The New Kindle 3

I love books. And, normally I’m one of those late adopters when it comes to new products, especially electronics.  For me any new invention or innovation has be tested, used, abused and given a certain length of time to discover any life threatening properties before I’ll try it.  That’s why it’s a bit surprising that I was one of the first to get the new Kindle 3 – the slim delicate one that lets you read outside. 

What I like

  • The battery seems to run forever without needing a charge. You don’t even need to bring the charger along with you on a trip which is very impressive.
  • It’s small enough to slip into a purse without adding any bulk or weight.  That makes traveling with Kindle much simpler except on a plane.  When going through security, Kindles are treated like electronics and the flight attendants make you turn it off during take-off and landing.
  • You can find hundreds of classics from Amazon for less than a dollar.  It’s so easy to fill your Kindle library by downloading for ten dollars recently published books, and everything else costs even less.  There are other ways of finding pre-1922 books, but it takes quite a bit of searching to find the best edition, and more software to remember and manage.

 What I miss

  • It just doesn’t feel right.  That visceral sense of reading a book is completely lost.  With Kindle there’s no physical perception of how long, how important, or how old the ‘book’ is.  Sure, there’s a numerical sizing system with Kindle, but how long is a 10,000 unit book?  With Kindle, the books are imaginary just like the characters and story.
  • There’s really not much need to go to a bookstore or a library anymore.  Wandering the bookshelves and picking through the discount table appeals to me as a reader.  It’s as though I think something serendipitous will happen and just the right book with jump out at me, demanding to be read.

After I finish the stack of paper books I’ve already got, I suspect I’ll be mostly a confirmed Kindle reader.  I just wonder if in ten years time they’ll discover that the electromagnetic waves emanating from the Kindle alters the structure of your brain or ruins your eyes.  I guess that’s the price of progress.

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Casting a Wide Net

Anonymous 17th-century watercolor of the Sempe...
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A friend lent me the book A Cat is Watching by Roger Caras. It’s only about cats, but in it was a surprisingly simple supposition to explain the invention of poetry – to bridge the vast gap between my interior reality and yours.  Seeing it out of context, like a sort of sideways glance in a one-liner, had more meaning than any of those intellectual essays on poetry in literary magazines.  It felt like an impromptu gift from random reading.

Reading at random, outside your preferences and genres, is good for the would-be writer or for that matter, most everybody.  A certain amount of promiscuity in reading tastes can be a source of new ideas, rejuvenation and salvation. Say you’re submerged in writing a novel; it’s safer to cross the boundary into reading non-fiction while you’re writing.  It saves you from the problem of comparing your style with another author, it removes a possible source of envy, and it gives your brain a break.

How to Welcome Randomness in Reading

A while back when an old friend of the family died, none of his heirs wanted his collection of books.  He was a right-wing, gold-bug, arch conservative small town doctor.  By happenstance his library ended up with me.  Many of the books were those heavy bound medical reference books with the kind of pictures that bring on the gag reflex. But when I saw his 1852 edition of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and Other Phenomenon of Crowds I knew I’d stumbled into a real treasure trove.  It’s the all time classic tome about the psychology of feeding frenzies, asset bubbles and market manipulation, the best known being the Tulip Mania. It was out of print and had been impossible to find.  The collection included dozens of gems I never would have known about or run across.   

Not everybody can rely on a source of random must-reads falling into their lap like my legacy library.  But the next best thing might be the discount table at the book store.  I’ve had more luck finding a satisfying new book amongst the castoffs of the publishing money machine than on the Best Seller’s display.  Caesar’s Woman opened up the world of Rome in the series by Colleen McCulloughMy Antonia by Willa Cather was mesmerizing and led me on a year long quest to read most everything she wrote.  Patenting the Sun was a two-dollar non-fiction book about the polio vaccine that induced a sensation of pulling back the curtain and seeing the obvious hidden by everyday life.

Boredom is another useful motivator to push your reading limits.  It’s the only reason I read Death of Salesman. Rainy day ennui got me to pull it off the bookshelf in the family TV room because there was literally nothing else to do.  Those pitiful images of disappointment and the tragic lesson about how life can get derailed so easily was powerful stuff to a bored teenager.

Invite a little chaos into your reading habits, you might find some amazing ideas in the least expected places.

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Missing In Action – 20th Century Iconic Romantic Heroine

Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower
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I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with an Iconic Romantic Heroine for the 20th century.  Soliciting advice from others, more often than not, I received the suggestion of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind.   She’s an iconic character no doubt, but of the Anti-Heroine variety.  While Scarlett’s embedded in our cultural psyche, ultimately she’s a tragic figure.  The ending to Gone with the Wind was intentionally vague and certainly not in the “happy” category.  So, I quickly dismissed Scarlett and continued my search.

Next I considered Lucy Honeycutt from Room with a View by E.M. Forster.  This was an early 1900’s novel published during the narrow era of the Edwardian age.  She was a heroine who exemplified the transition for women coming out of the rigors of Victorianism but before the full effect of the 20th century took hold.  She was more transitional than iconic, so I moved on.

Finally, I had to realize that the suffrage movement, which culminated in the USA with the passage of the 19th amendment, was a distinct pivot point that changed the way women viewed their place in society. A new perspective challenged the notion of dependency on men for a woman’s sense of happiness and fulfillment.  Not surprisingly, within ten years of women getting the right to vote, there was a new heroine on the block – Nancy Drew.  Ostensibly written by a female author, Carolyn Keene, the books were actually written by a collection of ghostwriters, both male and female, working under the tight strictures of a single editor.  Nancy Drew became the strongest female role model for young girls in that large swath of the middle to late twentieth century.  Her original persona was a spunky, independent young woman with a boyfriend comfortably in the background.  She was updated in the fifties to offer a less threatening, more submissive role model.  Her character make-over is a prime example of the pendulum that swings with the conflicting desires of  the female audience.  Ultimately, Nancy Drew is a heroine but with no romance, so she too fails the test for the iconic romantic heroine.

In the seventies a new subgenre emerged in the historical romance trade.  The realities of the sexual revolution with reliable, female controlled pregnancy prevention and the opening up of higher education to woman produced a new need to fill – how to romance a woman who wasn’t supposed to rely on a man to fulfill her destiny.  The answer was one of the biggest ironies of feminism – the glorification of rape fantasies and unwanted pregnancy.  The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss was one of the first in describing sex with intimate detail.  Soft porn became the essential ingredient for a successful historic romance novel in the ‘70’s.  The modern romantic heroine now needed to be skillful between the sheets and willing to tell all about it.

In the nineties there was Bridget Jones as the bumbling, ditzy, slightly slutty heroine.  She may endure as an iconic heroine but more than likely she’ll be one of the countless characters that sparkle for a few years and then pass into oblivion when the next new swing of the pendulum comes round.

There was another heroine that came close – Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone.  She was pure and modest, and had the perfect job for a modern woman – romance writer.  It was an entertaining story, but it too falls into the transient category.

I finally came to the conclusion that the Iconic Romantic Heroine may have met her demise in the 20th century, or at the very least she’s still Missing in Action.   If there is a 20th century iconic heroine out there, who gets her man and a happy ending, I’d love to know.  Please tell me if you think of one.

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Jane Eyre – The Tragic Romantic Heroine

In my memory, Jane Eyre will forever be linked to chocolate ice crème.  I remember spending the better part of a weekend, aged 15 or 16, with the book in my lap and a bowl held up near my chin.  Complementary pleasures — one a fleeting sweetness, the other lingering as a dark engrossing image with a happy ending.

For young girls who love reading, Jane Eyre is a near right-of of-passage.  It’s a blend of Gothic romance, Victorian morals and Fairy Tale sensibility rendered through an austere, some would say stubborn and defiant heroine.  The first few pages peg her as unlikeable, according to her aunt and three cousins.  Jane’s response is a resolve to never be anything other than herself – stoic, smart and judgmental.  The action flows mostly through her decisions to follow her moral convictions, satisfying those persnickety Victorian readers.

A Pair of Stepsisters

Bronte created matching sets of cousins to fill the role of stepsisters.  They were placed in the story like bookends of good and evil.  The first were paternal cousins, Eliza and Georgiana Reed.  Both qualified as unsuitable human beings, destined for unhappiness. Further into the story, at a point where a crisis passes, Bronte introduces two women who later turn out to be cousins on Jane’s mother’s side.  It was a tad too convenient, but the cousins Diana and Mary Rivers served as the idyllic stepsisters to round out the happy ending.

Two Suitors

Charlotte Bronte offered up two suitors as polar opposites.  The hero, Rochester, was more emotionally flawed than any of the Austen heroes.  The second suitor, St. John, was never comical or frivolous.  Jane’s rejection of his heartless, cold offer of marriage was painful and dense, and had not one drop of comedy.  St. John’s character seemed to be a tool to convey Jane’s near perfect understanding of the men in her life.  She deftly intuited how to manipulate Rochester in the engagement period before the wedding.

Gothic Romance

Rochester’s wife being insane and kept in a castle tower of sorts provided the gothic element that readers were accustomed to, although it was not nearly as dark as Wuthering Heights.  Bronte used the orphan archetype with its typical deprivations that lead to bliss.  True to the genre, bliss first appears in the form of a man, Rochester, who intends to marry her.  The irony is that Jane Eyre was more than capable of taking care of herself and Rochester.

Jane Eyre, the tragic heroine who earned her happy ending.

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Elizabeth Bennet: Queen of the Regency Heroines

Pride and Prejudice
Image by elycefeliz via Flickr

Jane Austen‘s life spanned two revolutions (the American and French) as well as Napoleon’s rise to power.  In the romance trade, this era was known as the Regency period.  It was a time of upheaval and uncertainty for the British Empire but when you read Austen’s work, it’s as though she was ignorant of the world beyond her tight little circle. In her novels, she created small, intimate communities where she simultaneously satirized and embraced the hypocrisy of her time, namely the audacity of an entitled, landed gentry who sneered at the merchant class, never bothering to ask or understand where the money came from to pay for their extravagant lifestyles.  In that narrowly prescribed sphere, Austen’s driving theme focused exclusively on the trials and tribulations of young women in their quest to secure a suitable mate.  For that was the sole measure of success for any young woman – the quality of the husband she caught.   

Of all the Austen heroines, who snagged the best man?  Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  According to the values of the Regency period, the more aristocratic, the more haughty and arrogant, the more desirable the man. Without a doubt, Darcy was the crème de la crème.  He was the wealthiest of the bunch.  Both his parents were dead and therefore couldn’t harass Elizabeth after the marriage, as you just knew Edward’s mother would do to Elinor in the post-wedding world of Sense and Sensibility.  Emma spent more time with Frank Churchill who turned out to be a foil hero with the real husband material, Knightley, relegated to the background for much of the story.  Edmund in Mansfield Park was a sap, easily entrapped by the villainess, Mary Crawford.  Captain Wentworth in Persuasion showed his disloyalty towards Anne when he had a fling with Louisa.

Darcy’s character was crafted with the same technique used for Elizabeth – all his supposed flaws were transformed to virtues by end of the novel.  His awkward arrogance was a masque for intelligence and depth of character.  Colin Firth perfected the look of cool reserve hiding a deep, painfully felt passion beneath. No wonder he was Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and the modern day Prince Charming in Bridget Jones Diary

The other required male archetype of romance novels, the father, was best in Pride and Prejudice, too.  Mr. Bennet may have been a weakling, but at least he wasn’t senile like Emma’s father, or died leaving his wife and daughters nearly destitute as in Sense and Sensibility.  It’s a toss-up for the bottom spot, whether it goes to the pretentious, ignorant snob Sir Elliot of Persuasion or the drunken derelict of Mansfield Park who was rarely seen.

Another element that sets Elizabeth Bennet apart from her peers was the interplay with Darcy.  There’s the famous scene when he first proposes marriage to Elizabeth on the grounds that he’s lowered himself to accept her as the object of his desire.  Naturally, she spurns him, pointing out the insult in his proposal.   However, there was an earlier tête à tête where the relationship actually began. In front of Darcy’s friend, Bingley, they each offered a psychological assessment of Bingley’s personality.  The exchange became a sport with the words flying over Bingley’s head, and took on the intimate tone of intellectual sparring.  Their discourse generated sexual tension without the heroine losing her reputation, unlike Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.  It made Elizabeth appear smart, lively and independent compared to the others. Emma comes off as conceited and snobbish. Elinor Dashwood was staid and practical, the polar opposite of her sister, the overly emotional and melodramatic Marianne. Anne Elliot was the repressed old maid and Fanny Price was mostly an empty vessel. 

There was lightness to Elizabeth’s character.  She foresaw her sister’s disgrace, and by association, the whole family’s loss of social standing.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s attitude didn’t carry the weight of the indiscretion. She was resigned to not finding a husband, but not defeated by it, avoiding the more morose perspective that overshadows Sense and Sensibility.  Elizabeth Bennet managed to rise above the fray at every turn, and by hooking up with Darcy, she redeemed the family’s reputation and fortune. 

It doesn’t get any better than that.

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