Friday, August 29, 2014

Big Fat Book Update

Well, I had hoped to report back on progress. But what I'm actually reporting is lack thereof.

Towards the beginning of the month, I'd written about signing up to do the Big Fat Book read-a-long for the month of August. The readers were tasked with reading complex books of greater than 500 pages in length.

I chose The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, a 543-page tome which results in 25 hours of unabridged audio recording on 21 CDs.

I waited and waited for the books to arrive from the library. I had put holds on the books in July but it was past mid-August by the time the books arrived. I had requested the audiobook on CD as well as a paperback copy. Given that this was to be my first foray in audiobook territory, I thought to back up my listening to the book with my reading the book. I was told that there were dozens of characters in this book—in fact, track two on the first CD goes through the list for minutes on end—and so thought the reading would help me keep track of the characters better as well as the complexities of the plot.

After the books arrived, I had to jigger a listening setup. I commandeered an ancient, barely alive laptop to be the CD player and loaded up the first CD. I installed an updated Windows Media Player, which didn't work. So I found an HP CD-playing software to run on my HP machine. That worked. Then I had to hunt around for a proper headset, one which didn't fall out of my ears or slip on the hair when that hair's sweaty from exercise. I ended up with my daughter's hot pink ones. As it is, I wasn't aiming to look chic while exercising while half asleep at six o'clock, so cushioned hot pink ear muffs were it. I then had to figure out a way to hide this whole setup from inquisitive little sticky fingers, but still accessible from the exercise bike.

In the meantime, family had arrived for an extended visit, which involved lots of cooking and going places. I also had multiple book editing projects land on my desk. You can tell where this is going right? Right.

By the end of the month, I have ended up listening to three hours of the book. Twenty-two more to go. I'm going to keep up the BFB project till I'm all done. However, it's not going to be a month-long project as originally envisioned by Sunita.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New RITA & Golden Heart Contest Guidelines by Romance Writers of America

The Romance Writers of America has published their new 2015 RITA & Golden Heart contest rules for published authors and unpublished writers, respectively. Some of the highlights for the RITAs, include:

1. Entrants are required to judge. Entrants will not judge in a category in which they are entered. Judges will be allowed to opt out of two categories.

2. Only the first 2000 entries are accepted.

3. A book may not be entered in more than one category, but there's is no limit to the number of eligible books that may be entered for an author in the same category.

4. Categories with fewer than 50 entries will not be judged.
[Given the currently defined categories, this is not something that will come to pass.]

5. Preliminary-round scores will be determined using a trimmed mean: the highest and lowest scores will be discarded and the remaining three scores will be averaged.

6. The top scoring 4% of each category’s entries will advance to the final round, excepting that no category will have fewer than 4 finalists or more than 10 finalists.
[Finally, a sensible solution to this year's comical situation wherein there were 17 finalists in the Historical category.]

7. The Contemporary category has books set from 1950 to present date and is to be subdivided thusly: short (40,000–56,000 words), mid-length (56,000–84,000 words), long (more than 84,000 words).

8. The Historical category has books set in time periods prior to 1950 and is to be subdivided thusly: short(40,000–89,000 words) and long (more than 89,000 words).
[While size works well to demarcate groups in the Contemporary category, time periods would work better in Historicals. There are far more books set in the extended Regency period (1800–1837) than are set in other time periods. Expecting those other books to compete with the Regencies is not feasible.]

9. There are no New Adult or Stories with Romantic Elements categories.
[I don't know enough about New Adult to judge—I'd put them in contemporaries—but the SwRE is a serious loss to the contest; some of Romance's best books are written in this category.]

Friday, August 22, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Anne Hathaway's Cottage

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

2014 TBR Reading Challenge: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

This is a true memoir as opposed to an autobiography of whine. Some people write their memoirs as a reporting on what happened to their lives: usually sad, humiliating, and/or disgusting. They do not enter into their own feelings about these events so much. A true memoir, on the other hand, is all about the intensely intimate, the person's feelings in reaction to or in anticipation of events. And in Joan Didion's hands, the memoir is elevated to an art form in the sparseness of her prose, her unflinching honesty in her thoughts and actions, and an in-depth examination of her feelings then and now to events preceding and succeeding The Event.

The inciting event: "At approximately nine o'clock on the evening of December 30, 2003, my husband, John Gregory Dunne, appeared to (or did) experience, at the table where he and I had just sat down to dinner in the living of our apartment in New York, a sudden massive coronary event that caused his death."

The secondary inciting event: "Our only child, Quintana, had been for the previous five night unconscious in an intensive care unit at Beth Israel Medical Center's singer Division, [...] where what had seemed a case of December flue sufficiently severe to take her to an emergency room on Christmas morning had exploded into pneumonia and septic shock."

Quintana, after a long illness with relapses, eventually recovered and came home. Dunne never did.

In the days following Dunne's death, while Didion had to maintain a strong front, "I remember thinking as I did this that he would see that I was handling things," she suffered from a sense of unreality and tacit denials. "I found myself wondering [in New York City], with no sense of illogic, if it [John's death] has also happened in Los Angeles. (Was there time to go back? Could we have a different ending on Pacific time?)" and "How could he come back if they took his organs [at the autopsy], how could he come back if he had no shoes?"

The day after the funeral in March, which was as public a declaration of death as any, she took herself in hand and allowed herself to think about what she needed to do to start the next phase of her life. "Cleaning up my office could be a step toward the first day of the rest of my life." Despite this decision, in the quotidian, her sense of reality remained fluid. "I was myself in no way prepared to accept this news as final: there was a level on which I believe that what had happened remained reversible." Episcopalians say at the graveside: "In the midst of life we are in death," and this was so true for Didion.

There are refrains that like ostinatos in music come up again and again throughout the narrative.
"Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant."
"You sit down to dinner. And then—gone."
"You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."

Posthumously, she recognizes that there were conversations with and actions on Dunne's part that revealed that perhaps on some deep subconscious level he had some knowledge of his impending death. Gawain of the medieval prose-poem Chanson de Roland when asked, "Ah, good my lord, think you then so soon to die?" replies, "I tell you that I shall not live two days." Didion keeps discovering bits and pieces of their recent past where she should've listened closely and understood what Dunne was trying to tell her. She doesn't beat herself up about it, but it is with a sense of regret that she acknowledges her lack of attentiveness.

Her meditation on grief is aching in its sense of catching her by surprise by its intensity and its longevity. "We do not expect to be literally crazy, [...believing] that their husband is about to return. We imagine initially that we will eventually recover, that grief will lessen. What can never be anticipated is the unending loss, the space that is always empty beside you," the unending succession of memories...

Didion talks a lot about what she calls a "vortex effect," where a memory is triggered by a glance at a place or a song or a smell. She starts avoiding places in order to prevent disappearing down rabbit holes and the painful return to reality.

Her husband features in these trips down memory lane far, far more than her daughter, and it's mostly when her daughter was a little girl, not other ages. This struck me as very curious. Did she feel detachment towards her daughter because she was so attached to her husband? She comes across as an unemotional person on the whole, which is not to say that she doesn't feel things intensely. On the contrary. This book goes to show that what is not apparent on the surface is very deeply felt, and it is profoundly private. This is what makes this book so powerful: In her most difficult time of grieving, she volunteers this look into her most private self to a society that considers mourning as wallowing in self-pity. That took tremendous courage.

Towards the end of the book, she writes that she does not want to finish this account, because she's afraid that she'll then have to face up to her sense of John alive as becoming "more remote, softened, transmuted into whatever best serves" her future life without him. "I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. When we mourn our losses, we also mourn ourselves. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead."

Monday, August 18, 2014

Medievalism: Tales After Tolkien Society

The Tales After Tolkien Society promotes short-form medieval scholarship in popular cultural genres, including but not limited to: fantasy, science fiction, westerns, romance, horror, crime, historical, children’s and young adult fiction, and cross-genre writing. "The Tales After Tolkien Society recognizes the foundational place J. R. R. Tolkien’s work has not only for the fantasy genre, but for popular medievalisms far more widely."

The blog also offers brief comments on recent medievalist scholarship, book and article reviews, and other popular cultural uses of medievalist themes.

The motivation for the blog came about from the 2011 issue of the Modern Language Association of America's publication Profession. "In it is a cluster of articles discussing the evaluation of digital scholarship, and in the introduction to that cluster is the suggestion that digital scholarship needs to be encouraged among junior scholars—those who have not yet been awarded tenure and those who find themselves off the tenure track but not secure in identities as independent scholars."

Other advantages that digital scholarship offers are an "ability to track emergent trends in research and scholarship," a reading and an evaluation of the pieces by peers via comments and page analytics, and a space for detailed discussion of current articles.

They are currently seeking new contributors to the blog. Please contact Helen Young for more information at

Friday, August 15, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Reply to Fan Letter by Harper Lee

On June 7, 2006, Harper Lee wrote this extraordinary letter to her young admirer in response to a request for a photograph.

[Click on the image to read better.]

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

When Is a Book Not A Book?

Book of Dimma is a shrine from 11th century A book is not a book when it's a book containing parts of one book or multiple books. This medieval book reliquary was called a cumdach or a book shrine. For example, the cumdach of Dimma's Book was produced in the twelfth century to encase the eighth century Gospel Book copied by the scribe Dimma.

Another example is the cumdach of Columba's Psalter. It was a copper and silver-plated book shrine that was made in the second half of the 11th century to hold the psalter of St. Columba, a manuscript that was created in the 6th or 7th century.

These shrines were fancy dust jackets, if you will. The cases were meant to directly resemble a book, symbolizing the important manuscripts found inside, and to protect the manuscripts from damage.

The shrines rival the books for super bling. This here on the left is the Gospel book known as the Codex Aureus or the Golden Book. It was made in the 9th century for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles II. The cover of the book is covered with gold, gems, sapphires, emeralds, and pearls.

[Both the images in this post are used with permission. They are copyrighted by Jenny Weston of Leiden University, The Netherlands and taken from]

Monday, August 11, 2014

When Did Romances Start to Get Such a Bad Rap?

"Stock characters, repetitive structures, contrived endings, formulaic words and phrases, simplistic emotions, commonplace sentiments"... Sounds familiar? How many times have modern romances been accused of this by the literary fiction stalwarts and even the science fiction and fantasy genre enthusiasts? Romances cannot be taken seriously pooh-poohs the Earnest Literature Reader; they're too pedestrian.

And yet, those quoted words above were not used to describe modern romances, but rather Middle English romances. Like modern romances, they were part of an enduring genre, ragingly popular in their heyday (over five centuries). Again like modern romances, popularity didn't mean that they didn't come under fire from the literary greats. And also like modern romances, they were commissioned by and read by people (well, men) who were well-educated, important, and successful.

Those Middle English romances and today's modern romances have been successfully popular across all demographics and yet are unpalatable to a notable few. It is as if something that is widely-read cannot have literary merit. Modern-day publishers think that reading comprehension and attention spans have declined these days—whether this is true or not, the market has bought this assessment and made the pronouncement that if something can be comprehended by many and is accessible to many, then perforce, it lacks rigor and complexity of language and thought.

And why stop at Middle English romances. Go further back to Old English tales, Nordic fairytales, and the grand sagas from Ireland and Iceland. All throughout history, you will find that stirring romantic stories of derring-do, love, the vanquishing of evil, the triumph of the noble (I don't mean aristocratic) hero (and heroine), the advancement of the underdog, and other such themes have been disparaged as the purview of the dim.

The philosophers of the ancient period and early Middle Ages are the Chaucers of the later medieval periods are the Austen contemporaries are the modern-day New Yorkers. Behind every romantic tale in history is a line of its detractors.

So modern romance novelists and readers who advocate for mainstream acceptance and respect towards the genre have an uphill battle ahead of them. But they're fighting the good fight.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Lay vs. Lie, a grammar graphic

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Summer Reading: Big Fat Book Edition

Some of my acquaintances who're readers and bloggers have been talking about desiring to read long instead of quick shorts. When I mean long, I mean more than 500 pages versus the usual 80,000 to 100,000 word stories. When I mean, quick, I mean stories with fast pacing and easy characterizations and subject material. Thus, the BFB or Big Fat Book project was born.

What qualifies as a BFB is not merely size, i.e., the hefty doorstopper, but also complex story lines, intricate plotting, and not obvious character motivations and thoughts and actions.

Back in March, Sunita blogged about initiating a BFB read-a-long among her blog readers. I thought long and hard about it, and decided, nope, I did not have the bandwidth to do it. I had BFB envy, but it wasn't a sufficient motivator. However, I kept up with Sunita's BFB posts in March to see how she did.

Then in June, I was alerted by her that another BFB read-a-long was coming up in July. I still thought that it was going to be a tough sell for me. Likewise, I was tempted by Kay's post, but resisted.

Then yet another person, Liz McCausland, decided to join in and posted about it. What was different about this one was the possibility of listening to an audiobook as part of the BFB read-a-long. I went, "Hmmm..." even though I am not a fan of audiobooks. Liz tried to encourage me in the comments section. But then a comment from Kaetrin finally clicked, and I was like, "YES! Count me in."

Her comment was that instead of sitting around twiddling my thumbs while listening to audiobooks and letting my attention wander then scrambling around trying to find the spot where I had stopped listening, I should do something that is not too engrossing while listening, i.e., something mindless, so I can keep my mind on the book and let my body have something to do, too. Her brilliant suggestion was to exercise while listening to the book.

I now have The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett from the library. It's a book I have always wanted to read ever since author Jo Beverley recommended it highly, but have been daunted by the size. The paperback version tops 550 pages and the audio version has 25 hours worth of unabridged recording on CD. *GULP*

I am hoping that this will be synergistic for me: the exercise will help the listening and the listening in turn will help the exercising. Thus, I will be trying my first audiobook and my first BFB this summer. Hoping to post updates here so you can follow along with my progress (or lack thereof).

Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Benches of London

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame When I first came across this concept of book benches, titled Books About Town, I was thrilled as all get out. Imagine sprinkling the entire map of London with scenes from books that are in a permanent, functional sculptural form. Time Machine by H.G. Wells
Here was another way to get literature to people by making it accessible and fun. You could take a tour of London by following various trails of book benches. Here's a detailed list of all the benches.

1984 by George Orwell When you read the bios of the artists, you notice that they have a love of reading, interpreting the books, and bringing the messages contained within to the masses. For example, Thomas Dowdeswell chose 1984 by George Orwell, "because of its rallying cry against the corrupting powers of the mass media, boundless corporate greed, sinister or misguided government policy and the constant threat of war and terror."

In order to draw more attention to the benches, different events have been scheduled on different days at different benches. For example, on Sunday, July 6, a person dressed as Mary Poppins was giving away books at specific times at the Mary Poppins book bench.

The book benches will be on view in open public spaces for the months of July through September. Then on October 7, 2014, they will be sold in an auction with proceeds going to "the National Literacy Trust, a charity dedicated to raising the literacy levels of disadvantaged children and young people across the UK."

[All images in this post are copyrighted by]

Friday, August 1, 2014

Read-a-Romance Month

Katharine Ashe kicked off 2014 Read-a-Romance Month today. Every day three authors post blogs and book recommendations, and short interviews are included. All commenters are eligible for a giveaway of the authors' books.

While the main post is free-form, the interview has these three questions:

1. Describe the most daring, adventurous or inspiring thing you ever did.

2. Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer (or a reader). (How did you decide to get started? Did you always know or was there a specific moment when you knew?)

3. Tell us about The (or A) Book That Changed Your Life. (Why?)

Here's Day One's Kristan Higgins who blogged about the qualities she loves best in a hero. She writes laugh-out-loud contemporary romance, and you get a feel for her writing in her blog presence. She recommends Laura Moore and Huntley Fitzpatrick.

So follow along every day of the month of August for great blogs, interviews, recommendations, and giveaways.

Picture Day Friday: The Churchill Arms in London

The Churchill Arms is one of the most famous pubs in London. Built in 1750, this place was known to be frequented by Winston Churchill's grandparents.