Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My March Reading

I had to shuffle around my reading plans a bit this month, because the books I had planned to read have long hold queues at the library. With Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, I'll be lucky if I get to read it this year. In the end, after much agonizing over what to read, I ended up with a LitFic, a middle-grade, a memoir, a self-help, and a mystery.

The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession by Charlie Lovett
Categories: literary fiction, male author
Commentary: The book at the heart of the story is Pandosto, a tale of romance, by 16th century writer Robert Greene. In Lovett's story, the antiquarian bookseller protagonist, Peter Byerly, unearths a copy that has marginalia written in Shakespeare's hand on an original copy of Pandosto, proving that it was the inspiration for Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale. That is, IF, it's proven that this copy of Pandosto is not a forgery.

The story is told from the viewpoint of different characters throughout the history of the Pandosto. We follow Peter as he verifies the provenance of the book by tracing its various owners and having the paper, ink, and type expertly tested. The various threads of the story fit in jigsaw-like as we zigzag through history. Peter's personal life story is a sweet romantic subplot that is done well. The mystery elements are handled well, too, in a cozy mystery fashion. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book: Good research, good storytelling, and good bookish details of conservation and forgeries.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Categories: children's, middle grade
Diversity: Protagonist born with severe facial anomalies
Commentary: Recommended by my daughter.

What a tender story this is. A few chapters in and my heart felt like a ball of wax to be molded by this lovely boy of ten. He was born with severe challenges and homeschooled till fifth grade, at which point he went to a private school. This book is about his experience there—the challenges he faces, the friendships he makes, and the personality growth that occurs.

One of the highlights of the story is the commencement speech that the headmaster of the middle school gives his fifth and sixth graders: "Be kinder than is necessary. Because it's not enough to be kind, one should be kinder than needed. We carry with as, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind but the very choice of kindness. Such a simple thing, kindness. A word of encouragement. An act of friendship. A passing smile."

And this is at the heart the gist of the book. The kindnesses extended to this boy and the kindnesses he gifts to others.

As I was discussing this book with my daughter, I told her that in the beginning, I had felt the story was being narrated by a girl, even though I found out a few pages in that his name was August. She called me on this. She said that just because the character talked about his feelings and it was in such a tender, vulnerable tone, it immediately "sounded" like a girl to me. I was aghast at my gendered thinking. I think I am open-minded, and here I was unconsciously labeling based on an old stereotype—such thinking is so subtle and so insidious; it creeps up on you despite being vigilant.

Who Buries the Dead by C.S. Harris
Categories: mystery, Regency
Commentary: Every spring, I read a C.S. Harris mystery novel. I never fail to pick the newest one up, because it's a guaranteed great read for me. No one I have read thus far does ominous scene-setting like Harris does. You fall into the mystery from the first page, immersed into the crime and into Regency England. She writes good stories with a muted but stylized approach to plotting and characterization. While her plotting is good, it's her characterizations that are the chief draw for me. Her protagonist, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is marvelously complicated.

She writes her stories so if a reader were to drop into her series any where in the middle, they'd be able to orient themselves with the setting and main characters and proceed to enjoy the story. At the same time, the character backstory is as subtle as possible so as to not detract from the story for readers reading her series right from the beginning.

I often puzzle about how to do this well. Given that Harris's central character is incredibly complex, sprinkling in a few details must make it difficult for a newcomer reading the series out of order to get a bead on his character. And yet, repeating basic details over and over again in every book for every new reader can get on loyal readers' nerves. What is the correct balance? Should the character not be made complex? But then how can that character sustain a long series if the character himself is not growing and changing and if the reader is not learning more and more about him with every book? How best to intertwine the details into the fabric of the story so that it is least noticeable by the long-term reader, and yet, for the new reader, it's an Aha! moment. To me, this is where the skill of a mystery writer is most evident.

The Little Book of Contentment: a guide to becoming happy with life and who you are while getting things done by Leo Babauta
Categories: nonfiction, life skills
Diversity: Written by a male author
Commentary: I have read other books by Babauta. He writes sparingly and well and persuasively. His self-confidence in the material and his manner of explaining go a long way in convincing me that his words might have merit. This book was no different from the others I have read. It is not a book for idle reading, but rather a book whose conclusions you can put into practice and he tells you exactly how to go about it.

In Contentment, he tackles the root of many problems in our lives: discontentment. We're discontented because of an ideal or a fantasy we're holding on to, unhappiness with who we are, lack of trust and confidence in ourselves, and seeking happiness externally. On the flip side of the coin, what is contentment? It is being happy right now with ourselves and our lives while stopping comparison with others/ideals/fantasies, stopping judgment of ourselves, and trusting ourselves. In the succeeding chapters, he talks in detail about all the factors of discontentment and contentment, finally leading to the techniques for self-acceptance and summary of action steps you can take.

Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS by Rebecca Eaton
Categories: nonfiction, memoir
Commentary: Recommended by author Mary Jo Putney.

Here's Eaton's job description, in her own words, of an executive producer of the two PBS series, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!: "You work hard to stick to your vision while still being open to the possibility that someone else's good idea, or just the serendipity of events, could change things dramatically for the better. You have to stay firm and flexible. And you must always push to reveal something new: an insight, a juxtaposition of images and ideas, a unique expression of an emotion, a piece of information."

I enjoyed her conversational, at times gossipy, style of writing as well as the honest look at her actions and those of others. She doesn't shield herself, nor does she aggrandize herself. Given how successfully she ran one of PBS's longest running series (and the sister series), her deprecating look makes her success all the more apparent. I was starstruck by the people she's worked with and her sangfroid in the face of their fame. Having said this, she was at times a little too eager in talking about her mistakes and talking up her boss's contributions, which saved her face, that she did come across as incompetent. I was in two minds about this. She definitely should've taken workshops on developing people's skills.

Over the years, Masterpiece has bought numerous shows and series from the BBC and ITV to American audiences and co-produced many more (where they put up funding, have some editorial say, and but overall, they're hands-off the projects). Every time Eaton goes on a fishing expedition to London, she's much wined and dined and pitched to by various producers with their current favorite projects. Her involvement has led to all these British shows being noticed at American Award shows, such as the Golden Globes and SAG, and to many of these actors going on to lucrative Hollywood careers.

Eaton's chapters on Downton Abbey are fascinating and best illustrate what it was she and all the various people do to bring a project of that magnitude to fruition. The sheer number of people involved—executive producers, producers, writers, directors, costumers, the crew, the star attraction (Maggie Smith), and the rest of the cast—boggles the mind. Then there's the expense of costuming and sets, not to mention details of housing and feeding since everyone had to be transported to the Highclere Castle estate of the Carnarvons for the "upstairs" part of the shooting and to London for the "downstairs" part of the shooting.

One interesting comment by Juliann Fellowes is worth noting for a reader of romance: "With drama, all the time, you're trying to think of tension. I always say that one of the hardest things to dramatize is happiness. That's why, in the old days, Hollywood films ended with the marriage and the kiss—because the drama was over."

A historical tidbit from Fellowes: "What was interesting to me was the rather longer relationship you had with servants in the country. In London, there was tremendous turnover. The average time for a footman to stay was eighteen months. If you read letters at the time, they were absolutely filled with the search for servants."

I would've liked to have seen a chronological trajectory of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!. Her narrative jumped around a fair bit leading to discombobulating conclusions at times, which had to be continually reassessed. I would've also liked to have seen her express more of an appreciation of how much her husband gave up to be Mr. Mom, including sacrificing his art (he's a sculptor). He did everything, while she worked and traveled for work and had a career.

Overall, this was a very interesting look behind the scenes of how Masterpiece has been put together over the years. I'm a fan of the series, and I have enjoyed its programming and contributed to their funding.