Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Squirrels and Poetry and College, Oh My!

Apologies for the lack of a post last Friday. The past week has been pretty hectic here at the RNFF household:

• We've had a crew in re-insulating part of our roof. Backstory: a bunch of pesky squirrels managed to chew their way through our roof and into the walls of my daughter's bedroom—that pink insulation stuff is pretty cozy, it appears. We replaced the roof a year and a half ago (and after, we still had one squirrel stuck in the wall—had to cut a hole in the wall and set a have-a-heart trap in it to catch the poor thing), and thought we were all set. But after spending much of last winter listening to our daughter complain about how cold it was in her room, we finally realized that the squirrels hadn't only taken up temporary residence in the roof; they'd stolen away the majority of the insulation for their nests outside our house. We're keeping our fingers crossed that the new insulation stays put this time...

• My daughter received an acceptance letter from her first choice college! Pop the champagne corks...

• My second historical romance, A Man without a Mistress, was published, and received a great review from Janga at the Heroes & Heartbreakers blog. More glasses were raised...

• I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with romance authors Molly O'Keefe and A. J. Cousins about a forthcoming book of feminist love poetry over at the Brain Mill Press blog. If you're looking for a last-minute holiday gift for a poetry-lover, definitely check out Tanka & Me by Kaethe Schwehn.

I'll be taking the next two weeks off from blogging, to spend the end of the year celebrating the holidays with family and friends. And, of course, putting together my end of the year best of 2015 post. What books have made your best feminist romance list this year?

Best wishes for an end of 2015 filled with joy and peace.
And no squirrels!

Photo credits:
Squirrel photo: Paul Marto Photography

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Switching Sexism's Gender? Nell Stark's THE PRINCESS AND THE PRIX

If someone handed me a romance, telling me it was about an aggressive, hard-partying, womanizing race car driver with a troubled backstory who reforms after falling for a shy, brainy philanthropist/princess, I'm pretty sure I would hand it back with a "thanks, but no thanks." Alpha-hole heroes turning over a new leaf just because they've found true love with a good girl storylines typically do not have much in the way of feminist moments to celebrate.

But what if that aggressive, partying, womanizer happens to be a woman? Well, I might just have to reconsider...

Lella Lombardi, the only woman to score
points during a Formula One race (1975)
Thalia De'Angelis's life dream has been to race on the Formula One circuit. The result of a British racecar driver's one night stand with dancer at an American club, Thalia has spent most of her life being ignored by her father, and more than a little angry about it, too. She's also angry about being passed over, yet again, for a promotion from the GP2 circuit to Formula One:

Conventional—and therefore misogynistic—wisdom demanded she maintain a positive attitude and keep on keeping on. she had at first believed, and then catered to, that wisdom for years. By now, she was sick and tired of it. No one told men to suck it up and be patient. They were tacitly and explicitly encouraged to be downright aggressive in pursuit of their goals. To suffer no fools and show no mercy and take no prisoners. Why should she behave any differently, just because one key chromosome had an extra leg? (Kindle Loc 92)

So it's hardly surprising that being asked one too many times by reporters about her male teammate being given the spot on the Formula One team instead of her, despite his second-place finish in the overall GP2 rankings, Thalia's temper explodes:

Look. Terrence Delmar is not a better drive than me. He's not even close. His instincts are all wrong—he's too loose when he should be running tight and too tight when he should be running loose. Ferrari hired him for what's between his legs, not what's between his shoulders....
     "Are you suggesting that Ferrari is a chauvinist organization?"
     "Suggesting?" Thalia laughed into her mic without humor. "No. Asserting, yes." She stared out over the murmuring crowd. "I'll probably lose my job over this, but it's true. And it's not just Ferrari, either. The glass ceiling is alive and well in Formula One. Women have the ability to drive at the highest levels. We're not there because the owners and team managers—and even some of the drivers—don't want us to be." (121).

"Grid Girls": The Cheerleaders of Formula One.
As Alix describes them: "The gird girls were objects to be
consumed, not subjects to be conversed with. That was the
problem, Alix realized—that the girls were content to be
repeatedly objectified. It was their occupation, not an
occupational hazard. (1064)
The reporter goes on to ask Thalia how she thinks the misogynistic culture of racing can be changed, a question to which Thalia has no good answer. Thalia's not really into being an advocate for women's rights: "she didn't want to be some pretty, quasi-famous chess piece in the struggle for civil rights. She wanted to push the boundaries of speed" (168). But her chances of doing either seem pretty slim after she's fired for her post-race outspoken words. Thalia drowns her sorrows at the after-party, drinking and picking up a grid girl for another round of energetic, no-strings-tied sex. Just like the majority of the men on the racing circuit do.

Her Serene Highness, Pomelina Alix Louise Canella of Monaco, knows all about being a role model. The least attractive, and most well-behaved of Monaco's royal siblings, Alix has spent her life serving her country, in particular by supporting charitable work. Having just completed her degree in public health, Alix is on the brink of establishing her own charitable foundation, one focused on empowering women in rural communities in East Africa. So when she meets Thalia at a wedding, then watches her race, Alix immediately recognizes that "Thalia's position in such a traditionally patriarchal sphere seemed like a golden opportunity from which to demonstrate gender equality" (842). Especially after Thalia wins a place on another racing team, a place driving not on the GP2, but on Formula One.

Thalia has participated in charity appearances, but only because that's part of her job, a means to an end: "If she were being honest, she rarely thought of anyone except herself and her own goals" (1181). When Alix challenges Thalia about her aggressive behavior—slugging a fellow driver after he "accidentally" nudged her off the racetrack—Thalia confirms her distaste for being a figure of social justice: "I like to drive fast cars and fuck fast women and drink too much and watch the sun rise before I sleep. That's who I am. I'm here to win, not to be a hero or make a point" (1453). Not even Thalia's attraction to Alix will make her change her hard-driving ways.

Does a professionally groundbreaking woman have a duty to be a positive role model, to act squeaky clean, to never get in trouble? Are Thalia's hard-partying, womanizing ways really "scandalous"? Or is that judgment "completely a product of the pervasive double standard that denied women the same social freedoms as men"? (1512) Is Thalia breaking feminist ground? Or just reinforcing male chauvinism from her position of power?

And can a woman who has no desire to be a role model even have a chance of making a romantic connection with a princess whose life has been entirely focused on working for the greater good?

I love that Nell Stark is able to ask such questions in the midst of a wonderfully appealing opposites-attract love story. And that not only bad-girl Thalia, but also unselfconfident Alix, are both given chances to change and grow as their friendship, and later their physical attraction and romance, develops. The Princess and the Prix may be a fairy-tale romance, but it's a romance that packs a surprisingly feminist punch.

Photo credits:
Lella Lombardi: Wikipedia
Grid Girls: Drive Spark

The Princess and the Prix
Bold Strokes Books, 2015

Friday, December 11, 2015

Romance Novels as Progressive Pop Culture?

I recently attended a fascinating panel discussion at the MIT Communications Forum, on the representation of women in politics in popular culture. One of the speakers, Ellen Emerson White, noted that 1984 book The President's Daughter, was one of the first to feature a woman in the role of U. S. Commander in Chief. She also noted that since that book's publication in 1984, other authors featured women presidents, but that most often those women had come to political power not by running for office, but as a result of the death of a spouse, death of the elected president, or some other catastrophic situation. The Atlantic notes the same trend in television depictions: while there have been six American TV shows to feature female presidents, all have either been VPs who got the job after the death of a President, or women who gained the role largely by dint of being part of a political family dynasty.

During the discussion that followed, an audience member made the offhand comment that popular culture tends to lead, rather than simply mirror reality, hence it has far more female presidents than the actual United States has. This statement didn't strike me as entirely true, not only because of the caveats White and The Atlantic note regarding presidential depictions, but because I've read so much lit crit on romance that points out the conservative, rather than the progressive, aspects of the genre.

But recently I read two different hetero romances with mother as president subplots. And this week, a lesbian romance with a Formula One race car driver protagonist, breaking new records for her sex. And it made me wonder—have I been selling romance too short? I've seen many a romance novel that encourages women to think of romance and family before career, but have I overlooked ones that depict women doing more, professionally, than they have in real life?

What other romances have you read that depict women breaking professional glass ceilings?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Political Disagreements and the People Behind the Rhetoric: K J Charles' A SEDITIOUS AFFAIR

My heart always sinks whenever I open a piece of mail from a political candidate, or an organization whose work has become the subject of political debate. The rhetoric deployed in such mailings is most often of the ad populum type, an emotional appeal that speaks to negative concepts rather than the real issue at hand. Such appeals tend to demonize the person, party, or organization which are in opposition to the person, party, or organization making the appeal, using overblown language to insist that if I don't send money, the world as I know it will in all likelihood come to a bitter, nasty end, all at the hands of those being demonized. While I often agree with the candidates or groups whose letters clog my mailbox, I can't help but be turned off by their insistence that no good/intelligent person ever could/should/would disagree with their position.

how much political mail have you been pulling out of your
mailbox this season?
Being in the midst of a presidential election year (year and a half?) made me more than receptive, then, to the quite different message in K. J. Charles' latest m/m historical romance, A Seditious Affair. Its two protagonists could not be further apart when it comes to political beliefs and assumptions. Dominic Frey, God-fearing English gentleman and conservative Tory, believes in the natural order of society, with aristocrats at the top and the poor at the bottom. He is committed to his job at the Home Office, working to suppress radical and seditious calls for English government to be violently overturned. A realist, a man of means, and of power. Silas Mason, bookseller and printer, believes that the rich oppress and tyrannize the poor for their own aggrandizement. He is just as committed to his job as is Dominic Frey, although that job is the exact opposite of Dominic's: selling radical political tracts by day, printing seditious pamphlets advocating democracy by night. An idealist, a man scrabbling for means, one who must fight for every bit of power he can take.

If these two men met in the street, they'd likely sneer, or spit on each other's boots. Yet Dominic and Silas share a secret that brings them far closer than either might ever have imagined: a sexual preference for other men. In particular, men who get off on the power games involved in dominance and submission, power and shame. After they meet, anonymously, in an "assignation house," it is this shared secret identity, not the myriad differences between them, that keep them coming back each Wednesday night, week after week, for more than a year.

And soon it's not just for the sex, but for something more:

He couldn't remember which of them had started it, whose chance comment had begun an argument. Had no idea now when the first bottle had been laid out and waiting on his arrival, what day he had said, Have you read . . . and how long after that before the Tory had handed him a book and said, Tell me what you think. He didn't know when the fucking had become just one part of the night's pleasure, the thing they did before talking (238).

Charles gradually and organically reveals Silas and Dominic's different assumptions about the way the world works, both to the reader and to each other. For instance, at the beginning of the story, this exchange about their differing responses to reading Mary Shelley's Frankenstein shows their almost polar opposite views:

1831 edition
 "I finished the book," the Tory said.
     "Oh, aye? What'd you think?"
     "Good. Terrifying. Strange. I can't understand why you would like it."
     "Why would I not?"
     "I wouldn't have thought you'd agree with it." The Tory gave him a wry smile. "After all, its burden is the need for man to keep in his place—"
     "What?" said Silas incredulously.
     "The overreaching man dares to play God and pays a terrible price. Abuses the natural order and creates a monstrous thing."
     "Bollocks," Silas said. "That ain't what it's about."
     "It's what happens."
     "No. What happens is he creates, he's responsible something that should be"—Silas waved his hand—"great and strong, something that he owes a duty to. And he says to it, The hell with you. Go die in a ditch. I'll have my big house and pretty wife. And it says, You don't get to live in a grand house and ignore me. Do your duty or I'll tear you down. Treat me like I'm as good as you, or I'll show you—"
     "That I'm not,: the Tory interrupted. "The creature murders—"
     "Because he ain't given a chance to live decent," Silas interrupted right back. "You treat men like brutes; you make 'em brutes. That's what it says."
     "No, you create brutes when you distort the rules of nature and the order of things," the Tory retorted. "That's what the book's about. It's obvious."
     "It's not." (193)

Dom dislikes talk of rights and equalities, believes revolutionaries "intended to steal land from its rightful owners and share it out amongst what they called 'the people'" (367), and that the "Peterloo Massacre" is a "melodramatic nickname" for "the unfortunate incident at Manchester," "nothing more than a tragic misfortune" (305). Silas meets with those who "could no longer bear the stranglehold of the rich on England's neck" (205), and has been part of the struggle for the rights of the common man ever since "he'd had his eyes opened by Eupehmia Gordon, a radical firebrand and agitator for the rights of women, at the age of sixteen" (205).

Hard to imagine two people with such differing philosophies of life could ever find enough common ground to be anything more than casual lovers, no? Yet over the course of their weekly meetings, Silas and Dominic's understandings of one another gradually begin to change, because each begins to listen to the truth of other, not to dismiss, but to engage:

Arguing with Dom was damn near as good as fucking him. When those dark eyes narrowed in thought, when he bent that formidable determination to confront Silas's beliefs—not to ignore or dismiss, but to take them on at equal value, so that the pull of his attention became a physical thing—then Silas understood what it was to be important. (1412)

But even as they come to appreciate each other in private, by challenging each other's taken-for-granted beliefs, pointing to each other's hypocrisies, and insisting each recognize the complexity of what they've always seen as black and white issues, their public lives are putting them on a crash course for disaster. Especially when Silas finds his fellow radicals, made desperate after the passage of the repressive Six Acts of 1819, not just writing about overthrowing the government, but planning to stage an actual coup. "Pure pathetic fantasy," thinks Silas; "great chance to show the people that the repressive laws are vital" think the spies in the Home Office. And there are Silas and Dom, caught in the middle of the impending fiasco that will come to be known as the Cato Street Conspiracy.

Is it possible to disagree with respect? To become less absolute in one's convictions, to learn from those we've been taught to demonize? And yet still fight on behalf of one's principles? By way of William Blake ("Without contraries is no progression"), Charles' romance answers all these questions with a resoundingly hopeful "yes."

Photo/illustration credits:
Political junk mail: The Suburban Times
Frankenstein, 1831 edition: cbc books

A Seditious Affair
Loveswept, 2015

Friday, December 4, 2015

What do Porn and Romance Novels Have in Common?

"Romance is just porn for women": a phrase often trotted out by those who want to sneer at the romance genre. But something someone said to me today made me wonder what would happen if we set aside the denigration for a moment, and took seriously the idea that romance reading and porn just might have something in common. What might we find?

My friend and I were talking about desire, and desire unmet, and he said something along the lines of: "No one can be in a perpetual state of orgasm. It would take too much energy, and we'd never get anything else done." His words made me think about being in love (as opposed to loving), another state in which most human beings cannot remain, at least not for more than a few months or years. As researcher Helen Fisher points out in "The Drive to Love: The Neural Mechanism for Mate Selection," people in love "experience extreme energy, hyperactivity, sleeplessness, impulsivity, euphoria, and mood swings," which are associated with "elevated activities of central dopamine," a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure (88). Being in love is almost akin, chemically, to being insane, Fisher argues.

Such a heightened state of being is by its nature impermanent; neither the body nor the brain can sustain such high levels of chemically-induced euphoria for the long term. Though the high of falling in love usually lasts longer than an orgasm, both physical and emotional highs are ones that cannot be permanently sustained.

Thinking about these similarities then made me wonder whether porn and romance novels might both be functioning in a similar way. What I mean is, might both be a kind of compensation, or perhaps a proxy, for what we desire but cannot have or be, at least not all the time? Porn compensates for our desire to be perpetually sexually aroused; romance novels compensate for our desire to be perpetually in love. Neither porn nor romance fulfills our desires directly, or permanently, but for the time while we are watching/reading, we can pretend that they do, and are.

Do you think the two are comparable in this way? Or in other ways that may be of interest to those of us who like to think analytically about romance?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

I Want You to Need Me: Serena Bell's CAN'T HOLD BACK

You might belong in Hufflepuff,
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And not afraid of toil
        (J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone)

Not only readers of fantasy, but broader conventional wisdom, insists that no one would ever want to be a Hufflepuff. One of the four houses of J. K. Rowling's wizarding school, Hufflepuff is where the "duffers" hang out, those do-gooders who are not smart enough, or courageous enough, or sneaky enough to gain entrance to one of the other more prestigious houses. "Nobody wants to be Hufflepuff," Actress Mindy Kaling tweeted this past September; Republican presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and Ben Carson, who were "sorted" by the New Republic into Hufflepuff, all apparently took issue with the designation. Being though of as a hard-working foot soldier, just and loyal, is regarded by not just by actors and political candidates, but by much of the public at large as the ultimate insult.

Except not, I would guess, by many readers of romance. And particularly when it comes their romance heroines. Female leads who are nice, who live to serve others without any selfish desire for accolades or acknowledgement themselves, are often the ones whom readers praise the highest, whom they hold closest to their hearts.

This embrace of the good-girl heroine is an attempt to reclaim the value of the caretakers of the world, a role which is far more often associated with women than with men. I'd argue, though, that just as conventional wisdom needs to get over its too-easy dismissal of Hufflepuff and its character qualities, romance could do with a bit of examination of the problematic aspects of the female-as-caretaker role.

Which is why, perhaps, I so enjoyed Serena Bell's latest contemporary romance, Can't Hold Back. Its female lead, Alia Drake, is the quintessential Hufflepuff. With an absent father and a mother suffering from mental illness, Alia had to play the role of parent to her younger sister, Becca, from an early age. A task made all the more difficult by Becca's learning disability, a disability that the schools did not recognize nor acknowledge until Becca's teens.

But Alia never complains about the familial burden which has been placed on her shoulders, in part because she is by nature a caretaker: "she wanted to walk a different path, a path of service and purpose. She wanted to be where she was needed" (Kindle Loc 205). Alia's career choice reflects her commitment to her principles: she trains to become a physical therapist, helping the injured to regain their physical mobility (and almost as often, their emotional stability). Working with the elderly, with kids injured during sports, with vets returning from war, and helping take away their pain, Alia has found meaning in her Hufflepuff-like commitment to serving others.

In the novel's prologue, Alia and Becca are attending a party held by a fellow physical therapy student when they meet a young soldier. Alia's instantly drawn to the man, Nate Riordan, but almost as quickly dismisses her attraction, precisely because of her caretaker ways: "Alia's life, for better or for worse, had made her into someone who thrived on taking care of people. It didn't tend to work out well for her with guys who were more the fiercely independent alpha types" (111). Alia is such a caretaker that she immediately steps aside,  because "Becca needed a guy like Nate Riordan way more than Alia did" (111). By "giving" Nate to Becca, Alia reinforces her self-identity as a caring, selfless sister.

But things do not quite turn out the way Alia anticipated between Nate and Becca. A fact that makes things more than a little uncomfortable when, two years later, Alia snags a two-week job at a veterans retreat only to discover that one of her new patients is Nate. Her sister's ex. And the man she betrayed by writing letters on her sister's behalf while he was deployed, letters that made him fall for a woman who did not really exist.

Nate's suffering not just from lingering physical injuries sustained during a bomb blast; he's also suffering from "mystery pain," pain that no doctor can seem to pin down or alleviate. On the verge of becoming addicted to painkillers, and being unable to fulfill his commitment to a dead fellow soldier because of it, Nate flushes his pills and checks in to his old friend's rehabilitation center. Finding Alia temporarily taking his friend's place does little to calm the bite of Nate's pain.

At first, Alia tries to keep things professional between herself and her new patient. But that mutual attraction that Alia once repressed keeps popping back up; combine that with her commitment to helping those in pain, and a hurting Nate becomes almost impossible to resist.

I found it refreshing that after a therapy session that veers too far over the line into a romantic situation, Alia immediately reports herself to her boss. Because not only does the physical therapy code of conduct forbid sexual contact between therapist and patient; Oregon law can fine Alia, even take away her license, if such contact is discovered.  Repercussions from breaking those codes are real, and important, to Alia.

Even more interesting, her boss reminds her that Nate is not the only one at risk in such a situation: "But I've got to tell you, you're vulnerable, too. It's a powerful thing, stopping someone's pain" (1195). Power and vulnerability in the caretaker's role—not things I'd given much thought to before reading Bell's novel. Is there a danger for Alia that being a caretaker, being needed, just might be as addictive as a painkiller is to Nate?

I especially loved that it is not a confrontation with Nate or with her boss, but with her dependent younger sister that finally brings Alia to ask herself the really painful questions. Such as why did she push the younger Nate so hard toward her sister? Why does she have such a difficult time articulating what she wants in bed? Why is she so ready to take the "consolation prize" of being needed, rather than admitting that sometimes, she, too has needs?

Alia doesn't need to reinvent herself, to give over entirely her caring Hufflepuff ways. But she does come to realize that even a Hufflepuff can let a little Gryffindor, a little Ravenclaw—and even a little selfish Slytherin—into her life, without compromising her values, or her principles.

Or her status as a nice girl romance novel heroine.

Can you think of other romance novels that balance praise for the typically feminine role of caretaker with a recognition of its potential for denying the self?

Photo/Illustration Credits:
Nice Hufflepuffs: Hercollege.com
PT & Vet: Namaste Y'all
Code of Ethics: Illinois Physical Therapy Association

Can't Hold Back
Loveswept, 2015