Friday, April 29, 2011

Sneek a Peek at the Fav Things Prize Packages!

A few weeks back, our local Borders went out of business and I went a little crazy with the book buying... which means I ended up with duplicate copies of some of my favorite books. And what do I do when my bookshelves start groaning? I giveth!

Look for the Favorite Things Giveaway starting TUESDAY TUESDAY TUESDAY here at the blog where you can win one of these fabulous prize packs just by commenting!
  • Contemporary Romance Pack: Lead Me On by Victoria Dahl, Practice Makes Perfect by Julie James, & First Lady by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
  • Paranormal Rom-Com Pack: First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones & A Date with the Other Side by Erin McCarthy
  • Uber-Sexy Paranormal Pack: Demon's Fire by Emma Holly, Deadly Desire by Keri Arthur, & Master of the Night by Angela Knight
  • Future/Space Sexiness Pack: Take Me & Need Me by Shelli Stevens & Beyond the Shadows by Jess Granger
  • Historical Awesomeness Pack: Two Eloisa James Desperate Duchess Books, Sins of a Duke and Before the Scandal by Suzanne Enoch
  • Romantic Suspense Pack: Books by Roxanne St. Claire, Linda Howard, Julie Garwood
  • Not My Cuppa Pack: Red Hat Club Rides Again by Haywood Smith, Coast Road by Barbara Delinsky, and Suddenly One Summer by Barbara Freethy. (Confession: I haven't read these, so I'm not personally vouching for the awesome, though they are all bestsellers. I'm just trying to make space on my overburdened bookshelves and these three seemed to go together nicely.)
  • Karmic Consultants Pack: Signed print copies of The Ghost Exterminator & The Sexorcist and a digital ARC of the not yet released short story A Cop & A Feel
  • Shifter Digi-Pack: Digital copies (in format of winner's choice) of Serengeti Heat, Serengeti Storm, Serengeti Lightning and the SOON-TO-BE-RELEASED Serengeti Sunrise.
There will also be another chance to win Serengeti Sunrise before it releases via Twitter (follow me, dudes! I know the way!) or to-be-revealed guest blogs.

Got it? Psyched? See you Tuesday! (But I'd highly recommend visiting Sunday and Monday as well, since there are OTHER places in the world where you can access the giveaway goodness and I'll have the scoop. Oh, yes, the scoop, I will have.)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Slice of Family History

My grandfather had a pretty interesting life. Born & adopted in Oregon, he grew up in Hawaii and was on Oahu on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. He flew fighter planes in the Pacific during the war, returned home, married a girl he met in class while going to school on the GI Bill, and started building a family with her. Six kids and a medical degree from Berkley later, he was back in Hawaii working as an OB/GYN.

He delivered a lot of babies in the course of his career - to more than a few families who couldn't always afford to pay. Not all of those deliveries were remarkable at the time. He eventually retired, staying in Hawaii, in the same house where he and my grandmother had raised their kids. A little over a decade ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and in 2003 he passed away, at home, surrounded by family. I remember him as a fiercely intelligent man with a wry sense of humor who looked a lot like Santa Claus with his bushy beard and fuzzy eyebrows.

And yesterday, we found out that one of the babies Dr. David A. Sinclair delivered at Kapiolani Hospital eventually became the President of the United States. That's my grandfather's signature on the "attending physician" line of the president's birth certificate.

I feel like I should have known. One of my father's friends called last night and said he'd been expecting it all along. It all fits. But we never would have known for sure if not for the circus surrounding the birth certificate. It never would have been made public. My grandfather passed away before Obama became a national political figure, so even had he remembered that one baby among so many, he couldn't tell us.

It's an interesting piece of family history. It's fun to see my grandmother quoted on the news, hear her voice on TMZ, and see my aunts and uncles interviewed all over the place, but to me this is also a chance to remember my grandpa. I think he would have been proud to have helped that baby into the world. And I think he would have had a good laugh over the fiasco caused by one little piece of paper with his signature on it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

New Levels of Asshattery

Under the heading of Destroying Someone's Career Just to Get Ratings, a local news team in Pennsylvania aired a piece exposing the erotic romance pen name of a local high school teacher with a segment called Parents: English Teacher Writes Racy Novels.


The piece features charming quotes from parents and former students who call her work disgusting and give not-so-veiled accusations that she must be having inappropriate thoughts about her students. Because yes, as a romance writer, I can't interact with another human being without picturing them naked and mid-coitus. It's a curse. In fact, I'm thinking of you reading this right now and OH MY GOD IT'S HAPPENING AGAIN!

Does she write her books during class time? No. Was there any fault with her job performance? Nada. Was she advertising her activities, selling her books to minors or corrupting their morals in class? Nope. Otherwise her former students probably wouldn't have been "shocked" to discover this 25 year veteran of the teaching profession also happened to be an erotic romance author in her spare time. Her private time. Her own freaking life which she went to an effort to keep private and separate and you just stomped all over that by splashing it up on the evening news as a supposed warning to parents. Well done, WNEP. The Pulitzer is right around the corner for this brilliant piece of investigative witch-hunting.

If you'd like to know how to contact the station to let your feelings be known or lend your support to Judy Mays, the details are all up at Smart Bitches.

Did y'all notice the heading "Hot for Teacher" that was splashed across one of her book covers during the lead-in? Stay classy, WNEP.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Apples & Bananas: The Shocking Development that They Are Not the Same Thing

WARNING: What follows is a caps filled rant about semantics and precision of language. Yes, I am a word nerd. And these things make me crazy.

Everyone and their brother seem to be bragging about how awesome self-publishing is lately. And that's fabulous! Go on with your bad selves! Put the book that's been languishing away up for public consumption and enjoy the fruits of your labor! But could you please admit that when you are doing this you have a self-published ebook, rather than an epublished one?

I realize that the terms do not seem so very different, but for those of us who have been in epublishing a few years (and that is OUR FREAKING TERM AND THE ONLY ONE WE HAVE SO YOU STAY AWAY FROM IT YOU GRUBBY SELF-PUBS!) the confusion is a bit vexing.

The definitions according to Vivi:

Epublished: You have a contract with an electronic/digital-first publisher (Samhain, Ellora's Cave, Siren, etc.). The publisher arranged editorial, cover art, and distribution. They released your book and your royalties check comes from the publisher.

Self-published: You formatted your book yourself, providing your own cover art and editorial, and arranged distribution directly with Amazon, B&N and/or Smashwords. You released your book and your income is received directly from the distributor/retailer.

I'm not saying that one is better than the other. I am simply saying THESE TERMS ARE NOT INTERCHANGEABLE. And the more people are talking about self-publishing ("indie") versus traditional ("legacy" - where the hell did THAT term come from?) publishing, the more people seem to feel like they can just say epublishing instead of self-publishing. Which would be totally fine if there weren't ALREADY a publication system set up that is called epublishing and is quite different in pros and cons from self-publishing.

Seriously people, what is with the commandeering of terms when you already have a perfectly good one in "self-pub" <--- because THAT is exactly what it IS, you published it yourSELF. "Self-pub" may not sound glamorous, but it's accurate. Epublishing might also have been a lovely term to use, if not for the fact that it's ALREADY IN USE.

What about "digital", you may ask? Well, digital is also misleading because it can refer to ebooks that are released by traditional pubs alongside print releases, by epublishers, or by self-pubs. For clarity of language, you are just going to have to own the fact that self-publication is what you are doing.

It feels like someone wanting to rename Apples "Bananas" because it sounds yummier. As a banana enthusiast, I'd be vexed. And so here I am, vexed. (And wow, I could really go for a banana right about now. Maybe with some chocolate. Mmmm, chocolate... Have you ever had a frozen banana dipped in chocolate? Soooo gooooood. Chocolately banana crystals... Ahem.)

So as you are touting this new fangled self-publishing awesomesauce, I wish you luck, but can we have a little precision in language? PLEASE. We're writers, for crying out loud. Use the right word.

END RANT. Thank you.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Rita Reads: And One Last Thing...

Lately I've been reading my way through a stack of the Romance Writers of America's RITA Awards nominees. (A pastime I highly recommend.) Many are by authors I already know and love. One, Nothing But Trouble by Rachel Gibson, whom I read a book by a bajillion years ago and had a "meh" reaction to, so knocked my delighted little socks off that I'm now digging heartily into her backlist and kicking myself for not giving her a second read sooner. And then there is the unparalleled joy of finding a New-To-Me Kickass Rockstar Author. Molly Harper.

Ms. Harper's And One Last Thing is nominated in the Contemporary category. It looks distinctly "chick-litty" and from the blurb I don't know that I would have picked it up at a bookstore if not for the RITA recognition. Divorcee, blah blah blah. Personal growth, blah blah blah. Learning to love again, blah-de-freaking-blah. I didn't have any particular desire to read a frothier version of Eat Pray Love. (I know everyone loves that book, but memoire is such a self-indulgent form of writing! It's like the authorial version of performance art. Soooo not my navel-gazing cup o' tea. But that's a rant for another day.) All I can say is: Thank God for RITA nominations. This book is not that book. Not at all! It's utterly fabulous. Bright and so dang funny. Witty and insightful. Grounded in reality but optimistic and empowering. It's a novel about self-discovery that doesn't force-feed you platitudes on every page!

And it got me thinking about the characters I admire in literature and life, versus the ones I feel like I am told I should want to be... if that makes sense. I like strong people - but they aren't always sweetness and light. One theme of the book is the idea of breaking away from being "nice" or always doing the easy thing to avoid causing a fuss. (And then learning how to rein it in so your empowerment doesn't spill out into needlessly hurting others.)

Maybe the reason I loved this is that I don't think of myself as a "nice" person. It's never been high on my list of virtues. And I have a hard time in places/groups/around people who value Nice above Competent or Strong. I would rather been known as sharp than sweet, but I don't feel societal pressure to be clever while I do feel a frequent societal push toward being The Nice Girl. Men compete in their own way, but with women, it's almost like sometimes there is a Niceness Sweepstakes we've all be told it is our feminine duty to win. And lately I've felt like I was losing that Sweepstakes. And for some reason, I cared.

I suppose the crux of it is: I want (pathologically and helplessly) for people to like me, but I don't want to have to compromise my own idea of virtue (i.e. be forced to be nice all the time) in order to do that. So... I'm going to have to accept not everyone is going to like me so that I can continue to like myself. Because I like snarky. I really do. And this whole last week (which sucked) of me feeling guilty for not being the nicest girl on the block and forgetting how it feels to be comfortable in my own skin because it feels like the universe is pushing me toward a kind of virtue that isn't me, let's not have any more of those weeks, okay?

And I'm way off topic. Moral of the story: And One Last Thing rocked. And celebrated finding the best part of yourself, even if it isn't the part that polite society might want to see at their Junior League Luncheons.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book o' the Week!

Ladies and gentlemen, the first buzz is in on Serengeti Sunrise! Whipped Cream Reviews got a sneak peek of the novella and gave it four and a half cherries!

Vivi Andrews has created a world filled with sensuous shifters and hidden dangers with this, the fourth book in her Serengeti Shifters series. There is passion and desire, and well-crafted characters. This is most definitely Zoe and Ty’s story, one that has been eagerly awaited. I can honestly say it was worth the wait.

Woot! Did you hear that? They liked it!

For the full review, you can click here. Or visit the website to check out the other books up for book of the week and cast your vote for the one you think should take home the prize. Happy weekend, everyone!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Expectations of the Funny

My love for Jennifer Crusie is an epic thing. Massive in its scope. When romance-o-philes discover this, I am often asked if I have read Susan Elizabeth Phillips. Shamefully, my response has always been no. Last week, I decided it was about time that changed. I grabbed an SEP tome with the encouraging words "Queen of Romantic Comedy!" quoted on the front and curled myself up for a rollicking good "romantic romp" (as promised by the quote on the back).

The book, First Lady, had a promising comedic premise - mistaken identities! celebrities on the run! non-parental people trying to handle children on a road trip! The blurb, the quotes, the cute little ankle charm on the cover - I was ready for a luscious light read. And then...

The book was good, no denying that. It was NOT however light, funny, comedic, or even remotely rompish. It was serious. Possibly even weighty. It was the West Wing when I'd been led to expect Dave.

Now, perhaps I picked the wrong SEP. If you are a Susan Elizabeth Phillips aficionado and you would like to defend her comedic honor, I am more than willing to take suggestions for books that have more giggles. Guide me, reader-friends!

But, operating on the basis of this book's marketing, I have to ask - what the hell has happened to our definition of Romantic Comedy? Does the second half of that word not apply any more? It seems like romantic comedies don't have to have even a passing flirtation with humor in order to get that title. What is the deal with that?

Funny is subjective, I know, but I don't understand why the ability to make someone laugh isn't considered a criteria for romantic comedy. You guys got any theories? I want this to make sense. I really do.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

We Have Art!

It's always a fun day when I get to share the pretty, pretty cover goodness of an upcoming release, and YES, boys and girls, today is that day! Observe, A Cop & A Feel!

He’s going to be the love of her life…if they survive the night.

A Karmic Consultants Short Story

With a single touch, Ronna Mitchell can catch stolen glimpses of the future and separate truth from lies. But life as a human polygraph machine can be lonely. Craving human contact, she moonlights as a palm reader whenever a carnival comes to town.

Officer Matt Holloway is intent on trailing a hit man when he ducks into a palm reader’s booth to avoid being spotted by his quarry. The beguiling Jamaican fortune teller is definitely intriguing, but she’ll have to wait. He’s close on the assassin’s tail.

When Ronna takes his hand, a startling vision of the future flashes in her mind’s eye. Matt isn’t a typical client, he’s The One. Before she has the chance to introduce herself as the mother of his unborn children, he’s gone, leaving her with a terrifying vision of her soul mate covered in blood. And dead certain she’s the only one who can save her happily ever after.

Warning: This book contains carnies, cops, chases, chance encounters and love at first touch.

AND - by following my editor on Twitter today (@sknighteditor) you have a chance to win an ARC of Serengeti Sunrise!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Coming Attractions!

Good news, shifterlovers! Serengeti Sunrise - yes, boys and girls, Zoe's story! - is now available for pre-order from Samhain. May 10th is right around the corner and your lovely copy can be waiting for you on the day, ready for you to dive right into the shifter lovin'.

In anticipation of the release, make sure you swing by during the first week of May for my Favorite Things Giveaway where I will be giving away gobs (GOBS, I tell you!) of books to a new lucky winner each day. You even get to pick your poison from the list of prizes still available. I love choices. (Especially when I'm forcing other people to make them.) I will also have the infamous (at least among people who heard me bitch about not being able to find a way to shoe-horn it into the story) Deleted Scene! Get a peek at all the dirty things I wanted Zoe and Tyler to do, but just couldn't squeeze into the plot. ;)

Aaaaand, for fans of the Karmic Consultants, the next KC story, A Cop & A Feel is coming soon. July 12th! Right around the corner! This tasty little bite of a story has, wait for it, CARNIES! (I'm way too excited about the carnies.)

Other things I'm way too excited about: Nalini Singh's Kiss of Snow. Julia Quinn's Just Like Heaven. And the discovery that Gena Showalter has more Alien Huntress books that I haven't read yet! (Excuse me while I take a moment for a fangirl squee.)

Happy weekend, y'all.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

First Impressions

Today I'm over at the Ruby blog, talking about what I learned about first impressions from my brief sojourn into e-dating:

Monday, April 11, 2011

Romance Crossword

Dude, you guys! Joan Swan is over at the Borders TrueRomance blog combining two of my favorite things: Romance and Crosswords! Check it out just for fun or play to win, baby! Link Me Up, Scottie!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Sexorcist: RT Approved

Four stars! RT liked it! They really liked it!

"In her latest Karmic Consultants adventure, Andrews delights with two hot characters who are so colorful you'll laugh out loud. Bright and bubbly Brittany is the perfect foil for the brooding and cynical Luis. Their love story is wonderful, as is a classic roundup of many of the much-loved Karmic characters."

If you're a subscriber, you can check out the full Reviewy Goodness here:

They also rated it a "scorcher". Which made me blink. Is it the lickable abs? The title? I've had a few people refer to the scalding hotness they find in this book, but I've always thought it was one of my more awww cute books. C'mon y'all, sex standing up against a mirror is sweet. It was Brittany's dream (sorta). Like I said to a friend the other day, it's like Make a Wish Foundation sex. No, really. (Dirtiest wish evah.)

(Dear Make a Wish Foundation, Please do not sue me. I think you're really great. kthxbai.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Love is Super!

Ooooh, y'all, this is some exciting business! (Or at least, I'm excited. It's like Dr. Horrible and Ironman and the Incredibles and Superman and Spiderman and OH MY GOD I CAN'T TAKE IT, IT'S SO AWESOME!!!)

Call for Submissions: Samhain Publishing Superhero Romance Anthology

It’s up, up and away we go, to a world of superheroes and supervillains, where heroes and/or heroines with special abilities and crime-fighting prowess protect the public…and fall in love.

I’m very happy to announce an open call for submissions for a new, yet-to-be-titled spring 2012 superhero romance anthology. For more information on what I’m looking for when I ask for superhero stories, check out these entries on wikipedia.

I’m open to M/F, M/M, F/F, or multiples thereof, any sexual heat level, and the romance must end happily ever after or happy for now.

The novellas must range between 25,000 to 30,000 words in length, no more, no less—please note, only manuscripts that fall in this word count will be considered for this anthology—and will be released individually as ebooks in spring 2012 and in print approximately one year later.

Submissions are open to all authors, published with Samhain or aspiring to be published with Samhain. All submissions must be new material—previously published submissions will not be considered. Additionally, manuscripts previously submitted, whether individually or for past anthologies, will not be considered either. Be aware that manuscripts submitted to this anthology cannot be resubmitted at a later date unless by invitation from an editor.

Please note: fanfiction of popular, trademarked and copyrighted superheroes will not be considered. Only original works please.

To submit a manuscript for consideration, please include:

The full manuscript (of 25,000 to 30,000 words) with a comprehensive 2-5 page synopsis. Also include a letter of introduction/query letter. Full manuscripts are required for this as it is a special project.

As well, when you send your manuscript, be sure to use the naming convention Superhero_Title_MS and Superhero_Title_Synopsis. This will ensure that your submission doesn’t get missed in the many submissions we receive, and makes it easy for me to find in my e-reader.

Submissions are open until September 1, 2011. No submissions will be accepted after this date—no exceptions. A final decision will be made by October 1, 2011. Send your submission to and include Superhero Anthology in the subject line. Questions and queries can be addressed to Sasha Knight ( though do your due diligence and read this anthology call completely and check the Samhain Submission FAQ page before emailing.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Ecstasy and the Agony: Baseball Season Returns

It's Baseball Season again, boys and girls! Spring Fever has hit and I'm ready to cheer our boys on to victory... or, erm, since I'm a Mariners fan, I'm ready to cheer them on to... whatever it is we define as victory this year. Not last! Yeah, I'm totally ready to cheer my boys on to Not Last! Woot!

Seriously, though, there have been enough Cinderella teams over the years that I really think our boys have a shot this year. (I do! Don't laugh! We had a Cy Young winner last year! And Ichiro! Ichiro is awesome!) We can go all the way. It's just a question of all the pieces falling together. Sometimes magic happens. Here's to another 1995, another 2001. Let's hear it for the boys in blue!

And if you come from a baseball town other than NYC or St. Louis, you might appreciate this commercial about the agony of our, erm, waxing success. Or is it waning? I always get those two mixed up.

Happy Baseball Season, everyone!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Traveler's Warning: Delta

Dear Frequent Travelers,
If you book on Delta a word of warning. One week before I was scheduled to depart Beijing, in a country where internet access is dubious, I received an email informing me that my Delta flight from Beijing to Seattle had been rescheduled three hours earlier. From just before noon, to just before nine am. Luckily, I got the email. And though it was an irritation to lose three hours of sleep on a day that was already going to be 40 hours long (due to the joy of time zones), I didn't pitch a fit.

But then, when I got to the airport, I discovered that my layover in Seattle (which had previously been 11 hours, allowing me to grab lunch with a friend in town) was now 14 hours... and because my layover was over 12 hours the airline refused to check my bag all the way through - forcing me to pay a baggage fee in Seattle and a storage fee to store my bag until regulations allowed it to be checked. $27.50 is not a lot of money, but it was money I was charged due to the inconvenience caused by their airline - but they refused to reimburse me that small amount. I flew over 11,000 miles on their airline and they refused to help me with a small baggage issue their rescheduling had caused. (The supervisor I was told to take it up with actually pretended not to hear me and simply walked away.)

This is not the only time in recent months that myself or someone I know has had their Delta flight rescheduled to an earlier time on little or no notice and I have yet to hear of the airline compensating for difficulties caused by their changes. So if you are booking, and you have flight options, that is something to consider as you are making your plans. The flight itself was very comfortable... except for the fact that we weren't immediately let off the plane when we arrived in Seattle because we were told Customs wasn't open yet. This on a flight that had been moved earlier... to a time when Customs wasn't even open. Charming.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

China!!! (Part IV)


What, I ask you, would a trip to China be without the Great Wall? (A travesty!)

In lieu of hiring a driver for the day as we had done in Xi'an, we elected to go Full Tourist and join a guided tour - which meant we were also going to see the Olympic Stadium and a bevy of gallery/museum/factories designed to sucker us into buying overpriced souvenirs. Our tour group ended up being rather small - just us and our new German friend Bjorn.

After the cloisonne factory (which was really cool, did you know those gorgeous vases were made of copper and enamel rather than porcelain? darn things are near indestructible), we headed up to Mutianyu, our access point for the Wall. We trudged up the stairs (though there is a chairlift for the feint of heart) and emerged atop one of the Wonders of the World and it was, in a word, wonderful. A vendor plopped a Mao hat on my head and snapped a pic with me, my faithful cohort, and our new German friend.

We explored a couple of the guard towers and generally cavorted until it was time to make our way back down - which, at Mutianyu, meant tobogganing! It was pretty fabulous. (And would have been even more fabulous if the guy in front of me hadn't had one hand firmly on the brake all. the way. down. Mrg.)

Finishing out the day, we saw how silk was made (poor little dead pupa!), watched pearls harvested (poor big ole dead oyster!), had a tea tasting (learning the proper way to slurp oolong), and snapped our touristy pics of the Birdnest and Water Cube. Then... because our nine hour tour hadn't done us in, we went out to the local pub with some fellow ex-pats (where there may or may not have been a demonstration of how to have, ahem, relations on horseback - that one's for you, Sara Ramsey!). Vacation: An endurance sport.

And speaking of feats of athleticism... We went to see an acrobat show and can I just say DAMN, that was amazing. Beyond amazing. Terrifying at moments. I wanted to beg them to use the safety wires (they only snapped them on twice, but my heart must have stopped in my chest twenty times). Flying through the air, contorting themselves and stacking themselves and wow, just WOW. But what made it even more stunning was the fact that they truly pushed themselves to the limit. Twice they failed perfection and that failure made the otherwise flawless performances that much more real.

But it was also staggeringly hard to watch. The first wobble was in the first sequence of performance. The male acrobats were using a teeter-totter to launch one another through the air. One stood on the lowered end while two other guys climbed to the top of a platform and jumped down onto the raised end, flinging Guy Number One up in a series of spinning backflips thirty feet above the stage where he tried to land seated on a chair perched on top of a pole being held by another guy. On his first attempt, he overshot and landed standing on the chair only to tumble down (thank god this was one time they used a safety wire). The expression on his face was intense. What he'd done was still amazing, but he looked angry. Deeply pissed. And all of that rage was visibly self-directed. I actually said, "Holy crap, his face," to my friend as he set up the trick to do it again - and executed it perfectly the second time.

The second flub was in a performance of the female troupe. They were doing this sort of gymnastic juggling trick and one girl was supposed to walk up the back of the other girl to stand on her shoulders and then they would fling these spinning balls to one another - but when one girl started to walk up to the shoulders of her cohort, she wobbled and stumbled back down. Both of their faces instantly fell with this intense icy self-flagellation. They tried again, again executing perfectly the second time, but those two girls never smiled again the entire performance. And behind me, a Chinese man "tsk tsk tsk"ed in disapproval.

It was his tsking, as much as the crestfallen expressions, that really brought home to me the shame of failure (or even a little wobble followed by success) in Chinese culture. As a child of the "you didn't fail, you tried" culture, this was startling to me. Both extremes bother me. Yes, strive toward perfection, but it is an unattainable ideal, a goal to motivate not to achieve. And for the lack of it to be met with shame... the concept was foreign to me. Disappointment, yes, but shame... hmm. I suppose I'm trying to figure this out because of the constancy of rejection in the writing biz. And the subjectivity of success. Could we really be creative if we knew we would be shamed by the lack of perfection? And how do you define perfection? I can't write a word unless I give myself permission to suck - and fix it later. Could Edison have invented the lightbulb without finding a hundred ways not to... and pushing on? And at what point in Chinese culture did innovation and the permission to fail become subsumed in tradition and perfection - because they created the traditional art at some point, created kung fu and gunpowder. So when did that shift... and does the drive for absolute perfection actually hinder our ability to break through and created something new (and beautifully flawed)?

Aaaanyway, enough pseudo-philosophical ramblings.

Perfect or no, if you do find yourself in Beijing, don't miss out on the evening entertainments. Beyond the belly dancing and acrobats, there are kung fu shows, the Chinese opera, and trivia challenges pretty much ever night at the week at various English-speaking pubs (I'm such a sucker for trivia). Make sure you head up to Hou Hai, take a rickshaw through the hutongs, eat hot pot (soooo goooooood!), drink Hong Kong milk tea (with tapioca balls!), and nibble the sugary-deliciousness of hawthorne berries on a stick. Visit the insanity of the Yashow market (but bring along a friend who likes to negotiate or you'll get ripped off - even if you think you're getting an amazing deal). It stunned me how far my money went in China. The flight and visa may be dear, but once you get there, you feel like a pasha rolling in riches. Go for Peking Duck - or just "duck" as it is called in the City Formerly Known as Peking. Make sure you have Shao Mai at a local dumpling restaurant and if you get the chance, I highly recommend "Strawberry Snow Ice" - even though we never did figure out exactly what we were eating. And if you're feeling overwhelmed by the Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land sensation, go to Sanlitun Village for lunch, grab birthday-cake-on-a-stick and a latte from Starbucks, or swing by the Bookworm and browse their shelves.

Beijing is a phenomenal place. The ex-pat community feels like a small town wrapped in a big city. The Beijing culture is shifting rapidly from a virtue-and-tradition culture to a powerfully status-oriented one, and as one ex-pat told me over drinks, it is one place in the world that is changing before your very eyes. A true emerging nation. It's a powerful place to be. I have a feeling I'll be back.

Monday, April 4, 2011

China!!! (Part III)


On Friday evening, after some rather frenzied last minute planning, we hopped an overnight train to Xi'an for a whirlwind trip to see the Terracotta Warriors. The Beijing West train station itself was beautiful - as large and classic as the Gare du Nord. We bought cookies, guessing on their content based solely on the color of the packages, and crowded aboard to find our sleeper berths - a steal at 420 kuai ($65).

As the train pulled out of Beijing, we sat in our cabin and chatted with the cheerful anonymity of those whose language is not shared by anyone in earshot... until I noticed a man sitting on one of the hard seats in the hallway, staring. Now, being stared at itself isn't that unusual in China - especially if you have the oddity of being a Westerner. I pegged him for a standard gawker, until about thirty minutes into our journey when he knocked on the door and asked if he could practice his English with us. We invited him to join us and chatted about anything from herbal medicine to technological innovation. It's intriguing to talk to someone from such a different culture who shares your fascination for the contrasts - even if the language barrier is still providing partial interference.

When we told him we were American, he commented that it was very different from being English - almost requesting confirmation of that fact, as if it didn't quite gel for him. I joked that we'd had a few hundred years to grow apart and he replied that two hundred years was a small amount of time - and in China, it is. He marveled at how quickly things changed in America, how we were a culture that seemed uniquely inclined to innovate, as opposed to the Chinese aversion to change and force of tradition. I found myself thinking of the painted scrolls I saw from street vendors - how identical they all were, even though they were each hand-painted they showed little of the hand that painted them. Art wasn't about creativity, it seemed, so much as skill - the ability to recreate, to live in the tradition. It made me wonder if innovation is possible in a culture that reveres tradition so completely - and one with such a harsh attitude toward failure.

The next morning, we rolled into Xi'an. A much older city than Beijing and current capital of the Shaanxi province, Xi'an (formerly called Chang'an) was the seat of the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang dynasties from the 11th Century BCE all the way up to 904 AD when the capital moved East to Luoyang. As soon as we stepped out of the train station, we saw the beautiful city wall - and inhaled pollutant-free air, fresh from a recent rainfall.

After a quick look at the drum and bell towers, we headed up to the city wall. Between the two guard towers was a sedan chair - which immediately put me in mind of the opening of Jeannie Lin's Butterfly Swords, set during the Tang dynasty and partially in Chang'an. I bounced over to the chair (and might have shouted, "Look at me! I'm Ai Li!" but there were no English speaking witnesses, so you have no proof).

After my moment of delusion, we headed off to see the Terracotta Army, thoroughly entertained by our guide's description of the Army's origins (which, sadly, have little to do with that Mummy movie with Jet Li). The story we were told was that when Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China, came to power one of his advisers told him he would be more beloved by his people if he abandoned the current (and rather Egyptian) practice of being buried with a bunch of people to escort him to the afterlife. Instead, he should employ his people as artisans, creating a Terracotta Army to see him into his next life. High employment AND no being buried alive? Bonus! Qin Shi Huang won the love of his subjects... and a couple thousand years later in 1971, a farmer digging a well accidentally discovered his tomb. Now there are seven dig sites, three of which are open to the public. Apparently, several of the warriors were painted, but the excavation techniques were not "German" (so says our guide) and so the colors faded when exposed to the air. (I had no idea the German were the height of archeological techniques.) And if you're wondering why so many of the warriors have lost their heads, it turns out the heads were crafted separately and affixed to the bodies after the fact. Cool beans, huh?


That's all for China: Part III. Tune in tomorrow for The Great Wall, Acrobats, and culinary adventures...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

China!!! (Part II)


Left to my own devices during the week while my cohorts were gainfully employed, I ventured out into Beijing to see the sites, armed with a stack of guidebooks and a little flipbook with popular destinations written out in Chinese. In spite of my complete inability to say anything other than "Hello" and "Thank you", I muddled through better than I'd expected. (Though I did encounter one deeply entertaining cab driver who was convinced if he spoke Mandarin slowly and loudly enough I would magically begin to understand him. And here I thought that was a singularly American reaction to foreign-language-speakers.)

China is a fascinating place. Every time I visited a new historical site, I found myself tripping over intriguing quirks of the culture. Which, in my opinion, is the best kind of discovery you can make in a new country. I won't go into each and every place I saw, but I'll hit three highlights that were on my not-to-be-missed list of Beijing.

The Temple of Heaven (Tiantan)

The Temple of Heaven is where the Emperor would come to pray for a good year. As the direct descendant of God (and here I thought Divine Right was a Western concept), he was the only one who could petition Him for the health and prosperity of the Empire. And when I say "pray" I mean "kill the fatted calf". Animal sacrifices were performed here as recently as the early 1900s. (Betcha PETA just loves that.)

The Emperor's processional would travel through the streets between the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. Yellow fabric (the Imperial color - which was a crime for anyone but the Imperial family to wear) would be hung at the entrances to the hutongs so none of the commoners laid eyes on him... and vice versa. The Emperor would then hole himself up in the Palace of Abstinence on the Temple's grounds before the sacrifices would take place.

They say the Temple itself was built without using a single nail - a feat of architecture and construction. Numbers are very important in Chinese culture - this is evident everywhere, but especially in the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, which has pillars arranged in rings of four, then twelve, then another twelve - to represent the four seasons, twelve months, and twelve traditional hours in a Chinese day.

Though originally built in the Ming Dynasty in the 1400s, the all-wooden temple was struck by lightning in 1889 and burned. It was rebuilt, but the story goes that 32 court advisers were put to death for "carelessness" in allowing the event to occur. I found myself fascinated by the lines drawn between what is in our power and what is out of it. Assigning blame seemed almost an inevitable component in such cases - but is that apparent irrationality evidence of Imperial excess? Or a cultural attitude that lingers? Many of the ex-pats I spoke to seemed to think the latter, which continues to intrigue me.

The Temple is surrounded by a beautiful park. Many of the locals walk there, including several elderly men who stroll the paths with their hands clasped behind their backs, rolling large walnuts against one another in one hand with constant click-click-clicks. (No one ever walks on the grass.) The park was originally shaped like a large rectangle with the top corners rounded off - the square bottom representing the Earth and the rounded top representing the Heavens - but even though all the park maps indicate it still holds that shape, if you walk the perimeter (which I did) you find that large chunks of the bottom edge have been carved out to make room for Beijing development.

You may be noticing that a lot of my anecdotes include phrases like "they say" and "so the story goes". The history of these places is so intermingled with rumor and tall tales, it's hard to get a grasp on what really happened. English speaking guides are rare... and quite fallible. They say history is written by the victors, but inside the boxed-off controlled-information borders of China, history is rewritten by the Chinese government - and the details start to feel like a giant game of telephone. I suppose all histories are just as flexible and subject to the reigning perception of the time, but I've never been as strongly reminded of that as I was in China - where your guide has been told by the news that the US acted alone to invade Libya and any raise in the price of soap is a conspiracy amongst the US companies.

So you take it all with a grain of salt.

Salt, which incidentally became very dear during a sudden Salt Scare following the Japan Quake/Tsunami/Nuclear Scare. Somehow people became convinced that salt taken from sea water (largely for industrial purposes, but whatever) would be radioactive. They bought up all the salt on the grocery store shelves and sent the entire country into a Salt Scare with prices suddenly spiking and a black market springing up overnight - even though no traces of radioactivity have been found in sea water near China. I tend to find that kind of panic patently ridiculous, so the mention of salt still sets me giggling.

The Summer Palace (Yihe Yuan)

Another day took me up to Kunming Lake and the Imperial Summer Palace. Following a taxi ride in which I sincerely wished I knew how to say "Please slow down. I don't want to die" in Mandarin, I wandered the grounds, climbing to the top of Longevity Hill and drinking in yet another glorious example of Imperial wow.

I wandered over to the Seventeen Arch Bridge and watched several groups of Chinese women choreographing and practicing traditional dances. As I watched them, I noticed a sign in front of the gazebo-style pavilion there. It bragged that this pavilion was the largest of its type in the world. Now, this was not a massively huge pavilion. But the statement may be true - depending on how you draw the lines for pavilions of that type. The placard's bragging got me thinking about the Chinese affection for superlatives. Everything is the best, the biggest, the oldest, the longest, the most. No points for second place. The Long Corridor (also at the Summer Palace) is touted as the longest wood corridor ever. But what struck me about the corridor was not its length, but the intricacy and uniqueness of each and every painting - thousands of them. But they weren't highlighted. Perhaps because no objective superlative could be applied to them.

I continued around the man-made lake, enjoying the park and marveling that the court eunuchs must have been in stunningly good shape to carry the Dowager Empress up those steep hills on her sedan chair. It was still too cold for the boats to be out on the lake, and sadly too early in the season to take the barge rides up the canals from the Exhibition Center to arrive at the Summer Palace as Dowager Empress Cixi would have done, but even through the crowds it was easy to imagine the site as it would have been when it was the Imperial playground.

The Summer Palace was a retreat - closer and more frequently occupied than the one out in Chengde. It was also where the Dowager Empress is said to have imprisoned the Emperor for months for the crime of modernization. (Tradition versus progress... and one is a crime? Wowsa.)

Another popular icon of the Summer Palace is the Marble Boat - which is not actually marble, but wood painted to resemble it. The large, decorative structure was supposedly built with funds the Dowager Empress siphoned off from the Navy - a diversion that became a bit of a sore point when Japan decimated China's rather paltry fleet shortly thereafter.

The Lama Temple (Yongegong)

Beijing is set up as a series of five co-centric rings. At the northern edge of the second ring sits the Lama Temple - once a palace for Prince Yong and later converted to a Tibetan Buddhist Temple when its royal resident rose to power and moved down to the Forbidden City. Since I was staying near Sanlitun, between the northeast 2nd and 3rd rings, I walked the distance to the Temple. (And got yelled at for trying to walk in the wrong entrance, but really the sign did seem to point that way...)

The Lama Temple, unlike the Temple of Heaven, is a functioning religious site. Bundles of incense are sold by vendors lining the streets near the entrance and inside the smell of it fills the air as the parishioners kneel and bow, lighting always three pieces of incense and leaving them in the antique incense burners in front of the numerous Buddhas.

Laid out in a single long line, each building is a bit larger than the last, leading all the way back to the final temple which houses a massive 18 meter Buddha, rumored to have been carved out of a single piece of sandalwood. Flanking the central temples are smaller chapels and halls where religious relics are displayed. One such hall - about midway through the complex on the right hand side, if you're visiting - has ten figures on display... and half of them are partially or fully covered by bright yellow cloth. After digging through all four of my guidebooks, I found an explanation. Those five relics were tantric figures, covered to disguise their carnal nature. Some you could see the torso of a figure, but nothing below the waist, while still others, all you could make out was an arm thrust out from behind the cloth. The dichotomy of being so embarrassed by the content that you must cover it, but simultaneously so proud of the relic that you must display it... I'm gonna be honest, it kinda cracked me up. The mix of prudery and pride was fascinating.

And that wasn't the only dichotomy at the Lama Temple that gave me a grin. This is one of my favorite pictures I took in Beijing:

Can you guess why? Let's take a closer look at that bottom corner, shall we?

Yeah. It's a Monk. Texting. Cellphone in one hand, little prayer tassel thing in the other.

Dude. Even in China, technology is changing the way we interact with the world. Even Tibetan Monks. Love it.


And that's all for installment two. Swing by tomorrow, and I'll tell you about our overnight trip to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors and the seat of the earlier dynasties... and that interesting chap we met on the train...

Saturday, April 2, 2011

China!!! (Part I)

Friends, Romans, Random Interested Parties! I give you, the China travel log! (Which I would have given whilst in China, except for the fact that the internet there... it is not what we might call... internetty. And Blogger is as Forbidden as the City.) But now I'm back! And stories I have! And jetlag I have gotten over! (Sorta. Though I've apparently developed temporary Yoda-Syndrome.)

And now, without further ado (though we all know how I feel about my ado) I give you, THE CHINA EXPERIENCE: PART ONE:

After a flight from Seattle during which I watched five movies and still had time to sleep for two hours, I landed in Beijing and breezed through a surprisingly easy immigration/customs process (especially considering what a pain getting the visa was). Then I stepped outside and felt the air hit my lungs. For the first few days there wasn't much wind and breathing was like chewing yellow fog. (In case you're wondering what orb that is in the picture over there, it's the sun. See how it almost penetrates the smog? Purdy, huh?) I commented to my Beijing-resident friends that if I lived there, I'd probably take up smoking, cuz really, why the hell not? If the air you breathe has the same effect as a pack a day, might as well get a fix out of it.

I had a unique opportunity in my visit, because I was staying with an ex-patriot friend who works in Beijing and therefore got to see the culture in a way I probably wouldn't have on a strictly-tourist venture. But that didn't mean we didn't play tourist (oh, did we ever play tourist...). The first stop on our Stranger in a Strange Land tour was the Forbidden City.

As with many things in China, I had a moment of "Huh, this isn't as old as I thought it was." It was, however, still deeply cool... and older than our entire country, so everything's relative. Beijing was not, actually, the first imperial city of China - but it was the last. The Forbidden City was built in the early 15th century and housed the Ming and Qing dynasties until the early 20th century.

During that time, commoners were forbidden from passing through those big red doors, under punishment of death. (And since I'm quite common... well, let's just all be happy the executioner wasn't on hand, shall we?) The complex is massive, which luckily made it feel a bit less crowded... and by far the majority of tourists were Chinese - as was the case everywhere we went, which surprised me a bit having seen (and heard) the multinational crowds at the Eiffel Tower and other international icons.

After an exhaustive (and exhausting) tour of the City, we made our way (in a lemming shuffle with a bajillion other tourists) through the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tian'an Men). After snapping a pic of the pubescent guard at attention in front of Mao's portrait (isn't he just adorable? don't you just want to pinch his cheeks? The guard. Not Mao.), we crossed to Tiananmen Square itself, where I got the Beatles' Revolution stuck in my head and might have sung a few choice lines before my companion smacked me.

The square houses the monument to the People's Heroes (or Martyrs depending on the translation) and is flanked by a government building and a museum, two large white edifices which look virtually identical to one another. Apparently, they weren't always so similar. The museum used to be eleven meters shorter - a breech of feng shui that was evidently a "point of shame for all of China" so the museum's facade was recently rebuilt larger to match the PRC building across the way. This was not the last time I would notice the idea that beauty is objective in China - a matter of symmetry and feng shui more than personal taste. And the concept that a lack of perfection (in symmetry or accomplishment) is a point of shame.

The Chinese tourists seemed to be fond of flashing peace signs in photos, so (fully cognizant of the irony) my American cohort and I emulated that tradition in the famous protest square. We wandered past Mao's Mausoleum (which is rumored to have the actual formaldehyde-rich version of Mao on display some days - all together now: eeeeeewwww) and checked out the Bell and Drum Towers before calling it a day.

That night we grabbed some local eats and... a belly dancing show? Yep, you heard me. Chinese belly dancing. And one of our party was dragged up on stage - let's all heave a sigh of relief that it wasn't me. (Don't they look hot? Dude. Love it. If you're ever in Beijing, it's Red Rose in Sanlitun.)

Between catching up with friends and jet-lag, the rest of my first couple days were occupied in non-tourist ways, but fear not! There was more touristing to be had. Oh yes. You can count on it. Watch out for Part Two with my solo adventures at the Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven during the week while my friends were at work - and see if I could navigate Beijing taxis armed only with a little flipbook of popular destinations and my one-word-comprehension of Mandarin. Life in China - where even getting from point A to point B is an adventure.

More to come...