ROMANTIC SNOBBERY

It isn’t just culture that divides us into classes. What we watch on television, see in the movies, and read also puts us into a category, often unfairly by people who don’t “get” why we like what we like.

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I read a post about how dreadful — yet gripping — romance novels can be. The not-so-subtle insinuation is that anyone who reads them is probably not too bright. While it’s true that romance novels are the potato chips of the literary world (bet you can’t eat just one) that’s not the point.

double dip in bookcase

As a former editor of the Doubleday Romance Library, I assure you that research showed readers of romance novels are better educated than most readers.

They read romance novels because they are pulp. These readers aren’t looking to be informed or improved, to have their world expanded, reading-level or awareness raised. They want a book they can pick up, read, put down, and forget. If life gets in the way, they can just never finish the story — without regret.

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I read each 3-book volume, every month. Three romances: 2 modern with a Gothic sandwiched between. Every novel had the same plot, the same outcome. They sold gangbusters.

Regardless of what we, as writers, would prefer people enjoy, people don’t always read good books. I often avoid “good” books. I don’t want to go where that book would take me. I’m not stupid or lacking in culture. I just don’t want to read it. Don’t enjoy the subject matter. Don’t need to be further depressed by the ugly realities of life or history.

Good books can be too intense, too serious, or educational for this moment in time. Too close to reality. I read to be entertained. I’m not seeking enlightenment through literature. Perhaps I should rephrase that. I am no longer seeking enlightenment through literature. If I ain’t enlightened by now, I’m pretty sure it won’t happen in this lifetime.

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The wondrous thing about the world of books is there are so many. Enough genres, themes, and styles for everyone. An infinity of literature. No matter what your taste — low-brow, high-brow, middle-brow, no-brow — there are thousands of books waiting for you. That’s good. I’d rather see someone reading a bad book than no book.

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I’m not a culture snob. I think reading crappy novels is fine if you like them. Watching bad TV is fine too.

Snobs suck the fun out of reading. While I’m not a fan of romance novels, if you are, that’s okay with me. I love reading about vampires and witches. I’d be more than a hypocrite to act as if your taste is inferior to mine.

old favorite books

These days, I’m rarely in the mood for anything serious — except maybe a conversation. Tastes change over time. Life has been a very serious business for me. When I read, watch TV, or see a movie, I want to escape, Reality will still be there when I get back.

Finally, my favorite professor at university — a man I believe was profound and wise — was a big fan of Mickey Spillane. He said there was a much truth in those books. I believe for him, there was.

WAITING FOR A GOOD BOOK

To_Kill_a_MockingbirdRecently, I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird. It was re-released in a year ago by Audible.com, with a new narration by Cissy Spacek. After I settled into it, I remembered why I love it. It’s a rare story in which all the pieces fit. Some call it the perfect book. It may be.

It never hits a false note. Takes its time, tells the story at a leisurely pace. It talks about justice, injustice, racism, and the legal system. It’s about family, love, relationships and coming of age. Discovering the world is both better and worse than you imagined.

My granddaughter was assigned to read To Kill a Mockingbird for school and found it boring. I don’t agree, but I understand her problem. She lives in a world so changed from the one in which “Mockingbird” takes place, she can’t relate to it.

Harper Lee wrote about a world without cell phones or email. People walked more than they drove. Food grew in gardens. The world was segregated, separated by class, religion, and ethnicity. My granddaughter can’t even imagine such a world. In her world, the President is Black and her white grandma is married to a brown man.

Everything is instant. You don’t go to a library to do research. You Google it. There’s no time for slow-moving books that depict a less frantic world.

It’s no wonder the fastest growing segments of fiction are fantasy, mysteries, thrillers, and so on. These books are fun. Exciting. So much of “literary fiction” is dreary. Authors seem to have forgotten that literature is also supposed to be entertaining.

I need stories that are more than a dark mirror of reality. That’s not enough. I want a good plot. I need action, stuff to happen. I don’t want to just hear what characters are thinking. I want to see them moving through their lives. I need characters who develop, grow, are changed by events. And, I need heroes. Un-ambivalent good guys for whom I can root. I welcome enlightenment and education, but I require entertainment. Lately it seems the reality-based books I’ve read have forgotten how to entertain. The people they portray are sad, depressed, trapped, miserable. Living lives so hopeless they lack even the energy of desperation.

Are our lives truly so pathetic? So grey and drab? I don’t believe so. I think it’s easier — and fashionable in current literary circles — to write that way. Easier to capture a single note than a whole range of feelings. There are plenty of sad and hopeless characters, but there are also plenty of glad and joyous ones. Winners, not just losers. Heroes and success stories.

I don’t understand current criteria for publication. I don’t get it. A high percentage of the new books I read (I read a lot of just-published books for review) are dull. Many are also poorly written. I find myself wondering why this book, whatever it is, was chosen. To me, I has no merit. I don’t even review these books. I don’t like trashing books and authors, so if it’s that bad, I just skip it.

Boring to me, is the worst sin in literature. I don’t believe Faulkner, Wolfe, Hemingway … or for that matter, Harper Lee — would be published today. I doubt they’d get a reading.

I miss books based in reality. I bet there are great manuscripts waiting, their authors yearning to be published. I hope they get to it soon. Because kids like my granddaughter need to discover how much fun books about real people can be.

JAMES ZERNDT – THE KOREAN WORD FOR BUTTERFLY

“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”

Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.

“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to head phones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.

“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.

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There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.

It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices.  And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.

The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s as wrong a time in her life to have a baby as there possibly could be and probably the worst possible place she could be — far away from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first person narrators, both south Korean.  Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.

All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end the pain is very personal — and remarkable similar — for each.  There are no simple, happy answers.

It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me,  it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade made abortion a viable choice. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.

It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.

The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paper back and Kindle.

BETTE STEVENS – DOG BONE SOUP – AN INDIE BOOK REVIEW

IN HONOR OF INDIE AUTHOR’S DAY!

DOG BONE SOUP is the long-awaited “rest of the story”of Shawn Daniels from the original short story, “Pure Trash.” It’s particularly long-awaited for me because as soon as I read the short story, I wanted to read this book. The only problem was, Bette hadn’t yet written it.

But she did it. Dog Bone Soup is available for your reading pleasure. And what a pleasure it is.

Bette has the purest, freshest writing style I’ve read in many a long year. Reading her prose is like peering into an exceptionally clear, deep pool. It looks like the bottom is close enough to touch, but those waters run deep.

Bette Stevens is a class act, an author who knows how to tell a story. Her characters are real, so true to life, they practically leap off the page. In Dog Bone Soup, style and the story are blended to perfection.

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I’ve read a lot of books about rural poverty and for some reason, all those stories are set in the south. This is as far from south as you can get. It’s a timely and important reminder that poverty is not a regional issue.

Poverty is everywhere, from the biggest cities to the hidden hamlets where tourists never go. Children pay the highest price.

Shawn Daniels’ story is wonderful. It’s about growing up and coming of age for a poor kid from a dysfunctional family. His world is cold and hardscrabble. A drunken father, a vanishing mother. Foster parents with no love to share, teachers who can’t see past patches and frayed cuffs. Yet somehow Shawn forges a road of his own. Armed with courage, intelligence, humor, and grit, he grows into a strong young man with solid values. He creates his own future.

Sometimes, very little can be enough.

There’s nothing depressing about this story. How come? Because Shawn Daniels hasn’t a shred of self-pity in him. Despite the challenges he faces, Shawn is never down. Not depressed, discouraged, broken, or beaten. This kid has grit. Determination and a solid grip on his own worth.

Where does it come from? Mom, sometimes. A few others who see Shawn’s value and give him a hand along his path. A personal, hard-wired toughness that lets him see past the life he is living it to the life he wants — and for which he is willing to work. Mostly, it is Shawn’s own sharp intelligence which enables him to understand his world. It lets him trust his judgment without bogging down in unearned guilt. He makes smart decisions.

It’s a great story — and it’s far from over.

About the author

BAS Author logo stamp 2015Inspired by nature and human nature, author Bette A. Stevens is a retired elementary and middle school teacher, a wife, mother of two and grandmother of five. Stevens lives in Central Maine with her husband on their 37-acre farmstead where she enjoys writing, gardening, walking and reveling in the beauty of nature. She advocates for children and families, for childhood literacy and for the conservation of monarch butterflies (milkweed is the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat).

Bette A. Stevens is the author of award-winning picture book AMAZING MATILDA; home/school resource, The Tangram Zoo and Word Puzzles Too!; and PURE TRASH, the short story prequel to DOG BONE SOUP.

BOOKS I NEVER READ BUT SAID I DID

Today’s Daily Prompt is a duplicate of one which WordPress offered less than two weeks ago. So, here’s something else. It’s about books. We’ll split the difference, okay?


Ulysses James Joyce

It starts in school when they give you lists of books to read.

I was always a reader. Most of the time, I’d read most of the books on any list. The remaining few were not a big deal. Reading any book, no matter how thick, was rarely a problem for me. After all, I love books.

But literature courses inevitably include books that I would never read voluntarily. Maybe books that no one would voluntarily read. I’m not 100% sure, but I believe that’s the entire point of literature courses — to force you to read books no one likes and maybe no one ever liked.

How about Silas Marner? When was the last time someone read that because it sounded like a fun read?

Despite current trendiness, Jane Austin was nobody’s favorite author in high school. I read it, but I didn’t have to like it. You may lob your stones this way.

Pride and Prejudice was the only book I ever threw in a lake. There, I’ve admitted it. I do not like Jane Austin. Not then, not now. Neither does my husband. We also don’t like the movies made from the books.

By the time I got to college, among the many books I did not read was James Joyce’s Ulysses. Not only didn’t I read it, I barely got through the Cliff Notes. But I got an A on the paper for my “unique understanding of the characters and motivation.” Good Cliff Notes, eh? I did read Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and thought it wasn’t half bad. At least I could discern a plot and everyone in it wasn’t a prig — as they were in Austen’s novels.

I slogged my way through all of Dostoyevsky’s books. It was voluntary, but I still couldn’t tell you why I did it. Maybe to prove I could? I think the angst of the characters appealed to my younger self. Teenagehood was very angst-ridden.

I read all 1800 pages of Romaine Rolland’s Jean Christophe because my mother loved the book. She also had me read Growth of the Soil, Knut Hamsun’s depressing tale of grinding poverty and despair in the Norwegian highlands. I barely made it through Madame Bovary. War and Peace was a non-starter.

Growth of the SoilI never made it through anything by Thomas Hardy. Or Lawrence Durrell. I loved Larry’s brother Gerald Durrell. He was hilarious and wrote about my favorite subjects, animals. I slogged my way through Lady Chatterley’s Lover only because everyone told me it was hot. I thought it was dull. My brother had some books stuffed under his bed that were a lot dirtier and more fun.

I never owned up to not reading those important, literary masterpieces. When the subject came up — which it did when we were students and even for a few years after that — I would try to look intelligent. I’d grunt at the appropriate moments, nod appreciatively.

So yesterday, I was looking at a review I wrote last January about Dahlgren and realized I was lying about literature again. I hated the book. I didn’t merely dislike it. I found it boring and pretentious. It had no plot, no action, and as far as I could tell, no point. I mealy-mouthed around my real feelings because it’s a classic. Everyone says so.

So my question is: who really read it? Who loved it? Did everyone pretend because they heard it was a great book? How many people lie about reading great books when in fact, they never make it past the preface?

I’m betting it ain’t just me.

THE BONES OF PARIS, LAURIE R. KING

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The Bones of Paris
A Novel of Suspense
By Laurie R. King

Random House Publishing Group – Bantam Dell
Publication Date: September 10, 2013

Set in a strange world of weirdos, artists, authors and perverts in post World War I Paris, this Jazz Age murder mystery has some of the creepiest characters I’ve ever encountered in a long time. Historically, this was indeed a strange time. The Lost Generation of Hemingway, Fitzgerald in a Paris seething with new art forms and angst.

Flappers meet  old aristocracy. Painters and photographers hook up with roaming flotsam and jetsam of a displaced generation. These are people well and truly lost in time and space.

Amidst this odd collection of geniuses and madmen, comes private investigator Harris Stuyvesant, an American ex-FBI agent. Down on his luck and much in need of a paying  job, he’s gotten the plummy assignment of finding Philippa “Pip”Crosby, a young American woman. She’s been missing for months, last seen in the company of some of Paris’ more dubious denizens. Harris has previously met Pip, albeit briefly, and wonders if knowing her was how he got the job in the first place.

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At first, Harris assumes she has gone off to do whatever young women do when they want to have a good time. Perhaps the Riviera or some other resort. She has nothing to hold her in any particular place. Inquiries lead nowhere. Her trail stops abruptly at the Théâtre du Grand-Guignol in Montmartre. Harris Stuyvesant finds himself in a world in which art and sexual depravity are indistinguishable. His fears for the young woman grow increasingly dark.

She’s not the only one who has gone missing in this murky society of the talented and the strange. In fact, more than a dozen missing women may have fallen victim to the same killer. The number of suspects keeps multiplying. Somewhere, a savage killer is roaming free and he’s isn’t finished yet.

I’ve read a lot of Laurie King’s Sherlock Holmes books and enjoyed them very much. This was not the same style. In the end, though, I liked the book. It took me a while to get into it. The characters are smug, the élite of the art world, but they were also bores, boors, braggarts. Self-absorbed snobs — the kind of people I avoid. Eventually, as relationships began to sort out, I grew to like the detective and the French policeman with whom he is working. I even developed an affection for some of the women, though they will never be my gal pals.

This is a work of fiction, so despite familiar names — Hemingway pops up, along with Cole Porter — they are not real, though I suspect they were modeled on real people. It’s a good mystery. Harris Stuyvesant is an interesting guy. It’s well-written. If you like your villains insane and creepy, you have a whole slew of bad guys from which to choose. Harris Stuyvesant is a sturdy character with plenty of back story. I think he will grow up to be likable and interesting.

Laurie King is exceptionally literate. She uses lots of big words, so if you like your reading easy, this isn’t the book for you. The elegance of her language is one of her most attractive qualities as an author. I would have read to the end for that alone. The Parisian setting is well-drawn. You can virtually see and smell the city as you read. Especially smell.

The Bones of Paris is worth your time. Especially if you really like a bit of creepiness in your mysteries, The Bones of Paris has ambiance in abundance. It’s available as an e-book, Kindle, audio, paperback, and hardcover.

DOG BONE SOUP – A BOOMER’S JOURNEY, BY BETTE STEVENS

DOG BONE SOUP Launch Banner

DOG BONE SOUP is the long-awaited “rest of the story”of Shawn Daniels from the original short story, “Pure Trash.” It’s particularly long-awaited for me because as soon as I read the short story, I wanted to read this book. The only problem was, Bette hadn’t yet written it.

But she did it. Dog Bone Soup is available for your reading pleasure. And what a pleasure it is.

Bette has the purest, freshest writing style I’ve read in many a long year. Reading her prose is like peering into an exceptionally clear, deep pool. It looks like the bottom is close enough to touch, but those waters run deep.

Bette Stevens is a class act, an author who knows how to tell a story. Her characters are real, so true to life, they practically leap off the page. In Dog Bone Soup, style and the story are blended to perfection.

DOG BONE SOUPI’ve read a lot of books about rural poverty and for some reason, all those stories are set in the south. This is as far from south as you can get and a timely reminder that poverty is not regional. It’s everywhere, from the biggest cities to the hidden hamlets where tourists never go.

Shawn Daniels’ story is wonderful story. It’s growing up and coming of age for a poor kid in a dysfunctional family. His world is cold and hardscrabble. A drunken father, a vanishing mother. Foster parents with no love to share, teachers who can’t see past patches and poverty. Yet somehow Shawn forges a road of his own. Armed with courage, humor, and grit, he grows into a strong young man with solid values. And a future.

Sometimes, very little is enough.

No matter how it sounds, there’s nothing depressing about this story. How come? Because Shawn Daniels hasn’t a shred of self-pity in him. Despite the challenges he faces, Shawn is never down. Not depressed, discouraged, broken, or beaten. This kid has grit. Determination. A solid grip on his own worth.

Where does it come from? Mom, sometimes. A few others who see Shawn’s value and give him a hand along his path. A personal, hard-wired toughness that lets him see past the life he is living it to the life he wants — and for which he is willing to work. Mostly, it is Shawn’s own sharp intelligence which enables him to understand his world. It lets him trust his judgment without bogging down in unearned guilt. He makes smart decisions.

It’s a great story — and it’s far from over.

About the author

BAS Author logo stamp 2015Inspired by nature and human nature, author Bette A. Stevens is a retired elementary and middle school teacher, a wife, mother of two and grandmother of five. Stevens lives in Central Maine with her husband on their 37-acre farmstead where she enjoys writing, gardening, walking and reveling in the beauty of nature. She advocates for children and families, for childhood literacy and for the conservation of monarch butterflies (milkweed is the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat).

Bette A. Stevens is the author of award-winning picture book AMAZING MATILDA; home/school resource, The Tangram Zoo and Word Puzzles Too!; and PURE TRASH, the short story prequel to DOG BONE SOUP.