Saturday, February 23, 2013

Babylon Confidential and SECRET, Plus Scottish Bookstores and Handwriting

I just finished two fascinating books today, one fiction, one non fiction.

The first is SECRET by L Marie Adeline, which is the story of a young woman, Cassie, who was widowed from her alcoholic, abusive husband and after taking a job as a waitress in a New Orleans bistro, finds that her life is becoming dull and colorless, and she is starting to fade away from life.
 Cassie encounters a secret society of women whose mission is to help women regain themselves through a sexual reawakening via having a series of their own fantasies played out to teach them something about themselves.SECRET stands for "Safe, Erotic, Compelling, Romantic,Ecstatic and Transformative" which is the standard criteria for each fantasy encounter. Casie has a mentor in the organization who sets up each fantasy and debriefs Cassie afterwards. Also after each encounter, she gets a charm for her charm bracelet that is stamped with the word for what she is to have learned/earned each time, such as "fearlessness" or "courage" and "confidence." Cassie, who had only ever had sex with her husband, fills out a questionaire detailing the things she'd like to try, and the gender and kind of people she'd like to try them with. 
I found this book riveting reading, and not because I felt it was a well-written version of Fifty Shades of Gray, either. It had some intriguing ideas about what women desire and need sexually to be satisfied and to feel cherished and happy. Cassie works pretty well as an "everywoman" in this novel, though she does feel a bit too niave at times for someone who is 35 years old (I mean she'd never read an erotic story? Seen a pornographic or erotic film that showed various sexual situations?) Yet for all that, she catches on fairly quickly, and becomes a sexual siren in short order, having had steamy encounters with a tasty variety of hot men, every flavor from tattooed hipster to possesive, suave billionaire bachelor. Though I found the ending abrupt and somewhat wanting, I would still recommend this book to young men and women (in their 20s and 30s) who would like a better understanding of women's sexuality and emotional growth.

The other book I dived into was a non fiction tome, Claudia Christian's "Babylon Confidential: A Memoir of Love, Sex and Addiction." I've been a fan of Ms Christian's since watching her masterful portrayal of Susan Ivanova in the wonderful Sci-Fi series Babylon 5. I also saw Ms Christian in the Highlander television series and in an episode of Nip/Tuck that has stayed with me, though I won't watch any other episodes of that series (too terrifying).
Christian comes from an unusual family background that had a profound effect on her psyche as she was growing up. She is a rape survivor (like me) and her older brother died in a car accident at a young age (my older brother died at age 30). Her delineation of all her hard work to make it in Hollywood, and her amusing anecdotes about the slimebags, jerks, sexist creeps, stalkers and freaks in the entertainment industry kept me turning pages and not wanting to put the book down. Her harrowing journey through alcoholism, and her constant struggle to find a good man to love who won't abuse her is also fascinating, but it made me want to hug her and offer her a nice cup of tea and a chat. She seems so lonely and haunted for much of the book, as well as emotionally vulnerable to the critical barbs of her parents and her lovers that you just want to stand in front of the woman with a sword and do battle with the dragons of self doubt and douchebaggery to save her. Unfortunately, like most difficult things in life, Christian has to save herself, which she finally does in the last part of the book via the "Sinclair Method" of alcohol detox and rehabilitation. She not only survives, but thrives, and gives hope to others who have faced debilitating addictions. I would recommend this book to any fans of B5, but also to those who are theater junkies on any level and those who have dealt with an addiction or are still wrestling their own "monsters" of alcohol or drugs. I'd also grade it at a solid A.

Here's a woman who is living one of my dreams--owning a bookshop in beautiful Scotland, in a small bookish town by the sea!

Bookish Life-Altering Move from L.A. to a Scottish Bookshop

"So I sat down and I typed in 'used bookshop Scotland' to Google and Wigtown came up," said Jessica Fox, author of the upcoming book Three Things You Need to Know About
Rockets: A Memoir. She spoke with BBC News about her life-altering
decision to leave her "cushy job" as a NASA employee in Los Angeles and

I have also enjoyed reading other people's notes in old books. When I volunteered at the library with book sales, I would often find little scraps of paper with notes on them, or letters or photos or postcards that were always intriguing. 
Robert Gray: Handwriting Between the Pages

"This is an old book. Grandma has read it. Please return. I can get the
new paperback I saw in Costco. Love, Mom."

One of the little pleasures of my reading life is receiving the B-Mail
newsletter from Brookline Booksmith
there is a Used Book Cellar "Find of the Week
the hastily scribbled notes are funny and sometimes poignant, but always
irresistible. It's as if they weren't lost or abandoned at all, but
finally discovered their true home and value between those pages.

Exegesis is also part of Brookline's Find of the Week ritual. Here's the
commentary on Mom's Costco note above: "This makes my heart hurt. While
you're there, we're almost out of mustard and Alaskan king crab spread.
Get a gallon of each. And eight dozen bottles of sparkling cider. Unless
they don't let you get just half the package, in which case go ahead and
get sixteen-dozen. And twenty tubes of toothpaste. Please."

The casual and yet deeply personal handwriting in these scraps affects
me as a reader because it is so human in a fragile, unintentionally
revealing way that text messages ("pls give gram hr bk getting 14u
@costco") or viral tweets can't possibly emulate.

Handwriting isn't a lost art, or at least not an art lost on me. When I
visit a bookstore, I'm always drawn to shelf talkers that are
handwritten. Even legibility is secondary to the enthusiasm invoked by a
pen's scrawl across the surface of a card. I'm also on the lookout for
those faded, handwritten, often outdated reminders that cling by frayed
yellow tape to cash registers ("Use shift-F4 to...") or over staff break
room sinks ("You're mother doesn't work here. Wash your own dishes!").
For pure entertainment, however, there's nothing quite like children's
handwritten contributions to bookstore suggestion boxes ("Need more
chairs for us kids!").

I'm not a handwriting purist, which is perhaps one reason the scraps
intrigue me. Just in case you missed it, January 23 was National
Handwriting Day
brought to you, not coincidentally, by the Writing Instrument
Manufacturers Association, which represents the $4.5-billion industry of
pen, pencil and marker manufacturers. Its purpose is to "alert the
public to the importance of handwriting," offering "a chance for all of
us to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting." Sorry you didn't
get my handwritten greeting card.

Probably the reason I'm paying more attention lately is because I just
finished reading Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of
Handwriting, in which he observed: "Our attitude to our own handwriting
is a peculiar mixture of shame and defiance: ashamed that it's so bad
and untutored, but defiant in our belief that it's not our fault. What
shame and defiance have in common, of course, is the determination to
leave the cause of the shame and defiance unaltered."

I get that. My own "hand" is deeply influenced by the slight childhood
trauma of switching schools in the middle of first grade and having to
adapt in mid-stream from print to cursive. The end result is a
relatively legible, if visually jumbled collection of print and cursive
letters lining up like mismatched train cars (judge for yourself in this

After I changed schools, my former teacher wrote a consoling note to my
mother regarding little Robert's apparent struggle to adapt. She
conceded that while "many schools do start writing in the first grade,"
most of the districts in the area didn't begin teaching cursive until
third grade. It didn't get better from there. I hesitate to even mention
the nuns. In sixth grade, Sister Philomena checked "N" on my report card
under penmanship: "Needs help; is progressing but below grade level."

Thus, handwriting eventually became more of a spectator sport for me,
and when I need a fix, Brookline Booksmith always delivers with
treasures like this postcard: "Hello--Here in Riverside, Conn., for the
meeting of the Titanic His. Soc. Met a survivor and got his

As I mentioned before, Brookline has a true gift for handwriting
exegesis: "It concerns me that this message is abruptly cut off. Did
anyone out there ever hear any word from attendees of the 1971 Titanic
Historical Society reunion in Riverside, CT? From what I know of the
original tragedy, it took some hours for the ship to go down, but I fear
that whatever befell this postcard's author was rather more sudden.
Perhaps the iceberg simply dropped upon the top of the building this
time. That would explain it." Nicely played, Brookline. Couldn't have
written it better myself.--Robert Gray

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