Thursday, August 03, 2006

Summer Reading

Well, as summer nears to an end, I am catching up on my summer reading before all hell breaks loose in the fall (mainly, dealing with the start-up of school, work etc.). I am a lover of non-fiction and rarely read fiction, perhaps because I find reality so much more fascinating. As a kid, I loved reading biographies of famous people who made their mark in the world--as a future psychologist, I wondered what traits those who made a difference had that helped them produce and live up to their potential. I still wonder about this and am always fascinated by the resilience of some people and the victimhood and excuses of others.

Anyway, back to summer reading. I am currently engrossed in Walter Laqueur's book, The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day. With all that is going on right now with Israel, this is a great read and is a terrific review of antisemitism throughout history up until the present day. My favorite chapter so far in the book is chapter nine on "Antisemitism and the Left" in which the author discusses how antisemitism has moved from a preoccupation of Christian and right-wing movements to one of Muslims and left-wing groups.

If the prior book isn't enough light reading for you, then perhaps you should take a look at some solutions to healthcare in Arnold Kling's book, Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care. Like a true dork, I read this on my vacation at the beach while other less dorky (or maybe better at taking it easy) women were reading lighter fare such as Scandal in Spring. Seriously, why do women read romance novels--does anyone out there know? I have never read one and have zero interest in them but apparently women love them. If you know why, drop me the reason in the comment section.

Finally, I just ordered a book from Amazon that I have been meaning to read for years, Whores of the Court: The Fraud of Psychiatric Testimony and the Rape of American Justice. The book details how mental health experts use excuses and junk science in court to clear criminals and sway juries. I may post a review of the book after I get a chance to read it.

Anyone got any other suggestions for good non-fiction books to read before summer ends? Or do you have any advice for me as to why so many women love romance novels or is this just a stereotype?

Update: Bitter at The Bitch Girls' blog has an interesting take on chick lit--I guess this would include romance novels.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

John Lukacs' _A New Republic_ is simply outstanding in providing background for the current state of America.

12:38 PM, August 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, hell, we all know women are idiots, right?

12:48 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Lee J. Cockrell said...

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin. Dick was a great science fiction writer, drug addled, histrionic, whacked-out, possibly schizophrenic, but ultimately a good hearted person. This biography explains a lot behind his work and how many of his novels reflected much from his life.

Romance novels are, basically, porn. Lots of people like porn, just some of it is more socially acceptable than other kinds. I once heard a great title for a parody romance novel: "He Stopped When I Said 'No'".

12:59 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

anonymous 12:48:

What makes women idiots for liking romance novels? Just because I don't like them doesn't mean I think women are idiots for reading them--anymore than my reading the Star makes me an idiot.

1:03 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger TMink said...

I heard a definition of porn as "things that will never happen to me." So now my wife and I call porn anything that we are interested in and read about that will never happen to us. I prefer Stereo porn and she likes Scrapbooking and House porn.

I guess that people read romance novels because they enjoy the feelings that reading them produces. Not my type of porn, but then most people do not find reading about $100,000 speakers exciting.


1:48 PM, August 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Helen-

"As a kid, I loved reading biographies of famous people who made their mark in the world--as a future psychologist, I wondered what traits those who made a difference had that helped them produce and live up to their potential. I still wonder about this and am always fascinated by the resilience of some people and the victimhood and excuses of others."

I find this interesting too. I've also found that some people have some really weird, twisted logic about it. A group in slavery, for example does not have property rights and therefore cannot "live up to their potential". You have this absurdly wasteful situation where you have some people that would be highly successful entrepenuers, intellectuals, etc. performing manual labor to enrich others simply because that is the safest, easiest, and most ego and prejudice-affirming labor for the slaveowning groups to exploit. (Although I'm sure if they found a way to safely steal valuable intellectual property as well they surely would.)

Obviously, the most effective way for those in the slave class to "produce and live up to their potential" is for them to resist the system, end it, and collect reparations from the slaveowning class. If that didn't happen they would never "live up to their potential" and of course would be cowardly in accepting a series of racist, ethno-supremicist, religio-supremicist, etc. crimes. And also party to foisting those crimes on successive generations by not ending the system.

So which are the actions of the "slave class" mentioned above - "living up to their potential" or "victimhood"?

4:15 PM, August 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Krakatoa" by Simon Winchester is an interesting read.

I thought it was going to be a refuge from current events, but by page 16 the Dutch were mixing it up with Islam on Java in 1595, which was both interesting and depressing.

Then later on we get into climate change due to the eruption -- I guess there's just no escaping today's topics :-)

4:29 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Freeman Hunt said...

I don't read romance novels either, but my husband and I once looked at a passage from one in the grocery store. It was about a woman who was kidnapped by pirates and then raped by the dashing pirate captain, which she greatly enjoyed. Hilarious.

I agree with Lee. They probably read it as socially acceptable pornography.

4:31 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

anonymous 4:15:

Uhh, last time I checked, slaves were emanicipated in 1865.

5:10 PM, August 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never read romance novels for the same reason I don't read science fiction -- it's all fantasy. Granted, much of the writing in nonfiction books is also the author's fantasies, but at least he has to attempt to convince us he isn't just making it all up. Teasing out the reality from his fantasies, usually propaganda for a favored point of view, is fun and involves a lot of reading on the subject by different authors.

5:18 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Edmund said...

Try reading Victor Hanson's A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. I'm halfway through it and it is really, really good. A frank and comprehensive view of a war that shaped (and nearly destroyed) Western civilization.

5:35 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Robert W Donnell said...

These are a little dated but worth the read, if you haven't already:

PC MD by Sally Satel (or anything by Sally Satel for that matter);

Junk Science Judo by Steve Milloy

5:36 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

R. W. donnell,

Thanks for the suggestions--"One Nation under Therapy" by Satel is also good.

5:43 PM, August 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Helen, if you don't like fiction, you may not like this recommendation, but there's a terrific biography of Henry James out. The Master by Colm Toibin. It's not a strict bio--it's a novel version of James's life. I'm just...engrossed. But for me, part of the interest lies in guessing in what novel Henry will use something that's happening to him. So again, if you're not a big fiction fan, it may not be very interesting to you.

I've never really understood mass market romance novels. They're hilariously ooky. But give me a Persuasion or a Tenant of Wildfell Hall any day.


5:50 PM, August 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"American Thoecracy" is worth the time, and people are raving about "The One Percent Solution".

Romance as porn....I once heard a defintion of porn that made sense to me - the sexual objectification of some other person. A lot of romance novels fit that definition - Jane Austen's male charcters are basically cardboard figures - but soem romances don't do that.

Lu Xun wrote a good quick overview od Chinese literature years ago, and they have a genre of romantic novels, which he in his totally blunt Chinese way called "novels about prostitutes". It reminds me of romantic opera libretti - think of the storyline to La Traviata.

5:55 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger David Foster said...

Try "Adventures of a Bystander" by Peter Drucker. It's a quirky autobiography, in which Prof Drucker tells his own story by writing about interesting people he has known, ranging from his 4th grade teachers in Austria through Henry Luce and "Engine Charlie" Wilson.

Also the Dutchman who showed up in America with all seven of his "wives."

6:25 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger Amyra said...

"The Medici Conspiracy" by Peter Watson is fascinating as well as an easy read. As well as "The Sword and The Shield by Andrew and Mitrokhin. Mitrokhin was a curator for the KGB before defecting to Great Britain--a must read for anyone interested in the Cold War

6:51 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger d-day said...

I think of romance novels the way I think of candy - light, fluffy, sweet, and makes you feel good for a minute during a trying day. I don't think the porn comparison is quite fair, since a lot of them go pretty easy on the sex stuff. (It also seems like the people pushing the porn comparison are pretty hostile to the genre anyway). Sometimes it's just nice to go along with a simple little story with a happy ending and not have to think. If you exclusively read romance novels, you're not doing your brain any favors - just like you're not doing your body any favors if you eat nothing but candy. But just because you enjoy brussels sprouts and caviar doesn't mean a bag of Skittles isn't good every once in awhile.

6:58 PM, August 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Helen-

It was a hypothetical, but you don't think there is slavery today in varying degrees?

But which is resistance and the collection of reparations, "living up to your potential" or "victimhood"?


7:48 PM, August 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A radio program called Phisolophy Talk (which is streamed on the internet) did a summer reading list episode back in May.

Many great books are on the list, and some I would say more people should be exposed to.

8:21 PM, August 03, 2006  
Blogger DADvocate said...

There are several historical fiction novels regarding pioneers and settlers written by Allan W. Eckert and James Alexander Thom. Basically, the books are embellished stories of real people and actual events. They give a good feel for how life was for the early settlers.

I recommend "The Frontiersmen" by Thom and "Follow the River" by Eckert for starters. "Follow the River" is the true story of Mary Ingles being captured by the Shawnee Indians and her dramatic escape. "The Frontiersmen" centers around the settling of the Ohio Valley and the adventures of Simon Kenton. Kenton once saved Daniel Boone's life and was known by the Indians as "He whose gun was always loaded" due to his ability to reloaded his flintlock while on a dead run.

9:56 PM, August 03, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some non-fiction books I have read this summer:

"Freakonomics" - the economist comes up with some strange concepts: the abortion-crime link is kind of disturbing, but believable; and I am fascinated by the idea that campaign donations do not determine election winners. A liberal website I was on said this was due to selection bias.

"The World is Flat" by Thomas L Friedman - I found some of the technical stuff boring, but he has some interesting stories from around the world and some good geo-political information on arab countries.

"Islam Unveiled" by Robert Spencer - I found the style of the book to be boring because he quotes a lot of other sources and I am not comfortable with arabic names, but he is very critical of Islam and says the Koran has more authority to Muslims than the bible does to Christians.

12:23 AM, August 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See, I think the porn comparison is pretty much spot-on. Frankly, there's a lot of sex in your average romance novel. It doesn't necessarily have to be graphic, mind you; it's just that sex and sexual encounters make up a huge part of the novel. All it really is is escapism. (Men have similar mediums with shows like "The Man Show" and "lad mags" like "Maxim" and "FHM.") The same-old same-old plot of a romance novel is comforting, I guess.

12:32 AM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger SarahW said...

I think you would like Ramachandran's
Phantoms in the Brain, if you haven't read it yet.

1:09 AM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger jw said...

I with dadvocate .... I like the boundary between fiction and non-fiction.

For example Jean Auel's "Earth's Children" books are at the boundary between paleontology, fiction and romance ... plus a goodly dash of porn. They are a good read for a time when you do not really want to think too hard, but don't want to really waste time.

Jack Chaulker's SF novels are all a disussion on the nature of good and evil. Read Peck's "People of the Lie" (NF discussion of human evil and VERY much worth the read) and then the first novel of Chaulker's "Well World" (Midnight at the well of souls). Chaulker asks a lot more questions on "What is evil and how should we handle it?" It is stuff to make one think deep thoughts ...

Romance is a way to shut down deeper thoughts, it's a break from the hectic and mundane. Much of it is mild porn, some is just plain porn. It is like some SF, a nap for the brain and body.

5:14 AM, August 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Suggestions (these aren't brand new books and you may have read them):

"The Bounty - The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty" by Caroline Alexander. This challenges everything you think you may know about this incident and amazes one at the resilience of humans.

"Under the Banner of Heaven - A Story of Violent Faith" by Jon Krakauer. An eye-opener about the radical elements of Mormonism; some history and present day incidents and analysis.

"Annals of the Former World" by John McPhee. This is a difficult book to describe. It's about geology, but with much, much more thrown in. Extremely interesting and entertaining. McPhee is one of my favorite writers; once you read something that he's witten you'll have to read more.

Mike Doughty

9:46 AM, August 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I understand your objection to equatingporn to romance novels if the criterion is the amount of sex involved. But that wasn;'t my criterion - objectifcation ws. In almost all the romance novels I am familair with,(no very many, I admit) the male characters' feelings either are not explored and don't matter, or if they do matter, it is only as a foil for the females charcters' feelings. The male charcters have no independent reality to them. They are props for emotional masturbation.

That doesn't have to be bad, as long as readers don't take that so seriously as to think it should apply in real relationships. But we all know it happens plenty often. Read the articles in women's magazines dissecting men's inability to service women's emotional needs - there is never a mention of the men's needs, as if there is no interdependence.

I am not saying that this applies to any particular percentage of women, because I have no way of knowing in the frst place how many women read and then agree with and have their opinions formed by those articles, or by that type of fiction.

11:31 AM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger bob jones said...

It's been out a few years, but Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit is a crackerjack read even if you don't follow horses and horse racing.

I also like Norman McLean's Young Men and Fire, about smokejumpers in the Forties and a wildfire that changed Forest Service policy. McLean is better known for A River Runs Through It, but "Young Men and Fire" is a tour de force.

Last but not least, if you haven't read Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff, you should.

12:17 PM, August 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You'll take my British tabloids from my cold dead hands!

12:23 PM, August 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, if you liked Freakonomics, I highly recommend the authors' blog:

Good stuff.

12:24 PM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger KCFleming said...

Robert Conquest writes wonderful history, concentrating his devastating critiques on utopian and Marxist societies. (And he's a deft writer to boot.)

The Dragons of Expectation: Reality and Delusion in the Course of History
Reflections on a Ravaged Century

Paul Johnson has an equally damning history of Western intellectuals, mostly fellow-travellers. Well-researched, well-written, precise, and almost gossipy-fun.

12:34 PM, August 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This conversation had me glance at what a coworker (female secretary) was reading here at our law firm. As Paul harvey would say, "it is not one world." It was a biography Michael Flatery Lord of the Dance.

My choice: Deus Lo Volt by Evan S. Connell. History of the Crusades in fictional style as some have reccommended above with little judgment on the authors part.

4:24 PM, August 04, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great question-about why women read what they read. And I don't know the answer. Before my vacation, I went to Barnes and Neble looking for some new books, and they had a table called "beach reading". Romance novels, hip urbanite fiction and some spy stuff. Hmm.

My recommendation for beach reading: Peter Beinart's "The Good Fight". Great book. Non-fiction that reads like a novel. I could barely put it down during the chapter on the Reagan Years-I couldn't wait to see what happened next!

10:39 PM, August 04, 2006  
Blogger d-day said...


I can agree with your classification as porn if you're viewing it as objectification, rather than something more salacious (I'll admit that a lot of romance novels are salacious, but publishers actually have more imprints of the sex-lite stuff than in the really gross stuff).

I get your point about the male characters' feelings not really mattering, but I don't think that's just confined to the men. Lack of character development is part of the conventions of the genre, where conformity to the same simple narrative plot is key. I'm not sure that romance readers single out the men for objectification so much as they objectify the whole package - including, yes, a good-looking and passionate man who's totally into you, but also being skinny and having good hair and living in a castle. I don't think it's quite so insidious as I think you're implying. I'm sure too much of this (like too much of anything) can warp someone's imagination, but a little bit of fluffy reading here and there is harmless. I hope people don't read romance to refine their understanding of the human condition - that's what I consider to the be the realm of more serious fiction - but I'd bet some people do. But I would equally hope that men don't shape their expectations of what women are like from Maxim, and unfortunately that's not always what happens either.

As a whole, yes, romance is an undeniably shallow, but so is Maxim and US Weekly and lots of other pop culture entertainment. I see one of the main differences between those and romance fiction are that tabloid trash has a tendency to take pleasure in dragging people on a pedestal down to the reader's level (look at her cellulite!) vs. romance where the reader wants to identify themsleves with the higher ideal. Same escapist concept, but different tastes for different people. At least it's not pretending to be real like a lot of the garbage in women's magazines.

I think a lot of the discussion about the romance genre may reveal bias against against the people most identified as it's readers - homeschooling red-state housewives. (Not that I have any demographic information to back that up, but I'd bet the type of reader that would feel some pleasure in reading a "happily married ever after" story is a much different reader than the one that cares about what one Hollywood skank says about another). A lot of people are pretty hostile to the Midwestern Christian housewife way of life, but choosing that lifestyle (and reading romance novels) doesn't mean that the romance reader can't think for herself or that she doesn't know the difference between romance and reality.

Obviously I'm not going to convince anybody of anything and I'm not really trying to. If you're going to talk about the shallowness of pop culture as a whole, I'm right there with you. But I don't think that it's fair to single out the romance novel as a salacious, pornographic, and masturbatory while giving all the other cultural garbage a free pass.

12:55 AM, August 05, 2006  
Blogger Melissa Clouthier said...

Chick Lit. Don't read it. Never have. Don't get it. Honestly. But I can't throw stones. My junkfood for the mind is fantasy--Dune Series, Wheel of Time, you name it.

Mostly though, I read non-fiction tomes dedicated to psychology, business and history.

Pure fun reading? Anything by David Sedaris.

Also, our office started receiving Star magazine. Horrifyingly addictive. Poor Jessica and Ashleigh Simpson being compared like that! I mean, we all know Jessica is prettier.

1:13 AM, August 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll read anything except self-help and new-agey stuff. I love good non-fiction, I am reading Band of Brothers and An Infinity of Little Hours which is a book about the Carthusian order of monks.

I must defend romance novels, since I love to read them. No they are not great literature and yes they are escape. But what's wrong with that? I read for entertainment. I know the difference between great literature and escapism and I am fully capable of knowing the difference.

There are some very good romance novels out there. Try anything by Jo Beverley, Jennifer Crusie, Laura Kinsale, Barbara Samuel or Carla Kelly. There's also a lot of crap, but remember Sturgeon's Law applies to everything.

8:21 AM, August 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert Kaplan's "Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground" has the immediacy, depth, and insight characteristic of all his work (all essential reading in my view). The topic in brief is what our military is doing in roughly 120 countries around the world, mostly far away from reporters and photographers. The book provides a window on the different faces of the American empire, and the soldiers--for it has fallen largely upon them to define America's foreign policy on the ground--who defend it. The countours of the so-called long war are already visible in the range of activities--from building schools and clinics to training indigenous forces in counterinsurgency to fighting hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--as are the capabilities required to advance American interests. These include foreign languages, combat and survival skills typical of special forces, and above all, high-level problem solving outside the reach of the chain of command.

At the same time, the book provides a candid view of the America that produces these warriors, the parts of the country and class system from which they are drawn, the personality traits typical of the different branches, and how they find meaning making extraordinary sacrifices so far away from home.

5:41 PM, August 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"My favorite chapter so far in the book is chapter nine on "Antisemitism and the Left" in which the author discusses how antisemitism has moved from a preoccupation of Christian and right-wing movements to one of Muslims and left-wing groups."

Very true, but then no reasonable person questions the backwardness of Muslims. What isn't acknowledged is the regressiveness of the Left. It embraces all the failures that Western civilization finally rejected.

9:19 AM, August 09, 2006  
Blogger Meredith said...

My background: B.S, M.A., J.D. Happily married for 1 1/2 years. I love romance novels because I get to experience emotions that are outside my normal world. I never had the "tormented" soul lover/husband or the love/hate relationship. We fell in love at first sight and have been happy ever since. And with my schedule, a good novel that takes 3 hours to read with excellent charcter development, strong writing and steamy plots is a perfect moment of relaxation. Susan Carroll is my new favorite author!!

6:34 PM, August 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1776 by David McCullough - we are such whiners! Very inspiring look at American history.

6:53 PM, August 09, 2006  
Blogger susanna in KY said...

One of my favorite non-fiction books is "Against the Gods" by Peter Bernstein, which is about the history of probability theory. That may sound horribly dry, but I am marginally math-phobic and still thought it fascinating. Assessing the probability of one outcome over another is such a deeply-ingrained part of our society that it is bizarre to realize how long civilization existed before thinking in that way was common. Bernstein does a great job of making it interesting.

As for romances... quite a bit of intellectual elitism going on here. Do you have to take lessons to become that smug and self-righteous? For the record, romances range from nothing-but-a-kiss to unrelentingly explicit. Some of them are very poorly written, and the best are very good indeed. They lighten the spirit and the heart of those who enjoy reading them, and don't exactly lower the IQ. The women who write them are no slouches either. Although I don't think a person needs an advanced degree to prove intellect, education is often currency among self-styled intellectuals. So, Stephanie Laurens, one of the most popular romance authors right now, is a PhD level research scientist who ran her own cancer research lab in Australia before quitting to write romance full time. Eloisa James is a Shakespearan scholar and college professor who summers in Florence every year with her Italian husband's family. Julia Quinn is a Harvard grad who dropped out of Yale Med School to write full time (and not because she wasn't doing well). And Lisa Kleypas, who wrote Scandal in Spring linked in the original post, graduated from Wellesley with a degree in political science. It's a very good book, too, btw; you may want to try it. I read it just last week. These women are smart, sophisticated, talented and grounded in reality. And the women who read romances could just as easily be a CEO or a stay at home mom.

Those of you who criticize the romance genre and its writers/readers, especially without accurate knowledge of who they are or what the books are really like, shout volumes about yourself, but say little of value about romance fans. You might want to uncurl that sneer before you sprain something.

Dr. Helen, please excuse my soapbox :). I appreciate your take on romance novels. They're not to everyone's taste, and that's just fine.

12:19 AM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger John Enright said...

I wanted to say something about the romance as porn theory. I'm a guy, but I've read a fair number of romance novels lately. Most popular romance novels just have a few "good parts" - i.e., actual sex scenes. What they really focus on is romance and forming long term commitments, something that porn pretty much finds anathema.

Warren Farrell, the popular men's movement writer, put forward a somewhat different romance-as-porn theory. He says romance novels are not about sex, but about men as success objects, since so many romance heroes are tycoons, doctors, etc. Looked at closely, however, not all romance novel heroes are success objects in the materialistic mode that Farrell suggests. A fair number are plumbers, etc.

My own solution is to say that women (statistically) are simply more focused on the formation of satisfying romantic relationships, and that these novels give them an opportunity to dwell on the subject with a happy ending in view.

11:05 AM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger RebeccaH said...

It always seemed to me that women who read romance novels (I despise the term "chick lit") are just going for an escape from ugly reality, and don't we all do that now and then? I never cared for the genre myself, preferring scifi and mystery fiction, or nonfiction about religion, anthropology, and history, but I don't fault people who do read romance novels. I think their main failing might be that they secretly believe someone, somewhere, is living a Perfect Love in the Perfect Relationship they themselves don't have (because, frankly, it doesn't exist). True love and real relationships just aren't perfect, but sometimes it's nice to pretend otherwise. It's why we deify celebrities.

11:09 AM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Helen,

I am reading "The Foreigner's Gift" by Fouad Ajami. The subtitle is: "The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in iraq." Ajami, a noted Middle Eastern scholar, puts the current struggle in Iraq in historical perspective, going back to the Ottoman Empire and the creation of Iraq by the British after the First Word War. Perspective about what's going on in the Middle East is sadly missing these days, and I'm trying to get some - hopefully this book will help.

I'm not a chick lit reader either, but while I was recovering from surgery earlier this summer I read "Snobs" by Julian Fellowes - he's the same screenwriter who wrote "Gosford Park" for which he won an Academy Award. Delicious read, especially for anyone who's spent time in Britain.

11:10 AM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm an anti-novel woman simply because they have very little lasting impact on me- it's like wasted time. I'll read the really "blockbuster" ones that are destined to be part of the social fabric, or the ones that are just plain feel-good (Alexander McCall's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is an absolute blast- good hearted and with a lesson for all of us who prioritize the wrong things in life). I also have enjoyed Ian Pears, "An Instance of the Fingerpost," and especially "Scipio's Dream," which basically focuses on how many deals with the devil a person, or nation, can make in the name of self-preservation. (Hint: The end does not justify the means- and one doesn't usually get the desired end, anyway). Pertinent in our day, to say the least. Even with a bad non-fiction, I'll hopefully learn something. I had to quit one book club because of my sincere dislike for novels. I really don't need to waste my time reading about someone else's bad behavior. If I want that, I'll watch reality TV.

I also loved McPhee's Annals of a Former World- though get it on your Palm- it's a BIG book. McLean's "Young Men and Fire," is so poignant, better than a "River Runs Through It," IMHO. Also educational regarding fire behavior, which anyone living Way Out West needs to know. The "Fabric of the Cosmos," is truly a mind-blower, and easier to read than Briane Greene's other book, "The Elegant Universe," about string theory.

11:25 AM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I read yesterday that the President's summer reading is Camus's "The Stranger." Is that truly strange? What's more, if true, it's scarey. What's our President doing reading a French existentialist in a time of war? I have to believe it must be a White House staffer's joke.

The "National Review" recommends that instead he read Melanie Phillip's "Londonistan." After having just finished this engrossing and terrifying description of how Britain has managed to become the world's leading Islamo-Fascist enabling nation, I heartily second this choice. Ms. Phillips, a longtime British journalist and columnist, has a driving prose style that makes what could be just another terrorist chicken little book into an exceptionally gripping read.

Also, events in Britain this past week add further credence (and urgency) to Ms. Phillip's brisk analysis of the sorry state of her nation.



11:45 AM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I concur on Melanie Phillips. I think little is more important than understanding the demographic and political incursion of Arab islam into western civilization.

I am re-reading Saul Bellow's "More Die of Heartbreak" because it's about the peculiarties of men's magnetic draw to women even when it makes little sense. [And I'm there now.] That's the novel where the nephew of the great botanist observes and comments on his uncle's inability to protect himself from his delusions about women. It's slow going--I'm only one chapter in--buit that first chapter: so tasty, such classic Bellow.

12:06 PM, August 12, 2006  
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12:20 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chiming in late, but FWIW:
The James McPhee lovers will want to know that he has a new book out-- Uncommon Carriers-- that extends his making-the-ordinary-fascinating genre. This one's about transportation: Over-the-road trucking, unit coal trains, river barges, and why the primary shipping point for fresh lobsters in the United States is -- Louisville, Kentucky.

Another suggestion: A new-old book by Alistair Cooke, The American Home Front, 1941-42. It's a fascinating snapshot of the United States at the beginning of World War II. Cooke was asked to write a book about wartime America for the English audience, and to do this he set out on a cross-country tour, beginning it shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The book was never published, and the manuscript was found among Cooke's papers after his death.

12:32 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Romance novels eventually became for me a form of relationship addiction. They provided a place of escape, a fanasty refuge, into which I was allowed me to enter and leave at will. The characters and situations, predicably answered within safe boundaries, some of the longing, frustration and unmet needs I felt unable to sucessfully resolve or express.

1:06 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger Michael Roy Hollihan said...

I've been faxinated for the past couple of years by mid-19th century American politics. It's really true that everything old is new again!

I just finished reading "And Tyler Too" by Donald Barr Chidsey. It's an entertaining and slightly caustic look at the presidency of John Tyler (1840), the first Vice-President to become President. He was called "His Accidency." His time in office set an incredible number of precedents, many still used today.

It's a bit confusingly written, and assumes a moderate level of historical knowledge, but is filled with bits of historical enlightenment. Like the "slangwhangers," the great-grandfathers of today's partisan political television pundits.

It's short and quite entertaining.

I've also been reading Bruce Catton's centennial history of the Civil War. I've read "The Coming Fury" and have started "Terrible Swift Sword." The books are filled with interesting people, some looked at in detail, others a mere anecdote. He's skilled at context and lively narrative, so the books are never ponderous. If you've tried McCullough's (great) books, but find all the footnotes and the scholarly style a bit too much, Catton may be more to your liking.

Catton's analysis is a product of his time -- firmly placing the Civil War's root in slavery and never acknowledging any economic issues arising from slavery. But it brings the era to life quite vividly.

1:49 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recommend Andrew Bernstein's "The Capitalist Manifesto: The Historic, Economic and Philosophic Case for Laissez-Faire." I was completely inspired by this book and it settled down the question I've always had about how what I do fits into the big picture.

1:55 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After I read Bernstein's "The Capitalist Manifesto" I discovered he had written the Cliff Notes for Atlas Shrugged which I read 35 years ago. I bought that and enjoyed the hell out of it. Life experiences and continual reading between then and now had me relate to the novel in a new way. In my young years, it was all about discovering and coming to know the true and right ideas. Now it is knowing how to stand, in the face of little or no agreement, for that which I am committed to.

2:04 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger B. Durbin said...

Fantasy author Steven Brust just posted a comparison of books to food. He says that they break down to four categories: popcorn, steak, caviar, and celery. (In the comments, someone suggested a substitution of canapes for caviar.)

Popcorn novels are those books with very little substance, which you read because they are fun and easy. Steak, obviously, has a lot of substance and stays with you. Caviar (or canapes) requires a lot of work and preparation, but in the end is a most satisfying experience, and celery stands for books which take more effort than they're worth. Or maybe books you read because you think they're good for you.

Obviously, everyone's designations of which books are which will vary.

On the romance front, as said above there are levels of quality just as there are in any other genre. However, I would classify certain books as romance which people usually don't, such as the aforementioned Jane Austen, or Briget Jones' Diary. There's such a stigma of reading romance that people ignore the fact that booksellers classify books in a certain way so as to sell them, not to present an accurate picture of the material.

Personally, I will read a well-written romance (such as those by Georgette Heyer) as well as a romance masquerading as another genre (much of Elizabeth Peters' books.) I'll also read extensively in science fiction, fantasy, and mystery, and my particular nonfiction love is history, though natural sciences runs a close second. Since I read very fast I can DO that.

A couple of excellent nonfiction books are The Age of Gold, by H.W. Brands, and The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto. The latter is based on the newly translated records of the Dutch West India Company, records which have only undergone one previous translation, and that a partial one that was very sloppy! Turns out that Manhattan was not such a sucker sale as reported... (long-term lease instead of sale, with a stipulation that the tribes could still hunt the land AND drop by for food and lodgings whenever they felt like it.)

Hmm. Maybe I should just say read the book rather than gushing about it...

2:18 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My aren't we a lot of overachievers here!

No one with the time to read fiction. That's just sad.

I read fiction all the time.

When I'm in the mood for a little light escapism, I turn to the New York Times or just about anything from Reuters. Both have good characterization and a consistent storyline, although, like romance novels, they can get a little repetitive.

I don't see the big mystery about romance novels. I just assumed they were porn for women.

Us guys being primarily visual, our porn involves photos and explicit movies. Women seem to get off on the printed word. Notice that romance novels are pretty much just as formulaic and poorly executed as are porn movies.

It's not about the literature.

The big mystery to me is that women will read these things out in public in front of God and everybody.

I keep thinking I should walk up and offer to service them: "might I attend to your heaving bosoms?"

I figure those of you women not into romance novels are probably more in touch with your male selves.

2:18 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert Massie's Dreadnought reads like a great novel. Someone above suggested Band of Brothers; if that's up your alley, I'd also recommend Biggest Brother and Beyond Band of Brothers, the biography and memoirs (respectively) of Major Winters.

While I have no taste for romance novels, I enjoyed Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl. I'd call it historical fiction rather than a bodice-ripper anyway....

2:29 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger Mark in Texas said...

If you are still in the mood for suggestions after that long list, I suggest "The Pentagon's New Map" by Thomas P.M.Barnett. I don't always agree with him in every detail, but that book has changed the way I look at the world and he is basically optimistic about the future which seems to be all too rare these days. He has another book, "Blueprint for the Future" but you should probably read the books in order.

If you are going to read any romance novels, may I suggest . I don't read that type of thing and I've never read any of her books, but I have met her and she is a genuinely nice lady.

3:51 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger Mark in Texas said...

Well, that didn't show up the same as it did in preview.

The link was supposed to be to

and Lorraine Heath is the pseudonym of a very nice lady.

3:54 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who's married to a romance author and who spent the last few days of July at the Romance Writers Conference, I suppose I'm a bit prejudiced, so take everything else I type with the prerequisite grain of salt.

For those that don't read any romance and wonder of the appeal, it's fairly simple. Character interaction. The most simple romances rely upon varied character types, the set up conflict with inner goals as well as outer goals, and the resolution. Romances are a bit under attack for the "one man, one woman" type of relationship of late, but historically that's the norm. If the future of the definition of romance shifts away from that, it's because of audience demand.

The increase of popularity of the sub-genres of romance, such as the inspirational, the paranormal, the ethnick, the spicy and the downright erotic romance is due to several of the sometimes fiscally conservative publishers waking up because their market was heading elsewhere.

But in the end, no matter how much sex or time travel or bible thumping is in a romance, the appeal all revolves around the relationship. The beginning, the conflict and the conflict resolution. Creating a romance with obvious external conflict is the obvious cliche'd portion of the creation. (He's a land developer and she's an environmentalist! Wow! I didn't see THAT one coming!) Setting up and laying out of the internal conflict turns out to be the tough part of many romances, and I imagine most traditional fiction as well. (He's an A-type personality dealing with his early abandonment by his father and she has trust issues dealing with know-it-alls because of ... well, I'm not an author, I married one.) People know it's a romance because they know it's going to work out. When it doesn't work out, feel free to call it "Chick Lit".

That conflict is best revealed through action and conversation rather than long exposition. This is where some authors shine much better than others, and quite frankly, this is why fictional relationship books (aka: romances)are as popular as they are.

Authors who "graduate" from category romances many times end up writing suspense. In almost every case, the early romances crafted by the author draw on the experience creating character conflict from the more straight forward romance without subplots.

Alas, in the end, fiction books are printed for one primary reason: Selling ink on paper for profit. It's the ability to sell that particular configuration of ink on paper that makes it a true art form.

4:35 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A friend gave me a bag of books that included some romance novels, a genre I have always looked down upon But... I read one that really had a plot, the characters developed in a very interesting way and I enjoyed it. It took a couple of hours I had to spare and gave me what I call mind candy. I usually read mild mannered mysteries for that. Note I read ONE, not the rest. I find it hard to get into novels of any kind and usually read non-fiction

4:41 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Send me a mailing address (use the "foreign order" email link at the web page)and I'll send you a copy of my novel. I think you will like it, most folks have.

5:18 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have two relevant things...

One is that I am compiling a list of funny writing here, for those looking for fun reads (or looking to make their own suggestions)

The other is that my post on Gloria Steinem and Chick Lit is quoted in the Bitches Girl piece mentioned in Dr. Helen's post. You can read my whole post on the subject here and a related post, Literary Snobs Looking for Love.

I wouldn't ordinarily visit a blog and leave a bunch of links back to mine, but it happens to be relevant to what you all are talking about, I think. Happy reading.

6:01 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Given current events, I'm planning to reread QB VII by Leon Uris and I recommend it to others as well.

6:12 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger sarah said...

I recommend "Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers" by Fred Howard.

It's right up your alley in that it sheds abundant light on the distinctive aspects of particular personalities. There is also a large element here about the consequences of personal choices. We learn about several characters in the early history of aviation in addition to the Wright brothers.

The book relies on correspondence as the decisive reference for several aspects of the story, which brings a real authority to the material.

The Wright brothers were fascinating, with very unusual strengths. I found the book very inspiring

7:24 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger Bob Smith said...

Apologies for not reading all comments but the romance novel question is one I have considered. IMO, it reflects the less than smooth road many people face in the modern world as they look for release from burdens and a much simpler life - where 'men were men' and women ached with whatever. Something that has flown under the modern radar is that life is not the 'bourgeouis bohemian' paradise that reaches the magazines but something considerably less - for many people. Like it or not, the Victorian paradigm is an outlet. Life was so much simpler. Stress fractures of the modern world.

7:55 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger Mark in Texas said...

If you are considering romance novels, why not give this one a read?

It's the story of a powerful but lonely and unhappy king and the simple but spirited peasant girl Zabiba.

8:19 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger Dwight said...

For recently released non-fiction, I'm enjoying Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower. It covers from the Pilgrim's history and New England up to King Philip's War. Well written, good notes, and well balanced.

9:15 PM, August 12, 2006  
Blogger Jim C. said...

For light reading, it's Harpo Marx's memoirs, "Harpo Speaks!" He meets George Bernard Shaw and reveals more about himself than he intended, encounters Sergei Rachmaninoff (sort of), and meets the Prince of Wales (IIRC) with a Harponian twist. He is the first Western entertainer to tour the USSR after the revolution, gets the biggest laugh of his career with the then-foreign minister of the USSR, and has many adventures with the Algonquin circle.

Jim said...

Lu Xun wrote a good quick overview od Chinese literature years ago, and they have a genre of romantic novels, which he in his totally blunt Chinese way called "novels about prostitutes".

The "pornography" literally means "writings of prostitutes".

10:54 PM, August 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm no expert on romance novels, having only read one or two Danielle Steele novels many years ago. I haven't read any more of them, but that doesn't mean I'm a superior person; I've certainly enjoyed most other genres of predictable escape fiction since then!

However, I see the point of some writers that romance is an acceptable form of porn, voyeurism, and mild titallation. People who read those celebrity magazines share some of the same reader qualities: there's plenty of t & a and sexy suggestion there, too, and both forms are obvious escape reading. I guess I'd say that at least romance novels seem to be catering to the human desire for a long-term mate and good sex, whereas the fan mags seem to focus more on failed male-female relationships and meaningless sexual relationships than romances do.

This is I do believe--non-fiction is not superior to fiction as a way of understanding the world.

11:08 AM, August 13, 2006  
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