Last week in reading…

It was another week of romance novels, but I’m sure you’re used to that by now.

Cover image, A Question of Trust by Angeline Fortin

Everyone who reads and reviews this book seems to say the same thing: it would have been a fantastic book if only Fortin had hired an editor.  I’ve got to say, I pretty much agree with the peanut gallery, but I also could have done with a lot less random description of clothing.  If I had followed through on my 10-year-old-girl goals to become a world-class fashionista (those who know me know how I far I fell short of that goal throughout my life…), maybe I would care to read details about pin-tucking and embroidery and overskirts and underskirts.  But I just don’t give two hoots or a holler about any of that.  It’s nice to know that the characters in books have clothes on, but don’t you kind of assume that, as a reader?  There were some cases where the seemingly endless clothing descriptions made a wee bit of sense, when the clothing choices moved along the character development, but the rest of the time, I just skipped ahead.

Now here’s something interesting: it ain’t often that you have a romance novel deal with a weighty topic like spousal abuse and not be lame about it.  A lot of romance authors imbue their characters with the mannerisms of folks who have been badly abused but then when it comes time for them to give an accounting of the actual abuse the character received (to explain all that funky behavior), it’s so mild that their behavior doesn’t make any sense.  Sometimes people treat each other very badly, and I was happy to come across a book that wasn’t afraid to delve into all of that.  Well done, Fortin.  But, next time, hire a damn editor, because it’s really annoying to read a book that’s got stupid errors – dropped words, typos, mistaken words (i.e. interesting rather than interested…), etc.

Cover image, The Leopard Prince, by Elizabeth Hoyt

I’ve sort of fallen in love with Elizabeth Hoyt.  This woman writes beautiful books that seamlessly blend interesting stories about complicated characters with these lovely little fairy tales.  I wrote about The Raven Prince a few weeks ago, which is the first book in the Prince series, followed by The Leopard Prince and then The Serpent Prince.  All three books in that series are excellent, and I’m so glad I read them.  Seriously, if you can stand to read romance novels and are tolerant of quite steamy sex sequences, you should really read these books.  The books are beautifully constructed with just enough plot movement not to be boring and with all the character development that a girl like me could possibly want.  Trust me: that’s a lot of character development!  I’m a sucker for fairy tales, so my favorite part of each of the Prince books was the fairy tale and how perfectly it dovetailed the main story line/character line.

In the romance genre, it’s fairly typical to start each chapter with some sort of excerpt, whether from an established work of literature, some fictional work that is mentioned within the book, or bits of letters penned by one or more of the characters of the book.  I’m not quite sure why it’s so popular in romance fiction, but there’s some sort of chapter introduction in about 75% of the romance novels I’ve read in the past five years.  Clearly, it’s become part of the genre.  Most of the time, I don’t bother reading the little introductions, because they tend to take away from the pacing of the story and often fail to add anything substantive to it.  However, when Hoyt writes these little chapter introductions, they provide another layer of meaning for the characters.  How brilliant for Hoyt to take a stupid quirk of the genre and make it beautiful.

Cover image, The Serpent Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt

I have one more thought about the Prince series, and then I’ll be done.  Series books are usually really annoying.  Often, when an author writes a series, she’s actually just rewriting the first book with different character names.  As an example, I point to Stephanie Laurens, who wrote the wildly successful Cynster series.  Now, I’m a sucker for romance novels, so I’ve read every single one of those books (sucker indeed).  They’re all exactly the same.  The male hero character is jaded and starting to feel a certain restlessness with his life.  Enter the heroine, whom the male character immediately fixes upon as an object of his possession.  The hero decides that they will marry, but the heroine refuses to consent until she can be certain that he loves her.  He is reticent to give such an assurance, and so they have a conflict.  Since that conflict alone would make for horribly boring books, Laurens throws each of her hero/heroine pairs into some sort of mortal peril (a murderer on the loose, etc.) that, in its resolution, forces the hero character to examine and communicate his feelings, after which recitation the heroine relents, and they marry, happily ever after.  Laurens has written 20+ versions of the same book, and idiots like me keep flocking up to purchase them at $7.99 a pop.  Did I mention I’m a sucker?

Hoyt writes series books with marginally connected characters, but each book is distinct.  She doesn’t seem to possess a pattern card for ideal male or female behavior.  Rather, her characters receive individual attention and a great deal of thought.  As a reader, I don’t have to feel like an utter moron for spending another $8 for the dubious pleasure of reading a story I’ve already read.  Instead, I can spend $4 or $6 on a lovely story that makes me happy and makes me think.  I just don’t have anything bad to say about any of these books by Elizabeth Hoyt, and that’s a rare thing!

Cover image, Listening Hearts by Suzanne G. Farnham, Joseph P. Gill, R. Taylor McLean & Susan M. Ward

In addition to all those romance novels, I’m also reading Listening Hearts: Discerning Call in Community.  I’m starting the process of writing a profile document for my church, and a friend of mine suggested that I read this book to help get me in the right frame of mind for discernment.  Having gone to Azusa Pacific University, I’m a bit leery of religious writing, but I’m really enjoying this book.  Not everything that has to do with religion is cheesy and fake.  Anyway, I’m just on the first chapter, but it deserves a mention in my week of reading recap.

These books are all last week’s reading.  I just got back from an eight-day road trip from southern California to southern Idaho, and I didn’t get any writing done for the blog while I was gone.  Stay tuned for some upcoming posts about the road trip, this week’s reading, and a relatively recent wine tasting trip.

Conflict, confrontation and honesty: are they always bad?

I suspect that the way we are raised has a profound impact on whether or not we consider the ability and/or willingness to enter into conflict or confrontation or to be honest to be a positive or negative trait.  I have always felt a bit ambivalent about it.  On the one hand, I know that I’m supposed to shy away from conflict/confrontation/honesty for a variety of reasons.  For example, I’m a woman, and, therefore, it is my bounden duty to suck it up and give and give and give to other people until there is nothing left.  Various interpretations of my faith make rather a big deal about the directive to turn the other cheek, even to an insane degree.  Cognitively, I think all that is just stupid, but the inclination to give to that degree resides much deeper in my being than my cognitive self can always control, and I instinctively think that it’s a sign of poor character that I even feel the inner struggle to stand up for myself on occasion or to be truly honest.  I am not certain, but I believe that this phenomenon of generations of women feeling the desperate need both to prostrate themselves and, simultaneously, to defend themselves is a mid-western trait.

Despite my mid-western upbringing, in my cognitive self (for the most part), I’m not the type to run from confrontation.  There are a few topics that I generally avoid–I am, for example, extremely uncomfortable with conversations (or even just remarks) about my physical appearance unless said remarks are negative…. I use bizarre evasive maneuvers when I encounter positive remarks on my appearance… It makes no sense, but perhaps none of us can be completely logical all of the time–but, aside from all that, I am a forthright person who speaks plainly and has no patience for strange non-confrontational and/or passive aggressive behavior.  However, I feel a profound inner struggle whenever I am called upon by my personality (that cognitive self) to be forthright to an individual or a group.  Maybe honesty is always a fraught thing, its aftermath marked by recrimination and worry.

In a way, isn’t it easiest to simply go along with life?  People misunderstand you?  Eh, let them.  People treat you poorly? Eh, let them.  Even the suffering that comes with just going along with things, whether or not they are what we want, isn’t that also something that we relish, in a strange way?  We point to all of our long-suffering woes as the hallmark of our character.  “I am a good person,” we say, “I let everyone run roughshod over me.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

Life is full of loopholes.  One of my friends, when she was younger, always kept her food separated and was horrified by any mixing of food except that when her mother made mashed potatoes and peas at the same meal and when the mashed potatoes were lumpy, she would mix the two together.  The horror of lumpy mashed potatoes trumped the horror of food mixed together.

In the same way, my ingrained horror of watching other people suffer trumps my ingrained horror of confrontation, so I never feel a compulsion to feel guilty when I have entered into a conflict on behalf of someone else.  If I am merely defending myself, however, I must go through the motions of feeling bad about it until my cognitive self is able to catch up.

This is all very ridiculous.  Is it normal to spend so much time trying to determine the difference between the cognitive self and the deeper self?  Does anyone else think about this sort of thing, or is it all just more evidence of my neurosis?

I don’t want to be the spider queen – more on arachnophobia

My husband joked that I am the spider queen–they are drawn to me as to a lodestone.  I don’t like it one bit.  After that pity-party post about how much I hate spiders (and what a terrible person I am for having spiders in my house…honestly, why do I even think these things?), I had three more terrible spider run-ins, two of them this past Sunday.

It’s funny (in a “oh… that’s sad” kind of way… not so much the “ha ha”), but when I tell people that I’m profoundly arachnophobic, they never quite understand what I mean.  Most people dislike spiders.  I don’t know anyone who would be thrilled to discover a spider crawling up his arm.  My fear of spiders isn’t just a strong dislike–it’s a horrifying, abject terror.  I fall apart.  I cease to function.  When a spider is large enough, creepy enough, near enough, moving, and surprises me, I completely lose it.  All of my muscles tense up; I start shaking; I start crying, silently; I can’t breathe; I become paralyzed.  It really freaks my husband out.

Last Wednesday, a medium-sized spider dropped down from the roof of my car about two inches in front of my face.  I thank God for the following: I wasn’t driving, we were going about 5 mph, my husband noticed right away, and he killed it immediately by smacking it down and squashing it against my leg.  I’m also thankful I was wearing jeans.  The problem was that both my daughters were in the car, and part of me knew that I couldn’t lose it in front of them.  My youngest might not have registered any oddness, but my oldest noticed right away.  “Mom mom?  Are you OK?” she said, while I was clutching both hands to my mouth, trying desperately not to scream.  Internally, it’s always worse if I have to contain my reaction, but you just can’t freak out like that in front of your kids and expect them to grow up normal.  After about ten seconds, I was able to relax my neck muscles enough to reassure the girls that I was OK but was startled by a spider.  Allie’s response: “You don’t like spiders?  I don’t like them either.”  And for about a minute, I felt like a failure.  The thing is, I can’t control whether or not the girls take on some form of arachnophobia.  I don’t consider it my mother’s fault that I’m afraid of spiders, so why in the world would I put additional stress on myself at a moment when I’m already so near my breaking point?  In this, I really have to let it be.

Now we come to Sunday.  I sing in the choir at church, and while I was standing during the Eucharistic prayer at the morning service, a spider spindled by above my head (that creepy Tarzan-flying-through-the-air-on-a-bit-of-web thing) and then dropped down on my shoulder and climbed down my back.  I was stuck in the choir pew and just stood there and let it happen.  I know that doesn’t make sense… if I’m so terrified of the things, why not run away screaming?  If I hadn’t been in a room with 40 other people, only two of whom knew about my issues, if it wouldn’t have disrupted the service for everyone, I would have moved.  But I couldn’t do it without being disruptive, and it isn’t anyone else’s fault that I’m such a fruitcake around spiders.  I quietly panicked.  In the end, the two people who know about my spider-terror noticed while it was happening and the four people in my pew noticed that I was crying.  I’m fairly certain that no one else noticed at all.

When we were finally able to move out of the pews to come to the altar for communion, two lovely altos helped me make sure that I didn’t still have a spider on my person, but the damage was done.  I couldn’t relax, couldn’t stop thinking about spiders dive-bombing on me.  I still hadn’t quite unclenched by the time I returned to the church a few hours later to rehearse for an Evensong we performed that afternoon, but I did my best to lose myself in the beauty of the music, to relax.

At the start of the Evensong service, all twenty-four singers crammed into the Narthex of the church to perform the introit, “Christ Mighty Savior,” which happens to be one of my favorite pieces to sing.  I’m very tall, so I was standing towards the back hemmed in by basses to the right and in front of me, tenors to my left, and the wall of the church at my back.  We got about four measures in to the first verse (of 5) when I saw a giant-ass spider crawling towards me.  “Well, fuck,” I thought.  It did all of the classic creepy-spider moves: lost traction and quickly dropped six inches, crawled towards me (I was standing about a foot in front of the wall) until it was directly behind me, then spindled down to the ground and disappeared.  Holy shit.  And I was truly stuck this time–there was nowhere to go, and I couldn’t make any noise at all without disrupting the efforts of twenty-three other singers who were so beautifully acquitting themselves.  (And the composer of “Christ Mighty Savior” was sitting inside the church, so I really didn’t feel right fucking it up for everyone with my retarded panic.)  I don’t know how I made it through all five verses, I really don’t.  When it was over, the tenor to my left offered me his handkerchief so I could mop myself up.  The few people who noticed my freaky antics thought I was having some sort of religious-ecstasy experience from the beauty of the song.  Ha.  I mean, I’m glad to know that my terror looked like something other than it was, but, seriously… I’m not the outwardly-obvious religious experience type.  I had about thirty seconds to blow my nose and wipe all the tears and snot off my face before it was my turn to process into the church and sing the Evensong.

That was Sunday afternoon, and I haven’t slept well since.  I can’t stop thinking about spiders, and it’s starting to piss me off.

So here’s my message to the spiders of the world who may or may not consider me their queen: Stop it!  I’m OK with your existence in the world provided it is carried out far away from me.  Get out of my house, my church, and my car.

God = Love = God, ad infinitum

I’ve been thinking about–I’m hesitant to call it religion, but I guess that’s close enough–religion a lot lately, so I suppose it’s time for another post about it.  I’m not sure what the consolations of religion are for other people–I suspect that it’s different for everyone–but there are definitely consolations for me, and they vary from day-to-day, week-to-week.  The primary consolation, though, is always that my practice of religion helps me stay focused on love, on being loving, kind, generous, and understanding.  It helps me stay compassionate, and I’m happiest in that state.  Looking around at the world, though, I have to admit that there are a lot of people out there who don’t get that sort of thing out of their religion.  They get judgment or anger or a sense of righteousness (paradoxically without actually being righteous…), and I have a difficult time comprehending how all of that could be personally fulfilling.

If we basically get to decide what kind of god we want to believe in–and with the vast menu of church and non-church options available to us, we pretty much do–what does it say about us if we choose to believe in a god who’s a total asshole?  Does anyone really want to be the person who believes that God hates whole sections of the society he supposedly created in love?  Doesn’t it rather take away from the “God so loved the world…” message if he only loved certain parts of the world, but the others can just go to hell?  I just don’t get it.  If love is really the crux of the whole thing, why do we humans get so unbearably focused on hate?

Perhaps I just answered my own question: maybe love isn’t always the crux of the whole thing.  I mean, it is to me, but that’s my choice.

I love it when poetry (because hymns are poetry) sums up what I feel in a manner far more beautiful than I could ever manage.  Here’s the text of the second verse of one of my favorite hymns (“God is love, let heaven adore him” from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982):

 God is love; and love enfolds us
all the world in one embrace:
with unfailing grasp God holds us
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow’s iron rod,
then we find that self-same aching
deep within the heart of God.

That’s the God I believe in, and maybe it’s all delusion on my part–I’m OK with that, actually–but I’d rather delude myself to believe that beauty and love exist in the world than to believe that all is an awful ugliness.  I know life isn’t nearly as simple as that, and there are as many reasons not to believe in God as there are reasons to do so, but wouldn’t it be great if it were that simple?

I love early 90s hip hop – and I think I might be a feminist…

I’m helping some friends put together a playlist for their wedding, and that means I get to listen to some of my favorite guilty-pleasure music: early 90s rap and hip hop!  On my way into work this morning, I was rocking out to House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” and I realized that my favorite early 90s hip hop songs always feature the ridiculous–the threat of violence combined with the exhortation to dance, for example–and I wonder what that says about me.

Officially, I love every single thing about this song–I love anything that makes me laugh–but my favorite verse refers to Vanilla cruising through the town perusing all the lovely ladies and grabbing–but not using–his 9 while he runs away from chumps who may or may not be full of 8-ball.  Running away in bumper-to-bumper traffic is hard core?  Seriously?  I love it.

Honestly, white people, just stop it.  Bagpipes are not hard core.  Anyway, I love the notion that House of Pain’s lyrics are so brutal and effective at administering whoop-ass that an actual shotgun is necessary to use as defense against them, but everything will be OK if you just get out of your seat and jump around.

Regarding this one, can I just say that it’s ridiculous that curse words and pot references were edited out of the radio/MTV edits of this song, but the lovely lyrics: “Uh oh, I crave skin, rip shit, find a honey to dip it in, slam dunk it stick it flip it and ride that B double O T Y oh my” are A-OK?  What does that say about our society?  But I still love the song… I’ve got a shovel, and I can dig it, fool.

This one is not my favorite early-90s hip hop songs.  If I’m going to listen to a song that blatantly objectifies women, it’s going to be “Baby Got Back.”  Anyway, I included this one because it’s just so blatantly awful.  To be honest, the sad thing about all of these videos is that these dudes probably did get a lot of booty.  In a just world, a honey who saw Vanilla Ice coming towards her with all of his hubris and dorky sweatshirts would have laughed at him and walked the other way.  But that’s not the way the world works.  Wreckx-N-Effect oh-so-elegantly stated the dominant mores of our society: “Now since you got the body of the year, come and get the award.  Here’s a hint – it’s like a long sharp sword.”  Hooray for you sweetheart–in exchange for being so beautiful and shaking your rump so mightily, you have the privilege of having your body used.  How wonderful.

I was in junior high when these songs came out, and I admit that, at the time, I loved them because they sounded cool, not because they were funny in an ironic way.  And it’s only as I grow older (and because I have daughters instead of sons) that I see what’s so awful about the lyrics of some of the songs and what they represent.

Anybody else love early-90s hip hop?

The Hunger Games Trilogy – a wrap up (sort of)

Well, I finally finished The Hunger Games trilogy a few days ago.  On the whole, I enjoyed these books.  They were entertaining, compelling, and thought-provoking, albeit not really in new ways.  My main reaction to the books is that I feel a bit old, now.  Honestly, I can’t imagine a young adult audience being able to comprehend these themes and to read these books without being profoundly disturbed.  Since I read some crazy shit when I was an adolescent, it seems remarkably hypocritical for me now, as an adult and mother of young children, to think that parents should be careful about what books their adolescent children are reading.  But, seriously, that’s what I was thinking the whole time I read these books.

Cover image, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay starts out at a fairly slow pace.  Blah blah blah, District 13 sucks a lot, blah blah blah, Katniss is all kinds of messed up, blah blah blah… on and on for about a hundred pages.  When it picks up, though, it keeps its accelerated pace through to the end.  I was not confident that Collins would be able to craft a believable and satisfying ending to the book, but she did, for the most part.

OK, now back to my ridiculous issues with young people reading disturbing books.  I pretty much never stop reading, and I’ve been that way ever since I can remember.  I cannot comprehend a person who finishes a book and does not start another the next day (or the next minute).  It’s just weird to me that people can get through life without having  a book in hand, purse, or knapsack.  I’m an adult now with a steady source of income, so I am able to buy a book (or download a free ebook, if I’m feeling penurious) whenever I need new reading material.  I read about 150 books per year (no joke).

When I was a kid, I read just as much, but I didn’t have the ability to buy books on my own.  As a result, I was a book borrower and, occasionally, a book thief.  When I had read all the interesting books in my elementary and middle schools’ libraries (which included R.L. Stine’s creepy books for kids), I started rummaging through the books in my mom’s bookcases.  So it was eighth grade, and I was thirteen years old, and I read romance novels, horror novels (Stephen King and the like), suspense novels (John Grisham and Dean Koontz, among others), an odd smattering of nonfiction, etc.  I read all the sci-fi and fantasy novels that my friend Luke would lend me.  In ninth grade, I read the first four books of Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series, and I got hooked on the terrifically violent The First North Americans Series by Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear.  So, yeah, I read stuff that was disturbing and difficult to understand, and I didn’t talk to my parents about any of it, because I wasn’t supposed to be reading that stuff.  And Mom, before you start to feel bad about buying me all those First North Americans booksthe first few weren’t violent at all.  I was already hooked on the series before it started to get disturbing (in the fifth or sixth book), and I really loved the combination of history and fiction.

Anyway, back to The Hunger Games.  I’m a total pansy about this sort of thing, but I had a couple of nightmares that were obviously triggered by The Hunger Games books while I was reading them, and I’m over thirty!  (I had nightmares about Harry Potter, too, so maybe I’d have nightmares about anything.)

So let’s say my kids decide to read these books (or something like them that comes out in ten years).  What kind of parent will I be?  Will I continue to be a bit of a helicopter mom, constantly trying to start up a conversation with the girls about the books, talking with them about the disturbing sections, asking if they have any questions, and generally being a bit overbearing about the whole deal?  Will I sit back and assume that they probably won’t pick up on the most disturbing elements the way I didn’t quite get what’s so creepy about Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mockingbird until I was much older?  Will I even know what they are reading?

I get that it’s completely ridiculous that I’m worried about how I’ll respond to what my daughters are reading in 10 years (what the hell can I do about it now?  Why even bother thinking about it except to torture myself with the fear that I’ll be completely inadequate when the time comes?)…  Has anyone else reading this blog read the Hunger Games books?  Am I totally off my rocker in thinking they’re a bit much for a young adult audience?

Social Lessons – an excerpt

I started writing this story a while ago, and I think it might be time for me to get back to it.  Here is an excerpt from the very beginning of this very unpolished writing fragment.  To explain: I tend to write stories from the middle out.  That habit makes for a terrible editing process, but I generally find it easier to write whatever I feel like writing at a given time.    You may have noticed in reading this blog that I skip around a fair amount and don’t ascribe to any coherent theme.  Anyway, that disorganization is inherent in me and in everything that I do.  So get ready for an extremely abrupt beginning (and the ending is quite abrupt, too, because I didn’t feel like posting the entire thing today).

In fifth grade, I switched from private to public school.  It was September of 1990, and my world completely changed.  At the private school, we had uniforms and there were a lot of rules governing our behavior.  To enforce those rules, our teachers were permitted to use corporal punishment.  I had gotten in trouble a few times and was considered something of a trouble maker—in third grade, a boy who sat next to me got upset and said, “Shit!”  The teacher took him outside to spank him, and those of the class who hadn’t witnessed the drama first-hand surrounded me to find out what was going on.  I said, “Kenny said a bad word,” just as the teacher was coming in.  She hauled me right outside and I got spanked for gossiping.  Also in third grade, I got in trouble (by the same teacher, although this time I deserved it) for starting up a business with my best friend; this business consisted of us purchasing large quantities of pixie stix at a very low price from the drive-through dairy by her house and selling them at a considerable markup to the other students in our class.  At any rate, if it’s true that we learn to view ourselves through the perspective of the adults around us, I really thought I was a hard-core trouble maker… until I went to public school.

At the public school, it was ok to use curse words.  It was ok to talk back to the teachers.  It was ok to terrorize your fellow students.  It was awful.  As an adult, now, I can look back on it with a chuckle and tell myself dispassionately that it really was quite a paradigm shift.  But if I stretch my memory back and try to recall my feelings at the time, I become swamped by the terror that accompanies an individual being thrown into a completely new set of circumstances without the least bit of warning.  Every single rule had changed, and I didn’t know what the new ones were.  At the private school, which was associated with a large church, the coolest kids were the PKs, the ministers’ sons and daughters.  The hierarchy went down from there based on the relative position of one’s parents—my dad was a deacon in the church, so I ranked below the ministers’ kids and above the kids whose dads were merely church members.  At the public school, the hierarchy of relative coolness was based first on the socioeconomic status of one’s parents and second on how adept one was at making other children feel small and worthless.

My parents weren’t poor, but they didn’t think about status or the communication of relative wealth when we did back to school shopping.  I remember that pre-fifth grade shopping trip, because we had never done back-to-school shopping before.  My mother and my aunt talked strategy weeks in advance—jeans and t-shirts were cool as were tennis shoes (never called sneakers).  Then we went to Target or K-Mart and bought a few pairs of jeans, a few pairs of shorts, and a bunch of solid-color t-shirts and got some white tennis shoes from Payless.  To my mind then (and now, frankly) jeans are jeans—if they fit properly and are comfortable, what does it matter what brand they are?—but it did matter whether you wore Jordache or Guess vs. Wrangler, Lee, or Chic (Target’s brand).  Those kids could tell at a glance whether or not your clothes had the right label, and mine did not.  To make matters worse,  I had the habit of wearing the clothes I liked regardless of how many times I had worn any particular item in that week or in that month.  I had this neon-green zip-up sweat shirt with a screen-printed stegosaurus on it that I loved immoderately, and my insistence on wearing it nearly every day did not help my social status.

There were other, behind-the-scenes factors that contributed to my total uncoolness that I didn’t discover until it was far too late to do anything about it.  The public school had a program for its smart kids called Gifted and Talented Education (GATE).  Students had to test to qualify to participate in GATE, and, at the public school, there were budget limits on the number of students from each grade who could participate in the program.  Before I attended my first day of class at the public school, I had already alienated a rather large contingent of kids; my test scores forced out one of the more popular girls from participating in the GATE program.  Being ten years old, she vowed a vendetta against me and all her friends followed her lead.  I started my first day of school with fifteen female enemies I had never met before, and not a one of them would tell me why I was so uniformly hated.  It was very confusing.

I had better luck than I deserved, and I was able to make the acquaintance of three very friendly girls who walked the same route I did to and from school.  They couldn’t make me cool, but at least they helped me to avoid getting beat up every day.

My private school offered a much more advanced education than was available at the public school.  In fifth grade, I didn’t learn new math skills; I didn’t, as a result of the curriculum, increase my reading level (it was already at the high school level anyway).  In fifth grade, I learned the meaning of the words asshole, fuck, and the completely confusing mother-fucker.  I learned that people make assumptions about you based on your appearance, and there is nothing you can do to change their minds.  I learned that friends don’t keep your secrets if your secrets are funny.  I learned that money, the smell of money, the façade of money, is more important to other people than the genuine intentions of your heart.  In short, I learned that you usually can’t trust other people and that most of them aren’t worth knowing.  I am extremely glad that I learned these lessons before I got to junior high, but sometimes I wish I could unlearn them.

On spiders: arachnophobia and motherhood

I am afraid of spiders.  To be honest, I’m not terribly keen on most bugs–ants freak me out, crickets are not OK, and those crazy pincer bugs can just rot as far as I’m concerned–but spiders are the worst.  I know what you’re thinking.  If you’re also an arachnophobe, you’re thinking, “That’s right, sister!”; if you aren’t bothered by spiders, you’re thinking, “They’re so small, and you’re so big… what’s there to be afraid of?”  I really hate that latter response.  Seriously, all of us are insecure about or afraid of something, sometimes many things, and how helpful is it when someone belittles or invalidates us because of our fears?  Here’s my reality: spiders are evil, and they are always plotting to jump on my face and kill me.  I don’t care if they’re the harmless (to me) kind who eat other spiders or the evil soul-sucking kind.  They’re all bastards, and I’d be happier in a world where they continue to exist (else we’d be overrun with other bugs) but have all been served a 10-foot restraining order against coming in my presence.


Lately, there have been a few too many spiders disregarding that restraining order.  On Tuesday, a big one decided it would be awesome to climb aboard a box that I had to carry out to my car, and I still don’t know if it originated in the box (which came from my boss’ garage) or crawled out from underneath the reception chair in my office.  I wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that there are full-grown spiders lurking in the dark corners of my office, but I can’t think about that right now.  On Wednesday, I killed a tiny one on my desk.  It was on my correction tape.  Yesterday afternoon, I killed a tiny one in my car.  It was swinging perilously close to my face, and I’m sure the guy in the car behind me thought I was absolutely nuts when I completely freaked out while going 40 miles per hour up Indian Hill Blvd…  Finally, last night a spider had the audacity to confront me in my own home, crawling along the arm of the sofa on which I was sitting, reading.

That last one is the worst, because I like to think that I’m safe at home, but now I know for certain that I’m not.  I couldn’t kill it.  I couldn’t even turn the light off before I finally crept to my bedroom to lie awake for an hour, in a full but desperately silent panic (I was, frankly, too ashamed to risk waking my husband).  I couldn’t kill it, and now it’s in my house, alive, angry, and very close to the area where my children play. I couldn’t kill it, and I feel like a failure as a mother, because isn’t my concern for my children supposed to overcome my fears?

Anyway, if I were a better person, I’d be more on top of cleaning my house.  Didn’t my mother always teach me that spiders like dark, neglected spaces?  I know this, and I still fail to keep my house clean.  It is my fault both that my children are at risk today because I failed to kill the spider last night and that the spider was even in my house to begin with because I’m a lazy asshole who can’t be bothered to keep a clean house for her children and husband.

I know I’m being unfair, but I’m also being honest.  Spiders suck, but even I cannot attribute to them the blame in the situation.  If I kept a clean car, I wouldn’t have had to deal with a spider dropping down on me while I was driving.  That was my fault.  If I kept a clean house, I wouldn’t have been surprised by that awful couch buddy.  That was my fault, too.  So today is, obviously, one of those bad days.  I really hope I don’t make any mistakes at work… I doubt I’ll be able to respond rationally.

This week in reading…

Cover image, Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Over the weekend, I read the second installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy.  I started the third book last night.  I am not quite sure what to say about this book.  It was thrilling and entertaining and a little bit annoying.  I suppose my real problem with this series is that it’s really just one big story split up into three books.  Catching Fire is a continuation of The Hunger Games.  It pretty much picks up where the first book left off rather precipitously, and it wends its way through the middle portion of the overall story arc until its own untimely end.

As a society, we seem to expect that a story will require several volumes to be told in full.  I wonder how much of this expectation goes back to the decision to publish The Lord of the Rings in three volumes, not because they are three separate books but because there were printing limitations that prohibited the work from being published in one volume.  However strange it is, I think I would like this series more if it were told in one, perhaps long book rather than split into three books.  It’s one story.

Anyway.  When I was twenty, I took a class on Proust at my local community college.  When we got to Within a Budding Grove (the English title from the translation I used, the Modern Library version), the professor gave a lecture on sequels – why do they exist?  When are they tolerable?  He asked us to think of all the terrible sequels we knew, and together we discovered that the fatal flaw that often besets a sequel is that sequels are often just do-overs of their well-received originals.  Saturday Night Fever was AWESOME!  Let’s make Staying Alive!  I bet it will be SUPER awesome!  Oh, wait… no, that was a mistake.  In order for a sequel to be worthwhile, it has to contain a story that needs to be told, one that wasn’t told in the original story.  Something needs to change.  In Within a Budding Grove, it is the narrator who changes, who enters adolescence and now has to explore and discover how those changes within himself affect the relationships that are established in the first volume (Swann’s Way) and affect the ways that he will establish new relationships (all those budding young girls…).  Even though it is the second volume in a single overarching work, Within a Budding Grove contains a story that needs to be told.

Not so, Catching Fire, which merely continues unabated from where The Hunger Games leaves off.  And that’s why it annoyed me… I know I’m expecting way too much from a popular book that is marketed for young adults, but I was irked by the lack of character development in Katniss.  Gale changes, Peeta changes, Haymitch changes, but Katniss is as whiny and irritating as ever, except now she has nightmares.  I enjoyed the book, but I wanted more from it.

Anyone else love Pygmalion stories?  I sure do, and I really enjoyed this one.  To be honest, I don’t know what it says about me that I enjoy stories in which a male character molds and forms a female character into a vision of perfection and eventually (very eventually, as the case may be) grapples with the Mr. Darcy struggle–is she good enough for him?  Can he turn his back on his duties and follow his heart, even though it means betraying his principles?–and realizes that the important point is not what he can stand to give up in order to have her but what he will gain with her.  These stories are almost always about the male character’s internal struggle, because he’s obviously so awesome that the female character falls in love with him in the very beginning, even when he’s being a tard.  To the female character is relegated all the heartache that attends knowing she is not worthy of the affections of the man she loves–why is she not worthy?  Well, because he says so–but she doesn’t generally undergo any change at all.  She is loving and steadfast at the beginning, and she is loving, forgiving, and steadfast at the end.

However incongruous it might seem, A Perfect Bride seemed to me to be very close to an Austen-what-if? story that decided to pair Darcy with Jane in a situation in which Jane was alone in the world and utterly destitute.  I enjoyed the book, but it was a little strange.

Let me complain about covers some more.  This book is great, but you’d never guess from this lame cover.  One of the best things about the book is that neither character is particularly attractive.  In fact, the male character is covered with small pox scars.  Now look at the dude on the cover… is he seriously giant, black haired, and covered with scars?  No.  So why the hell is he on the cover?  And what’s with his collar?  He looks like he’s wearing a dress I used to have when I was a little girl.

I hate (HATE) it when romance authors try to write complicated characters and fail.  One of the easiest ways for an author to fail at a characterization attempt is to write a less than perfectly attractive character and not know how to make that character react to relevant stimuli.  (If you want a great example of truly abysmal characterization, check out The Ugly Duckling Debutante by Rachel Van Dyken.)  The Raven Prince explores the deep insecurities that each character has about his or her appearance but does not make those insecurities the primary focus of character development.  It’s fabulous.  I don’t know anyone who is perfectly happy except for one physical flaw… we are all a mishmash of insecurities relating to a wide variety of causes.  The characters in The Raven Prince reflect that complexity, and that’s what makes the book so good.

Now, I have to say that I don’t mind love scenes in the books that I read, but this book was a bit… over the top.  That said, I’m happy to get through a few jarringly steamy love scenes in order to read a book that is written by an author who so obviously takes her craft seriously.

Last week in reading…

Rather than write one giant post about the 8 books I read in the last week and five days, I decided to split the post into two shorter posts.  I’ve been insanely busy for the last month and a bit, so my posting has been a tad irregular.  I am hoping to be back on schedule next week.  I’ve been reading a lot of romance novels lately, both because I really adore books from that genre and because there are a ton of free romance novels on nook.  Also, I’ve been really stressed out at work, and the last thing I want to do when I get home is think deep thoughts.  Romance novels are notoriously short on deep thoughts.

Cover image, Wife by Wednesday by Catherine Bybee

My sister lent this book to me, and it was enjoyable, if a bit odd.  The writing was fairly decent, and the book was paced very well.  I would have thoroughly enjoyed the book if it hadn’t committed a terrible sin (in my book, ha ha).  I really hate it when one of the major elements of both character and plot development in a romance novel is that one of the characters is, for unexplained and/or unexplainable reasons, opposed to love.  It’s almost as annoying as the lovely “if only the characters would communicate, there would be no need for this book” device.  As much as the male character’s development annoyed me, however, I thought the female character was very well done and believable.

Cover image, A Scandalous Charade by Ava Stone

This book was free, but it wasn’t nearly as terrible as I expected it to be.  Like many free books, it would benefit from some careful editing–it’s way too long, contains unnecessary and confusing side plots, and there are some typographical errors–but it was better than some professionally published stuff that I’ve read.  I really enjoyed both of the main characters, and a lot of the secondary characters were also interesting and two-dimensional.  The oddest thing about this book is that one of the secondary characters dies very suddenly, and it’s so abrupt that I almost missed it.  After that death, the main character is spurred into flight and there is no discussion at all about her emotional state after such a sudden loss.  It was bizarre, jarring, unpleasant.  A few hundred pages later, there was finally some reference to her grief, but it was a bit too little, too late.  And I’m not kidding about it being a few hundred pages later… this thing was ridiculously long.

Cover image, The Duchess of Love by Sally MacKenzie

I understand that romance novel covers rarely have anything to do with the actual books themselves, but this one really takes the cake.  There are no playful little dogs in the book as far as I can remember… Anyway, this one is a novella by an author whose other books I have really enjoyed for their humor and for their distinctness.  Many authors, even ones that I enjoy, simply write the same book over and over again (I’m talking about you, Stephanie Laurens…).  Sally MacKenzie at least takes the trouble to write distinct characters with unique traits, insecurities, passions, etc. and to write plots that complement those characters.  The Duchess of Love, while quite short, was a very enjoyable read, though it does seem implausible that some of the characters could possibly fall desperately in love after one meeting…  Seriously.  If I had just met someone and talked to him for no longer than thirty minutes, I wouldn’t spend an entire afternoon bawling my head off because I heard a rumor the guy was married.  Don’t emotions take just a wee bit longer to get engaged?  Honestly…

Anyway, so those are the books I read last week.  More later on the slightly more interesting bunch from this week.