Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Siracusa by Delia Ephron

By Delia Ephron

Siracusa follows two couples, Michael and Lizzie, and Finn and Taylor, along with their daughter Snow, on vacation to Siracusa, Italy.

The alternating chapters told from the four adult perspectives is a neat conceit and, at first, it IS interesting to get different perspectives on the same events, but it quickly gets old and slows the book down.

The characters aren’t pleasant. Michael is wishy-washy about getting out of his marriage. He’s having an affair with a woman named Kathy who he claims fervently to be in love with. There’s no kids, so what’s stopping him from ending the marriage? Just himself.

Lizzie is almost intentionally oblivious. “I always thought, and joked to my best friend Rachel, that if he ever walked through a door first, it would mean he was through with me. In Rome, lo and behold, he did it.” You think she gets it, finally. But in the next line she excuses it, “That’s how jet-lagged he was.”

Taylor is a helicopter parent who seems rather vain and pretentious. “Whenever we go on a trip, Finn, Snow, and I stay in the same room. Snow and I sleep in the double bed. Finn takes the cot because he stays out late. That way no one gets disturbed. Because of running a restaurant, Finn is an owl. Sex in this culture, its importance, is overrated, and that is the last I’m going to say on the subject.”

Finn, well, he seems like the most happy-go-lucky but he’s also pulling some puppet strings. ‘On the buildup to this fiasco, Lizzie and I were texting ten times a day. I started hounding her at Christmas. “Italy in June. Remind tay, remind Tay, grazie prego.” Badgered Lizzie’s brains out. Taylor had no idea I was feeding Lizzie, making it happen, getting a bit of control. What’s that called? Passive aggressive. I was having a passive-aggressive field day pulling Lizzie’s strings so she’d pull Taylor’s and getting off on it.’

And it’s true, Taylor blames Lizzie for it all. It isn’t until towards the end, she starts to blame Finn as well. “From the start it was a conspiracy between Lizzie and Finn to be together. Michael and I were in the dark.”

Lizzie and Finn knew each other from a little romance years before and had remained friends.

Snow is annoying – melodramatic and pretentious. She steals some silverware, plays with dressing more provocatively and pretends to faint, putting herself into the drama of the Carravagio painting, but that just doesn’t lead up to what happens. I didn’t feel like the author built the tension sufficiently.

There are some interesting observations but I was paging through the last 30% just to get it over with. A neat idea that just didn’t work for me in the end.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Cleaning Nabokov's House by Leslie Daniels

Cleaning Nabokov’s House
by Leslie Daniels
Guest post by Tarren Young

I bought this book from Leslie Daniels herself at our local writer’s conference in March 2017. Our theme for the month of April was a book that was recommended to you. At first I was going to read one my husband suggested (and currently am reading—my goal for two books this month was a bit far sighted) and I debated if this could be counted as a recommendation. Since the thesaurus lists endorsed, mentioned, advocated as just a few words that encompass the recommended theme, I feel no guilt in having read this one for our book club this month.

Cleaning Nabokov’s House never struck me as one that would be peppered with metaphors pertaining to my life at the moment. Ah, but that’s how the universe works, and I gave myself the proverbial face palm for not picking up on the metaphoric  and symbolic meaning of the title from the get go. This quite sucks to admit because I love symbolic and metaphoric(al)  meaning—even when I don’t go searching for it, it usually finds me.

Leslie Daniels ability to combine both sadness and humor on a human level right from the beginning entranced me. Her writing style feels similar to my own memoir-ic  style (and if that’s not a word, I’m going to make it one—if Shakespeare can, than I can too) where the melancholy and humor crash together like a tsunami in one sentence. If I likened her to real life, it would be like laughing at a funeral—you know it’s inappropriate, yet your brain and emotions are making light of the situation. Someone usually comes along and actually thanks you for being real, being human and brave enough to show it.

Although I did feel the ending (the last three or four chapters) felt rushed and abrupt, there was much more than made up for the slightly disappointing ending.

Right from the first chapter, when her main character clambered toward the lake to retrieve a blue pot and thought that the local newspaper of the small town Onkwendo could use the headline “Mother of Two Drowns, Apparent Suicide,” I was drawn in. Insert admission here that I laughed at this sentence when I probably should have shaken my head or felt sad for this character. Yet this exact sentence was when I knew the book was for me.


The main character, Barb, doesn’t follow directions well, especially her husband’s, as she is more of a free spirit. And this is particularly frowned upon in Onkwendo. This drives her husband bonkers—and he can’t understand why she can’t just comply with the rules. 

Though Onkwendo is a fictional town, I liken it to Ithaca. (Sorry, Ithaca, nothing personal, and I do enjoy your city very much.) Barb, the main character, is a transplant from NYC, who moves to this town with her husband. He lives by a certain set of rules and believes that’s how others must, because that’s just how it is done. Although he is not physically abusive, she can’t conform to his rules of cookie cutter society—loading the dishwasher a certain way, raising children a certain way, keeping house a certain way, having reached certain goals by a certain time and age in life—it all becomes too much for her, and loading the dishwasher wrong was the final straw not only for her, but their marriage.

Without giving too many spoilers away, through several heart wrenching incidents of losing her children and everyone agreeing (insert judge and the rest of the town because her husband has them eating out of his back pocket) that the kids are safer with their father because he is more stable emotionally, Barb even wonders if she can stay in the same town as him.  But a blue pot floats to shore on the and this is her sign.
Barb lives in a hotel room for a bit, also not following the rules (ahem, using hot plates to cook dinner) and for some reason, I appreciate the boldness of her personality for doing what needs to be done—even if others frown upon it. At this time though, she doesn’t realize that breaking this rule is actually putting into action what will save her in the end.

On a whim, after deciding the blue pot needed more than a hot plate to cook on, (my favorite scene in the book, pg. 15) Barb buys a house. A house that the blue pot led her to (from unseen forces) where she stumbles across something magical while cleaning her daughter’s bedroom. She was told when she bought the house that Nabokov once lived there and that brought days and nights of comfort to her throughout the story.  Even though she was told Nabokov once lived there, nothing prepares her the adventure that finding a few single index cards would lead her to.

I underlined several sentences and passages in Cleaning Nabokov’s House. I laughed and even had to put the book away while in a restaurant because I started to cry, and if I continued reading, I would have been a blubbering mess for all the world to see. (Not that that hasn’t happened before.)

Overall, I give Leslie Daniels Cleaning Nabokov’s House a four out of five stars and truly would recommend this book to everyone, really, but if you are a free spirit and have been asked or told one too many times, “why can’t you just follow the rules?” then this book is not only a must, but a hope for those of us who don’t. 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian
By Andy Weir

Now, if you were left behind on Mars by your crewmates and knew you had to wait for the next planned Mars expedition, in FOUR years, would you even try to survive? Or would you assume there was no way in hell for that to happen?

 “So, that’s the situation. I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happens, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death. So yeah, I’m fucked.”

So why doesn’t he just take the easy way out? Well, at the moment, he’s alone but he has everything he needs. He’s in no hurry. The thing is - he’s someone who rises to challenges and likes to figure things out, so he wants to do that. He figures out how much soil he’ll need and how to turn the soil he has, plus his own shit along with Martian soil, into something he can grow crops in.

 “This isn’t a new concept I just came up with. People have speculated on how to make crop soil out of Martian dirt for decades. I’ll just be putting it to the test for the first time. But in the end, if everything goes to plan, I’ll have 92 square meters of crop-able soil. Hell yeah I’m a botanist! Fear my botany powers!”

Mark Watney is pretty smart but he’s also totally an extrovert, the class clown, the one who provides the lubricant between all the really smart introverts. He’s also an extrovert who only has his journal to talk to.

I think that’s part of why he comes across as more of a real person to me, not a type. We all have geeky sides, and sporty sides and act like kids at times, and get excited and angry and scared.  

 “I’ve been so busy staying alive I never thought of what this must be like for my parents. Right now, they’re suffering the worst pain anyone can endure. I’d give anything just to let them know I’m still alive. I’ll just have to survive to make up for it.”

He’s stuck with thumb drives of things his shipmates brought for entertainment.  

“Disco. God damn it, Lewis.”

A large part of the book is him reacting to problems, thinking through them and coming up with a solution. He’s so perfectly imperfect. Like any good hero, he causes his own trouble, and he laughs at himself so well.

“Turns out the “L” in “LCD” stands for “Liquid.” I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.”

Right, who knew? Um, everyone.

My biggest criticism is that I felt like the ending was abrupt. We’re rocking along then . . . boom, it’s done. I feel like the author should have given us a little more warning that THIS was the goal. Oh well.

It’s a FUN book. Try not to take it too seriously. It is action, and science, and humor. I really, really liked it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Song of Achilles: A Novel by Madeline Miller

Song of Achilles: A Novel
By Madeline Miller

This book was at once lyrical and heart rending. Not so much for how it ended, we knew how that was going to go, but for the intervening story of love and loss. I can well understand why it took her ten years to write the book. The historical accuracy, the beautiful phrasing and exquisite detail must have demanded it.

Patroclus says he was nothing special when he was born. “Quickly, I became a disappointment: small, slight. I was not fast I was not strong. I could not sing. The best that could be said of me was that I was not sickly.”

His father attempts to marry him off to Helen of Troy but ends up getting him pledged to “uphold Helen’s choice, and defend her husband against all who would take her from him.”

Then Patroclus accidentally kills an older boy, who is bullying him, simply by pushing him away. The boy trips, falls and hits his head.

“I would be exiled, and fostered in another man’s kingdom. In exchange for my weight in gold, they would rear me to manhood. I would have no parents, no family name, no inheritance. In our day, death was preferable. But my father was a practical man. My weight in gold was less than the expense of the lavish funeral my death would have demanded. This was how I came to be ten, and an orphan. This is how I came to Phthia.”

The passages of even simple events are exquisitely descriptive. “That night I dreamed of the dead boy, his skull cracked like an egg against the ground. He has followed me. The blood spreads, dark as spilled wine. His eyes open, and his mouth begins to move. I clap my hands over my ears. The voices of the dead were said to have the power to make the living mad.  I must not hear him speak.”

Patroclus does not have an easy adjustment to his new home but he is fascinated by Achilles.

“Juggling was a trick of low mummers and beggars, but he made it something else, a living pattern painted on the air, so beautiful even I could not pretend disinterest.”

The juggling of figs - such an important scene, mesmerizing, exactly how it feels to be caught in the grasp of fascination with another. A connection is made.

 “His gaze, which had been following the circling fruit, flickered to mine. I did not have time to look away before he said, softly but distinctly, “Catch.” A fig leapt from the pattern in a graceful arc towards me. It fell into the cup of my palms, soft and slightly warm. I was aware of the boys cheering.”

Achilles claims Patroclus for his constant companion and their friendship grows, deepening.

“I saw then how I had changed. I did not mind anymore that I lost when we raced and I lost when we swam out to the rocks and I lost when we tossed spears or skipped stones. For who can be ashamed to lose to such beauty? It was enough to watch him win, to see the soles of his feet flashing as they kicked up sand, or the rise and fall of his shoulders as he pulled through the salt. It was enough.”

The boys are separated by Achilles mother, a sea-nymph who wants Achilles to be a god though she doesn’t yet know how but she will make that happen. She sends Achilles off to be taught by the centaur, Chiron. Patroclus follows and Chiron agrees to shelter and teach them both.

“Dinner was more stew, and a thin type of bread that Chiron cooked on bronze sheets over the fire. For dessert, berries with mountain-gathered honey. As the fire dwindled, my eyes closed in half-dreaming. I was warm, and the ground beneath me was soft with moss and fallen leaves. I could not believe that only this morning I had woken in Peleus’ palace. This small clearing, the gleaming walls of the cave within, were more vivid than the white palace had ever been.”

It is an idyllic time, as the boys learn everything Chiron has to teach them. Achilles is most interested in music and Patroclus eventually asks to learn what Chiron can teach him of medicine.

As they grow into adulthood, Patroclus and Achilles’ friendship turns into a passionate romance, though it is very delicately handled by the author. The question of the nature of their relationship has been hotly debated since ancient times and this version of the story is beautifully told.

There is a lifetime packed into this one book and it feels like it at times, certain events are glossed over. The war goes on for years, but the author draws you on. The break between Achilles and Patroclus over Achilles pride is difficult to read but a sign of how well the author draws the reader into the story.

I highly recommend this book, it is one of the best I have read in years.

Friday, February 17, 2017

75 Habits for a Happy Marriage by Ashley Davis Bush

75 Habits for a Happy Marriage
by Ashley Davis Bush, LCSW and Daniel Arthur Bush, PhD

The authors both offered excellent insight into why certain things might be working, or not working, within a long term relationship then gave 75 fairly simple, and concrete, habits that can be instituted to increase harmony and a sense of connection in the relationship. Some require the cooperation of both partners but most can be done by just one half of the couple and may have a positive impact on the relationship, regardless of whether the second half of the couple actively participates or simply passively receives.

The book is separated into Fundamentals, Communication Building Habits, Connection Building Habits, and Intimacy Building Habits.

Though the explanations of why each habit works, how to do the item and sometimes an illustrative anecdote are given, the habits themselves are incredibly simple. Each one is prompted by something that is likely to happen during the course of the day so that you will be prompted to initiate the habit.

The authors claim that small moments of daily intimacy really can make a dramatic difference in your relationship. They pull in a wealth of research and information in choosing the habits in this book. Not every habit will resonate with each person. Some may not seem feasible, or desirable, at the moment. Depending on what is lacking in your relationship – Communication, Connection or Intimacy – some may be more immediately useful than others.

Connection Building Habits

When most couples say they have trouble communicating, the author asserts they actually may be having trouble feeling connected. These habits can help. Three of my favorite -

Touch Tone – When you’re having dinner together, make it a point to make contact with your spouse during your meal.

Thanks for the Memories – When you’re going to bed, take a moment to thank your spouse for some action, word or experience during the day.

Coast to Coast – when you see your lover sitting in front of a computer, walk behind them and gently sweep your hand across their back from one shoulder to the other.

Communication Building Habits

“When a couple tells me that they cannot communicate, usually what they mean is that they argue frequently, can’t be honest with each other.”

The Dating Game – Just before you go on a date, take a few minutes to close your eyes and remember your first meeting or early courtship with your beloved.

Better to Give – As you begin your date, give your beloved a compliment.

Through the Years – As you’re waiting for food, take turns sharing happy memories from your time together.

Intimacy Building Habits

Spoonful of Sugar – When you’re having dessert or a treat together, feed your spouse a bite of the food.

Angel Wings – When your spouse seems sad, tired or anxious, sit with them and sync up your breathing.

Penny – When you or your spouse is sitting in silence and you’d like to start a conversation, say penny, as in “for your thoughts” and the other has to answer with what they are thinking right that moment.

There are also habits for couples who are truly in conflict and suffering with criticism, contempt, defensiveness or stonewalling.

It can be hard to look at this type of information or focus on it because it points out what is going wrong but hopefully there are things going right too, which can be built upon. I personally think the small habits that can be done daily have more a trajectory changing power than the ones that are only triggered occasionally by something like a date. (Of course, some people may go out on dates more often than once every three months.) We have this book in digital format at our library and it was easy to bookmark pages then go back and make notes of the habits I liked. Over all, a very useful little book, I’d give it 4.5 stars.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Taming of the Shrew and Vinegar Girl

The Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare 
and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

According to this Washington Post article, Anne Tyler loathes Shakespeare so she decided to rewrite one of his plays.

Anne Tyler was asked by the Hogarth Shakespeare people to pick one of Shakespeare’s plays and write a modern version. (This is part of a series where Hogarth asked different authors to write a modern retelling of a classic Shakespeare play.) She was asked first so she got to choose any play, and her choice was The Taming of the Shrew.

Now, an author can acquit themselves adequately, even admirably, in such a venture, but it isn’t going to be something that sprang from their creative well with a feeling of “I must write this story!”

Most writers try to spend their time on the stories that they love, that they are inspired by, even if a large part of the time is nitty gritty, chain yourself to the desk and write work. For example, Neil Gaiman said that he spent nearly twenty years with the idea for a book. Each year, he would take the idea out, write a page, re-read it and think, “Nope, I’m not a good enough writer yet.” After twenty years, he said, he realized he wasn’t getting any better, and he wrote The Graveyard Book -  which went on to win several awards including a Newbery Medal, a Carnegie Medal and a Hugo Award for best novel.

So, The Taming of the Shrew. There have been many productions of this play over the years and a whole lot of conjecture about what it means. If you’re not familiar with it, check out this synopsis on Youtube. I don’t agree with all of her conclusions but the synopsis is good and a very funny retelling.

Should you wish to skip the video, the main gist of the story revolves around two sisters, Bianca and Katherine. Bianca is generally considered a sweet and beautiful young woman with many suitors but their father, Baptista, won’t allow her to marry until her angry, but still beautiful, older sister Katherine is married. The time in the play is divided between the comedy of Bianca’s various suitors pretending to be her tutor, in disguise, in order to woo her, and Petruchio trying to break Katherine to the yoke of marriage, through sleep deprivation and starvation etc., because he wants her dowry.

Now, the creator of the Youtube video does mention that it has been suggested that Shakespeare wrote this as a mirror to show people how awful women were treated. She denies this saying, most people would say it was perfectly normal up until a few decades ago. What? I mean, slavery was considered “normal” at one time in the U.S. but you still had large numbers of people working against it, right? And Shakespeare was not most men - he was the bard. Shakespeare accorded women in his plays with as much ability as men. There are weak women and strong women, and those of each gender who use their strength of will for good . . .  or not so good.

A couple key points in understanding Taming of the Shrew, to my mind, are that Katherine is kept from sleeping and starved by Petruchio but she still argues with him into Act 4, Scene 5 until Hortensio says in an aside to Katherine, “Say as he says, or we shall never go.” It suddenly clicks with Katherine, I have to play the game to get what I want. So she agrees with Petruchio that the sun is the moon and then that she was mistaken and it is the sun.

Skip to the last two lines.

Hortensio: “Now, go thy ways, thou hast tamed a curst shrew.”

(He KNOWS that’s not true! He’s the one who told her to play along!)

Lucentio: “’Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tamed so.”

(Huh, yeah, it’s strange that. Even Lucentio’s suspicious!)

She isn’t tamed! She’s just playing the game. Petruchio better straighten up or there may be some deadly nightshade in his food one of these days. (That did happen back then, you know.)

Now Tyler says of Taming of the Shrew, that it’s a crazy story and she wanted to figure out what happened. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t take the characters and delve into what might have made them act the way they did in Shakespeare’s play. Instead she changes the characters immensely and then looks at their motivations. They are no longer remotely the same people. The relationship between the play and this book is tenuous at best.

As with many productions and retellings, the story centers on Katherine, though in the play just as much time is given to the comedy of the various suitors for Bianca. Tyler all but leaves that out, giving Bunny only one “suitor” and a brief mention that she had many others.

Tyler herself calls Vinegar Girl a “meringue.” A meringue consists of egg whites and some sugar whipped until they are light and fluffy then baked so they maintain their shape, but there’s very little substance. I think “a meringue” perfectly captures this book.

This is still Anne Tyler, a master writer and Pulitzer Prize winner, so there are some very witty, and poignant, scenes in the book, but I had trouble getting started. I didn’t really begin enjoying the book until some third of the way in.

There are some correlating characters. Katherine becomes Kate, Baptista becomes Dr. Battista, her father. Bianca becomes Bunny. Petruchio becomes Pyotr and, well, Lucentio becomes Edward, sort of.

Vinegar Girl opens with Kate gardening, which is her kind of happy place, and being called by her father who asks her to bring his lunch to the lab. She replies grumpily but he assumes she will follow through, because she always does.

Her father has come up with a scheme to have Kate marry his lab assistant Pyotr Cherbakov, so he can stay in the country, because “All would be lost” without Pyotr and his work visa is about to run out. (Drama much?)

“To put it mildly, it had never been Kate’s plan to work in a preschool. However, during her sophomore year in college she had told her botany professor that his explanation of photosynthesis was ‘half-assed.’ One thing had led to another, and eventually she was invited to leave.”

“In theory Kate could have applied for readmission to her college the following year, but she somehow didn’t.”

Kate, for her part, is much more wishy washy than Shakespeare’s Katherine was. Katherine seems to hold a great deal of anger, even physically attacking her sister. Tyler’s Kate, just seems to be floating through life, doing what is easiest and not sure what she wants out of life.

Kate seems to be stuck caring for her sister and father, but she doesn’t DO anything to get out of her situation. She isn’t pressured to go back to college. Her father simply doesn’t push her to do so. She has settled into this situation for want of a clear direction in her life.

There are so many scenes that just aren’t that interesting. They advance the cause of the plot but they aren’t funny or poignant. *shrug* Just kind of lackluster for me. Like the meal where her father unexpectedly brings Pyotr home for dinner. It’s just there as a sort of bridge.

Later that evening, her father finally brings up the marriage again. Kate is shocked. “You’ve been throwing him at me all along and I was too dumb to see it. I guess I just couldn’t believe my own father would conceive of such a thing.”

Kate gets angry and brings up Bunny. Her father points out the difference between the two. “Bunny has all those young men chasing after her.”

Kate is terribly hurt.

“If she kept her expression impassive, if she didn’t blink or even open her mouth to say another word, she might be able to stop the tears from spilling over. So she was silent. By degrees she stood up, careful not to bump into anything, and she put down her calculator and turned and walked out of the dining room with her chin raised.

And we feel for her. Her father just told her she is inferior, second tier to Bunny. She thought so before, she might have even suspected he thought so, but she didn’t KNOW until he said it. Ouch.

Kate seems utterly broken by this.

“He must think she was of no value; she was nothing but a bargaining chip in his single-minded quest for a scientific miracle. After all, what real purpose did she have in her life? And she couldn’t possibly find a man who would love her for herself, he must think, so why not just palm her off on someone who would be useful to him?”
Kate tells him he can do his own taxes. It’s a small skirmish, but Bunny applauds her for it, which makes her feel a little better, some solidarity.

Pyotr shows up to apologize for offending Kate. “She felt both gratified and humiliated to know that he comprehended this.”

And they begin to connect, she realizes she underestimated him because of the language barrier.

Now, Pyotr and Petruchio are totally different characters. Petruchio is in it for the money and sets about to break Katherine’s spirit through starvation, sleep deprivation and “killing her with kindness.” Pyotr is not concerned with changing Kate. She is wonderful just the way she is in his eyes and he is only concerned that they should marry and find a way to live peacefully. Kate’s father is MUCH more involved in convincing Kate than Katherine’s father is.

At one point Pyotr says, “You are the only person I know who pronounces my name right.” It’s very wistful statement.

Then her father shows up acting as if everything is mended and thinking Kate is going to marry Pyotr. And FINALLY he really talks to her about it, about how he thought Pyotr would just move in to the extra room and how his work is going and how her mother was when she was a child. He really opens up. That is a poignant scene.

Kate comes around and agrees to the marriage, on paper, to help Pyotr stay.

She goes back to work and the people start treating her with more respect as she is going to be married, like she is suddenly a real legitimate person.

She has a crush of some sort on co-worker, Adam, but she just throws that over to marry Pyotr. Why? That relationship seems to be sprung on us then tossed aside just as quickly. It didn’t work for me.

Kate seems to become interested in marrying Pyotr as a way to build up some momentum in her life, to change the trajectory, though she still doesn’t know what she wants to do. She doesn’t have any goals. Now, there are a lot of people out there like that but I’ve never been one of them so I find it a little hard to relate.

Then Pyotr and Kate get to know each other and he grows on her and it begins to turn into a real marriage. She looks for the good in Pyotr and finds things to like about him. She comes to understand him, the way a woman might in an arranged marriage.

In fact, it reminded me of the story about one of my sets of great grandparents. Theirs was a marriage of convenience. She had been married previously and had two children. Her husband passed away and she became housekeeper for my great great grandparents. Then my great great grandmother passed away. The story goes that my great great grandfather, William Henry, looked at my great grandfather, Fred, and said, “Well, are you going to marry her or do I have to?” It wouldn’t have been proper to stay in the house with two men and no other adult female. So, Fred married Lizzie. They had my grandmother in 1921. A neighbor lady used to tell me that they were two of the kindest people she’d ever known. Perhaps that was why their marriage worked. Romance doesn’t necessarily last in a marriage, it has to be based on something more, and some people just skip that romance stage altogether.

So, Vinegar Girl comes to a strangely logical conclusion, with some more farce about Edward stealing the lab mice.

I would say Vinegar Girl is a book inspired by Taming of the Shrew, more than a re-telling of the play. It doesn’t have the weight of male/female politics that Shakespeare depicted, where men held the power and women had to fly under the radar, because, unlike Katherine, Kate has the right to refuse. In trying to bring this story forward in time, it might have worked better if the author had chosen a culture where Kate would have been more pressured to marrying, such as a traditional culture in the U.S. or even another country.

Vinegar Girl. It’s a meringue – light, fluffy and pleasant but lacking much substance.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Pretty Paper: A Christmas Story by Willie Nelson with (Guest Post by Tarren Young)

(The following is a guest post by author Tarren Young.)

Pretty Paper: A Christmas Tale
Willie Nelson with David Ritz

I have nothing against Willie Nelson, personally, but to say that I would read a book by him? Who even knew he had written any? But this book found me.
I believe books have an uncanny ability to find us at just the right time in our lives for one reason or another. Even if we have picked up the same book a thousand times before, if it’s not the right time, the story will not want to be read.
I was actually looking to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love for our December theme of inspirational reading. I had several people offer to let me borrow their own copies, but I knew that it would be a book that I’d want to have for my own - to highlight, take notes in, and (gasp!) dog ear my favorite pages.
I was proceeding to the checkout, with yet a different book completely (I had a Frederick Backman book in my hand titled My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry) when this one stopped me with the title alone - Pretty Paper. Immediately the song popped into my head—Willie’s version, not the Roy Orbison version. I couldn’t help but open the front cover.
I read to page five.
I always have to read at least the first paragraph before I buy a book. If it keeps my interest longer than the first paragraph and past page one, two, even page three, the author usually has a chance with me. So I read.
I read about Willie running into a guy down on his luck at Christmas time.
Of course, we’ve all read about that. Who hasn’t? And who hasn’t been there? What was so different about this guy that made Willie want to tell his tale?
I managed to read the book, a three-hundred and four page book that would normally take me close to a month to read (I’m a slow reader and have children) in three days! It was surreal how fast I finished this book. Willie doesn’t write high literature but maybe it was the ease of his writing that actually pulled me into the story.
Or was it something else entirely?
I like a wonderful story with such imaginative description that I feel I am right there in that scene—behind the wheel of a car careening out of control or hearing the lonesome blues of a honky-tonk. Normally, I would never have picked up a book with such simple writing, and again, no offense to Willie.
But something grabbed my soul. It downright gave me the chills, and it all happened on page five.
See, we all see down and out, hard times in our lives. Times when the world doesn’t seem fair, and that’s just the way it is for Vernon Clay, who Willie writes about, and who ultimately becomes the inspiration for the hit song Pretty Paper.
Willie first meets Vernon outside a department store called Leonards in Texas in the 1960’s, hawking simple things like ribbons, wrapping paper and pencils for the holiday season. Vernon is a double amputee, and doesn’t even have a real wheelchair—just a homemade one. Willie is drawn to the man from a distance and doesn’t understand why, it’s certainly not pity (well, maybe it is at first) but when Willie hears the man singing out his song to sell his items, he knows the man is a singer at heart. And, at the bottom of his heart and the tune he sings, is not only a tale of heartbreak, but one of blues. Like one character we meet, Skeeter Jarvis, we learn that the blues are the bottom line of all music. “Scrape off the fancy dressing, cut out the fat and what do you got? You got the crux of true-life music, and that’s the blues.”
In Vernon’s diary, Skeeter Jarvis mentions how Lightnin’ Hopkins once told him ‘”You play the blues to lose the blues.”
Was that it? Was that the reason, right from page five, when Willie writes, “He sang like he meant it. In fact, he sang like a singer. He sang in tune. Sadly, he also seemed to be singing in vain. I didn’t see a single person stop to buy his wares. And yet that didn’t stop his singing. I sensed that he sang to lift his spirits and stay warm.”
And yet that didn’t stop his singing.” That was it! Those words grabbed me and shook me to the core. Those chills, that little glimmer of hope when I was not only feeling sick with a sinus infection, an asthma flare up and depressed over our circumstances in not having a real tree this year, and feeling anger, even bitterness, at how skinny our white fake tree looked. In one short, simple sentence, my whole Christmas outlook changed this year.
I certainly didn’t set out to read a Christmas story. I was just looking for an inspirational story and had my heart set on two other books, but the universe said no. This was the one I was meant to read because the book found me. There were many other life nuggets I took to heart from this book, such as Vernon interpreting Skeeter after having both a heart attack and a stroke as saying, “...that  you can live with anything long as you can write about it.”

To a writer who typically loves Christmas, and was starting to trudge down the curmudgeon path this year, these passages were refreshing water. I was a bruised and thirsty soul coming out of the NaNoWriMo battle a physical winner, but a now seemingly purposeless soul in the writing arena. I can’t thank the universe enough for this book landing in my life.