Monday, April 9, 2018

Quotes from Anne Lamott's Talk With My Commentary

Last night, I attended a talk by the wonderful Anne Lamott. She's a spry sixty-four and continues to tour regularly to promote her books and to give invited talks. She tends to ramble a bit and gives some canned talking points, but she's funny, compassionate, and passionate. The talk was part therapy, part advice, humorous, and altogether, entertaining.

(I have organized my notes here to read in a coherent fashion, because, like I said before, she had a tendency to ramble. The quotes are her words and the commentary is mine based on her talk and my personal thoughts.)

The three topics Lamott covered were: Mercy, Grace, and Writing.

She started out her talk with references to how exhausted she and others she knows have been since the election, and she had high praise for the Parkland students. In fact, she came back again and again to how she, personally, feels invigorated by seeing these young voices actively doing the right thing, no matter the personal cost. Lamott is well known for her activism, and it was wonderful to see how forthright she was about it. She did not shy away from offending the conservative among the audience—at sixty-four, she felt she had to kowtow to no one.

Mercy is not help. "Help is the sunny side of control." Ah! And there you have it—to me, the most significant nugget of her talk.

Using soup kitchens and care packages for the homeless as talking points, she addressed how even those who want to help go about it in a wrongheaded fashion. The correct attitude is to consider that we are all damaged, and what we want is the well-being and happiness of everyone, including ourselves. We need to focus more on that than on being right.

In other words, "Mercy is consciousness and intentionality. It is a heart for others' troubles."

Then she moved on to grace.

"Grace is life's WD-40 with a long red straw"—whenever you are stuck, it will get you out. Grace helps you realize that you cannot serve justice. Stop pretending fakeness and giving lip service to doing right by saying you want to be fair to all. "Fair [a fare] is where the pony rides are."

On grace: "The world does not have your self-respect to offer you. That is an inside job."

"Eighty-five percent of cacao is inedible"—it can be used to support rickety tables—"this is life." But it is that fifteen percent that is of import. What you do with it is of import. Life and writing are like driving at night with headlights on. You see only a little bit at a time, but you can make a whole journey that way.

She then ties in mercy and grace with: "Mercy is grace in action."

"As soon as someone can tell their truth and secrets to you, you have broken through and reached their heart. This is their salvation. Their stories heal them. They are like medicine."

Every March, I visit our local South Asian show called Yoni Ki Baat (The Vagina Monologues), where a small group of South Asian women come together to narrate their stories of innermost anguish. Every year, I go to witness their stories, to allow them to be heard and understood and accepted.

A throwaway: "Laughter is carbonated holiness." This reminded me strongly about His Holiness the Dalai Lama's discourses on happiness and laughter.

While Lamott referred to her books as the references cropped up organically in the talk, she never made it a point to sell them, and I really appreciated that.

The writing portion of the talk was canned advice. If you've read her Bird by Bird, you've heard it all. I bet she constantly gets asked questions about writing and the book, and she decided to forestall a lengthy Q&A by addressing it head-on. However, it didn't jive with the rest of the talk and felt tacked on.

She's a fan of the Indian American philosopher, J. Krishnamurti (1895–1986). When he was asked about his serenity in the face of everything life threw at him, he was famous for saying, "I don't mind."

How freeing! Not having expectations, not getting offended, not minding allows you to observe life and participate on your own terms. However, not minding is not to be confused with not caring. It is, in fact, quite the reverse. Not minding allows you to remove yourself from the equation and focus entirely on the other person.

Lamott underscored our inherent selfishness with this: "When kids do well, parents feel good about themselves." Instead of focusing on the child's achievement, the parents are patting themselves on the back.

"Teaching children destroys their creativity. They are so vulnerable and so strong and so free. When you tell a child, 'that is a bird,' thenceforward, they will only see the word 'bird.'" They will no longer see the beauty, the clean lines, the colors, the determination to succeed, to float, to fly, to soar. I was reminded about Richard Bach's book Jonathan Livingston Seagull and how Jonathan was committed to seeing beauty and perfection and beauty in perfection.

Her final words: "Pay attention! Look up, take off, soar, and land. Don't stay buried in a holes."

A sour note in her otherwise interesting presentation was her Orientalism. She exotified Indians and Asians, pigeonholing them with stereotypes and outright weirdness gathered from who knows where. Sigh! Given how much she talked about being woke, specifically using that term, she needs to do more work within to dismantle her own racism.

Monday, April 2, 2018

My March Reading

I was in my early twenties when I first saw the Scarlet Pimpernel movie, and I was instantly hooked—an ultra-romantic tale of love, betrayal, great derring-do, and superb, superb acting all under the shadow of the French Revolution. In recent conversation about what would be a good family movie to watch, I was struck by the fact that no one else in the family had watched it. I needed no further excuse to acquire the movie post-haste from Netflix.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy de Orci
Category: Literary Fiction, Movies
Comments: I conducted an experiment this month. I watched both the 1934 and 1982 movie adaptations to see what the differences were and what I liked and didn't like of the two. Next month, I will read the 2012 Dover Thrift edition, and then compare the movies and the book. In short, the story is about a daring young Englishman and his band of trusted Englishmen all of the nobility, sneaking into France under one pretext or the other, in one disguise or the other, and returning with a few French nobles saved from Madame La Guillotine. In society, these men go around behaving as fops and wastrels, more interested in the cut of their coats and the fall of a cravat, than in politics. In real life, they're a band of incredibly brave, compassionate patriots with a strong belief in right and wrong.

The 1982 film is longer and thus the story and characters are more developed. It is also the more romantic tale of the two. If I had not known the story, I wouldn't have understood the 1934 version as well as I did. It is choppy and the storyline isn't as logically developed. I loved both Leslie Howard (1934) and Anthony Andrews (1982) playing Sir Percy Blakeney AKA The Scarlet Pimpernel. While Andrews does the fop better, both do Percy equally well—Howard is sharper and Andrews more smoothly rounded, both transition from fop to mastermind really well. I believed both men were the courageous, intrepid leader, who put himself in just as much danger as his loyal fellowmen.

I prefer Jane Seymour's Marguerite, Lady Blakeney (1982) to Merle Oberon's Marguerite (1934). Seymour's character is more nuanced with some lightness and gravitas under the pampered and fêted society lady, whereas Oberon's is a one-note spoiled beauty. You really wonder how she's capable of the betrayals and her promises of the ultimate sacrifice, her life for Percy's. Seymour is far more convincing.

But the true difference in the movies is the villain, French ambassador to London, and Percy's sworn enemy: Chauvelin. Ian McKellen (1982) plays him to perfection. Raymond Massey (1934) is far too much of a caricature villain, smooth but oily, overtly threatening, and harsh and direct. His character lacks subtlety. McKellen is simply parfait with just the right urbaneness, steel underneath the surface charm, a keen sense of purpose with a hint of low self-esteem, and a picture of someone who can convincingly be gulled by revolutionary rhetoric and yet have the intelligence to discern clues and know how to react to them.

The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Category: Poetry
Comments: I continued reading this book that I talked about last month.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Category: General Fiction
Comments: I liked this book more upon re-reading it, so I re-wrote my review from December 2015. When I read that this book was set in a small village in England, and I didn’t read any further before getting the book. I’m a huge fan of the TV series Cranford and Grantchester and so many lovely small-village stories that the BBC is so good at producing. And Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand certainly does not disappoint. There is all the insularity and peculiarity of living in close quarters with a few families. Everyone is in everyone else’s business and gossips about whoever is not there. Bossy women run the social life of the village. Old spinsters run the gardening clubs and book clubs. Middle-aged men play golf.

But then, then comes this Pakistani-British family in the midst of all this country whiteness. They’re “othered” and treated as foreigners even though the couple were both born in England, and they forever disturb the homogeneous harmony of the village. Our story begins after a few years have passed since the death of Major Ernest Pettigrew’s wife and Mrs. Jasmina Ali’s husband, because our story is very much a story of a romance between completely, on the surface, different people. She’s Muslim, from the North of England, lower middle class, runs a shop. He’s the offspring of a British Empire officer, retired major of the army, comfortably middle class, occupying a genteel place in Edgecombe St. Mary society. And yet, they share a love of Kipling, poetry, long walks, have had spouses who’ve passed away, and speak English and Urdu. My revised review is here.

Navy SEAL Rescue by Susan Cliff
Category: Contemporary Romantic Suspense
Comments: An Assyrian doctor caught up in the war in Syria and Iraq manages to escape the Da'esh with a daring trek over the Zagros Mountains into Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and thence to safety in Armenia with the help of a Navy SEAL Caucasian American. I liked how each rescues the other over the course of the book, each leads different aspects of the story, and how, largely, comfortable both are with the other being in charge. The mountain climbing details, the war zone details, the travel map of the region, and the tribal rivalries and culture are all done very well IMO. Granted I am not overly familiar with all of this, but I'm reasonably up on the politics of the region and my husband vouched for the climbing stuff. A wonderful read! My review is here.

Counting on a Countess by Eva Leigh
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: An upright former-soldier, now made earl, and a former baron's daughter, now smuggler, strike up a marriage of convenience; he, to secure a fortune bequeathed to him, to build a pleasure garden, and to gain an heir; she, to buy her childhood manor and home of her smuggling operation. Neither confides in the other of their dreams—his garden, her house and secretive operations—trusting in the indifference of the other to allow them to pursue what they seek. But, of course, they find out. And then all hell breaks loose. He's an upright law-abiding citizen, who fought for king and country and the country's laws. She's a thrifty spender hoarding her groats. How will they ever reconcile their differences to achieve a marriage of hearts, instead of mere inconvenience? I enjoyed reading how Leigh cleverly has them compromising their ideals for the other, while at the same time, getting what they want. My review is here.

The Secret of Flirting by Sabrina Jeffries
Category: Late Georgian Historical Romance
Comments: This book is set in the late Georgian era, between the Regency period and the Victorian era. It's a mystery and romance, intricately intertwined and done very well. I have read Jeffries on and off over the years, and this one is among the top few I have read.

Monique Servais is a struggling operatic actress in France, whose grand-maman is one of the princesses of Chanay, a principality in Belgium. One day, unexpectedly, her great-uncle pays her visit and asks her to impersonate Aurore, the ruling princess, Monique's second cousin and whose visual double she is, at the London Conference. In return, he will take care of her grand-maman, who is now afflicted with Alzheimer's. The conference is to determine who among the handful of candidates is suitable to rule Belgium, with the Princess of Chanay being the top contender.

At the first event, Aurore/Monique is introduced to the under-secretary of the foreign office, Geoffrey, Baron Fulkham, whom, it turns out, she had met, as Monique, three years prior in France. He recognizes her and wonders why she is masquerading as the princess and his decision to unmask her is fraught with his growing desire and affection for her. To complicate matters further, two attempts are made on Aurore/Monique's life, and he is frantic to protect her and solve the mystery, at the risk to his future career as a politician. My review is here.

The Lady’s Companion by Carla Kelly
Miss Westlake’s Windfall by Barbara Metzger
The Nobody by Diane Farr
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: In The Nobody, a portionless country girl is invited to London for a season by her aunt. At one of the ton events, she is dismayed to be labeled a tuft-hunter and her friend being urged to rid herself of her uncouth company. In anguish, she rushes off unwisely alone into the night. Trouble finds her in the guise of a stranger who’s running from attackers. He wards off his assailants, by hauling her into an unwanted kiss by pretending to be a swell bent only on amour. Despite this inauspicious beginning, as the two of them stand there in the darkness, their sparkling, respectful conversation leaves them both yearning for the impossible: a desire to know the other better.

What I liked best about The Lady's Companion is that tragedy does not fell this heroine’s sense of self or positive outlook to life. She has ample reason to be disheartened and feel ill-used, but instead of moaning on about her circumstances, she’s determined to look ahead into carving herself a better future. And she does, handsomely so, despite having to continually adapt her way of thinking to her new station in life. She is a gentleman's daughter, who's now been reduced to earning her living as a lady’s companion; he's a bailiff; and theirs is a mésalliance that they make work with great care and caring.

In Miss Westlake’s Windfall, she doesn’t consider herself a fool, though at her age to be whistling a handsome, titled, wealthy man down the wind is nothing short of foolishness. But she believes that she’s not the bride for him, and if she steadfastly continues refusing his proposals, he will continue to be her dear friend but look elsewhere for a more suitable bride. But he is convinced she is the bride for him, if only the bride would believe it. This book is a comedy of errors, missteps, and corrections, at once fun and engrossing. My brief reviews are here.

It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton, illustrated by Marla Frazee
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Let's build a village...worthy of all the children. Indeed! Indeed! That is our job as adults, to leave behind a city, a country, a planet that is better than what we had. This is a book about people helping each other, and how every person matters, even every child. Kindness and caring and sharing matter. We cannot go through life alone and without needing other people. Every child needs a champion. Or two. Or three. So we, in turn, need to help others less fortunate than us. Clinton reminds us of the old African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child," and that children only thrive if their families thrive. We are all in this together.

Brave Jane Austen: Reader, Writer, Author, Rebel by Lisa Pliscou, illustrated by Jen Corace
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: An excellent biography of Jane Austen from her early childhood years till her death. The artwork is beautiful—sharp, detailed, warm, and with a good period feel. However, it is a story meant for older children, not the usual audience for picture books.

The True Story of Balto: The Bravest Dog Ever by Natalie Standiford, illustrated by Donald Cook
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: We checked this book out from the library for six months straight and finally bought it. I love books that get me in the feels as well as the kids. There's nothing like rooting for a character, being awed by them, and then feeling a sense of pride in them when the story is over. Balto was one such dog. The story is set in a frontier town amidst the ice and snow of Alaska of 1925. In the winter, there was no way to travel in that region except by dog sled. Neither planes, nor trains, nor boats, nor cars could work in those snow drifts and iced over lakes.

Balto was a lead sled dog—where he led, the other dogs followed—and he was the smartest and strongest dog in the region. Once, an epidemic of diphtheria hit the small town of Nome, buried in the middle of nowhere. The only medicine available was in Anchorage 800 miles away. It speaks to the hardiness, generosity, and integrity of the folks in the small towns of Alaska that they organized a relay of dog sleds to carry the medicine to Nome. What was a journey scheduled to take fifteen days was accomplished in just five and a half days, thanks to the endurance and, well, doggedness of Balto and his owner, Gunnar. They drove for twenty hours straight to deliver the medicine. A year later, New York City erected a statue of Balto in Central Park, which stands to this day. This is a true story.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Belgravia by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes now as an Episodic Series

In the summer of 2016, Downton Abbey creator, Julian Fellowes, released a widely acclaimed novel, Belgravia, set mainly in 1841 England. The story begins on June 15, 1815 at the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball in Brussels and moves to London of 1841. I reviewed this book for All About Romance then.

Here is how I described it: "What a delightful, gossipy book this is. Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia has all the tightness and subtlety of the movie Gosford Park. It is written with the soaring arc of a saga and the delicacy of shifting emotions. At its core are two intense love stories spanning two generations and class boundaries. The women in this story, through their love for their men, shake up early 19th century aristocracy. It goes to show that people of all walks of life will do anything for the ones they love. If one were to ascribe a theme to the book, then it would be the exploration of the early Victorian English class system. As you read along, you appreciate the subtleties of class in society and how much of an impact it had on piddling day-to-day matters and grand dynastic changes, on life and death, on life’s choices and restrictions, on behavior and dress… on everything of any import. It is meticulous research rendered superbly well."

This year, the book is being released by the company, Serial Box, as a series of eBook and audio episodes, the first of which was released on March 1. Here's a brief excerpt of the first episode.

Serial Box releases serials through an app, their website, and third party retailers in both e-book and audio formats. Each new ~40-minute episode of the serials releases every week and serials typically run for seasons of 10-16 weeks. Individual episodes are $.199, but serial subscribers get the discounted rate of $1.59 for both the text and audio DRM-free versions of each new episode. A season's pass, paid upfront, for all the episodes is discounted further. The episodes get added to "My Library" and can be accessed from the iPhone app.

"Releasing Belgravia in app form was a step into the unknown for me, and so it’s very gratifying that, less than two years later, there is now a whole platform dedicated to serialized stories," says Julian Fellowes. "Serial Box is opening books for a whole new audience, which is something we can all celebrate."

When I first read the book, I noticed that Fellowes wrote his book in an episodic format, which has naturally lent itself to being serialized by Serial Box. The book’s divided into eleven episodes with scene breaks in each episode but no chapter breaks. So the usual chapter arcs, which break-up the narrative into small chunks, are missing, which I think is the strength of this novel. The longer episodic arcs work better for the narrative.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag: An Excerpt

I talked about the book Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag in yesterday's post on my February reading. For completeness sake, I'm including it here as well.

Here's what I wrote:

I discovered this book thanks to Liz McCausland, and I cannot praise it highly enough. The original story is in Kannada (one of the languages of southwestern India) and is set in Bangalore. It is told by an aimless, shiftless young man who resides in a complex, interdependent, joint family situation with his parents, wife, sister, and uncle. The uncle runs his own spice trading business, which has become quite profitable, and is the sole earner of the family. The family, in turn, caters to his every want and desire, even before he realizes he needs it. The story starts with them living in a modest lower-middle-class house and then moving up to a fancy two-storey house. Once prosperity enters their house, so do untold troubles. Shanbhag does a masterful job of teasing out the turmoil in this tightly psychological novella through his protagonist's observations, actions, and reactions.

Partway through the story, the protagonist, let's call him Vikram, has an arranged marriage with a young woman named Anita. Arranged marriages are usually where a family friend or relative will introduce the boy's side of the family to the girl's side of the family. In this story, Vikram and his family drive from Bangalore to Hyderabad to meet Anita and her family. Over cups of tea and snacks, while the families are getting acquainted, Vikram and Anita are given a few hours of alone time to talk and see if they're compatible. That's it. Everyone decides they will suit and the wedding is arranged before Vikram and his family return home.

To historical romance readers, this sounds very much like a marriage of convenience plot, doesn't it?

Shanbhag handles that moment when the newly wedded husband and wife, who are strangers to one another, are finally alone with a sensitivity and acuity that I wish more historical romance writers would do. Here it is, and I quote:

I had on a white kurta bought specifically for the night. My mind swirled with the possibilities that lay ahead as we made our way to the room. I found it hard to even look at her. I tried to act casual as I closed the door behind us. When I turned around she was standing by the bed. The light switch was next to the door and I turned it off. The room was now faintly lit by the haze from the streetlamp outside. I walked up to her. I could smell her scent now. I didn't know what to do next, and I paused for a moment. Then I raised my right hand and placed it on her shoulder. One thing alone gave me the courage to touch her: we were married now. My hand lowered itself along her arm and stopped at her elbow. My left hand went to her waist and drew her closer. She moved toward me as well and we embraced. Her touch, her smell, the fragrance from the flowers she was wearing, the press of her chest on mine, her lips against my neck.

That single moment's intensity hasn't been matched in my life before or since. A woman I didn't know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind. Perhaps it is this instant that forms the basis of traditional marriage—a complete stranger is suddenly mine. And then, I am hers, too; I must offer her my all. I want her to wield her power over me as an acknowledgment of my love. The rush of feelings all at once is too much to describe. Language communicated in terms of what is already known; it chokes up when asked to deal with the entirely unprecedented.

Similar feelings must have welled up in her, too. Her face was buried in my chest. Her arms tightened around me. I could feel the bangles on her arms pressing into my back. Through touch, through the giving, yielding closeness of our embrace, this unknown woman began to be known to me. I've often longed for a comparable experience, but there seems to be none. That sense of strangeness, surrender, dependence, compassion, entitlement, and a hundred other sentiments bundled together cannot possibly be relived.

I held her tighter still, then relaxed. I raised her face and through her lips gained my first taste of her world.

Wonderful, isn't it? Evocative and nuanced, it fair snags your attention.

[Please note: I'm not sure if it is alright for me to quote so much text from the book. If it is not okay, I will take it down. If that happens, you can buy/borrow a copy and turn to pages 74 & 75 to read it.]

Monday, March 5, 2018

My February Reading

This was a stellar reading month for me, because I spent less time online. I call this a win. I read, I reviewed, I journaled, I wrote my morning pages, I worked, and I watched the Olympics. Nothing like watching our young athletes work so hard, believe in themselves, and achieve unprecedented success to make me believe that life can be good despite the ever-present negative reality.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention those brave kids, who're showing through their activism what fantastic human beings they are. I'm awed at their clear-sightedness, at their strength of purpose, at their resilience, and their courage. They shame us adults into remaking our lives into ones with meaning and purpose.

While unheard of for me these days, I disengaged from politics of all stripes this month to a large extent. This is not to say that I was not well-informed, but that I didn't allow the outrage machine to consume me. This afforded me the space to cogitate on how I want to positively engage going forward. Where do I want to spend my time? What do I want to be concerned about? I don't wish to expend my anger uselessly on a wide array of topics, but rather focus it on a handful of things where I can make a difference.

On to my reading...

Various poems by Ursula Le Guin
Category: Poetry
Comments: Like last month, I continued reading more of Ursula Le Guin's poetry.

The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Category: Poetry
Comments: Over the years, I have loved reading and re-reading Hirsch's poetry collection Special Orders. It's a treasured volume in my personal library. So once I was done with Le Guin's online poetry collection, I decided to try out more of Hirsch's work. I'll continue to read from it a little at a time over the next few months. Lately, I have been plagued by insomnia, so this really spoke to me: Silently / you confront the blue-rimmed edge / of outer dark / denied warmth, denied rest, / denied earth's sleep and granite.

She Unnames Them by Ursula Le Guin
Category: Short Story
Comments: Like The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, which I read last month, my daughter recommended I read this. Like her, I loved it as well. The background of the story is the Biblical book of Genesis, in which Adam names the animals, but Le Guin subverts this by having Eve unname the animals. The story is in two parts: one part describes how the animals feel about the unnaming and the second part describes how the narrator (Eve) feels about the unnaming.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
Category: General/Lit Fiction
Comments: I discovered this book thanks to Liz McCausland, and I cannot praise it highly enough. The original story is in Kannada (one of the languages of southwestern India) and is set in Bangalore. It is told by an aimless, shiftless young man who resides in a complex, interdependent, joint family situation with his parents, wife, sister, and uncle. The uncle runs his own spice trading business, which has become quite profitable, and is the sole earner of the family. The family, in turn, caters to his every want and desire, even before he realizes he needs it. The story starts with them living in a modest lower-middle-class house and then moving up to a fancy two-storey house. Once prosperity enters their house, so do untold troubles. Shanbhag does a masterful job of teasing out the turmoil in this tightly psychological novella through his protagonist's observations, actions, and reactions.

Making Up by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: While I am not going to say too much here since it's a May release, I do want to say that I loved it. It was my most anticipated read of 2018 since I loved both her previous two books, and it has exceeded my expectations. If you enjoyed Act Like It and Pretty Face, you will enjoy Making Up.

With This Ring by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This story may be in the traditional style, but this is hardly a typical Regency romance, and it is a breath of fresh air. I like how some trad writers took such risks with their stories unlike the Regency authors of today. The protagonists in With This Ring are clearly from the upper classes but the story is of them as ordinary, even impoverished, people. Major Samuel Reed, the Earl of Laren, Northumberland is injured badly from the war. He and his suffering cavalry battalion are housed in an abandoned church in squalor. It has become en vogue for the upper crust to traipse into this makeshift hospital and gawk at the wounded and leave without having made any attempt to help, physically or monetarily. The Cinderella in this story is Lydia of Devon who accompanies her spoiled sister Kitty on one such contemptible outing. There, her heart is wrung from the despair and need that she sees among the soldiers, and she boldly offers to help. Her newfound independence gives Lydia a much-needed boost to her self-esteem. Over time, seeing how poorly her family treats Lydia, Sam offers to marry her and take her away. Then comes the really unusual part of this marriage of convenience where he goes about enabling her to stand on her own two feet and to believe she can become somebody with purpose and a sense of place. However, the Sam of the latter quarter or so of the book makes questionable decisions that put me out of charity with him.

The Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith Duran
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: I loved Duran's last book in this series, A Code of Misconduct, but this one is even better. We first see Lockwood in the Duke of Shadows, Duran's début book. That book hinted at Lockwood's mysterious past that we see here fully fleshed out. Anna is the Countess of Forth in Scotland in her own right. She needs an heir to secure her earldom and access rights for her island of Rawsey. The Earl of Lockwood has inherited debts and decrepit estates from his father. Both need to marry and decide to do so, but despite their practical decision, they find tenderness and attraction welling up between them. However, on their wedding night, Lockwood is kidnapped and thrust on a ship to the penal colony New South Wales where he suffers untold horrors, humiliations, and brutality. In the meantime, Anna thinks he has abandoned her. Lockwood returns four years later, a completely changed man, traumatized in body and psyche. How these two strong-willed people reconcile their differences, adjust to Lockwood's PTSD, and forge a strong bond with each other is a thing of beauty. My review is here.

A Duke in the Night by Kelly Bowen
Category: Regency Historical Romance
Comments: This is a fabulous read! This is the first book in her The Devils of Dover series, whose prequel novella The Lady in Red I loved. And this is even better. It's rare that I have auto-buy authors—I gave up on giddy fandom as I aged into my new decade—but Bowen has made me a convert. August Faulkner, the Duke of Holloway, is a wealthy, powerful peer, who is known for his brilliance, ambition, and ruthless business practices. Clara is the headmistress of an elite finishing school in London for the daughters of the nobility and wealthy cits. She also runs an unusual school for select students in the summer to empower them to become independent women, free to pursue their passions. They had met ten years previously and their one dance had been imprinted on their minds. Now they meet again at Clara's summer school, where unbeknownst to him his sister is a student and he's there to charm Clara and her brother into selling their failing shipping business to him. My review is here.

A Governess for Christmas by Marguerite Kaye
Category: Regency Historical Romance Novella
Comments: This is a novella from the Scandal at the Christmas Ball duology. The stories are intertwined with shared characters, and I'm always fascinated by how writers make this work, especially since Marguerite told me that they were writing simultaneously. Lots of planning and lots of communication most likely, but still a feat to pull off. The premise is that both the hero and the heroine have irrevocably blotted their copybook, but have been given a chance to forge a better future. In order to protect the reputation of her pupil, governess Joanna sacrifices her own reputation and is branded a thief. Doors are permanently shut to her as a governess, and she's forced to seek a position as a lowly teacher in an impoverished school. Drummond was a high up officer in the army. During the initial charge at the start of the Battle of Waterloo, an ensign under him turns tail and runs back, dropping their regimental flag in the process. What he must do is clear—shoot the soldier—but he is unable to do so and is stripped of his medals and epaulettes. And the soldier is shot anyway. Society's and the army's doors are shut to him. They are at the Duke of Brockmore's estate over the twelve days of Christmas to scrub their reputations. And the one thing they cannot do is get involved with each other, both being an eminently unsuitable match for their futures. Good story overall, though fell short a bit in execution, because it was a bigger story that felt compressed into a novella. It needed a novel's real estate to be fully fleshed out.

Heaven's Fire by Patricia Ryan
The Shattered Rose by Jo Beverley
Saving Grace by Julie Garwood
Category: Medieval Romances
Comments: SIGH, Garwood! What can I say? I have loved her since her very first medieval book, and Saving Grace is one of her best. Strong and gentle Gabriel and courageous and gentle Johanna make a marriage of convenience in the Highlands—a Scottish story before they became clichéd. Medieval illuminated manuscripts and Oxford scholarship—I needed no other reason to read Heaven's Fire, and it is a wonderful story of female agency in a time when women had few rights. I adore JoBev's medievals and of them, The Shattered Rose is my favorite. Hero goes off to the Crusades to ask God for a son, returns to find that a son had been born to him, had subsequently died, and his wife had started living with his rival after presuming him dead. How in the world are the hero and heroine to return from this ruin of their lives? This is a complicated story not made easy with platitudes and the commonplace. JoBev allows it to remain complicated and uncomfortable for the reader. My brief reviews are here.

Surprise Me by Sophie Kinsella
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That would be the advice I would give to the protagonists of this tale. These two have a wonderful marriage of equals and closeness, fulfilling jobs, a comfortable home, and adorable twins. But one day, they're told that they're so healthy, they're going to enjoy sixty eight years of married bliss. And their hearts stutter. Sixth Eight years! How is the world are they going to keep their marriage fresh and prevent it from going stale for that length of time? And so begins their efforts to re-jig their lives and expectations, which sets off a chain of events that nearly unravels their marriage, but which through growth and maturity, they manage to save. This is a wonderful look at marriage and the work it takes even when two people are well-matched. My review is here.

Hello Stranger by Lisa Kleypas
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: Not as great as Devil in Spring, this book is still worth a read for Dr. Garrett Gibson. I've been waiting for her story for a few books now, and I wasn't disappointed. In Ethan Ransom, ex-detective, now-spy, and all around rascal, the proper doctor has met her match. How they reconcile their different backgrounds, stations, and life goals is a journey of discovery. This is the grittiest of Ravenel series, but I liked it all the more for it. And the elephant in the room is the gratuitous colonialism that pops up with no warning and for no reason; to wit, Ethan learns fighting and sexual techniques in mysterious India. Kleypas could just as easily have had him learn his prowess elsewhere and thus avoid this Orientalism. My review is here.

The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
Category: Contemporary Multiracial Romance
Comments: This is a story of a deep-seated connection and a building of trust between two people who don't have a history of longevity in their relationships. Is this going to last? is a question they constantly grapple with. Alexa Monroe is a lawyer and the chief of staff of the mayor of Berkeley. Dr. Drew Nichols is a pediatric surgeon from Los Angeles. The meet-cute happens in a stuck elevator and they hit it off from the get-go. While it is billed as a rom-com, this isn't a witty tale, but has a rather breezy, sexy, modern vibe. The couple starts out with a sex-only hookup with weekend flights up and down the coast. While the tenderness and connection between them is very well done as is a long-distance relationship, the emotional immaturity shown by the people, who're well in their thirties is rather off-putting. My review is here.

When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Julie Flett
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Like Missing Nimâmâ by Melanie Florence that I read lsast month, this is a First Nations Cree story. A young girl lives with her Nókom (spelt as Nokhôm in the previous book, and also kókom, all meaning grandmother) and observes details about her grandmother, like her colorful dresses, her long braided hair, the language she speaks, and the frequent visits of her brother. The grandmother then tells the girl stories from her childhood when she was taken from her Cree village and forcibly sent to a boarding school where her freedom was curtailed. She had to wear black uniforms, had her hair hacked off, was required to only speak in English, and was torn asunder from her siblings. Her stories also talked about the little bits of rebellion that she and other Cree girls in her school enacted in secret, but these particles of joy were few and far in between an otherwise lonely and frightening childhood. So now that she is grown up and owns her own house, she wears colorful clothes, has long hair, speaks Cree, and frequently meets with her brother.

Feather by Rémi Courgeon, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Paulina has always been called Feather by her rough and clumsy (read: clueless) family consisting of her dad and three older brothers. She was not like her Russian immigrant dad, nor did she share the sporting enthusiasm of her brothers. She, on the other hand, was small and girly and loved to play the piano. She is constantly on the receiving end of chores and menial tasks as she struggles to assert herself. One day, after a black eye, she decides enough was enough. She was quitting piano and taking up boxing. With her brothers' laughter ringing in her ears, she enters the gym, determined to learn and learn well. She trains hard and becomes stronger every day. She starts winning more fights against her brothers, which means fewer chores for her, which means more time for training. I loved this story of a plucky girl who has a problem, and instead of sitting moping in a corner, sets out to change her world. Eventually, she earns her brothers' respect, hangs up her boxing gloves for good, and returns to playing piano, but with an increased sense of self and her ability to do anything she set her mind to doing.

Dumpling Dreams by Carrie Clickard, illustrated by Katy Wu
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is the story of Chef Joyce Chen who is famous for popularizing Chinese food in the northeastern United States. Liao Jia-ai (Joyce) was born in Beijin in 1917. Her favorite treat is dumplings, and that is the first thing she learns to cook. Over the years of her girlhood, she learns many traditional dishes from their cook. She marries in 1943 and moves Hangzhou. Constant war and unrest take its toll, and Joyce and her family set sail for San Francisco in 1949 and eventually settle in Cambridge. Whenever, Joyce feels homesick, she cooks and cooks and invites homesick Chinese students and expats over to dinner. Over the years, through the urging of her neighbors and friends, Joyce opens her first restaurant. The success of her restaurant turns Joyce into a teacher instructing other chefs in Chinese cooking. As her fame spreads, she writes cookbooks and has a cooking show on TV. In 1984, she's invited to dinner at the White House with Ronald Regan. In 2014, Joyce is immortalized in a US postage stamp.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

P.D. James: Modern Murder Most English

I heard in November of 2017 that Macmillan Publishers were disbanding their Heroes & Heartbreakers romance website. So I hurried to archive all my posts with them, by posting them to the blog and backing up to It also made sense that they would disband their mysery site Criminal Element. So I backed up the one post I had with them, which posted to the site on May 14, 2011. It is archived here.

In the version below, I have removed references to Elizabeth George and left the piece as a brief review of A Taste for Death by P.D. James. I was striving for a comparison of the writing styles of George and James, especially, how much George imitates James, but that idea died aborning. It's much too complex to take on within the confines of a mere blog post. It requires extensive re-reading of both their works with annotations, notes, and quotations to illustrate my points, and could easily take up a few months of my time, while requiring a small thesis-sized essay to get it all covered.


Want to understand what’s great about contemporary British mysteries? The essential qualities can be demonstrated from any one of P.D. James’ novels about Scotland Yard's Adam Dalgleish.

In A Taste for Death, the seventh in this series, two men are discovered with their throats slit in a London church, Commander Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard is called upon to solve the case. One victim is Sir Paul Berowne, former Minister of the Crown; the other is a tramp accustomed to sleeping on the porch of the church. Almost no one but Father Matthew cares about the tramp, but Berowne's death creates mental gyrations for well-to-do women across London.

The women set spinning include Berowne's aged, acerbic mother; his flashily beautiful, but unfaithful, second wife; his resentful, defiant daughter; his mistress; and two more dead women, involved in one way or another with him.  This is not to exclude the men and lower classes affected, including his wife's arrogant lover and her good-for-nothing brother; the family’s chauffer; the family’s housekeeper; and various other, minor characters. Each and every one of these perceives Berowne in a different manner, expressing their roiling, changeable sentiments in unexpected ways. 

“Murder is the first destroyer of privacy as it is of so much else.” It is for Commander Adam Dalgliesh, with DCI John Massingham and DI Kate Miskin, to employ his detecting talents to invade the privacy of all involved, to puzzle out intricately linked details across the various strata of society, and to ferret out the perpetrator of the double homicide.

The characters here read Anthony Trollope and Philip Larkin. They are knowledgeable about architecture and art; they have highly developed sensibilities. James's civilized digressions do not detract from the suspense of the plot. She does not employ horrific details for shock. Her clue-by-clue description of procedural details, particularly those of forensic medicine, makes readers part of the ongoing investigation.

Her characters, most recognizably Dalgliesh and Kate have such depth. You can picture them in your mind's eye and empathize with them. And no matter which book you pick up, you learn the basic facts and personalities of all her characters, however, you ought to have read her earlier novels in the correct sequence to get a full enough picture of her main characters to enjoy the later books.

In delving into what she calls “the fascination of character,” P.D. James makes each actor in the drama memorable. And apart from the mystery, A Taste for Death explores the remnants of the British class system as it crumbles, the old guard represented by Lady Ursula grimly hanging on to the past, and Kate Miskin determined to sweep away all vestiges of her upbringing and to create a new life. It is a well-crafted opus with precise prose, rich settings, complex and believable characters with a wide range of emotions, and a finely-wrought plot . Like Elizabeth George, and as in all her other books, P.D. James achieves so much more than a mere whodunit.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My January Reading

Two years ago, I had consciously read poetry, but last year got away from me. So this year, I'm once again making time in life for beauty. I find that I'm most enchanted with the British Romantic poets, though Frost is a favorite, too. My earliest memories of studying poetry come from memorizing heartfelt words and reciting them in school. Diction and emotion that brought the words to life were emphasized by our teachers. I regret the loss of memorization, recitation, and study of poetry in schools these days.

So, why learn Spanish?
Because of the beauty of the words of poets,
and if I don’t know Spanish
I can’t read them.

—Ursula Le Guin

Various poems by Ursula Le Guin
Category: Poetry
Comments: Ursula Le Guin's death was a shock to me. A light has blinked out in the world and we will forever be the poorer for it. She was a fantastic writer, no doubt, but she was also one of the great thinkers of our modern times, in my opinion. More than her fiction, it was her activism through letters and articles that really spoke to me. I read some of her poetry that is published here this month.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin
Category: Short Story
Comments: My daughter recommended I read this since she studied it in school this year and loved it. I loved it as well. It's a short story from A Wind's Twelve Quarters collection and is available on AMZ as a standalone. I simply cannot do the work justice with my paltry words, so all I can say is: go, read it.

Tempest by Beverley Jenkins
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: What a remarkable story! The best yet of her Old West series, and I'm really sad that the series has come to an end. This is a mail-order-bride western story of a wealthy, adventurous, free-spirited woman with heart full of caring and a dedicated doctor with a willingness to treat anyone and everyone even if they pay him in vegetables. Their romantic and sexual chemistry is marvelous as is the tenderness and caring between them and their desire to always look forward and resolve their differences calmly and quickly. My review is here..

Wallflower Most Wanted by Manda Collins
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Collins writes lovely books with humor, tenderness, and suspense. The premise of her Studies in Scandal series is fun: an eccentric lady plucks four young women living in trying circumstances, but with a gift for unusual pursuits, and makes them benefactors of her estate with the proviso that they have to stay together for a year with all expenses covered in order to gain their inheritance. The women become fast friends as they pursue their passions, fall in love, and solve mysteries. Wallflower Most Wanted is the third in the series with a Grantchester-like vicar and a very talented and creative painter. My review is here.

A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Every book that I have read by Alyssa Cole has been wonderful. She writes such different books, not just different time periods, just different types of books. I'm blown away by her talent and eagerly looking forward to catching up with the books I have missed. This is a fairytale romance about an African prince of a make-believe kingdom and his lost betrothed, now a very independent American woman. How he beguiles her as an ordinary man, then loses her when she finds out about his true status, then wins her back again could've been a clichéd story but is elevated by Cole into a magical story. Not to be missed. My review is here.

Tulips For Augusta by Betty Neels
Hell or High Water by Anne Mather
Bond of Hatred by Lynne Graham
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: Betty Neels, Anne Mather...these are the names of my early 20s, when I ventured into contemporary romance after binging on Heyer and Garwood and Coulter. Lynne Graham came later. Of these three, Betty Neels holds a special place in my heart for her sweet stories of a courtly time that never grows old. My brief reviews are here.

Missing Nimâmâ by Melanie Florence, illustrated by François Thisdale
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a fictional story based on true fact. There are many Canadian women of First Nations who will never return home, and this has devastating effects on their families and their children who are left behind. These indigenous women are missing or have been murdered with no justice for their families and no repercussions to the perpetrators.

Missing Nimâmâ is a Cree story. Kateri is a young girl living with her nokhôm (grandmother) whose nimâmâ (mother) is lost. Despite the love and care, her grandmother shows her kamâmakos (little butterfly), Kateri talks about her mother and dreams about her all the time. Half of each page is in Kateri's point of view, and the other half is in her ghostly mother's POV, where we see her thinking about and looking over Kateri and her own mother living their lives. And she is grateful they have each other and that they share a love and an unbreakable bond, even if she cannot be there with them.

"Taken. Taken from my home. Taken from my family. Taken from my daughter. I fought so hard to get back to you, Kateri. I wish I could tell you that. And when I couldn't fight anymore, I closed my eyes. And saw your beautiful face."

I cried as I read this book, cried for its beauty and its tragedy.

If you would like to find out about this growing problem of the lost aboriginal women of Canada, visit the No More Stolen Sisters site at Amnesty International.

Frida Kahlo and Her Animalitos by Monica Brown, illustrated by John Parra
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderon AKA Frida Kahlo was born in the early 1900s and lived in Coyoacán, the land of Aztecs, near Mexico City. She was born to a mestiza mother and a German-Hungarian father. Frida's life was fraught by illness (polio) as a child and an accident as a teenager, both of which involved being bedridden for months with only her imagination for company. During her second incapacitation, her mother encouraged her to paint, and her life was transformed by her magical creativity. She painted herself and her beloved pets, her constant companions in the journey life fraught with continuous health problems. Parra's artwork is evocative of Kahlo's style and adds greatly to the beauty of this book. Brown has made this complex biography simple by telling the story of how Kahlo connected with each of her pets with their imaginative names and personified characteristics.

The Blue Hour by Isabelle Simler
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Everything in this book is in shades of blue. I was fascinated by the widely variant brilliance of Simler's palate. The theme of the story is that the period of time between sundown and nightfall, when the sky turns a gorgeous blue, commonly known as L'Heure Bleu, life starts to settle down for the night. Every pair of pages has a description and a finely drawn depiction of blue flora and fauna: jay, poison dart frog, songbird, vulturine guineafowl, damselfly, racer snake, and many others.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

What Are Morning Pages?

I first posted this piece on Jan 26, 2016. But it bears repeating. I have found this writing practice to be an integral part of my life, and I want to share how wonderful it is so that maybe it could be a part of your life.


A few of us have been reporting in on Twitter every day after we've written our Morning Pages. There is camaraderie and accountability in doing so. This has spurred some interest in others to likewise do them and the question came up: What, after all, are these Morning Pages?

So I turned to their creator Julia Cameron and her book The Artist's Way where she talks about them.

Morning Pages are handwritten pages of approximately 750 words written strictly in a stream-of-consciousness style in the morning as close to waking up as possible.

There's no wrong way to do the Pages. These scratchings aren't meant to be art or writing even. They're not supposed to sound smart or clever. Doing Pages is the mere act of moving a pen across a page and writing whatever comes to mind, be it petty, silly, whiny, weird, self-pitying, fragmented, negative, babyish, angry, or.... No one other than you will ever know what you've written within the pages of your notebook. MC Richards says, "Poetry often enters through the window of irrelevance." So you keep doing your Pages no matter what you write in your book.

We have all internalized this perfectionist, which Cameron calls the Censor, who critics our every move in life. Well, the Censor is there to criticize your Pages as well. So Cameron says, "By spilling out of bed and straight onto the page every morning, you learn to evade the Censor. Because there is no wrong way to write the Morning Pages, the Censor's opinion doesn't count."

If you want to do the Pages, you have to commit to doing them faithfully. You have to be all-in. The Pages are non-negotiable. Do not try to skimp or skip writing them. Whether or not you're in the mood is irrelevant. The Pages have to be written, and in so doing, you will learn that you can write whether you're angry, upset, sorrowful, depressed, ecstatic, tired, or downright bored. Write about your emotions. And if you have nothing to say, write "I can't think of anything to write about today" till you've filled three pages or 750 words. You will find that within a few lines of this, your creative mind will kick in and you'll be writing about something other than being unable to write.

In her book, Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg gives this insight about her writing: "This is the practice school of writing. Like running, the more you do it, the better you get at it. Some days you don't want to run and you resist every step of the way, but you do it anyway. You practice whether you want to or not. You don't wait around for inspiration. It'll never happen. If you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance. You just do it."

Another way to look at this: The Pages are like meditation. Pish-posh, you say. How can writing about the mundane be spiritual? They're a valid form of meditation because "they give us insight and help us effect change in our lives," according to Cameron. "The Pages are a pathway to a strong and clear sense of self." You come at the Pages from a negative standpoint and in writing your heart out, a solution may present itself or a coping mechanism. Chekhov advised, "If you want to work on your art, work on your life." To which, Cameron says, "In order to have self-expression, you must have a self to express." Writing as a meditative practice will help you find your self.

You've been nodding along, agreeing with everything that I've written, but you ask: What if I am not a writer? Well, you don't have to be one. You can be a lawyer, a dancer, a painter, what-have-you. Picasso famously said, "Painting is just another way of keeping a diary." In fact, it's writers who have the hardest time with these Pages, because they attempt to write them instead of merely doing them. There's a difference. The former has an agenda, the latter is a free-form exercise where you let it all hang out. As a result of doing these Pages, what you will discover is that this free and expansive aspect of your personality that you've cultivated on the Pages will come out in other areas of your life.

So if daily Morning Pages sounds like something you'd be interested in doing, join me in Paging. Tweet me every morning and let me know you've Paged.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

All the Books I Read in 2017

I may be a tad obsessive about my reading. Not only do I love reading books, I love recording what I have read. And this is not a mere handwritten record. It's a full-featured spreadsheet with all kinds of data. Here are the links to all the books I read in 2017. Lists 1-6 are pieces of one chronological list of 105 books from my Excel Reading Spreadsheet. Click on each image to embiggen to read it.

List One

List Two

List Three

List Four

List Five

List Six

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Being Schooled on What I Should Be Reading

There was a recent discussion on Twitter about romance genre readers being schooled by authors and reviewers/readers on what readers should read. To which, I add, readers are also being schooled on how they should react to what they're reading. Instead of expanding, our world of romance is contracting. What those voices in Romancelandia slamming and shaming readers are failing to recognize is that reading tastes vary. And that is okay. No one has to like All Things. And that is okay.

My absolute favorite sub-genre in romance is traditional Regencies, which are completely monochromatic. My other sub-genre loves are primarily historicals and some contemporaries, and therein, I enjoy reading stories by #ownvoices authors about #ownvoices characters, in addition, to authors and characters of the dominant culture. However, I refuse to bow to the dictates by reading paranormal, urban fantasy, sci-fi, and erotic romance among other sub-genres—they are just not interesting to me.

In a bid to expanding my horizons and experiencing different worlds and points-of-view, I am trying to diversify my reading in different avenues. Where adult general fiction goes, and especially children's picture books go, I am eager to experiment with ideas and cultures widely divergent from my lived experience. As my Best Books list for All About Romance shows, my romance reading is fairly monochromatic, but as my Overall Best Books list for my blog shows, I'm more apt to be exploratory with general adult fiction and children's fiction.

Diversity to me means books by #ownvoices authors about #ownvoices characters, but it also means male authors since I primarily read women. If I don't seek out poetry, I would ignore it, and that would be a loss. Every time, I read a philosophical text or a biography, I come away with ideas I hadn't conceived of before, and despite knowing this, if I didn't make a special effort, I wouldn't pick these books up. Glitterland by Alexis Hall was an emotionally tough read, and I had to persevere with not giving up partway through, but at the end, I was grateful to have had the opportunity to read it. If I followed my inclination, I would only read romance, so I plan out my reading months in advance to be sure to include books that are in common parlance, but not something I would normally pick up.

There is no one definition of diversity, since it is subjective. Each reader has their own notion of what it means to them based on their own prism of awareness. Diversity then broadly means that readers are willing to be uncomfortable in their reading choices so as to experience disparate ideas.