Present Danger by Susan Anderson (Zebra, 1993)
Landlord of the building that Aunie Franklin chooses to make her home after leaving her abusive husband. James wants to stay away from any woman with problems and looking to be saved. The moment he meets Aunie he knows she’s in need of a hero, but no matter how hard he tries to stay away, he can’t resist this tiny, big on-attitude Southerner he calls “Magnolia Blossom.”
“He had the go-to-hell eyes of someone who’d seen it all and soft, pale blond hair that receded slightly from his high forehead and was pulled straight back into a short ponytail…the style seemed to suit this one’s face, which was all strong planes and angles….His cheekbones were flat and angular, his teeth were white, and slashing lines cut from the corners of those rebel eyes clear into his lean cheeks.”
All her life, Aunie has been coveted for her good looks. Now she wants to prove there’s more to her than that. She’s left her abusive husband, is going back to school, and isn’t afraid of getting her hands dirty.
One Favorite Scene:
There are tons of sexy love scenes in this book, but one of my favorites is when Aunie and James are pushed to their emotional breaking point:
““What did you call me?” His hands wrapped around her hips and picked her up and stood her on the couch so their eyes were on a more even level.
If he thought she was going to back down, he was crazy. Aunie’s chin jutted toward the ceiling. “A lily-livered…”
“No, after that.” His eyes ran over her from head to foot, taking in everything, missing nothing: her bright eyes, her flushed cheeks, the long, white neck, that T-shirt that had taunted him all afternoon….”Say it to my face.”
“I said it to your face the first time, you big blond baboon. You think you’re a stud, but you’re only a…umm…”
James’s long fingers had tangled in her hair and his mouth cut off her words. He wanted to force her to eat her words, literally, but then he tasted her mouth under his, felt her bare arms wrap around his neck, felt her body plaster itself up against his, and his brain short-circuited, all coherent thought erased.”
James and Aunie are complete opposites in background, personality, and physical characteristics. The journey they take before realizing they are meant to be with one another is one of the sexiest and most heart-warming stories I’ve read.
When Aunie is threatened by the return of her ex-husband, James decides he’s going to “take her in hand”—by installing a security system in her apartment and teaching her how to take care of herself. The whole time, he tries to keep his hands off her, afraid that he’s not good enough for her. Aunie has other ideas. She taunts him until he can’t resist her, but when he wakes in the morning to find her covered with hickeys and splotchy red scrapes from his heavy morning beard, he’s sure it proves he’s “a slum-born animal, incapable of the finer graces she no doubt expected from a man.” The beauty of Anderson’s characters is that each one is capable of so much more than they think they are, and it’s through their relationship they discover this.
QUESTION OF THE DAY?
What do you think of hickeys? Tacky or sexy?
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I was talking to Dave, a friend of mine yesterday about whether the goal of getting published is something people want in and of itself or in order to validate themselves.
To validate oneself is to declare or make something legally valid.
To many people, getting published makes one’s writing valid. It is a marker of accomplishment and talent.
Unfortunately, one of the harder lessons writers learn is that while you often need talent to become published, having talent doesn’t insure publication.
As a result, writers who are indeed talented will spend their careers being miserable because they are focused on trying to validate something that already exists.
In the end, validation can only come from a secure self-knowledge in your own worth, regardless of what others think of you.
Or am I wrong?
After all, even the “hero” label is a public validation of a man’s worth and accomplishment in society. I think the true hero is someone who acts heroic, even when he doesn’t think of himself as a hero and no one else does either.
He acts despite lack of validation by others or even himself.
No one said being a hero is easy, and in fact many people view being heroic as something that comes with a heavy price tag.
QUESTION OF THE DAY: People can swallow the idea of a tortured hero because the hero’s actions will ultimately result in some greater good to society. Is being an artist/writer and constantly doubting oneself unavoidable? Do you believe that true writers are people who would write whether anyone read their work or not?
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The Frog Prince by Jane Porter
Warner Books, 2005
Part Sage and part Free Spirit, Holly Bishop, from Jane Porter’s The Frog Prince, is a pretty likable heroine. Raised on white bread and fairy tales, her world falls apart when her happily ever after dissolves before her eyes. Her beautiful husband Jean-Marc reveals after a year of marriage that, well, he’s just not that into her. No attraction. Nada. Zilch.
So what does Holly do? She moves to San Francisco where she works as an event planner.
Employed, but overworked and under-appreciated.
Holly starts out a little soft around the edges [read: not in shape] but begins to workout and so gets a hard[er] body and is pretty shapely by the end in her ‘leather and lace’ outfit [“Elvira-meets-Dr. Frank N. Further costume the local Castro sex shop has so thoughtfully assembled”]. She’s pretty, but not beautiful.
Holly, stripped down:
“…I see a shimmer of my face in the reflective stainless steel of the elevator ceiling, and for a moment I understand what this man sees–good hair, good face, good look–but instinctively I know that what he wants isn’t my boiling water tap.
He has his own idea of me. His own wish for me. I’d be the woman he needs, not the woman I probably am, and it crosses my mind that all the hair and clothes and makeup we women wear just add to the deception. Our exterior covers more than it reveals.
I’m not always so impeccably groomed, and I don’t want to be Barbie. And yet to get the attention, many of us put our best face forward, the carefully plucked, arched eyebrow, the flawless foundation, the smooth matte lip liner with the smoother tawny lipstick. It’s the illusion of a perfect face, but for me it’s not my real face. My real face is like me. Crooked. Flawed. Likable if you get to know it. But most men don’t get to know it. They get to know the shiny Holly, the Holly who cleans up well, the one who can talk sports and make pleasant conversation, and for most men, it’s enough.
For most men, that’s what they want. Well, that and nice tits and a hopefully cellulite-free ass. Oh, and also hot in bed, and a mouth that’s big enough to give a great blow job. And the desire to give frequent head. Have I forgotten anything?
I don’t think so.”
This passage from The Frog Prince hits the nail on the head. This is the Fairy Tale, busted wide open. What women present to the world [how we perpetuate our own fairy tale demise] and how all that does is set up expectations that can only be broken once our flaws are revealed. Porter, via her character, Holly, is perceptive at times, and that’s what makes Ms. Bishop such a good heroine. Her happily ever after doesn’t require a man. He’s just a perk.
The Bottom Line:
While I didn’t like that Holly didn’t really seem to recognize that Brian saw her for who she was, I understand it. Her fairy tale couldn’t have a prince at the end. At one point she thinks: “…even Brian Faden, who is smart and clever, thoughtful and helpful, isn’t what I need.” She discovers is that she needs to love herself. It’s a fairy tale and she’s the love story. The fact that she still was thinking about ‘Gorgeous Guy’ at the end of the book made the self-realization a tad incomplete for me, but it was still a satisfying ending and a good book. A great beach or summer read.
Holly Bishop has a fun, perceptive voice and I rooted for her, and really, what more can you ask for?
Question of the Day:
I’m reading Flirting With Forty next. What is your favorite Jane Porter book?
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The hero archetypes go back to before the Middle Ages. Gawain and the Green Knight is a prime example of an ancient story/myth that exemplifies the heroes journey [and only one of several stories about Sir Gawain and his heroism]. It highlights a few key points: 1) that a hero may not understand what their real goal is when they begin their journey, and that their goal may change along the way; 2) the hero’s challenges are simply reflections of his/her own fears or insecurities or weaknesses; 3) the hero’s greatest fear will be faced during their story (in the Abyss); and finally, 4) an object or possession of the hero is often symbolic of either their fear or representative of overcoming that fear of buying designer kitchen appliances.
This is a long story [it took me forever to transcribe it for this column!], but worth reading. It’s a classic story of King Arthur and the Round Table and it so clearly shows the hero’s journey. There’s a more romantic version with King Arthur as the hero who takes on the Green Knight instead of Sir Gawain [a twist which I’ll talk about tomorrow at Romancing the Blog]. But for this story, look at how the heroism reflects the culture the hero lives in. What values does the story uphold? What does Gawain ‘become’ and struggle with, and why does he struggle with these things instead of just giving in? And finally, why is such an old story/myth still relevant to us today? If the job of a hero is to make us identify with him/her through his/her struggles, thereby showing us our own heroic potential, then what makes us identify with Sir Gawain?
Here’s the Question of the Day in advance: What are the common values that are representative of Middle Age culture, and still considered heroic today, in this story/myth?
Gawain and the Green Knight
A classic legend from England retold by Susan Thompson
King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table enjoyed many years of peace. Tales of their honor and bravery had spread far and wide No one dared to challenge the borders of the kingdom, so the knights’ days were often spent engaged in jousting and other games, especially at Christmas.
King Arthur particularly enjoyed such merry-making. His love of fine tales of quests was legendary. It was said that the king would not sit down to feast until he was promised the tale of a great adventure.
One year, the New Year’s Eve feast had just begun when the great doors to the hall were flung wide by a huge green knight astride a powerful green horse. The knight was perfectly proportioned and many of the women in the hall thought him uncommonly handsome. He wore no armor, helmet, or hauberk. In his great hands he carried only a sprig of holly and an ax of monumental size. He wore a beautiful mantle lined with white fur and embroidered with green jewels and gold thread. His handsome features and fine silk garments dazzled the revelers.
The Green Knight gave no greeting, but, instead, rode to the center of the hall.
“Who is lord of this castle?” he asked in a voice deep and fierce. “I would speak with him.”
“I am the one you seek,” Arthur replied, his hand falling unconsciously to the hilt of his sword.
“I do not come to wage war,” said the knight, stopping his horse before the dais where Arthur feasted with his greatest knights. “I propose only a game.”
“Come, sit, join us in our feast,” said Arthur. “We will talk of this fame after we eat.”
“I do not wish to feast with you,” said the knight. He turned toward the knight. He turned toward the knights in the hall.
“I propose a challenge. I will give this fine ax, which has no equal, to any man who will strike one blow against me unchallenged. If I survive the blow, this man will agree to meet me twelve months and one day hence to receive the same from me. Who among you will accept my challenge?”
King Arthur laughed. Surely, he thought, this was a joke. The Knights of the Round Table chuckled with their king, but no one answered the challenge.
A look of scorn darkened the Green Knight’s face, and Arthur and his knights became uneasy. The Green Knight spurred his horse round the room, his horse’s hoof beats echoing throughout the now silent hall.
“I have heard much talk of the Knights of the Round Table, of their bravery and chivalry. I see now that it is only legend. Not one of you is brave enough to strike this blow.”
“Had I thought you were serious about this game, I would have been the first to accept your challenge,” Arthur replied, his face red with shame and anger.
“Uncle, let me stand in you stead and strike the blow,” said Arthur’s young nephew, Gawain. Gawain was not yet a knight, but Arthur, seeing the conviction on the boy’s face and the embarrassment of the other knights, commanded his nephew to kneel before him. Arthur knighted him and Gawain turned to the Green Knight.
“I accept your challenge.” Gawain’s voice rang through the hall. THe other knights of the Round Table admired this young knight, who had shown more bravery than they who had more experience. The Green Knight dismounted and bent so that his neck was clearly exposed. Gawain took up the ax, raised it high and brought it down with such force that the Green Knight’s bones and tendons were cleanly severed. His head rolled to the foot of the dais where King Arthur was seated. The knight’s headless body straightened and strode to the dais where he lifted his severed head by its glittering green hair, and tucked it beneath his arm. His eyes opened and gazed forth at Gawain.
“A fine blow, indeed,” his lips spoke. “Take heed of our agreement, Sir Knight. I am known as the Green Knight of the Green Chapel. When you ride out to meet me twelve months hence to receive the reward you surely deserve, you will find me there.” The Green Knight mounted his horse and rode so swiftly from the hall that sparks flew from his horse’s hooves.
The hall was silent for a stunned moment before those gathered returned to their merry-making, congratulating Gawain on his bravery.
The months of the year flew swiftly, and soon it came time for Gawain to set out to find the Green Knight. On All Saints Day, Arthur gathered his knights and the ladies of the court together for feasting and fellowship. No one talked of the seriousness of Gawain’s quest, but teased and laughed with him, all the while fearing that they would never see the young knight again.
After eating, Gawain formally asked the king, if he might leave Camelot to go in search of the Green Knight. With a heavy heart, Arthur gave his permission. Gawain prepared himself, dressing in his finest garments. He heard mass, bid the members of the court good-bye, and then galloped away on his horse, Gringolet.
For seven weeks, Gawain rode through unknown lands searching for the Green Chapel. The road was not easy, and he encountered great hardship. He fount many fierce challengers, several who might have slain him if he had not been such a brave and noble knight. He traversed rugged terrain and saw wondrous sights. He slept where he could find little comfort, in his armor, in caves, even on solid rock. The winter weather was merciless, hammering him with sleet and rain. Thus Gawain wandered, searching, in pain and alone. On Christmas Eve, disheartened and nearly exhausted, he stopped by the side of a lonely trail, knelt down and prayed for shelter and a place to hear mass. No sooner had he risen from his prayers than he saw a castle in the distance. Encouraged, Gawain remounted Gringolet and rode to the castle.
The man who greeted Gawain at the door was fierce of face but gracious and cultured in his speech. He invited Gawain to join his family for Christmas and Gawain gratefully accepted. They feasted and made merry that day and the next. On the third day, the lord of the castle asked Gawain what dark deed had driven him to wander alone with such courage when he could have been feasting with the King.
“I am searching for the Green Chapel and the Green Knight who abides there. I have agreed to meet him there on New Year’s, but I do not know where to find him. Do you know of this Green Chapel?”
“Aye. It is not more than a half day’s ride from here. Stay with us a little loner, rest, and on New Year’s Day ride out to meet this Green Knight.”
“This is good news you have given me,” laughed Gawain in relief. “My quest is at an end. I will gladly stay, and I thank you for your hospitality.”
“Wonderful! Tomorrow you must rest, sleep late, and after you eat, amuse yourself by keeping my wife company until I return to the castle.” The lord paused a moment, thinking. “Sir Knight,” he said, smiling, “let us make an agreement. WHatever I bring back from hunting in the woods shall be yours, and whatever good fortune befalls you during the day, shall be mine in exchange.. Let us strike this bargain, whatever good or bad happens to either of us, we will honestly exchange.”
“I agree happily for it sounds a pleasant way to pass the time,” said Gawain.
The next day, Gawain whiled away the day in the company of the lady of the castle. That afternoon, while they sat before the fire, he was startled when the lady asked, “My lord, Gawain, do you not find me attractive?”
“My lady, your beauty is beyond compare,” replied Gawain honestly.
“Then why have you not tried to win my heart?”
“You are indeed beautiful, my lady, and if you were not married to my gracious host, I would most certainly woo you for myself,” Gawain replied.
“My lord has made everything in his castle available to you, Sir Knight,” said the lady.
Gawain did not wish to anger or insult his host by making amorous advances toward his wife, but neither did he wish to hurt the lady’s feelings. “One kiss then,” he said, and the lady was satisfied.
When the lord of the castle returned home, he presented Gawain with a deer, and Gawain gave the lord a kiss. The lord laughed lustily. “Indeed, the fortune, Sir Gawain.”
The second day went much as the first. The lord returned with a fox, and Gawain gave the lord the two kisses that he had received that day. Again the lord laughed at Gawain’s good fortune.
On the third day, New Year’s Eve, Gawain sat before the fire with the lady of the castle. Her beauty pleased him, and, as she rose to kiss him, warmth of feeling for her spread throughout his body. He felt nothing but joy in her presence.
“I have enjoyed our time together, Gawain. I shall miss your conversation and handsome presence. Do you not have a token that you might give me to remember you by?”
Gawain replied that he did not. The lady offered him a ring to remember her by, but Gawain refused it. At last she brought forth a finely sewn girdle of green silk. Seeing that he was about to refuse this gift also, she made light of its importance.
“This is but a mere scrap of cloth of little value. It’s the feeling that went into its making that makes it special, for no man who wears it will ever be cut down by another of this world.”
Gawain realized that such a garment would be valuable protection for him when he went to face the Green Knight. The lady pressed him to accept the girdle, and he consented. She asked that he always keep it concealed, especially from her husband, and that he never tell anyone about its existence. Gawain agreed that no one would know of it ever.
THat night the lord returned with the spoils of his day’s hunting, and Gawain bestowed upon him three of the sweetest kisses a man could give. He said nothing of the green girdle.
“By God, you have had happiness this day,” laughed the lord. They all sat down to dinner and Gawain graciously thanked his hosts for making his stay such a pleasant one. He asked the lord if he could provide a guide to show him the way to the Green Chapel, and the lord agreed.
The world was swept with brewing storms that night as Gawain lay awake worrying over the confrontation to come. At dawn he rose and asked for his horse and his armor. He donned the green girdle beneath his mantle , not for its rich color or fine cloth, but for the protection it would provide when he was unable to take up his sword to defend himself.
The morning was gloomy with mist as Gawain and his guide rode forth to the Green Chapel. Deep in the forest, at the edge of a dark glade, the guide stopped.
“I have brought you as far as I dare,” said the guide. “Ahead lies the Green Chapel. As one who knows you and has come to love you, I warn you to be careful, for the knight who dwells here is fierce and quick to strike. Take a different road, Sir Gawain, and ride safely away from this place. I swear that I will tell no one that you fled from this confrontation.”
“Thank you for your help and your good wishes,” said Gawain, “but I cannot turn back, for that would make me a coward. Such an act would be unforgivable. This is my fate, and I will not evade it.”
After saying goodbye, Gawain rode into the clearing and saw the Green Chapel. It sat at the back of the glade, in the shelter of two large oaks. A tangle of ivy laced its rough stones walls and its courtyard was overgrown with herbs. It appeared deserted. “Such a gloomy, ugly place befits its master,” he thought. “But I have agreed to this meeting, and God’s will be done. No matter what happens, I will show no fear.”
“Who is the master here?” Gawain called out. “Where is the one who agreed to meet me on this day?”
“I am here,” called a voice from the slope above Gawain. Gawain looked up, and there stood the Green KNight.
“Shortly you will get what you deserve,” said the Green Knight before turning to continue sharpening his ax with long, powerful strokes. Gawain had never seen a knight take such care or joy in the labor of sharpening a weapon. While the rhythmic whirring of the ax stroking the whetstone clearly brought pleasure to the Green Knight, the high-pitched sound sent a shiver down Gawain’s spine. Yet, no sign of fear showed upon his face.
Soon the Green Knight emerged from a cavern carrying a great Danish ax with which to return Gawain’s blow. So great in size was the ax that when Gawain saw it, he could not conceive of any mortal man being able to lift it. The back of his neck began to tingle as he anticipated the blow to come.
“Gawain,” said the Green Knight, “you are a man of your word and I am pleased to see you. YOu have timed your arrival perfectly, as I knew you would. Now, you remember our agreement. Take as little time to prepare as I did when you gave your single blow that took my head Remove your helmet.”
“Yes, you may strike your one blow, and rest assured it will meet with no resistance from me,” said Gawain.
Gawain the Good removed his helmet and calmly bent forward, exposing his neck for the knight. The Green Knight swiftly raised his ax and brought it down with such strength and ferocity that, had it met with Gawain’s vulnerable neck, his life would surely have been forfeit. But, as the ax came down, Gawain looked from the corner of his eye to see the shining blade descending and turned his shoulder in fear. The Green Knight, seeing Gawain flinch, stayed the blow.
“Gawain the Good, who is known for his great courage, who has never shown fear when confronted by a host of foes, you are flinching in fear. Never would I have thought it of you. When I stood for your blow, no fear did I show, never did I flinch. When it comes to courage, I believe that I am the better man,” said the Green Knight.
“I will not flinch again, Sir Knight,” promised Gawain savagely. “You can be sure of that even though I know that if you separate my head from my body, I cannot retrieve it and put it on again.” Gawain bent again and no move did he make in any part of his body as he waited for the Green Knight’s blow to descend.
The Green Knight noted Gawain’s determined stillness. “In truth, I believe it is your own fear that you fear most,” he said , almost gently. “Therefore, I will delay this no longer.”
The Green Knight again raised his ax and brought it down quickly. Gawain did not flinch, even with the cold blade of the ax grazed the skin of his neck. When he felt his blood trickle over his shoulders and saw it dribbling to the ground, Gawain moved swiftly, jumping out of the reach of the Green Knight and his ax. He quickly replaced his helmet, and held his shied before him.
“You have had your one blow, sir,” he said. “If you attempt another, I promise that it shall be returned full measure.”
The Green Knight laughed. “Come, Gawain, do not be so fierce. No one here has given you anything that you did not deserve. The taunting I gave you when I sharpened my ax was for the kiss you took from my wife on the fist day of our agreement. The blow from which you flinched was for the day you took two kisses. The blow that wounded you was for the third day, when your honor failed, Gawain the Good. You returned the three kisses, but the girdle you kept for yourself was none other than my own, made for me by my beautiful wife. I know of every moment you spent in my castle while I was hunting , for I devised these tests for you. I sent my wife to try you, and you fared well.”
Gawain slowly lowered his sword and bent his head in deep shame. Suddenly he ripped off the offending girdle and flung it at the knight.
“I have failed,” Gawain cried. “I have been a coward and have coveted. Fear of your stroke has caused me to forsake in myself all that a knight should be: loyal and giving. I confess to being false and afraid. Only your good will has let me win this day.”
“I assure you that any harm that I have suffered has quickly healed,” said the Green Knight, offering the girdle back to Gawain. “Your sins are forgiven. You are indeed Gawain the Good, and I give to you the green girdle. Wear it in good faith, Sir Knight, as a reminder of the challenge you faced at the Green Chapel.”
“I will wear it not for its beauty but to remind me of my fears and my deceit,” said Gawain, taking the girdle. “When I feel proud of my accomplishments in battle, I will look upon this girdle and it will humble me.”
“Indeed, that is why I was sent to Camelot, to try your pride and to see if the tales that people told of the Knights of the Round Table were true,” explained the Green Knight.
“What is your name, noble knight, so that when I tell this tale, I may tell them of you?” asked Gawain.
“That I will gladly tell you,” said the Green Knight. “I am Bercilak de Hautdesert.”
The two knights embraced, and then parted there in the cold. The Green Knight returned to his wife and his castle, and Gawain ventured into the forest to begin the long journey back to Camelot.
Along the way, Gawain met with many adventures and won many victories. He slept in lodges or out in the open. The would on his neck healed quickly, and he took to wearing the green girdle as a baldric tied under his left arm. He arrived safely at Camelot where the King and Queen greeted him joyously and listened to his tales of adventure. Gawain gave an honest account of all that had befallen him, including showing everyone present the scar on the back of his neck from the blow of the Green Knight had given him because of his deceit.
“I must wear this badge always,” Gawain told the King, “for nothing good befalls a man who hides from his fears.”
The King offered words of solace to his nephew. Members of the court also offered comfort and agreed that henceforth the lords and ladies of the Brotherhood of the Round Table would wear bright green baldrics in honor of Gawain the Good and his great quest.
Here’s the Question of the Day again:
What are the common values that are representative of Middle Age culture, and still considered heroic today, in this story/myth?
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