Sunday, December 1, 2019

My November Reading

You can chart my emotional tenor from the books I read. This month was a hard month, and among other books, I read traditional Regencies and vintage contemporaries, which included top faves: Mary Burchell, Mary Balogh, and Joan Smith.

There were a few days in November that were awash in the Sarah Dessen kerfuffle. If you are unaware of it, you can find more information: here, here, and here. In short: a college student from a small college in a small town criticized millionaire author Sarah Dessen's work. When Dessen found out about it, she ranted about it on Twitter to her huge platform, who dug out the small newspaper and the student's name and harassed her and heaped abuse on her. Among the verbal abusers were big-name authors: Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, N.K. Jemisin, Meg Cabot, Angie Thomas, Celeste Ng, and Roxanne Gay among others. Instead of merely voicing support of Dessen's feelings and Dessen's work, these people harassed the student. When big media outlets like WaPo and Slate came out against them, they backed down and issued non-apologies. I was particularly disappointed in Roxanne Gay and N.K. Jemisin and Dessen, herself—she replied positively to abusive tweets.

My first reaction was, "I am never going to read a Sarah Dessen novel." Well, the joke's on me. I have her The Rest of the Story sitting on my Kindle for review. Do I refuse to read and review it? In that case, you would be totally justified in accusing me of being a hypocrite. Only last month, I was out there on my soapbox about giving fictional characters and real people second chances. What Dessen did was reprehensible, but just perhaps, she has learned from all the backlash because her apology was well-done. I will give her another chance and read her book. I will, however, not be giving Jemisin or Roxanne Gay another chance, because they have done this "jumping on persecuting bandwagons" before and when faced with the backlash this time, they were unrepentant.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Our school has taken DEI very seriously this year. It is part of their strategic plan and they have incorporated it into their curriculum, admissions, faculty and staff hiring, and parent education. As part of their efforts, they are doing a community read of Oluo's book. This is going to be an ongoing read for me for the next couple of months. We've already had one group discussion, and we have another discussion coming up in January followed by Oluo's visit. My main interest in this month's reading was the chapter on "intersectionality." I have seen that word around social media for a few months now, but Oluo's explanation of it puts into context the issues facing people with multiple marginalizations. For that chapter alone, I would recommend the book. I will comment on this book further later this month. At our discussion in November, I was disappointed that among 25 people, almost all were women and all but three were Caucasian women. This constrained the discussion in ways that were sub-optimal to the issues the book brings up. I hope we have a more diverse group in January for a more robust discussion.

Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life by M.J. Ryan
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I borrowed this book from my parents when I visited back in February. It is only now that I cracked it open to read. Many years ago, I was advised by a wise human being that I should develop an attitude of gratitude. Sorrowfully, he passed away before he could explain what he meant in detail. And now, serendipitously, this book has fallen in my lap that tries to explain what is gratitude, the gifts of gratitude, the attitudes, and finally, the practices of gratitude answering the question: How should I do it to bring it into my life? The book is full of platitudes and simplistic solutions, but it is the first I have read that doesn't deal merely with esoteric ideas, but rather delineates concrete implemental steps. Tell me what to do, and I will try to do it, and let the effects be what they are purported to be. This is a complete departure from how many people approach philosophical or spiritual ideas, but since I have struggled with this for a while, I am going to start with these building blocks, which will later allow me to tackle more Big Idea approaches.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, I discovered this book. The printed book was converted to digital by a community of volunteers and self-pubbed on AMZ for free in 2012. It felt like it was a small enough book that I would be able to easily read it on the Kindle, but it hasn't proved to be the case. I need a print book where I can linger on the page, underline things, write marginalia, and put in post-it notes. So once the physical book arrives, I'll re-read it. As a child, I lived in a nature preserve, and went on long walks every evening by myself. There was always so much to see, so much to think about, and I returned refreshed and soothed from the bullying I otherwise faced in my neighborhood. Over the decades, I have forgotten how wonderful walking can be, and this book reminds me of its wonders. Granted, I don't have hours like Thoreau did or easy access to forest trails like Thoreau did—somehow driving somewhere to walk seems to defeat the purpose. So this month, I plan to walk out of my door and in my neighborhood. I will see what comes out of a few circles around. We rarely have walkers or joggers, so it wouldn't be a case of constantly running across chatty neighbors.

The Carrying by Ada Limón
Category: Poetry
Comments: It was a case of curious coincidences. I found two of Limón's poems one week that really spoke to me, and then in my discussion of them on Twitter, I discovered a third. Here it is: "Instructions on Not Giving Up" from the perspective of the cherry blossom trees. Nature never ever gives up—all that is sorrowful, it seems to say, passes with hope just around the corner. That is how I view the start of the new year and the beginning of longer days—Hope is such a sweet word and such a comfort to me.

Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I'll take it, the tree seems to say; a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist, I'll take it all.

A Match Made for Thanksgiving by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: A Jackie Lau book always makes me smile. Her writing, pacing, and characters are so lively and warm and fun that her books are unputdownable. They also leave you hungry for all the foods mentioned—wouldn’t it be fun to go food adventuring with Lau, you wonder. Written for the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, this first book of the Holidays with the Wongs series is a tender romp. I enjoyed a look into the first- and second-generation Chinese-Canadian immigrant families whom Lau showcases in her story. She strikes just the right note with the complexity of their heritages and cultural and social attitudes. In her protagonists, Lau has created giving, thoughtful individuals, who are open to stepping outside their comfort zones into new experiences that they never imagined before they would like to try. Lau is a prolific writer, and I am always looking forward to her next story. My review is here.

Work for It by Talia Hibbert
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Olu Keynes is a sharp-tongued man who has been numbed emotionally since childhood due to continual trauma by his abusive father and ex. He’s often overcome by self-loathing and anxiety before disappearing into an icy deadened state. Griff Everett thinks he is big and ugly and the locals treat him like a pariah, so he has become a loner. Griff and Olu meet at Fernley Farms, where their job is to work with plants. Those who love the BBC series Cranford will love Hibbert's small English village atmosphere, with its gossipy neighbors, small-minded, supercilious villagers, and strict social class. Griff and Olu have serious emotional scars from their tough lives, but there is a thread of hopefulness that runs in their lives that allows them to reach out to each other. Hibbert is one author whose work just keeps on getting better—however, her gritty books are not for everyone.

Tell Me My Fortune by Mary Burchell
Pay Me Tomorrow by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: These two books are identical in their basic plotline, but overall, they are very different stories. This is because their protagonists are such different people, in terms of personalities, motivations, backgrounds, and values. In writing these two books, Burchell has thumbed her nose at critics who say romance novels are formulaic and repetitive. It takes a master craftsman to provide bare plot guidelines and then allow her characters to live their lives and own their story.

The premise is that the heroine's family is in expectation that a near relative will die and leave them a sum of money. All their life decisions are in abeyance until that happy event. Unfortunately, they discover that the money has been left elsewhere. What are the families to do? Yes, the heroes are rich and the impoverished heroines are interested in them because they are rich. How mercenary, you think. Well, of course. But these gold-diggers redeem themselves to their own, their heroes', and our satisfaction. The best part of Burchell's characterization are mature people who believe in taking bad news on the chin, sitting with the distress, avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and above all, talking it out with each other.

I liked Pay Me Tomorrow a smidge over the other one, because of the hero. He has been in love with the heroine for months before she even really "sees" him. And he so vulnerable that he is willing to be taken advantage of for his money if only he can have her in his life. So the end of the book is just wonderful, where she shows him how much she values him and how that affects him, and the effect on her when she realizes how very much he loves her. That power differential between them may never fully equalize, but she is now aware of her power over him and is at pains to show him that she treasures him.

Just a Nice Girl by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: For a young woman, who is often overlooked and known only as a "nice girl" with no accomplishments, being courted by two handsome, competitive, well-established men is quite the ego boost. This was a forgettable novel, in my opinion, especially following the above two books. It is competently, and at times, superbly written, but the characterization is patriarchal and colorless—Burchell's heart just wasn't in it.

Lady with a Black Umbrella by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: I loved this book so much, I bought it in print as well. As always, when I love a book to pieces, I find it difficult to articulate exactly why I loved it so much. It is laugh-out-loud funny with complex characters. The hero is quite hapless but also masterful and capable is some situations. The heroine is quite managing and yet wants a future husband who she will not be able to dominate. What a delightful combination, isn't it, to have two such opposing characteristics in the same person?

Their meet-cute happens when she descends in an avenging fury with a black umbrella to route three thugs who are beating up the hero. The hero tenders suitable thanks, and since he has had his purse stolen, he goes on his way while promising the innkeeper that he will send the requisite blunt. Well, she decides to do him a good turn and pays his shot, his one-night-stand, and his gambling partner. What stays in a small town inn, does not stay in that small town inn, but gets spread all over London. While she is congratulating herself on her largesse, he is drowning in humiliation and ridicule. He is very much a proper young man who is conscious of what is due to his consequence; she is a free spirit, happy and content with life. What they both have in common is that they like getting their own way.

Bath Scandal by Joan Smith
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This was another book full of rollicking good humor; not as funny as the one above, but rife with Smith's characteristic humor without descending to farce. The hero's fiancée is a managing woman who has battened on to him and is battering all his freedoms. On her insistence, he even sends away his teen step-sister to someone he had coincidentally met at her wedding and to whom he had been attracted. The widowed heroine soon realizes that she's been taken for a ride and been lumped with bringing a hoyden into fashion without the leavening benefit of having the hero to husband. Despite it all, she finds herself liking the girl and succeeds in her task. In the mean time, the hero has an attack of conscience and descends on Bath to check on the heroine, and thus they meet. He is a rigid, proper sort of gentleman, set in his ways. She is an adventurous, chic woman with her circle of admirers. He is aghast at her unseemliness; she rolls her eyes at his starchiness. It is inevitable that a growing attraction springs up between them, only to be bruised with the advent of the jealous fiancée.


Vassiliki said...

I saw the Ada Limon poems you tweeted out and was really moved by them. I am looking towards reading some poetry in the next few months and you have place this on the top of my TBR. Thank you :)

Keira Soleore said...

Hope you enjoy your dive into poetry. It was one of the best decisions I made, not just reading-wise, to add poetry into my regular reading, a bit a day.