Embarrassment of Riches TBR: June Check-In

At the beginning of the year, I decided to participate in the Embarrassment of Riches reading challenge hosted by author Patricia Burroughs.   The goal of the challenge is to make a dent in that stack of books I have intended to read, but never got around to picking up.

Given the size of the pile I have amassed, I aim to get through 24 of them before the end of the year – a silver level accomplishment.

So what have I read this month?

The Unlikely Spy – Daniel Silva:  As I said in last month’s TBR blog entry, this is Silva’s first novel and a bit of a departure from his later work.  Set during WWII and based loosely on actual events, Unlikely chronicles a German spy’s mission to obtain intelligence regarding the anticipated Allied invasion of France (D-Day), and British efforts to thwart such an effort by leaking false information through a network of double agents.  It’s a complex story with a great many players told from numerous perspectives.  So many, in fact, it becomes very difficult to differentiate between the characters and their motivations.  The female antagonist – aka the German spy – was the most interesting character in the entire novel.  She was strong, resilient, and sympathetic.  Her motivations were clear, and even though she did kill a few innocent Brits when her back was to the wall, I found myself rooting for her success.  Then Silva killed her.  In the most blasé fashion, as if it were an afterthought, he eliminated her and moved on without a backward glance.  The story went to shit for me after that, and was topped off by an ending that was a real blow to my intelligence as a reader.  I hate that.

Murder on the Orient Express – Agatha Christie:  I have read my fair share of Agatha Christie over the years.  My favorite, and one of my top five favorite books of all time, is Murder in Mesopotamia.  So, it’s a little shocking that Murder on the Orient Express, arguably Christie’s most notable effort, remained steadfast on my TBR list.  Until now.  As always, the queen of murder weaves a riveting story complete with an impossible crime, an eclectic cast of characters (though they have more in common than one might think), and an improbable conclusion.  And she makes it work.  Brilliantly.

Inferno – Dan BrownInferno is by far the worst book I’ve read since…well…the Lost Symbol.   It started out promising.  I like a novel that drops the reader right into the action and Brown certainly accomplished that, but once you get past the initial  flash and bang, the story becomes heavy on tell and light show.  I know what you’re thinking:  It’s a Dan Brown novel – telling is part of the equation.  I get that, but in this case it’s boring, poorly written, and redundant.  How many times does Brown recount – frame by frame, word for word – the contents of the mysterious video sent by the bad guy to the unknowing accomplice?  Four.  It’s almost as if he has no faith in the reader’s intelligence.  That pisses me off.  Do you know what else pisses me off?  Making the reader (me) believe one thing then revealing it was all an orchestrated illusion thereby voiding the entire beginning of the story – the only interesting part of the entire book.

On a side note:  Dan Brown could do with a stint in adverb rehab; and it should be a crime to use the word ubiquitous and the phrase “sea of humanity” more than once per novel.

Just a thought.

Another note:  Inferno is a new publication and doesn’t count toward my goal in this challenge.  Bummer.  Such suckage should count for something.

Progress toward goal:  11 of 24. 

What’s next?

A Study in Scarlet – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

What’s on your TBR list?

Embarrassment of Riches TBR: May check-in

Better late than never.

At the beginning of the year, I decided to participate in the Embarrassment of Riches reading challenge hosted by author Patricia Burroughs.   The goal of the challenge is to make a dent in that stack of books I have been intending to read, but never got around to picking up.

Given the size of the pile I have amassed, I am aiming to get through 24 of them before the end of the year – a silver level accomplishment.

So what did I read in May?

  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carre:  I’m a sucker for a good spy novel, and le Carre’s George Smiley just might be my favorite fictional spy of all time.  Tinker is set in the early seventies and weaves the reader through a spine-tingling maze of betrayal and treason as Smiley seeks to discover the mole within the “Circus” – a mole channeling operational intelligence to the KGB.  The plot twists and turn as Smiley works to corner his prey, and in the process, exposes each of a wide cast of characters’ deepest, darkest secrets.  I loved this book, though perhaps not quite as much as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which was a work of pure genius, but Tinker is definitely true to the brilliance of le Carre’s mastery of the genre.

Albright

  • Prague Winter:  A Personal Story of Remembrance and War:  1937-1948 by Madeleine Albright:  It took me a while to get through this work of non-fiction – three months, perhaps.  That’s not to say it wasn’t a good read.  It was.  I just found it tedious.  Albright is a thorough writer with a quick wit and offers up an unexpected barb or two to lighten up the heaviness of the period, but she tends to bury the reader in too much prologue and back history.  The personal stories about her family experiences, memories of the war, and unrealized Jewish heritage were fascinating, though.  I’m glad I took the time to finally finish it.
  • I also finished Gospel of Freedom by Jonathan Rieder.  Gospel is an interesting work that puts King’s iconic Birmingham jail letter into historical context.  This was a new approach to this letter to me.  I have read it before, but always from a literary perspective – audience, prose, etc.   It’s not my favorite book on King, but I think any criticism I have stems from the writer’s tendency to ramble.  Of course, this a new publication and not from my TBR list, but…

Currently reading:

  • The Unlikely Spy by Daniel Silva:  I believe this is Silva’s first novel, and not at all what I was expecting.  It’s set during World War II – didn’t see that coming; probably should have read the cover blurb.  It’s also told from so many points of view, I have trouble keeping track of who’s who.  Unlike his Allon novels, the hero is lukewarm and somewhat uninteresting.  I find myself drawn to the female antagonist even though I know she is the enemy.  She’s so much more engaging.  Perhaps this is Silva’s intent.  He has done this before – painted the bad guy in a sympathetic light, though not to this extent.  We shall see how it ends.  I will report back.
  • Mark of the Assassin by Daniel Silva:  Six chapters in and I haven’t met the hero yet.  I don’t hold out much hope.  It is obvious that Silva hasn’t hit his stride yet.

Progress toward goal:  9 of 24 read.

I need to step up my game.

So, what are you reading?

Blog? What blog?

Oh!  This blog.

Worry not, my faithful followers.  I haven’t been eaten by a bear or abducted by aliens or fallen down a deep bug infested hole in the middle of a secluded rain forest.

<shudder>

I’ve been busy.  You know, doing stuff.

What stuff?

I’m glad you asked.

The month of May marks the end of my semester and usually goes one of two ways:  1) I am overcome with creativity and spend endless hours either at the keyboard writing like a madwoman or viewing the world through a camera lens snapping photographs of every unfortunate bug and blossom to cross my path; or 2) I am overwhelmed by life, say screw it all, and overdose on trash television.

Sadly, it’s been the latter kind of month, and consequently, my brain is in full-on decomp after watching an endless stream of Ancient Aliens, Married to Medicine (an all-time low for me), and the Real Housewives of Orange County.

I blame science.  Specifically, historical geology.

I spent four months immersed in millions/billions of years of earth history- from its origins to the revelation of geologic time to the theories of evolution and plate tectonics.  I studied orogenies (the process of mountain building – get your mind out of the gutter), sedimentary deposition environments, bio – and litho – facies, faulting and folding, and learned to age date and correlate rock formations.  I can identify a whole slew of fossils based on a laundry list of characteristics.  If you ask nicely, I can even give you their kingdom, genus, species and period of existence.

While this is all fascinating stuff, it is not conducive to cultivating creativity – neither is “reality” television.   I spent the first 2/3 of May stuck in “left-brain” mode.  I couldn’t see the beauty of a rolling field of wildflowers.  I only saw an eroded anticline left over from a Mississippian period thrust event. I wondered if it was faulted; if the adjoining basin was filled with terrestrial material; if there was evidence of a transgressive or regressive marine environment; what fossils might be present.

Disturbing, I know.

To combat this troubling trend, I tried to drown my inner geologist with anything and everything offered up by the Bravo network.  It worked for a while.  Of course, there comes a point when one realizes that consuming junk might be satisfying in the interim, but it lacks sustainability and, in the long-term,  is detrimental – sorta like Oreos.

So, what does one do when faced with a situation such as this?

Go to the nearest art museum; attend a historical lecture; read some frivolous fiction; take a trip to the beach.

Kick that “right-brain” bitch out of bed and tell her to get her shit together.

I did.  I feel much better now.

A blog birthday

So, the old blog turns 2 today.

Cake balls for everyone!

photo source:  dallasnews.com
photo source: dallasnews.com

Retribution: Anna begins

I’m going to try something new.

Something that scares the shit out of me.

I’m going to share with you a bit of the first chapter of my WIP.

Why?

Because it’s time to take another step outside my comfort zone.

Be kind.

Or don’t.

Here goes.

(Egads!  Hope I didn’t miss any typos…)

Ocracoke Island, North Carolina

Anna Malkin sat atop a dune of bleached sand on North Carolina’s outer bank, the wind whipping her fiery red hair around her head like a torrent of flames licking the night sky. She stared out across the wide expanse of the Atlantic clad only in a sleeveless gown of gauzy cotton, her feet bare. Goose bumps prickled her skin, but her senses had long since numbed to the bitter bite of the ocean air.

Dawn was breaking, the sun just beginning its slow ascent. It kissed the surface of the glistening water, casting a star burst glow along the horizon. It was a peaceful scene, serene in its simplicity. It was a sight that used to warm her heart and calm her soul. Now, as the blackness of night retreated into the light of day, the beauty and serenity were lost to Anna. All she knew, all she’d known for one hundred and two days , was the sound of the earthly hell brewing within the confines of her own mind.

Louder and louder it grew until it was all she heard, all she saw, all she felt.

One hundred and two days.

At times it seemed like a lifetime had passed, but on days like this when her fear bubbled and festered, and madness enveloped her mind, she felt as raw and desperate as the day she’d stumbled out of the desert, hanging to life by the thinnest of threads.

Anna had come to the North Carolina coast to find silence and solitude, to heal. Her body had, the swelling was gone, the bruises hardly noticeable. She walked without a limp now, and it was only a matter of time before she could grip a glass without it slipping through her fingers. Her mind proved harder to mend, the scars permanent. Images of the hell she endured at the hands of unmitigated evil were etched deep in her brain, they flashed in constant repetition before her eyes. The sound of her own screams echoed in her ears. It had begun as a soft whisper, an icy breath on the back of her neck but with each passing day, it grew. Now it encapsulated her, held her by the throat and threatened to swallow her whole.

Her family had gathered in a show of support, crowding into her mother’s sprawling Ocracoke Island beach house as if it were a joyous reunion. Her director had called with a message from the President. Even her old mentor had shown his war-weary face for a day or two. There was nothing they could do or say to ease Anna’s pain, her suffering going beyond their comprehension. They tried, she would give them that, but all they had to offer was food she refused to eat, and conversations she had no desire to engage. She felt their commiseration. It clouded their eyes and dripped from their tongues. They pitied her failing mind, her broken spirit, her shattered soul. She hated them for that.

Anna knew life as it had once been was over. She understood there was no going back, yet she couldn’t bear the thought of another day trapped inside her mental prison. There was only one way out, and she accepted her fate with open arms.

She rose to her feet and stumbled through the powdery sand propelled by an unseen force toward the rising sun. It beckoned to her, the promise of blessed release and absolution drifting in on the cold sweet wind. It held her transfixed, as alluring as the intoxicating song of a siren.

Anna waded into the frothy surf, the buzz in her head growing with every step. Violent waves broke over her as she fought through the swirling current. At the place where shallow sand dropped into the endless abyss, she paused, staring directly into the blinding light of the sun.

And she surrendered.

The water took her, engulfing her, dragging her down into the dark depths, and for the first time in one hundred and two days she experienced unfettered freedom. Peace. Anna lifted her face up, and watched the reflection of the sun dance across the surface overhead. Overwhelming reverence surged through her, and she felt closer to God than she had even been.

She blew the last of the air from her lung, and water filled her mouth, its weight crushing her chest. Within seconds her vision blurred and the infernal noise that had plagued her for weeks and weeks receded into the background and slowly faded into silence. She closed her eyes and welcomed the blackness.

It was over.

She was finally free.

Her neck jerked back then, shattering her new-found peace. Something had her by the hair, hauling her up with a speed and agility she was powerless to resist. Her head broke the surface. She gasped as water and air fought a battle within her lungs. Anna tried to twist around, tried to see who or what had taken hold of her. The grip on her hair loosened, but just enough for a strong arm to encircle her neck and drag her back to shore. It wasn’t until she lay in a heap on the sand shivering and coughing the last of the water from her lungs did she look into the clear green eyes of the man who had ruined her only chance for freedom.

A man she knew she could never forgive.

© 2013 Peggy Isaacs.  All rights reserved.

Embarrassment of Richest TBR Challenge – April Check-In

At the beginning of the year, I decided to participate in the Embarrassment of Riches reading challenge hosted by author Patricia Burroughs.   The goal of the challenge is to make a dent in that stack of books I have been intending to read, but never got around to picking up.

Given the size of the pile I have amassed, I am aiming to get through 24 of them before the end of the year – a silver level accomplishment.

endersThis month I read:

Nothing!

That’s not entirely true.  I did read.   I just didn’t finish anything on my TBR list.

As I have said before, a multitasking overachiever, I am not.  Reading and writing – at the same time – during NaNo – well, that’s just beyond my capabilities.  I make no apologizes or excuses.  It is what it is.

So what’s on the agenda for May?

  1. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card – I’m about half done with this book.  It’s not my usual genre, but I do find it entertaining.
  2. Prague Winter, Madeleine Albright – This is not a quick read and I am still working my way through Hitler’s invasion of the Sudetenland.
  3. Gospel of Freedom, Jonathan Rieder – this is a new release and not on my TBR list, but it delves into the MLK’s mindset and the hostility leading up to his iconic Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  I am intrigued by this book, mostly because I have only studied the letter from a literary view – never historical.  I have high hopes for this one.

Progress toward goal:  7/24

What’s lying around on your nightstand waiting to be read?

Camp NaNoWriMo: the aftermath

On Saturday, I surpassed my Camp NaNoWriMo goal by 4K+ words.

That means I won.

Yippee!

Time for a celebration.

Tequila and Ren Faire, it is.

Don’t judge me.

So, now it’s over.  The euphoria that comes with accomplishment is waning, and I am left with the aftermath of writing willy-nilly for a month straight without rereading or editing a single word – just a lot of marking and moving on.  A difficult concept for me, and frankly, the thought of facing what I’ve committed to paper scares me.

I did, though – at five in the morning, over my morning coffee.  My walk through was brisk.  It was all I could muster after four hours of sleep and the realization that I had forgotten to pick up french vanilla coconut milk coffee creamer on my way home.  Black coffee sweetened with refined sugar does not make for ideal shitty writing reading conditions.

I hear war stories from the NaNo veterans.  They assure me that cringe worthy writing is the norm.  After all, NaNo is not about producing a finished product, it’s about a commitment and dedication to the act of writing.  I suppose in this context, what I found was on par.  It is a bit overgrown in places, a little sparse in others.  There are rare bursts of brilliance encapsulated within thick sticky sludge.  Anna is still missing her retribution.   The fragility of her state of mind is not quite right, and her brother is without a completed introduction scene – again.   And the typos – sweet baby Jesus, don’t get me started on the typos.

It is a work in progress, ever evolving.  I am not displeased with what I’ve done – it could be worse.  I’m far from finished, but I am closer to the end.  In the last few days, I have been struck by an idea for a new opening scene.  It is something I’ve struggled with for a long time – where does Anna’s story begin?  This new scene captures Anna’s inability to cope, her helplessness and hopelessness, her quest for absolution.  In other words, Anna hitting rock bottom.  I think it works.  I hope it works.  I’m sure my writing group will tell me if it doesn’t.

On a side note, its inspiration comes from an album that I’ve listened to countless times and never before made the correlation.

It’s all in the timing, I suppose.

So, now what?

More writing, of course.

Anna needs to get her retribution back!

 

I’m a winner

I reached – and surpassed – my Camp NaNoWriMo word count goal.

That makes me a winner.

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Things I’ve learned – Camp NaNoWriMo edition

“A murderer is less loathsome to us than a spy. The murderer may have acted on a sudden mad impulse; he may be penitent and amend; but a spy is always a spy, night and day, in bed, at [the] table, as he walks abroad; his vileness pervades every moment of his life.”

– Honore de Balzac

A multitasking overachiever, I am not.  If I am writing, I’m not blogging.  If I’m blogging, I’m not writing.  And if I have an exam coming up – well then, all bets are off.

Lately, I’ve been writing – a lot.  Well, a lot for me.  I am a slow, methodical writer who sometimes gets caught up in mechanics.  I’ve been known to spend an afternoon contemplating a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph only to delete it completely for lack of relevancy.  Such is my process, for better or worse.

Right now, I am participating in this month’s Camp NaNoWriMo challenge.   The thing that attracted me to it was the adjustable word count.  The traditional 50K word requirement is a bit more than I can reasonably handle given my “life load” and meandering writing style.  So, I picked a number I felt comfortable with, and away I went.

Now, as we approach the finish line, I am feeling confident, almost accomplished.  If projections are correct, and I don’t fall into some hidden sinkhole between now and Tuesday, I will reach my goal with time to spare.

Of course, as with everything in my life, I look at this endeavor as a learning experience – and I’ve certainly learned plenty over the last month.

I learned…

…that somewhere in the midst of three incomplete drafts and six outline revisions, Retribution lost its…well…retribution.  Let me explain.  All characters need motivation.  Anna’s driving force has always been the primordial need to avenge, to repay in kind the wrongs leveled upon her by men of unmitigated evil.  It is that encompassing compulsion that keeps her from walking naked into the ocean and setting her shattered soul adrift.

At first, I didn’t notice the omission.  I ticked off word after word, paragraph after paragraph, scene after scene without giving it a second thought.  Just a happy little writing clam – not a care in the world.   Then, at the 15K word mark, it hit me square in the forehead.  Do you know that feeling?  It was like someone gave me a good knock on the noggin and said, “Hey, stupid.  Where did Anna’s retribution go?”

Um…hmm.

Shit.

…that I have an appointment with outline number 7 – on May 1st.

…that utilizing the “comments” feature in MS Word helps stem my crippling need to edit as I write.  I am learning to mark it and move on.  I’ve also learned that if I print the scene along with the comments, my writing group will critique my notes, too.  Very helpful. Unless the notes are filled with nonsensical ramblings and make me seem slightly schizophrenic.  Then they are just embarrassing.

…that no one in my house is interested in me until I sit down to write.  The moment my laptop opens, I become the most needed person on the planet.  And the grumpiest.   My family thinks writing makes me crabby.  Sigh.

…that changing the name of Anna’s brother makes him so much more likable to me.  This go around, I don’t seem to have the overwhelming urge to kill him off sooner rather than later.  I might not even kill him at all now.  Can someone explain that to me?

…that if Ben doesn’t die, then someone else must.  Who shall it be?  Leo, Cooper, Elliot, Kyla?

I know who, but I’m not telling.

…that wine and writing do not mix.  Seriously.

“Friends don’t let friends write drunk.”

Write on fellow campers.  Write on.

Last one standing

I needed a little alone time today, so I loaded up my camera gear, grabbed a notebook and schlepped into the city.  My destination?  The Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, of course.  I spent this beautiful spring Sunday meandering through my favorite parts of the garden, dodging screaming toddlers and teenage girls in candy colored quinceanara dresses, jotting down an idea here – a splash of dialogue there, and taking way too many pictures – again.

Sadly, the tulips that were so breathtaking just two weeks ago have passed their prime.  Here is one of the last of the season.

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Happy camping: Day 10

So, I made it through ten days of Camp NaNoWriMo virtually unscathed.  Seriously, nary a scratch.  I have surpassed the 10K mark, rounded the corner of my first turning point, and am quickly closing in on 11K words written.

tentA couple of days ahead of schedule.

How the hell did that happen, you ask?

Especially, given my overall track record of self-sabotage?

A few things:

1.  I let go of a plot point that I have held onto since Retribution’s inception.  I can be a sentimental person.  The very first thing I jotted down about Anna has stuck in my mind, and has become an extension of who she is to me.  The problem – it is always this plot point that causes me to write myself into a corner.  It just doesn’t work.  I have finally found the strength to banish it completely.

2.  I have accepted that every sentence, every paragraph, every scene is not going to be a work of perfection – yet.  I have long understood that a draft is just that, a draft.  It’s not meant to be print ready, or even good.  I think we are all familiar with quotes reminding us that books are not written, they are rewritten.  I get it, but I’m an overachiever.  Just another flaw to add to my growing list of personality quirks.  You might think this would work in my favor.  I mean, after all, when I think of an overachiever, I think of someone who has the drive to do anything and everything.  I think for me though, my overachiever habits lend to my ability to move on from something I think is structurally flawed.  I obsess and work tirelessly to fix a badly worded scene, paragraph, sentence at the detriment of the work as a whole.  It is my Achilles heel.

3.  I am allowing my DVR to do its job.  The Real Housewives of (insert random city here) aren’t going anywhere.  I can watch all of my brain cell sucking trash TV on May 1st.

Alright, so where do I stand as I begin day 11 of this challenge?

10,871 of 25,000 words written.

Write on happy campers.

Write on.

Happy Camping: A Camp NaNoWriMo update

Okay, so I’ve been a little remiss in my blog postings of late.  Sure, I’ve given you some groovy pics to tide you over, but I know what you really want – you want to hear all about my writing woes.

Well, guess what?

I’m not having any writing woes at the moment.

What?!?

That’s not to say sitting down at the computer every single day, pounding out a string of words designed to exhibit a measure of cohesion isn’t a complete bitch.  It is.   On a good productive day, the process only sucks out all of my brain cells; on a bad day – well, let’s just say it leaves me a quivering mass of something that should never see the light of day.

So, let me recap for those who have not had to suffer my temper tantrums and pity parties.  Several months ago – I’m going to refrain from embarrassing myself with the exact dates – I started writing a story I entitled Retribution.  Anna’s story.  I wrote 60K words within the span of a few months, and then it all went to hell.  It was so bad, and I hated it so much, that I did the only humane thing I could think of – bonfire.

A few months later, a voice began whispering in my ear.  It was Anna.  She became my constant companion, her voice needling into my subconscious, demanding I give her the story she deserved.  Eventually, I gave in and began drafting an outline – or six.  June arrived and along with it Camp NaNoWriMo.  I threw my hat into the ring, and by the middle of the month, I had written 26.5K words.  I was on a roll.

Then it all went to hell – again.  I learned a valuable lesson last summer:  Going on a family vacation for a week to Washington D.C., in the midst of an intense writing challenge, is not conducive to success.  My fall schedule didn’t help matters either.  It was consumed by Geology, Political Science, African-American history, and the Cold War.  There was no room for Anna.

I’ve spent the early part 2013 recuperating, trying to find my bearings.  For me, the transition from scholarly writing to fictional is a difficult adjustment.  I envy writers who can do it and make it appear seamless.  At the end of February, I opened my Retribution files again, sifted through scene after scene, made some notes and a few plot adjustments, did a little research.  In March, I heard the rumblings of an April edition of NaNoWriMo with an adjustable word count goal.  My heart did a little flip-flop.  A sign?  I think so.  I joined without hesitation.

So, where am I going with all of this rambling nonsense?

It is day three of the challenge.  I’ve written almost 5,000 words toward my 25K word goal, and I’m feeling groovy.

2013-Participant-Campfire-Circle-BadgeWrite on happy campers.

Write on.

Feeling buggy

Flowers aren’t the only thing flourishing in the warm spring air.  So are the creepy crawlies.  Here are a few I came across this weekend.

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Embarrassment of Riches – March check-in

At the beginning of the year, I decided to participate in the Embarrassment of Riches reading challenge hosted by Author Patricia Burroughs.   The goal of the challenge is to make a dent in that stack of books I have been intending to read, but never got around to picking up. 

Given the size of the pile I have amassed, I am aiming to get through 24 of them before the end of the year – a silver level accomplishment.

This month I read:

Portrait of a Spy by Daniel Silva.   I went into this book thinking it would be the story of head spymaster Ari Shamron.  I’m not sure where I picked up that notion, but as it turned out – not about him at all.  I have to say, I liked this one well enough but Silva committed a few plot sins:  1) He introduced a painting in the beginning of the novel, only to let it be forgotten until the wrap up at the end.   2) He killed a character in much the same way he did in a previous novel (The Defector).  3)  The conclusion and epilogue were overlong and burdensome to the story as a whole.  Despite this, I did find it entertaining, though a little redundant at times.

silva_largeFallen Angel by Daniel Silva.  Where to begin with this one?  I can tell you that after five consecutive Allon novels, this one was a chore to read.  In a departure from previous novels, Fallen Angel begins with a murder mystery.  Allon is brought in to investigate the death of a Vatican staffer, at the behest of the Pope’s personal secretary.  The story meanders briefly into the black market world of antiquities, offers the obligatory attempt on Gabriel and Chiara’s lives (sadly they missed her again), and pretty well flounders around in very familiar territory.  It was at this point I walked away from it – for about two weeks.  I honestly didn’t think I was going to be able to finish it.  Then, I gave it another go.   I’m glad I did because at the mid-point, the story took a turn and ended up in Jerusalem.  It is there, among the three Abrahamic faiths’ most sacred sites including the Temple Mount/the Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the via Delorosa, the Western Wall, and the Mount of Olives, Gabriel unwittingly uncovers a plot that will most assuredly result in a third intifada.  When the plot is foiled, the story returns to resolve the murder mystery that was left hanging in the balance.  Thankfully, Silva took pity on his readers and wrapped up this useless plot element in a timely fashion.

One interesting note of the story:  Silva delved into the mysteries and controversies of “temple denial” – the denial of the existence of King Solomon’s first Jewish temple.  It’s a subject that I am not all that familiar, and it piqued my interest.  I smell a research project brewing.

Progress toward goal:  7/24

I am officially caught up with Silva’s Gabriel Allon series.  Just in time, too.  The English Girl will be released in July.  I think by then I will have recovered from my Allon fatigue.

So what’s up next for April?

I am still prodding my way through Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter.  It’s a very interesting read, just not a quick one.  Maybe I will finish it in April.  Maybe not.  In addition, I’ve decided to give Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game a shot.  Everyone I know has read it, and they all rave about it.  I feel left out, so I will give it a go.  It’s not my usual fare, but after three solid months of Daniel Silva, I need a change of pace.  I’ve also started a compilation edited by George Mann entitled The Encounters of Sherlock Holmes.  It is a new book to my list, though, and will not count toward this challenge.  I wish it did.  I am enjoying the hell out of it.

What’s lying around on your nightstand waiting to be read?

Tempting Tulips

One of my favorite annual events at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden is Dallas Blooms.  For one month each spring, the gardens are transformed into a variable sea of color.  Tulips and daffodils, narcissus and cherry blossoms burst forth in all their painted glory and put on a breathtaking show.

I love all the flowers, but this year the tulips stole the show.

Enjoy.

Oh, and Happy Easter.

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Things I learned this week (month)

I learned this week (and last…and maybe even the week before that):

…that there is an old saying in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia):

“When a Czech owns a goat…his neighbor does not yearn for a goat of his own; he wants the neighbor’s goat to die.”

I’m currently reading former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter: A Story of Remembrance 1937-1948In the first few chapters, she chronicles a good bit of Czech history, delves into Czech culture, and explores their predilection for a humanitarian driven lifestyle.  It seems to me, though, their giving nature has its limitations – especially when it comes to coveted livestock.

…that I am grateful that 1) I no longer have small children; 2) that my daughter is a gentle, well-behaved soul; and 3) that I am blessed with a husband who usually understands stating the obvious is not always the correct course of action in a tense situation.

Strange sounding, I know.  Let me explain.

We recently returned from a short spring break trip to San Antonio.  It’s a fun city in the heart of Texas, with a good variety of attractions that can appeal to a whole range of interests – be it the arts, family fun, or just boozing it up down on the River Walk.  Of course, no visit is complete without the obligatory trip to Sea World.  Personally, I’m not the amusement park type.  I would much rather spend my vacation time sipping on a frozen fruity cocktail on a warm sunny beach, or capturing the beauty of a botanical garden with my camera, or exploring a historical landmark  and trying to figure out how to work it into my current WIP.  Sadly, when it comes to family time, one must learn to embrace the art of compromise.  So, off to Sea World we go.  We were joined by thousands of our not so closest friends – some with big obnoxious kids, some with small obnoxious kids, some with no kids – just plain obnoxious personalities.   As an eternal observer, and because amusement parks are all about standing in endless lines where I must endure the invasion of my personal space, I took the opportunity to learn from those around me.  The most valuable lesson of the day:

  • Giving a three-year old a king-size bag of M&Ms at ten in the morning will result in a series of successive events;
    • increased hyperactivity (child);
    • stern reprimands (mom);
    • whining (child);
    • decrease in patience and energy level (mom);
    • rapid crash, additional whining with pitch elevation (child);
    • bribes of more candy capped by threats of harsh discipline (mom);
    • meltdown of cataclysmic proportions complete with screaming, thrashing, and tears – tone now ear-splitting (child);
    • demands for support from father figure who had wandered off to avoid the impending explosion (mom);
    • Poorly timed parental criticism, “You shouldn’t have given him that candy.” (dad);
    • hate filled glares followed by expletives then stony silence (mom);

Of course, silence isn’t always golden.  As I stood in line, I could see the wheel in her mind turning as her eyes bored a hole through his skull.  Scheming; plotting; planning.  How could she do it?  When should she do it?  Could she get away with it?  Did she have a plausible defense?  How hard could life in prison really be?

that the Catholic Church has a new leader.  I don’t really like to talk about religion on the blog.  It can be a polarizing subject that sometimes brings out the worst in people.  I believe religion is a personal endeavor and should be spared societal judgment.  Unfortunately, not everyone sees things my way.  I was raised in the Church, though I haven’t practiced in many years.  I don’t feel Church doctrine correlates with my worldview, and by and large, I lack the traditional spirituality that comes with unconditional faith.  I’m more of a good Karma/bad Karma kind of person with a healthy dose of superstition thrown in for good measure. You know that whole “spit in the wind…” thing.  However, I find the entire process of electing a new pope utterly fascinating.  I love the ritual of it; the politics of it; the clandestine nature of it.  It’s the stuff of novels – add a little murder and mayhem and you’ve got yourself a bestseller.  Oh, wait.  Daniel Silva and Dan Brown already did that.

Damn them.

…that historical geology is a science of many faces.  This week it is masquerading as biology.  My head is filled with biological classifications – kingdom, phylum, class, family, genus, specie.  I’ve done this sort of thing before – in high school biology.  I did alright, and I liked it well enough.  But somehow classifying animals I knew and understood seemed so much easier.  These fossils are a pain in my ass.  They all look the same; their names all end in –ite or -pod.  Half of them look like clams but are not related to the clam in any way.  I find that suspect.  Also, if it looks like sponge, acts like a sponge, then it is not a sponge.  Seriously?

Dr. M:  It is very easy to see the difference between this trilobite from the Cambrian and this one from the Ordovician.  See the eyes; the shape of the back-end?

Me:  No.  No, I do not.  I see a brown lumpy bit of rock.

Dr. M:  Oh, you found the coprolite.

Ew.

…that my daughter does not appreciate unsolicited conversation with strangers anymore than I do.  This weekend we went to see (hear) the Plano Symphony.  While we were waiting for the performance to begin, the woman sitting next to my daughter began to engage her in a bit of small talk.   Megan listened politely to the woman, answered her questions guardedly, and cast a few glares in my direction.  At the end of the night, while waiting for our car, my daughter commented on her experience:

Megan:  Mom, that lady made me feel socially awkward.

Me:  Get used to it.  Happens to me all the damn time.

Megan:  Great.

***side note:  If you live in the Dallas area, and have the opportunity to check out the Plano Symphony – do it.  They are fabulous.

…that after reading five Daniel Silva (Gabriel Allon series) novels since the beginning of the year, I have come to the conclusion that I do not like Gabriel’s wife, Chiara.  There are many things I admire about Silva’s writing – his penchant for strong memorable characters; his knack for brevity; his enviable grasp of show vs. tell.  However, I am baffled by Chiara’s evolution from Gabriel’s leather clad, motorcycle riding guardian angel to nagging fishwife who has forgotten the complexity of her husband’s chosen profession – a profession she shares.  I know it’s pretty drastic of me, but I keep hoping Silva will do the humane thing and kill her off.  At least it would shut her up and Gabriel could go about the business of saving the world in peace.

…and last, but not least, this week’s awww moment is brought to you by this spotted leopard we stumbled upon at the San Antonio Zoo.  I have posted a different shot of him, but I think this one is my favorite.  He appears to be looking right at me.  Such a beautiful animal.

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26th Challenger – Float Boat

I entered my favorite Chihuly shot in a photography competition. Go vote for me. 🙂

P.S. Yes, My name is spelled wrong, but that’s okay.

Rodposse.

Peggy Icaacs
www.peggyisaacs.com
” I took it at recent Chihuly exhibit at the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens.  The sculpture is entitled Float Boat.  I loved the way the colored glass reflected on the water. ”
img_6881GOOD LUCK

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The look of 40

Last June, I turned forty.  A dubious milestone no woman strives to achieve but like most unpleasant things in life, aging is completely unavoidable.  I took it on the chin.  I didn’t take to my bed in a blubbering fit of self-pity, or trade in my 4 door sedan for a zippy Maserati, or wake up with a tequila hangover and a mystery tattoo.   Being the boring mature adult that I am, I opted to celebrate with a quiet dinner, a glass of wine, and a Daniel Silva novel.

The first time my age came up in casual conversation, I was honest and straightforward.  There’s no shame in forty.   Anyway, I don’t really feel any different from when I was 39, even if the elliptical at the gym insists that I somehow burn fewer calories for every forty-five minute workout since my birthday.   The evil work of some abstract algorithm, I’m sure.

“You’re forty?” said the young optician measuring my pupillary distance for my new “no-line” bifocals.  “You don’t look forty.”

“That’s very generous of you,” I said.

“No, seriously.  You look good.  I hope I have such good complexion when I’m your age.”

Hm.

I assured her there was no mistake.  I’d seen my birth certificate – born 1972.  It had an official seal and everything.  At the time, I accepted her declaration as a compliment, vowed to continue using the overpriced anti-aging cream from that high-end department store I loathe, and went on my merry way with a little extra spring in my step.  Yes, vanity is a sin; and yes, I’ve been guilty of it on more than one occasion.  Sue me.  In the seven or eight months since, others have echoed her disbelief, but the initial boost to my ego has waned.  I should probably feel jubilant, over the moon even, that I appear to look so young and vibrant – especially, for someone of my advancing years.

I’m not.

I’ve said it before – I am a personality fraught with flaws.  The list is endless.  Near the top, just beneath chronically phobic is:  tends to over-analyze life, often prone to bouts of irrational suspicion in others, and is perpetually awaiting the other shoe to drop.  A dangerous trio that makes it impossible for me to let these benign bits of frivolous flattery roll by without further examination.

What does it mean when people say I don’t look forty?

What is forty supposed to look like?

Is there some predetermined criteria?

Am I somehow deficient?

Like most women of any age, I look at myself in the mirror every morning and cringe.  I am no great beauty – perhaps passably pretty, if we’re feeling generous.  I run on the wrong side of average, with thick thighs and flabby arms.  I have to sweat a lot to maintain a consistent weight in the mid-120’s, and I’m not known for my overt fashion sense.  My mouth is flanked by laugh lines, the delicate skin around my eyes crinkle ever so slightly when I smile, and every six weeks the silvery-grey hair I work hard to hide winks at me from beneath the glare of the bathroom lights.

It’s an image I’m quite familiar with, and it is an image that has gone virtually unchanged over the last few years.   I find it strange that no one commented on how good I might look for my age when I was 37, or 38, or even 39.  It’s only after I have reached the pivotal age of forty that I am suddenly an oddity in the eyes of my peers.

This inconsistency makes me wonder by what standard forty is judged.  From my own experiences, there seems to be some preconceived notion of one’s physical appearance once a certain age threshold has been crossed.  It’s as if at forty, one abruptly reaches the apex of physicality and is then expected to begin a rapid downward spiral into the dark abyss of crippling old age.  I am, after all, now traditionally considered “over the hill.”  Or so, I’ve been told.  But am I really?

A quick internet search told me that in ancient Rome, a woman’s average life expectancy was between 20 and 30 years depending on her social status, the age she married, and the number of children she bore.   According to Sarah Woodbury, women living in the Middle Ages fared slightly better reaching an average age of 40.  This was, of course, provided she survived infancy, avoided contracting some sort of plague, and didn’t perish giving birth to her own offspring.  During the Industrial Revolution in Victorian England, life expectancy hovered around the upper 30s, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, those numbers rebounded to a staggering 50.  This upward momentum continued through the 1900s, and today women living in the United States can take comfort in the fact that, on average, they may live to be 82 or so.

Hm.

I have long wondered what it might be like to live in another time period.  Now, I know.  It drives home the true meaning of the old adage “life is short.”   While I am grateful to have been born in twentieth century, the numbers do paint a sobering picture.  At forty, I am now truly middle-aged.

Over the hill.  Long in the tooth.  A mutton dressed as a lamb.

Perhaps that Maserati isn’t such a bad idea, after all.  I wonder if it comes in red.

Even so, this depressing revelation doesn’t answer my original question:

What am I supposed to look like at forty – you know, now that I have statistically reached the midpoint of my life?

Should I have developed a hunch back?  A stilted gait?  A weather-beaten face?

Should I suddenly forget how to apply make up?  Allow my hair the freedom to convert back to its natural gray streaked frizz?

The more I think about the answer to this question, the more I’m convinced that age is simply an outdated societal construct designed to confine individuals to easily discernible categories in order to dictate acceptable behavior.  Generally, in our twenties we are considered young and beautiful with carefree spirits and the luxury of worldly ignorance.   In our thirties, we are plagued by the pressure of conformity, the harshness of reality, and the need to settle into designated career and familial roles.  By forty, any hint of the youthful spirit and beauty of our twenties is thoroughly eradicated and replaced by the exhaustion of motherhood, the cruelty of gravity, free-falling metabolisms, wrinkling skin, and mom jeans. By fifty, we are destined for the early bird specials at the local pancake house and an AARP lifetime membership.  Fifteen years later…well…it’s all over but the crying.

Do these categories represent reality? Perhaps there is a measure of truth to be found somewhere floating in the depths of these stereotypes, but I certainly do not believe that we, as individuals, fit into such nice neat boxes.  I don’t wear mom jeans, drive a minivan, or feel the weight of motherhood bearing down on me.   I did all of that in my early thirties.  Now, at the tender age of forty, I am on a wondrous journey of self-discovery and have never felt more alive.  This proves to me that I am right in my belief that age is a relative concept.  You are only as old as you perceive yourself.  I do not perceive myself as old, over the hill, or long in the tooth.  Therefore, I am not.

So, what does forty look like?

Fabulous.

Waiting for spring

I have been sitting here all morning avoiding my WIP by sifting through some old photos I shot last spring.

I can’t wait for everything to bloom again.

Here are few of the more interesting ones.

Enjoy.

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The bee is blurry on this last one, but I think that is what makes it interesting to me.

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Things I learned this week

 

“As life goes on it becomes tiring to keep up the character you invented for yourself, and so you relapse into individuality and become more like yourself everyday.”

– Agatha Christie

I learned this week…

…that it appears I correctly self-diagnosed my nagging stomach ailment.  My new doctor confirmed it.  Of course, I allowed him to think he was giving me new information.  I have learned my lesson there – doctors don’t like it when you tell them how to do their job.  I’m not really sure why.  Anyway, I am now dealing with strict tiered dietary changes.  Up first – no more dairy.  I’m not big on the whole milk thing, so at first I thought it was no big deal.  Then I saw the list of forbidden foods.  I have to give up my hazelnut coffee cream, any and all chocolate, and my sugar-free chewing gum.  

Me:  Wait what?  My non-dairy coffee creamer has milk in it!  Are you kidding me?

Nurse:  No, Mrs. Isaacs.  We don’t kid about these things.  However, most people find soy an acceptable alternative. 

SOY!

It smells like dirty feet. 

Not acceptable.

<grumble grumble>

…that, in keeping with the medical theme, pneumonia can sneak up on you when you least expect it.  My house has been passing around a nasty little respiratory virus for a few weeks now.  Up until last week, I had successfully avoided being slimed.  As often happens, my luck ran out.  This week I gave in and went to see my regular doctor for the sinus infection I knew was brewing.  Turns out – sinus infection + pneumonia.  Didn’t see that coming.

…that I received a damn fine grade on my first historical geology exam.  A half a point off a perfect score.  Take that scary geology with your thinly disguised chemistry, biology, and math.

…that sometimes an individual’s real story is much more interesting than the one I make up for them in my head.  For five years, I have spent two nights a week sitting in an old converted grocery store watching my daughter’s gymnastic practice.  I am well-known to the staff and the regular parents.  The smart ones leave me in peace; everyone else soon learns that I am not a stellar conversationalist.

There is an elderly woman who frequents the gym.  She is tall, European – maybe German given her accent, and carries herself with an air of sophistication.  I have never spoken more than a few trivial words to her in all these years, but I have long speculated about her story – it is what I do.  In my head, she is a warm, kindhearted grandmother, who bakes cookies for the children, tends a small container herb garden on the patio of her retirement community apartment, and enjoys peach Schnapps under the bathing glow of summer moonlight.

This week she sat next to me on the low slung module couch that borders the parents’ corral and talked for one solid hour.  I learned:

  1. She is Swiss;
  2. When she was young, she was a chunky chocoholic and her mother sent her to a brutish masseuse in hopes to combat her growing cellulite problem.
  3. Her late husband was some sort of high level Lufthansa executive.
  4. She is now a legal resident of Montreal, Canada.
  5. As such, is only allowed to enter and stay in the U.S. in 6 week intervals.  “Such nonsense,” she said with a dismissive wave.
  6. She flies a lot via stand-by.
  7. She believes this makes her an easy target for security.
  8. One time she was frisked because the TSA agent asked her if she had a gun in her carry-on bag and she replied:  “No.  I like to keep my gun on me at all times.”  She concedes this was not the smartest thing she’s ever done, and is convinced she is now on “the list.”
  9. As revenge for No. 8, she likes to pack her bras and undies in the very top layer of her suitcase.  She derives a sadistic pleasure in seeing the agents handle her intimates when they search her bags.
  10. This past fall, while attending a Lufthansa gala in Washington, D.C. she broke her hip – I’m still not sure I understand how that happened.  Instead of going to the nearest hospital, she got in a car with her friend and proceeded to make the 12 hour drive back to Canada in order to receive “proper” medical attention.  (I didn’t think it wise to mention that she was 5 months post-op – right hip replacement – and still walked with a cane.)
  11. She is pissed that as a woman in her seventies, she must now pay $60 per year for medical coverage.  “Highway robbery,” she declared.
  12. She wears all of her good jewelry at once because she fears it will be stolen.  When I pointed out that she is setting herself up to be mugged, she dismissed me with a brush of her hand and proceeded to tell me about the time she visited India.  The time when she thought her newly blessed Hindu talisman had been stolen by the hotel staff.  As it turned out, she told me, it was just the gods playing a trick on her because she had been careless with her things.  Now she is very careful.

Indeed.

There is much character gold to be mined here.  I hope she sits next to me again real soon.

…that the headline “Genesis Death Sandwich” is a real eye catcher.  I couldn’t help myself.  I had to click and read.  I’m still processing:

In the case of Genesis, the slices of white bread are themes of life, and the slimy cold cuts in between are mentions of death.

…that here is another bit of eye-catching nonsense I found tucked in a Salon op-ed entitled “Conservatives Declare War on College“, highlighting the right’s push for cheaper, online higher education in lieu of the more expensive traditional lecture-based programs:

[Daphne] Koller believes that with the right grading “rubric” students can grade each other’s papers even on issues of critical reasoning and grammar, thus solving seemingly daunting logistics problems.

God help us all.

…that Skyfall is even better the second time around.

***Spoiler Alert*** If you have been living under a rock, or are just a slacker who hasn’t found the time to empty your DVR of the amassing Downton Abbey episodes, please avert your eyes now.

…that I may be the only person on the planet who thinks Matthew Crawley had to die.   There was just no other way.

…and, last but not least, this week’s awww moment is brought to you by Chihuly.  I sure do miss that exhibit.

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