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.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

What Will Get You Published? Story!

Excellent advice by the famous Bernard Cornwell to the first-time historical novelist:

"The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story."

This is a good reminder for me as an aspiring novelist. I may have this fabulously researched piece of history, but if I do an info-dump without weaving it into the story, it's no good. Better to have a strong story that's light on history, rather than to have a mediocre story bogged down by heavy research. It's not simply good enough to get the historical details right—make no mistake, they have to be right—but it's important to know which details are pertinent to the story and how to minimally employ them. History in service of a good story, that is a historical novel; not the other way around.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Oldest Cookbook c. 1750 BCE

The world's oldest cookbook is on a clay tablet from Babylonia c. 1750 BCE. The Akkadian cuneiform writing system was so complex that it's the general consensus that only scribes could read it. So, this tablet wouldn't be a household commodity and was probably written to preserve typical Mesopotamian cooking examples for posterity.

Given that the recipes call for rare ingredients, this book probably represents cuisine for royalty. The Mesopotamians were great record keepers. So daily foodstuff purchases by the middle and lower classes are available as are vocabulary lists for foodstuffs. So the supposition of this clay tablet as representative of haut cuisine is borne out.

From the Yale Library site: "This tablet includes 25 recipes for stews, 21 are meat stews and 4 are vegetable stews. The recipes list the ingredients and the order in which they should be added, but does not give measures or cooking time - they were clearly meant only for experienced chefs."

Friday, March 20, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Romance Publishers Built Book Forts

The romance book publishers on February 27 decided to build book forts and tweeted them. First out of the gate was Avon, HarperCollins. They inspired the rest of the publishers, and a battle ensued.

Avon's was more of a palisade than a fort, in my opinion.

To combat that, St. Martin's Press built a throne.

Harlequin decided to up the ante on Avon's palisade with a solid wall.

Then came Kensington to conquer them all with a fortress.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Ibn Battuta's Medieval Travels

Ibn Battuta (1304–1377) was a great medieval Muslim explorer from Tangier, Morocco. He is largely considered as one of the greatest travelers of all time. Over a period of thirty years, he visited North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and China.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

P.D. James: In Memoriam

Right Honorable Phyllis Dorothy, Baroness James of Holland Park, died in her home in Oxford, England on Thursday, November 27 at the age of 94. Ever since that day, I've been meaning to write about my love of James and her books, but for some reason kept putting it off. My March has opened up with open blog spots, so here goes.

James was the person who introduced me to the world of British classic crime stories. I can't remember now which one I picked up first, but I do remember falling in love with her elegant prose, her erudite references, her characterization, attention to detail, and her intricate plotting. Every book I read of hers has never failed to renew my enjoyment in her writing. I enjoyed the energy of her Dalgliesh series more than her Cordelia ones, so I was glad to see the latter a short-lived series. Adam Dalgliesh, the poet scholar and Scotland Yard sleuth, will forever be remembered as an expert policeman and crime solver. His love life, will he / won't he, was the tension that ran through the series.

I was at loose ends after that, till I discovered Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy Sayers. And also Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie, modern authors writing in the similar police procedural style. I gave romantic suspense a try, cozy mysteries, thriller mysteries, and hardboiled American detective stories all a try, but I keep on

Since that first public library James discovery, for months, I read nothing else but James. Then I followed it up with her memoirs and then her musing on detective fiction. Recently, I was among the few who enjoyed her Death Comes to Pemberley. While I loved her mysteries, it were her memoirs, Time to be in Earnest that really made me like her as a person. It's a day-by-day (sort of) accounting of her activities, which act as jumping off points for a discussion on diverse issues.

In her book on detective fiction, James dismisses the boundaries between literary fiction and genre fiction. "And it is surely the power to create this sense of place and to make it as real to the reader as is his own living room—and then to people it with characters who are suffering men and women, not stereotypes to be knocked down like dummies in the final chapter—that gives any mystery writer the claim to be regarded as a serious novelist."

In James's work, a murder story is not merely a well-plotted tale. Murder is the start of the exploration of the minds and the hearts of her characters and the emotions it arouses in them. It explorers what makes her characters human—their foibles, their peccadilloes, their joys, their fears, their sorrows—and when life is shattered, these rise to the surface as never before.

In an interview she said of her detective Dalgliesh: "From the first I was aiming at credibility," she told the Guardian newspaper. "I thought, amateurs don’t really have the resources to investigate a murder. I must have a professional. And I couldn’t have a woman because there were no women in the detective force then. I simply produced the kind of hero I’d like to read about: courageous but not foolhardy, compassionate but not sentimental. I thought if I got fed up or bored with this man, the readers would too."

In her real life, she had to deal with a mentally ill husband, while holding down high-profile civil service jobs, raising her two daughters, and doing all the work that involves running every aspect of a household. In addition to this, in her early forties, she started writing. How in the world, did she find the energy and the courage to write Cover Her Face, her first book? Amazing woman, amazing writer, and I mourn her passing.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Heddal Stave Church of Norway

Heddal Stave Church of Notodden, Telemark is the largest stave church in Norway. It is also a living church and has been in continuous use since it was first built in 1200.

A stave church is a medieval wooden building once common in northwestern Europe. The name derives from the post and lintel construction structure of the buildings, a type of timber framing with the load-bearing posts called stav in modern Norwegian. The stave design are descended from the post design and palisade design of churches. At one point, closer to 2000 such stave churches were built in Norway alone. The numbers elsewhere in Scandinavia are unknown.

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.