Friday, November 9, 2018

My October Reading (and Music)

When our very favorite writers have passed on, we always fantasize: WHAT IF they had left an unpublished manuscript behind. Wouldn't it be marvelous to read one more book by them? Well, that is exactly what happened this year. In January, Michael di Capua Books published a forgotten children's picture book with Maurice Sendak's original pictures and collaboration on a story with his friend of many years. Maurice Sendak! What a rare gift to his fans! (See below for more about the book and the story behind the book.)

In addition to the usual romance fiction and children's picture books this month, I read some poetry, some nonfiction, and a curious little book published in India in 1987. The romance novels are at the top followed by the rest of the books.

A Very Proper Widow by Laura Matthews
The Golden Songbird by Sheila Walsh
Category: Traditional Historical Romance
Comments: In A Very Proper Widow, Vanessa Damery is holding Cutsdean Hall in trust for her young son. James Damery, the fourth Earl of Alvescott, is the co-trustee and her son’s godfather, but he has neglected the estate forcing Vanessa to step in. When he finally visits, he finds that she politely but insistently challenges his sense of consequence due to him, but instead of getting offended, Alvescott works through his ego and tries to understand her point-of-view. This book has it all: tenderness, trust, vulnerability, maturity, respect, consent, loyalty, and wit.

In The Golden Songbird, the fourth Marquis of Mandersely wins Lucia Mannering in a wager. But instead of cringing in front of him in abject despair, she flings herself at him in a desperate bid to leave her house with him. Her stepfather is grooming her to be a wealthy nobleman’s plaything, and despairing, she is determined to have complete say in her future. The two do not get along at the outset—the way they are thrown together by the circumstances lends itself to uncomfortable interactions. Combine that with an attraction, and neither knows how to handle it. Luckily, his aunt is there to lend them her support. My reviews are here.

Band Sinister by KJ Charles
Category: m/m Regency Romance
Comments: This book was simply perfect—one of the best I've read this year. This story is a masterclass in consent: what it means, what its scope should be and how it should be employed in a relationship. The book is a classic tale of a world-weary rake meeting a country provincial, but shows how a true romance blossoms through care, attention, and patience...and trust. Charles also skillfully shows how social class, race, and religion in the early 19th-century society affect each character in the story differently and how they each navigate its pitfalls and joys. My review is here.

A Timeless Christmas by Alexis Stanton
Category: Time Travel Romance
Comments: This is a time-travel tale set in 1902 and 2018. Megan Turner has been working as a tour guide of the Whitley-Moran Mansion by impersonating Rosie, the housekeeper, along with other reenactors. The mansion was built by Charles Whitley in 1902. A self-made man and brilliant inventor and entrepreneur, Charles grew up poor and acquired vast wealth and influence through determination and hard work. Just when the actor playing the role of Whitley quits the museum, Charles time travels to the present. Megan had always been fascinated by Charles and half in love with his portrait. Seeing the real flesh-n-blood person has a devastating effect on her senses. In the meantime, Charles is overwhelmed with modern conveniences, but his innovator mind is busy making sense, while Megan is scrambling his emotions. My review is here.

Love Rekindled at Christmas by Eve Pendle, Elizabeth Keysian, E. Elizabeth Watson, Evelyn Isaacks, Diana Lloyd
Category: Historical Romance Anthology
Comments: This is a charity anthology with all proceeds being donated to Planned Parenthood. My reviews are here. There are some common themes across the five stories: Christmas, second-chance love, the Regency era, the parlor game Snapdragon, and a medium heat level. Here are two of the stories:

In A Pineapple in a Pine Tree by Eve Pendle, the young teenage couple were separated by misunderstandings. When they meet again, they're plagued with questions about what really happened then, had the other truly cared for them, and whether they care for them now, even as they realize that they're still attracted to each other and are getting to know each other better. Compounding this is that his wife died in childbirth, and he has made a vow not to make love to another woman to avoid the risk of her dying. What I liked about it is how the author made them work through the solution in a mature fashion rather than resolving it herself.

Christmas Wore Plaid by E. Elizabeth Watson is another story of trust. Scarlet fever tore the teen courting couple apart and machinations of relatives kept them apart. Now, she's a wealthy, sophisticated woman, whereas he is an impecunious laird. Even as they discover that their love for each other is unchanged, he is filled with despair. What can he offer her? But she is likewise filled with determination. She has a lot to offer him. And they could help each other achieve their goals, which are not so far apart, if only he'll allow her to make him happy. Like the above story, the author allows her characters to arrive at the solution on their own.

This Month's Music
This month, my car was dominated by repeated demands to listen to Panic! At The Disco and Ariana Grande...over and over and over again till the tunes and words were etched in my brain and...wonder of wonders...I began to enjoy them, so much so, that I may have even played them in the car even when the Demanders were not in it.

Tales from Hitopdesa translated and adapted by Asha Bhalekar
Category: Children's Folktales
Comments: Written centuries ago, these tales are from the great Sanskrit classic Hitopdesha. Bhalekar has adapted some of the stories for younger readers. Each story involves either anthropomorphic animals or people and animals and usually has a moral in the end. They're such heartwarming stories that they would appeal to adults as well as children. Here's one of them:

The Ghost Bell is a story of the error of making false assumptions. One day, a brazier, a maker of metal bells, is walking through the forest when a lion kills him. His bell is left lying on the forest floor. A group of monkeys are delighted with their find and hang it on a tall tree and ring it whenever they pleased. When the nearby villagers hear the bell at night, they become nervous. They are sure it is a ghost. So they stop sending their livestock to graze in the forest and live in fear of being killed. One day, a frail, old woman says that she'll get to the bottom of this. Everyone laughs at her, but she is insistent.

One early morning, off she goes to the forest with freshly-roasted peanuts. She heads straight to the place where the bell is ringing. When the woman comes upon the group of monkeys ringing the bell, she leaves the peanuts scattered on the grounds and quietly climbs up the neighboring tea. When the monkeys scramble down to eat the peanuts, she snatches the bell and throws it into the nearby river. Then she goes home and tells the head of the village that she has solved the problem. When the bell no longer rings, everyone praises her bravery to the skies and gives her a large reward for her bravery. And she lives happily ever after.

The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers by Alice Walker
Category: Poetry
Comments: I was privileged to attend a talk by Alice Walker earlier this month. (My notes on the lecture are at this link.) I have been reading some more of her The World Will Follow Joy. "Hope" is such a poem for our times. It talks about coveting what other people have, of seizing what belongs to others by force and enjoying what they enjoyed before while they now suffer. It is a poem of privilege and entitlement.

Hope never to believe / this robbery / will make you a better / citizen of your new / country / as you unfurl and wave / its recent / flag / that has been given / to assure you / of this impossibility.

You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay
Category: Spiritual Nonfiction
Comments: This is going to be an ongoing book as I read it slowly and try to understand what it is she is really trying to say. There are exercises in the book as well, but in this first readthrough, I'm just going to be reading. I'll do the exercises the second time through. Hay is a psychologist, whose advice has energized millions of people, particularly women. I'm at the stage in my life where I find myself struggling with definite areas of myself that need intentional work. So I decided to pick up this book on a recommendation of a close friend.

Each chapter opens with an affirmation that Hay suggests you use when you're working on that area of your life. She also suggests that you take two to four days to study and work with each chapter. Keep saying and writing the affirmation that opens the chapter. The chapters close with a treatment, which is a flow of positive ideas designed to change your thought patterns. Hay recommends reading over this treatment several times a day for a few days following the end of the chapter.

Some of her philosophical points:
1. We are each responsible for all of our experiences.
2. Every thought we think is creating our future.
3. The point of power is always in the present moment.
4. Resentment, criticism, and guilt are the most damaging patterns.
5. The bottom line for everyone is: "I'm not good enough." It's only a thought, and a thought can be changed.
6. Self-approval and self-acceptance in the now are the keys to positive changes When we really love ourselves, everything in our life works.

Beyond Birds & Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids about Sex. Love, and Equality by Bonnie J. Rough
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: All schools have a mandatory health class in middle school and high school. However, what I realized is that all they were doing was telling kids what they should NOT do, not what they should/could do. It was all about telling them all the wrong about relationships and social situations that they need to watch out for—it's about inducing guilt. However, in addition to showing this, I would've liked them to show what are good relationships and what are the positives they should seek—it's about showing them joy. "Don't do bad" is fine. But also teach "do this good." That is why when I found out about Beyond Birds & Bees, I was immediately fascinated. In this book, through personal experiences, the author is writing about how the Dutch approach sexuality in a relaxed, matter-of-fact manner that conveys the normalcy of it as well as how good it feels. The arc of the book is to show how these attitudes leads to better health and success of young adults, eventually leading to gender parity.

The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, in association with Help Refugees
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a story of how a day that began in all innocence in an elementary classroom was turned into a war zone by lunchtime. The child's home was a black hole and her family nowhere to be found. The war had taken everything...leaving her to set off alone, joining strangers on a journey to who knows where and to what lies ahead. Despite reaching a refugee camp safely, war had followed her everywhere on her journey; it had taken possession of her very heart. And if you think this is heartrending enough, picture what happens next to this little girl as door after door in the town shuts to her, where she is shunned, and denied a chair at a school filled with laughing children. Until...some brave, kind children come to the refugee camp with chairs for her and the other kids.

NGO Help Refugees says that out of the world's 22.5 million refugees, more than half are children. In the spring of 2016, the UK government refused to give sanctuary to 3000 unaccompanied child refugees. In reaction to that, Davies wrote this poem published in the Guardian. It caught fire on social media under the hashtags #ChooseLove and #3000Chairs accompanied by pictures of empty chairs. This book was published this year.

Presto & Zesto in Limboland by Arthur Yorinks & Maurice Sendak
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Before I get into the story behind the story, let me tell you a bit about this silly, entertaining story. Presto and Zesto while searching for cake end up in Limboland. The only way they can get out of Limboland is by attending the wedding of two sugar beets where they will be cake. The only way they can attend the wedding is by stealing the wedding gift from the monster of Limboland.

Forty-eight years ago, Sendak and Yorinks met over cake and sealed they friendship over a mutual love of music, words, and pictures. In 1990, Sendak was asked to provide projections for Janacek's Rikadla, a composition that sets a series of nursey rhymes to music. Then he put the pictures in a drawer and forgot about them. Then in 2000, he and Yorinks met in his studio and the subject of the Sugar Beets pictures came up and they decided then and there to convert them into a picture book. So they arranged them in order and began riffing on a story that might turn these disparate pictures into a coherent story. And in so doing, laughed themselves silly. The book then lay hidden and misfiled until it was resurrected recently and published in January. What a gift to readers!

Bees: A Honeyed History illustrated by Piotr Socha, text by Wojciech Grajkowski, translated from Polish by Agnes Monod-Gayraud
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Did you know, honey bees have existed for at least a hundred million years? Fossilized evidence in amber has given truth to this supposition. And thus begins this huge picture book on bees accompanied by gorgeous and very colorful illustrations. While the information is clearly aimed at upper elementary children, the illustrations will please preschoolers. This book is narrative nonfiction at its best: informative, entertaining, and appealing. From the biology of the bees to the danger environment poses to bees to the usefulness of bees to humans (and Greek gods) to human-made decorative hives for the bees to digestible fun party tidbits about bees, this giant book would make a fantastic addition to your home library—for the sticker price of a hardcover book, your child is guaranteed more than one school project. Why even Napoléon thought very highly of bees and made them a symbol of France.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

My September Reading

This year so far, I hadn't read enough books in translation, so this month, I decided to change it up. I enjoy how the rhythm of English flows differently for such books if the translation is done right. I don't mean that the English is awkward and deliberately looks "translated." A clever translator can retain the rhythm and meter of the original language in addition to conveying in English the images it paints and the prose it employs. This month, I read three such children's picture books in translation.

Poetry of Chinua Achebe
Category: Poetry
Comments: Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian poet, novelist, and critic. I have had Achebe on my radar ever since he won the Booker, but it finally took my pursuit of different poets for me to run across his work. Here is a brief excerpt from his poem Flying. It reminds me so much of Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull in the imagery it invokes.

I too have known
A parching of that primordial palate,
A quickening to manifest life
Of a long recessive appetite.
But oh what beauty! What speed!
A chariot of night in panic flight
From Our Royal Proclamation of the rites
Of day! And riding out Our procession
Of fantasy We slaked an ancient
Vestigial greed shriveled by ages of dormancy.

Article & Interview
Comments: I interviewed Jennifer Kloester, Georgette Heyer's official biographer about a wide-range of topics. She was marvelous, generous and informative. I also interviewed Sourcebooks' editorial director about their re-release of Heyer's Arabella, Frederica, and The Grand Sophy with new covers. The article also contains a retrospective look at all the covers ever published for those three books.

The Mésalliance by Stella Riley
The Dreadful Debutante by Marion Chesney / M.C. Beaton
Category: Traditional Georgian and Regency Romances
Comments: The Mésalliance is the second book in Riley’s Georgian Rockliffe series with the story of the Duke of Rockliffe “Rock,” who was first introduced in The Parfit Knight. The story relies on The Big Misunderstanding trope, but Riley’s handling of it is commendable. I am usually not fond of such plots, but I was won over by this story. And subverting the trope, it is the heroine, not the hero, who is in the wrong and who needs to atone for wronging the hero.

Written in 1994, The Dreadful Debutante is the start of Beaton’s Regency-set The Royal Ambition series, featuring an ingénue who’s also a cross-dressing hoyden who enjoys riding horses ventre à terre. Our hero is a gentleman of consequence with an imp on his shoulder. Neither can resist behaving unconventionally under the very noses of polite society, leaving scandals in their wake. My reviews are here.

Last Night With the Earl by Kelly Bowen
Summer of Scandal by Syrie James
His Rags-to-Riches Contessa by Marguerite Kaye
Category: Historical Romances
Comments: Bowen is one of my best finds in historical romance. Everything I have read by her, I have loved, so much so, that I am convinced she cannot write a bad book. In Last Night With the Earl, Bowen does a masterful job of showing how the bleak and barren outlook both Rose and Eli have on life is transformed as these two damaged souls find solace in the other. Their growing vulnerability and trust with each other are fragile in the beginning, but strengthen over time as do their growing inner confidence and belief in themselves. Their happiness with each other is hard-earned and that much more precious.

In Summer of Scandal, both Gray and Madeleine are hiding their deepest wishes from their parents in fear of censure and disapprobation. Discontent and disappointed, they find in each other someone whose mind and heart marches with their own. James skillfully shows how talented Charles and Madeleine are at their respective hobbies and how they intend to turn their avocation into a vocation. Being indolent aristocrats is not in their makeup—these are two energetic individuals who want to actively engage with life. And thus they may not be the epitome of perfection, but nevertheless they are perfect for each other.

Class differences and uncontrollable addiction for gambling are the main themes of Kaye's story. Even when they declare their love for each other, Becky and Luca struggle to bridge the gap of Becky’s life experiences and Luca’s duties toward his title. Kaye does not magically sweep their obstacles under the carpet but allows them to grapple with the problems to arrive at a true solution. Falling in love is easy, but building an enduring marriage takes work, care and, above all, a deep abiding respect of the other, and that is at the heart of this marvelous story. My reviews are here.

Couldn't Ask for More by Kianna Alexander
Not Another Family Wedding by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romances
Comments: This was my first book by Lau, and I highly recommend it. On the surface, this is a story of two people in their 30s discovering love after nearly 20 years of friendship. But the story is truly about relationships: relationships between parents, parents and children, siblings, extended family and love interests. It is a story of how you exist within yourself and with others and how every action of every person you interact with has repercussions, small and large, on you. With deep insight and delicacy, Lau navigates all the tricky human relationships in this book with assuredness.

Alexander's book is set in the fashion industry and she's clearly done her homework. I enjoyed how young and fresh the characters sounded in this story and how interconnected they all are. Long-term relationships are hard whether they’re between friends or families, so it was good to see deep, abiding closeness between the people in this book. While the emphasis is of course on the romance between Alexis and Bryan, and we see both of them through the other person’s eyes and through their own thoughts, all the other relationships in this novel also inform on the protagonists—who they are as people, what is important to them and what they’re willing to sacrifice and for whom. My reviews are here.

Chirri & Chirra by Kaya Doi, translated from Japanese by Yuki Kaneko
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I am not artistically talented, so I cannot describe the creative colored-pencil artwork (at least that is what it looks like to me). Chirri and Chirra are pedaling through the forest one day, when they come across a magical forest café, which serves them acorn coffee and honeybees violet tea. Then they set off to ride on through the forest for a while, when they chance on a bakery in the forest that breads in all shapes and jams in all colors and serves creative combinations of the two for all the animals of the forest. After eating, off they go through the forest and arrive at a forest hotel. And there they meet all kinds of creatures with whom they attend a music concert and sing together. What a lovely story of togetherness and belonging no matter who you are.

Marwan's Journey by Patricia de Arias, illustrated by Laura Borràs, translated from Spanish
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This heartrending story gives a human face to what refugees all over the world face. Young Marwan's journey is our journey; it is one of courage of taking that step away from home to a far away strange land in search of a new home. It's is a story of belonging and othering, a story of peace and strife, a story of suffering and hope, and ultimately, a story of a human being. While the story doesn't say, the pictures show that Marwan's journey starts in the desert from a town with minarets and redolent with the smell of tea and jasmine. "I walk...and I don't know when I will get there, or where I am going. I carry a heavy bag. My mended clothing, a prayer book, a notebook, a pencil, a photograph of my mommy."

How Raven Got His Crooked Nose translated and retold from Alaskan Dena'ina by Barbara & Ethan Atwater, illustrated by Mindy Dwyer
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a fable that has been passed down among the Alaskan Dena'ina (Athabascan) people for centuries. Many of the Dena'ina fables are teaching stories for the young. Chulyen, a raven, commits foolish acts, but through his magical powers manages to solve his problems, well, sort of, not quite. This is a sukdu, a story, that was told to Barbara Atwater by her great uncle, a Dena'ina elder, and is retold in English with a sprinkling of the Athabascan language.

This is a tale told by Chida, a grandmother, to her granddaughter. Chulyen is very proud of his straight nose. One day, things do not go as planned and he finds that he loses his nose. He is desolate, but through his magical powers, he knows where his nose is, but how to get it back? In the meantime, the nose is being used by an old woman for all her daily chores and it becomes the worse for wear. In the meantime, Chulyen assumes human forms and creates an army of sand soldiers. They raid the old woman's hut. But in his hurry to get his nose back on, Chulyen jams the soft nose any which way on his face and it ends up crooked. The moral of the story is that it is always best to take your time and do things right. We may not get a chance to fix our mistakes. Dach' qidyuq, and that is what happened.

Baby Goes to Market by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a cute story of a baby and his mother set in South West Nigeria. This counting book's joy comes from the rhythmic, poetic style of the writing and humorous colorful illustrations. Baby rides to the market slung on his mother's back. He is so cute, cheerful, and funny that market sellers gift him with food; he eats some and puts the rest in the basket on his mother's head. His mother is so busy buying things that she does not notice her basket getting heavier than usual. When Mama finds out what her baby and the market sellers have been doing, she tells the baby that he is a good boy because he put all the gifts in the basket without eating anything. The naughty baby falls asleep, his belly full, and his mother none the wiser.

Friday, October 5, 2018

My Notes on Alice Walker's Talk

On Thursday night, I was extremely fortunate to be able to go listen to Alice Walker talk, to listen to her read her own words in her own voice. It was only through her voice did her words gain such power and beauty. She lives in her dreams in what she writes. Poetry comes to her—she does not seek it. Novels come to her in images.

Here are a few things I managed to capture in my notebook as she was talking...

"We have to believe that we are the agents of the change we want to see in the world. Though our wings may be small, though they might look weak, if they're moving, they can be changing the climate all over our world."

She thinks very highly of Thich Nhat Hanh, a renowned Buddhist monk, who she says taught how to take the arrow out of the heart.

"Take the arrow out of your heart instead of railing at the person who shot you. Look to yourself. Relieve your own pain. It is hard to live when we are in such pain. Be with your pain and let go of it: meditate. On your in-breath watch all the misery you have. Then breathe out what you would rather have for yourself and for others. This is your guiding direction."

(This is the essence of Buddhism:) "We've all had arrows; some of us more than others. Some may think they've never had any arrows. They're the ones who are most pinned to the wall! But as you go along, you learn that suffering is the great teacher. It takes training to recognize the benefits."

"Love the mystery of life, the unknown. Learn to be grateful you are here in this wonder. My favorite word is "amazed." I can't believe what we've blundered into, being born in this world, wherever we are. It is a gift."

(Be authentic:) "The long road home to who you really are."

"Get clarity within yourself. Wait for it. Meditate. Dream. Walk. Believe in the beauty of the world."

(Be in the moment:) "I live my life as it unfolds."

"No matter how deep the fall into obscurity and obscenity this new age portends, life might permit us to remain standing, if only on the inside."

(Let people be who they are:) "No one is going to have all the qualifications you want this person to be."

"One of the greatest joy of our life is that we always have teachers. Finding them is our task. The people who have gone before us, stood for us. We are loved by these teachers. They teach us how the world works and should work."

"Remember that we have a soul. Just the certainty of knowing that should be our lodestar."

"What goes into the making of a human being, the good and the bad, is timeless."

"All loss has a door. Stay with the curiosity about who you were and who you will be. The door at the bottom of the well will penetrate your sorrow. There is no door-less bottom to this life."

"Facing fear, stepping into your better selves, takes courage and work. Encourage people to work. Freedom is a constant struggle. Do the work. Make progress. Work is endless. Accept that, and keep doing it."

When asked what truth artists need to be shouting: "I don't believe in shouting. It's enough to get clarity, and often, clarity has to be prayed for."

"Don't waste your energy on something that doesn't matter much anyway. Life teaches you to let go. And it's a good thing to learn."

She blogs regularly about politics, books recommendations, and whatever else takes her fancy. She also shares snippets of poetry or entire original poems about current events. She's currently fascinated by Nigerian writers and the work they are producing. Her favorite book that she can recall at the top of her head is The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

An aside: She participated in the 1963 March on Washington, where she met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Another aside: In 1983, she coined the term "womanist" to mean a feminist of color, thus elevating the importance of diversity in feminist pursuits.

While her book tour was for her newly-released poetry book Taking the Arrow out of the Heart, I picked up her earlier book of poems The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers, when her journey into Buddhism was still fairly young. I bought the book for her very first poem, which is in praise of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, someone whom I admire deeply and consider the most holy of human beings.

"What Makes the Dalai Lama Lovable?"

He smiles / As he bows / To Everything: / Accepting / The heavy / Burdens / Of / This earth; / Its / Toxic / Evils / & Prolific / Insults.

Whenever I see / The Dalai Lama / My first impulse / Is to laugh / I am so happy / to / Lay eyes / On / One / So effortlessly / Beautiful.

The Dalai Lama is Cool / A modern word / For / "Divine" / Because he wants / Only / Our collective / Health / & Happiness.

That's it!

What makes / Him / Lovable / Is / His holiness.

The talk and reading part of the event was excellent. Then came the conversation led by Vivian Phillips, one of Seattle's Arts Commissioners, an adjunct professor in Seattle University's MFA Arts Leadership program, and known as a communications professional and civic arts leader and advocate in the region.

In short, the conversation was a disaster. Phillips loved the sound of her own voice—she talked more than Walker could. She asked a question and then started answering it herself rather than giving Walker the floor. She had zero interviewing skills. She didn't know how to keep the conversation flowing based on what Walker was saying. She asked the most inane of audience questions without moderating them.

But worst of all, she was ill-prepared and had obviously not read anything about Walker other than some cursory biographical details and nothing of Walker's work other than The Color Purple and that, too, not very thoughtfully. I realize TCP is what Walker is known for, but she is a writer of far greater import than that one book. Walker is as much of an activist as she is a writer. A brief look through her blog reveals what she thinks about everything happening in the world today. Very little of this was brought forth in the conversation. Surely, if you were charged with interviewing a writer of Walker's stature, you would do the needful homework and really get to know your subject and their work, and brush up on interviewing skills. What a disappointment!

Friday, September 7, 2018

My August Reading (and Music)

I have always found that children's picture books are very avant garde in terms of America's socio-cultural issues. This current market is full of immigrant and multicultural stories. In comparison, the Romance market seems so out of step with what is currently happening in our country. Immigrant stories are almost nowhere to be found. See below for the children's immigrant stories I read this month.

Poetry of Donald Hall
Category: Poetry
Comments: I have been slowly making my way through Donald Hall's poetry. I discovered him when a friend of mine brought his obituary to my attention. I enjoyed that obituary very much; it reminded me of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which I love. He was considered a major American poet. What I like best about his work that I have explored so far is that he examines a more bucolic past with reverence for nature, which is what has always drawn me to the Romantic poets. He is compared to poet Robert Bly—Mary Bly AKA Eloisa James's father—whom he met at Harvard. His academic credentials are every student's dream: Philips Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, Stanford. Given my love for Didion's memoir of her marriage, I should read Hall's memoir of his marriage as well: The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon. I am fascinated by how two people negotiate their marriage.

Tender Secrets by Ann Christopher
Adam and Eva by Sandra Kitt
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Tender Secrets was originally published by Kimani, and it is now published by Blue Iris Press. In this book, the handsome CEO billionaire Adam Warner meets his match in fiery reporter Viveca Jackson. I loved this book’s trope-tastic, over-the-top-ness. She blames the Warners for the loss of her father and their subsequent financial hardships when she was young. She intends to write an exposé of the Warners via a biography. Originally published by Harlequin in 1984, Adam and Eva is one of the early books by an African-American author featuring African-American characters. Kitt is a hugely popular author, and this small book packing a big story is a good read. I found this look into 1980s gender norms interesting. At the beginning of the book, he’s an alpha male and she’s the soft-hearted foil for him, but the heart of the story is how they change. My brief reviews are here.

Untouchable by Talia Hibbert
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I have been hearing high praise about Talia Hibbert, and I'm glad I read Untouchable. Nate and Hannah were each other’s childhood crush in the small town of Ravenswood and took great pains to hide it from each other then. After high school, they went their separate ways, he to the big city to work as a photographer, while she stayed on in town, working with small children. Both love their work. When they meet again, Hannah has been to jail for smashing up someone else's car (she has a very good reason why) and Nate is divorced with two children. Nate has returned home to the small town because his mother is very ill, and he hires Hannah as a nanny for his children. Hibbert handles her characters’ mental illnesses and developmental challenges with gentleness and finesse. A great read. My review is here.

A Lady Needs an Heir by Louise Allen
The Mysterious Lord Millcroft by Virginia Heath
A Gentleman Never Keeps Score by Cat Sebastian
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Set in Portugal and England of 1815, the premise of A Lady Needs an Heir is a complex set of issues keeping the hero and heroine apart that require trust, respect, ingenuity, and legal acumen to resolve. Gabrielle Frost is one of the descendants of the English aristocracy who have been cultivating port wine in Portugal for generations. She requires an heir to bequeath her quinta (farm) to, but she cannot marry, because her husband would then own and business and could destroy it in one fell swoop. So how is she to go off, have a discreet affair, and return home pregnant and a grieving widow? And yet, when she falls in love with Gray, what will she choose: port or marriage? Can she have both?

Heath's The Mysterious Lord Millcroft is my first book by her. Where Sebastian Leatham is very shy around women, Clarissa Beaumont is bold and confident around men. Where Seb’s tongue gets tied into knots, Clarissa is glibly tongued. Where he is awkward, she radiates sophistication and confidence. In social scenes, Seb fades into the woodwork, while Clarissa glitters like a diamond. Seb is a successful spy, Clarissa is a fêted society Incomparable.

Last year was when I read my first Sebastian book, and I've read many of them since. His godfather bequeathed an unentailed London townhouse to Hartley Sedgewick and gypped his heir out of it. The heir in retribution spread the news that Hartley had been in an unnatural relationship with his father. Doors shut in Hartley's face as society shunned him. Sam Fox is a good, kind man who, through his public house, offers warmth, good food and ale and a place of safety for all sorts of people from London’s underbelly. These two men from such disparate backgrounds, wealth and race and experience, find tenderness, warmth, and respect with each other. My brief reviews are here.

Some of the Music I Listened to This Month

The Celtic Voice by Clannad: Sung in Irish Gaelic, the music brings alive the ancient Celtic traditions from County Donegal, Ireland.

The Book of Secrets by Loreena McKennitt: I came to McKennitt's music when my love of medieval romance took off and the music really spoke to me. The underlying theme of this album is this saying by Lao Tzu [570-490 BC]: "A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." The music's dreamy, exploratory nature (in instrumentation and McKennitt's glorious mixed voice) lends itself naturally to the quote.

Carmina Burana by Carl Orff: This is the hardest piece of music I have ever sung. The original poem is from 13th C and is written in Medieval Latin, Middle High German, and Old French, as well as vernacular versions thereof. Orff set twenty-four of those poems to music in 1936, and it is a very challenging piece to sing. The difficult words come at you hard and fast and diction has to be incredibly precise to convey the words to the audience. Abrupt dynamic changes and vocal shifts add to the complexity.

Requiem by Mozart: This was my first large piece of music and I sang it at a time when my sightreading skills were rudimentary at best as was my vocal technique. I compensated by listening to the piece over and over again and memorizing it. Decades later, I still remember it all, including the solo pieces and instrumentation.

Dim Sum for Everyone by Grace Lin
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This book is a great way to introduce the concept of dim sum to a young child before they go there so they know what to expect. Lots of little, little dishes; something for everyone. This family of five has different likes and dislikes and everybody can get what they want and also share what others like. The book also has a little bit of cultural history. Before dim sum became widespread, people would gather in teahouses for yum cha or tea drinking after work. Eventually, teahouses began serving small dishes of food to go with their tea—the tea happy hour soon began to be called dim sum or something that touches the heart, because people can point and choose.

Natsumi! by Susan Lendroth, illustrated by Priscilla Burris
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is the perfect story for a child who marches to their own drum. It is totally okay to be going about life your own way. For a small girl, Natsumi does everything in a big way: she is a ninja and she is a runner, she bangs doors and she loudly slurps her noodles. Her parents are at their wits' end; only her grandfather smiles and says nothing. When her family decides to join in the preparations for their town's annual arts festival, Natsumi decides she would participate, too. When she joins her mother at a gentle fan and kimono dance rehearsal, she is a samurai leading troops to battle with her mighty war fan. "YAAAAHHH!" She tries many things, but after many remonstrances, she runs over to her grandfather dejected that she's a failure at everything. Her grandfather then comes up with the perfect answer to her energy and enthusiasm for life: taiko drumming. Rather than conforming her to expected norms, he plays to her strengths.

Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes by Hena Khan, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I have read other of Khan's books and books illustrated by Amini before, so I was eager to read this one. And the book is gorgeous! From the beautiful artwork to the stories and shapes of the Muslim world, this is a book to savor. A little history quoted from the author's note: "When Muslim mathematicians and astronomers made significant contributions to science and technology in the early middle ages, their discoveries also influenced Islamic art and architecture." So the choice of the shapes in this book is not just mathematical and religious, but also artistic and cultural.

Cone is the tip of the minaret so fall. I hear soft echoes of the prayer call.
Octagon is a fountain, its water so blue. I wash before prayers and make my
Arch is the mihrab that guides our way. We stand and face it each time we pray.

(A mihrab is a niche in the wall in most mosques that indicates the direction of Mecca and is beautifully decorated.
Wudu is the ritual washing of hands, arms, face, head, and feet before prayer.)

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Sourcebooks Reissues Georgette Heyer's Books and an Interview with Jennifer Kloester, Heyer's Official Biographer

Sourcebooks is reissuing Georgette Heyer's books with the first three published yesterday (September 4) with completely new covers. The Georgian and Regency romance books will be issued in waves of 2-3 books over a year. Here are new covers for Arabella, Frederica, and The Grand Sophy plus all the old covers of those books ever published.

In conjunction with the release of these books, I interviewed Sourcebooks Casablanca's editorial director Deb Werksman about her perspective for the impetus to redoing the covers.

I also had a wide-ranging interview with Heyer's official biographer Jennifer Kloester.

If you're a fan of Heyer, these two articles are a fun read.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

My July Reading

Have you ever met (or seen) a person and known that you will revere them forever? That was my experience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I saw him across a stadium from the nose-bleed section with binoculars, but it didn't matter that I wasn't within ten feet of him. The impact was just the same. That cheerful smile, those frequent chuckles, and his way of explaining things that cut right through the flattery and overuse of complex psychological mumbo-jumbo by the other guests on the stage made a profound impression on me. I have since read multiple books by him, followed his live teachings from Bodh Gaya in India, and read articles about him. He is the one person I want to meet before I die.

The Dalai Lama's Book of Wisdom
Category: Nonfiction Spiritual
Comments: I have read this little book many times over the years, and every time, I see something new that I need to think over. On the surface it would seem that a focus on happiness and compassion, love and forgiveness is simplistic and not very cerebral or revolutionary. But his teachings are not about what you should not do but more about what you should do. It is a prescription for life out of darkness into the light, which is what Buddha's teachings were about. He prefaces this little book of profundity with this humble paragraph:

"I am a Buddhist and my whole way of training is according to the Buddhist teaching. Although I speak from my own experience, I feel that no one has the right to impose his or her beliefs on another person. I will not propose to you that my way is best. The decision is up to you. If you find some point which may be suitable for you, then you can carry out experiments for yourself. If you find that it is of no use, then you can discard it."

Poetry of Walt Whitman edited by Jonathan Levin, illustrated by Jim Burke
Category: Poetry
Comments: I continued reading Whitman's poetry that I started last month. I adore the following poem; to me, it is reminiscent of Wordsworth's word painting.

O the gleesome saunter over fields and hillsides!
The leaves and flowers of the commonest weeds, the moist fresh stillness of the woods,
The exquisite smell of the earth at daybreak, and all through the forenoon.

—"A Song of Joys"

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I really liked Cole's first Reluctant Royals book, A Princess in Theory (my review is here), and this second book as well. I've enjoyed the fairytale nature of both these stories with their gleeful departure from pertinent societal rules and norms, while staying true to the characters' emotions and the integrity of storytelling. I liked the first story better than this one, because a fanciful kingdom with detailed worldbuilding but no sense of an actual place makes that leap of faith easier than a made-up town near well-known Edinburgh with actual historical landmarks like Holyrood and actual people like QEII.

The heroine in A Duke by Default is a wealthy socialite from among the upper upper crust of New York City. The hero is a medieval swordmaker in a small town of Scotland. Portia has ADHD, but it's only partway through the book that she realizes that for herself, and it was a joy to see that bone-deep relief at finally understanding herself. So far in her life (she's nearly thirty), she has internalized the constant message that she's a screw-up, she can't see things through, she's a mere social butterfly.

Tavish, on the other hand, comes from a very close, loving family, so emotionally, he is secure. He is also secure in his line of work: making swords for sale and teaching swordsmanship classes to students, but especially the struggling low-income kids. However, he does have an unknown skeleton in his closet, which Portia unearths through her marvelous sleuthing skills. His biological father was a duke and the dukedom has been in abeyance for a lack of a direct heir, however, as Portia discovers, Tavish has been the heir all along. (And here comes that big leap of faith—a bastard inheriting—among other such leaps.) My review of is here.

Wish with the Candles by Betty Neels
Tabitha in Moonlight by Betty Neels
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I love Neels. Her doctor-nurse books always work for me, because she knows how to write great characters. In Wish with the Candles, British surgical nurse Emma Hastings and Dutch cardiothoracic surgeon Justin Teylingen meet in The Netherlands when she rear-ends his expensive Rolls-Royce Cornische convertible with her modest and barely-functioning Ford Popular. When they part ways, she decides to put the matter behind her. So imagine her surprise, when she returns to work at her Southampton hospital, she finds out that he is going to be a visiting professor of surgery there and that she's been assigned to his cases. In Tabitha in Moonlight, Tabitha Crawley is a nursing sister of the orthopedic ward where Marius van Beek arrives as a consulting orthopedic surgeon from The Netherlands. His sleepy and laidback manner with the patients on the ward belies his quickness and assured skillfulness in the operating room.

At work, both Emma and Tabitha are confident in their abilities, work hard and efficiently and manage their team of nursing staff with authority and compassion. Outside of work, however, they are both self-effacing, beset with doubts and allow their families to run over them. My brief reviews are here.

Forbidden Night with the Prince by Michelle Willingham
Category: Medieval Romance
Comments: This is the third book in the Warriors of the Night series of stories set in medieval Ireland. Joan has had three men die on her upon her betrothal to them. She and the others in father's castle are convinced that she is cursed. Her future lies ahead of dreary and shunned and without a family of her own. She fiercely wants to have a child of her body to mother. It is her one driving passion and dictates her actions for much of the story.

At a mutual acquaintance's castle, she meets an Irish Prince on the run, who is looking for allies to help him overthrow the usurper to his father's throne. Joan's brothers promise to loan him men-at-arms on the condition that they wed Joan. Joan, afraid for his life, refuses. Ronan has no desire to marry under duress nor does he want to ever father a child due to tragedy in his past, so tries to finagle a way to have enough fighting men at his back without having to marry Joan.

But they have a strong attraction to each other. Joan doesn't see that Ronan has much choice other than to marry her, so she wants to break the curse and prevent him from dying, and she also desperately wants a child. So with the aid of love potion from a wise woman, she seduces him...and falls pregnant. My review is here.

It takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was my second Sebastian book, and like The Lawrence Browne Affair (my review is here), I thoroughly enjoyed it. She really knows how to write emotionally-charged, tender romances, where the protagonists treat under with such care and respect that it makes for enjoyable reading. It Takes Two to Tumble is the first book for her new Seducing the Sedgwicks series about a group of siblings from a ramshackle, unconventional family featuring their father, his wife, his mistress, and various guests (read: sycophants). The eldest son, Benedict, is the vicar of the parish of St. Aelred’s in Cumberland. He is compassionate and sensitive and keenly feels the loss of a kindred companion in his life. He also wants a conventional life that he never had growing up. When a grumpy naval captain used to command takes up residence at nearby Barton Hall, sparks fly between Philip Dacre and Benedict.

Master of Grex by Joan Wolf
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Given that this is a Joan Wolf and I have a huge collection of her traditional Regencies, I was very pleased that she was writing historicals again. But ultimately, I found this disappointing—perhaps because of my high expectations.

This book should've seen an editor, not just for copyediting issues but basic developmental editing to rein in its rambling aspects and focus it more on salient points when the narrative moved away from the protagonists to events happening around them. Many of Wolf's books have been political, which I have enjoyed, but I have always felt that the stories were tightly executed and every detail carefully chosen. This story has a long-windedness that was a letdown. The other issues I had with it were shades of colonialism, exotification of India, and also where a spot of research would've done the trick. For example, she refers to India's national language as Hindu (the religion) instead of Hindi (the language); they are not interchangeable.

Other than these issues, the marriage-of-convenience part the story was engaging. She is the daughter of an earl, brought up in gentility, but despised by her father and brother, both hardened gamblers. In a bid to get money to support their habit, they break the entail and sell their home, Grex, to a wealthy by-blow of an earl, who was brought up in poverty. She desperately wants to keep her home and restore the dilapidated structure, and he desperately wants to become Master of Grex and prove to his biological father that he was a man worth reckoning. So they marry.

Stolen Hearts by Michelle Martin
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Martin has written fabulous traditional Regencies, so I was eager to see what she would do in a contemporary setting. In this book, she shows that she has a very different but just as sure of a voice.

Tess Alcott has been trained to be a jewel thief from the tender age of eleven. For a few years before that she was in a foster home, where abuse was common, but she learned to survive since she had no other recourse. She has no recollection of her early childhood and how she came to be in the foster home. While Tess has great aptitude in being a jewel thief,as she gets older, she realizes that it is wrong, and she turns herself in to the country's primary law enforcement agency. She decides to atone for her past by helping them to capture thieves and people conning innocent folks into parting with their hard-earned money.

But when the brutish, menacing thug who taught her the thieving trade makes a return, she cannot say no. He now has the ultimate job for her: Con the ancient proprietor of the most prestigious auction house in the world into thinking that Tess is her long-lost heiress granddaughter in order to steal the most fabulous necklace on the planet. However, as Tess now works for the investigators themselves, how is she going to negotiate between her two opposing roles?

When Tess goes to meet the old lady, the grande dame is outwardly sweet and welcoming, but inwardly shrewd and alert. However, her lawyer, Luke Mansfield, is openly hostile to Tess, convinced from the get-go that she is out to con her supposed grandmother. While both Tess and Luke are instantly attracted to each other, they are both just as horrified by it. After all, they're enemies. He's out to prove her to be a fraud and she's out to beguile his client into declaring her as her heiress.

As time goes on and both Luke and Tess learn more about each other and start to trust each other, they start to wonder if she is truly the lost heiress or is she an imposter who many believe is the lost heiress? No one knows for sure, but Tess and Luke are determined to uncover the truth. Can their love survive the unmasking?

I love how much of a complex Japanese puzzle box Tess is and how patient Luke is in understanding her. The mystery of Tess's true identity is very skillfully handled. Since the reader knows more than the protagonists about each other, since each character reveals details of their thoughts to the reader but not to the other character, the reader watches with bated breath: when is who going to know about what?

Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: In this touching book, the world-famous ballerina, Copeland, shows a young girl how she, too, can become a ballerina, she, too, can become the Firebird, Copeland's signature role with the American Ballet Theater. Copeland's activism derives from the hope that young people will feel empowered to be whatever they want to be. To feel that they have no limits, just endless dreams that are reachable.

A little girl tells her, "You are the sky and clouds and air; your feet are swift as sunlight. Me? I am gray as rain, heavy as naptime, low as a storm pressing on rooftops. The space between you and me is longer than forever."

So Misty tells the girl that her beginning has just begun. She, too, used to be a girl with dreams. It was only through a thousand leaps and falls and blisters and torn slippers, she slowly soared higher.

"Even birds must learn to fly. Like me, you'll grow steady in grace, spread an arabesque of wings and climb. You'll become a swan, a beauty, a firebird. We'll make the moon our silver spotlight as we spin across the planets pirouetting tightly as the curls on our heads."

Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Erin McGuire
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Nelle Harper Lee was an adventurous girl, more at home in overalls, climbing trees, and watching her father try cases in the courtroom. But above all, she loved words and books. So when life took her in the late 1940s, from Monroeville, Alabama all the way to New York City, she wrote and revised stories every spare minute she could get. All the while, she waited for the story she was born to tell. And when it came to her, she wrote a masterpiece, helped along by a brilliant editor. The book was published in 1960 to wide acclaim, but Nelle remained an enigma to the world at large.

"You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
—Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Ganesha's Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes, illustrated by Sanjay Patel
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Ganesha is a roly-poly Indian God with the head of an elephant and a mouse on whose back he cruises around. He loves sweets, especially laddoos, which are round balls of deliciousness. In a departure from Hindu mythology, this story says that Ganesha breaks one of his tusks on an especially giant jawbreaker of a laddoo. Mr. Mouse tries to console him that his friends will still love him, even though he looks lopsided.

Distraught, Ganesha flings his broken tusk at the moon, but it lands instead on the head of the wise Vyasa, a renowned Vedic poet, who is the composer of one of the world's longest epic poems, the Mahabharata. Vyasa explains to Ganesha how special his tooth is—it is superior to all the pens in the world. Vyasa and Ganesha come to an agreement: So long as Vyasa can continuously narrate the epic, Ganesha would continuously write; he could eat as many sweets as he wants, so long as he understands every word he is writing. And so they go on to gift history with a hundred thousand verses of one of the greatest pieces of literature.

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: What a delightful story of the connection between a grandfather and his grandson told through the highly exaggerated and dramatized stories of his childhood. I'm glad the author included a glossary of the Hindi words used in the book; it allowed me to appreciate the story so much more. Dada-ji (grandfather) used to be a very strong boy in his childhood, and the villagers all marveled at his feat. Calls of arre waah! (well done!) rang out around the village. The reason for his power were the fluffy-puffy rotis his mother used to make for him on the hot, hot tavva (pan) and the tongue-burning spicy mango pickle she served with them. Hunh-ji! (Yes, sir!) Aneel is all fired up with his dada-ji's story, and seeing how frail he has now become, Aneel decides to make rotis for him to bring him tiger-like strength. Hunh-ji!