Friday, January 31, 2020

My January Reading

This year, I have embarked on a careful plan to read more outside Romance. While I did some of that last year, this year's plan is a little more intentional. I have started poetry and nonfiction books this month that I will read slowly over the year, and then there are fiction and nonfiction books that have been on my list for a long time that I would like to get to every month. This month's read was Ijeoma Oluo's book (more below).

As usual, I have the romance novels up on the top, followed by YA, mid-grade, poetry, nonfiction, and children's picture books.

Headliners by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: How does Lucy Parker continue to deliver one fabulous book after another every year? This is her fifth book and my fifth ‘A’ for her. I read her first Act Like It in one sitting and laughed and laughed so much that my husband read it as well. He loved it—one of a rare handful of romance novels he had read. Since then, he has read every one of Parker’s books and can’t wait to dive into this one. Two feuding work colleagues discover attraction and love. On the surface, this sounds like a common premise these days, but in Parker’s hands it turns into a story of fascinating characters that is told in an engaging, fast-paced style and is punctuated with acerbic comments and biting witty one-liners.

For years, she and he have been rival presenters on the same TV network. Neither can stand the other, and the feud has involved barbs being aired about the other on their shows. The viewers have lapped it up and the numbers ratings for both shows are high. Through certain events, they are in the doghouse with their network owner and he forces them to work together to save the failing morning show. As you can imagine, They Are Not Happy being forced to co-host.

A signature Parker storytelling style is that the protagonists movement from being on opposing sides to being on the same side isn’t instantaneous, but thoughtful and careful. But once they are on the same side, they are all-in—no misunderstandings are allowed to fester, because they always look at the other in a benevolent charitable light. This to me is the hallmark of their HEA—the ability to give the other the benefit of the doubt at all times. My review is here.

Uncovering the Merchant's Secret by Elisabeth Hobbes
Category: Medieval Romance
Comments: These days, medievals are few and it’s rarer still to find a good one. I am a huge fan of medievals, so I was especially delighted to read this book. He is ostensibly a wine merchant doing business between France and Bristol, but his real task is helping to solve the impasse between choosing the rightful heir to the dukedom of Brittany as an aide to the English King’s Lieutenant in France. He is suffering from grief and depression from the death of his beloved wife many, many months ago. She is a fierce, indomitable woman who owns a wealthy fort on the coast of Brittany. Twice-widowed with two children, who are old enough to be fostered away from home, she finds herself the captain of her own life and ships. One night, she finds him shipwrecked on her beach, with his memory all gone. Is he friend or foe in the game of politics?

An amnesiac is not a storyline that usually appeals to me, but as with most things, in the hands of a talented storyteller, even the unpalatable become engrossing. And so it was in the case of this book. Hobbes explores amnesia in the context of Jack’s grief over his wife. The heart of the story for me is the relationship between Blanche and Jack from Blanche’s perspective. She is an independent woman in command of her environs. Many depend on her, but she depends on no one. For such a self-sufficient and self-reliant woman to admit even to herself that occasionally allowing someone else, even a man, to share her burden is sweet takes a lot of courage. My review is here.

The Prince of Broadway by Joanna Shuppe
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This story is set in NYC during the Gilded Age. He grew up a criminal and believes that has stained his soul black. Now he skates criminality with his illegal gambling houses of high and low repute. A brilliant businessman, he has amassed a fortune from nothing through ruthless decisions, cutthroat choices and hefty bribes to police and politicians alike. She is a beautiful Uptown débutante of great wealth and privilege flouts his rules to enter his club (for men only) and proceeds to beguile and win every night she shows up. Asking her up to his office to uncover her mystery is irresistible. She lives her life boldly, outside the lines of what society considered normal female behavior. To secure her independence, her plan is to open her own casino for Uptown women (no men allowed). She decides to apprentice herself to him—best way to learn the business is to start from the top.

These two are polar opposites, it would seem on the surface. But Shupe probes under the surface and keeps digging to show how similar they are in all the ways that matter personality-wise. Thus you see that their disparate upbringing is really the superficial stuff; the reality is their personalities and the respect they have for each other. I can't believe I haven't read Shupe before. Now I want to go out and read All The Things. My review is here.

Sweet Talkin' Lover by Tracey Livesay
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a small-town romance done well. She escaped the small town life to the big northern city where she is now a high-powered marketing manager of a cosmetics company. He is the first family of a small town in the South; his family has been mayors of their town for generations. After one thoughtless night fueled by alcohol, her career is on the line, and she has been dispatched to the rural South to evaluate a manufacturing plant, a task usually assigned to junior employees. She is angry, but her hands are tied.

I loved seeing how Livesay brought her real-life group of very close friends into her story by giving her heroine such a warm, supportive friend circle. I believe that who you are is directly influenced by the cohort you keep, so I always look out for who the protagonists are with their friendships and families. It was good to see Livesay address the issue head-on of how black women in the corporate world have to be so many times better as compared with their white compatriots in order to succeed. My review is here.

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
Category: Contemporary YA Romance
Comments: I loved this book with its sweet romance, sharp bursts of self-deprecating humor, and rapid-fire bantering and turns-of-phrase. It is a début book but reads like something from a more experienced author. She is a senior at an exclusive private school in Manhattan, hyper-focused on her grades, college admissions, debate club, and captaining the girls’ swim team. In her spare time, she passionately bakes for the baking blog she runs with her older sister. She also moonlights as the sarcastically witty Twitter voice for their family-owned mega burger chain.

He is in her class, Ivy League material himself, and on the dive team, but he is also considered by all, including himself, as the laidback class-clown, who is not destined for greatness. He works hard at his family deli and runs their Twitter account. He moonlights as a software app developer; it's a secret passion. Her company steals his deli's secret grilled cheese sandwich recipe and the Twitter Game Wars are open.

The author does a splendid job of showing the push and pull of being a teen — seeking approval and rejecting parental guidance; thinking it can all be handled and hoping for that word of praise and recognition. What I liked about this story is that in order to become an adult, the adolescents do not have to completely break away from their known universe. Independence thus is as simple as asking for respect and consideration and some compromise. My review is here.

New Kid by Jerry Craft
Category: Children's Mid-Grade Comic
Comments: It is tough being a middle-schooler without being the new kid who knows no one and being a black kid in an elite, racially un-diverse school. This is a very funny book with sharp dialogue that makes the poor boy's plight even starker. But this is not an angry book. The boy and his family are hopeful, and the boy seeks to figure out a way to navigate his complex world in which he feels like a fish out of water. Not only does he survive, but he thrives.

The boy grows up in a black neighborhood where his father works at the local community center. The family is very well-integrated into the community and all his friends are kids he grew up with. He wants to go to stay in his neighborhood school till eighth grade and then go to an art high school. He is a gifted sketcher and loves to draw comics. But his brilliant high-profile mother has different plans for him. She wants him to be a part of the wider world with a bigger network of people he will need for his future success. So she decides to send him to an elite private school in seventh grade (first form) kicking and screaming. But instead of sulking his way through the school year, the boy constantly seeks to find his place in the school.

I loved this story very much and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Devotions by Mary Oliver
Category: Poetry
Comments: I started off the year with Oliver's hefty poetry collection from which I will be reading throughout the year. Even in these first few poems, I have managed to find in them things that are seemingly written to alleviate whatever my struggles are at that moment. Whenever I think of Oliver's poetry, these two quotes come to mind:

"In poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth." —Ursula Le Guin

"A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep." —Salman Rushdie

I don't have much to comment on the poetry itself yet except for this tidbit that I tweeted a few weeks ago:
Rumi said, There is no proof of the soul.
But isn’t the return of the spring and how it
springs up in our hearts a pretty good hint?

That first line is such a contrast to my experience with Rumi's poetry that I read all last year. He talks intimately and continuously about the soul—his and others—so it is inexplicable that Oliver should say what she says. However, her next two lines are of such beauty and simplicity that all I want to say is Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum).

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: On January 24, I was fortunate to see Ijeoma Oluo in person. This is what I said in my Facebook post about it:

"This morning, I attended one of the most important—possibly the most important—event of 2020. Ijeoma Oluo had come to our school to talk about race, anti-racism, microaggressions, intersectionality, cultural appropriation, social media culture, and most significantly, what we can do to counter harm to marginalized people and how we can raise our children to embrace multiculturalism where marginalized people are seen and heard and allowed to participate without fear and with optimism. Oluo was incredibly generous with her time, her expertise, and her willingness to educate. For someone so sought after that she has to repeat this message over and over again for years on end, that she did it with grace and patience speaks volumes about the person she is. I am grateful I read her book So You Want to Talk about Race, so I could understand the privilege I have and what I can do for those who don't."

After the talk, I had a little chat with her one-on-one about cultural appropriation and how recent immigrants and their first-generation children view things differently. What may be a sharing of culture for the immigrant is cultural appropriation for the child. I said that perhaps it may be that the immigrant grew up in a dominant culture where everyone looked like them, whereas their child is a minority in white America and has been subjected to microaggressions from birth. She agreed and she said that as a result of this, the child is more aware when their culture is hijacked without respect or claimed without permission.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I commented in November on my experiences with going on walks. Here, I want to explore the book a little more. Thoreau's idea of walking is taking four hours out of his day to simply walk freely in the forest. His ideal are those beggars, "saunterers" of the Middle Ages who would walk about during the day and beg for shelter and food in the nights from various people—that was their life. According to Thoreau, these people (almost always men) were wild and free and living the best life they could live. Thoreau looks down on people who walk along sedate paths in parks and he thoroughly looks down on merchants and housewives who are bound by work and do not take the time to walk. Since all of this comes up at the front of the book, his self-righteousness was eye-rolling to say the least, and I had to persevere a little to read on.

But then he used walking as the jumping off point to interesting reflections on history, progress, patriotism, living in the present moment, and so on. At one point he asks, "I believe that climate does react on man—as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually and physically under these influences?" He is right. Of course, he is. Unfortunately, modernity is constrained by circumstances into ever-smaller boxes where freedom is virtually unknown.

An aside: One of Thoreau's discursions is about knowledge and ignorance and which is more valuable. He says, "Which is the best man to deal with—he who know nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, know that he know nothing, or he who really know something about it, but thinks that he knows all?"

To which, seventy-five years later, Bertrand Russell said, "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts."

How to Walk by Thich Nhat Hanh
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: This book on walking is such a contrast to the one above. Whereas Thoreau's walking is all about losing yourself in the outer world, Hanh's walking is all about looking inward. Whereas Thoreau's walker would subsume himself into nature, Hanh's walker would very consciously focus on their breath and their steps. Thoreau needed a forest; for Hanh even a neighborhood sidewalk would do. What is common between both is that walking is meditative and restorative and as important to life as breathing/sleeping/drinking/eating.

This is a Poem that Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Siméon, illustrated by Olivier Talle, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick, founder of Enchanted Lion Books
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: "Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire," said poet and essayist Adrienne Rich. In breathtaking simplicity and loveliness, this book offers a playful, yet profound, answer to what a poem is and what is its use.

The story follows young Arthur's quest to alleviate the boredom of his fish Léon. Arthur's mother advises him to give the fish a poem. But what is a poem? He looks in the kitchen cabinet and elsewhere in the house and realizes it is not a thing he can lay his hands on. Mystified, he decides to ask various wise people he knows who might be able to enlighten him. In her review, philosopher Maria Popova then says that this is "a wonderful meta-story of how poetry comes into being as a tapestry of images, metaphors, and magpie borrowings. Each person along the way contributes to Arthur’s tapestry a different answer, infused with the singular poetic truth of their own life."

One person Arthur knows tells him: A poem is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth. Another says: It is hot like fresh bread. When you eat it, a little is always left over. How about this one? I thought it was delightful: A poem turns words around, upside down, and—suddenly!—the world is new. However, this response is the one I loved the best: A poem is when you hear the heartbeat of a stone.

Thus, these wise people in Arthur's life echo poet Thom Gunn’s insistence that "poetry is of many sorts and is all around us."

Our Favorite Day by Joowon Oh
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a heartwarming picture book written and illustrated by Korean-American Joowon Oh. Meant for the very young, it's an age-old tale of a special loving relation between grandparents and grandchildren. In our world of nuclear families, our children miss these moments with the older generation that will stay with them for their lifetime. With Our Favorite Day, Oh is reminding children how much their grandparents love to spend time with them. Oh is also reminding parents to nurture this relationship for their young ones. For a début book, Oh writes and illustrates with sensitivity and assurance. The art is a great match for the story. Illustrated in watercolors and layered with gouache and paper collages, there is great forward energy in the images. This is mimicked in the suspense of the story.

Chicks Rule by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by Renée Kurilla
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is an empowering tale about powerful girls. Nerdy Chick has been so excited about the upcoming Rocket Club meeting. She has worked hard to design and build her rocket and is eager to show it off at the meeting. But when she gets there, she is confronted with a "No Chicks Allowed" sign. It causes her to feel very disappointed at first, and then, fume in frustration. But Nerdy Chick has a backbone of steel, and she is determined that a rocket of her own making will be fired off into space.

There are two themes in this story. One of them is that if people come together and selflessly contribute to a common good, they can make a success of solving difficult problems. The other point of course is that girls can do anything. The book has the chicks marching together with unifying signs in an affirmation to each other that they matter and they can do anything they set their hearts on. This is not just a story for girls to see how strong girls can be and how they can achieve whatever they set out to achieve, but it is important for boys to read this book to see girls do these things. Girls can succeed in whatever it is boys can succeed in, and all children need to understand this.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a Caldecott winner and has been the most checked-out book (~500,000 times !!) in the New York Public Library's 125-year history. And I found it boring! It is meant for three-year-olds, but it is not the simplistic text that I was turned off by. I have by now reads hundreds of children's picture books ranging over all sorts of ages, including board books for the very young. So it is not that it's a simple book, but rather that it is boring and unimaginative. That it won a Caldecott is amazing, but since it was published in 1962, perhaps the award makes sense. It would never win one today. The ideas are superficial, the layout and flow of text are uninteresting, and the artwork is flat and uninspired. Writers and artists these days are so innovative and seem to really understand children and the way they think—that is the appeal behind their books. Just because it has few words per page and is full of illustrations doesn't mean it's a successful children's book.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happy New Year 2020

And so another year draws to a close and a new year begins. With the passage of time, I have found that I look forward to every year bathed in the hope for a better future for myself—a chance to put my best foot forward and to know that it will be enough, that I will be enough. So I spend a lot of time in the second half of December in contemplation and in writing my goals. These are not esoteric, high-falutin', aspirational goals, but rather practical, measurable goals that will add up to a year of satisfaction and success and peace.

Clearly, I don't always achieve all that I set out to do. So I tinker with them as the year goes on, frequently reminding myself of my hopes at the beginning of the year and tempering them with reality. Yet, I believe in entering the new year with intentionality, not just allowing myself to be swept along with the tide. Quite a few people find goals oppressive. To me, goals are comforting. I have done my thinking and now I have concrete steps set out to achieve what I hope to achieve.

In addition to goals, I choose a word or two that will help me shape the year. Given all the heartbreak and turmoil of last year, my words for this year are: Grace & Hope. And my highest aim for this year is to Be Like A Tree, according to Maria Popova, one of the keenest modern-day intellectual: "May we face the coming year with the steady serenity of a tree—that supreme lover of light, always reaching both higher and deeper, rooted in a network of kinship and ringed by a more patient view of time."

Whatever may be your way of thinking of the new year, my wish for you, dear readers, is that it brings you happiness, because after all, what can be a better measure of success than happiness?