So… I wrote a sermon…

* waves *

It’s been a while. I seem to have some writer’s block, and I’ve been extra busy at work and home. But I did, in fact, write something, and it (sort of) relates. Ish. Very tangentially. Also, some very kind folks on Twitter expressed an interest in reading this (after, I should note, I asked if anyone would be interested. I’m not pretending to unsolicited interest, here.)

In late August, I gave a sermon at my church. I’m of the Episcopal persuasion, so I was assigned a set a readings on which to write a reflection. I don’t talk about my faith all that often — there never seems to be much point, and the risk of getting into an argument with someone who feels very passionately that I Am Wrong is just too high — but I’m hoping that sharing my homily will help me push past my lame writer’s block, so I can get back to talking about awesome romance novels. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, read on if you’re interested in what I said to a bunch of people at my church. (I managed to do it mostly without cursing… a miracle.)

A few weeks ago, Deacon Ann preached about the power of names and identity. I’d like to share one of the (many) names that identifies me: I am a reader.

I read a lot. While 24% of American adults surveyed by the Pew Resource Center earlier this year reported not having read a book in all of 2013, I read well over 150 books. I don’t just read, either. I write about books online, I talk about books to anyone foolish enough to ask, and I edit. Words, stories, and narratives are a huge part of my life, and I devote a considerable amount of my attention span to thinking about the stories I encounter from a personal and political perspective.

Let’s talk about story for a bit. Stories and humanity go hand in hand. They help us relate to each other and to make sense of our world. You know how it is: The world is huge and full of information, but stories allow us to organize and prioritize all the data in our lives to make quicker, theoretically better, decisions and to feel more in control of our lives. Data points — information — without stories to explain them are bewildering. Stories can be as simple as causal relationships — for example I might witness my daughter Allie attempt to be a bossy pants to her sister, and I might see Sophia pull her hair, and I can safely assume the two events are connected — or stories can be elaborate retellings of past events or fictional ones. The important thing to consider is that no story — even a simple one — is strictly true, in an absolute sense. All are influenced by the storyteller, by what she found important enough to tell or by what he hoped to accomplish with the story.

I am concerned about the messages that lurk in stories, in the truths those stories reveal, whether or not those truths are the intent of the narrative.

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

It’s time for full disclosure: I have a hard time with the Bible. As a woman, I feel like it is full of negative messaging. “Hey women,” it seems to say, “here’s a whole chapter on what it takes to be a perfect, virtuous wife: be quiet, keep a good house, and work on your embroidery.” (There is not, to my knowledge, a corresponding chapter on how to be a perfect, virtuous husband, and that’s unfortunate.) Don’t get me started on Esther, Ruth, and, especially, Bathsheba. And you might not want to know what I think about the ending of Miriam’s story. And that’s all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, sure, we have all the faithful (but mostly unnamed) women who stuck by Christ to the bitter end; we have Jesus’ at the time radical views toward women — that we’re fun to be around and that maybe uncleanliness isn’t such a big deal — but we also have some of Paul’s more vitriolic writing and lots of fun gems from the gospels like the hypothetical woman who has to marry seven brothers.

I do not think the Bible is actually anti-woman, nor do I think that God is opposed to lady folks — quite the opposite — but I do believe that Biblical scholars throughout the centuries have tended to focus on some of the more troubling narratives (or have obscured and conflated some narratives about women to make them more troubling) and have tended to use the Bible to support their own narrow views toward women. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all caught in an elaborate and rather ironic (in a dramatic sense) game of telephone involving the messages God actually wants us to receive, the way those messages appear in writing, and the way they’ve been interpreted throughout the centuries.

Consider the story we heard this morning from Exodus. It’s a familiar story, right? It’s also a clear example of dramatic irony. The Pharaoh’s adoptive grandson ends up — with some significant woo-woo courtesy of the great I AM — overthrowing the status quo and leading the Israelites to freedom (via 40 years in the desert, but who’s counting?). I see a bit more more dramatic irony when I look at the story from another angle: The Pharaoh’s entire plan for maintaining the status quo — once forced labor proved ineffective — hinged on removing all the young males of Israel from the equation, but his downfall was ultimately orchestrated by a bunch of women. That’s funny.

I watched the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments a lot when I was a kid. So when I think about the story of the Exodus, I think about it from the context of Moses as the main character. After all, in this passage, he is the only — other than the super awesome midwives — the only character who is actually given a name (rather than just a title; and Wikipedia suggested that even the midwives’ names are titles.). You have the Pharaoh, his daughter, the Levite man, the Levite woman, but Moses gets a name, so obviously he’s the main character.

In this passage, Moses is the least interesting character in the story, and not just because he’s a baby. Yet he’s the character that we always think of. He’s the central figure, the one who was raised apart from his family and his people and eventually is sort of like a spy, right? He’s sent to be raised among the very people that he’s going to end up vanquishing. And that is an interesting narrative in a lot of ways… it plays into our concepts of what are compelling characters and stories, the types of narratives that we want to hear about.

Anselm Feuerbach - http://www.bildindex.de

Anselm Feuerbach – http://www.bildindex.de

But I want to hear about Miriam, his sister, who was older than her brother and was already born, maybe, at a time when Hebrew boy babies were to be killed, and she was allowed to live, essentially because she is unimportant. And to grow up with that knowledge, to grow up knowing that the only reason you’re alive is because you’re so far beneath the notice of the ruling elites, because nobody expects you do anything… that… that is interesting to me, and that’s what I want to hear about. And of course that’s not the story that we get, but in the narrative of this passage from Exodus, she’s one of the most important characters. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby, sure, but it’s Miriam who comes forward and is sort of sly and tricksey, saying, “Hey, I see you found a baby… I know a wetnurse,” and then taking Moses back to his own mother to be nursed. And no one knows, right? It’s very sneaky. And that from somebody whom nobody expected to upset the status quo. The narrative does not name her; she’s not considered important; but she’s as crucial as her mother and the Pharaoh’s daughter in enabling the disruption that is to come.

Sometimes we get stuck in the perspectives we bring to bear on a narrative, on whatever we expect that story to tell.  If we are stuck thinking that Moses is the main character, the important one, even as a baby, so fortunate and lucky to be found in those circumstances, or perhaps that God was looking over him and graced him as the central figure of the story; if we get locked up in that, then we are missing another part of the story. God can use unlikely characters to bring about disruption. But I want to add a caution: while it behooves all of us as a society to give some attention to stories about unlikely characters, maybe we should stop thinking of them that way, as “unlikely.” After all, it shouldn’t be in any way shocking or surprising that it’s the women in this story that brought about so much change… the midwives, who defied the Pharaoh’s orders; the Levite woman, who hid her child; the sister who made it so that Moses didn’t starve; the Pharaoh’s daughter, who defied her father by harboring and raising the instrument that would bring about his downfall; all of these women…  it should not be surprising. We should not go, “Oh my God, that’s surprising!” because, well… of course they were able to do it, and I don’t think it was in any way surprising to God… but as long as we continue to be surprised by it, we buy into the casual sexism — that elaborate game of telephone — that exists both in the narrative and in our culture, and it’s time for us to move beyond that.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Today’s Gospel lesson is also an example of dramatic irony. In that passage, Jesus declares Peter, the same dude that will later deny him thrice, “the rock” on which the church will be built. That’s hilarious, when seen from one view. Modern readers of the scripture can approach that passage the same way we would Romeo and Juliet. You know, the entire time, that these two crazy kids are going to off themselves, but you still get caught up in the action. (That’s dramatic irony for you.) So Peter being called “the rock” can, if you’re cynical enough, be a bit of comedy when you consider what’s to come. (Also when you consider that Peter is “the rock,” but all the faithful women are unnamed and largely ignored by history… Ha.) But that’s if you focus only on Peter’s failure and neglect to remember what he does with failure once he reaches it and repents of it.

I’m cynical, sure, but I also believe to the depths of my soul in the redemptive power of Christ’s love. So here’s how I view that passage: I think Jesus is showing us just how deep his forgiveness goes, and he’s giving Peter the means to get past his eventual failure. I don’t know if Jesus knew the future or just knew human nature — I’m no authority on that kind of musing — but I like to believe that Jesus knew the possibility of Peter’s human frailty and chose to bolster his spirit with a glimpse of some of the better things Peter was capable of. I mean, yes. Peter, like all of us, was capable of acting through fear and littleness of spirit, but he was also — like all of us — capable of great things, of courage and love and resolute action. And maybe Jesus knew that Peter, once he had failed, might — like all of us — despair and worry that he was good for nothing. And maybe his words, that label, “the rock,” are what helped Peter climb out of it, find his courage and hope, and Act.

Maybe.

And maybe that’s the real dramatic irony, that God can take a scene that would set a cynic’s heart aflame with bitter mirth and make it — seen from another view — an example of unending redemption, acceptance, and limitless love.

That’s my perspective, and it definitely impacts my interpretation of various stories. I have to admit that it’s terrifying to put it all out there for you. Thanks to my background, cynicism and general irreverence, I make an odd biblical scholar. (In fact, I’m not one.) But that doesn’t make my perspective less valid or even less interesting. It is good for us to listen to one another, to learn slightly different versions of the well-known stories. And the more we all — even those of you who are like, “Wait… what did she mean by that reference to the end of Miriam’s story?” — the more we all share with each other what we think about the stories collected in the Bible (or the stories omitted from it), the more we’ll learn about each other, ourselves, and our relationships with God, and we’ll break free of that game of telephone. The truth lies in there somewhere.

Review – Brave in Heart by Emma Barry

So, I love me some historical romance.  When you think about that subgenre, your brain might automatically conjure high-waisted ball gowns and dudes in tight pants and fussy neckwear and the glittering ballrooms of the multitudes of romance novels set in Regency England.  The fact is that there are a butt-ton of romances set in that period, and I really like some of them, but I get extra excited when I hear about a historical romance set in a different place or time.  Enter Brave in Heart, set in Connecticut during the lead-up to and first few years of the Civil War.

Cover image, Brave in Heart by Emma Barry

The publisher’s blurb, courtesy of Goodreads:

Theodore Ward is a man of deep passions and strong principles—none of which he acts on. So Margaret Hampton ends their engagement, breaking both of their hearts in the process.

Years after their estrangement, ardent but frozen Theo attempts to reconnect with Margaret. She is no longer trusting of the idea of romantic love, having become pragmatic and wary during decades alone. But with the drumbeat of the early days of the Civil War in the background, how can she refuse?

The courtship that results is hasty, reckless, and intense, fueled by contradictions between Theo’s willingness finally to change and Margaret’s fears about the future. Two smart, stubborn, fiery people will need to overcome the hesitancies of their hearts and the perils of battle if they’re ever to find happiness.

I would never have expected a romance set amid a gritty and awful war to be believable, but this story is.  (Maybe it helps that I was a history major for a few years before switching to political science.)  The list of things that should work against this story (but don’t) is impressive:

  1. The setting… war and death and uncertainty aren’t usually synonymous with romance, but Barry incorporates the setting and shows its impact on the characters.  Margaret and Theo are very much the products of their time, and it’s fitting that their story would embrace the challenges of the time period.
  2. The mother-in-law… Theo’s one of those older gentlemen characters who still lives with his mother and, at the beginning, still allows her to guide his life.  Normally that sort of thing would be off-putting, but it isn’t, here.  While Sarah (the mother-in-law) isn’t always the most sympathetic character, she’s not a villain either.  She’s a mother who loves her son, and that dynamic works within the story.
  3. The separation of the main characters… The war divides Theo and Margaret, and they’re apart for much of the story.  Normally that kind of thing would be murder on a romance plot, but Barry found a way to make it work for this story through a lovely correspondence between her characters. It helps that I have a soft spot for correspondence in books (thank you, Jane Austen), but I thought the story and character development achieved through those letters was stunning.
  4. The length… At about 40,000 words, this book is a longish novella or a short novel, and normally that length would work against it.  There isn’t as much room for character and story development, so you kind of expect the characters to be a little bit cookie cutter.  But they aren’t.  The length worked perfectly for me for this story.

The bottom line is that I loved this book.  It touches on some pretty interesting themes — social issues, women’s issues, marriage and family issues, the role of a wife in a marriage, issues relating to identity shifts (naturally occurring when one spouse goes off to war and the other stays behind), etc. — but it doesn’t lose sight of its focus: the relationship between Theo and Margaret.  For a first book, too, it is particularly impressive.  I am looking forward to seeing what else Emma Barry has in store for us.

Brave in Heart was released on July 1, 2013 as an e-book by Crimson Romance.  For more information about the book, please click on the cover image above to visit the book’s page on Goodreads.  To learn more about Emma Barry, please visit her website.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley from the author in exchange for an honest review*

Review – The Angel by Tiffany Reisz

Cover image, The Angel by Tiffany Reisz

I was afraid to read The Angel, and I put it off for several weeks.  My fear was a little bit ridiculous, because I loved The Siren, and I was confident that The Angel would be just as good, but I worried that it would break my heart the way The Siren did, and I wasn’t eager to put myself in the path of that kind of pain.  I needn’t have worried.  Tiffany Reisz is that excellent variety of sadist who never offers the same pain twice.

The blurb:

No safe word can protect the heart. Infamous erotica author and accomplished dominatrix Nora Sutherlin is doing something utterly out of character: hiding. While her longtime lover, Søren—whose fetishes, if exposed, would be his ruin—is under scrutiny pending a major promotion, Nora’s lying low and away from temptation in the lap of luxury.

Her host, the wealthy and uninhibited Griffin Fiske, is thrilled to have Nora stay at his country estate, especially once he meets her traveling companion. Young, inexperienced and angelically beautiful, Michael has become Nora’s protégé, and this summer with Griffin is going to be his training, where the hazing never ends.

But while her flesh is willing, Nora’s mind is wandering. To thoughts of Søren, her master, under investigation by a journalist with an ax to grind. And to another man from Nora’s past, whose hold on her is less bruising, but whose secrets are no less painful. It’s a summer that will prove the old adage: love hurts.

Unless you’re accustomed to the vagaries of erotica (and few of my readers are), you might read that blurb and think, wow… that sounds kinda lame.  But it’s just a case of badblurbitis.  Everything that is brilliant about Reisz’ writing cannot be adequately summed up or even hinted at in a traditionally plot-focused publishers’ blurb.  I am convinced that Reisz could drop her characters into a room and give them nothing to do except react to each other, and the result would still be beautiful, but what would the blurb say?

As with The Siren, the main theme in The Angel seems to be love (seems to me, anyway… other folks might think the theme is BDSM erotica, but I happen to think all that stuff is just the byproduct of a story about these characters).  The Angel begins with an idyllic glimpse of Nora’s life with Søren.  Through a mysterious plot device, Nora and Michael (if you haven’t read The Siren, you won’t know who he is.  I didn’t bother mentioning him in my post about The Siren because I was so distracted by other things.  Just read The Siren, and all will be explained.) hie off to Griffin’s estate (that place where the hazing never ends, if the publisher’s blurb is to be believed).  At the estate, new love blossoms, and it’s beautiful and tender.  It is also a foil for the more complicated love that exists between Nora and Søren (and Nora and Wes and Suzanne and Patrick) and, maybe, contains a little seed that might help us to understand what drew Nora to Søren in the first place.  Let me add a quick warning to those who may not be quite ready for m/m scenes. They happen, but I thought they were handled really well.  I enjoyed the side-by-side comparison of new love and old love, acknowledged love and hidden love, easy love and difficult love.

Given the state of their relationship in The Siren, it is surprising how innocently happy Nora and Søren seem at the start of The Angel, but readers of Tiffany Reisz should know that everything is not always what it seems.  For example, I was repulsed by Søren when I read The Siren and, especially, Seven Day Loan.  I thought him the least sympathetic character in The Siren, though I didn’t like Zach all that much, either.  His arrogance and blatant manipulation seemed despicable, and I judged him harshly as a result.  But after reading The Angel, I have to reflect back on The Siren and admit that Søren doesn’t appear in the best light throughout that book, and most of what we see of him is through Nora’s memory colored by her relationship with Wes.  Søren could not possibly have won me over in such circumstances, and I began to wonder if he was such a bad fellow as he seemed.

I had a conversation with Tiffany Reisz on Twitter recently, and she pointed out that she based Søren’s character on the God of the Old Testament, who, depending on how you look at it, is kind of sadistic and manages to balance love and a need for blood offerings, who is feared and loved simultaneously by his people, who is implacable and just, who is jealous.  When you consider a character like Søren paired with Nora, who feels the strong desire and inclination to submit to him (naturally enough) and an inclination to be independent, to be his equal even though no one can equal an Almighty, you know that the rest of the story Reisz is building will be epic.  This is not a story of tawdry sex; it is a tale of human nature and a human understanding of the divine.

I jotted down some rough notes immediately after I finished The Angel: Love is like a coral reef – I should explain this.  Two people grow together and fill in the spaces with shared experiences and new growth in each.  This is good, because it makes them stronger, but if something/someone/some event comes in and breaks off a piece, there are these sharp edges left behind.  The Angel is very cool as a book, because you get to view the very beginning of that reef-growing process–the falling in love–and you get to compare it to the full-grown and many-times broken and tested reef that both unites and divides Nora and Søren.

My favorite moment in The Angel is a little bit silly, compared to all the epic stuff I’ve alluded to elsewhere in this post (and in the one on The Siren).  There’s a moment, towards the end of the book, when a new character meets Nora for the first time, and it’s a little bit shocking to see Nora once again as someone new.  After all the stuff that happens in The Siren and The Angel, the reader really knows Nora and is accustomed to her quirks and her strength and, at least in my case, sees her as charming rather than scary.  Then all of a sudden you get to see her through the eyes of a stranger, and you know that she’s actually been scary all this time.  That’s good writing, because it was so subtle that I almost didn’t notice it, and it made me think back and wonder why I didn’t have a similar reaction at the end of The Siren when Grace meets Nora for the first time.

I do have to be honest and admit that I felt the beginning of The Angel was a little slow to build.  At first I thought it just hadn’t been edited tightly enough, but now I’m not convinced.  I am inclined to suspect that the pacing, lightness, and idyll of the first quarter of the book are actually a clever trap designed to lull readers into complacency before hitting them with the rest of the story.  Shortly after Nora and Michael arrive at Griffin’s, the story hits its stride, and from that moment on it wends its inexorable way through heaven and hell, dragging you along with it.

Reisz writes great stories, stories without boundaries, but the best thing about them is that they are entirely open to interpretation.  Søren can be a hero or a villain, and it’s entirely up to the reader to decide what she thinks about him.  The true benefit of that style of writing is that readers can discuss the ideas that are introduced in the book and help each other along in the process of achieving a better understanding not only of the books but also of themselves and their lives.  It takes courage to write a story that can and will be interpreted in so many different ways, and I’m right glad that Reisz has that courage along with a strong sadistic streak.  Wherever she takes us, I’m along for the ride.

The Angel is scheduled to be released on September 25 by Harlequin MIRA in both e-book and print format, I believe.  For more information about the author (including a selection of free bedtime stories that are well worth a read–but read The Siren first–check out the author’s website http://tiffanyreisz.com.  If you click on the cover image above, you can visit the book’s page on Goodreads and follow links to purchase through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

*FTC Disclosure – I received an e-galley of this book from Harlequin through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

BDSM – tie me up, tie me down

Usually I wait a few days after I finish a book before I even think about writing about it, but in this case, I think it will be a good idea for me to record my initial responses, and maybe I’ll do a follow-up post later to log any further reflections I may have.

Did the title freak you out a little bit?  Don’t worry, I still haven’t read 50 Shades of Grey, and I’m fairly certain that I never will.  I read The Siren by Tiffany Reisz, thanks to a recommendation from Kim over at Reflections of a Book Addict.  I’m not really reviewing this book, per se, but if you’re looking for a fabulous review of the book, please check out Kim’s post here.  It’s a fabulous post, and I see no reason to attempt to re-create that wheel.  It done been did.

Cover image, The Siren by Tiffany Reisz

This book is amazing, straight up.  How amazing?  Well, let me count the ways.  1. I honestly did not have a single snarky thought while I was reading the book.  2. When posting updates on my progress on Goodreads, I couldn’t think of any punchy quips that summed up my feelings – I was reduced to quoting Keanu: “Whoah.”  3.  It’s erotica and cerebral literature, and I honestly didn’t think that combination could exist.  4.  It’s BDSM erotica, but it doesn’t glorify the lifestyle; instead, it cuts a cross-section of that life and lets you form your own conclusions about it.  5.  No topic is off-limits to this book–I went into it expecting fairly good erotica and I got discussions of the Trinity (the Trinity!!!) and art history and literary theory and the nature of love.  6.  The ending may not be what you want, but it is what you need.

Let me start off by saying that I am vanilla through and through.  I do not understand the BDSM lifestyle.  I don’t understand why anyone would be turned on by hurting or being hurt.  That is not to say that I think BDSM is sick or twisted–for those people who actually enjoy the combination of pain and pleasure, it’s what the doctor ordered–but it isn’t for me.  So when I read The Siren, although I kept an open mind about all the…interesting…stuff that happens in it, I found it more disturbing than titillating.  What was most disturbing to me was the idea that the millions of people who have read, are reading, or will read 50 Shades of Grey might be inspired to dabble in a lifestyle that is really not for the faint of heart and might end up harming themselves or others in the process.  So my starting and ending position on this whole cha is: if BDSM gets you off, awesome, but if it doesn’t, there’s really no need for you to be buying this stuff:

Hey, it’s the Bondage Seductions board game!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t try new things to heat up your sex life, but I think that fooling around with BDSM is either silly or dangerous, unless you’re actually into it, and if you are, you won’t be buying these kinds of products–you’ll buy the real thing.  Not that your sex life is any of my business (it isn’t, and please don’t tell me about it).

Back to the book.  My favorite thing about The Siren is that it lets you form your own conclusions.  It doesn’t glamorize BDSM.  Reisz isn’t a charlatan proclaiming that a little bondage and dominance is going to save your sex life.  However strange it might seem, the book actually takes a very neutral stance on both BDSM and vanilla sex (that latter term refers to the more straightforward sex practices of the majority. I hesitate to call it normal, because that would imply that BDSM is abnormal, and I don’t want to make that kind of value judgment.)  Essentially, the book’s stance is that there are vanilla sex people and BDSM people, and both types are good in their own ways, but they shouldn’t mix.

I think the central theme of this book is love and all the ways that love can be/need to be expressed.  There are a lot of relationships – Nora and Søren, Nora and Wes, Zach and Grace, Zach and Nora, Nora and Kingsley, Nora and Sherridan, etc. – and each involves some sort of love, whether expressed or unexpressed, friendly or passionate, and every relationship is complex.  I enjoyed the complexity available in this book.  Human emotions and relationships are messy, and that messiness is given free rein in this book.

It instinctively bothers me that love could be the motivation for one person causing another person pain and humiliation, but maybe that’s how some people need to love/feel love.  It seemed to me, though, that while much ado was made of how much Søren loves Eleanor, considerably less ado was made about how much Eleanor/Nora loves Søren.  She belonged to him, was utterly submissive to him, was his, but he was never hers. Doesn’t love require either an equal or dominant position in order to exist as love?  It seems to me that a submissive can feel devotion, but when all control and decision-making power in a relationship is given over to one party, love is given over also.

This is all my opinion, of course, and it’s worth what you’re paying for it.  Love is something you choose.  I love my husband not because I am in awe of him but because, his faults notwithstanding, I choose to love him, to accept him as he is and as he will be.  I am not sure that the choice to love is possible unless one has the independence from which to choose.  To put it another way, I love my children, but I don’t think they love me because they are not yet mentally or emotionally independent and able to choose to love me.  (As an aside, the 3-year-old always repeats after me: “I love you Allie.” “I love you too, Mom-mom.”)  To put it yet another way, I believe that God loves me, but I am not so arrogant that I think myself capable of loving God; I may feel devotion and awe, but that’s not the same thing as love.

I’m a fan of Paulo Coelho, and his Eleven Minutes is one of the most thought-provoking and arresting books I’ve ever read.  I kept thinking about a couple of scenes from Eleven Minutes while I was reading The Siren, and I think the two books dovetail wonderfully, even though they are very different.

He slapped her again and again, whether she deserved it or not, and she felt the pain and felt the humiliation–which was more intense and more potent than the pain–and she felt as if she were in another world, in which nothing existed, and it was an almost religious feeling: self-annihilation, subjection, and a complete loss of any sense of Ego, desire or self-will.

And later (the “you” below is the “she” above, by the way):

“You experienced pain yesterday and you discovered that it led to pleasure.  You experienced it today and found peace.  That’s what I’m telling you: don’t get used to it, because it’s very easy to become habituated; it’s a very powerful drug.  It’s in our daily lives, in our hidden suffering, in the sacrifices we make, blaming love for the destruction of our dreams.  Pain is frightening when it shows its real face, but it’s seductive when it comes disguised as sacrifice or self-denial.  Or cowardice.  However much we may reject it, we human beings always find a way of being with pain, of flirting with it and making it part of our lives….And so it goes on: sons give up their dreams to please their parents, parents give up their lives in order to please their children; pain and suffering are used to justify the one thing that should bring only joy: love.”

I haven’t proven anything, but this is my analysis, anyway, and I don’t feel a compelling need to convince anyone.  I think that if we choose to have our immediate choices taken away from us, to enter a state where we are completely dominated (even by our choice) by another’s will, we lose the ability to feel and be and act with love for as long as we are without our will.  So, in The Siren, Søren maintains his ability to love Eleanor, but Nora can only really love Søren after she has left him.  When in his presence, Eleanor is in awe of Søren, and he holds a god-like status.  That awe is mandatory – one does not choose to be in awe of the Grand Canyon or a full-grown lion… one simply is.

Anyway… The Siren is thought-provoking in all the best ways.  You’d never expect to ruminate about the nature of God or love because you read some erotica novel, but that’s exactly what this book has in store for you.  This book is art the way James Joyce described it in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and if you don’t know what I mean, go read that book… now).  I highly recommend it.  (And when you’re done, read Eleven Minutes.)

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.

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?