NaNoWriMo: My characters are calling

In an interview, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, said that there are all these stories wandering around up in the Ether that are just waiting to be written, and if you don’t write them, if you don’t act as a conduit to help them enter the world, they’ll find someone who will. Don’t let someone else write your story, she warns.

Last November, I participated in NaNoWriMo. I didn’t “win.”  Well, that’s not exactly right. I didn’t “win” in the sense that I didn’t write 50,000  words. I wrote something like 33,00o, which was 33,000 more than I had ever written before. I considered it a win. My story was bizarre. It evolved rapidly. My main character was modeled loosely after someone who fascinated me. But then something odd happened. Another character emerged. One who hadn’t existed in my imagination before, and well, he demanded to be written. He wanted to exist. And then, he wanted to take over the whole bloody novel.

It was quite unsettling.

Maybe I’ve been rebelling. My novel’s not about you, I think to this character. I don’t even know who you are. Where did you come from? Why are you here? And now you want to take over everything?

Several months have gone by. Almost a full year. Things have happened. But now, scenes from my story are bubbling up in my consciousness. What happens next? What did I leave out? There seems to be new inspiration. A character wants to be written. Or developed. A nagging has begun. I haven’t looked at the story since November of last year, and now out of nowhere, it’s begun to call me back. There’s a depth of feeling that I must still have. Write us, they are clamoring. We want to live.


Fathers and Sons

By Ivan Turgenev, Modern Library New York, @ 1961 for the English translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney; first published in 1862, 281 pages.

I don’t know what it is, but if someone tells me to read a book or an author, I automatically resist. The more they rave, the more I resist. So way back when, I asked someone to make a list of must-read Russian authors, and Turgenev was on this list. So, some 20 years later, I am picking up Fathers and Sons.


Ivan Turgenev

Or Fathers and “Children”—but maybe this is just me overly concerned with the correct translation—and accuracy. The topic is nihilism (am I a nihilist?) and this is what I should be concerned about. As explained in the novel, a nihilist is “a man who does not accede to authority, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how great the aura of respect which surrounds that principle”), but my mind is struck more with the situation the father is in. Nicholai Petrovich Kirsanov (aged 40 ish) has taken up with his servant girl (Theodosia or Feodosya or Phenechka aged 20 ish) and fathered a child. This sends my mind into a tailspin and derails me from any sophisticated discussion of nihilism to come.

The story begins on May 20, 1959 as Nicholai Petrovich awaits his son’s (Arcadii’s) return from Saint Petersburg as a university graduate. Arcadii has brought home a friend, Evgenii Vaselivich Bazarov, a medical student and a nihilist.

Since Bazarov isn’t too taken with Arcadii’s uncle Pavel, Arcadii explains his uncle’s early life and heartache. It’s a sad tale and told well by Turgenev—sad, because love hasn’t changed over time. Pavel is brokenhearted—I won’t rob you of the story, but Bazarov, our nihilist, remains unmoved:

“…I would say that a fellow who has staked his entire life on the card of woman’s love and who, when that card is trumped, goes all to pieces and sinks to such an extent that he’s not fit for anything—a fellow like that is no man, no male.”

I saw this in my mother (for my father), and it makes me sad to read it here. She would say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But is it love to have loved a phantom? One’s own illusion, someone with no more basis in reality than a character in a book?

I found Turgenev’s insight on aging interesting:

“Pavel…was…on the threshold of that troubled, twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes and of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth has gone by while old age has not yet arrived.”

It’s a hot night as I write this. The television has been off. All the windows are open. A light cool breeze blows gently through. It’s summer here, like in the story. The crickets are chirping and once in a while a car goes by. It’s quiet as I read about Bazarov’s family. I feel I have met this family before. I have met his mother before. I wax nostalgic about this for a while. Tonight, after walking around town, appreciating the rolling hills and the setting sun, feeling the cooling of the night, I’m not so very sad. I wish for this lifestyle every night. This routine of coming home, eating dinner, studying Spanish, walking around town, and sitting down to read.

Authors love to torture their characters, so of course, Bazarov has to fall in love. He is quite wretched, probably more so because he thought he was immune to such things. It’s interesting for the reader to watch him squirm. We know that having love in his life would be good for him and we want to see him get it, but he’s in his own way. Oddly, he declares his love to the woman he cares for because he gets so worked up about it. She doesn’t respond, yeah or neah. And this given all of his pride and self conceit is difficult for him to take.

Turgenev captures youthful restlessness well. When Bazarov cuts his visit to his parents short, his father and mother are very sad. Children can’t help but mistreat their parents, without meaning to. And a long married couple who weathers the various storms of life ends up rather like this:

“It was then that Arina Vlassievna drew near to him [her husband] and, placing her gray head against his gray head, told him: ‘What can a body do, Vassya! A son is a slice cut off the loaf. He’s the same as a falcon: he felt like it, and he winged back to the nest; he felt like it, and he winged away. But you and I are like brown autumn mushrooms that grow on a hollow tree: stuck there side by side and never budging from our places. I alone will remain unchanged for you through all time, just as you will for me.”

This is a beautiful and apt way of putting marriage, I think.


But who is this guy Bazarov? Is Turgenev trying to tell us that he’s bizarre? And his first name, Evgenii (Eugene), a reference to Eugene Onegin, the bad boy of Russian literature? (Although for bad boys, I like Pucharin.)

But that’s just it. Bazarov isn’t bad. He’s just lost. And when he finally is lost, we feel sad. It was a waste, ridiculous, preventable, but a good thing for frogs, no doubt.





Forget New York This Fall, Visit Siberia

In my last blog post, I glibly suggested that we all visit New York City this fall to attend the ceremony celebrating a street named in the honor of Sergei Dovlatov.

That being suggested, I would now like to glibly suggest that we abandon that idea and instead visit Siberia to listen to the very much alive and kicking rock group DDT in Siberia. I mean, given the choice, what would Dovlatov do?

This comes to mind after reading the following post on Facebook from Yuri Shevchuk of DDT:

Пресс-служба группы ДДТ сообщает о том, что информация о концерте в Киеве, появившаяся в украинских СМИ, не соответствует действительности. В данный момент музыканты группы находятся в творческом отпуске. Единственные запланированные концерты этим летом: выступление Юрия Шевчука и Антона Вишнякова 27 июля на фестивале в Царском селе и 2 августа на байк-шоу в Ольгино (Санкт-Петербург), где ДДТ отыграет полноценный сет. Гастрольный тур по городам Сибири начнется с октября этого года.

Not only does this Yuri spell his name in a reasonable way, he heads up an awesome band.

But sadly, it seems unlikely that I’ll be chasing DDT across Russia. I give it a 1% chance at best. However, this raises so many questions. I didn’t think they were allowed to perform in Russia??? How is this?

Sergei Dovlatov Way—A Reason to Visit New York This Fall

Somehow I got in on signing a petition to name an American street after the Soviet emigre writer Sergei Dovlatov. I am very pleased to say that a street in New York City has been approved to be named in his honor. This is pretty cool. I only became aware of this author’s existence a couple of years ago, but since then I have found his voice so strong and clear, so inspiring, so down to earth, so transformative that I have become a fan. The essence of his personality is so endearing to me that I am encouraged to study Russian if just to read what hasn’t been translated into English.

But fawning aside, here is an article about the recent victory to name a street in his honor. And a thought…wouldn’t it be fun to visit New York City for the ceremony? It would be my first time to see the city ever. And high time, I suppose.

Re-Awaken the Giant Within

By Anthony Robbins, e-book

I came across this book Friday when I was surfing for a book that I hoped could help me change my thinking, my thought patterns—because clearly what I’ve been doing isn’t working.

This is where Anthony Robbins (Tony Robbins) comes in. I was listening to a TED Talk about success, and Tony had a segment. I remember Tony from 20 years ago. He would be on late-night television. I remember that he was a big, energetic, handsome guy, but I wasn’t drawn to him. He seemed plastic and fake to me. I judged him harshly without listening at all to his message. In fact, when the TED Radio Hour featured him, I started to question the TED people. Tony Robbins? Really?

But, I listened, and as I did, I realized that I had been wrong about Tony. What he said made a lot of sense. He talked about limiting factors and about the difference between not having the resources versus not having the resourcefulness. Not having passion. He wasn’t selling me anything, but he did get through to me. And I sat there contemplating: what is my passion?

And I realized that I am not anywhere close to living my passion. So words, yes. Words are my passion. Grammar and thinking about science and breaking down difficult concepts into easily digestible writing greatly appeals to me. It gets me through the day. I like my work. I like the doing of it.

But that’s not what I do very often. What I do more often than not is not write or exercise this skill. Now that I’m a supervisor, these things go to my reports. I still participate, but I need to take what’s left over. I need to lead and coach on topics—ironically enough—related to dealing with people. That’s what everyone wants from me. They want me to help them do their jobs better, give guidance and constructive criticism and help them be successful, and they want advice for when people issues come up. What they don’t want—is for me to actually do the work. In fact, nothing seems to offend people more than when I do work. This has been a bafflement for me.

So back to Tony. Inspired by his TED Talk, I searched for him online, and low and behold, he is giving away his book “Re-Awaken the Giant Within,” a book he wrote 20 years ago, for free online.

We all have dreams…We all want to believe that deep down in our souls that we have a special gift, that we can make a difference, that we can touch others in a special way, and that we can make the world a better place. At one time in our lives, we all had a vision for the quality of life that we desire and deserve. Yet, for many of us, those dreams have become so shrouded in the frustrations and routines of daily life that we no longer even make an effort to accomplish them.

Bingo. That’s exactly where I am.

Many have lost that sense of certainty that creates the winner’s edge.

The next few lines almost lost me. Tony—let me get to know you before you tell me about your helicopter. It’s not relatable.

That’s my problem with Tony. He’s too much in some areas. BUT, getting beyond that, he’s truly amazing.

One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; concentrate our power.

So Tony says, the first thing I’ve got to do is raise my standards. I’ve got to change what I demand of myself.

Next, change my limiting beliefs.

Our beliefs are like unquestioned commands, telling us how things are, what’s possible and what’s impossible, what we can and cannot do. They shape every action, every thought, and every feeling that we experience. As a result, changing our belief systems is central to making any real change in our lives. We must develop a sense of certainty that we can and will meet the new standards before we actually do.

I have to know that I can control my emotional responses. Keeping them quiet and to myself isn’t enough. I want to actually control them—so that I’m not bothered by them.

…if you set a higher standard, and you can get yourself to believe, then you can certainly figure out the strategies. You simply will find a way. Ultimately, that’s what this whole book is about. It shows you strategies for getting the job done…

Tony’s book gives strategies for the following:

Emotional mastery—virtually everything we do is to change the way we feel (we can control our emotions); Tony shows us empowering and disempowering emotions and helps us figure out what our triggers are

Physical mastery—Advice to get control over health

Relationship mastery—secrets for developing quality relationships with yourself and others (what do we value the most; what are our expectations; what are our rules? [rules are the triggers of human emotion—do our rules allow us to live our values?—do they empower us?], and how all that relates to others.)

Financial mastery—Change what causes scarcity in our lives

Time mastery—How to use our time, taking time and distorting it, manipulating it so it becomes our ally and not our enemy—tricks for how to think about time

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, trying to get some help, so that I can just cope. This one has been the most helpful by far. I especially appreciated Tony’s point that everyone is affected by two basic things: the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain—and that between the two, the avoidance of pain has the stronger influence. I figured out my own hierarchy of values and sources of pain.

“…as long as we structure our lives in a way where our happiness is dependent upon something we cannot control, then we will experience pain.”

“self-esteem is tied to our ability to feel like we’re in control of the events in our environment.”

“At the base of every emotional upset you’ve ever had with another human being is a rules upset….So if you ever feel angry or upset with someone, remember it’s your rules that are upsetting you, not their behavior.”

“…we define ourselves not only by who we are, but also by who we are not.”

“The kind of person other people perceive you to be controls their response to you.”

“As we develop new beliefs about who we are, our behavior will change to support the new identity….Your identity is nothing but the decisions you’ve made about who are, what you’ve decided to fuse yourself with.”

And finally some tools:

  • Physiology
  • Focus
  • Questions
  • Submodalities
  • Transformational vocabulary
  • Metaphors
  • Neuro-Associative Conditioning
  • Beliefs
  • Compelling Future
  • Values
  • Rules
  • References
  • Identity

There is a lot here. Thank you Tony!





Vacant meditation
an easy ritual from youth
lost now to adulthood
vaguely remembered
as dogs are barking
and a truck rattles down the street
joining the murmur on Speedway
like ocean waves breaking
silence interrupts
the barking dogs
and thoughts of you.











Penguin Lost

062By Andrey Kurkov, Translated by George Bird, Melville International Crime, Melville House, Brooklyn, New York, @2002, 255 pages.

Penguin Lost is the sequel to Death and the Penguin. The story begins with a betrayal and ends with redemption. Along the way, we journey from Kiev to Moscow and into Chechnya. I thought the last line was the best.

What I like so much about these penguin books, besides their bizarre nature, is that Kurkov has set up the scenario where there is interspecies friendship. I haven’t seen that done before, and I appreciate it. Misha, the penguin, is our protagonist’s (Victor’s) friend. But, Kurkov doesn’t make Misha cutsy or try to make him human. Misha remains a true penguin, with the heart of child, which still seems odd, but so be it.

It’s an interesting take on friendship, betrayal, and redemption, not exceptionally deep, but it does provide an interesting excursion elsewhere.

I would love to see these penguin books on the big screen. This morning I was thinking that I’d sure like to write that screenplay. I could see Victor as a Slavic James Bond with everything that might mean.


The He-Said-She-Said Of Dialogue Tags


“Yes! Yes! Yes!” she exclaimed extatically, wondering if she had spelled “ecstatically” correctly but then deciding not to worry about that. and to just reblog this relevant blog posting. Yes!

Originally posted on Lynette Noni:


A few months ago I stumbled across a funny Tumblr post labelled ‘Dialog Tags of Doom’. I found it both entertaining and disheartening because it gives the opinion of a NYC book editor towards specific dialogue tags. I’ve copied the examples here and edited out the swearing, so if you choose to click on the link, just be aware that there is some offensive language in the original. Otherwise, here’s my PG-rated version:


“she whispered almost imperceptibly”: Good thing your protagonist has super-human powers of perception.

“she bubbled enthusiastically”: Redundant descriptors are redundant.

“he murmured”: Speak up!

“she whispered huskily”: What is she, a sled dog? Not sexy.

“he choked”: Ever hear someone choke? They can’t talk at the same time.

“he explicated”: Put down the thesaurus.

“she argued heatedly”: Show, don’t tell.

“she simpered”: Who actually simpers? It’s so 1970’s Idealized Movie Woman.

“he managed at last”: Over-used.

“he exploded”: CALL AN AMBULANCE.

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How to craft characters that resonate with an audience


Great post and lots of important points to remember and consider.

Originally posted on Craig Lumen:


Whether you are writing a film or television script or a novel or even a play for the stage or radio, the need to create dynamic, challenging and complex characters is the same.

Every story is character-driven. Without characters, there are no stories.

We have already covered the basics for creating a compelling protagonist, which we defined by asking the following questions:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What do they want?
  • How badly do they want it?
  • How are they having difficulty achieving this goal?
  • Why do we care?

All your significant characters must change in some way or learn something, even if it is extremely subtle.

Each of them is there in your story to serve a specific purpose – make sure you work out what that purpose is. Once you know this, you can make sure you complete the character in satisfying fashion.

For example…

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NaPoWriMo (Day 20): Two souls

Two souls
lovers in a former life
find themselves
dissatisfied with each other’s clothes,
the skins they have chosen to wear
in this world, in this life…

The moment yet is undecided
once great lovers
now unsure,
it’s difficult to remember
from one life to another
what was it that put them together?

Sitting in a coffee shop,
uncommitted to a future together
uncommitted to a string of Christmas card correspondences,
uncommitted to a phone call next week,
shifting in their seats,
checking their watches,
then the clock on the wall,
picking at their pastries as if at
old and bitter wounds,
considering the questions.

Why hadn’t he waited for her?
Why had she wasted time on her makeup, her hair,
selected one skin, then worn another?
Why did nothing fit anymore?
Each hung up on what the other was
supposed to be.

Somehow they had found each other,
trespassed on the bridge between life and death
space and time
How could the depth of their love be as shallow
as the coffee in his cup?
Why couldn’t she have been slimmer?

Her eyes drift to the ring on his finger
watch as it refracts the light
tossing photons as if they didn’t matter,
his life, already formed, lived.

She searches his bespeckled eyes,
tries to pierce the glass, the tissue,
all the things organic and ephemeral
to see if who he was still is.

In this head-on moment,
the windows of the shop all shatter,
time slows down its rhythm,
every detail
hangs suspended.

Fallen Swan

Like an apple on toothpicks,
The elderly ballerina
Tiptoes across the yard

Finding the pond
She asks
The dark waters
For their old reflections

Like a duck
She submerges her head,
Draining away
The makeup
And the years

Emerging as swan
She swims the shadows
Echappe, pas ballonne, glissade

Across the years
Across the algean floor,
Freeing dreams
Of Barishnikov.

My response to Ted Kooser

First, I would have him be old, white-haired, but sharp-eyed
He wouldn’t walk with a cane, but he would walk slowly,
Burdened with the knowledge of his years
He would be tall, straight and powerfully built
And I would wonder what he had looked like when he was young
I would regret that we were born at different times
Would regret that his life was nearly spent
And most important,
I would never suspect that there was any trace of arrogance within him
I would believe forever that his poetry stemmed from his intensity of feeling
And his profound commitment to the truth.

Dreams can seem so real

I dreamed about you last night
Christina was there
But it wasn’t a dream about her
—Although I miss her too—
No, you were the star of this dream
As it should be
Well, I was there with someone else
A dandy in a nice vest
We were in some nightclub in New York City
You were holding a bag (Baggage?)
The dandy wanted to go off and dance
I let him
You approached me
With the bag
It was “designer”
Red, with a tan, square, embroidered patch in the lower corner
I complimented it
You recognized the wool sweater I was wearing
Also red
Decades old by now
—And I was still wearing it?—
Still not hip

(I’m still not hip)

I didn’t want you to leave
So I kept stalling
Saying anything
To keep you talking
You were talking

(I heard your voice)

But finally I had to leave
My back was killing me
I couldn’t stay
You came along with me
And slowly
We walked out together
Like we used to walk
Into the light

(So nice to see you again)

Palm Strong


Love this poem by Zouxzoux.

Originally posted on Zouxzoux:


Held to Earth by fiber and root

Palm leaves contort in the wind

like words flung across a thunder

filled room, end over end, between

our quarreling anger

You have no idea the effect

your words had on me last night

in bare feet, water dripping

from just-shampooed hair

and frustrated eyes, I wrapped

a shield of silence

around my body, a security blanket,

while your voice boomed

its disapproval

Palm leaves wiggle and chatter,

each frond single yet attached

to the petiole,

every petiole dependent on

the rooted stem

In stormy weather it’s tossed but

it’s flexible, not allowing

Nature’s tantrums to break it

Kinda like our love

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NaPoWriMo Day 5 (Villanelle): Paris Witchcraft

Join me in Paris next Monday at nine
After dinner we’ll dance in the fountain
Don’t waste the water—there’s plenty of wine.

I hope you know French—I can’t read a line
Save me from ordering something not done
Join me in Paris next Monday at nine.

No reservations? I have some. Share mine.
Sergei will be with me sipping his rum
Don’t waste the water—there’s plenty of wine.

Your stern demeanor sends chills down my spine
Two ghosts for dinner are better than one
Join me in Paris next Monday at nine.

No matter—I’m thrilled you followed the signs
Let’s save some cake to eat in the fountain
Don’t waste the water—there’s plenty of wine.

Ghosts don’t eat cake, but the fountain is fine?
Avoiding dessert will save us a ton
Join me in Paris next Monday at nine
Let’s go for a swim—in vodka and rum.

NaPoWriMo Day 5 (Villanelle): Running for the Train

(see below for background on this poem)

I think I see you running for the train
The shock of recognition stops me still
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

Your form remains a blur in all this rain
I start to lift my hand and yet I’m still
I think I see you running for the train.

I see your happy eyes and I’m all pain
Sensations long forsaken prompt me still
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

You’re soaring with a girl down this wide lane
You’re thinner and your clothes are different, still
I think I see you running for the train.

I’m wrong, it isn’t you, my eyes complain
The need to know consumes me ’till I’m ill
Our love’s been lost for years, so I refrain.

It’s too late now, I know it’s all in vain,
I shut my eyes but see your image still
I think I see you running for the train
Our love’s been lost for years, so I remain.


I have only attempted a handful of poetry forms, but I really like the Villanelle. This is a poem I wrote many years ago as part of a poetry class. At that time, I was finding ideas everywhere. and I was commuting by train to and from work. One day, I thought I saw someone I hadn’t seen or talked to for years, but who had once been very important to me. The poem above is my reaction to that.

My professor shared with me that he had had a similar experience. He thought he had seen someone who he knew was dead, walking around. He shared with me how troubling and confusing this was. It was an interesting, if not morbid, idea. And I appreciated his interest in my poem. He then told me to make some changes. “The shock of recognition” is a theatrical term and is cliché. He advised me to take it out. But taking this phrase out caused a complete rewrite, caused things to shift around and changed the scene in my mind. I lost the original poem for years. Finally about two years ago, I was able to reconstruct it and I feel satisfied that this is the original version.

The experience with the rewrite taught me several things. It taught me about the delicacy of language and opened my eyes to how words affect and influence each other. It also taught me about artistic ownership. I didn’t want to make the change, but I let my professor convince me against my better judgement. That hurt the integrity of the poem and my integrity as an artist. For better of for worse the poem was mine and a true depiction of my feelings at the time—and a true depiction of that scene had been my goal—not publication. It was a personal release of emotion, which is what I think poetry should be.

Many years later, I came to suspect that I really had seen that fellow running for the train. My eyes had not deceived me, even though it had seemed completely impossible at the time.

It’s odd how a few silly lines can hold so much history. I maintain that language is miraculous and the skillful use of language is enormously powerful. Poetry trains this, even for “so-so” poets.

NaPoWriMo Day 4: Chocolate

String of chocolate candy wrappers
Long walks in the sunset
And at noon
A glass of wine in the evening
Even though I don’t like wine
—I said it—
Giving up on Death Valley
Who will teach the English?
Bucket lists galore
But where’s mine
Sad sacks
questioning me
telling me they’ve got my back
full of suspicions
And the Dovlatov fans
Who are they?
Is it you?
I can’t help it
I want to see where this goes
Even though
I’m sure it goes nowhere
Step One: Pay off only credit card
Then there’s the house
And the car
There’s the film
If we can ever find the witch
Strange poems
for strange days
And if I could have tea with Dovlatov?
Games I play with myself.
Impossible dreams and then
—Of course—
There’s no question
But if there really was a choice
Dovlatov or Darcy?
A real case of Prejudice
And Pride
A real man, but dead
An ideal man, but fiction
For the first time
no lo sé
Against all logic
I decided to trust
Stuck my chin out
So now
I walk

NaPoWriMo Day 3 (Palindrome): It stopped with you

It stopped
one day
when there was biology everywhere
Air became love
Alive again
Bees buzzing
Birds singing
Clouds flowing
Rain falling
finally there was
electricity with


With electricity finally
was there
Falling rain
Flowing clouds
Singing birds
Buzzing bees
Again alive
Beating hearts
Love became air
Everywhere biology was there when
Day One

Found a New Cool Blog: Food Babe

Food Babe

I’m incredibly excited about a new blog that I just found. It’s called Food Babe. Since I started developing problems with food about ten years ago, I’ve become more and more interested in what’s in our food. I have become incredibly sensitive to processed food. I’ve had a doctor tell me that I had cancer and would die in 5 years or less—just to discover that what I really had was a food sensitivity!!

I’ve been reading a bit of Food Babe, and I think she’s got a lot to say. So here’s to your health!

Food Babe.


What does freedom mean to you?

Freedom means a lot of things to a lot of people. For some it’s as simple as being able to decide what to do with your time. For others, it’s more complex such as being able to think and say what you want, to believe what you feel inclined to believe, to go where you want to go. After watching Adam Baker, I started wondering, what would our lives be like in the United States, or even across the world, if none of us had credit card debt? Or, no debt at all. What would we all do differently? What would we do the same?

War and Peace Book Review: Part II

By Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1869, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 1408 pages.

I can’t seem to move on without finishing up my thoughts on War and Peace. There is so much in this book, so many quotes that provoke thought that I wanted to record some of them here. But first, a few general comments.

The members of my book club complained that there were too many character and plot loose ends. I think that is because throughout the work, Tolstoy was trying to imitate life, real life. And in real life people form new relationships and move on. There isn’t always closure and there is often disappointment.

Because of this, War and Peace can be read in several ways. It can be read merely for its story. It can be read for Tolstoy’s philosophy regarding historical science. Or, it can be read for the many details of human nature and interaction that Tolstoy provides. Clearly Tolstoy understood the Russian aristocracy and the politics of the drawing room. I think it’s interesting to ponder how the drawing room of the 1800s and the social norms observed there can still be found to some extent, though somewhat altered, in places of social interaction today—such as the office. If you think about it, for many of the aristocrats of the 1800s who did not have to work and therefore did not have the cubical madness we embrace today, the drawing room very well may have been their equivalent of our office.

Another thing that makes this book so interesting is that it was written approximately 150 years ago about events that happened approximately 200 years ago. The details that we get transport us back in time. I have to say that I am so sorry for the poor horses. Taken into battle, wounded, killed, starved, eaten. War itself is a suffering, blind mess, and Tolstoy provides vivid details:

“Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.”

Do I like Tolstoy? Well, yes and no. I don’t like that Tolstoy is trying to push his agenda on me. Every writer does this, of course, but Tolstoy has a heavier hand than I like. One book club member said that after Tolstoy, she didn’t think she would read any more Russian authors. I was stunned. What a statement and from a world traveler no less. Are all Russians the same? Everyone of them? Now, yesterday, and forever? What?????

Sorry, I’m going to have to digress here. These are the kinds of statements I’m having to make lately: Not all Russians are the same. The USSR is no longer in existence. The USSR consisted of 15 republics that dissolved in 1991, not in 1989 when the Wall fell. The Wall was in Germany. Russia was one of those republics. Russians are not all atheists! There are many deeply religious Russians. Notice the incredible eastern Orthodox churches. Russians do smile, and they do smile in public. Yes, yes, I know. We were all victims of Cold War propaganda, but we don’t have to continue to be victims. We can open our eyes! There are good and bad people everywhere. We are all a mix.

Ok, well that said. I like (love) Tolstoy—in parts. I love the way he captures little bits of human nature that ring so true to us that they remain relevant after more than 100 years and across thousands of miles. The following are some examples of what I’m talking about.

A severe criticism of society:

“Just as a skilful head waiter can pass off as a supreme delicacy a cut of beef that would be inedible if you’d seen it in the filthy kitchen, Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests that evening first the viscount and then the abbé as if they were supreme delicacies.”

On the way some men talk to women:

“His face changed instantly and assumed the sickly sweet, patronizing air which he obviously reserved for conversations with women.”

On women who forget themselves:

“She had obviously forgotten her age, and habit had told her to let go with all her ancient womanly wiles.”

The sometimes painful sincerity of Pierre:

“His smile was not like theirs—theirs were no real smiles.”

First thoughts of Napoleon:

“If I were fighting for freedom I’d understand it. I’d be the first to enlist, but helping England and Austria against the greatest man in the world—that’s not right.”—Pierre

Makes you say, hmmm:

“‘If everybody fought for nothing but his own convictions, there wouldn’t be any wars,’ he said.”

On marriage:

“‘Never, never get married, my dear fellow…But tie yourself to a woman and you’ll lose all your freedom, like convict in fetters. And all the hope and strength there is in you just drags you down and tortures you with regret…If you only knew what these fine women are, or let’s say women in general…Selfish, vain, stupid, totally vacuous—that’s what women are when they show themselves in their true colors.”—Prince Andrey

Social graces:

“Even in the very warmest, friendlist and simplest of relationships you need either flattery or praise in the way that you need grease to keep the wheels turning.”

Before Pierre received his inheritance he was received “like a corpse or a plague victim.”

On Prince Andrey’s father:

“…the prince was brusque and always demanding so that without actually being cruel he inspired the kind of fear and respect that the cruelest of men would have found it difficult to achieve.”

The Way a Man Can Shame a Woman:

“On the way to his sister’s room, in the gallery connecting the two parts of the house, Prince Andrey came across Mademoiselle Bourienne who smiled sweetly at him. It was the third time that day that she had happened on him in out-of-the-way passages, always with a nice beaming smile on her face.

“‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ she said, blushing for some reason and looking down. Prince Andrey glanced at her sharply, and a look of bitter displeasure came over his face. He glared at her in silence, not at her eyes but at her forehead and hair, with such contempt that she turned bright red and walked off without another word.”

On Crossing Lines:

“The enemy held their fire, increasing the sense of that dark menacing, mysterious, and intangible dividing line that exists between two warring armies. One step across that dividing line, so like the one between the living and the dead, and you enter an unknown world of suffering and death.”

Later when Pierre is trying to ask Helene to marry him, he mentions a line that he must cross and his inability to cross it.

On Fear in War:

“He grabbed his pistol, and instead of firing he hurled it at the Frenchman and dashed towards the bushes as fast as his legs would carry him.”

Well anyway, I could go on and on, and maybe I will at some point later. The book is a hefty tome, no doubt about that. I can’t believe it would ever be assigned to a high school student. That seems preposterous and a way to kill a love of literature in anyone. But if read without a deadline and for pure interest in the subject, War and Peace has a lot to offer.

Sharing a Bed with the Dog

Your warm body
rests partially on mine,
pushing me over,
opening a place for yourself on the bed.

I brace my hand
palm flat
against the floor.
Enslaved by your comfort, I
easily surrender
my territory
at three times your body weight.

I never worry about fire,
completely certain that you
will be one of those heroic dogs,
so well-practiced
are we
with wake-up drills
every morning at
4 a.m.

You begin with anxious signs
strategically exhaled
on my exposed ear.
bury my head,
hoping my pillow will protect me.
Growing impatient, you gingerly
astute to the laws of physics,
edge your regal snout
under my throat,
which yields.

Your head,
hard as a brick,
pushes under my neck,
then my sternum,
until suddenly,
I am upright.

and amused by your ingenuity,
I get out of bed,
walk to the kitchen,
and get your breakfast.

Letters from Ukraine

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Here’s hoping that the situation in Ukraine will resolve peacefully.

Originally posted on Poetry International's Weblog:

Letters from Ukraine

This week, Russian troops invaded Crimea. Putin claims this invasion is an effort to protect the Russian-language population of the peninsula from Ukrainian nationalists.

I was born in the former USSR, and my home town, Odessa, is now a part of Ukraine. I came to the USA when I was sixteen, but kept in touch with family and friends in the region. However, rather than using this space for personal reflection, I want to include some communications I have had with Ukrainians, and particularly poets, in the region, to give voice to those whose world is in turmoil, and to give English speakers a better sense of current events.

— Ilya Kaminsky

First, an email from my cousin Piotr in Odessa:

“Our souls are worried, and we are frightened, but the city is safe. Once in a while some idiots rise up and announce that they are…

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War and Peace: Book Review Part I

By Leo Tolstoy; first published in 1869; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; 1408 pages (Notes begin on page 1359).

Around page 1350, I began to wonder, just what is Tolstoy trying to do here? Obviously an intelligent guy, definitely no radical, what is going on with the structure of this book????

[Spoiler Alert]

It seems odd to put a spoiler alert on a book that was published more than 100 years ago, but still, I realize many people haven’t read it and I don’t want to interfere with Tolstoy’s intent by saying: hey watch out for this, especially for those puritans out there who want to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced.

If, however, you are one of those “walk on the wild side” kind of people, here’s what I think is going on.

The whole work is a demonstration of two types of historical thought:

  1. Stories of individuals, descriptions of the lives of people (the drama experienced by specific characters, Pierre, et. al.)
  2. Historical movements of peoples and humanity (the French invading Russia and the Russians chasing them back into Europe)

Tolstoy’s point is that you can look at history in these two ways and these two ways lead to conclusions that are at odds with each other. In the first way, when examining history as though it depends on individual leaders and the multitude of causes performed by individuals, the concept of free will comes under examination. Individuals have free will, they choose their actions, and history results. In the second way, when you look at humanity in more general terms as a unit and think that we are all affected by the natural environment in which we live. We are all affected by space and by time, by our environments, etc. And all of these situational constraints keep us from ever truly being free. For example, we have to eat; therefore, we may be compelled to do things to satisfy this need. The more needs we have to fulfill, the less free we are.

So let’s look at the two points again:

  1. Stories of individuals (the plot) is used to illustrate the concept of free will
  2. Mass migration of armies east and then west (the historical backdrop of Napoleon invading Russia) is used to illustrate the concept of historical laws (in this case the law of necessity)

Tolstoy seems to be saying that historians of his time hesitate to examine this phenomenon of historical laws, in this case the struggle between the law of necessity and that of free will.

“And now…a hard struggle is being conducted between old and new attitudes to history, and in just the same way theology, guardian of the old, calls the new attitude an offense against revelation.”

“…it now seems that once we accept the law of necessity we destroy all concepts of the soul, or good and evil, and all the towering political and ecclesiastical institutions founded on them….the law of necessity in history, far from destroying the foundations on which political and ecclesiastical institutions are constructed, actually strengthens them.”

If you read Part II of the Epilogue, you’ll find this discussion. Reading this before reading the whole book from the beginning is what I suggest to get the most out of Tolstoy’s argument. It won’t ruin the plot for you at all. But it may rob you of that “ah ha” moment—which if you think about it, I am robbing you of right now.

It is very interesting. Perhaps more interesting than any of the preceding pages. I think Tolstoy was trying to prove his point throughout his novel. By the time we get to the Epilogue, we see him pulling these strands together.

In the final analysis, I believe that Tolstoy was saying that we are never completely free. We believe we are free, but by virtue of being alive and all the necessities that state of being brings about, we do not have the free will we think we do.

I got the feeling he was saying freedom and necessity are in constant flux. And some people have their lives set up so that they have fewer needs and greater freedom, whereas others don’t.

Very interesting concepts, indeed.

George Monbiot: My New Hero?

Still a TED Talk addict, my latest discovery is George Monbiot. While my mid-life crisis seems to involve obsessive extended vacation fantasies all very oddly beginning with the letter “B”: Bali, Belize, Barcelona, and Bruges, this guy figures out how wolves and whales are important to our world. Far from depressing us about what we have allowed our world to become, Monbiot offers inspiration for what our world could be. Bravo!

Y: The Last Man: Book One


By Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, and José Marzán, Jr., @ 2008, Vertigo, D.C. Comics, 246 pages.

I’m interested in learning more about the graphic novel scene, so a friend from work recommended (and loaned) Y: The Last Man: Book One to me.

The book opens as some weird virus has wiped out every animal on Earth that has a Y chromosome, except for a young man named Yorick and his pet monkey. My coworker laughs and says: this is every man’s fantasy, right? But it turns out to be nightmare.

I had to laugh. I could totally see that coming.

Stephen King calls Y the best graphic novel he has ever read. I thought it was pretty darn special too. After reading it for a couple of hours, I started to see everything in graphic novel style. I loved the art and the story kept me entertained. Now I want to read more, and try my hand at drawing a few scenes.


The treason of the artist

I was trying to think of something to post today, and I saw that someone had searched and found my blog using this question: What does “the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain” mean?

This quote is from the short story by Ursula Le Guin called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

I thought I’d take a stab at answering this question. Alternatively, whoever asked the question might try contacting Ursula. Who knows, she might answer you. Some authors are quite friendly and happy to expound on the topics that interest them. But, sometimes I find questions in stories to be opportunities to do a little soul searching, a little probing to see what I can make of their significance.  So here is my take.

The quote that I put on my blog was this:

“They [the citizens of Omelas] were no less complex than us. The trouble is that we have a bad habit, encouraged by pendants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

Le Guin is contrasting the citizens of Omelas with us—the world she has created (a utopian world where everyone is happy) and the real world (where there is much hardship and pain).

The quote goes on to say:

“If you can’t lick ‘em join ‘em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy…”

To me, Ursula is saying that the treason of the artist is that artists regard evil as supremely interesting. Artists value pain and despair. These things drive creativity behind art; they are at its core. Artists don’t recognize the commonplace or ordinary nature of evil. Artists see evil as unique, worth writing about, worth centering stories around, worth painting and showing off. Evil fuels the news. We fight evil in our games. In a way, all this attention to evil elevates evil as though it were extraordinary, as though it were unique, as though it could be categorized as new and different.

But, argues Ursula, there is nothing new about evil, or pain. They are quite ordinary to our world and to our condition in the world. The treason of the artist, therefore, is to refuse to see evil this way. Artists idolize our world. Artists see the world as a place that should not have evil and pain, and therefore they continue their treason, that of regarding evil and pain as interesting above happiness, as extraordinary, as something worth examining in every creation. Evil and pain are the points of interest. Our resistance to them, how and why we resist, consumes our imagination as we obsessively and compulsively ruminate over these fundamental elements of our existence.

As for the terrible boredom of pain, I struggle with this idea. When someone is in pain, their pain fascinates them. Nothing else can absorb their interest. If someone, as in Ursula’s story, was condemned to a life of pain, I suppose there could be a terrible boredom in that. Would there come a horrible point when the pain became boring? And would that point result only from a hideous pain and psychological struggle hard for us to even imagine? I don’t know.

In the end, I think Ursula is saying that artists betray our trust. They commit “treason” against us by continuing to demonstrate that evil is unique/extraordinary and that pain is interesting.

But are artists by nature of our world and the very nature of our existence condemned to be treasonous? Writing exists (art) only when there is conflict. Art arises out of resistance to conflict. We regard our world as “creation.” Could “creation” exist without conflict? Is it even possible to have a world, “creation,” without pain?

In “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” Ursula has tried to not commit this treason; she has tried to create art, a utopian world, where pain is unique and not banal, not commonplace. This becomes a horrible world where everyone is in on inflicting the pain so that they don’t have to personally experience it. If there were such a world, asks Ursula, would you want to be part of it? Would you want to live in a world where evil is not unique because wouldn’t that mean that if you yourself did not experience the pain of evil, wouldn’t you then be the one who inflicts the evil? To not rescue someone in pain makes you a party to inflicting the pain.

Ursula also tell us that the victim of this pain and evil can never be truly rescued, can never be healed, can never recover. They are permanently damaged by all this pain and degradation beyond all repair. There is nothing you can do to help them. Even if they were released from their bondage, they are forever imprisoned psychologically. You can’t fix this.

And so, some people, a limited few, upon realizing their powerlessness to affect change in Omelas refuse to be a part of that society and they walk away. They leave a world where their happiness is ensured and enter a dark world where they will know suffering and despair. They chose to take on their part of the burden of the world’s suffering.

So in the end, do artists commit treason? Are artists by the very nature of the creation we all live in compelled to commit treason? Is it possible to create an interesting story without evil or pain?


War and Peace: Tips for Reading

I’m still in the process of reading War and Peace, but since I had such a hard time breaking into this novel and because my friends have had the same experience, I thought I would share some dos and don’ts that I have discovered.


  • Be lazy like me and buy an Audible book version of this masterpiece. I tried that thinking that I could multitask while listening to the book. This was a big mistake. The tone and inflection of the reader put me off to such an extent that I started to hate the book and all of its characters.
  • Give up…until you’ve reached page 250. If you don’t like the book by page 250, you probably won’t, so it’s safe to stop at this point. As for myself, I was very interested in the book by page 100. I enjoy Tolstoy’s observations and interpretations of his character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.


  • Go online and find a summary of the five families of this book, their members, and their relationships to each other. This is not cheating. Figuring out who’s who is the central challenge of this novel. It takes about 100 pages to nail it down.
  • Make notes in the margins of your book. This could be hard with an eReader. Since my debacle with the Audiobook, I went back to the old style paper version. Whenever something interesting happens, I make a mark in the margin or underline the text. When I notice that one part of the book relates to another, I write the associated page numbers in the margins. This has helped immensely.
  • Pay attention to when and what characters are speaking French versus Russian. I found it very interesting that while Russia is under attack by the French, its upper class snobbishly prefers to speak French—at home. Why wasn’t Russian good enough for them? Tolstoy even goes so far as to give one of his main Russian characters a French name: Pierre.
  • Read this in the wintertime when it’s cold outside but there’s no snow and no snow sports.
  • Accept that this is a really long work and pace yourself. I set myself a goal of reading 100 pages per week. Sometimes I read more, but I don’t allow myself to read fewer than 100 pages. That comes to 10 pages a day (on workdays) and 50 pages over the weekend.
  • Read Part II of the Epilogue before reading anything else. This will set you up nicely for what is to come.

Happy Reading!

Help! I need an answer to this question!

Ok, book people. I need your help.

I suspect that I’ve been the butt of a joke—twice!

And, that’s ok, I can laugh at myself, but now I have to know. I MUST know.

Yes, I’m being a bit melodramatic, I suppose. But you know how you feel when you think you know something, but then something happens and you suspect you don’t? And then you feel all unsure and embarrassed? I am right there.

So, here’s the question. One or two Tolstoys?

Was there one famous Tolstoy, Leo or Lev or whatever you want to call him?

Or, was there also a not so famous one, who rode around on the coat tails of the famous War and Peace/Anna Karenina guy?

I think that my love, Dovlatov, has played a mean trick on me—from the grave. Or, has he enlightened me?


The Lizzy Bennet Diaries


OK, so this is some hilarious stuff. Enjoy…

Originally posted on “Wear the old coat and buy the new book.” :

So, if you love Pride and Prejudice, or even if you think it’s silly and like to see people poking fun at the ridiculousness of it all, I think you’ll enjoy this video.

Check it out! And if you fall in love with it, don’t worry. There’s plenty of episodes to keep you busy!

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About History – Georgian Military Road


Two places have been on my mind lately: Bruges and Georgia. Definitely on the bucket list. Here is an interesting blog about Georgia. Happy reading!

Originally posted on Georgia About:

The Georgian Military Road (საქართველოს სამხედრო გზა) is the historic name for a major route through the Caucasus from Georgia to Russia. The 208 kilometer road from Tbilisi (Georgia) to Vladikavkaz (Russia) follows the traditional route used by invaders and traders throughout the ages.

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

Although the route has been used since ancient times, the Georgian Military Road in its present form was refurbished and improved by the Russian military in the first half of the 19th century at a cost £4,000,000 (a huge sum at the time).

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

19th century photograph of the Georgian Military Road

Soviet era tourism poster promoting the Georgian Military Road

Soviet era tourism poster promoting the Georgian Military Road

Visit Georgia and travel this amazing road!

facebook-logo-ga (1)CLICK on the logo to visit 

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Reading List for 2014

Here are my goal books for 2014. My must reads:

First off, I really want to read something in Spanish. This one is pretty short, and the author is well respected:


This one is one of those “guilty books.” This was my mother’s favorite book. I didn’t read it while she was alive. She really wanted me to, but I never got around to it. It is Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by R.D. Blackmore.


Just one I’ve been wanting to read for a long time.


This one sounds interesting and is by an author I’ve never read before:


This is one that I carried back from Russia and have been carrying around with me for many years. Time to read it:


The latest from Andrey Kurkov, an interesting Ukrainian author, and author of Death and the Penguin:


The sequel to Death and the Penguin. Should be interesting to find out what happens to Misha:


A fellow blogger recommended this one to me:


Heard so much about this one:


Striking another one off the classics list. Seems like I should read it before visiting Spain, which I would like to do asap:


And another one by Gary Jennings. Excited and scared to read it:


War and Peace: Reader Preparation

By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Anthony Briggs; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; @ 2005; originally published in 1869; first appeared in 1865–66; 1408 pages.

War and Peace is known for its massiveness. At 1,408 pages, reading War and Peace is like reading five novels. I don’t think Americans are typically required to read it. I wasn’t, not even at The University of Texas where I majored in Russian and East European Studies. So why read War and Peace now—since I’ve already escaped it once?

It’s a common question. The members of my book club are asking themselves this too. What have we gotten ourselves into? Is this book still relevant? Is it worth it? Might this a book be better put off until old age when we have absolutely nothing better to do?

Well, we say, it’s got to be a classic for a reason. It’s got to be good. Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be around. Right?

Were it not for my persistent feelings of inadequacy which spring largely from possessing a Russian Studies degree and never having read this book, I might have been able to worm myself away. But, there it is. My personal and psychological makeup require that I drag my eyes over these 500,000 words.

There is some solace. The introduction promises me that:

“Above all, War and Peace will move readers by virtue of its beauty as a work of art. It is a triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity. That is why one can return to it and always find new meanings and new truths in it.”

In 1865 War and Peace was released serially in the magazine The Russian Messenger and was titled The Year 1805. It wasn’t until 1869 that it was first published as a single unit. So the first readers weren’t handed a tome that resembles an attractive door stop. Instead, they were spoon fed bits of story. War and Peace must have been like a soap opera or a telenovella.

Lots of pressing issues had to be on the Russian mind at this time. Twenty three million serfs had just been liberated (1861). This was a big change for Russian aristocracy. The price for labor had just gone up—way, way up! In effect 23 million people now had the full rights of free citizens, could finally marry without having to gain consent, could own property, and could create and own a business. And, they could buy land. Shocking. Simply shocking!

So perhaps, part of the contemporaneous appeal of War and Peace was a nostalgia for the past. The time when the power and significance of Russian society was unshakable. There were ways one had to act. A foreign language one needed to know (French). People one needed to know. Connections one had to establish or face the consequences of a harsh life, or worse.

And at the time of the book’s publication, we are 52 years from the 1917 revolution, which would change everything. Revolution seems to weak a term for what happened in 1917. But its the word we’ve got.

So picture yourself on a cold night in 1865. Downton Abbey has yet to be written. Television has yet to be invented. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re not living with electricity, and there’s no Facebook. The latest issue of The Russian Messenger has just arrived. Thank goodness for this Leo Tolstoy chap, you think to yourself in French. Wonder what ol’ Pierre has gotten up to now. How is Prince Andrey?

Settle back into your easy chair and prepare to be transported back to an earlier time. You’re in the drawing room of the wealthy 40-year-old Anna Scherer in 1805. She goes by Annette. The year 1812 is still a ways off. There’s a prince who is having trouble with one of his sons, Anatole. The solution is simple. Marry the boy off. Annette will see that it’s done.