moral problems with some psychics and their behaviors. I know this from reading his Wikipedia page, which told me about all the scathing rhetoric he has unleashed upon psychics he considers to be con artists, and from reading his book. So okay, some psychics do bad things. We can clearly agree on that. But I could not for the life of me work out the line Edward perceives between himself and the other (bad) psychics. He admits to being a fraud, then says well but it’s just entertainment and anyway he gives people hope, not like some other psychics who are terrible and are taking advantage of innocent people.

Here is a perfect example. He’s telling a story about working with a psychic who purports to talk to dead people, and how before the show starts she asks this one guy if he has anyone in particular he’s hoping to talk to. The guy says, yeah, his father, Louis. Then during the show the psychic zeroes in on this guy and talks about a dead person named Louis, and the crowd is impressed. Okay. Edward says he has no problem with the psychic being sneaky in this way, and then says this:

When a mentalist or psychic makes use of this sort of thing, along with the many other covert ways employed to obtain information, it can be amazing and entertaining. But [it] gets a little legally fuzzy when you see people breaking down and crying. That’s not entertaining, it’s sad….It’s a nasty business from start to finish. I consider if my personal and professional responsibility to tell the truth about what’s really going on behind these contrived scenes.

But then in another part of the book, he says:

Although I’m seldom called upon to talk to dead people….to admit to not having any other-worldly connections in this admittedly far-fetched branch of my craft would be to decrease my marketability….And as much as I would like to stop and take the time to educate each audience member as to what is truly going on with this whole psychic business, that’s not normally included in my job description.

And anyway,

A disclaimer is a declaration that “disclaims”…that everything is being done through purely natural means, including trickery….To initially discount any mystical possibilities that may occur, either in the mind of the sitters or through any events that are revealed through this natural process, is in my opinion a waste of time. Plus, it takes the mystery and much of the fun out of the experience.

So I guess you shouldn’t make people sad on purpose? And the whole talking to dead people thing can take a turn for the emotional so that one’s probably a dick move? Unless the money’s good? And it’s wrong to deceive people, so Mark Edward to the Rescue! But undeceiving them takes all the fun out of it? Y’all, I don’t even know. The thinking, it is fuzzy.

There was one incident where Mark Edward gets a letter from someone he had talked to on the Psychic Hotline, where she says she had been going to kill herself and then she didn’t because he gave her a hopeful reading. And he feels really good about himself:

Though I was…playing a small part in a huge commercial system that sold compassion and exploited human misery, as I looked around at the colors of the autumn leaves and breathed in the fresh morning air, the warmth of a new illumination dawned on me. I had an awesome responsibility.

What? No! No autumn leaves! No fresh air! Dude, this is so ick. Take away the first clause in that sentence and put it in the mouth of someone who volunteers at a suicide hotline, and I would still think it was kinda gross. It’s real gross coming from a guy who makes shit up in the employ of a shady psychic hotline that charges sad desperate people (as well as, of course, people who are neither sad nor desperate) $3.99 a minute for a message of hope. This happens early on in the book, and it was so gross I needed Edward to make it up to me. I wanted him to show me that he had become more self-aware about his work, that he had grappled with the implications of his job and figured out where his personal moral lines were, that he had a code and stuck to it. Or at least to tell stories that were funny and interesting.

But he didn’t really do that. I still have no idea what his moral code is, and I still feel icky about him, and I didn’t like his boring book.

Review: The Lambs of London, Peter Carkroyd

Five bitchy remarks in response to The Lambs of London:

1. I cannot keep Peter Carey and Peter Ackroyd straight in my head. Both of them write books that sound like I would love them, and then I never love them. So I am doing like Mother Jaguar. I graciously wave my tail, and I shall call it Peter Carkroyd. And I shall leave it alone.

2. Can’t not mention this when talking about Peter Carkroyd because it is horrifying. Peter Carkroyd is also notable for writing the book Oscar and Lucinda, which was made into a movie starring Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes. The film is narrated by someone who calls Oscar “my grandfather”, so all the way through the movie you assume that awkward Cate Blanchett and awkward Ralph Fiennes are eventually going to get together, to produce the father of the narrating grandchild. But does that happen? NO! Awkward Ralph Fiennes gets very ill taking a church-on-a-raft to the Amazon or the Australian outback or someplace and finally flops limply and near death into a settlement, and a woman in the settlement is like “Oh, poor dear, I will take care of him,” and he’s all “I’m near death” and she takes him home and rapes his semiconscious self and the next morning he goes into the church-on-a-raft to pray for forgiveness for seducing the woman (this takes place way back in the day before they knew about sex), and the church-on-a-raft sinks and he drowns. And then the end of the movie is, like, the narrator turns out to be this old guy telling this story to his own granddaughter, who is, like, ten years old. Not cool, Peter Carkroyd and assorted film people. Not cool. And scarred me and Social Sister for life.

3. Charles and Mary Lamb, the fictionalized subjects of The Lambs of London, are people who just don’t interest me. I don’t know why. Mary Lamb went crazy and stabbed her mother in the throat, and Charles Lamb had to look after her for the rest of his life. I love craziness, and I love devoted brothers. Why I wouldn’t be interested in a) them or b) a novel about them is beyond me. But it’s true. I don’t care about Charles and Mary Lamb. I just don’t.

4. The other historical storyline in The Lambs of London is about William Henry Ireland, the famous Shakespeare forger who forged a ton of documents in Shakespeare’s hand and eventually got caught. I actually am interested in this, but Peter Carkroyd dealt with it so boringly and with so little insight or novelty that by the end of the book I was actually less interested in William Henry Ireland than I was when I started.

5. Peter m.f. Carkroyd. Why do we even let you write books?

Review: Gypsy, Gypsy, Rumer Godden

Okay, I’m going to ruin the whole plot of this book for your sake to save you from reading it yourself and possibly judging Rumer Godden based on this book which you should not, she is actually wonderful. She just is not wonderful here.

Gypsy Gypsy is about this girl called Henrietta who lives with her mean aunt Barbe. Yes, the lady’s name is Barbe, and she’s very sarcastic to everybody. It is a trifle on the nose, and I’d like to make some excuse for Rumer Godden like she was only 33 when this book was published, but you know what, Alexander had conquered the whole Mediterranean by the time he was 33, so no pass for Rumer Godden! Henrietta has a boyfriend but inexplicably refuses to marry him because she — I don’t know why, this is never explained. I guess she isn’t yet ready to leave her life of weird, awkward servitude to her amoral aunt Barbe. Aunt Barbe owns a fancy mansion and all the peasant folk hate her. You keep thinking they’re going to rebel against her and come raid the mansion Beauty and the Beast style, but they never do and this plot point doesn’t really come to anything.

Aunt Barbe is a sour old cow, and one day over dinner she tells Henrietta how in the olden days they thought that having sex with a virgin would cure you of diseases, and Barbe has the brilliant idea that maybe you could apply this same basic principle to a diseased soul. She figures if she can corrupt a purely innocent soul, she’ll be clean again, instead of being a miserable bitch that everyone hates. So she starts being really nice to this gypsy family that she lets move onto her land, and everyone’s like, “Hey, no, don’t invite gypsies here, they’re bad news!” Aunt Barbe gives the gypsy kids candy and plays stupid games with them, but because she’s doing this from a malicious motive, it ends up ruining their lives. Henrietta keeps fluttering about going “They were happy before! Stop giving them candy!” but nobody listens to Henrietta because she’s a cipher of fluttery nothing. Then Aunt Barbe shames the gypsy father about his poverty, and he stabs Aunt Barbe’s old Nanny in the neck (yeah, she still has a Nanny. I know, right?), but they all work really hard to get him off the murder charge. Nobody ever hesitates about helping a guy who stabbed an old lady in the neck get off a murder charge. He gets convicted of a lesser charge, and everyone’s unhappy about everything. The end.

I will start by saying, because I love Rumer Godden and I want you to think well of her, that she wrote a book called The Diddakoi later in her life, about a little gypsy orphan girl. The Diddakoi is pretty merciless to the characters who are prejudiced against gypsies. So I know that Rumer Godden does not really think that gypsies are a) pure innocent souls in the wilderness of the world or b) dirty scum of the earth thieves.

Next I will say that when Rumer Godden got the idea for a book about a woman who tries the spiritual version of deflowering a virgin to get rid of disease, Oscar Wilde stood on the edge of heaven and screamed and lamented for two straight years because he had not thought of it first. This is such an Oscar Wilde idea in a Rumer Godden book, and that — though I love them both dearly — is not a recipe for success. I mean Aunt Barbe is basically a less lazy, female Sir Henry Wotton. Oscar Wilde would have done this book much better than Rumer Godden, but he didn’t have the chance because he died at forty-six and never was able to have this idea and write it into a book that would have been much better that Rumer Godden’s rotten book.

And finally, I will say what I was thinking this whole book long, which is, What the hell, Rumer Godden?

Never read Gypsy Gypsy. It’s awful, and it doesn’t even have the compensatory positive of being written in that excellent, distinctive style that Rumer Godden has. Traces of her style are visible, but they’re hidden behind a black cloud of smoggy awfulness.

Review: Survivor, Chuck Palahniuk

When my work book club met to discuss Empire Falls (which, oops, I never reviewed), one of our members expressed her dissatisfaction with the low level of sexiness in any of the books we have read so far, and her intention to choose for us something sexy like Anais Nin for the next book club book. Instead she ended up selecting three very unsexy options, of which we selected — I suspect — the least sexy option of all, Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor.

I have discovered that I have very, very little patience with ennui in literature and film. If a character is not interested in things, it is difficult for me to be interested in that character. Survivor begins with Tender Branson preparing to crash a plane, empty except for him, into a mountain, and speaking into the recorder of the plane’s black box, to tell his life story. As the last survivor of a cult whose members mostly killed themselves, Tender became an object of frantic interest and devotion in America. The book, which counts backwards to the moment of the plane’s crash, tells his story.

Basically Tender is very ennui-ridden without even the benefit of an interesting backdrop, his cult being the most boring fictional cult ever. He has spent most of his life as a cleaner of one kind or another, a sufferer of one mental illness or another, and an occasional suicide counselor of the sort that urges people to go ahead and kill themselves. There are predictable suicidal-people jokes; predictable DSM jokes; predictable religious cult jokes; and stupendously predictable cult of celebrity jokes. Yawn. (That yawn may be my yawn, or maybe it is Tender Branson’s yawn. He is, after all, plagued by great ennui.)

By the time the book reached the point at which Tender becomes a famous religious figure and faith healer, I was already a bit sick of it. But the satirical treatment of celebrity made me roll my eyes so much I probably dislocated them. I think part of this is a function of the time I live in vs. the time the book was written: at this point, if you’re going to poke fun at fake celebrities and reality TV, it’s not enough to be like, “Celebrities! Those folks are superficial, amirite?” Twelve years on, we’ve heard that a zillion times. There has to be more to it now.

I don’t want to make it sound like I found nothing of worth in this book. There were moments and lines that I quite liked. It’s just, y’all, I don’t know. I just didn’t care for it. The jokes never landed, and I hated all the characters. I think there could be a good book written about the last surviving member of a suicide cult, but this wasn’t that book, is what I’m saying. The end was ambiguous, which meant I liked it better than I’d have liked an unambiguous ending, but although I liked the fact of the ambiguity, I didn’t like the ending itself. I thought it was silly. Boo.

Okay, guys, for September’s book club (or October’s if someone else at work book club desperately wants to choose the September book), I want to suggest three options, and I want to suggest all women, and I want to suggest some authors of color. So I am thinking Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (for my coworker who wants a bit of sex in our book club), and then two of the following five books:

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
Leaving Atlanta, Tayari Jones
The Long Song, Andrea Levy or Small Island, Andrea Levy (but not both)
Glorious, Bernice McFadden

I want to read all of these books so it is hard for me to decide. Tell me in the comments which two I should suggest. Bear in mind, we’re not necessarily looking for the best book. We’re looking for a book that will yield plenty of fruitful discussion about the Issues and Themes and Structures. Everyone enjoyed Empire Falls but we didn’t have as much to discuss in that one.

They read it also:

The Octogon
Reading  Matters
Ace and Hoser
Books ‘n’ Border Collies
Kristina’s Favorites
Book Minx

Did I miss yours?

Review: How Shakespeare Changed Everything, Stephen Marche

You know Chandler from Friends? You know how in Friends, somebody would say something stupid, and Matthew Perry would do that thing where he would fling his whole body into one large, frantic gesture of utter incredulity? That is how I felt all the way through How Shakespeare Changed Everything. Exactly like that. I kept flinging the book across the room (really satisfying, by the way! A nice thing about ARCs is you can dog ear pages and throw them across the room or even rip out pages if you want, and it doesn’t matter because they belong to you, but you don’t need them to last).

How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a really short book, more of a long essay than a book. Yet it managed to irritate me exponentially more than anything else I’ve read this year, and y’all know, this has been a good year for people in the news being irritating. If I tried to enumerate all the things about this book that were irritating, I’d end up with a blog post nearly as long as the book itself, so I’ll try to limit myself.

Marche comes from journalism, and without wishing to insult journalism, a profession I really truly admire and I often love reading journalists’ books, his roots are showing. He makes these grand, extravagant claims like he’s designing catchy headlines (what I mean when I say his roots are showing), but he does nothing to back them up. He’ll say “Shakespeare invented teenagers!” and then spend the chapter nattering away about how Sampson and Gregory are just like these annoying kids he saw at a football game one time. Or “Shakespeare is the reason you enjoy sex!”, then he says how Freud couldn’t have happened if not for Hamlet, and without Freud we’d still be Victorians, but because of Freud and Shakespeare Americans get to enjoy lots of freaky-deaky practices like oral sex.

(You think I’m kidding but I’m not kidding.)

I mean it’s not even good storytelling. Someone like Malcolm Gladwell can come up with these unwarranted conclusions, and yeah, experts debunk them all over the place, but you can’t deny, the man can construct a narrative. Marche’s stories don’t make any sense. One chapter is devoted to a comparison of Lincoln’s assassination with the assassination in Julius Caesar. This could be (and surely has been?) done well; John Wilkes Booth’s father was actually named Junius Brutus Booth. He really was. This story should almost write itself, but although Marche has in mind the points he wants to make, he makes them poorly and fails to bring them together into a coherent narrative.

Then there’s stuff like this (quotes from ARCs may change in the finished product):

The minor industry of mugs and magnets offers pearls of Shakespearean wisdom extracted from context and often misquoted. They drive me insane….The much-T-shirted line from Henry VI, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” comes from the wisecracking scumbag named Dick the Butcher. In context, the line is a testament to why we need lawyers.

Hands up everybody who thought Shakespeare was actually advocating we kill all the lawyers. What? Nobody? Everyone except Stephen Marche got the point that it was just another good line in the long tradition of lawyers-should-die jokes?

I’m not demanding that everyone who writes about Shakespeare must be a prestigious Shakespeare scholar. But if you’re going to write nonfiction, and you can’t be bothered doing exhaustive research and spending loads of time figuring out and preemptively refuting the objections that are going to be made to your thesis (I’m saying that without judgment), at least be able to write a good story.

I received an ARC of How Shakespeare Changed Everything (along with other, better books) for review from Harper. It’s scheduled for release on 10 May 2011.

Review: The Riddle of the Sands, Erskine Childers

FiveBooks! What? How could you let me down like this? The Riddle of the Sands was supposed to be one of the five best books in all the land on the Secret Service. Uncool! I just thought it was going to be so excited, nonstop intrigue and deception, culminating in some sort of thrilling climax where all the previously-introduced thrilling spy elements would come together in for an astounding finish. Like the sort of thing H. Rider Haggard would do, if H. Rider Haggard wrote spy novels. Why was it not like that?

The premise promised good things: Our protagonist, Carruthers, receives a letter from an old school acquaintance, Davies, asking Carruthers to join him on a yachting expedition. Carruthers is bored in London, as it’s the off-season and everyone is out of town, so he goes out to meet Davies. But instead of a quiet yachting expedition, he finds himself enmeshed (I am making this sound so much awesomer than it is) in a wicked plot with Germans and a British titled gentry person and a girl. None of this is spoilers. Childers says all of this in the little preface where he’s pretending like the whole story is true. I got so excited when I was reading the preface. I was practically shaking, that’s how excited I was to read this stupid book.

And then oh my God, it was twenty thousand pages of boat stuff, and the guys talking about boats, and boat stuff, and look, I would love to go to sea in a boat. I’m on board (ha, ha, ha) with a boat book. But it just went on and on, boating and boating and boating up and down the European coasts, and no German spies anywhere in sight, for so long. The forbidden love plotline was soooo underdone. Nobody murmured sweet nothings into each other’s ears. Nobody twirled his mustache. Nobody discovered the truth at a crucial moment and then got discovered by the bad guys before he could get back to the boat and report things to his cohorts. Nobody dissolved into a pile of ashes in a scene so shocking that the onlookers perished of fright. Surely at least one of those things should have happened.

Why I read the end: I almost didn’t. That’s how much I didn’t care. I read the end to find out when the awesome stuff was going to start happening. Spoiler alert: No awesome stuff ever happened.

Basically, I needed The Riddle of the Sands to be She with German spies, and it wasn’t. Bah.

Help me, y’all. If I wanted a good spy novel, a classic spy novel that would grab me and I wouldn’t be able to put it down until I read every word, where would I go for that?