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Dickens and Dostoevsky

I haven’t blogged in a while, being busy with my students, some of whom are studying Great Expectations and some The Idiot by Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky, respectively. So I’ve been in the throes of reading both books, especially the Dostoevsky. He’s got very intense plotting, so one always feels “in the throes” of it.

I’ve realized a very important thing: that movie I saw recently, Our Idiot Brother must have been inspired by The Idiot, but it was a somewhat dumbed down version, which is kind of ironic if you think about it. In the movie, the main character is literally really stupid, whereas in Dostoyevsky’s novel he’s actually extremely intelligent but a very nice and sincere guy, so everyone thinks he’s an idiot. However, the movie wasn’t bad. I can see now how it hearkens back to the original novel. In the movie, Ned (played by Paul Rudd) is an innocent and impractical guy who loses his farm and his girlfriend, so he is taken care of by his mother and three sisters. Being extremely honest, Ned proceeds to turn his sisters’ lives upside down by inadvertently revealing the web of lies that they had built up. And interestingly enough, another movie version is in production. It seems it will be closer to the original, though I don’t know whether it will be set in 19th century Russia or whether it will be another modernized American version.

Anyways, reading them side by side made me wonder whether Dickens and Dostoevsky ever actually met in real life. I discovered that there is some uncertainty about whether they actually met. Dostoevsky describes it in his journal, but it’s quite possible he made the whole thing up. Such a meeting, however, has definitely taken place on my book shelf, and I think it’s having a very a good effect on me by making me more smarter and what not.

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Romantic Reads: “Sweet 21 Birthday Ball” by J. Adams

The thing I liked about this story was the unusual structure. It’s told mostly within the pages of  the heroine’s diary, skipping back and forth in time. Marcello Giannini, 21-year-old owner of a Venetian pastry shop meets feisty Dominique when she is only eight. Hold on now, this is not as creepy as it sounds. Their families are friends, and Marcello and Dominique form a close friendship during Dominique’s visit. When it is time for her to return to the States, Marcello promises he will visit her, and he does, coming back for every one of her birthdays. Eventually, true to her bossy nature, Dominique forbids him to marry anyone: “If a lady asks you, say no, cause you are mine, okay?” However, when her 21st birthday is just around the corner, she senses that something has changed, and she has not heard from Marcello.  Will he show up, or has he finally decided to marry another?

Such a close friendship between a grown man and a girl might seem suspicious, but J. Adams handles it very expertly, and from the very start the reader is aware of the good nature of her characters. The only criticism I have is that the exposition seems a bit too sudden, and some parts of it just sound like a summary: Eg. “Marcello has heard nothing but good things about this family and he is looking forward to meeting them.” Overall, it is a very enjoyable read. Perhaps it is appropriate that the main characters are both pastry chefs: this is a sweet cupcake of a tale. It provides all the satisfaction of a sentimental feel-good story told in simple and unpretentious style.

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Romantic Reads: “Sweet 21 Birthday Ball” by J. Adams

The thing I liked about this story was the unusual structure. It’s told mostly within the pages of  the heroine’s diary, skipping back and forth in time. Marcello Giannini, 21-year-old owner of a Venetian pastry shop meets feisty Dominique when she is only eight. Hold on now, this is not as creepy as it sounds. Their families are friends, and Marcello and Dominique form a close friendship during Dominique’s visit. When it is time for her to return to the States, Marcello promises he will visit her, and he does, coming back for every one of her birthdays. Eventually, true to her bossy nature, Dominique forbids him to marry anyone: “If a lady asks you, say no, cause you are mine, okay?” However, when her 21st birthday is just around the corner, she senses that something has changed, and she has not heard from Marcello.  Will he show up, or has he finally decided to marry another?

Such a close friendship between a grown man and a girl might seem suspicious, but J. Adams handles it very expertly, and from the very start the reader is aware of the good nature of her characters. The only criticism I have is that the exposition seems a bit too sudden, and some parts of it just sound like a summary: Eg. “Marcello has heard nothing but good things about this family and he is looking forward to meeting them.” Overall, it is a very enjoyable read. Perhaps it is appropriate that the main characters are both pastry chefs: this is a sweet cupcake of a tale. It provides all the satisfaction of a sentimental feel-good story told in simple and unpretentious style.

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“Very Much Alive” is now a-Live!

Yep, my new romance story is officially available on Kindle for just 99 cents. Here is the enticing description: 

Robert Visconti is an antique dealer living in a museum-like house filled with the souvenirs of his many travels. After two divorces, he decides to take the same systematic approach to love as he does to his collection. He publishes a personal ad, hoping to find someone who would love him, care for him – and appreciate his collection of art and artefacts from around the world.

He receives a call from a woman who is not exactly an art expert: Brandi West, an exotic dancer who has recently moved to LA in an attempt to restore her shattered confidence and become a Hollywood actress. Even though Brandi has a somewhat limited vocabulary and no knowledge of the art world, sparks begin to fly in this hilarious older man/younger woman relationship. Can Brandi get her confidence back and learn to use long words? Can Robert change his snobbish approach to dating? Will a Chihuahua-obsessed diva come between them? All of these questions are answered as the couple finds out what it means to be “Very Much Alive.”

And a small excerpt from the story:

 Brandi didn’t trust the internet. Of course, she knew it was okay to use the internet for general purposes like checking the weather forecast, but when it came to looking at personal ads, it seemed as if all the douchebags of the world got together on Craigslist. So she took up the newspaper instead, deciding that if a guy had actually taken the time to contact a newspaper office and pay them five dollars or whatever the ad cost, then he might just be worth dating.

Brandi settled into an armchair and gripped the phone, heaving a deep sigh. How hard is it to call a complete stranger and ask him out on a date?

When she had first picked up the newspaper and looked through the personal ads, it had seemed easy, but now she realized that despite the promise of a caring, committed, professional, funny guy on the other end of the line, there was no guarantee that any of those qualities would be present.

In an attempt to steady her nerves, she looked up at the two movie posters that provided the only decorations to her walls. One was Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a comedy about a breakup. It was a decidedly silly movie, but it had somehow magically made her feel good about leaving her double-crossing boyfriend behind and taking up her own life, something she should have done a long time ago. The other one was Collateral Heat, an action flick in which Brandi herself had played one of several hostages. It was a screaming rather than a speaking part, but she thought she had done an excellent job of demonstrating her acting ability. 

She took a breath and dialed the number in the ad.

“Hello?” a smooth male voice replied. So far, so good.

“Hello there, Independent, Caring Guy. I understand you like a few beers on the weekend, but you’re happy to enjoy sophisticated cultural activities like the roller derby?”

“I’ve never been to the roller derby in my life,” the man declared, “Who is this?”

“My name is Brandi,” she was not taken aback by his denial, “I’m calling about your ad in the L.A. Daily News, the personals.”

“Oh,” the man laughed. She liked his laugh too, deep and resounding. “My dear, you must have the wrong number. I think my ad was right next to that one. My ad was ‘A Merry Old Bachelor, retired but very much alive, seeks woman for serious commitment, sharing stories and adventures.’”

“Well, that sounds great too!” Brandi exclaimed. “I’m glad I called you, then. You have a very nice voice.”

“Thank you,” he said, “There is just one problem: I’ve already been contacted, and I have a date planned for tonight. I want to say that up front. It’s so easy nowadays to date multiple people, but that’s just not my style.”

“Oh, I understand,” Brandi felt deflated, and must have sounded it too.

“But if anything goes horribly wrong tonight, I will be sure to give you a call,” he quickly said.

“Thanks… um, what’s your name?”

“Robert Visconti.”

“Great,” Brandi was encouraged, “My name is Brandi West. Talk to you soon… I hope.”

“Oh, wait! I don’t know your number,” he said. “I have an old-fashioned phone, so it doesn’t pop up automatically like it does on those cell phones.”

“Old fashioned phone?” she was fascinated, “Like the one with the circular dial? Cool.”

“I’m not so old that I don’t know what a cell phone is,” he said promptly, “In fact, I used to have one, but now I’m semi-retired, so I don’t really need it. Now I only use my Stromberg Carlson 1211 for all my calls.”

“What are you semi-retired from?” she asked.

“I used to be an antiques dealer.”

“Oh, I should have guessed,” she chortled, “You have an antique phone. Duh!”

“Are you new to L.A.?” he asked.

“You could say that. I’ve only been here three months.”

“And what prompted the move, if I may ask?”

“I broke up with a—” she was about to automatically say ‘douchebag’ but she didn’t want to sound so bitter, “a guy recently. We lived together in Minnesota.”

“Well, he was obviously a fool,” Robert attested.

“How do you know?” she teased, “Maybe I’m totally annoying and he was right to leave me.”

“I’m sure that’s not the case,” Robert said.

She knew they had to get off that subject or get off the phone soon or her eyes were going to start to glaze over and release a few stagnant tears. Whatever you do, don’t cry, she told herself. It would be stupid, several months after that breakup. Still, it hurt her every time to think about it: how he could have left her for another waitress from the same restaurant, a waitress who had pretended to be her friend every day at work.

“Well, I’ve got to run,” she said quickly. “Remember to call me if your date goes horribly, terribly wrong.”

He laughed. “Will do.”

She hung up, and now the tears began to flow freely.

Ever since Brandi could remember, she wanted to be a movie actress… She recalled with savage bitterness the way Todd kept delaying the move to L.A., promising that once his security business was off the ground, they could move there together and he could open another branch there. Brandi had never suspected he was a blatant liar. In the last two years or so, instead of planning the move, he had been carrying on with Sylvia and waiting for that stupid, sleazy, back-stabbing, fake-smiling bitch to decide whether she wanted to make it a permanent thing.

What bothered her the most was that he had chosen Sylvia, the most shallow, hypocritical waitress ever to pick up a plastic tray. Although Brandi did not think of waitressing as her real career but rather as a means to pay for acting classes, she herself had always taken care to actually help the customers and make sure they were enjoying themselves. Sylvia was the complete opposite. She couldn’t care less about the customers, but she worked hard all right, constantly lying, flattering, and flirting to get her tips.

But that was all behind her now, Brandi affirmed. She figured since she was still in her twenties it was not too late to pursue that Hollywood dream. And it was definitely not too late to find a real man.

                                                                         ***

 For much of his life, Robert always recognized that moment when he was falling in love: recklessly, fervently, and spontaneously. He looked over the paintings that lined his walls, some of them replicas of Van Goghs and Modiglianis, some originals. Beneath the paintings stood a rank of glass cabinets with treasures from his youth such as the Uzbek milk jar he had received from the beautiful hands of a smiling, sleepy local girl as a keepsake. It held the memory of a torrid night. There were other things from his travels: ancient coins, stone age arrowheads, dinosaur vertebrae, autographed photos. After he hung up the phone, the silence of the house grew strident. It had a desperate ringing quality, as if all his memorabilia were crying out for a woman to look at them with curious eyes, to touch them with her fingertips. And then perhaps…

Just then, he heard an alarm bell inside his head: at the ripe old age of fifty, he realized that if he was ever to settle down, he had to change his ways and stop falling in love like a naïve schoolboy. It was just a phone call for Christ’s sakes.

That was the reason he had come up with the personal ad: it was time to take a systematic approach to dating. None of that romantic nonsense about fate bringing the two soul mates together and love at first sight. A series of tempestuous romances and two broken marriages told him that system had never worked.

And yet he could not stop thinking about the woman who had thoroughly confused him by talking on the phone about the roller derby – whatever that was. She had a lovely musical voice, and there was a strong energy in the way she talked. Perhaps he should give her a call regardless.