Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Medieval Eye Salve Receipe Can Cure Antibiotic-Resistant MRSA

Image copyrighted by the BBC According to the BBC, scientists have recreated an eye salve based on a 9th century Anglo-Saxon medical textbook called Bald's Leechbook. The medieval recipe mentions exact amounts of garlic, onions, wine, and cow bile and is found to kill 90% of modern MRSA bacteria.

Ayurvedic medicine has always known the power of garlic. Looks like medieval herbalists and doctors were likewise aware of its anti-bacterial properties. Modern doctors believe that it's not any one ingredient that makes the recipe so powerful, but it's the combination of all four ingredients.

Here's the recipe to Bald's Eye Salve:

Equal amounts of garlic and another allium (onion or leek), finely chopped and crushed in a mortar for two minutes.
Add 25ml of English wine—taken from a historic vineyard near Glastonbury.
Dissolve bovine salts in distilled water, add and then keep chilled for nine days at 4C

MRSA is the bane of hospitals everywhere and their poor patients who die of it. So this news is most welcome as is the news that this medicine has no side-effects.

An aside: Can you imagine putting that concoction into your EYE! for an infection? I'll stick to Gentamicin drops, thankyouverymuch.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Picture Day Friday: St. Mary's Basilica, Poland

St. Mary's Basilica, also known as Church of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, in Kraków, Poland was built in 1347. Situated adjacent to the Main Market Square, it is known for its wooden altarpiece carved by German artist Veit Stoss (Wit Stwosz).

According to Wikipedia, "On every hour, a bugle signal—called the Hejnał mariacki—is played from the top of the taller of St. Mary's two towers. The plaintive tune breaks off in mid-stream, to commemorate the famous 13th century trumpeter, who was shot in the throat while sounding the alarm before the Mongol attack on the city. The noon-time hejnał is heard across Poland and abroad, broadcast live by the Polish national radio station."

[Image copyrighted by Europe's History.]

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

2015 TBR Reading Challenge: Miss Cayley's Adventures by Grant Allen

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Miss Cayley's Adventures by Grant Allen
My Categories: literary fiction, male author
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Kickin' It Old School (Copyright date is 1899)

The SmartBitches wrote a wonderful review of the book.

The book abounds in funny silliness and reads like chick-lit at times. I'm amazed that this endearing story was written by a Victorian gentleman. It starts off with:

On the day when I found myself with twopence in my pocket, I naturally made up my mind to go round the world.

And continues on with sentences such as this:

I had a lovely harangue all pat in my head, in much the same strain, on the infinite possibilities of entertaining angels unawares, in cabs, on the Underground, in the aerated bread shops; but Elsie's widening eyes of horror pulled me up short like a hansom in Piccadilly when the inexorable upturned hand of the policeman checks it.

And this:

I sat down on a chair at the foot of an old elm with a poetic hollow, prosaically filled by a utilitarian plate of galvanized iron.

Given the madcap adventures featured in this book for our intrepid heroine, there's the presence of the obligatory villain who conveniently pops up all over the place giving our heroine a chance to shine. Even when the villain is off-page, our heroine shines in every venture she turns her hand to or meddles in.

When she chooses to sell bikes, she has clients clamoring for her bikes in three countries. When she chooses to cycle as her main means of transportation, she can easily go from Germany to Switzerland. (Really!) When she decides to turn amanuensis in Italy, her unofficial fiancé's uncle, from whom he's going to inherit untold riches, is her client. When she decides to travel to Egypt, her expenses are paid for by a newspaper. She rescues an English woman coerced under the veil in a desert oasis in Egypt. She makes a clean shot killing a tiger on her first safari on her first elephant. She climbs down a sheer cliff to rescue her fiancé.

What's not to love about this uber-talented, uber-accomplished heroine? Told in first-person, the whole effect is charming.

Even her fiancé is charming. Here's some of his marriage proposal:

A man ought to wish the woman he loves to be a free agent, his equal in point of action. He ought to desire for her a life as high as she is capable of leading with full scope for ever faculty of her intellect of her emotional nature. If a man can discover such a woman as that, and can induce her to believe in him, to love him, to accept him, well, then, I think he should be happy in devoting his whole life to her.

I continued to be amazed that this story was written by a Victorian gentleman. Was it possibly a woman writing under his pseudonym? Nope, it was all him, writing a perfectly sketched feminine-perspective story of a purely feminine adventure, where the men are perfunctory at best.

He does the upper-class drawl perfectly well in the dialogue of one of the two villains. I usually don't like to read accented prose, but this was perfect.

Despite its charm there were sour British-Empire notes of discrimination in the story. She displayed utter contempt for quiet souls who were slightly padded and preferred sedentary occupations. Some of the secondary characters constantly referred to Egyptians and Indians as heathens, creatures, black bounders, n**** or darkies, not worthy of any consideration or respect. Oh, these Caucasian English men took full advantage of their hospitality but offered only contempt back.

A Maharajah from Rajputana, whose ancestors were Maharajahs for centuries before, says this:

You treat a native gentleman, I see, like a human being. I hope you will not stop long enough in our country to get over that stage—as happens to most of your countrymen and countrywomen. In England, a man like myself is an Indian prince; in India, to nine-nine out of a hundred Europeans, he is just "a damned n****.

Given her sympathetic and more egalitarian (in comparison) view of Egyptians and Indians, I believe the author sought to show prevalent racism versus englightened views. He wasn't entirely successful though, there was bleed-through discrimination that I believed was his.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Coptic Bible

A medieval Coptic Bible made in Egypt.

[Image copyrighted by Matthew Ward.]

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Pemberley is Up for Sale!

[Edited 5/15: I have been asked by many if Pemberley includes Colin Firth in a wet shirt. Alas! I regret to write that it does not. Firth is distinctly uncomfortable being asked about his role as Mr. Darcy and tries to distance himself from his most famous character.]

For the low price of only $11 million, you can own Mr. Darcy's Pemberley. Let's all pool our resources, historical fiction readers, together we can own it outright.

Eleven million sounds like a large amount, but think of what we'll be getting: five miles of corridors, a room for every day of the year, and cupboards the size of garages—and a story chockfull of visiting royalty, jaw-dropping scandals, and truly poisonous family feuds. Perfect! (The fine print is that we'll also be stuck with a repair bill of $42 million.)

Wentworth Woodhouse estate in South Yorkshire is the largest private residence in Europe. It inspired Jane Austen to create the Pemberley estate in her Pride & Prejudice as the home of the ooh là là 10,000-pounds Mr. Darcy, who was in turn inspired by the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam. (Historical note: He's not the Earl of Fitzwilliam but rather Earl Fitzwilliam—there are a few earl titles like that; more peerage details here.)

The famed façade dwarfs Buckingham Palace, Chatsworth, Blenheim, and even Versailles. (Go here for beautiful interior photographs.)

In December of 2013, architect Clifford Newbold bought Wentworth Woodhouse from the family that had owned it since the 13th century and he was determined to bring it back to life despite being in his 80s. Unfortunately, a year later, he put it up on the market as too much for him to handle.

[Click on images to enlarge.]

Friday, May 8, 2015

Picture Day Friday: 17th C Persian Book

Shams al-Dīn Muhammad Hāfiz-i Shīrāzī, 1685 CE, Persia

[Image copyrighted by Matthew Ward.]

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Romance Reading Survey by Maya Rodale

This isn't a review of the book Dangerous Books for Girls: the bad reputation of romance novels, explained by romance author Maya Rodale, though I'm really looking forward to reading it. This post is about the survey Rodale conducted.

Before Rodale wrote her book, she ran a long survey among various fiction readers about their reading habits and demographics. According to Rodale, "There were over 800 survey respondents and the participants were mainly via word of mouth [and] Twitter, but shared by many authors/editors/bloggers, so it's not just my audience. Most but not all findings match up with the [Romance Writers of America's reader stats].

Here are Rodale's romance reading survey results: Romance Readers and Non-Romance Readers. It is interesting to compare Rodale's results with RWA's results. Far fewer romance-reading men responded to her survey, so the results are skewed a bit.

The following infographic is based on Rodale's survey.

[click to enlarge]

The following infographic is based on RWA, Nielsens Books and Consumer Tracker, and Rodale's survey.

[click to enlarge]

Friday, May 1, 2015

Picture Day Friday: 7th C Qur'an

Pages from a very early copy of the Qur'an from the 7th century.

[Image copyrighted by Matthew Ward.]

Thursday, April 30, 2015

My April Reading ... Part Three

This is the third and last post of my commentary on my reading this month.

The Mill on the Floss (abridged) by George Eliot
Categories: literary fiction

Commentary: Rohan Maitzen's work on George Eliot inspired me to re-read one of the books I remember from my childhood. I dug through my shelves to find a copy of The Mill on the Floss from middle school. I enjoyed revisiting the story far more than I remember liking it as a child. Here is Rohan Maitzen's commentary on the book and on George Eliot. I understood the book so much better after reading it. SPOILERS AHOY!

The story was heartbreaking. My heart bled for Maggie Tulliver for having her intelligence and vivid personality stuck in a box of Victorian values and strictures. Indulged beyond wisdom as a child and buffeted without restraint in her adolescence and young adulthood by life, Maggie's the epitome of the tragic heroine.

And then the ending. Oh, the ending. "The denouement shocks the reader most painfully," protested Henry James. "Nothing has prepared him for it; the story does not move towards it; it casts no shadow before it."

Eliot seems to side with Maggie's brother Tom in condemning Maggie's actions with Phillip and with Stephen. Eliot shows no empathy or sympathy in Maggie's sincere attachment to Phillip and then to her attraction to but repudiation of Stephen. Eliot and Tom stand against Maggie in her departure from the strict rules Victorian society has set out for its women. Why is Maggie so undeserving of happiness? The only way for Maggie to redeem her good name is for her to die while coming to Tom's rescue. When looked at this way, the ending of the story is a foregone conclusion—I disagree with Henry James. The minute Maggie deviates from the straight and the narrow, her doom is certain.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: By a male author

Commentary: Recommended by my dad and by Jessica Tripler. I am so impressed with the book. I am so impressed by his bio. Even his notes on sources are impressive—wide-ranging, detailed, numerous. Some people live so fully and pack so much into their days. "I see it now—this world is swiftly passing" by the warrior Karna in the Mahabharata (as quoted in the book).

Gawande writes in his acknowledgments, "I have never been a facile writer. I don't know what those authors who describe the words just flowing out of them are talking about. For me, the words come only slowly and after repeated effort." I have read his New Yorker articles. I have read this book. What in the world is he talking about? His writing has a narrative style that does truly flow.

The book is a sucker punch to the solar plexus. It deals with that subject that makes us the most uncomfortable: dying. We're all going to be doing it, but none of us wants to talk about it. Well, Gawande is talking about it—how impossible the choices are for the elderly to get the medical and physical help they need while maintaining their dignity, their autonomy (to what extent possible), their privacy, and their zest for life.

No culture has a good solution—every positive has a negative. Old age gets treated as a medical problem, because there are always plenty of health issues that crop up the longer you live. However, gerontologists, doctors who specialize in elder medicine, are the ones who concern themselves with whole person care, not just the medical problems portion of it. By just confining care to simply physical and medical matters, the elderly are treated like infants with no thought paid to their lively brains. So gerontologists are essential to our society. However, gerontology is a department absent from many hospitals, the first department to get cut in tight financial situations, and insurances are reluctant to support private practice gerontology.

Gawande certainly has not come up with a magical solution. But he's the only one willing to bring up the topic in a straightforward fashion and lay it out in all its ramifications. That he does it with elegant prose and anecdotes, makes what would otherwise be a dry read into an engrossing read.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
Categories: parenting, nonfiction
Diversity: Written by a male author

Commentary: Recommended by Bill Gates in his 2013 Summer Reading post. I'm still reading it.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Historical Fiction Readers' Survey

Announcing the 2015 Historical Fiction READERS' SURVEY!

It's a short 5–10 minute survey and seeks input on reading habits, historical fiction preferences, favorite authors, favorite book titles, etc.


According to historical fiction author M.K. Tod, "Writers and readers have a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought along with their backgrounds and attitudes to interpret those stories, deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. A story is incomplete without both writer and reader."

Tod then goes on to ask, "What do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? What are their attitudes to pricing or their favorite reading blogs?"

A survey such as this reaches out to readers to seek their opinions.

So if you are a reader or a writer of historical fiction, please take the survey and share the link [https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7] with friends, colleagues, and family and on your favorite social media sites. Robust participation across age groups, countries, and other demographics will make this year's survey even more significant.

If you so choose, at the end of the survey, you can sign up to receive the survey analysis report when it becomes available.

In 2012, author M.K. Tod conducted the first survey of historical fiction readers. Then in October 2013, Tod conducted a second survey.

Some of the highlights of the 2013 survey include:

  • GENDER MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Women and men differ significantly in their reading habits and preferences and their views of historical fiction.
  • AGE MAKES A DIFFERENCE: Those under 30 have different preferences for genre and time period and have different patterns of consumption and acquisition.
  • SOCIAL MEDIA IS HAVING A BIG IMPACT ON READING: Social media and online sites play an increasingly significant role for those choosing, purchasing, and talking about fiction.
  • BOOK BLOGS ARE VERY POPULAR: 1,473 participants listed one, two or three favorite blogs.
  • GEOGRAPHY: Responses to questions such as the use of online tools for recommendations and purchasing and preferred setting for historical fiction varied by geography.
  • PRICING: Sadly, readers are pushing for low prices. For example, 60% want e-books at $5.99 or less and 66% want paperbacks at $10.99 or less.
  • ONLINE BOOK CLUBS ARE GAINING POPULARITY: 21% belong to online clubs while 15% belong to clubs meeting in a physical location
  • VOLUME OF BOOKS READ MAKES A DIFFERENCE: for example, high volume readers have different expectations for book reviews, a higher interest in tracking their books, and higher usage of online tools and social media to augment their reading experience.

    Survey author M.K. TOD writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE, is set in WWI France. The survey is supported by JENNY QUINLAN of Historical Editorial and by BEATRIZ WILLIAMS, an author of historical fiction.

    Please participate in the 2015 survey and share the URL [https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7] with others.


  • Picture Day Friday: 18th C Qur'an

    An illuminated manuscript produced in the eighteenth century of the Qur'an.

    [Image copyrighted by Matthew Ward.]

    Wednesday, April 22, 2015

    My April Reading ... Part Two

    I sure read a fair number of books this month, and I sure talked a whole lot about them. It was a good idea to split my over-long reading post up into three parts. The month isn't over yet, so I'll have a third post up next week.

    The Notorious Rake by Mary Balogh
    Categories: rom, regency

    Commentary: Recommended by author Megan Frampton and bloggers MissBates, Vi_dao, and DabneyGrinnan. The book started with a love scene between utter strangers who despised each other with no sense of there being any attraction between them. I was disappointed. I do not like books where the protagonists boink their way to a HEA. This was the book so highly recommended? I felt distanced from my romance-reading peers—perhaps my tastes had changed. Yet, for some reason I continued reading with what Victoria Jansen called a "vague completiest instinct." And thank goodness I did.

    The book quite suddenly got better. I found I had some sympathy for Mary and then gradually for Edmond. I enjoyed reading about Edmond's very earnest soul-searching—a drink of water after being parched in the wasteland of London's gutters. As I read on, my sympathies with Mary didn't evolve but for Edmond they sure did, to the level that Mary started losing brownie points every time she gave Edmond a setdown. Despite his history of debauchery, he was willing to be vulnerable, to search through his emotions for the whys and wherefores, though he did leap for the security of his previous "devil may care" attitude from time to time. I did understand where Mary came from and why she was so reluctant to commit to Edmond, but her character arc was quieter, less dramatic as compared to Edmond's. Towards the end, I did wonder what it was that Edmond saw in her, what it was that inspired his passion and his love for her. She redeemed herself right at the end by her leap of faith.

    On some level, this book had a predictable storyline and the characters, including the secondary characters, played their respective parts correctly. What made this book acquire a "re-readable" status was the emotional responses of the protagonists in their dialogues and their internal monologues.

    A Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh
    Categories: rom, regency

    Commentary: This book was less successful than The Notorious Rake. It's the prequel to Rake and tells the story of two couples, the parents and their daughter and her childhood frenemy. Trying to tell two stories in 261 pages makes for sparse character development, a light hand at moving the romances along, and severely limits the choices for the impediments to the success of the romances. I prefer more focus, more in-depth exploration of plausible issues, and a slow build-up.

    Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
    Categories: mystery
    Diversity: Book in translation by a male author

    Commentary: Recommended by authors Jo Bourne and Sarah Mayberry. This is book one of the Inspector Maigret series. Originally printed in French as Pietr-le-Letton (1930), this is a 2013 translation by David Bellos. I had seen two episodes of the miniseries produced in the UK and France and so was when I found out that the book had been reissued with a new translation, I was eager to read it. After reading some of the star-studded reviews, of the book, I was even more eager. André Gide: "The greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature." P.D. James: "A writer, who more than any other crime novelist, combined a high literary reputation with popular appeal." And so on.

    Well. It was plodding and boring. There was anti-Semitism, sexism, disparaging comments about Eastern Europeans, fat people. Then there were quite a few passages like this:

    When they [suspects] had got back into their car there as a moment of indecision. The couple were having an argument. Mrs. Levingston was agitated. her husband lit a cigarette and put out his lighter with an angry swipe of his hand. Eventually, he said something to the chauffeur through the intercom tube, and the car set off, with Maigret in a taxi following behind.

    So if Maigret was in a taxi behind, how in the world did he see all of that? Even if he was standing curbside, how could he observe all of this inside a darkened car? Assuming the dome light was on for him to observe, would he be able to find a taxi to follow so quickly given that the theater show had just ended and a huge crowd of theatergoers were thronging outside and looking for taxis? This book was a DNF for me.

    The One Skill: How Mastering the Art of Letting Go Will Change Your Life by Leo Babauta
    Categories: nonfiction, life skills
    Diversity: Self-published in e- format by a male author

    Commentary: Read this book first in January, and re-read it this month to write the March TBR Challenge post. (Yes, I was late! Eep!) Excellent meditation on how letting go of idealism in life about situations and people leads to a happier, calmer life. This is not a cerebral book, but rather a very practical how-to book.

    Tuesday, April 21, 2015

    My April Reading ... Part One

    After complaining last month that my positions in various hold queues at the library were dismally large, many books suddenly showed up. I now have the reverse problem this month: too much to read. I had to cram a bit before due dates, which was a less pleasant reading experience, but overall, it was a good reading month. I read mystery, witty, inspirational, multiracial, historical, medical, spiritual, and parenting books. The original books post got so long, I decided to split it up into two.

    The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
    Categories: literary fiction
    Diversity: Book by a male author

    Commentary: Recommended by Bill Gates in his 2014 Best Books post. The jacket cover copy calls this "arrestingly endearing and entirely unconventional". Hmm...perhaps for a literary fiction book. However, the book read like genre romance to me, and the story was par for the course. That is not to say that it wasn't enjoyable—in fact, I liked it very much—but there was nothing revolutionary there. What was unique to the book was the humor—it was clever and uproariously funny while the delivery was low-key. I despise slapstick, in books and movies, so I always look for clever humor, and this had it in spades.

    Unlike The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley, where you're supposed to feel sorry for Ian with his Asperger's and admire his wife Beth, Don and Rosie in this book require no such emotions. Don has high-functioning Asperger's but is such a capable, brilliant man, Rosie's such a capable, brilliant woman, and they're together because they admire/like/want each other, not because they need each other in a dependent way. As a result, as a reader, you relate to them head-on as people with strengths and foibles and moments of laughter, but not as characters requiring our emotional support. It was refreshing to read about intelligent, mature people behaving in an intelligent, mature way; the uproarious humor is only on the part of the reader; the characters are very much in earnest. And so endearing!

    She Wore Red Trainers: A Muslim Romance by Na’ima bint Robert
    Categories: romance, young-adult
    Diversity: Author and characters are British-Muslims. Author has African roots. Book is a strong inspirational romance, a first for me. My only other inspy has been Kinsale's Flowers From the Storm, which has a significant Amish presence in the story; however, the religious aspect of it isn't the main message of the story. Here it is.

    Commentary: Recommended by SmartBitches. I was part-way through the book, when I ran across this excellent review of the book. It made me want to continue with the book even more.

    Robert's bio is really important, but more about that in a bit. This story is very much about the author and the two messages she wants to convey and the characters and plot she uses to outline that message; the story is less so about the organic growth and actualization of the characters. Robert wants to show what typical Muslim youths look like, even religious ones. On one hand, the deep religiosity of the message was uncomfortable for me; however, in all other ways, the story's told exactly the way it needs to be told to do the job.

    Muslim youths are very much a product of their times. The characters here are British citizens and behave as all teenagers do: they dramatize their woes, every emotion is too much, their dreams and hopes for the future, their interest in the opposite sex, and so on. They're ordinary teens. Their religion adds stressors for good behavior, for being good Muslims, for following the tenets of Islam, and so on. In addition to this, they have modern familial stressors: the boy Ali's suffering through the loss of his mother and their home in the countryside and the move to the big, bad city; his father is a converted Muslim so his grandparents are Caucasian Christian; the girl Amirah lives in a broken home from which her mother's fourth husband has run off and she's managing all her five brothers and sisters; she is having to consider an arranged marriage to a Saudi national.

    Robert's Muslim kids are just ordinary kids. This message is of supreme importance in today's times, where the western world demonizes Muslim youths. Nothing in the above paragraph cannot be said about teens of other religious backgrounds. And that is what my take on Robert's message is.

    Robert has South African Zulu and Scottish roots and was born in England, grew up in Zimbabwe as a Christian, and converted to Islam in 1998 at the age of 21. She went to college in London and is now editor-in-chief of the UK-based Muslim women's magazine, SISTERS. She has published many children's books with Muslim themes. Her family name is Thando McLaren. She divides her time between England and Egypt.

    Given how Roberts straddles the different cultural and religious spheres, I feel that she's keen on conveying what she perceives is the true portrait of Muslims for the world at large. Through her books, she seems to want to engage in a dialogue about the similarities of people, rather than their differences.

    Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
    Categories: children's, nonfic, memoir, prose-poetry
    Diversity: Features African-American people

    Commentary: Recommended by my daughter. Woodson won the National Book Award for it. This has got to be the most gorgeous book I have read in ages. And I mean beauty—beauty of words, beauty of thought, beauty of emotions, beauty of relationships, beauty of images—and I luxuriated in it. It is billed as a middle-grade book, but it is a book for all ages with everyone taking something different away from it. The story is recounted entirely in flashback, je me souviens..., and the prose-poetry style works very well in evoking that mood.

    Jaqueline spent a part of her childhood in segregated South Carolina and she puzzled over the separation between the two races. Her musing is not done in anger, or even in straight out deep hurt, but in a complex range of emotions of which a child's curiosity forms the biggest part. That aspect of the book made it heartbreaking for me—for a child to puzzle out why she's being discriminated against, why others think it is OK to do so, would it ever change, should it?

    What's the thing, I ask her, that would make people
    want to live together?
    People have to want it, that's all.

    In downtown Greenville
    they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
    except on the bathroom doors,
    they didn't use a lot of paint
    so you can still see the words, right there
    like a ghost standing in front
    still keeping you out.

    I liked Jacqueline's relationship with her grandfather the best. See here:

    Summer is over, a kiss
    of chill in the southern air. We see the dim orange
    of my grandfather's cigarette, as he makes his way
    down the darkening road. Hear his evening greetings
    and the coughing that follows them.
    Not enough breath left now
    to sing so I sing for him, in my head
    where only I can hear.

    Moving to Brooklyn to live with her mother, after the freedom of living in a small town South Carolina and under the comforting blanket of her grandparents' love, was very difficult. Yet she endured and adjusted and made friends and found something to like in the "gray rocky" place as well.

    Down south already feels like a long time ago
    but the stories in my head
    take me back there, set me down in Daddy's
    [grandfather's] garden
    where the sun is always shining.

    And when they're heading back home after their summer with their grandparents...

    Our suitcases sit at the foot of our bed, open
    slowly filling with freshly washed summer clothes,
    each blouse, each pair of shorts, each faded cotton dress
    holding a story that we'll tell again and again
    all winter long."

    Ah, I could go on and on quoting from the book. Every page, every stanza, such beauty.

    Friday, April 17, 2015

    Picture Day Friday: 9th C Spanish Book

    Ivory book covering from 9th century Spain from Walters Art Museum.

    Wednesday, April 15, 2015

    2015 TBR Reading Challenge: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

    2015 TBR Reading Challenge
    Book: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
    My Categories: nonfiction collection
    Wendy Crutcher's Category: Contemporary (Book was a contemporary when it was written :)

    What an excellent look at life and events in the 1960s. Didion brings her incisive words to portray those things and also the thoughts that were important to her then, what she'd read, seen, experienced. So it's a look at life in the 1960s and the person Didion was then.

    The section of essays that caught my interest best was the Personals section: "On Keeping a Notebook," "On Self-Respect," "On Morality," "On Going Home," and "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind."

    The Monster piece is the most dated in comparison with the other pieces. It is essentially a rant against Hollywood. It has a ton of Didionesque off-hand remarks about people and movies that are no longer in casual memory, thereby rendering the piece unreadable by modern eyes.

    The Respect piece is a beautiful meditation on what it means to have respect for oneself, always. Being driven back on oneself and the ending of innocence by being "stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself," is the beginning of self-respect. According to Didion, "people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was one called character." In effect, self-respect is a discipline that life is sometimes about doing things that you do not want to do, putting fears and doubts aside, delaying gratification of immediate concerns for perhaps larger, intangible returns later. What this all means is that anything worth having has its price. And knowing this, "people who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk of investing something of themselves." What is fascinating, and reassuring, is that this discipline, this habit of the mind "can be developed, trained, and coaxed forth." So what is this self-respect all about? "To have a sense of one's intrinsic worth is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love, to remain indifferent." On the other hand, if we do not respect ourselves, "we're in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out their false notions of us." This compulsion to please others is not an attractive trait—this is "alienation from self."

    In Home, Didion reflects on what home means to an adult. To her, it had never meant the house where lived with her husband and daughter, but rather, the house where she grew up—the place, the people, the attitudes, the memorabilia, the conversations, the quality of the silences. In this essay, Didion says something that I thought was simply my weirdness. Whenever I go away to someplace new for a few days, my precious daily life seems remote. Then when I return home, the rhythm of the new place seems remote, covered by a semi-opaque film. It was interesting to see Didion reflect at length on this, because while it didn't bother her, it obviously bothered her husband greatly. In a very poignant ending to the essay, Didion writes that modern life is so different from her childhood that we can no longer promise our children a "sense of home" that she had: cousins, river, great-grandma's teacups, wild picnics, which to me translate to freedom, companionship, belonging.

    What is Morality, Didion asks? "It is loyalty to a social code we learned as children," and if we are vigilant, it is something we continue to learn as adults. Didion calls a conscience, or rather the "ethic of conscience (where something is dangerous or admirable)" to be "a slippery slope to coercion and a power imbalance" (my way or no way). Morality is not where "all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum confer on any one an ipso facto virtue." When we start thinking "not that we want something or that it's a pragmatic necessity for us, but that is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land."

    The essay on Notebook is why I read this book. According to Didion, "the impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily." I get this! Any time I mention I handwrite Morning Pages, I get a blank look and a peremptory "Why?" What to explain? How to explain this peculiar need to write, to set down your thoughts—mundane, profound, and every type in between—on paper? Didion says, "Keepers of private notebooks are lonely and resistant re-arrangers of things, anxious malcontents." So I'm a neurotic? Do I have to be? To me, it is not important why I write, but that I write.

    To Didion, a diary is "an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking," whereas a notebook is a clutter of ephemera that may not have met reality recently. To me, a diary is a record of my doings and a notebook is a record of my thinking, all factual. That is how I delineate my two types of writings. What Didion writes in her notebook is "How it felt to me"—which often results in a departure from verisimilitude. Her notebook is not for public consumption—"a series of graceful pensées"—but is unashamedly, implacably about herself. I think that the scratchings in her notebook are really indexes into her memory of people and events, thus even if they're factually wrong, they bring up memories in lush detail, physical and emotional, in narrative and in dialogue.

    Ultimately to Didion, notebooks are a good way to keep in touch with our younger selves and how/what was important to us then.

    Friday, April 10, 2015

    Picture Day Friday: Milan Cathedral

    Duomo di Milano or Milan Cathedral was started in 1350 and built over the 14th and 15th centuries but completed only in 1965. This Gothic cathedral is dedicated to St. Mary of the Nativity and is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan.

    Thursday, April 9, 2015

    My New Fountain Pen Acquisition

    This is my new fountain pen acquisition: The Lamy Safari with a fine nib. I have now owned it for 24 hours and am ready to write about my first impressions.

    These are my three current fountain pens: the one closest to us is a Mont Blanc (bought in the late 1990s; I have long since forgotten the model name), the middle one is a Hero from Japan (bought in 1985), and the farthest one is the Lamy.

    The MB and Hero both have slim barrels and caps, whereas the Lamy has a chunkiness to it. Despite the bigger size, the Lamy is very light. Probably because it's made of plastic. The Hero has a metal cap and a denser plastic barrel. The MB has metal accents all over and the heaviest plastic body.

    I like to write with my caps posted on the end of the pens—it gives me the length and balance that I like in my hand. The Hero is the shortest, whereas the MB and Lamy are the same length. The Lamy cap is the heaviest by far and makes writing posted harder, because I feel like my hand has less freedom to move so the writing comes out stilted, constrained.

    The Hero and MB barrels are smooth, whereas the Lamy has distinctive grooves—there's only one right way to hold the pen. This took some getting used to. I'm used to shifting the pen around a bit as I write, but with the Lamy you can't; the nib writes only when you hold it in one exact position.

    The MB has an 18-carat gold nib and is the smoothest fine point. The Lamy's fine steel nib is not as smooth as the MB but better than Hero's fine steel nib. Speaking of nib sizes, the Hero exposes just the tip, a quarter inch, whereas the Lamy nib is the broadest and longest.

    I'm still learning to write with the Lamy but the writing certainly improved the more I wrote with it. Overall, I'm happy with my purchase and am looking forward to trying out some more ink samples from Goulet Pens. After all, what's a fountain pen purchase without new ink purchase?

    Tuesday, April 7, 2015

    2015 TBR Reading Challenge: The One Skill: How Mastering the Art of Letting Go Will Change Your Life by Leo Babauta

    I know, I know, I know. I'm LATE! This is March's TBR Challenge book and it is now APRIL! In fact, April's book is due next week so I had to get the March one out of the way before then.

    2015 TBR Reading Challenge
    Book: The One Skill: How Mastering the Art of Letting Go Will Change Your Life by Leo Babauta
    My Categories: nonfiction, male author, life skills
    Wendy Crutcher's Category: Series Catch-Up (oops!)

    The main thrust of Babauta's book is that "the root of many of our problems is our inability to let go." We tend to overthink situations and that combined with our resistance to letting go causes anxiety, frustration, depression, and anger over things that happen, might happen, and have happened to us. Letting go of the fear of failure, of wanting to control people and situations, of needing to go to distractions all day, and other such habits will lead to being better in control of self and life's problems. After detailing why we hold on to such habits, he details how you can practice the art of letting go.

    I'm going to briefly sketch in his book here. You can download the entire book for free here.

    There are two sections to this book: a) the factors that we don't let go and the resultant problems they cause and b) a step-by-step approach to letting go and the aftermath of letting go.

    We procrastinate out of fear of failure or fear of a task being overwhelming or difficult. We build an ideal in our heads about how life will be successful and easy. So when there's a hint that things are not going to be that way, we avoid them.

    Fear is the current underlying a lot of our unhappiness. For example, anxiety that something you want isn't going to happen, fear that you're not good enough, fear that others will judge you, fear of letting go of control of the other person in a relationship, fear of discomfort, or fear that you won't be able to accomplish all that you want to and how you want to. Problems are rooted in fear and fear is rooted in ideals.

    Holding on to ideals of how everyone should act, which isn't reality, and wanting to control people so they will act in the "right" way is what causes anger, frustration, stress, and disappointment.

    Distractions are comfortable things that we're good at and won't fail at. The process of letting go of a distraction is to first see what appeal it has for you. Then notice the disadvantages it has for you, how it is hurting you, and the impermanence of it. Let go of the distraction for a day and see what positive things you can do to fill that void. Be grateful for the positivity you've invited into your life.

    We want things to stay the same, and yet they never do. This is why we suffer. Unfortunately, the constant and impermanent nature of change is reality. So see the impermanence as the freedom to reinvent yourself. The past matters, but we're not completely bound to it. You can start a new self.

    Developing the Letting Go Skill
    Noticing Signals: When you're holding on to something harmful, symptoms like anger, frustration procrastination, etc. show up. Learn to recognize the signals when they happen.

    Seeing the Ideal: You have expectations of others, ideals for yourself, and ideals of how the world should be. This isn't reality. They're fantasies of what your reality should be. And that is what is causing the signals. So once you notice the signals, turn inward and try to locate the ideal you're holding on to.

    (Of course, there are positive ideals that result in positive signals and bring positivity in your life. Hold on to them by all means and act on them. It's the negative ones that are being addressed here.)

    Seeing the Harm: Acting on the negative signals or holding on to them can cause us unhappiness, prolong our stress, and harm our relationships with ourselves and with others.

    Letting Go With Love: Letting go of the ideal or the expectation is a compassionate towards yourself. It's painful to let go of an ideal, because it is part of our makeup, but the benefit you'll receive after you've let go will be worth it.

    Seeing Reality: Turn now to reality, see it as it is, accept this, and react calmly and appropriately to it.

    What Letting Go Isn't
    Babauta is at pains to explain how letting go isn't giving up, being a victim, not improving, letting someone else get away with something, letting the other person be right when they're wrong, giving up standards of common decency, etc. This is the charge that is always laid on life skills coaches when they talk of detachment. Acquiring a clear-eyed, emotionally-unclouded view of reality doesn't mean that you feel things less intensely, it just means you know how to manage your emotions and act appropriately.

    Practice! Practice!
    Get an accountability partner. Practice each of the mini-steps of Letting Go for 2-3 minutes every day. Journal about it. Report to your partner. Set up reminders for yourself so you don't forget to practice. At the end of the day, simply reading the book is not going to gain you a new skill. It's by practicing that you'll learn it.

    Friday, April 3, 2015

    Picture Day Friday: A Medieval University Class

    A medieval university class c. 1350. Not very different today, is it, including that student asleep in the third row?

    Tuesday, March 31, 2015

    My March Reading

    I had to shuffle around my reading plans a bit this month, because the books I had planned to read have long hold queues at the library. With Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, I'll be lucky if I get to read it this year. In the end, after much agonizing over what to read, I ended up with a LitFic, a middle-grade, a memoir, a self-help, and a mystery.

    The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession by Charlie Lovett
    Categories: literary fiction, male author
    Commentary: The book at the heart of the story is Pandosto, a tale of romance, by 16th century writer Robert Greene. In Lovett's story, the antiquarian bookseller protagonist, Peter Byerly, unearths a copy that has marginalia written in Shakespeare's hand on an original copy of Pandosto, proving that it was the inspiration for Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale. That is, IF, it's proven that this copy of Pandosto is not a forgery.

    The story is told from the viewpoint of different characters throughout the history of the Pandosto. We follow Peter as he verifies the provenance of the book by tracing its various owners and having the paper, ink, and type expertly tested. The various threads of the story fit in jigsaw-like as we zigzag through history. Peter's personal life story is a sweet romantic subplot that is done well. The mystery elements are handled well, too, in a cozy mystery fashion. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book: Good research, good storytelling, and good bookish details of conservation and forgeries.

    Wonder by R.J. Palacio
    Categories: children's, middle grade
    Diversity: Protagonist born with severe facial anomalies
    Commentary: Recommended by my daughter.

    What a tender story this is. A few chapters in and my heart felt like a ball of wax to be molded by this lovely boy of ten. He was born with severe challenges and homeschooled till fifth grade, at which point he went to a private school. This book is about his experience there—the challenges he faces, the friendships he makes, and the personality growth that occurs.

    One of the highlights of the story is the commencement speech that the headmaster of the middle school gives his fifth and sixth graders: "Be kinder than is necessary. Because it's not enough to be kind, one should be kinder than needed. We carry with as, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind but the very choice of kindness. Such a simple thing, kindness. A word of encouragement. An act of friendship. A passing smile."

    And this is at the heart the gist of the book. The kindnesses extended to this boy and the kindnesses he gifts to others.

    As I was discussing this book with my daughter, I told her that in the beginning, I had felt the story was being narrated by a girl, even though I found out a few pages in that his name was August. She called me on this. She said that just because the character talked about his feelings and it was in such a tender, vulnerable tone, it immediately "sounded" like a girl to me. I was aghast at my gendered thinking. I think I am open-minded, and here I was unconsciously labeling based on an old stereotype—such thinking is so subtle and so insidious; it creeps up on you despite being vigilant.

    Who Buries the Dead by C.S. Harris
    Categories: mystery, Regency
    Commentary: Every spring, I read a C.S. Harris mystery novel. I never fail to pick the newest one up, because it's a guaranteed great read for me. No one I have read thus far does ominous scene-setting like Harris does. You fall into the mystery from the first page, immersed into the crime and into Regency England. She writes good stories with a muted but stylized approach to plotting and characterization. While her plotting is good, it's her characterizations that are the chief draw for me. Her protagonist, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is marvelously complicated.

    She writes her stories so if a reader were to drop into her series any where in the middle, they'd be able to orient themselves with the setting and main characters and proceed to enjoy the story. At the same time, the character backstory is as subtle as possible so as to not detract from the story for readers reading her series right from the beginning.

    I often puzzle about how to do this well. Given that Harris's central character is incredibly complex, sprinkling in a few details must make it difficult for a newcomer reading the series out of order to get a bead on his character. And yet, repeating basic details over and over again in every book for every new reader can get on loyal readers' nerves. What is the correct balance? Should the character not be made complex? But then how can that character sustain a long series if the character himself is not growing and changing and if the reader is not learning more and more about him with every book? How best to intertwine the details into the fabric of the story so that it is least noticeable by the long-term reader, and yet, for the new reader, it's an Aha! moment. To me, this is where the skill of a mystery writer is most evident.

    The Little Book of Contentment: a guide to becoming happy with life and who you are while getting things done by Leo Babauta
    Categories: nonfiction, life skills
    Diversity: Written by a male author
    Commentary: I have read other books by Babauta. He writes sparingly and well and persuasively. His self-confidence in the material and his manner of explaining go a long way in convincing me that his words might have merit. This book was no different from the others I have read. It is not a book for idle reading, but rather a book whose conclusions you can put into practice and he tells you exactly how to go about it.

    In Contentment, he tackles the root of many problems in our lives: discontentment. We're discontented because of an ideal or a fantasy we're holding on to, unhappiness with who we are, lack of trust and confidence in ourselves, and seeking happiness externally. On the flip side of the coin, what is contentment? It is being happy right now with ourselves and our lives while stopping comparison with others/ideals/fantasies, stopping judgment of ourselves, and trusting ourselves. In the succeeding chapters, he talks in detail about all the factors of discontentment and contentment, finally leading to the techniques for self-acceptance and summary of action steps you can take.

    Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS by Rebecca Eaton
    Categories: nonfiction, memoir
    Commentary: Recommended by author Mary Jo Putney.

    Here's Eaton's job description, in her own words, of an executive producer of the two PBS series, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!: "You work hard to stick to your vision while still being open to the possibility that someone else's good idea, or just the serendipity of events, could change things dramatically for the better. You have to stay firm and flexible. And you must always push to reveal something new: an insight, a juxtaposition of images and ideas, a unique expression of an emotion, a piece of information."

    I enjoyed her conversational, at times gossipy, style of writing as well as the honest look at her actions and those of others. She doesn't shield herself, nor does she aggrandize herself. Given how successfully she ran one of PBS's longest running series (and the sister series), her deprecating look makes her success all the more apparent. I was starstruck by the people she's worked with and her sangfroid in the face of their fame. Having said this, she was at times a little too eager in talking about her mistakes and talking up her boss's contributions, which saved her face, that she did come across as incompetent. I was in two minds about this. She definitely should've taken workshops on developing people's skills.

    Over the years, Masterpiece has bought numerous shows and series from the BBC and ITV to American audiences and co-produced many more (where they put up funding, have some editorial say, and but overall, they're hands-off the projects). Every time Eaton goes on a fishing expedition to London, she's much wined and dined and pitched to by various producers with their current favorite projects. Her involvement has led to all these British shows being noticed at American Award shows, such as the Golden Globes and SAG, and to many of these actors going on to lucrative Hollywood careers.

    Eaton's chapters on Downton Abbey are fascinating and best illustrate what it was she and all the various people do to bring a project of that magnitude to fruition. The sheer number of people involved—executive producers, producers, writers, directors, costumers, the crew, the star attraction (Maggie Smith), and the rest of the cast—boggles the mind. Then there's the expense of costuming and sets, not to mention details of housing and feeding since everyone had to be transported to the Highclere Castle estate of the Carnarvons for the "upstairs" part of the shooting and to London for the "downstairs" part of the shooting.

    One interesting comment by Juliann Fellowes is worth noting for a reader of romance: "With drama, all the time, you're trying to think of tension. I always say that one of the hardest things to dramatize is happiness. That's why, in the old days, Hollywood films ended with the marriage and the kiss—because the drama was over."

    A historical tidbit from Fellowes: "What was interesting to me was the rather longer relationship you had with servants in the country. In London, there was tremendous turnover. The average time for a footman to stay was eighteen months. If you read letters at the time, they were absolutely filled with the search for servants."

    I would've liked to have seen a chronological trajectory of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!. Her narrative jumped around a fair bit leading to discombobulating conclusions at times, which had to be continually reassessed. I would've also liked to have seen her express more of an appreciation of how much her husband gave up to be Mr. Mom, including sacrificing his art (he's a sculptor). He did everything, while she worked and traveled for work and had a career.

    Overall, this was a very interesting look behind the scenes of how Masterpiece has been put together over the years. I'm a fan of the series, and I have enjoyed its programming and contributed to their funding.