Thursday, August 1, 2019

My July Reading

I read an amazing feminist book this month, which included translated fiction stories by one Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, an upper class lady from a secluded zenana in Eastern India in the early 1900s, her fascinating life history, and literary criticism of her work. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Every person who contributed to the book is brilliant, and Rokeya, is fascinating and wildly inspirational. She's the model of which activists are made. More on her below.

I came across this lovely print on the internet somewhere, without provenance or copyright, and liked it so much that I stole it for my blog. Isn't it beautiful?

A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings translated & edited by Coleman Barks
Category: Poetry
Comments: I have mentioned before that whenever I approach Rumi trying to understand him, he anticipates me and my situation and has something to tell me. I had just started reading a philosophical book World Enough & Time by Christian McEwen about slowing down your life in order to savor it, when the very same day, my Rumi reading brought me this poem, "The Treasure's Nearness":

A man searching for spirit-treasure
cannot find it, so he is praying.
A voice inside him said, You were given
the intuition to shoot an arrow.
You were told to draw the bow
with only a fraction of your ability.
Do not exhaust yourself
like the philosophers who strain to shoot
the high arcs of their thought-arrows.

More on World Enough & Time next month when I've read more into it.

Sultana's Dream and Selections from The Secluded Ones by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Author), Roushan Jahan (Editor), Roshan Jahan (Translator), Hanna Papanek (Afterword)
Category: Nonfiction Essays, Fiction Stories
Comments: This is a gem of a book! It's on ongoing read, so I'm just going to comment on the essay by Roushan on the AMAZING Rokeya this month.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in 1880 in Pairabad, a small village in the Bengal region of India (now in Bangladesh) under British rule. She was born into a wealthy Muslim zamindar (landowning) family who observed strict purdah: the women were completely veiled in public and confined to the zenana (women's quarters) at home, while the men had the freedom to move from the mardana (men's quarters) to the zenana. Rokeya's mother's strict observance of purdah gave Rokeya a life of strict seclusion, a life condemned to illiteracy and no rights, a waste of human potential.

Luckily for Rokeya, her eldest brother taught her English and Bangla in secret, but it was only after her marriage that she truly came into her own. She was beyond blessed to marry a man of liberal attitudes who wanted from his wife not the traditional duty and obedience but love and empathy—he not only loved her, he was also proud of her. He supported her in whatever she set out to do and whoever she mingled with. She met with women of all classes and religions and learned how they navigated the world and what freedoms and restrictions they had. Rokeya was passionate about educating girls—I wonder if Malala has heard/read about her—and she had her husband's full support. Unfortunately, he passed away early. In his memory in 1911, she opened the Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School in Calcutta, which is still functional to this day.

Stiff opposition from wealthy influential Muslim men made Rokeya aware of the need to organize women, so in 1916, she founded the Muslim Women's Association. She was a tireless activist in recruiting women of all classes to her organization and showing them a better way of life forward. Her organization also offered financial assistant to poor widows, rescued and sheltered battered wives, helped poor families to marry their daughters, and helped poor women to achieve literacy.

And through it all she wrote articles and essays in noted newspapers and magazines about her experiences and her philosophy of women's education and the impact of it on the larger society. She also wrote fiction based on her philosophical principles. (More on that next month.) Rokeya is jaw-droppingly AMAZING, isn't she? To come from where she did to become who she did is a journey of such courage and conviction. It's awe-inspiring.

Gratitude by Dr. Oliver Sacks
Category: Nonfiction Essay Collection
Comments: I re-read this book many times, because it reminds me to slow down and find gratitude in my heart no matter my life situation. This book was part of the impetus to turn my Live Journal from a regular journal into a daily gratitude journal. That I had nothing to write in it for the past two months is a testament to how I was feeling. So I felt it was time for a re-read to remind myself that no matter how terrible a day, a week, a month is going, something good is also happening, no matter how small. This re-read reminded me to resume recording my daily appreciations.

This book is a collection of four of Sacks' essays: Mercury, My Own Life, My Periodic Table, and Sabbath. Written in the last two years of his life, I was struck by the grace and clarity of vision with which he was facing death and contemplating the quality of his life and the world around him. I discovered the collection only upon his death in 2015 when I found it mentioned in one his obituaries.

Sacks first came to my notice upon the publication of his op-ed essay My Own Life in the New York Times. He wrote the essay in mere days after learning in the winter of 2015 that the cancer in his eye, detected in 2005, had now spread to his liver and was terminal. The outpouring of support the piece received was a source of solace to him that he had lived a life of a lettered man and that he had a legacy he was going to leave behind.

Sacks was a fan of philosopher David Hume's work. In Hume's brief memoir, My Own Life, I see the bones of Sacks' essay of the same title. One thing that Hume wrote struck me as the epitome of how Sacks saw himself, to wit: "Notwithstanding the great decline of my person, [I have] never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits; insomuch, that were I to name a period of my life, which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company."

Sacks never allowed himself to descend into despair over life's many disappointments. He was what he described as immoderate in his passions—even in the last few months of his life, he felt intensely alive, worked on deepening his friendships, wrote, traveled, said his farewells, and strove to "achieve new levels of understanding and insight.'

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is an excellent retelling of Pride & Prejudice with the focus on the romance. Set in Canada with Indian-Canadian Muslim protagonists and cast of characters, it was a delight from the first word to the last—rich with cultural texture and social nuance, it was laugh-out-loud funny in parts.

While staying true to the broad strokes of P&P, Jalaluddin has gone one step further than Austen by introducing religion into the maelstrom of Indian-Canadian cultural norms and societal mores. This adds a complexity to the novel that Austen sidestepped. Not only do the protagonists both feel like they're part of both worlds—India and Canada—yet part of neither, they feel the same about Islam. How Muslim are they? Jalaluddin allows them to guide their natural impulses and struggle with their human feelings and align them with what the holy Qur'an ascribes as being a good person.

I loved the depictions of the Indian-Canadian immigrant community of Toronto. All the harkening back to the old country, the adopting of modern Canadian cultural mores, the shocking of the old folks, the horrifying of the young generation—it is all done humorously and authentically. Lovely!

This was my best fiction read of the month. My review is here.

Men of Valor: His Treasure by Kiru Taye
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: Set in South-Eastern Nigeria before the colonization by the British, this is an excellent story of yearning and what marriage means to a proud man and woman. She is a spoiled daughter of a wealthy man who is caught with a man and thus married off in a hurry to another man who desires her for his wife. She will have nothing to do with him and tells him so on their wedding night. He is in love with her, but too proud to force her—as would've been culturally appropriate for him—he wants her to come to him of her own free will. A year later, they are still living chastely, and he still yearns for her.

The author paints a picture of Nigeria that is confident and evocative. The country’s old ways are very much in evidence here, and it’s testament to her skill that I came away with the impression that this story could not possibly have been set anywhere else. The characters’ motivations, decisions, and actions stem from their culture and yet, in crucial ways, deviate from it; and where they diverge is a product of the individuality of the two protagonists. My review is here.

Desire and the Deep Blue Sea by Oliva Dade
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This is a low-conflict, cream puff of a story. Dade's hero is the epitome of a Cinnamon Roll Hero—a term that Dade has coined—and a great foil for the prickly heroine. They are work buddies who pretend to be in a relationship in order to participate in an island adventure for a reality TV show. He is in love with her, but he causes her great anxiety because of his behavior at work, in other words, she hates him.

Dade understands women very well, and in Thomas, she has created the perfect mate. Thomas offers understanding, acceptance, companionship, respect, and affection all wrapped up in a sexy package. Thomas really listens to what Callie is saying and changes his behavior accordingly. A man who takes feedback and gives the woman the respect of knowing her own mind is incredibly attractive. Dade gave Thomas the patience to wait for Callie to discover her feelings for him and the perseverance to not abandon his love for her as unrequited when faced with her resistance. My review is here.

A Debutante in Disguise by Eleanor Webster
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was an excellent story. The manuscript that I wrote many years ago featured just such a heroine: one who wants to be a doctor and defies society to be so by disguising herself and leading a double life. So I was naturally drawn to this book, and Webster has done a marvelous job with the storyline (far better than my poor offering). Webster pairs the heroine with a conservative hero who is aghast that the heroine is being so unwomanly. While he repudiates her, she offers him acceptance and compassion for his physical injuries and mental torments. The beauty of the story is how he gradually changes his opinions the more he gets to know her and understand her integrity, passion, and brilliance. This story got an 'A-' from me. My review is here.

A Highlander Walks into a Bar by Laura Trentham
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a fun, light-hearted story with two warm, tender romances and is a perfect beach read. Most Highlander stories are historical romances set in Scotland. While there are tartans aplenty in this book, this is a modern-day story of Scottish Highlanders unfolding in America. There are two stories in this book: the heroine and a half-English-half-Scottish heir to a castle and the heroine's mother and a Scottish Earl, the uncle of the heir. And there are two estates: one in Highland, Georgia, with its fetish for all things Scottish, and the real deal in the Scottish Highlands. Which couple is going to live where? Who is going to give up which lifestyle and move where? For all its lightheartedness, it's not a rom-com. And it is very much a modern romance, just a quiet one. My review is here.

Falling for a Rake by Eve Pendell
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: One is a perfect rake and the other a perfect lady, and they come together in a hole in the ground. Surely, they are meant to be. And they are. But how they get from a stolen kiss at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft to a marriage of love, trust, and respect is what makes this book interesting. She is a daughter of a duke and a spinster with Pteridomania, a passion for ferns. In childhood, she was a free-spirited girl, but in her adulthood, she has reigned in her emotions and wishes so tightly that she lives a half unfulfilled life, but she has convinced herself that she is leading an exemplary life of virtue and keeping her family free from scandal. He was a ne’er-do-well in his misspent youth but graduated to full rakehood in early adulthood. They both believe they are bad for the grievous wrong they did as young adults. This book, ultimately, is about forgiveness, about how you can do wrong, make reparations for it, and forgive yourself. And you can stop judging others. It is written in great emotional depth, and despite the surprise reveal that did give me pause, I felt the forgiveness arc worked. YMMV. My review is here.

A Love for All Seasons: Spring's Promise by Edith Layton
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Novella
Comments: I picked up this collection on the strength of Layton's name, and this first novella was very promising and springy (har!). Layton skillfully based the rakeshame hero on Damerel of Heyer's Venetia, though the heroine is no Venetia. Like Damerel, Layton's hero is well aware of his well-deserved disreputable reputation and also firmly set on not corrupting the impulsive beauteous young miss who is so bent on scandalizing country society. Their prearranged dawn riding meetings away from the scrutiny of society's sticklers allows them to form a friendship that is honest and without stylized posturing. And he falls hard for her. He's never had a friendship with a female before, and even though he loves females and everything to do with them, there's been no female before who understands him like the heroine does. So much of being in love with someone has to do with being comfortable with the one who "gets" them. And while these two are leagues apart in experience and background, they "get" each other. The success of this first novella augurs well for the rest of the collection.

Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: After my conversation with Willaful in the comments of last month's reading round-up, I decided to read this book again. The last time I read it was in October 2015, and this is what I thought of it then. But fast-forward four years, and I have a radically different opinion of the story. After having read so much of Burchell's work last month and Betty Neels' as well, I have a more nuanced view of the time period when these stories were written and a finer appreciation of Burchell's writing style and voice.

The heroine is not a doormat. In fact, she is one of Burchell's independent heroines, who knows her own worth and knows how to navigate her life with confidence. This is paired with looks and a practical honesty, which charms whoever she meets. Burchell is fond of innocent ingénues, but they still manage to manage their lives without needing someone else to manage it for them.

The hero is described as: a slight, fair-haired man with beautiful hands, thinning hair and the air of an exhausted and impatient schoolboy. In today's version of alpha heroes, he would be laughed at by readers. But make no mistake, he is an alpha through and through: dictatorial, ruthless, always wants his way, and not always nice.

What draws him to her is that she doesn't knuckle under his dominance. Such a simple thing, really. She stands up to him at her own peril—he is the haute couture Parisian designer, she's a British débutante model—she has no power in the relationship because he could easily fire her. And yet, yet she stands firmly on her principals, and in so doing, makes him capitulate. She grabs power by not giving in to him; he accedes power by respecting her upper hand. Burchell is a master at power in relationships as I discovered reading the Warrender Saga last month.

Read the late Miranda Neville's wonderful blog about this. Miranda was very fond of fashion and classical music—no wonder Burchell hit the sweet spot for her time and time again.

The Journey Together by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: Burchell has continued to be an 'A' to a 'B' read for me. While this one was not as fabulous at the one above, it was still a solid read. That is why I am so fascinated by Burchell's work, and I'm reaching for her books time and again since May. Current difficulties in life mean a desire for comfort reading. By comfort, I don't mean low conflict and cozy necessarily, just reliably good. I enjoy how lighthearted and practical her heroines are—gamine is the word for them—at the same time, they take their responsibilities seriously and have a verve for adventure and some risk-taking. I find their positivity wholly attractive, and I draw comfort that someone somewhere is taking their knocks in life with resilience.

Our heroine has been recruited to act as a secretary to the head of the travel firm on his convalescence trip to Austria and Italy with his wife. She is delighted beyond belief. Growing up shy and of modest means, she never dreams she would even be able to have a trip like this. She is determined to enjoy herself and work hard. Accompanying them is our hero, a relative of her employer, who also works for the firm, because both men have business in each of the cities they're visiting, in addition, to vacation time. He is not as alpha as Burchell's usual heroes, but is still sufficiently take-charge, to set her back up. Her growth from diffidence to assertiveness is done superbly well.

Beautiful rumination on what it means to have purpose in life and how that is necessary and also attractive. She is romanced by a care-for-nothing sophisticated fellow but eventually prefers the solid, hardworking, honest gentleman—competence is so enticing.

Emma's Wedding by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I had been warned by Ros Clarke that Neels' non-nurse romances would not work for me, because the heroines tend to be pushovers. Still I decided to chance it, and this story started out strong, so I was feeling good about then, but then at the halfway mark, it descended into "helpless damsel in need of rescue." Sigh!

When the heroine's father passes away, she and her mother realize that he left behind huge debts. So they have to give comfortable lifestyle in Richmond and move into a small cottage in a small seaside village. The heroine now has to get two jobs to make ends meet, but her mother is utterly clueless in knowing how to save money. Emma is saddled with all the household tasks as well as working, while her mother plays bridge and goes to cafes. She is a millstone around our stalwart heroine's neck.

Enter an über wealthy Dutch doctor, who takes one look at her and falls hard. But for most of the book, he takes great care not to rush her. He wants to fall in love with him on her own timeline. All well and good. But as her feelings for him grow, so does her helplessness, and worse, passivity. I think it's the latter that was more irritating than the former. She behaves like a doll allowing him to move her around, do things to her, have her do things, and she acquiesces without a murmur. This is not a HEA I can get behind but I guess they would be happy in their way, with him in the active, decision-making role on every small thing and she happily agreeing to it all.

Henrietta's Own Castle by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: In a delightful change from the previous book, I discovered this great Neels book, thanks to Kay. I loved how Neels paired her usual alpha hero with an alpha heroine with both having some beta qualities as well. In this story, Neels also has bits from the hero's POV and an omniscient POV to show us how the hero is feeling—so everything isn't filtered from the heroine's perspective. That made for a richer story, and I liked both characters very much. And...there is no mocking from the hero. A decided plus!

While the heroine is a Sister, the medical matters are minimal in that, the story does not unfold in a hospital setting, though she is required in her nursing capability a few times in the book. The heroine is a hardworking, independent spirit, who move to a new country, settles there, and makes a place for herself in Dutch society by mingling with the village folk, helping to nurse patients during a plane crash, aiding two lovers to come together, and learning Dutch. This last detail is a departure from other Neels' heroines who refer to Dutch as an incomprehensible foreign language. Our heroine makes an effort to make a success of her new life. She's even willing to climb a tall ladder and fix her leaking roof when the hero, her landlord, is being a boor by not sending someone to help her. From the way the story ends, I get the feeling that our indomitable heroine is going to continue working part-time as a nurse even after her wedding. Go, girl!

The Big Green Book by Robert Graves, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The pedigree of the writer and illustrator is why I picked up this book. It's a curious book for Graves to write. He was known for historical novels, such as I, Claudius and translations of Apuleius, Suetonius, and others. A children's picture book from one such as he is highly unusual. The prose is a bit stilted, more formal, and the imagination is quite like what one would think a child would think like as opposed to what a child would really think like. There is also an element of glee at misfortune that is odds with the tenor of current children's picture books. Having said all that, the story is entertaining. And the illustrations are simply WOW! They're pen and ink illustration with great detail and emotional expressivity—Sendak is truly exemplary.

A young boy lives with an aunt and uncle, of whom he is not very fond, but who are fond of him, as the reader realizes over the course of the book, but the boy fails to realize. One day, he finds a dusty big green book in the attic and is delighted to discover that it is a book of magic spells. If he draws a line around him in the ground with a stick and take three deep breaths while holding on to the book, he can become whoever he wants to be, even disappear. So he takes on the guise of a very old man and tricks his aunt and uncle and their dog mercilessly and makes them feel very silly, because they don't know who he is. At the end of the day, he assumes his usual guise without revealing his tricks. He has a good chuckle over it, and he goes on to excel at school and other things, thanks to the book.

I am sure kids will laugh over his antics as well, but the end of the story is not quite what we would like our children to learn these days.

Disconnected: How to Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids by Thomas Kersting
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: A poorly formulated, poorly written, and poorly edited "book" by a self-aggrandizing "nationally renowned" psychotherapist, who needs help writing his own bio. I would never have picked it up if it hadn't been a book that our school chose as their inaugural book for their summer reading program for parents and students. I would like to take the person/people in charge of this book selection and shake them. What. Utter. Rubbish.

While he is absolutely right that the amount of time kids spend on social media these days is detrimental to their mental health, his data and conclusions about total screen time is from a study from 2008. As a result, it makes no allowance for how much computers are used in kids' daily school life with in-class and at-home usage. Most families these days aren't watching as much TV. His number is that 64% are together as a family, which is incorrect. And so on. I DNF'd the book when he quoted a New York Post (RIGHT?! That piece of junk?!) article that said that "many NYC students are so tech-oriented they can't even sign their own names." And with no sense of irony, he takes it as gospel and expounds on it. Apparently, using smartphones is reducing their fine-motor skills.