Friday, November 27, 2020

My November Reading

This is the eighth year where I've maintained a spreadsheet of the books I've read that year. This is what I record: Title, Author, Series Grade, Categories, Publisher, Publish Year, Number of Pages, Format, Month Read, Own or Library New Price, Re- Read, Where Reviewed, Comments. Do any of you do this?

Tara Books
Thanks to my editor of the Arts & Culter section of the International Examiner newspaper, I discovered the Indian book publisher, Tara Books, and their children's picture books. I am in love with their handmade books. Here is a video (the top one) of how they handmade the book Creation. The book is produced in their fair trade book making workshop. Watch how each page of every book is carefully screen printed on handmade paper and expertly bound by hand.

Austen Adaptations These are the ones I've found by searching Netflix, Amazon, and the All About Romance blog post. Which ones have you seen?

Pride & Prejudice: 1940 movie (seen), 1980 miniseries Elizabeth Garvie (to see), 1995 miniseries (seen), 2003 movie (no way), 2004 Bride&Prejudice movie (to see), 2005 movie (seen), 2013 movie (no way), 2020 musical (no way)
Persuasion: 1971 movie (no way), 1995 movie (to see), 2007 movie (seen)
Sense & Sensibility: 1981 miniseries (to see), 1995 movie (seen), 2008 miniseries (to see)
Emma: 1972 miniseries (no way), 1995 Clueless movie (seen), 1996 movie (seen), 2009 miniseries (seen), 2020 movie (to see)
Mansfield Park: 1983 miniseries (no way), 1999 movie (seen), 2007 movie (to see)
Northanger Abbey: 2000 movie (no way), 2007 movie (to see)
Sanditon: 2019 miniseries (seen)

Pride and Prejudice: The Complete Novel, with Nineteen Letters from the Characters' Correspondence, Written and Folded by Hand by Jane Austen, curated by Barbara Heller
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: This book was a brilliant find, and thanks to fervent accolades from Laurel Ann Nattress (@austenprose), I decided to acquire it and am thoroughly delighted with it. This edition brings to life the nineteen letters exchanged by the characters. Glassine pockets placed throughout the book contain removable replicas of the letters, such as Lydia's announcement of her elopement, Mr. Collins's obsequious missives, and of course, Darcy's painfully honest letter to Lizzy. Each letter is re-created with gorgeous calligraphy—with different handwriting for every character—and hand-folded with painstaking attention to historical detail. This would make an excellent Christmas gift for your Austen fan.

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life by Elizabeth Gaskell, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: I hadn't read this book in print before, so Stevenson was my first introduction to Gaskell's debut book. I loved it, and I believe it was largely due to Stevenson's excellent narration. Her characters are distinct with voices, accents, and speaking styles. What talent! This is not an unknown book, so I'll simply point to the Wiki for the plot.

This is a contemporary story set in Manchester between 1839 and 1842 and deals with the issues faced by the Victorian working class. Gaskell does an excellent job of showing the real, daily drudgery of life and its myriad difficulties. Life and death balance on razor's edge, and people accept life and death with stoicism. Life carries on, no matter how hard. I have no idea how most people didn't succumb to depression in rainy, dark, industrial ugly England. And yet, in the midst of this dreary life, there are flashes of joy leavening their days and love flourishes vigorously. This book show how complex life is: difficult and endearing and all shades in between.

If you were to read the Wiki plot, you would be mistaken in thinking that the novel itself is dreary. But that is not so. The novel is made wonderful by Gaskell's finely nuanced characterization. While the plot provides forward movement to the story, it is besides the point to some extent. You have to get into the psyche of the characters in the story, primary and secondary, to be fully invested in the story.

Persuasion by Jane Austen, performed by Juliet Stevenson
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: I am fledgling audio listener, i.e., my mind has a tendency to wander when I listen. However, having read this book a couple of times, it was easy to follow the story along in audio. As with Mary Barton, I found Stevenson a superb performer. She really brings to story to life in all their complexities, which are easily discernable to the ear. I recommend the audio highly.

A Granted Prayer by Edith Wharton
Category: Literary Fiction Short Story
Comments: This was a bit of a disappointment. There was a point to the story, but you could see it come a mile away and there was nothing original about the way the story rushed to the perfunctory end. I expected some particular revelation of character, a twist in the tail, an insight, something to give this story meaning beyond the obvious. But perhaps what is in the story is the point, and I'm missing it by expecting more.

The family consists of a university professor, his two unmarried sisters, his elder daughter, and three sons who have left home and gone on to live their disappointing lives. The women agree that the boys were a sore disappointment to the father. They wished that the boy who had died in childbirth would've survived to become the apple of their father's eye. And then providentially, he becomes the guardian of just such a boy.

Editor’s Note: While doing postdoctoral research for a project on Edith Wharton’s short fiction, Sarah Whitehead, an independent scholar in London, came across the typescript of an unpublished story, titled "A Granted Prayer," in the Wharton archive at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale. This satire of genteel stuffiness, which takes comic aim at contemporaneous debates about the role of environment, biology, and free will in human development. Link to the Story.

If a Lady Lingers by Anna Harrington
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: This book is going to be on my Best Books of 2020 list. I was charmed. Charmed by the characters, charmed by the story, charmed by the hand that created this book.

Daisy Daring has a secret. She’s the daring architect and interior designer behind her ailing father’s architectural fame these days. She yearns to sign her own name on her designs and dreams of receiving recognition for her hard work and talent. But she knows, Society is not ready for a woman architect. She’s been condescended to and patronized and dismissed enough times to know that the only way she can see her designs built is to sign her father’s name on them. The ache of losing her mother when she was young has never gone away, and the constant thwarting of her passion has led to someone who lives in the shadows. She is constantly conscious what everyone thinks of her.

The huge grin on his face competes for the brightest spot on Hugh Whitby’s person with his wildly colorful and flamboyant clothes. He is very tall and very slender with narrow shoulders. He smiles from sunup to sundown, laughs loudly, and is enthusiastic about all that life has to offer him. While wealthy and the son of a baron, Whitby has none of the airs and arrogance of high rank. He uses his wealth to provide for a day school that educates children, feeds and clothes them, and trains them for a life that will lift them out of poverty. Despite his joy in the world, inwardly, he still mourns the mother he lost when he was young. In her memory, he wears clothes of every hue, no matter how clashing. He cares not a whit what others think of him.

Daisy and Whitby meet when he comes to visit her father with a commission to have a house built for himself and a group of children who will be boarding with him. My review is here.

A Timeless Christmas by Alexis Stanton
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The book was released in 2018, and it has been made into a movie by Hallmark Channel, which was released on November 15. In my piece for Frolic, I reviewed the book and also interviewed Alexis Stanton, who also writes as Eva Leigh and Zoë Archer. A Timeless Christmas is a time travel tale set in the early 1900s and 2018.

Megan Turner has been working as a tour guide of the Whitley-Moran Mansion by impersonating as Rosie, the housekeeper. Located in Cutter Springs in upstate New York, the mansion was built by Charles Whitley in 1902 for his fiancée. A self-made man and brilliant inventor and entrepreneur, Charles grew up poor and acquired vast wealth and influence through determination and hard work.

Megan has a PhD in American History and has been fascinated by Charles’ story. She has read all the extant manuscripts and documents she’s been able to find on him and by him, and she cannot bear to look away from his portrait every time she sees it. All in all, she is halfway in love with a man who mysteriously disappeared in 1902, a week before Christmas. My interview and review are here.

Gentleman Jim by Mimi Matthews
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: [CW: sexual assault attempt] Following in the grand old tradition of the Signet Regencies, this is a tightly focused story of young love getting a second chance at forever more. Matthews is a splendid writer. This story has all the right ingredients for an excellent romance: ardent love, soul-deep tenderness, loyalty, steadfastness, honesty, pining, and lives moving from darkness into light, all spiced with a rousing mystery and much derring-do. It is a fun paean to Heyer and to Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo.

John Beresford, Viscount St. Clare, née Nicholas Seaton is a lowly groom and the bastard son of a highway man and a scullery maid in Somersetshire. In his young life, he suffered much pain, and his only solace, the only person who has ever loved him, is the squire’s daughter. They both know that one would be bereft without the other in their life. And yet, one night when Maggie finds Nicholas beaten badly, fearing for his life, she helps him escape. Despite Maggie owning every millimeter of his heart, he only wants to escape the misery of his existence in Somerset. “Wait for me, Maggie. When I make my fortune, I’ll come back for you.”

Margaret “Maggie” Honeywell has waited ten years. She has been raised as a pampered heiress of a wealthy estate and dotes on her father. It is only when he dies that she realizes that from the grave he means to dictate her life by showing her that he never truly thought of her as a son who could independently run an estate. He wants her to marry a man he has decided upon, who has been the bane of her existence since her girlhood. She has given up hope that Nicholas will ever return to her and is almost resigned to make the marriage her father has set upon her. A chance meeting with St. Clare brings back all her yearning for Nicholas.

The heart of the story is Nicholas' psychological journey from groom to viscount to Maggie's husband. Matthews has done a goodjob showing this. My review is here.

Running Away With the Bride by Sophia Singh Sasson
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: I loved Sasson’s first book in the Nights of the Mahal series and this second book is just as wonderful. Cross-cultural currents and interracial relationships are never easy. But in Sasson’s stories, under the seeming differences, people connect with universal commonalities that allows them to make sacrifices and compromises so they can have a life together.

Divya Singh comes from a traditional family in India. Trained as a lawyer, she works in her family’s global business of topnotch hotels catering to the well-heeled. Divya feels entirely stifled by her family’s expectations and also entirely in tune with what her duty is towards her family. Despite exhibiting flashes of independence, eventually, she buckles under the weight of their presuppositions and agrees to an arranged marriage to an Indian American.

Through his software business, Ethan Connors has amassed wealth beyond his dreams and beyond what is comfortable to him in his heart given how he grew up: “I have more money than I can spend in my lifetime. It’s meaningless to me.” His wealth has erected a barrier between him and his lower middle-class family. He wants to buy them everything that they cannot afford, but they have their pride. Since his mother remarried when he was young and had a son with his stepfather, Ethan has felt like an outsider with his nose pressed up the glass of a happy family. They tried their very best to make him feel that he belonged, but he never quite fit in in his mind, and now, his wealth has created a yawning gap.

Divya and Ethan meet when he crashes her wedding in Vegas thinking that the bride is the person he had a prior relationship with and who he should be marrying. Without knowing who in heck Ethan is, but seizing the uproar as an excuse to abandon the traditional plan her parents have set up for her, Divya runs away with Ethan. My review is here.

Just The Way You Are by Adite Banerjie
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This is a self-published story set in India by an Indian author based in India. It was recommended by Ros Clarke. This is a wonderful story between a young, wealthy, famous playboy and an older divorced woman with a child. They have a one-night stand at the wedding of his sister where she's the makeup artist. But then she disappears. She's not interested in anything more. And he cannot forget her. Every overture he makes, she thwarts. But he shows that he has the patience to wait for her, for when she is ready to trust in love and happiness again. The hero pines and waits. What elevates this story from ordinary to memorable is how skilfully Banerjie sketches her characters, their interactions, and what they each notice about the other.

Christmas Under the Northern Lights by Annie O'Neill
Category: Contemporary Category Medical Romance
Comments: Annie O’Neil is a popular name in the medical romance category, and this was my first, and possibly, last book by her. The premise is good. A few weeks before her Christmas wedding, she finds her playboy surgeon fiancé cheating on her. In despair, she runs from London to the farthest island town in Scotland she can find. She decides to return to her calling to be a district nurse, that is a nurse who makes house calls, as opposed to working in a hospital or a clinic.

He is from this tiny island, but couldn't wait to leave town. His parents had been the town's lushes and they died drunken deaths. His grandmother raised him, but the shame followed him all through his teen years. The minute he could, he lit out of town to Glasgow, and eventually became an emergency room doctor. He loved the fast life and excitement of working in the ER. But his allergy to the town of his childhood meant that he didn't return in time to realize how ill his beloved grandmother was. She died, and he is wracked by guilt, and he is back in town helping the local elderly doctor out.

Both protagonists are suffering from heartbreak, and they bond as they spend their days making house calls on patients. Interesting premise, right? What sank it was the constant navel gazing of the protagonists. Over and over, they retread the ground of their past angst. How they should've done something different, been different, etc. etc. The first couple of times felt authentic; after that, when it was the same old thing with no new intuition or action on their parts, it got tiresome.

I also felt that the story's conclusion was unbelievable. I understand this is a small town story and a Christmas story. So I do get that the conclusion of the story would be that the protagonists would wholeheartedly choose to stay on the island and practice medicine there. However, in a romance story the HOW is what matters. And the author failed to convince me that a London nurse and a Glasgow emergency room doctor would be content puttering around in a small town far removed from the big city. I wanted the author to sell it to me, and she didn't.

Kisses, She Wrote by Katharine Ashe
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: This is the first book in Ashe's wonderful The Prince Catchers series. Every time I read an Ashe book, I discover anew how much I like her historical romances. She'd stopped writing for a while, but she's going to be coming out with historical fiction, which she called (in a tweet to me) "dramatic love stories with history and adventure and a little mystery," in 2021 or 2022.

This book has a delicious premise. A prim and proper and oh,so,innocent princess of an imaginary kingdom is due to wed where her brother pleases in a matter of weeks. But in the meantime, she fantasizes about her brother's friend, the wicked, beauteous earl. He never notices her, because she is plain and mute in his presence. But, oh, can she write in her secret diary about him. In it, she is bold and hedonistic and commands him to seduce her in every which way. One day, he chances on her diary and is hooked. He can't stop reading it and ducks in and out of his friend's house so he can sneak a peek at her diary. She, in beguiling herself, beguiles him. The more he notices her in real life, the more she notices him noticing her, the more confident she becomes, the more she starts becoming like the woman in the diary. Delicious!

A Love for All Seasons: "A Love for All Seasons" by Edith Layton
Category: Historical Romance Short Story
Comments: This is a delightful short story about a couple in the their late thirties who have recently and without warning stepped up into the nobility and are having to learn to navigate life in the upper classes and their new milieu: London under the critical eyes of the ton. The couple is in London to not only establish themselves in Society but also to launch their daughter in Society and marry her off to her doting fiancé. But they are rustics from the country who were childhood sweethearts, and over the years, have settled into a comfortable life. London jolts them out of their complaisance and the fast, sophisticated life and people make them question their life choices and their relationship. Layton has surpassed herself in building a complicated story in such a short format. Not only are the main characters and story emotionally complex, but the secondary characters shine as well in memorable ways. The final advice that the mother gives her daughter about love having its seasons and how to stay the course of love even in its lows and its highs, is just brilliant.

A Christmas Promise by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This is an ongoing read of our Sunday Twitter Book Club. We started on November 15 and have been reading three chapters a week.

We have had a lively—a bit too heated last time with an all-caps shoutiness—discussion all three times we "met." I found that both the hero and heroine start in a pretty low place in their relationship arc. He's a poor aristocrat who has to marry a Cit for money and despises her because he believes she is marrying him for the title. She despises him because she think he's a wastrel and marrying her for her money only so he can continue his wasteful ways. The way the story moves is reminiscent of Heyer's A Civil Contract. I had forgotten that but Ros Clarke and Lara Temple reminded me of it. In general, this is a plot that's been used so much that it feels like a tired plot.

But Balogh's version really does a good job, because she is not afraid to make her characters unlikeable at the outset. She trusts that readers will stay with her as her story unfolds. I really enjoy marriage-of-convenience plots, because they show characters at their worst and their best. Since I am not afraid of unlikeable characters when I see glimmers of hope for a future reconciliation and that there is a balance of power in the relationship, I have not minded this story so far at all and have stayed with Balogh from the beginning. I know that the payoff from her is coming—she is a trusted author. I know that there will be a point in this story when it will take a definite turn and the characters will stop resenting each other to the point where they will be willing to really see each other and work with each other. I look forward to seeing what December readings will bring.

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer
Category: Spiritual Nonfiction
Comments: Pico Iyer remains one of my absolute favorite writers. Everything I have read by him is wonderful, be it a reported article, an essay on grammar, a travelogue, fiction, or his spiritual journeys.

In this book, he says that sitting still is how we get what we most crave and need in our accelerated lives, which is a break, and he finds that it is the only way to sift through the slideshow of his experience to make sense of the future and the past. Sit still long enough to find out what moves you the most, to recall where your truest happiness lies, and to remember that sometimes, making a living and making a life point in opposite directions. So much of our life takes place inside our heads, that if we really want to change our lives, we have to change our minds. Sitting still leads to not just clearer thinking, but also, emotional intelligence. It allows you to bring stillness into the motion and commotion of the world.

When you take in sights, it is only sitting still that allows you to turn those sights into insights. The Stoics reminded us that it is not our experience that make our life; it is what we do with it that matters. He touts taking an Internet Sabbath for 24 hours every week, to go offline to gather the resources you need for when you go back online. Get a second home in time (if you can't afford one in space) just by taking a day off. He finds that only by going to a place quiet for a while that he will have anything fresh or creative or joyful to share with his loved ones, once he returns. Walk, read, write, look at the stars, and experience the freedom from the clatter and chatter of the modern world—it will remind you who you really are.

In an age of acceleration, nothing can be more exhilarating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing is so luxurious as paying attention. And in an age of constant motion, nothing is so urgent as sitting still.

Mindfulness Essentials: How to Relax by Thích Nhất Hạnh
Category: Spiritual Nonfiction
Comments: Mindfulness Essentials are a set of five, beautifully bound books in pristine condition that were such a find at my library's book sale last November. A year later, I have finally gotten around to reading one of them...and have discovered a treasure. This is my first experience with Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh's work.

The other night, via Facebook Live, I listened to His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaching about the Sanskrit concepts of shamata and vipashyana. So I was pleased that in my reading of How to Relax, Hạnh also talks about those two concepts and how they relate to meditation. Vipashyana or Vipassana is looking deeply within to understand the true nature of things, to truly "see" yourself. Shamata or Kshamata means stopping being caught in our worries of our past or future to live deeply in each moment, a practice of concentrating. So understanding and concentration form the basis of meditation.

The book talks about many other things, such as how experiencing joy takes cultivation and practice of the habit, how simply breathing is beneficial for body and mind healing (with body healing taking priority), how to let go of ideas of happiness that are causing suffering in order to be truly happy in the present, how to value unstructured time, and so on.

How to Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare your Kid for Success by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I attended a lecture by her offered by our school district and so decided to buy her book. She is a very impressive person in her depth of knowledge and depth of understanding. Here are some of brief notes:

Don't be overprotective or rescue your children: This is a short term gain with a long term pain. Our help is depriving children TO BE their own self. If we set their life path, they will be constrained to follow it. We are getting there for them, so they feel like they were forced to make it happen a certain way. It's a win for us because they're successful. We have handled everything. But this win for us is a short term win, but a loss for them. Knowing that they have not achieved their success is psychologically damaging. Children have to know their own mind. They have to know: self-advocacy, agency, and sense of their own existence. "I acted, there was an outcome. I made that happen." It shows them that they exist, that they are a rational thinking being. Self advocacy is "I do therefore I am."

The ARC of becoming successful: Agency (undermined by rescuing), Resilience (undermined by fixing everything for them), Character (undermined by dropping everything as adults for the children, self-sacrificing, treating them as above ourselves, and then resenting them—this is not modeling good character, which is where everybody gets what they need in the family).

Maintain Psychological Distance: If your life is theirs and theirs is yours then it is WRONG!

You have to always Empathize and Empower: Evince confidence that with time and effort they will get over a hurdle. Teach them to do more and more for themselves. Overparenting depletes executive functioning.

The Wishing Tree by Roseanne Thong, illustrated by Connie McLennan
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This story is based on a local legend about a real wishing banyan tree in the village of Lam Tsuen in Hong Kong. (This is not part of the story, but is important to know: The banyan tree is considered a sacred tree among those who practice Buddhism because Buddha gained enlightenment under it.) A wish is written on five sheets of a special red and gold paper, rolled up into a scroll, tied up with a special string, weighted with a mandarin orange, and flung over the branches of the tree. Some of the wishes wished on the Lam Tsuen tree have really come true.

During the Lunar New Year and on the 1st and 15th of every month, people come from near and far to toss their wishes on the trees many branches and roots. Other villages also have their own wishing trees but the one in Lam Tsuen is the most famous. This story is of a little boy and his grandmother and the wishes they make every year together. When the boy's grandmother falls sick, the tree is unable to save her, and she dies, and the boy refuses to wish on the tree for a few years, until he realizes all that the tree has unknowingly given him. McLennan has done a superb job with her culturally-sensitive, vibrant artwork of acrylic on watercolor paper.

I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail illustrated by Ramsingh Urveti, book design by Jonathan Yamakami, 17th C English poem
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail is a well-known folk poem from 17th C England. This is an absolutely brilliant book in the way it conceives the poem. The artwork and the book design are what make this an unforgettable book. See the book being paged through and read in a video (penultimate).

The poem is a form of a trick verse. Read it in a straighforward manner and it sounds interestingly surreal. But if the lines are broken up in the middle, everything falls into place. In this version of the classic poem, language, art, and design come together to play with these inversions. They reveal and conceal, brilliantly mirroring the shifting ways in which poetry creates meaning. At the simplest level, it is a lesson on grammar and punctuation. But is the difference between fantasy and reality largely grammatical? Or are these inversions the very essence of poetry, by turns meaningless and profound, which overturn our habitual ways of perception?"

Here is the straightforward version...
I saw a peacock with a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet drop down hail
I saw a cloud with ivy circles around
I saw a sturdy oak creep on the ground [...]

Here's the trick version...
I saw a peacock | With a fiery tail
I saw a blazing comet | Drop down hail
I saw a cloud | With ivy circles around
I saw a sturdy oak [...]

Alone in the Forest illustrated by Bhajju Shyam, text by Gita Wold & Andrea Anastasio
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Shyam is a Gond tribal artist from central India. The Gond used to be a community of forest dwellers not that long ago. According to Tara Books, the publisher, "Their art derives from the decorative patterns painted on the mud floors and walls of their houses." While the minutely detailed art purely for esthetic reasons is the point of the book, the story is also interesting. It delves into the psychology of fear for children. The art enhances the emotions the boy feels: the optimistic beginning of the story, how he descends into terror, the mental and physical manifestation of fear, and the euphoria when he comes out of it. Like the above book, if you get a chance to read the book, grab it.