Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How I Got My Start

I own a lot of romance novels. You already know that. It is not enough for me just to read the books I love. I have to own them. I love seeing the books on my shelves, and still feel an odd little thrill each and every time I open one of them, whether it be for the first or the hundredth time. I am positive that there are books in my collection that I have read at least one hundred times.

I am proud of the romance novel collection I have amassed over the years. And I am even more proud of what my collection represents. Each time I go back to one of my favorite books I am reminded not just of the characters and the story, but about where that book fits in the rich tapestry of my life. Where I was and who I was with the first time I read it, someone I recommended the book to, a sad event, a happy milestone. A great many things happened while I was reading those books. Inside the covers of my favorites is the story of my life, and the great adventure that I have had with all the people I am extraordinarily lucky to share my life with.

Last year, I read a short novel by Ilene Beckerman called “Love, Loss and What I Wore.” In the book, Ilene uses her wardrobe as a time capsule of sorts to look back on the events of her life. For me it is not clothes, but rather books, that are the thread that ties my own life story together. I have loved books since long before romance novels became my genre of choice, and have been thinking a lot lately about the books that gave me my start; the ones that might not live on my shelves right now, but that live in my heart forever. I have read too many books over my nearly 30 years to remember each and every one, but there are some, especially in my earliest book-loving years, that are simply unforgettable. Here are three.

The Handy Girls

While certainly not the first book my parents read to me, The Handy Girls is the first one I remember vividly, and also the first one that I would go on to memorize (turns out I have a freakishly good memory when it comes to books). The Handy Girls were the coolest girls around. They had their very own clubhouse and could fix anything from bikes to broken cookie jars. It was a book full of “girl power”; perfect for a very small girl with very big dreams. I remember climbing onto my dad’s lap so he could read it to me. I loved when it when it was time to read. Especially if the book was The Handy Girls.

My old, tattered, copy of The Handy Girls now lives in my parent’s house in Pittsburgh. Waiting. I hope one day, if I am lucky enough to have a daughter, I can share it with her. I hope I can read it to her, and watch the little roots of her own big dreams take hold. I hope she comes to know the joy of reading, as I have. And I hope, most of all, that she is lucky enough, as I have been, to watch her biggest dreams come true.

The Teeny Tiny Woman

At some point, I think around kindergarten, I taught myself how to read. The Teeny Tiny Woman was the first book I read all by myself. I don’t remember much about what happened right before and right after I read it, but I vividly remember finishing it for the first time. “I can read,” I thought. And read I did. Anything and everything I could. It would be impossible to count the number of books I have read to myself in my lifetime, but there is something both magical and miraculous about the very first one.

Kristy’s Great Idea: The Baby Sitters Club

This book, and the entire series that followed, changed my life, much like romance novels would some ten years later. They are the books that introduced me to the virtue of reading a series in its exact order, and then going back and starting the series again. They are the books that taught me the joy of losing myself in the story. They are the books that taught me to love being a book-owner. They are the books that taught me how to be a good friend, how to be strong, and most importantly, to always - always - be yourself.

My entire collection now resides in a huge box in my parent’s basement. I am certain I could still, at the age of 29, spend some happy hours with Kristy, Claudia, Stacey, Dawn and Mary Anne. I like to think that each one of those girls became a small part of me. Kristy’s know-it-all temperament; Mary Anne’s need to nurture; Stacey and Claudia’s unique sense of style. Sometimes when I am sitting on the floor surrounded by romance novels, I get a flash of a much smaller me sitting on a much different floor surrounded by Baby Sitters Club books, deciding which one to re-read first. And I smile. its comforting to know that some things - the very best things - never change.

I don’t often go on a journey down memory lane - my current existence is incredibly happy and equally thrilling on a daily basis - but when I do, it both delights and amazes me to see the person I was in the person I am. I am lucky and grateful to have a family who nurtured my love of reading, and encouraged me to be no one but exactly who I was. The three books I write about here are the books that shaped me and taught me an unparalleled love of reading, and if not for them, I might never have picked up that copy of The Stanislaski Sisters from the coffee table all those years ago. My favorite song from my favorite play urges us to measure our lives in love. Well, I do measure my life in love. And in the books I read. Lucky for me, they are one and the same.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In Defense of Books About “Relationships”

This past weekend, in a move very out of character for me, I read the New York Times Sunday Book Review. As a romance novel enthusiast, the Book Review always seems to me a little, well, elitist, for lack of a better word, and certainly out of touch with the reading preferences of the mainstream. For example, my most favorite authors, the sublime Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Nora Roberts have more than 70 New York Times bestsellers between them, and have won an astonishing array of awards over the years, but in my research, have amazingly never had one of their books reviewed by the Times.

What compelled me to read the Book Review last weekend was Douglas Brinkley’s review of Jodi Cantor’s nonfiction bestseller, The Obamas. Though I have not yet read the book myself, and am not particularly political (on paper I should, in fact, belong to about 3 different political parties, so diverse are my views), Michelle Obama has always fascinated me. The reports on her as the backbone of her family, and the not-so-quiet force behind her husband’s success have always likened her, in my mind, to the women in my favorite romance novels; the strong, self-sufficient women who marry the men of their dreams, are fun and interesting mothers raising beautiful and well-adjusted children, run successful businesses, wear designer clothes, and always - always - find time for a Monday morning manicure. Anna Spinelli from Sea Swept is one of these women, as is Phoebe Sommerville from It Had to Be You. I would like to be one of these women. But I digress.

In a review that managed to be, strangely enough, both complementary and condescending,  Brinkley managed to summarily dismiss the book as a new, and inferior, genre of literature enjoyed only by women, that he christened “chick nonfiction.” The subtext of the review is that if a work of nonfiction centers primarily on a marriage - on its highs and lows, joys and sorrows, and the excitement and great adventure of sharing your life with another; particularly in the fishbowl of the political arena - rather than strictly on policy decisions and high-level meetings, surely, only a “chick” could possibly enjoy it.

I can’t help but think that if the same book had been written by a man, the New York Times Book Review would be praising his brilliance, sensitivity, and his astute observations of a complicated marriage. But I digress again.

This review both infuriated me and compelled me to read the book as soon as possible because, in my romance novel-worshiping world, there is nothing better than reading a book about relationships. Yes, I do prefer reading about fictional couples to real-life couples - its far more fun to read about the aforementioned wonder-woman than it is to read about a real-life person and find out that she is not wonder woman after all - but I have been known to indulge in some (gasp!) nonfiction from time-to-time.

Some might think that my opinion plays right into the reviewer’s hand, as I am both a woman and someone who loves reading about relationships, but to them I say, what exactly is wrong with that? Yes, stories about relationships tend to be fodder for the fiction genre, but the reason they are is because the idea of the “relationship” is so fundamental to our non-fiction world.  I doubt that romance authors would be able to write such compelling novels without their own life experiences with relationships, both personal and professional. In planning for the series of books I hope to write, most of my ideas stem from my real life as well. I think it is both short-sighted and narrow-minded to assume that just because a book is about a “relationship” it is less worthy of a place of honor in literature. Maybe Brinkley should travel back in time to let Jane Austin, James Joyce and Marquez know that their books are merely “chick books”. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for those conversations.

And to Brinkley’s subtext that only women can possibly enjoy a story about the relationships that influence politics I ask, how many men do you think enjoyed both 24 and The West Wing? Certainly the decisions of memorable characters like Bartlet, Lyman, Bauer, and Palmer were all influenced, both positively and negatively, by their relationships. Should we call these shows “chick shows”? I think my husband and my dad, fans of both shows, would answer with a resounding “no.”

My point is, in a world where interpersonal relationships are the foundation of all of our actions - in business, in politics, in our personal and professional lives - what could be more real than a book about just such a relationship? Political leanings aside, The Obamas is about a relationship between two people who have supported each other, raised 2 seemingly well-adjusted children, and all the while managed to keep their marriage thriving while navigating the pressure cooker of American politics. Sounds like the makings of a great romance novel to me. In fact, I’m pretty sure I already read that one. Twice. Try Nora Roberts’ All The Possibilities or Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ First Lady if you don’t believe me.

Friday, February 17, 2012

When I Have My Books, It Feels Like Home

In August of 2001, I started my freshman year of college at Brandeis University, a small liberal arts school located 9 miles outside of Boston in the small town of Waltham, Massachusetts. On move-in day, unpacking was the first order of business. I opened suitcases, helped my mom make my bed, and, once my parents left campus, organized my stacks of romance novels onto the shelves that lined the wall over my desk.

I remember my randomly-assigned roommate gawking at my shelves and sweetly remarking, “you don’t have any room for your textbooks.” Undeterred, I continued stacking my books - nothing would do but that they comply with my personal bookshelf organizational system - and replied, just as sweetly, “I’ll just pile my textbooks on the floor.” With that, I grabbed my current book, stuck it in my bag, and headed off to the welcome barbecue.

I left the barbecue early that night because I had the flu on move-in day, and promised my mom I would rest. When I opened the door to my dorm room - sick, missing home, and terrified that leaving the first-night-of-college festivities early would label me a loser for the next 4 years - I saw my books. And I felt better. I had a fever, and there were parties right outside my window that I was too sick to attend, but spending that first night of college ensconced in a romance novel, with all the rest of my favorite books lined up on the shelf next to me made me feel better. It made me feel like me.

My subsequent three Brandeis move-in days were far less stressful than that anxiety-provoking first experience - you really have to be a Brandeis grad to understand the frenzied mystique of Freshman Move-In Day - but my routine rarely varied. My books were always the first things out of my suitcase. Only when my romance novel collection was smiling down at me from the shelves did the room start to feel like mine.
This unusual habit followed me through one year in the law school dorms, and into my very first grown-up New York City apartment, and the two that followed. Though a brand-new apartment always felt a little strange and unfamiliar at first, once I lined up my books, I felt like I had made my mark.

In what was perhaps the most lengthy transition of my adult life, shortly before I got married, I started moving my things into the apartment I currently share with my husband David. Anyone who has been through the transition of dating-to-engaged-to-married will understand what I mean. For 2 months I was living in one apartment (mine), had most of my things in another apartment (his), and had wedding presents scattered at various locations between Pittsburgh and Manhattan.

One day, about 6 weeks before our wedding, I found myself pondering whether I would ever again in this lifetime have all my stuff in one single location. Never one to brood for too long, I decided the time had come to move my books. It took two suitcases and two 25-block trips to move them all, but an hour later I was sitting on the floor of the apartment we would share, surrounded by 2-foot high stacks of books, and nowhere to put them.

Focused, driven, and determined to succeed, I proceeded to clear off every single bookshelf in the living room, and replace the contents with my book collection; 3 rows deep on every shelf, and ruthlessly organized. When I was finished I stepped back, admired my romance novel collection that had grown considerably since my freshman year of college, and started to feel at home in the apartment that would soon be mine. I knew before that day, of course, that I was marrying an amazing man - my soul mate and most cherished friend - but when he came in the door that night, found my books taking up absolutely all available living room shelf space in his tiny Manhattan apartment, and said only “what should we watch first on TV?” I fell in love all over again.

That was a year and a half ago, and my books still live on (ALL of) our living room shelves. They are the first thing I see when I walk in to our apartment, and they have been the happy catalyst for many a dinner conversation where friends of ours have wondered how many there are (I’ve never counted), why there seem to only be 2 authors represented (there are more than 2, but any books by Nora Roberts or Susan Elizabeth Phillips get the honor of the first row; the other authors are farther back), and whether I could offer a suggestion (PLEASE read the Brides Quartet by Nora Roberts).

My books offer comfort during transition, give solace in times of distress, and are endlessly entertaining. I have learned from them to be comfortable with who I am, and, strangely enough, how to be my very best self, and I am incredibly lucky to have married someone who lets me be exactly me. As we continue building a life together, there is much about the future that we don’t know, but no matter what happens, I know I am going to be just fine because home is where David is. And where my books are.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Where We Read - Be Loud and Proud

The phrase “reading a romance novel” tends to conjure up a specific image for most people: that of a teenage girl hiding under the covers at night, flashlight in hand, reading a book she either sneaked onto the conveyor belt at the grocery store when her parents weren’t looking, or took from her grandma’s bookshelf when no one was watching. It is therefore not surprising that, despite the popularity of the genre, so many lovers of romance novels still hide their obsessions from friends, family and coworkers alike, indulging in their favored reading material only in the comfort of their own homes, or among like-minded peers.

During my six years living in New York City, my subway and bus commutes to work have never been long enough to sufficiently dig in to my own reading material, so one of my favorite commuting pastimes is to check out what other people are reading. If you live in Manhattan, and use public transportation on a regular basis, there is no need to go to a bookstore to see what books are trending. Last Tuesday there were three people on my bus to work reading The Help. The subway selections have been a little more varied as of late, now that Oprah is no longer telling us what to read, but they still run towards selections that the New York Times Book Review would certainly approve of.

Don’t get me wrong, I sometimes like those book too - so long as they don’t break my cardinal “only happy endings rule” - but am I really supposed to believe that I am the only commuter in New York City who likes a good dose of love and fun in my morning (and afternoon and - oh hell lets be honest - evening) reading material? I wouldn’t be averse to starting a romance novel book club that met Monday mornings 
on the bus. Can you honestly think of a better way to start the work week?

On the exceedingly rare occasion that I see a romance novel in the hands of one of my fellow straphangers, My heart fills with joy, and a smile rapidly spreads across my face. I try with all my might to catch this delightful reader’s eye, if only for a second, to pass her a message:
“me too.” If I sense that she is “loud and proud” like I am, I might say something like, “I loved that book.” If she is open to conversing, I have even been known to make a suggestion like, “if you like this book, you will love [fill in blank with amazing title here].” I once even took out a pen and wrote down every title in Susan Elizabeth Phillip’s unbelievable Chicago Stars series for a woman I was sitting next to on the subway. I hope she enjoyed them.

What you probably know by now is that I never hide the books I read. At any given time you can find at least 2 romance novels in my bag (if I finish one, I obviously need to have a spare), and at the height of the elevator phobia that I acquired when I moved onto the 23rd floor of a 24-story apartment building, I sometimes carried 3 or 4. In case I got stuck in the elevator, I really wanted to have something to do to pass the time.

I once caught up with Bobby Tom and Gracie in the lobby of the Loews Lincoln Square Theater on 68th and Broadway. I learned about construction and comic books with Cilla and Ford on a bench in Central Park. I spun Irish fairy-tales with Jude and Aiden in the elevator of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, and I built sailboats with the Quinn Family in the Thursday evening check-out line at Fairway on 75th and Broadway.

3 years ago, in one of my most flagrant displays of loud and proud romance-novel worship, I even pulled out a copy of 
It Had to Be You - and soaked up Phoebe and Dan’s epic romance - on the very first day of my new investment bank job, in a conference room full of new-hires waiting for orientation to start. I glanced up from my book at one point to see if I could find another book in the crowd, a soul sister if you will, but to no avail; all the other faces in the room were obscured by the mammoth pages of the Wall Street Journal. And you know what? I had a really good first day on the job. 

If you are reading this blog, and, like me, really love a good romance novel, then love it out loud. Don’t be embarrassed about the book that gives you a little spring in your step as you go about your day. Read it in restaurants, waiting in line at the grocery store, and on the way to work. Maybe someone on the subway is looking around for a good book suggestion. And if you ever want to start that Monday morning romance novel book club on the M-57, just let me know. I’ll bring the coffee. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Family Affair

I mentioned on Friday that the first romance novel I ever read came from my parent’s bookshelf. That book, and many of the others I devoured in the first, heady, weeks of my obsession belonged to my mom, and my love of romance novels comes directly from her. After reading my first post, she reminded me of a story she used to tell me about her weekly trips with her father to the newsstand in their small Western Pennsylvania town, where he would buy newspapers, and she would buy paperback romance novels.

Over the years, my love of romance novels has become a family affair. To  understand why that is, you have to understand the composition of my family. See, I come from a family filled with girls. My mom has 2 sisters, my dad has a sister, most of my cousins are girls, I am incredibly lucky to have 2 sisters of my own, and one of my sisters just had her first child; a girl. With all those girls, it is no surprise that the sharing of books has gone on for years, and has spanned generations.

Some of my most vivid memories are of my amazing grandma, my mom’s mom, coming to visit us. During every trip, books my sisters, my mom and I were reading would disappear, only to magically reappear in her bedroom, where she always had a stack waiting to be read. “oh honey,” she would say, “I didn’t know you were reading this. I’ll give it back as soon as I’m done.”

When Grandma passed away last year, we were able to smile through our tears as we thought about all the gifts she gave us, chief among them a love of reading and an appreciation for the beauty of sharing books with family. Her first Yahrtzeit - the Jewish anniversary of her death - starts tonight. To remember her and celebrate her incredible life, I will eat some of her favorite chocolate covered caramels and drink her favorite tea while I read a romance novel; smiling while I think about how much she would have loved the story.

Soon after I started reading romance novels, my sisters both caught the bug as well. It happened one summer when the 5 of us - my parents, my sisters, and I - went on vacation for a week to a small island off the west coast of Florida. Since it was a beach vacation, my mom went to our favorite used bookstore before we left and bought stacks of romance novels for us to share. Among them was a book called 
It Had to Be You, by the amazing, and as yet undiscovered by us, Susan Elizabeth Phillips. My mom read it first, followed by my middle sister Katie, myself, then my youngest sister Louisa. By the end of that vacation, my sisters were romance novel converts, and the 4 of us could have preached like an evangelist about the epic love of Phoebe and Dan. We soon moved on to Molly and Kevin in This Heart of Mine (my most favorite book, and the namesake of my blog), and the rest of her Chicago Stars series. It was that series that cemented our joint love of romance novels; a love that endures until today.

Over the years, this joint love has brought us closer, and has helped bridge the geographical distance between us. Since one of my sisters and I live in New York, my parents live in Pittsburgh, and my other sister lives in Cleveland, we are not always able to be together, but reading the same books makes our distance seem smaller. When Katie had her new baby in November, Louisa and I were not able to be there the day the baby was born, but our first new baby gift to Katie - 
The Next Always, the first book in the new Nora Roberts trilogy - made it seem like we were. And by the time we were all together 3 weeks later, we had all read it, and were bemoaning the fact that the second book in the trilogy doesn’t come out until May.

You may be asking at this point, where does your dad fit in to this romance novel loving family full of girls? Well, fit in he does, and spectacularly. According to my grandma, my dad’s mom, my dad has always loved girls, and in my opinion, there is no better man in the world to lead a family of 3 daughters. Not only has he listened to, and participated in, dinner conversations over the years on all the topics that regularly consume a house full of girls, but he has also even, from time to time, joined us in our love of romance novels. I was not sure at the time whether he read Nora Roberts’ 
Northern Lights to humor my mom, but when he moved on to Sandra Brown’s Chill Factor, I knew he enjoyed the stories as much as we did. Though the few romance novels he has read have been of the more action packed variety, he is able to share in his girls’ greatest love, making it a true family affair.

My family has always been close, but I think that our shared love of romance novels has brought us even closer as my sisters and I get older, and start families of our own. Despite the physical distance that is sometimes between us, reading the same books makes us feel like we are just around the corner from each other. Every time I get pulled into one of my favorite books, I think about my sisters, and wonder if, at that same moment, they are also opening a romance, and thinking about me too.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What Is It About Romance Novels?

I love romance novels.

My introduction to this wondrous genre of popular fiction started innocently enough. It was my junior year of high school. I picked up a book from the coffee table in our living room, curious about its bright red cover with the title in gold. As a life-long reader of whatever books I could get my hands on, this was not unusual behavior. The book was Nora Roberts’ 
The Stanislaski Sisters, and once my eyes scanned the first page, no one, not my friends, not my parents, not my sisters, not god himself could have made me put that book down until I had finished every last word, and scoured the bookshelves in my parent’s room in search of the sequel. I found The Stanislaski Brothers, and stayed up until 3am that very night; not able to sleep until Bess finally convinced Alex that she was sure they would be together forever. I was sure too.

That was more than 12 years ago, and through the rest of high school, college, law school and beyond, I remained a loud and proud romance novel devotee; much to the confusion of new friends I met in college, and the amusement of my professional colleagues.

I never really cared, though, what other people thought. Every time I opened a book, whether there was a new story waiting in the pages for me to enjoy, or a much loved story I was re-reading for the millionth time (I am a major re-reader…more on that later), the first sentence always reaffirmed my devotion to the romance. I have spent entire days and entire nights in the company of Malory and Flynn, Dana and Jordan, Emma and Michael, Phoebe and Dan, Molly and Kevin, and countless other couples just like them, unable to put down the book until the final, always satisfying conclusion.

When it comes to choosing my books, there aren’t many authors I wont try at least once, and I am pretty open-minded when it comes to plot. A couple falls in love while making and selling wine in Northern California? Certainly. A trilogy where three couples must find love in order to free three goddesses from their magical prison behind the Curtain of Dreams? Why not. The daughter of a rock n’ roll legend finds solace and love in the arms of a police detective? Sign me up.

But despite my flexibility, there is one thing upon which I will never, ever compromise. There must, (and I truly can’t emphasize this enough), MUST be a happy ending. I don’t care how beautiful the story. If it’s sad in the end, I am not the least bit interested in the journey. Nicholas Sparks need not apply.

So really, what is it about these books that keeps me coming back for more? I know all the statistics. $1.5 billion industry, over 2,000 romances published each year, 46% of all mass market books sold in the United States are romances. But impressive as those stats are, its not the popularity of the genre that has me stalking the Nora Roberts website like a woman possessed, and pre-ordering her books months before they are published.

What it is, for me at least, is the escape. Not that I have much to escape from; my life is pretty great. But after a long and hard day at work, or a particularly annoying weekend filled with errands and obligations, who wouldn’t want to lose themselves in a story about two wildly beautiful people falling in love on the deck of a boat while treasure hunting off the coast of Mexico? Or about two people who knew each other as children, discovering each other again as adults while sharing a mutual love for camping in Olympic National Park?

What started as a chance encounter with a new book 12 years ago has turned into an all-consuming love affair with romance novels and the people who write them. I have shared my love with, and offered book suggestions to, friends and family alike (although you would be hard-pressed to find someone with whom I will share my actual books…I am a little finicky about my personal collection), and have spent considerable time thinking about creating a forum to share that love, and those suggestions with a wider audience.

As the weather turns cold in the Northeast this weekend, you can find me under blankets, drinking hot chocolate, and spending quality time with some of my favorite characters. I hope you will join me.