Books, cockroaches and Eroticism in Western Art

I dislike finding cockroaches setting up home in my books. Last week I found 3 boxes of books stored in my garage. Today, I opened one of those boxes to find a favourite old set of art theory books from the 60s and 70s published by Thames and Hudson, and Praeger. I was dusting them off when I reached the bottom of the archived box the books were stored in when 3 coackroaches, not tiny German ones, nor big kinger bush cockies, just brown in between medium sized cockies crawled out of the spine of Eroticism in Western Art. Why this book and not any of the other 20 books in the box? Is it because it is hardback? Did they like the pictures? Why not Surrealist Art or Metaphysical Art?

Can I spray book spines with bug spray? How do I know there are no more vile cockroach eggs waiting to hatch and subsequently populating my home until one night, while I am sleeping, one of those creepy, dirty insects crawls into my eardrum and starts beating to its own beat.

I don’t like cockroaches.

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Look Ma! I’m on a podcast! or This is what you get when you don’t vet your children’s reading

On Valentine’s Day, Kat Mayo and I spent a good part of our day travelling to 2SER studios for an interview on Love and Passion. Anyone that knows both Kat and me would know that we can talk about romance fiction for hours. Put us in front of a microphone and we will amp it up just that tad bit more. I recommend you get yourself a cup of tea, coffee, icecream, cakey and sit back and enjoy.

Love and Passion Show 116 on 2SER

Love and Passion Show 116 on 2SER

The show was aired on a Saturday and unbeknownst to me, one of my sisters went to my mum’s place and translated the interview to mum as it was being aired. During the break in the interview, I received a phone call from my mum.

Mum: When did you start reading romances?

Me: 32 years ago.

Mum: Really? So you just went on the radio to tell everyone?

Me: Yes mum.

Mum: Thank you for letting them know that I don’t read them. But you didn’t tell them I read religious books and biographies of saints.

Me: Sorry mum. I did consider it.

Mum: So what do you know about romance?

Me: Ummm…you know how I went back to uni last year?

Mum: Yes.

Me: That is what I am studying. I told you about it. And you know I read romances. You would always ask me to help you cook and clean and to put down “those romances”.

Mum: I didn’t think you were actually reading romances. I was being ironic.

There you have it. My mum, the original hipster.

Unlike a lot of romance readers I have met, I did not discover romances by finding my mum or grandmum’s stash. If anything, reading is not a shared activity for my mum and I as our interests are quite different. Not now and not when I was a younger either.

For many people, the thought of a parent not knowing what their children are reading seems to be anathema. It is equated as “not caring” or “how can you trust what they have chosen”.

I can tell you that both my parents cared that I was reading. Their main aim was to provide my sisters and I with ample opportunities to read and do homework. That is, ensuring that we didn’t have too many distractions – 1 doll, no video player, 1 TV, regular visits to the library and food at the ready. Both my parents were Greek migrants so Greek was the main conversational language in our home. My mum’s English reading skills were minimal (she worked a day job in a factory, a night shift as a cleaner, a weekend job as a cleaner, ran a boarding house AND raised 4 daughters) and though she was literate in Greek, due to her mindblowing superwoman working life, her rare chance to relax involved her knitting, tatting, gardening and reading the newspaper and the Bible. For mum, food and care was her bonding experience – as well as teaching me how to embroider which I still do on occasion. The only reading I remember sharing with my mum was when I would translate Paris Match from French to Greek for her when they had spreads on the Greek ex-royal family or an article on Cristina and/or Athena Onassis.

As my dad was highly literate in English, mum was quite happy to let him take charge of the homework and reading tasks. Though she did not know the content of the books I was reading, my dad did. Luckily, he was of the mindset that censorship of reading was wrong and never objected to the books I was reading that other friends’ parents were voicing concerns over. Thankfully, he trusted my choices.

My reading path was mine to choose. Influenced by my sisters, my teachers, friends, the books available at the library and my local newsagency, there was a joy in discovering my interests unfettered by close examination of the content of my books by my parents. This is something I try hard to emulate with my sons though it is difficult when you are a librarian to not be involved in their reading lives. Making opportunities for them to read is a much harder task. Gaming and computing distractions abound in our home and are much more addictive than the written word. To be fair, they have both hooked me onto Football Manager and I am crap at it. Its complex rules and processes make me weep for the simplicity of a linear narrative text. I no longer choose books for them. I stopped doing so when they were 8. Unless they ask I won’t read their choices. It is their private party, their little secret. Funnily, both of them at 11 years old have sneakily challenged me with “Mum, there’s lots of snogging and drug taking in the book I’m reading”. My reply has been “That’s good. Would you like something to eat?”.

I never thought of my romance reading as ever being secret. I never felt that they were my private party. I honestly thought I read romances openly for most of my life. That is until last week when I realised that it only took 32 years for my mum to come to the realisation that when she was shouting at me to put away those romances, her daughter was really, truly reading romances.

My books are worth their weight in silver

Like most homes, we have a small stash of 5 cent, 10 cent and 20 cent coins that pile up in a coin jar. This coin jar is used regularly so there is rarely any more money than five dollars in it. My youngest son can only take canteen money from that jar to pay for his garlic bread or frozen oranges  and I get to use my handful of silver when I head down to my local opshop/charity shop.

Books at my opshop cost anywhere from $1 to $5. I will often throw some coins in my bag and head down to buy myself a book. When I did this today, I was overjoyed to find some Charlotte Lamb, Carole Mortimer, Anne Mather and Penny Jordan reprints on sale. These were reprints from their later books but even these reprints are nearly 10 years old and out of print. I counted my silver and found I had enough money to buy 3 books, all with 2 novels in each binding. I chose the ones I would buy, went to the front of the shop and waited to be served. The woman ahead of me was buying some interior decorating magazines. These were being sold for $1, too. There was a woman hovering to my side and when it came to my turn to be served she said to the woman at the checkout “Give her the Mills & Boon 3 for a dollar. I just want to get rid of them”. It turns out hover woman was the manager.

Now her comment took me aback somewhat. This is an opshop. Is there a place for snobbery in an opshop? I expect a certain egalitarianism from my opshop. I have often seen Target shirts hanging beside Ben Sherman shirts here. I have seen Sportsgirl skirts next to Jigsaw skirts. Frankly, my Mills & Boons, clutched closely to my bosom, had, just moments ago, been sitting on a shelf alongside John Banville’s the Sea and V. S. Naipaul’s Half a Life (ah! the sweet irony that they still sit on those shelves unpurchased). Isn’t shopping at an opshop an opportunity to give to a charity while benefitting from finding an item that is no longer easily purchased from mainstream retailers? For others it is a way to dress and clothe themselves while on a tight budget and for others it is a thumbing it to the big corporates in an attempt to be alternative.

Now this opshop only had 20 M&B titles which is quite a low amount in comparison with the opshop in the neighbouring suburb which has hundreds. And this was a good day! It often has none. Though on the one hand I was quite excited at the lower price so I hurried over to the shelves and chose another 6 books and bought 9 books for $3 (which being doubles means that I scored 18 new books today!) I was also angered. I wanted to shake my fist at the sky and shout “How could you denigrate these wonderfully written books. How could you value them less than a three year old tattered House and Garden”. But I didn’t. I did make a comment about literature snobs after I gave her my pennies.

I am offended on behalf of my reading love. My offense won’t last long as you develop a thick skin as an out-of-the-closet romance reader. But I choose to be affronted when my reading choices meet disdain, scorn and ridicule. I am going to love my books. And they are worth their weight in silver.

Postscript: Like most people, I buy my books from a broad range of places. Retailers, online, markets, opshops and second-hand bookshops. In anticipation of anyone reading this accusing me that if I felt that strongly about Mills & Boon why don’t I buy them new I would like to say that I only buy my in print Mills & Boon at full retail prices. And they are the books that are worth their weight in gold.

I don’t need to like the characters or the story to enjoy reading a romance novel

This post started its life as a comment over at the blog Something More but it morphed and took on a life of its own but is still tangentially related to @Liz_Mc2‘s piece.

When I was 15, my friend (who was 17) came to my home with her fiance (who was in his 30s) with wedding invites. It was an arranged marriage as her parents felt that their daughters must marry young otherwise they will stray from God’s path. I recall my dad asking my friend if she was going to continue her studies to which her fiance answered that she will not need to complete studying as her task will be to take care of their children and home and it was his job to provide for the family. He then said to my father “If women are equals to men then why is it the man who is on top in the marital bed”. She giggled while the rest of us were stunned. At 15 I knew that there was more than missionary yet this smarmy, arrogant man at 30 had not imagined a life beyond it,  but also felt missionary was a divine sign of man’s superiority to women and that he expected a wife that submitted to his patriarchal needs. At 15, I recognised that this man was controlling, possessive and dismissive of his wife-to-be’s capacity to think. However, she accepted and married him (and is still married to him) and is always smiling and happy when I see her and their many children.

They have a romance story which I don’t particularly like. But it is theirs. And there are many dysfunctional marriages and relationships that I see around me daily that creep me out – but it is their story.

And that is why I read romances. Romances, for the most part, are character driven. They are about the slow reveals of humanity, vulnerability, conflict, anger, humour, the struggle of deciding whether to compromise personal values in order to accept someone who may not have the same values as oneself. Romances are reflections of that most personal interpersonal decision – finding a life partner.

Some romances are wonderful and I truly believe that the couple will be happy together for a long time. And other romances are awful. Not awful as in poorly written – but awful in the portrayal of the abhorrent characters. I may not like who the main characters are, I may not like the way they came together or why they came together but I revel in their engaging story. As a reader, I have never felt the need to like the characters I read about. I need to gain some understanding of why people who think differently to me, whose values and ideas are polar to mine, function the way that they do and how they find themselves in the situation that they are in. I can believe their story is likely without liking their story.

And there are many romances that when I finish reading them I mentally create my own epilogue in which I calculate the date of the divorce and how that divorce came about (was it an SMS, was it an amicable separation, was it a covert project that involved fleeing to a women’s refuge after finally getting that beating he felt she deserved). There are other romances that upon finishing them I imagine a miserable life of two bitter and angry people, one submitting, the other over-bearing (let us not be gender biased here – I have often seen the male submitting to a horrid female). For some it is a long life filled with regret for staying within a relationship that only occasionally raised some hope and for others it is a life that they are happy within because it is in line with their life values (and it is my problem not theirs if it is not in line with my values). And there are just as many romances that upon finishing reading I imagine the joyous life the couple have together, travelling, working, building a home, creating a family, dancing, smiling and laughing together until they die.

As a reader, I relish being engaged by the characters in all these different romance stories but I don’t necessarily like them. I do not think that the relationships I am reading end with the Happily Ever After the author has provided me. The romance is just a snapshot in the life of these characters who live on in readers’ minds. The sign of an amazing romance novel is one in which the book gives me a structured beginning which then informs the rest of the story that grows in my mind.

Postscript: It is a good thing my friend’s fiance had never heard of the reverse cowgirl because who knows how he would have reasoned that it was a position of submission.

Nanna Naps and the books that bring them on

The Urban Dictionary defines Nanna Naps as:

I would go further and add the stipulation that a Nanna Nap is never taken on a bed. It is never planned. One has a Nanna Nap by mistake. One has a Nanna Nap while waiting for the washing machine to finish its rinse cycle. One has a Nanna Nap while Ridge and Brooke fight over Brooke kissing another of Ridge’s male relatives or while Bo and Hope try to come to terms with their years spent apart due to being brainwashed into thinking they were royalty. One has a Nanna Nap while one’s boiling hot tea is cooling only to wake up to a cold Lapsang Souchong. Or, quite importantly, Nanna Naps are taken when the book you are reading, rather than amaze you and enthrall you, has sent you into Morpheus’s arms due to its somnabalistic prose. I am a regular partaker of Nanna Naps. Most often on my couch though occassionally in a chair (and dang it my neck is a mess after those). And sometimes I have them while I am in the car. This is fine when I am a passenger but not so good if I am the driver * WARNING: Nanna Naps can kill

Books I have Nanna Napped with:

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

I have such love for Nick Hornby. A romance writer under the guise of lad lit and music lit. Every book has an angsty bloke and every bloke gets the girl in the end. And Juliet, Naked is no different. I usually stop reading a book that will send me to sleep but this one had an epistolary element to it and I felt I needed to persevere. I’m glad I did as it guaranteed me a Nanna Nap per sitting and I was much more refreshed when I awakened.

Don’t Look Down by Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer

Don’t get me wrong here, for I adore Jennifer Crusie as a writer. She is in my top 2 authors ever. I lubs her muchly. And also in my top 2 books ever is Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer’s book Agnes and the Hitman. Yet, Don’t Look Down took me 3 years and a number of false starts before I managed to push past a Nanna Nap on page 7. Yes, every attempt had me nod, nod, nodding off. In the end, the book was a decent adventure/romance read.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Reading this book became such a sure thing for having a Nanna Nap that it almost defied the rule of a Nanna Nap being unplanned. Tired but can’t get to sleep…perhaps Conrad’s description the ships lying in wait for the Thames wash is the answer, as time and time again this had me breathing little “ks” of sleep. Once again, I persevered and love this densely descriptive book.

Odysseus by Ken Catran (audiobook)

I love Greek Mythology and I particularly love hearing the stories told rather than reading them as they represent thousands of years of oral storytelling traditions. All I remember of this audiobook is driving onto the expressway heading out of Sydney for Nelson Bay and then waking up outside of our hotel 2 hours later with both my sons telling me about the gory killing and maiming they heard in the story. Two things stand out in my mind. The first is that I loved their excitement for the story and the second is how grateful I felt that I was not the driver. Since that day, unless it is a comedian, I never listen to audiobooks when I am the driver.

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

This was one of the 9 books that I removed from my home in my annual purge of books I will never read. I recall opening the book. I think Chapter 1 starts with a domestic scene and then…..zzz (a Nanna Nap beckons me even as I type about this book).