Tuesday, October 25, 2016

October ShallowReader Bingo!

For a lovely reading challenge, I decided to up my participation in the ShallowReader Bingo! this month by going for the entire Bingo! card on one book. I chose The Fortress by Danielle Trussoni. It is a memoir about her dysfunctional second marriage. It's written in a confiding manner and in excruciating detail, inviting the reader's critique of the marriage and the author. The book has been widely lauded; my opinion is quite the reverse. My review of the book will be published by All About Romance later this month. I'll link back to it here later.

Here's a copy of the October card. It is copyrighted to Vassiliki Veros and ShallowReader. Click on the image to embiggen.

The Horror : In one desperate move when Nikolai has driven her up the wall, Danielle tries to commit suicide by jumping off the balustrade. He saves her by wrestling her down.

Turtle : Nikolai thinks of his study as his shell. He installs a lock on the door and hides in there, supposedly writing, but in reality playing endless rounds of Internet chess and flirting with other women via Skype.

October : I read this book in October.

From Beyond the Grave : Danielle's father's larger-than-life role in her childhood before and after her parents' divorce continues to haunt her to the present day and is like an unseen presence in her marriage with Nikolai.

Spring : The gorgeous Provençal countryside of France and life in a French village is described and depicted in telling detail all throughout the book. That was the only redeeming part of the book.

Power Failure : When the power goes out in the village of Aubais, their huge 13th century Knights Templar fortress, La Commanderie, is shrouded in darkness. In the flickering candlelight, Danielle is surprised by a ghostly woman with calm blue eyes. This is the one and only supernatural foray in the story.

Head : Gosh, I wished and wished and wished Danielle would think with her head and not her emotions. She has an outlandish imagination and revels in the extremes. She has nothing steady underpinning her character.

Fester : Their entire ten-year-marriage was one festering, suppurating wound.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered : By the end of the novel, the divorce is final and both the children are living with her in New York City.

Whitewash : No matter how many times Danielle tries to airbrush away Nikolai's weird starts and thoughtless dominating actions, they all add up to a very disturbing whole that she never lets herself see clearly.

But Then I Thought About the Game : As her marriage is disintegrating, in her mind, she constantly flirts with the idea of taking a lover. How will Nikolai react? How will she react? Will the guy she wants be amenable? What impact will it have on her marriage? Was she willing to take the risk? When she tells Nikolai that she's going to go to Paris, he immediately jumps to the right conclusion and so begins their days of playing emotional games on each other.

Campus Life : At the beginning of their love life, they were both graduate students of writing—she, at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, he, as a foreign student from Bulgaria at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. At a later point in their married life, they both teach writing to earn their living, while writing novels on the side. He has published a few novels in Bulgarian and English; she has yet to do so.

Delight : When Danielle falls in love, it is in one fell swoop, without thought or restraint. So it was with Nikolai, so it is with her Parisian lover Hadrien. She finds delight in being delighted, falls in love with being in love.

Beer : Would you know it: In Paris, in the City of Love, on their first date when Danielle and Hadrien go out, she has a glass of wine, mais oui, but he has a BEER!!

Death Stare : Quoting from the book: "There was the gendarme whom some of the villagers called 'Robocop' because of his flat, inexpressive manner and his ability to deflect human interaction with a single blank stare."

78 : On page 78 is a good example of how behavior can engender lack of trust that can cause tears in the fabric of a marriage. Nikolai and Danielle talked to one and another and agreed to give their infant daughter a mixture of breast milk and formula, with the formula being slowly phased in. However, one night, Nikolai unilaterally decides that the baby should get formula. "He'd said one thing and done the opposite. And I stewed, silently, adding this slight to a growing stockpile of slights, storing them up."

Spawning : Disenchantment spawns disenchantment, hatred spawns hatred. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it's difficult to control it. Once the chain of negative thoughts and behaviors begin, they're difficult to rein in.

Dutch Oven : In Sofia, Bulgaria, on an outing to Plovdiv with Nikolai's parents, Yana and Ivan, Yana makes stuffed grape leaves, cabbage rolls, and a spicy lamb meatballs dish called kufteta, which is made in a Dutch Oven-like pot.

Slit : The cover design of the book has a sharp, deep, dark groove in the center that can be felt with a finger.

Wild Thing : On her first big book tour, she goes off with a random male writer she meets into a public bathroom and snorts a lot of cocaine.

Blur : Ten years of marriage go by in a blur of bad decisions upon bad decisions. Things stopped being good between them almost from the beginning. Yet they hung on for ten filthy miserable years.

Indecent : Even with the evidence of a ripped open empty condom packet staring him in the face, he flatly denies sleeping with his student in the backseat of the family car with the baby car seat thrown into the trunk. She wants so badly to believe the best of him that while she knows it's a lie and it rankles, she gives in and agrees with his version of the story.

Blossom : Just as love blossomed between Danielle and Nikolai, so did hatred blossom between them. Two sides of a coin, love and hatred both can develop slowly or in one fell swoop. Both Nikolai and Danielle loved so emotionally, so needily, so dependently, that even in their hatred of each other, they cling together feeding off of each other's negativity for years.

Legend : She buys into the legend of Paris is for lovers, by cheating on her husband with Hadrien, a man she meets at a party in Paris.

Stripped : By the end of their marriage, both of them are stripped of any semblance of decency. They have both said and done execrable things without any thought given to their children's wellbeing.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

#TBRChallenge Reading: The Hating Game by Sally Thorne

2016 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Hating Game
Author: Sally Thorne
My Categories: Romance, Contemporary, Rom-Com
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Paranormal or Romantic Suspense
(My book choice certainly doesn't fit Wendy's categories, nor does it strictly fit the TBR choice. The book should've been "a long-neglected book on your TBR pile," which it isn't. It's only languished there since August. Wendy might revoke by TBRChallenge Reviewer card.)

I bought this book after reading Emily Wittman's review on AAR and all the comments from readers about how much they loved this book.

Lucy Hutton and Joshua Templeman are personal assistants to co-CEOs of a publishing company. When the individual companies merged, each brought with it a vastly different working culture, and the tension and games between Joshua and Lucy are a testament to that. Lucy and Joshua hate each other and are intensely competitive with each other. Their constant one-upmanship games have included numerous reports to HR.

Into this maelstrom, the CEOs drop the bombshell that they're creating the position of COO, and Joshua and Lucy will be competing for it, in addition to outside applicants. This ups the ante of the already-intense interactions.

After a fulminating day, they indulge in a flaming, stop-the-elevator kiss. And that's a game changer. Now all the games they play are laden with sexual overtones, and it's driving them both crazy. In all things, Lucy likes to devour, while Joshua likes to savor—this ratchets up their tension.

This is a workplace enemies-to-lovers romance as well as a Rent-a-Date romance. It's a romance that's an urban modern story as well as a story with old-fashioned values. What I liked most about this book is the banter between the hero and the heroine. It is clever, sharp, very articulate, and very funny. Who doesn't want to have that perfect comeback at that oh-so-right moment? Well, both Lucy and Joshua have that knack in spades with some obvious one-liners and some subtle digs.

I enjoyed how they were both strong characters who give as good as they get. This isn't a tentative story, but a boldly assured one.

The sexual tension in the book is superb with well-written make-out and sex scenes. You don't see the Tab A in Slot B kind of technical sex scenes, thank goodness, but rather ones full of emotions and feelings. I'd hold these scenes up as great examples for anyone who wants to learn to write them.

Despite the sassiness of the dialogue, the romance is very sweet. I felt the book was a trifle long but that's also because it moves slowly and luxuriously through the relationship. There's no rushing the feelings, though the emotions between them are definitely not tepid; they're flamethrower (the color of her red lipstick) hot. That combination of sweet and hot makes for a great romantic story.

Overall, it is the writing that won me over with rich articulation and imaginative word painting.

Now for the negatives in the book. There's fat shaming and age shaming in the book. Joshua's boss is called Fat Old Dick. Lucy kept using that epithet long after it was okay (i.e., once). She has him eating all the time. She calls an older woman dumpy. A slighter man is not masculine enough. Only one who's a muscle-bound monolith is a real man, because being able to lift a heroine is what makes a man A Real Man.

Lucy calls herself cute a lot. Only petite women can be cute and desirable. Lucy wants to be liked by everyone; she wants to get along with everyone; she considers herself as being nice to everyone. But the reality is that she holds hard, mean opinions about some people, who don't match her desired aesthete. She's a people-pleaser instead of genuinely nice. Similarly, Joshua thinks he has no people skills and is cool and aloof with people, but in reality, he's sweet and genuinely nice. I liked the author's skill here in showing us characters who had certain opinions of themselves and act from those opinions, but the reader sees other types of people.

The other side of Lucy's obsession with looks is her objectification of Joshua. Her thoughts and comments about his looks could fill a small category novel. It's very flattering to be desired for your body, but that is all Lucy seems to talk about. At one point, he protests and says how other women have done this and he felt cheap as a result because he's more than just his body, and she listens to this, acknowledges it, but continues on. There is one point in the story where she gloriously shows how much she cares about him and his feelings, but that is a small part of the story. Most of it is spent by her mooning over his muscles.

At this point in the review, I went looking for other people's opinions of the book. I agree with some of the points the excellent reviews by Vassiliki, Kelly, Liz, and Sunita have brought up. However, despite all the negatives of this book, I liked it. It certainly wasn't an "A" read for me, but neither was it a "C" read. Anyone who likes smart witty dialogue, a sharp contemporary story, and a sweet romance, this is the book for you.

PS: The comments on Vassiliki's post bring up an interesting point: Where is this story set? There are zero indications of country or city, either in setting quirks, language ticks, or infrastructure cues. All I can say is that it's set in a monochromatic, first-world Caucasian town with Caucasian characters.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

My September Reading

Two philosophical books in one month was a surfeit of life skills to take in. Both were short though dense. They had their hobby horses but were persuasively written. Given the years between me and the writers, it's interesting to see how relevant the books are to the modern world.

I have recently subscribed to Poets.org's Poem-a-Day email and have thus kept up with my goal of reading contemporary poets this year. Let me just say that it has not been a very enjoyable experience. There's a limited amount of modern poetry that appeals to me. I'm much more a fan of poetry of the Romance Age. Give me lyrical, pastoral lines any day over modern, navel-gazing angst.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson
Categories: General Fiction
Comments: Set before World War I, it's a story of an independent woman in her twenties who moves to a village in the English countryside to teach Latin to the schoolchildren. On many fronts, she's an anomaly, and life is a continuous challenge for her. I just started reading it and the first pages have fully captivated me. I loved Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, and this one promises to be no less entertaining.

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work" by Kathleen Norris
Categories: Nonfiction, Life Skills, Spiritual
Comments: This book was recommended by Clarissa Harwood. It insists that the daily routine tasks have a meditative aspect and are akin to godliness. And this doesn't have to do with praying while you do your tasks. It has to do with being present and immersed in what you do—fully living in the commonplace, because the commonplace is life-transforming. My review is here.

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca, translated by C.D.N. Costa
Categories: Nonfiction, Life Skills
Comments: We all complain that life is too short. But the great Roman philosopher Seneca says: "Life is long if you know how to use it. However, it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity." He then quotes a well-known poet of his time (without a name): "It is a small part of life we really live." My commentary on the book is here.

Adam and Eva by Sandra Kitt
Categories: Romance, Contemporary
Comments: Adam and Eva is a Harlequin American romance published in the Caribbean in 1985 and is one of the early books by an African American author featuring African American characters. Despite its dated gender issues, I enjoyed the story. My review is here.

A Kiss to Build a Dream On by Marianne Stillings
Categories: Romance, Historical (World War II)
Comments: I was so excited about this book that I wrote up my September ShallowReader Bingo! Card on it. Rachel Prentiss is in her mid-twenties and a pilot with five hundred hours of flying and teaching experience. In the America of the early 1940s, this was an asset that was recognized by an Army Air Force General. He invites her to be a civilian pilot attached to an air force base for ferrying planes and equipment, thus, freeing up men to be sent overseas for the war effort. New training officer for the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) squadron, Captain Jack Lassiter is an officer and a gentleman. He treats Lieutenant Rachel Prentiss with respect and equality and ultimately with affection and desire. My review is forthcoming from All About Romance later this month, and I'll link back to it here. [Edited 10/14: My review is here.]

Someone to Love by Mary Balogh
Categories: Romance, Regency
Comments: Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath knowing nothing of the family she came from. One day, she finds out that an earl was actually her father, and not only that, she's inherited his fortune. However, it's not the money that makes her happy but that she has a family: half-siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. She also meets, Avery Archer, the Duke of Netherby, a distant kin of hers. Avery tends to be reserved with most people but takes an interest in aiding Anna in her transition from orphan to wealthy lady. And in so doing, they fall in love with each other. [Edited 11/9: My joint review is here.]

Lady Lochinvar by Barbara Hazard
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: The "Lochinvar" in the title refers to the knightly hero of Marmion by Sir Walter Scott, who was steadfast in his love for his lady against all odds. Lady Catherine Cahill is loyal in her love of Lionel Eden, Viscount Benning since she was twelve and he twenty. I have read such books before, where the heroine is kin and is devoted in her love to him and he slowly comes to the realization that he loves her, too. I have enjoyed that plot when handled sensitively with respect to the young lady's feelings and his growing feelings. My problem with this book comes from a huge portion of the book being devoted to the girlish twelve-year-old then the girlish fifteen-year-old and his nascent realization of his interest when he's respectively twenty and twenty-three. The first time he kisses her, and not a brotherly peck on the cheek, is when she's fifteen. And it was all ICK! She's too young and he's an adult, and it's inappropriate for him to be doing this. Maybe in the real Regency era, a fifteen-year-old girl was considered old enough for adult romance, but for my modern sensibilities, this was not kosher. I DNF'd the book.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Dealing with Depression: The Quotidian Mysteries - Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work" by Kathleen Norris

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work" is a book in praise of the daily grind. According to Kathleen Norris, what is considered routine is, in fact, deeply meditative and godly.

The word menial derives from the Latin to mean to remain or to dwell in a household. But somehow in modern times, menial jobs have come to be devalued and associated with the word servile. It is tragic that tasks, such as childcare, have been clubbed under servile along with garbage collection. Tasks that take up valuable resources and time in our daily life have been reduced to something beneath contempt. Yet they have to be done. You may be able to outsource some or all of them if you're lucky, but for most of us, they have to be done. And how awful it is that we do them with such reluctance and such unhappiness.

Norris talks a lot about the depression that dogs her and many others, making getting through daily tasks a burden. Depression, or acedia as she calls it, instills an indifference or even a hatred in the person for the life they're living and of the people in their life. Everything that others have looks better. "Exhaustion is at the heart of it, the simple inability to bear the thought of going on."

However, she says that persisting in doing the daily tasks and focusing on them in the present moment renews faith in self, in the ability to achieve things, and in the gratitude for the small successes. It is a quotidian mystery that dailiness can lead to such despair and yet also be at the core of our salvation.

This is a very religious book, but there are moral questions and social questions she grapples with that can be taken without the religiosity.

People say that they will be happy when something occurs. But happiness happens where they currently are, not where they wish they were. So happiness is found in the daily life, not in some spectacular dream. An attitude of gratitude in everyday life is what helps to counter depression and find that hope and peace in what is, rather than what should be.

A simple task of walking, that steady rhythm of the body, of moving arms and legs, frees up the mind to creativity. Writer's block has been cured for Norris and many writers, not by pounding their heads against their desks but by walking. Robert Frost used to famously compose many of him poems on his daily long walks. To Norris, folding laundry, doing the dishes, and kneading bread have that same quality—where the hands are occupied rhythmically and the minds wanders creatively. To her this is akin to praying and to meditating. It's these scorned daily tasks which she seeks to ground her, which in turn help her keep depression at bay.

Daily household tasks have increasingly become a dilemma for women. Should they choose a life of the mind or a life of repetitive, burdensome work? And the right answer is both. To Norris, workaholism isn't the panacea it is meant to be. In fact, it can have the opposite effect of depression. Our culture has this image of a professional person who rises above humble unskilled tasks. However, these are false accomplishments, because the reluctance to care for the body and for the space around them are the first symptoms of extreme melancholia. Thus, shampooing hair, brushing teeth, drinking enough water, going for a walk are all dailies, but they are extreme acts of self-respect. They enhance one's ability to take pleasure in oneself and in the world.

Starting the morning off right is important, says Norris. I'm a great fan of Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. He believes religiously in his morning routine, the same thing every day of the week. The dailiness of it is soothing to his spirit and sets his day up in calmness and peace, which marches along with the busyness of the rest of the day.

Norris compares daily work to liturgy—it is never completed, but simply set aside for the next day and the next and the next—which have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.

Monday, October 3, 2016

On the Shortness of Life by Seneca

We all, ordinary people and very famous people, complain how short life is and that we should fill it to the brim with things to do and things to experience. But the great Roman philosopher, Seneca, says that we waste life in "heedless luxury and no good activity." He then goes on to say that time is passing away almost before we know it is passing. It is only when death is imminent that we feel like we've wasted all this time. However, "our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly."

On the Shortness of Life is an essay that is written as a monologue by Seneca directed at his friend, Paulinus; very much in the mode of teacher to student. The translation by C.D.N. Costa is superb—articulate, nuanced, and succinct.

Seneca goes to list, at length, all the things people do to fritter their lives away. Some people achieve great success but work themselves into an early grave, others are controlled by sloth and other vices, some are slaves to others' whims, and yet others toil ceaselessly for no gain. Not a one of these know true leisure. Pursuit of hedonistic pleasures isn't leisure; it's more wearisome toil.

No matter where a person is in their life, everyone, universally, complains that they have no time for themselves, no peace. Trifling with an intangible but precious resource like time, which is considered so cheap it is lavishly used up with no reckoning, is a crime in Seneca's book.

And yet people let time pass them by without caring. "People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time, they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy." They allow people to encroach on their time and they, in turn, generously give time to everyone around them. Such a person in our world would be called exemplary. But Seneca says:

"You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don't notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply—though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last."

And the sad part of this exemplary person's life is that their secret lament is that they have no time for themselves and life is passing them by. To Seneca, it is unthinkable that such a paradox should occur. This is not an exemplary life by his standards. This is a wasteful life, one of respectable delusion. He believes that no activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied, since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it." (Heh! Tell us how you reaaaally feel, Seneca.)

There are a few digressions in his soliloquy where he rants about certain people or certain events. It's amusing to see him realizing that he has digressed, but he takes none of his mean-spirited comments back. Alas, every great person also has their weaknesses.

Ultimately, we get to the main point of his speech. What, then, is the ideal form in which you should spend your hours in order to have said that you have lived life to the fullest? Well, you should spend your time in the pursuit of the study of philosophy. Bien sûr! What else would one do? And not just the study of philosophy, but do it in solitary splendor, answerable to no one and spending time on no one other than yourself. He lauds what we would call selfish behavior, boring even.

But solitariness as the path to happiness, tranquility, and success in life is not new. Many writers and philosophers have touted its virtues. Most of us don't have the luxury of enveloping ourselves in this much-desired way of life, so we are, perhaps, doomed to lead an unfulfilled life full of strife, joy, sorrows, and tangible achievements. And we will remain in the rut of: "Too much to do, too little time."