Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Books I Read in February

I carefully planned February's reading so I could place holds at my library for the books and have the books show up on time. Luckily, I was successful. March, on the other hand, is looking iffy. My place in the various queues is dismally distant from the top.

This month, I had stellar nonfiction and poetry reads but so-so fiction ones. (Don't ask how many times I listened to the poetry audio.)

North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Categories: literary fiction, victorian, big fat book
Diversity: written in the mid-nineteenth century

Commentary: Recommended by Miss Bates and Sunita. I finally finished reading this book from last month. It was so much better than the miniseries, Richard HAWT Armitage notwithstanding. The romance was muted and that allowed the class and culture differences to stand out more starkly and vividly. I especially enjoyed reading the religious discussions (that Rohan Maitzen mentioned in the comments here), the business discussions including the ones about the rights of workers to unionize and strike as opposed to masters' rights, and seeing Margaret's relationships with her parents and her aunt's family and her role in the presence of these people. Gaskell's language is beautiful and accessible. In spite of its length, it's a fast-paced novel, and Gaskell's writing was a joy to read.

Despite this tale being largely Margaret's, I found her to be dimmed/diminished as a character. She suffers, she endures, she does not rebuke, rage, sob uncontrollably, etc. From the story, I gather that this bland calmness was (Gaskell's or a Victorian notion (yes?) of) a desired quality in a young woman. Such a woman was admirable.

Personally, while I found it admirable most of the times, I found it exasperating at times, too. I found that Margaret's romance lay gasping for breath for so long because of her inability to correct Le Big Mis (a standard romantic plot device). What were puzzling were the two times Margaret showed some spirit that were contrary to the desired biddable acquiescence that characterized her personality otherwise. Both times were when she so abruptly, curtly, without much thought or consideration, and with considerable sense of self-consequence and pride repudiated Lennox's and Thornton's marriage offers. She was spirited at the two times that served her the least. She who prided herself on being thoughtful of everyone was thoughtless of those whom she hurt so much. She did regret hurting Thornton, but I feel that was more because she realized that she returned his feelings; on Lennox she dwelt not at all.

An aside: Gaskell's prejudice against the Irish, which was unfortunately par for the course for the times, still gave me pause.

To Wed a Stranger by Edith Layton
Categories: romance, regency

Commentary: Read with SonomaLass, Willaful, Meoskop, SusieFelber, DougalGodfrey, JanetNorCal. Layton's writing was superb as always and beautiful at times. Annabelle's and Miles's slow build-up of romance was very well done. However, all throughout the book, I felt that there was too much navel-gazing going on. The story might've worked better in the shorter, traditional category length thereby cutting down on the repetitive nature of the introspection. Layton does category masterfully well. I enjoyed Miles's character for the most part. It was Annabelle who made me sigh. She was by turns spoilt and annoying, and kind and understanding. The story plot hinged on her looks and the emotions it engendered in every character around her, including Miles. It was interesting for me to see how everyone pivoted around this plot point.

Classic Love Poems read by Richard Armitage
Categories: poetry
Diversity: audiobook

Commentary: Recommended by SmartBitches. Richard Armitage reading love poetry. Need I say more? Collective swoon, everyone! Memorable collection of poems, 80% of which I had studied in school, and so I listened with twice the pleasure: nostalgia combined with Armitage's voice and diction. Shakespeare, George Eliot, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Andrew Marvell, John Keats, Robert Browning, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, e.e. cummings, Lord Byron, and Ralph Waldo Emerson among others.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
Categories: literary fiction
Diversity: very minor gay & poc characters

Commentary: Recommended by Pamela Badass Romance (here) and WA State Senator Pramila Jaypal. The background to this mystery story is the real-life Gardner Museum heist. I greatly enjoyed learning all the painting details. I know very little about working in oils and certainly nothing about copying and forging works of art. So learning all of that was a big draw for me with this book. I greatly enjoyed the side story of the founder of the Gardner museum and her "relationship" with Edgar Degas. All these painterly sections were the best parts of the book. The last quarter was exciting. Stuff was happening faster and on multiple levels. It was fun to read despite the mystery elements being obvious due to clumsy, heavy-handed foreshadowing.

Where the book fell flat for me was with the two protagonists. They were meh—marginally annoying at times, boring at others, but oh, they were industrious, which is always a pleasure to read. The problems began when they were on the page together. There was no chemistry between them, even though we're told that they're hot for each other and they have a lot of marvelous sex. There was no charm, no romance, no respect for each other, except towards the end when he professes concern for her. All we know is that she has distrusted him through most of the book, even when she was sleeping with him. Begs the question, why in the world did she begin sleeping with him? Beats me. His declaration of love also comes out of nowhere. Wut?! Guess my background in the rom world means I expect a very minor but well-defined romantic arc. If the story has a romance, it better be plotted well.

There were a couple disquieting moments in the book. I realized that there was only one very minor POC character, and I discovered that because her skin color was mentioned. Otherwise, the assumption was Caucasian even in a city like Boston. The other disquieting moment was when the protagonist was honored with gallery shows in London and Tokyo, but: "One at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the other at a Tokyo gallery whose name I can't pronounce." She's being honored there. Get it right! This prejudice here on display is clearly the author's.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Categories: nonfiction collection of essays

Commentary: Last year, I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and I came away awed by her writing and my emotional journey as a result of reading it. So I was eager this year to delve into more of her writings. I picked up Slouching, because it is universally acclaimed as a modern classic by one of the finest journalists. It is said to perfectly capture the mood of 1960s America with an incisive look at contemporary American life—within and without—then.

The section of the book that most interested me was what she titled Personals, and covered essays: "On Keeping a Notebook," "On Self-Respect," "On Morality," "On Going Home," and "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind." I loved reading about her keeping a daily notebook. After all, it's a topic near and dear to my heart. Much more on this section is my April TBR Reading commentary.

At the end of her introduction, Didion has a cautionary note for anyone who hangs around writers. "Writers are always selling somebody out." In other words, don't forget that their presence runs counter to your best interests. How's that for neurosis? (I'm only an aspiring one, so I'm harmless, I hasten to assure you.)

Didion's distinctive voice shines through every sentence as does her spare style. As I read, I saw her in my mind's eye and I heard her voice in my head (from that one talk I attended a while back).

I had a tough time with this book despite how much I loved it. Paradoxical, right? It reminded me of Sunita's comment on Liz McCausland's blog: "...when I read disproportionately in a genre [...] the opening pages are familiar enough in style and approach that it's like a warm blanket. When a book is outside my default reading zone [...] it takes longer. And some books just take longer to engage you anyway."

Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne
Categories: nonfiction, georgian, history
Diversity: African slaves and African-British characters

Commentary: I loved the movie Belle when I saw it recently, so I was eager to read this companion guide to the history behind the movie. What could've been a dry recitation of facts was brought to life by Byrne getting out of the way and allowing the reader to see the characters and their actions and the events that happened to them so vividly. A superb piece of narrative nonfiction writing. (Writers: This is an excellent book on Georgian research to have.)

A portrait painted in the late 18th century at Kenwood House showed two beautiful, happy, young girls, one Caucasian and one African, on par. It was unheard of during those times that the African girl was not shown subordinate to the Caucasian one. The Caucasian girl was Lady Elizabeth and the African girl was Dido Elizabeth Belle, both British, half-cousins by blood, and adopted children of the Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice. Very scant details are known about Dido's birth—she was the issue of the union between Lord Mansfield's nephew and a slave woman under his command. As the book distinctly shows, wherever history fell short, the film industry took over and in nuanced details painted in Dido's story. Some history was bent to serve the story, especially Mansfield's rulings in conjunction with the abolition of slavery on English soil and the start of worldwide abolition by the British. The book is a fascinating account of real-life events depicted with formidable research skills.