Monday, July 1, 2019

My June Reading

Due to a family crisis at the end of May, my reading at the beginning of this month was all comfort reading and listening to my cassette tape of Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart over and over and over again.

I read traditional Regencies and old contemporaries, all short ones, one after the other. I was unable to hold stories in my head for long, detailed pieces for Frolic Media or All About Romance—see only short reviews below—and so I decided to stay away from books for review. I refused to surrender my integrity and turn in slap-dash pieces without much thought, so I thought it was better that I didn't embark on complicated books. As the crisis resolved into more long-term intensity later in the month and I wasn't as terrified every minute, I delved into some of the scheduled books.

My glom this month was Mary Burchell's Warrender Saga contemporaries for Mills & Boon from the 1960s and 1970s. For those of you who don't know her, Mary Burchell was the pen name of Ida Cook. Along with her eldest, sister Mary Louise Cook, she helped 29 Jews to escape from the Nazis, funded mainly by her writing. In 1965, the Cook sisters were honored as Righteous Gentiles by the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Israel. Ida published more than 125 romance novels in total and helped found the Romantic Novelists’ Association, standing as its president from 1966 until her death in 1986.

While I majored in Burchell, I minored in Betty Neels with a small glom of three books. I had read three of her books previously and read three this month. What is interesting about Neels is that she had two long careers. She took up romance writing, and wrote into her nineties, after she retired from nursing. Where did she find the stamina to write more than 130 books. Her nursing experience shows in her command of the hospital aspects of her books and that is what interests me most about her books.

I have a longish comparison and analysis of Burchell's and Neels' books after my reviews of those books.

This is a very long post since I read so much this month: 3600+ pages. First, there are the romance reviews, then the poetry ones, then nonfiction, and then children's picture books. At the very bottom of the post is a romance novel review with a content warning for rape. I put it at the bottom so you can skip it if need be. It is a Carla Kelly, and I consider it one of her best.

A Song Begins by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is Book 1 of Burchell's Warrender Saga series, written in the 1960s, and it tells the story of the world famous conductor Oscar Warrender and Anthea Benton, the only voice student he takes on as a protegée. He proceeds to browbeat her and her voice into submission. He thinks her voice needs a lot of careful development before she would be ready for the stage, and he guards her and convinces her away from being exploited by the lure of easy money and fame.

I really liked how the heroine tempers the hero's alpha-ness and how he in turn infuses her with a sense of self-esteem and an awareness of her own right in the music world and between them. What starts out as a severe imbalance of power between them, gets equalized by both of their efforts done purely for love. While he retains his basic alpha-ness outside the home in the music world, she retains her basic goodness and kindness in the outside world, too. But between themselves, they're equal partners, each having their alpha and beta moments.

Even in the short format, only 188 pages, Burchell developed a solid plot and characters of depth. It takes skill to write stories from the heroines' perspectives, because it can be difficult to portray the heroes well enough to not be caricatures. But by employing other people's perceptions, detailed observations of the hero's actions by the heroine, well-developed dialogue, and a look into the comprehensive cogitations of the heroine, Burchell built a full impression of the hero (and the heroine) in the reader's mind.

I took the self-effacement of the heroine and the patriarchy in stride, because I treated these books, written in the 1960s, as historicals, and they seem to fit in the mores of the time from what I know of them.

The Broken Wing by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is Book 2 of the Warrender Saga series and features the artistic director of a famous music festival, Quentin Otway, his secretary, Tessa Morley, and of course, Oscar Warrender, the famous conductor.

Quentin is the usual Burchell hero: demanding, brusque, temperamental, but brilliant. He was jilted three days before his wedding, and since then, has sworn off love.

Tessa lives in the shadow of her glamorous twin, and is content with her voice lessons, at which she is fantastic, and her job, also at which she is fantastic. Along the way, she falls in love with Quentin, but he seems to have no time for her, other than to carelessly tell her how much he values her as a secretary. And he flirts with her twin to her despair.

While I really enjoyed this book, I have an issue with the hero referring to the heroine as a "damaged angel," because she is a superb secretary and has a limp. WHAT!! Burchell's choice is upsetting. I had been warned by Willaful that there was problematic disability rep—for a few years, even the title of the book had been changed to that phrase—but I wanted to see for myself how Burchell portrayed disability. Her way of expressing the heroine here, made me skip Book 3 of the Warrender Saga, which features a hero blinded in adulthood.

A small peeve: I would like Burchell's heroines to not stammer to project an image of being an ingénue—it is a silly authorial affectation.

The Curtain Rises by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the Book 4 of the Warrender Saga, and in it, a secretary to a prima donna is virtually engaged to a gifted viola player, whose untimely death on a music tour leaves her grief-stricken. From chance remarks by various musicians and the conductors on the tour, she is led to the conclusion that something havey-cavey happened, and her fiancé's demise was not as straightforward as it initially seemed.

Until the 60% mark in the book, the heroine is lamenting after her fiancé, while at the same time, her awareness of the conductor from the tour is growing apace. But given that she blames him for the untimely death, she is clearly conflicted. Therefore, her realization that she is in fact in love with the conductor is a bit rushed—it feels she transfers her feelings from her fiancé to the conductor fairly quickly.

In the meantime, the conductor fell in love with her through her fiancé's descriptions during the tour, and her constant suspicion and cold accusations leave him distraught. It is remarkable how Burchell conveys this to the reader without the heroine realizing this, even though the story is told completely from her point-of-view. It is he who is the star of the story, while she is the alpha.

Child of Music by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the Book 5 of the Warrender Saga. The heroine is a music teacher of repute with a child prodigy as one of her students. She is determined to get the girl into a specialized boarding school for gifted musicians. The problem is that the enigmatic director of the school's girlfriend is the girl's aunt, and the girl is absolutely petrified of her evil aunt who hates her.

To complicate matters, our heroine is deeply attracted to the director, and he can see no wrong with the aunt, who pulls the wool over his eyes. The hero's naiveté where his girlfriend is concerned felt a tad disingenuous—he is a willing victim in his hoodwinking. So his realization that the heroine is his true love was a bit sudden towards the end. The hero is the story felt

This is a wonderful psychological thriller romance, where you are constantly left wondering when, where, and how the evil aunt will strike next. Burchell has created and sustained the atmosphere of menace rather well.

Music of the Heart by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the Book 6 of the Warrender Saga. I read Music of the Heart two years ago, and my experience this time was a bit different. It is all due to having read the Saga series one after the other, so I could appreciate Burchell's voice and storytelling style more and really enjoy seeing Oscar Warrender's character grow across the series. I got one read of Warrender when I came at this book in the middle of the series—he made an impression but not a lasting one—and quite another after having read the series in order.

One of the best things about this series has been Burchell's very knowledgeable discourse on classical music. Music permeates every action, every thought in the stories, so much so that it feels as if there are three protagonists instead of the usual two. How the heroine of this story thinks of the hero applies to all the main characters of Burchell's stories.

Her view of him had changed a good deal too. Not only because she had met him and talked with him, but because it was not possible to have studied his work so intensively without gaining some knowledge of the sensitivity, the feeling for beauty, the real compassion, and the deep human warmth which his music revealed.

The heroine is a generous-hearted girl with a love of classical music, who is full of life and a refreshing frankness. She brings enjoyment to all who come into her sphere, whether they’re chance-met people or friends she’s known for years. She even affects our hard-hearted hero, the famous composer of a new opera. He needs a contralto heroine and she is a contralto, but he suspects her of engineering their introduction for career-enhancing reasons, despite protestations by her that she is meeting him at the behest of his brother, who is her good friend.

The hero and his father share a constant push-and-pull relationship with respect to the hero's career, because the father, while a world-famous pianist, has always wanted to compose, and the hero is a genius composer. So the more the hero demurs about the heroine's candidacy, the more the father champions her. The story has secrets and plenty of emotional juggling to make the end a satisfying read.

Unbidden Melody by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This Book 7 of the Saga has a low-angst romance, and I was all for it. The romance is sweet and kind and thoughtful. She is the secretary to a famous impresario of classical music, who represents greats like the Warrenders, the Bannisters, and so on. She's meticulous, well-trained, and knowledgeable about music. He is a world famous tenor, who is grief stricken over the death of his wife and guilt-ridden over the same. From the first, the two are drawn together. Of course, there is always a triangle, and this time, it is another woman who makes our heroine jealous.

What was interesting about this story is how the hero's life had been made into a living hell not only by his wife's intense jealousy—she spied on him and stalked him when he was on tour—but her attempts then to make him jealous of her affairs. When the well-meaning heroine's well-meaning intents go astray, she runs afoul his vow not to marry a jealous woman again. How they retrieve the situation is what makes the story fun to read.

I really like Burchell's characters' commonsense and practical approach to life and its events. While they do experience real human emotions that can sometimes run away from them, eventually, their sensible side always rises to the fore and allows misunderstandings to not linger for long and for them to offer unreserved apologies when they are in the wrong.

Song Cycle by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I have completely lost my head. This is Book 8 of the Saga, and I've been reading them one after the other.

I love having Oscar Warrender show up and wave his magic wand and waft away difficulties, but I find the showing up of protagonists from other books a bit of a drag. This is especially true in this story, where a provincial music festival is being held in the country, far from London, and these operatic heavyweights show up to praise and support a church organist, who is a composer of modest talent, his daughter, who is still a music student of untried, but stupendous, talent, and an organizer of the festival who has no musical background, but plenty of money.

The hero of the book is a young, low-on-the-totem-pole, artistic director (and possibly a conductor?—that part wasn't explained very well) who auditions the heroine for his Canadian tour, and then shows up frequently at the country festival during the planning stages, doing goodness knows what. Warrender also inexplicably shows up during the planning. This book wasn't conceptualized very well, which is unusual for Burchell. Her stories are usually tightly written.

I wasn't enamored of the heroine very much after the 50% mark. She tended to leap to negative conclusions about the hero often, and while she apologized sincerely and at length, I couldn't see what the hero saw in her, other than she being beautiful and having a beautiful voice. Every time she finds his behavior inexplicable, instead of believing in him she brushes him off, and then she has to have someone explain everything to her, before she rushes over to apologize to him. At one point, he says to her, "Frankly, there've been too many mistakes where you and I are concerned. I'm finally and absolutely sick of them."

What I really like about Burchell is the tight-knit relationships—family and friends—that surround the characters. It is wonderful to see uncomplicated and supportive parents who love their children, who are there with a word of wisdom or a dose of commonsense, but who also give the characters their independence. In far too many modern contemporary stories, familial relationships are fraught with disappointments and far worse. It's nice to see warmth and understanding, instead of strife. I am not fond of the saccharine small-town books with their everyone-knows-everyone's-business relationships, but I do want to see protagonists having some, for lack of a better word, wholesome relationships.

Nightingale by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the Book 11 of the Saga, and this is the last Burchell I will be reading for a while. I don't know which of her other books are out in digital, but a few that I checked are not, and I am not inclined to pay the money required to acquire them in print form. As it is, these digital copies are expensive, given the short formats. But they've been very enjoyable this month and were exactly what I needed.

This story is where the connection to Oscar Warrender is the most tenuous, but also where the hero and heroine are on closer footing power dynamics-wise. She is a mere singing student of a church organist, who also bashfully composes on the side. So while as a teacher, he rules her life and can be peremptory, he is so unsure of his composition talent, that she takes charge of infusing his work with life and him with belief in himself. It was very interesting watching the power shift between them depending on whose musical career was being discussed. Because of this, I thought this quieter story was one of Burchell's best Warrender stories.

The love triangle is also interesting because not only does the other man challenge our hero romantically but also musically. It was enjoyable to watch the heroine look at two men whom she liked in different ways and with whom she was in charity at different points in the story and decide whether she was in love with either or none of them. Even though the back cover copy tells you who she chooses, still, Burchell keeps you guessing as to when the heroine is going to make the choice.

Oscar Warrender is a fascinating character who shows up in every book and advises, counsels change, and helps solve difficulties. His presence, like Rothgar in Jo Beverley's Malloren series, is the anchor to the series as a Yoda-like character. But Warrender's prescience and thoughtfulness arises, I believe, from his deep immersion in music. It brings

Damsel in Green by Betty Neels
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This book was recommended to me by Ros. This was a wonderful story—well-developed heroine-centric story, where the hero remains much of a mystery, except through her perceptions. The heroine is just lovely: hardworking, thoughtful, generous of heart, and gets along well with everyone, except for constant missteps with the hero. Her interactions with the children are the heart of the book and are filled with warmth and joy. She truly embodies the tenets of nursing as not just a profession but as a calling.

She is about to be promoted to Sister, but a chance request, from a half-British-half-Dutch surgeon at the hospital to become a home nurse for his young ward for three months, has her choosing to explore life a bit beyond what she sees as a straight and narrow future at the hospital. She dreams of a husband and a home of her own, but she is not sure if they are in her future. So she lavishes all the love in her heart on the young (and not so young) cousins of the surgeon, and they in turn love her. And in so doing, she brings sweetness into his life and unknowingly shows him what type of marriage he should desire and with whom. He says to her, "I can't think how we ever managed without you..."

A small peeve: The hero tells his teen girl cousin: "That's only an excuse so that you can eat everything in sight! You'll get fat, Phena. No one will want to marry you." Ah! :(

Heaven is Gentle by Betty Neels
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This book was recommended to me by Kay. I really enjoyed this story—it felt fresh and complex. The heroine has settled into life as a Sister at the hospital. In a surprise assignment, she is called to assist in a special research project on asthma in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. There she meets a professor surgeon who gives her the impression that he's an ordinary doctor as he rescues her from mishaps and isn't finicky about the tasks he has to do around the place.

He is engaged to be married, and acknowledges this, but still kisses the heroine. I minded that he was cheating on his fiancée, but the heroine took it as a sign that he wasn't in love his fiancée, thus leaving the door open for her to convince him that she is eminently more suitable. However, when she sees how immensely wealthy he is, she is convinced that his anemic fiancée is more suited to his ostentatious lifestyle than herself—she's but an ordinary girl. Once she overcomes her shock, however, she falls in love with the house, the feudal estate, and how wonderfully it is run by an efficient staff with deep ancestral roots in the estate—quite the same reaction Lizzie Bennett had to Pemberley in P&P.

This was the book in which I felt that the Neels heroine really made a push to nab the hero—she wasn't going to just let him slip through her fingers, despite not being totally sure of his feelings and being overwhelmed by his wealth. She remains convinced of her feelings and acts on them. It was great to see that she didn't just let romance happen to her, but she tried to engineer her happy ever after.

Here are my reviews of the three Neels I read previously also recommended by Kay (Miss Bates): Tulips for Augusta, Tabitha in Moonlight, and Wish with the Candles.

Visiting Consultant by Betty Neels
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I really liked this story the best among all the six Neels I read. For the first time, I found myself laughing quite a bit. Neels does humor well, and it's surprising she hasn't done it more before. The heroine is a theater sister and the hero is a visiting surgeon from The Netherlands. What is unusual is that they share a godfather, and that creates an instant bond between them. While their relationship is prickly, his with her family (grandmother and siblings) is very good.

After being orphaned at an early age, she has worked herself to the bone to bring up her siblings and keep her family solvent. As a result, she feels that her secure job as a sister is the height of where life is going to take her. And while she loves her job, she dreams of something more: a husband, wealth where the daily grind is not so miserable, and a family of her own.

This story has one of the best medical scenes I have ever read. Neels does the ominous atmosphere and emotions of the people really well in the scene where a fire is encroaching on the theater in which a surgery is being calmly and unhurriedly conducted. This story features a much more interesting hero, who drops his guard from the stern, cultured, wealthy man to someone who would be willing to sit in an apple tree, take kids for rides in his Bentley, visit an old woman for chats, and have petty impulses. I liked this hero very much

I noticed this in all the Neels books, but especially in this book, tea is used very well as a means of connecting with people and managing emotions. There is a very nice mystery here surrounding the other woman in his life. Neels keeps the reader guessing right past 95% of the book.

Mary Burchell vs. Betty Neels

It's been interesting reading eight Burchells followed by three Neels (and the three I read last year) and reflecting on the two different types of heroines, because Burchell and Neels do have a "type" of heroine. Neels' heroines have more agency, because they are already setup in mentally and physically challenging nursing careers, While some of Burchell's heroines have jobs, they're mostly lower-skilled ones; many are just waiting to break into their music careers. However, Burchell's heroines seem to have more emotional agency than Neels' heroines—they're more emotionally complex and more in tune with their emotions. There is also less push-n-pull of the "does he / doesn't he love me" emotions in Burchell's books, whereas there's much of those ruminations in Neels' plots.

While Warrender does play an ex deus machina role in the stories, there are more people playing different roles in Burchell's plots. In contrast, Neels narrows the focus to a few characters and bores down into more interactions between the two protagonists. The constant navel-gazing can be a bit much—I'd have preferred the heroines to have a bit of courage in their romance, like they do in their nursing jobs.

While both books are written from the heroines' point-of-view (and some omniscient to convey what is happening to the heroine and elsewhere in the plot), Burchell manages to convey much more of what the heroes are thinking than Neels. Heroes from both sets of books tend to be amused by the heroines a lot and mocking or brusque right off the bat and throughout the story, blowing hot and cold between abrupt hot kisses and then back to the cold normal, and you mostly don't understand what the hero is going through that makes him behave in this fashion. You do have some idea in the Burchells, but not at all in the Neels. In both sets of books, I found the heroines frown at the heroes and feel rage towards them out of proportion to the provocation—it could be that they think the heroes are laughing at them and making fun of them in their minds.

What is inexplicable in many of the books by both the authors is at what point does the hero decide to confess his love for the heroine. Yes, the plot does dictate a closure to the story, but emotionally-speaking, what is that undefinable point at which the hero is convinced that his proposal will not be rejected out of hand? Given the usually prickly nature of their relationships, it takes a leap of faith to put yourself in a vulnerable position to be the first one to confess their love to the heroines.

Burchell's plots seem more intricate and individual—the guidelines for Neels' books are stricter because of the British nurse heroine and Dutch consulting surgeon hero requirement. However, this is precisely where Neels' skill comes through in making each story unique within those rules.

I do realize that patriarchy is rampant in both sets of books with the masterful, wealthy male as the lead and the woman as the gentle foil—but, like I mentioned above in this post, I took that in style because these books were written by women born before 1905. In the Burchells, there is some equalizing of power dynamics towards the end, whereas, in the Neels, the power dynamics remain unchanged by the end.

Overall, there is definite romance between the protagonists and their happy ever afters are believable, because there is not only love binding them together, but shared interests also—so there is love and companionship, the best kind of relationship.

Summer Campaign by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: I had a bad Kelly book (anthology) last month, so I was a bit apprehensive how this one would turn out, though in the past, I have read stellar Kellys. This one turned out to be great as well. Wonderful story of two wounded people. He is suffering from nightmares and self-hatred from his experiences in the war. She is under pressure to marry the vicar, since he is the only person who has proposed to her, and the people she lives with force her to accept him to get her out of their house. Even though she feels smothered and bullied by the vicar, she feels powerless to change the course of her life.

Until she meets the hero. He thinks she is bold, capable, and compassionate—qualities she never knew she had or believed she possessed. In turn, she helps him over his nightmares and self hatred and shows him what a wonderful person he is—compassionate, loyal, and steady. They are so good to each other and for each other—this is a book that got me in the feels. In general, Kelly's characters are basically such good people, it always feels good to spend time reading about them.

(I have a tendency to latch on to a word at the beginning of the day and having it crop up everywhere. Today's word was "good.")

A Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is a great story of astronomy, mathematics, embroidery, and botany and the two women who are experts in their fields. A seminal work in celestial mathematics in French brings them together, one a benefactress of the other, but with no awkwardness between them. They are colleagues first, then friends, before they fall in love. The romance is tender and passionate, while the science is brilliant and complex and authentic. Waite does a good job of balancing the science with the romance, neither overwhelming the other. This is a great start to Waite's Feminine Pursuits series, and I'm looking forward to reading her next book. My review is here.

Upon a Midnight Clear by Amanda McCabe
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Novella
Comments: Lovely story that in its short form of 68 pages presents a full-realized romantic arc. A scarred and emotionally damaged naval war hero and a Jamaican daughter of a freed slave find love along the desolate Cornish coast. He shuns society because he realizes he is monstrous when his fiancée cuts off her engagement to him in horror. She shuns society because they're not very accepting of her roots and race. But between them, these two wounded souls find welcoming approval and attraction, which acts as a balm to their soul and infuses them with the courage to step together and outward into society.

McCabe builds their relationship through friendship first and attraction later. They're comfortable with each, at peace and willing to share their deepest-held secrets and anguishes. I loved that both of them are willing to live in London and Jamaica to be close to both their families and their roots—living where both are at home. Add a touch of magic and the healing arts of her Jamaican and further back, African, roots, and this is a Christmas story with a miracle.

The Taming of Mei Lin by Jeannie Lin
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: The heroine is famous for her sword-fighting skills and holds the goons sent by her thwarted suitor thug at bay. Until one day, she is bested by an incredibly handsome man...becomes she allows herself to be bested. He is known throughout the land for his honesty and honor. Lately, she has been feeling very desperate, maintaining her uncle's noodle stand on a dust road of a forgotten village in Tang dynasty China, bearing her uncle's insults and the town's thug's advances. So when the hero comes along, she allows herself to be beguiled. But while he is attracted to her and admires her, he cannot take her away with him, because he's on a spy mission for the Imperial Kingdom.

This is a short, not even a novella, at only 43 pages, but it packs quite a long story between its covers. This was my introduction to Lin's work, and I am not surprised now that she comes across highly recommended. Her lyrical prose, command of the history, and ability to paint an authentic picture of the time and place makes this an unforgettable story.

The Education of Miss Patterson by Marion Chesney AKA M.C. Beaton
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This was a 'D' read for me, and I gave Chesney's The Dreadful Debutante a 'C' last year, so Chesney, despite her fame, is probably not for me.

The hero and heroine meet when she is his sixteen-year-old orphaned ward, who is a hoyden being raised by an ancient nurse and a simpering governess. She breaks a window in a fit of temper, so he turns her over his knee and spanks her bottom and then promptly ships her off to America for three years with a new martinet of a governess to learn manners and grow into a young lady.

The main story of the book starts after she returns to England, and the development of their relationship and the love triangle is an improvement over the above and that is what made the grade rise from a 'D' to a 'C.' What made it sink back down to a 'D' is that the hero in a drunken jealous rage nearly rapes her. Well the word "nearly" is used by the hero because there was no penetration, but the terror was there, and that, to me, was rape of her feelings. He tells about his actions to his friends who have no reaction to it. He feels some remorse, but nowhere enough IMO. Even the heroine, during that not-rape is overcome by her love and attraction for him after a bit. UGH! Not my cuppa tea.

Margarita and the Earl by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: I was so excited to find a new Regency by Joan Wolf that I was willing to read a published book that should've seen an editor. I have loved every single one of her old traditional Regencies. However this new dive back into that style of writing was disappointing. Similarly, I was disappointed by her newly-written Master of Grex last year.

Margarita is the half-Venezuelan-half-English daughter of an earl. Before his death, he brings the orphaned Margarita away from the civil war and strife of her country to England. Upon this death, his nephew and heir and Margarita find themselves forced into a marriage of convenience by his will. Margarita's Venezuelan heritage is done superbly by Wolf, and I enjoyed reading about the political history, which may be a bit much for some people, but which I enjoyed thoroughly.

Depending upon the story, in some extenuating circumstances, I can stand infidelity. But in this book, Nicholas casually sleeps with his two mistresses even after his marriage to Margarita. At one point in the story, she was sick with influenza and stayed back at their country seat, so he goes to London alone for a month for Parliament and the Season and sleeps with his mistresses and justifies it by saying, "I'm not a monk." UGH! Then when Margarita finds out, she takes him to task and he repeats the asinine monk comment. When she leaves him, she writes in the note that it was not his fault, but hers. Double UGH!

Poems by Tulika Dugar
Category: Poetry
Comments: Dugar has been writing lovely poems on Facebook. The simplicity of her writing really appeals to me—it portrays images and ideas that I can relate to in my life and in my imagination. She mostly writes from her own imagination, but sometimes to paintings and illustrations. Here's a snippet of a recent one that I especially liked.

Good night to the tired brow
The slumber earned
As the day sunk low
A sleepy sun
Will warm our hearts
A morning for everyone

Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
Category: Poetry
Comments: Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Merwin is known to be one of America's greatest poets. His death three months ago, brought him to my attention, so I decided to give one of his poetry collections a try. Unfortunately, I found it impenetrable. The strings of unrelated words, the clashing ideas, the lack of overarching themes, all contributed to an incomprehensibility outside my realm of experience with poetry since I recommenced reading it in the past few years. But here is one of the ones that appealed to me, possibility because it has a story. It is about a photographer who has recently died.

Later in the day
after he had died and the long box
full of shadow had turned the corner
fortunately someone who understood
what was on the panes [of glass] bought everything in the studio
almost no letters were there but on the glass
they turned up face after face
of the light before anyone had beheld it
[images] in days not seen except by the bent figure
invisible under the hood
who had just disappeared

Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader edited by Mary Popova and Claudia Zoe Bedrick
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: When Maria Popova talked about this book of hers when it published last year, I knew I had to read it. I greatly admire Popova and the invaluable work she does with Brain Pickings. I have donated to her labor of love and towering scholarship, time and again and am considering becoming a regular monthly donor.

Velocity of Being is a collection of 121 letters written to young readers by famous writers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, artists, actors, thinkers, and many others about what reading has meant to them and the importance of reading. It's a thick book of thick paper filled with letters on one side of facing pages and colorful pictures illustrating the letters on the other side.

Of the book, Popova writes, "From these micro-memoirs and reflections by lifelong readers who have made extraordinary lives for themselves emerges a kind of encyclopedia of personhood, an atlas of possibility for the land of being mapped through the land of literature."

A couple of examples from the book:
"We wouldn't need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well."
—Alain de Botton, writer
"What reading does is get to the bottom of what matters the most."
—Jacqueline Woodson, writer
"Information is not the same as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means."
—Alan Lightman, physicist
"Some of my biggest and most exciting escapades have sprung from the pages of books."
—Richard Branson, entrepreneur, balloonist

There are just too many to quote here. But one of the most marvelous one comes from Mohammed Fairouz, a composer who explores geopolitical and philosophical themes.

"Fourteen hundred years ago, in the desert of Arabia, Angel Gabriel came to Mohammed with a message: "READ!" This is the first word of al-Qurʼān. As a result, his followers contributed to every branch of knowledge from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions, including the space station, glasses, aspirin, the iPad..."

This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: This is a commencement address Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. It is a concise reflection of Wallace's writing and philosophy, which is very much a common man's philosophy—accessible and digestible—practical lessons about human nature and compassion.

The most obvious, ubiquitous, and important realities are often the ones that are hardest to notice, because we go through life on our default, automatic setting, where "how we construct meaning is not a matter of personal, intentional, conscious choice." Part of this auto-mode is a natural, basic self-centeredness that we are born with that makes others' thoughts and feelings less urgent, less real.

A liberal arts education is said to teach you how to think, but Wallace says that it teaches you how to exercise some control over what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to make meaning of experience. It also teaches you to have some critical awareness about yourself.

He ties these two ideas of developing awareness by telling the students that a large part of adulthood involves boredom, routine, and frustration. And it is "exactly in this petty, frustrating crap where the work of choosing comes in." To me, this means that you can decide to think differently about the situations you find yourself in, instead of defaulting to your self-centered way of thinking.

The following, to me, is emblematic of everything that is wrong with the prized American notion of Personal Independence and Freedom: Obsession with money and individualism is cause individuals to lose interest in their ancestors, descendants, and contemporaries. As a result people are becoming lonelier and lonelier. Wallace says, "The so-called real word of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self." This, to me, is the exact opposite of social awareness, compassion for others, and doing for others, which increases personal happiness. Human weren't meant for hyper-individualism; they were meant for communal enterprise in societies.

According to Wallace, "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and effort and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being taught to think."

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The author has deep roots in Puerto Rico, quite like Pura Teresa Belpré herself. Pura arrived in New York City in 1921 and decided to stay to begin una vida nueva (a new life). Her job as a bilingual assistant at the New York Public library sealed her future. When Pura realized that there weren't any Spanish books in the library, she wrote them herself and had a publisher publish them. In addition, she instituted bilingual children's storytimes with puppets and performances, and also celebrated Latinx holidays with costumes and folktales. She was passionate about storytelling, about conveying the joys of books to children, and about making libraries the cultural community hubs for all people. She traveled to classrooms, churches, and lots of places around NYC planting seeds of cuentos (stories). Today, there's an award in her name given to Latinx authors and illustrators by the American Library Association.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr, narrated by Jane Yolen
Category: Children's Picture Book Audio
Comments: I'm not much of an audio book person, but this was a great book to listen to. What Audible also did was to show a slideshow of the artwork so the kids have something to focus on while they listen. It helped anchor me as well. The story is about a little girl going out "owling" (owl watching) at night with her father. It's an old-style book where the relationship between father and daughter is clearly "children listen to what their elders are saying". A lot of teaching that her father does to the girl is through how one behaves when one goes owling: listening and not talking, being brave, and so on. At the end of this learning is the reward: She sees a great horned owl. Yolen does an excellent job of atmospheric narration.

One Good Turn by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: [Content Warning: rape].

I used to think Reforming Ragsdale was the best Kelly I read, but this book surpasses it.

The Siege of Badajoz was a huge turning point in the British Allied Peninsular Wars. However, after the victory, officers turned a blind eye on the rampaging troops against innocent "enemy" women and children, who proceeded to bayonet children, rape women, and pillage houses. There was no person or building left inviolate. At the end of two days, Wellington finally stepped in to stop the inhumanity.

Our hero was one of those officers who turned his troops loose to do as they will. Our heroine was a Spanish girl of fourteen who was brutally gang-raped. They never met in Spain. The first time they meet is a few years later, when he, now a duke, finds her walking along English country roads in the rain with a child on her hip and takes up in his carriage. Where were they to go from there? In a fit of impulse, he hires her in the place of his recently-departed housekeeper and so begins a story of tears and anguish on both their parts, soul-crushing anger on her part, wrenching sorrow and aching empathy on his part, understanding on both their parts...and love. That she can love is a miracle. That she can love him, he knows is a miracle.

I cannot emphasize enough what an amazing story this is. I read it with tears crowded in my throat and awe for Kelly.