The Tattooed Angel – a review

The Tattooed AngelLeaving her boyfriend on his own for a few days while she takes a tour of Cornwall was Angela’s first mistake. The second was driving on the wrong side of the road in foggy England. Angela awakes in 17th century Cornwall, in the home of Nicholas Warren, where her purple-tipped hair and tattooed hip create a stir of controversy among the residents of Haverscroft Manor.

Nicholas had his pewter plate full before finding the unconscious woman on his property: his son Christopher is in Newgate Prison – where he’d like him to stay – and Oliver Cromwell is plotting to get his hands on Nicholas’ shipping empire. Now he has this young woman to contend with. One who is foul-mouthed, hot-headed, and carries on her person documents for which he can find no logical explanation. On top of all this, the woman he has loved for decades is now so aged she won’t live much longer.

For lovers of historical time-travel, and fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, Diana Douglas’ The Tattooed Angel is the first in a series to span several centuries. In smooth, stripped-down prose less wordy than Gabaldon, Douglas creates vivid, believable characters and historical settings, and has written a love story that combines old-school romance elements with modern sensibilities. “History, intrigue, romance, and a little bit of fantasy” – with the promise of more to follow.

The copy I received and reviewed was an uncorrected proof. 338 pages.

DIANA_reasonably_smallDiana Douglas currently lives in sunny Arizona with her husband, Dan, a miniature-Schnauzer named Cookie and two cats, Cocoa and Skittles, who like to tiptoe across her keyboard. Formerly a graphic designer, she now puts all her efforts into writing. Her first two novels, The Bewitching Hour and The Devil’s Own Luck, are Regency Romances, and her current work-in-progress is the yet to be named sequel to The Tattooed Angel. She’s a founding member and assistant organizer for the Arizona Novel Writer’s Workshop, and a member of the Arizona branch of the Historical Novel Society. An avid reader—she rarely goes anywhere without her Kindle or Smartphone—her favorite genres are historical fiction, historical romance, legal dramas, thrillers and mysteries. Diana spends most of her days writing, usually with Cookie curled in her lap and cup of coffee at her side. She’d love to hear from you. You can find her at:

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The Emerging Shaming Culture

On Secrecy, Shaming, and the Bravery It Takes to be Genuine

A few weeks ago I was dithering around on FB, a place I mostly haunt without posting, as I am curious (nosy) about people’s lives, but a somewhat private (secretive) person. One of my friends posted this by a former MFA program instructor. I read it and thought, yeah, that’s probably pretty much what it’s like; I bet one must read a ton of poorly written stuff: how awful must that be?

As the ‘gateway’ person for my writers’ workshop, I am the first person anyone applying for entry must impress. Many apply; few enter. We’re not a group for beginners, or dabblers. Having gotten worn out critiquing poorly written space operas, fan fic zombie blood-fests, vampire sex/horror, and therapy-memoir in the local writers’ groups, as well as having to endure a handful of bullies and boors, two friends and I decided to start a group that vetted for experience and genre (and um…personality: There, I’ve said it). The resultant group of writers has taught me more than I learned in twenty college and university writing classes.

But, that is not what this post is about. I only bring it up to get to this: as the gatekeep, I read a lot of poorly written stuff. Even though our website states we are not a group for beginning writers, many still apply who are ignorant of the basics of writing. (Yes, I said ignorant – it’s not a bad word. Look it up. I am ignorant of many things. I can’t even say what I’m ignorant of, because I’m ignorant of that, too!)

But again, that is not what this post is about.

This post is about something I see in our society that disturbs me. It bothers me enough to write this post about it.

What bothers me is a tendency to shame people for expressing their truth. The truth of their experience as they experienced it.

Now, if you don’t know me very well, if you don’t read my blog, or don’t know me via Twitter, or in person, then you don’t know that, like Kerouac (and a lot of other folks), I happen to believe we live in heaven, right now—and simply don’t know it. This might even surprise some of my closest acquaintances. Like I said, I’m secretive. (I’ll say more about THAT in a bit.)

I believe we are all manifestations of the One. We are the One, in human form, having human lives. (Or cat lives, trees lives, dolphin lives – the One loves wondrous variety, as Morgan Freeman tells that little girl in that old Robin Hood movie, when she asks him why he is ‘painted’.) As human beings, we have human thoughts and emotions. It comes with the territory. One of the things I value most in individuals of my acquaintance, when I find it, is an ability to be honest and genuine. It’s a rare and precious quality: one I equate with bravery, and one I am consciously at work cultivating in myself.

If we are honest with ourselves we must admit we all have a dark side; a side that is not always so nice. We might never go so far as to share our unkind thoughts with the recipient or object. But it’s important to at least acknowledge to ourselves that we have them. Otherwise we are in for a big dollop of neurosis and self hate, which may manifest in some future unpleasantness for ourselves and others.

The unfortunate result of not recognizing and owning our own humanness is—we become tyrants about others’ behavior. We start to police their speech and thoughts. And it leads to shaming.

Shaming is one of the most insidious and toxic forms of bullying. In our current society it often manifests as holding ourselves up as superior in thought and deed. I saw this in action a few weeks back when the above mentioned post about the truth of what an instructor experienced while teaching an MFA program elicited a virtual tsunami of shaming directed at him (even Chuck Wendig jumped in to flog the guy’s back)—because he was honest about his experience. He quipped about how bad reading people’s memoirs of childhood abuse could be. Here is the offending paragraph in its entirety:

No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer.

I worked with a number of students writing memoirs. One of my Real Deal students wrote a memoir that actually made me cry. He was a rare exception. For the most part, MFA students who choose to write memoirs are narcissists using the genre as therapy. They want someone to feel sorry for them, and they believe that the supposed candor of their reflective essay excuses its technical faults. Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.

This is something any comedian could say, and the audience would throw their heads back and chortle with squirmy empathy, recognizing their own inner darkness. Yet because it came from a former instructor, it garnered a lot of negative flack. But, here’s the thing; he was sharing a feeling he had, an exasperated feeling that came from reading so much bad writing along the same lines. I could go into how writing instructors should not have to be therapists, and shouldn’t be expected to enjoy reading the poorly written memoirs of so many abused ex-children, but I’m not going to do that here.

I will simply make note that if I am ever called upon to teach a writing course, stories of personal abuse are off the table. Go get the therapy somewhere else, and come back when you are healed and ready to write fiction.—See, that’s kind of snarky, isn’t it? I would never say such a thing to a classroom full of hopeful writers, and I bet he didn’t either. But, I thought it. And I shared it with you because I am human, and, unless you are some hamster that can read, you are human too. And THAT is what we have in common. That is what connects us: This human experience, where we have human thoughts, not always charitable, sometimes crazy or scary, if we can be honest – at least with ourselves.

We don’t act on them. If we are healthy we recognize them as frustration, or whatever, and let them go. We ALL have these thoughts, and perhaps we should stop shaming those who are brave enough to bare their souls and share them. Virginia Woolf said:

“you must illumine your own soul with its profundities and its shallows, and its vanities and its generosities”.

Words are powerful.

But humor is too. Maintaining a capacity to laugh at ourselves rather than beating ourselves (and others) up for every knee-jerk uncharitable thought is essential to staying mentally healthy, and fit as a nation of forward thinkers.

We need to stop shaming people who show us their humanness. If those who shame them direct their gaze inward what they may recognize is that what they are really feeling when they want to shut someone else up is fear. Fear of their own dark side. Anyone who claims to never have a dark thought is not being honest. The vehemence with which one defends against having a dark side is in direct proportion to our lack of self awareness, and neurosis. Neurosis is the result of a lie existing between who we really are, and who we feel we should be. Shaming leads to a neurotic populace—and guys with high-powered weapons shooting people from clock towers.

So, the next time you have an urge to shut someone up who isn’t directly hurting someone or urging someone to hurt themselves or someone else, ask yourself: what about this scares me?

And then deal with that.

Oh, and about my secretiveness? I was shamed a lot as a child. But I won’t ever make anyone read about it in a memoir.

XO

Reading Deeply

At_A_Reading_Desk_by_Frederic_Leighton

“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”

Mortimer J. Adler

While reading one of the excellent stories in Ursula Hegi’s collection Hotel of the Saints, it occurs to me to slow down; to savor. To read each of these little masterpieces as if every syllable counts—to be present for each word. Her writing begs it of me. These stories are compressed and nuanced, and the writer in me wants to see how she makes them that way, not only to study technique, but to appreciate hers fully. By doing so, I am rewarded; each story is a Monet, small swipes of color, small subtleties, which, if I were reading for plot, or terminus, I would miss.

The style of a person’s reading can say volumes about that person’s mode of being. Are we the type who simply want to get to the destination (sometimes I am!) rushing through the day, to arrive at some culmination we imagine gleaming in the distance? Are we the sort of reader who likes to see the growing pile of finished books, and takes a great deal of satisfaction out of adding another to it? There, that’s done!

Or are we able to enjoy the journey?

Can we be both kinds of readers?

What kind of reader are you?

Lillian on Life – a review

Lillian on Life

LILLIAN ON LIFE: A NOVEL
By Alison Jean Lester
On Sale January 13, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-399-16889
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, Penguin Random House

 

Often, when I read a novel that is constructed as individual, standalone chapters that read as short stories, I end up feeling the writer was afraid of the extended toil of writing a novel, and come away disappointed. So it was deeply gratifying to read Lillian on Life, by Alison Jean Lester, and discover an author who not only knows how to do this kind of novel justice, making it all hang together as a novel, but also knows how to write like a boss.

With pointed observations, and dry, often self-depreciating wit, Lester’s lusty heroine, Missouri-born Lillian, Vassar dropout, who “dated men from Yale” leads us deep into her life in the mid-twentieth century, a time when women were just beginning to rediscover the government of their own sexuality and lives.

Clocking in at a spare 218 pages, Lillian’s journey takes readers from the teen-aged kitchen of her parents, where she enjoyed an after-school coke with the family maid, Mary, to the final premenopausal chapters where she loses Ted, the love of her life. In between we are treated to an abundance of sex and hilarity, as she searches for satisfaction and happiness in Germany, Paris, London and New York.

In Germany she meets her first scoundrel, the Hungarian Laszlo, who haunts her, in a stalkerish way, until she finally rids herself of him in a dramatic scene later in the novel.

“His heavy hair hung in shining waves, and his eyelashes sprang away from his blue eyes as if the color surprised them.”

And:

“Such things were not called rape back then. (Paragraph) I ate the bread and cheese in my room the next day and mended the blue dress.”

Lester’s first-person prose manages the feat of being at once stark and tight, and also rich and vibrant. Reading Lillian on Life gives the feeling of substance being delivered under pressure through a tightly focused aperture.

“They thought of themselves as realists, but they were merely brutal.”

“Alec was very tall, and broad, and had been bred to pass judgment.”

“In the restaurant he ordered for both of us, which was irritating, but if I’ve learned anything with other men, it is to keep my distance from male pride. It’s an electric fence.”

“Going home that evening, I wondered if I would look for a platonic escort of my age if I were in Pyam’s position. I decided not. I’ll always want someone whose fingers are strong enough to pull my hair. Always.”

Lillian on Life is a grownup novel, written by a writer at the peak of her powers. It certainly deserves to garner interest and win awards. I highly recommend it.

About the Author:

ALISON JEAN LESTER is an American writer and corporate communication skills coach who lives in Singapore. Born in California in 1966, she has travelled all her life and has variously studied, worked and raised a family in the UK, Italy, China, Taiwan, Japan, and Singapore. She is a seasoned improvisational comedian, and speaks Mandarin, Japanese, and French.