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Archive for June, 2012

I still remember watching one Summer Olympics many, many years ago with a group of men. It was a date, sort of, after a softball game, and we were sitting at the home of one of the team members having a post-game beer. The players were all science majors and athletes, which should have made them slightly more intelligent than the average guy and slightly more sympathetic to other athletes. But it didn’t—at least in one major area.

That area was women in sports. What I mainly remember about that Olympics-viewing session were the derisive comments flying around the room about the women swimmers. They were ugly. They didn’t look like women. They had too many muscles. And, in the case of the US women, they were losers. Ugly losers didn’t count as athletes. They counted as freaks.

Flash forward a good many years to this summer. The US women’s swim team is one of the best in the world. US women athletes like Lindsey Vonn are pictured in pinup shots, showing off their muscles along with their other assets. In other words, women athletes are no longer ugly losers. And they’re definitely not freaks.

So what changed? In a word (two actually), Title IX. Title IX was the Federal regulation that, in 1972, leveled the playing field for men’s and women’s sports. It directed schools to end gender discrimination in their sports programs, among other things. Men’s coaches, of course, have been grousing about this ever since (mutter, mutter, mutter…football; mutter, mutter, mutter…wrestling; mutter, mutter, mutter…revenue streams), but the results are hard to argue with. There’s been a revolution both in the development of outstanding female athletes and in public attitudes toward them. I’m willing to bet that today men who held the kind of attitudes I heard from the softball team would be regarded as prime assholes, which frankly should have been the case back then as well.

I guess I should be clear about the fact that I’m not much of an athlete myself—I have the coordination of Mr. Magoo and I’m not crazy about pain (great athletes have to have a certain masochistic streak). But I envy athletes. I wish I were a runner or a cyclist or a tennis player. And I love to see women excel at sports just as I love to see them excel in other pursuits.

Overall, I think the revolution in women’s athletics in this country has led to a revolution in the way we see women in general, not just athletes. Well-trained, athletic bodies are admired now. Madonna shows off her biceps. Actresses like Anne Hathaway brag about the way they trained for their superhero movies. Serena Williams has her own fashion line. Muscles are no longer the mark of a freak. They’re the mark of a strong, confident woman. And that, my friends, is no small accomplishment.

So Happy Birthday, Title IX. Long may your effects be felt. If not by me then by my hypothetical granddaughters.

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Venus In Blue JeansThis week I’m giving you six from Venus In Blue Jeans, the first Konigsburg novel. Cal, my hero, is getting ready to dance with Docia, my heroine, and realizing once again how much he loves the Texas Hill Country–and Docia too, of course.

Cal was drunk. His head swam, his words slurred, the lights blended into a single flash above his head. In some part of his mind, he was vaguely amazed to be so far gone since he’d only had a single beer cup from the beverage stand. He was drunk on fiddle music, drunk on warm night air, drunk on the sounds of laughter and the jibes of his friends.

Drunk on Docia.

Most of all, he was drunk on Docia.

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Hilton Als hates Nathan Lane. And right now you’re probably saying “Who?” To clarify, Hilton Als is one of the theatre critics for The New Yorker. Nathan Lane is the actor, probably best known for playing Max in The Producers and Albert in the movie version of The Birdcage. Lane has also appeared in lots of television shows like Modern Family and 30 Rock. But every time he appears on stage, Als torpedoes him.

Lane’s latest role is the lead in The Iceman Cometh, at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. Although Als likes the production and heaps praise on everybody else in the play, he claims that Lane is incapable of performing the central role and comes off as a male Ethel Merman. It’s an extremely harsh review, but it’s not the first time Als has gone after Lane. He called his performance as Dalton Trumbo in Trumbo superficial and also accused him of ruining a production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs by rewriting it to match “his monstrous ego.” Basically, anything Lane does, Als will despise. He simply doesn’t like the man.

To me, this raises a larger question: If Als despises everything Lane does, should Als go on reviewing Lane’s performances? Is that fair to Lane? Is it fair to the other people in the plays where Lane takes the lead? If a critic absolutely can’t stand an artist, should that critic go on reviewing the artist’s work?

This question has a larger application than Als and Lane. I’ve heard authors moan that certain reviewers always slam their books. One friend wondered why a particular reviewer went on reading her stuff since said reviewer had never liked anything she’d written. There’s more than authorial sour grapes in that observation. While I can understand a reviewer disliking one book by an author and then trying another to see if the author does a better job, after several books it should be obvious that the reviewer and the author simply aren’t a good fit. Should the critic go on reviewing the author or move on to somebody else?

After a certain point, a review can become little more than an ego trip. A reviewer who, say, listens to the latest Miley Cyrus album for the sole purpose of writing a snarky review about how lame Miley Cyrus is really needs to find a better use for her time. She’s not trying to give an honest evaluation of Cyrus’s music, she’s having a good time at Cyrus’s expense.

I guess the bottom line here is the question of how a critic should approach an artist’s work. If a critic goes into a book or a play or a movie knowing only too well that she’s going to hate it, that’s not only unfair, it’s silly. As consumers, most of us will avoid artists whose work we know we dislike. Shouldn’t critics behave in the same way?

It’s one thing to give an artist a second chance. It’s another to write a review with the intention of slapping an artist around because you don’t like him. All of which is to say the next time Nathan Lane has a production opening on Broadway, I hope Hilton Als will take the night off.

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Don't Forget MeHere’s another bit from my latest Samhain book, Don’t Forget Me. My hero and heroine, Kit and Nando, are former lovers who’ve moved back to the same town together. In this bit, Kit sees Nando for the first time since returning to Konigsburg. She’s a little freaked.

Even at a distance she recognized that tall, muscled body, that fall of dark hair. He held his Stetson in his hand, ready to put it on. She caught the quick flash of his teeth as he grinned at something the kid had said, then he turned in her direction.

She stumbled backward into a doorway, her heart pounding almost painfully—No, no, no! She didn’t want to see him the first time like this. She wanted to be ready—controlled, collected, maybe even a little  amused: Oh, hi, Nando. Long time no see.

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I just returned from ten days in Texas, seeing family and old friends, bopping around the Hill Country, and drinking a whole lot of Texas wine. Now I love Colorado right down to its pebbles, but this trip made me remember just what it was I liked about living in Texas. I admit there are things I don’t like about Texas (chief among them the heat and humidity that had me looking like the mad woman in the attic), but there are a lot of things I love and miss. Here’s a short list.

Kick Butt Cab1. Texas wine – We watched the Texas wine industry begin to grow in the nineties, and it’s a real joy to go back and see wineries we used to visit in Quonset huts and two-room offices now sporting fancy digs and even fancier wines. Texas wine makers are really hitting their stride now, and more and more of them are switching to the hot weather grapes that are a natural for the region. Everybody’s doing a tempranillo, for example and lots of people are doing tannat and mourvèdre as well. These are big, full-bodied wines that deserve to be sipped and savored. It will take us months to finish off all the wines we brought back. I can’t wait!

2. Texas music – The hubs and I made the mistake of stopping at Lone Star Music in Gruene, which features Americana CDs almost exclusively. It was a mistake because I can’t go there without loading up, and load up I did! We also stayed at a hotel in Austin that was the headquarters of the Austin Music Project. In the lobby we walked by huge posters of Joe Ely, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Marcia Ball, Flaco Jimenez, and too many others to count. And then there are the Americana stations like KSYM in San Antonio. I even read an article in Edible Austin where the author talked about cooking risotto while listening to James McMurtry. Ah guys, how I’ve missed you.

3. Barbeque – I’m not really a barbeque snob. I’ve found good barbeque in a lot of different places, including Colorado. But Texas has turned barbeque into a way of life. Every small town you drive through has a high school football team, a Dairy Queen, and a barbeque joint, identifiable by the large black smoker at the side and the cords of wood stacked at the back. If it’s the right time of day, you can also identify it by the tantalizing smell of smoke and brisket. We had lunch at Cooper’s as we headed back toward home. Bliss.

4. HEB – Denver has three national grocery chains along with some small local markets, but it has nothing like HEB. The Texas grocery chain is unique in that it always has exactly what you need if you’re a serious cook, as well as the usual stuff like Doritos and salsa. I miss it every time I set foot in Kroger’s, thinking “Damn it, HEB would have the Swanson’s Organic Free-Range Chicken Broth I’m looking for.”

5. Mockingbirds – If you’ve never heard a mockingbird, think of it as a bird that specializes in covering other birds’ songs. And once a mockingbird gets going it’ll run through its repertoire for what seems like hours. It’s also pretty to look at and stalwart in protecting its nest. When I mentioned how much I missed mockingbirds, the hubs suggested that perhaps global warming will drive them north. Gee, one positive effect of a worldwide catastrophe.

Okay, Texas, all I can say is that I’ll be back again sometime. Not to stay, but definitely to visit. Y’all take care now.

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The Spoiled Darling

Spoiled DarlingYou can always spot a heroine who’s a spoiled darling. If it’s a regency, she stamps her foot a lot. If it’s a contemporary, she pouts. In both time periods she tosses her head quite a bit. Her family indulges the hell out of her, of course, because she’s a spoiled darling. She’s always gotten her way, which means she’s accustomed to running roughshod over everybody in her path, but her parents and siblings are convinced that she’s adorable so she gets away with murder.

Until, of course, she meets the hero, who is unaccountably intrigued by her. The two bump up against each other repeatedly, the heroine trying to bend him to her will (because everybody always bends to her will, you see) and the hero resisting. Eventually, the heroine becomes someone less bitchy under the hero’s influence and we move on to HEA.

You’ve probably gathered by now that this isn’t one of my favorite characters. I’ll put up with her as long as there’s some indication she’ll snap out of it soon. But the longer it takes her to start behaving decently, the more likely I am to move on to another book. I’m reading a historical now with a spoiled darling in the lead. She’s being beastly to the hero because he doesn’t meet her expectations for an attractive guy. He, rather than suggesting the heroine go find herself somebody who fits her exacting standards, is trying to break down her defenses. At the moment, I’m going along with it because the heroine is showing some signs of interest in the hero. But she flounces a lot, and I really wish somebody would give her a good shake.

I don’t have a problem with a heroine who defends herself against unjust social rules. Kasey Michaels’ recent The Taming Of the Rake is a great example of this type of heroine, a woman who takes charge of a situation rather than submit to unjust social mores. What I object to is a heroine who’s a bitch because she enjoys it and a hero who seems to feel that’s okay.

The spoiled darling’s origins as a character are pretty clear to me—she’s Scarlett O’Hara in modern dress. And as I’ve said before, I find Scarlett herself insufferable as a heroine. The idea that there’s something attractive about bitchiness strikes me as questionable at best. Moreover, there’s a sense in which these heroines confuse bitchiness with strength, which goes beyond questionable to dangerous. Strong women are admirable and make for enjoyable heroines. Just check out Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scandals or Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Dream a Little Dream or just about anything Jennifer Crusie has ever written. On the other hand, the idea that strength is equivalent to arrogance and insensitivity is both perverse and faintly misogynistic.

I have no real hope that the spoiled darling will disappear as a heroine. Considering how frequently she shows up, I’m guessing she must be popular with somebody somewhere After all, people still read Gone With the Wind too, so not everybody finds Scarlett as annoying as I do. I just hope that future iterations have her mending her ways sooner rather than later. After all, once that bitchiness is converted to self knowledge, she could be an interesting woman to know.

 

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Here’s another six from my next Konigsburg book, Fearless Love. My hero, Joe LeBlanc, has just dropped in on my heroine, MG Carmody, with an impromptu invitation to dinner. MG suggests that they go out in back to watch the sunset (and her chickens). But it looks like they’re not going out after all.

“I don’t want tea right now either; or the chickens or the sunset, nice though it probably is.” He paused, watching her. “I mean, I came here to take you out to dinner, but on second thought, I don’t think I can wait that long after all.”

Her shoulders suddenly felt tight and there was an twinge in her belly. “Wait that long for what?”

“You.”

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