Friday, November 27, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Ely Cathedral

The central octagonal tower of the Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England is a feat of medieval engineering. Ely had its beginnings as an abbey church in c. 672. It was built by St. Etheldreda. The present building dates back to c. 1083. The original Romanesque style gave way to an exuberant gothic style of architecture.

[Image copyrighted by David Iliff.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

#TBRChallenge Reading: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
My Categories: nonfiction, memoir
Wendy Crutcher's Category: It's All About The Hype (a book or author that got everybody talking) — My book fits this category

Guess who won out over Taylor Swift and Peyton Manning for the 2014 Person of the Year award by the Time for Kids magazine (by Time Magazine)? MALALA. I have such hope for the future generation.

This book is written with joy and the voice of a young girl, despite the horrors, strife, discrimination, and pain it talks about. Malala is such a hopeful person in the face of extremes. And in this past year, she got a Nobel Prize and six A*s and four As in her GCSE examinations. I adore this young person and I'm in awe of her—as is my daughter who recommended that I read this book.

In her 2013 speech at the United Nations, Malala said, "They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed. And then, out of that silence came thousands of voices. [...] Weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage was born." She lays so much emphasis on "being the right way," not on "being right." Her unwavering focus is on goodness and possibility.

In her interview on The Ellen Show, Ellen tried hard to disrupt her focus and equanimity, but Malala would not sensationalize or get emotional over her attack, display pride in her achievements and all the heads of state she's met, boast over preferential treatment in her family (she's treated the same as her brothers), and so on. She talked about issues in education for children and girls in particular, about all the successes of various people in the world in education, and her thanks to all the people she's met. And through it all, she maintained a sense of quick humor.

In the book I am Malala, I learned a tremendous lot of the history, politics, and emotional landscape of the Swat Valley of Pakistan and of the connections it has—tribal and sentimental—to Afghanistan, all through the eyes of Pashtuns, rather than Americans. The picture is rather different from the one our media regularly feeds us. The book's unsentimental narration that lays blame where it needs to be lain makes the picture starker and more vivid. It shows how and why the region that was completely peaceful before the American invasion of Afghanistan proceeded to get radicalized as the war went on and as the Taliban encroached into the Swat Valley. It shows the ambiguity, culpability, and greed of the Pakistani government. And it shows the cruelty and seductiveness of the Taliban.

Nothing the Taliban has done to outsiders can compare with the horrors they have inflicted (and continue to do so) on their own people, men and women and children. Music, dancing, movies, electronics, and TVs are all banned. Girls cannot go to school. Everyone has to wear traditional clothes only. Women can only wear the burqa (a full-length black gown that covers the head and the face, leaving only the eyes open) when going out of the house and should always be accompanied by a male relative, even when going to the market. In general, women are required to stay home and focus on housekeeping and childcare. Men must grow long hair and facial hair. Boys must wear caps and enroll in religious madraasaa schools. Girls as young as eight must cover their hair. People are killed daily on any pretext. They blow up the electric grid whenever they felt like it. They can barge into your house and destroy it with no reason. The Pakistani military is useless against them, because they have little local support, they're unfamiliar with the tribal areas of the Swat Valley, and many in the military are Taliban sympathizers or get direct benefits.

Despite this political turmoil, this book is also very much about family and friendships and volunteerism and activism and hope. Hope—it shines throughout this whole book no matter the topic under conversation. The book's about courage when fear is the only overriding emotion and it's about empathy and caretaking when selfishness would be warranted.

It's a beautifully written book for the images it paints, for the framing of the story in the history, culture, society, and politics of the background, and for the story of the coming of age of the girl Malala. The humor that comes through—like her frequent soliloquies directed at God—shows her indomitable spirit. And it's all told with the immediacy of sitting in conversation in the family room with an unusually poised young girl.

In addition to reading the original adult memoir, I listened to the audio of the young readers' version. It's completely rewritten from the original but also incorporates more personal details and reflections and less of the politics and history. It is narrated by a young, first-generation Afghani reader and the voice and intonation and accent add a depth to that first person point of view of the book. It feels like Malala herself is talking to you and telling you her story. I loved that.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sign-Up for #TBRChallenge 2016

Librarian Wendy Crutcher, AKA @SuperWendy, is again hosting the #TBR Reading Challenge in 2016. Sign-ups are happening even as you read this.

I've been doing it for a few years now and have enjoyed myself thoroughly. Occasionally, I have missed a month or posted a review a week late or read a book that wasn't on the set theme for that month and I've found that it's all OK. So long as you're reading a book from your To-Be-Read pile of books (or TBR shelf or even bookshelf), they all count. You post your comments on the third Wednesday of every month, so Twitter lights up with a lot of book talk that day as people post their blogs, comment on each others' blogs, and of course, take to social media.

Sign-up Here! The themes and due dates for next year are...

January 19 - We Love Short Shorts! (category romance, short stories, novella etc.)
February 16 - Series Catch-Up (a book from a series you are behind on)
March 16 - Recommended Read (a book that was recommended to you)
April 20 - Contemporary
May 18 - Something Different (outside your comfort zone, unusual setting, non-romance etc.)
June 15 - Favorite Trope (a favorite theme - amnesia? secret baby? fairy tale? friends-to-lovers? etc.)
July 20 - Award Nominee or Winner (links to past RITA finalists and winners TBA)
August 17 - Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older)
September 21 - Random Pick (a built-in off-theme month - go where your mood takes you!)
October 19 - Paranormal or Romantic Suspense
November 16 - Historical
December 21 - Holiday Themes

So are you going to join me in celebrating reading and bookish conversations? Sign-up Here!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Mosaics of Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

Sixth century Byzantine mosaics of the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. It was built in c.504 by the Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great. He was an Arian and dedicated the church to Christ the Redeemer. It was re-consecrated in c.561 to Sanctus Martinus in Coelo Aureo (Saint Martin in Golden Heaven). The basilica was renamed again in c.856 when relics of Saint Apollinaris were brought here.

(Fascinating detail about the Arian sect of Christianity is up on Wikipedia.)

[Image copyrighted by Europe's History.]

Friday, November 13, 2015

Picture Day Friday: What Is A Book? By Julia Donaldson

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Philobiblon: The Love of Books

Richard de Bury was the Bishop of Durham in the 14th century. He was also known as Richard Aungerville or Aungervyle. He was tutor to the future King Edward III, a writer, and a bibliophile. Just before his death, he wrote a 20-chapter book called Philobiblon, which is considered the earliest books to discuss librarianship in-depth. In it he wrote about "how he collected his books, how they should be taken care of, and the many joys he found in them," according to

Here are a couple of extracts from his book:

We must consider what pleasantness if teaching there is in books, how easy, how secret! How safely we lay bare the poverty of human ignorance to books without feeling any shame! They are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule, without angry words, without clothes or money. If you come to them they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them they do not withdraw themselves; they do not chide if you make mistakes; they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant. O books, who alone are liberal and free, who give to all who ask of you and enfranchise all who serve you faithfully!

Books delight us, when prosperity smiles upon us; they comfort us inseparably when stormy fortune frowns on us. They lend validity to human compacts, and no serious judgments are propounded without their help. Arts and sciences, all the advantages of which no mind can enumerate, consist in books. How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity. In books we climb mountains and scan the deepest gulfs of abyss; in books we behold the finny tribes that may not exist outside their native waters, distinguish the properties of streams and springs and of various lands; from books we dig out gems and metals and the materials of every kind of mineral, and learn the virtues of herbs and trees and plants, and survey at will the progeny of Neptune, Ceres, and Pluto.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Regency Writing Desk

Jane Austen was said to be very fond of her writing desk, and it traveled with her wherever she went. It would've looked something like this:

[Image copyrighted by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and taken from here.]

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

My October Reading

This is a month when we typically start seeing a lot of cloudy, gray days and rain...the start of our winters. And on top of that I read Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me and it's been a heavy month for me. I struggled with the book, read it twice, grieved through it, and came away awed. AWED! And read five romances to compensate.

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon
Categories: literary fiction
Commentary: I read about this book on Rohan Maitzen's blog and after reading her review, I instantly grabbed it off my TBR shelf. My comments are here.

Inspire: A Volunteer Adventure Inspiration Book by various authors for Me to We
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: Features international people of all nationalities, races, religions, social classes
Commentary: Recommended by my daughter.

"Inspiration is everywhere. It surrounds us. It gives our lives direction and purpose. And yet it can take an extraordinary adventure or moment to open our eyes to its potential. Once we have found our passions and the seed of inspiration has been planted, it's up to each of us to nurture it with small daily actions that reinforce our values and beliefs. That's how we live an inspired life that fulfills and sustains us."

The book is filled with small stories and quotes and pictures of people encouraging volunteerism and extolling the advantages of such service. Even as schools in our area ramp up with service learning as a required component for graduation, it is important to start the motivation to help others not as privileged as us in early childhood. Kindness is a virtue worth cultivating.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Categories: literary fiction
Diversity: by a male author
Commentary: Much, much has been written and said about this book for decades. So suffice it to say that I've read and re-read this book many times and enjoyed it every single time.

Between the World and Me from White Man Listen! by Richard Wright
Categories: poetry
Diversity: Male author, African-American experience
Commentary: Ta-Nehisi Coates took the title of this poem as the title of his book below. So I read the poem to see how it was relevant. And relevant it was. It was horrifying. In painful terms it describes how a young black man is tarred and feathered and burnt at the stake by a crowd of watchers who smoke and drink while he screams in agony. How are these monsters even human.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: Male author, African-American experience
Commentary: This is the Book of the Year for me. In light of rising racial turmoil in the U.S., it's a book with a timely message. And so well-written! Its complex message has been rendered accessible and understandable through the writer's compassion, intelligence, and talent. If you're going to read one book this year, let it be this one. My reflections are here.

Madalena by Sheila Walsh
Categories: regency, romance, category
Diversity: freed American slave turned majordomo
Commentary: It was a fast, fun read recommended by Sonomalass and Janet Webb. The story is almost fan-fiction of These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. The heroine, Madalena, is a French ingénue smuggled out of France into England—innocent, feisty, unselfconscious, gamine, who captivates every male around her. She's referred to as "child" and "little one" by everyone of a certain age, including the hero. The hero is a duke, referred to by her as Monseigneur, and is considerably older than her. He indulges her, and she captivates him. He feels he's unworthy of her, and she feels that he feels duty towards her. She's French. He's an English duke of French extraction. Plenty of spying, jaunts in the dead of the night, captures, rescues, digging bullets out of shoulders, and various other hijinks. And despite all the improbabilities and Heyerisms and Heyeresque imitations, it was altogether enjoyable.

The Tenacious Miss Tamerlane by Kasey Michaels
Categories: regency, romance, category
Commentary: A witty romp through Regency England recommended by Anne Glover. Tansy is a bad governess on her way to yet another dreary post, when she happens upon a duke's sister in the middle of wanting to get out of the elopement she had embarked upon. Naturally, she rescues said pert miss and naturally, the madcap miss's said duke brother shows up, fulminating on a tight rein. The end of that tight, witty exchange results in Tansy on her way to the duke's house in charge of his sister. The world for a genteel lady out on her ear is suddenly looking up and up. She's furnished with a full wardrobe, made into a bosom bow by the outspoken dowager duchess fond of outspoken people, and embarks on the high society life. Hijinks and witty repartee ensue in a hand waved at a plotline and Tansy finds herself the object of deep abiding love from the duke—a satisfactory ending to a very light Regency in the traditional style. My one regret was that this duke wasn't very all.

River of Fire by Mary Jo Putney
Categories: regency, romance
Commentary: This is a painterly book with fabulously detailed information about painters, colors, implements, and painting techniques of the greater Georgian era. I had mentioned enjoying the painting aspects of B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger in my February Reading post, so author Victoria Janssen recommended River of Fire, and she was right. I was totally engrossed and pleased by the painting aspect of the story—to me it was the main character and the hero and heroine secondary characters with a mystery and tertiary characters thrown in. The mystery was alright but the people were done well. I enjoyed the portrayal of the hero's war history, drawing history, and the juxtaposition of the two. I also enjoyed how the heroine was depicted with her painting intensity and intensity of character in various aspects of her personality. Putney never fails to engage my interest and does Regency romance really well.

One of the minor characters is greatly bothered by the fact that the heroine's father, a famous painter in Regency England, paints private portraits as well as contemporary battle scenes. He believes that only historical themes painted in the Grand Manner is real art, the rest is rubbish. This reminds me of this discussion of should art be timeless in the New York Times.

Cordelia's Corinthian by Victoria Hinshaw
Categories: regency, romance, category
Commentary: This was a re-read from my stash. A charming, quiet story in which not much happens except that the hero and heroine notice each other more and more as the days pass by at a country house party. They'd met at the heroine's one and only London season. Since then she's become too poor to return to the frivolous, flirtatious, fancy scene. She's planning on becoming a governess or companion to an older lady in order to earn her keep and send money for her parents to move to Bath. The hero in the meantime was horse-mad and military-mad and went off to become an officer. Waterloo put paid to his war ambitions. He returned home with a limp and a painful thigh that barely escaped the surgeon's knife. Both the hero and heroine are battle scarred and gun shy and think they're not worthy of the other person. The fun of the story is in how they arrive at the conclusion that indeed they're perfect for each other.

One exchange between the hero and heroine caught my eye.

Hero (internal): "No one who had not been there could ever understand and he had made a fool of himself by telling her."
Heroine to Hero: "Yes, a nasty business, but not a topic unfit for my ears. I believe that those of us who remain ignorant will never understand. And I wish to understand, I really do."

It happens over and over again between civilians and returning military folks to this day. On one hand, they want their horrific experiences understood, on the other hand, they assume that no one can understand them.

Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell
Categories: contemporary, romance, category
Commentary: Recommended by author Miranda Neville and her review is here. I read that review and was a goner. Mary Burchell was writing contemporaries in the 1950s, so to some extent, I read it as a historical novel. The male-female interplay made more sense in that context, rather than as a modern-day contemporary novel.

Florian is an haut couture designer in Paris. Anthea is a Londoner, who's moved to Paris to escape a jilting and a scheming stepmother. There she falls into a job as Florian's mannequin showing off the models of his Collection at the spring show.

Look at this description of an haut couture gown: A dress of stiffened lace in an indescribably beautiful shade of iridescent green—so shining and exquisite that Anthea nearly cried aloud in her surprise and delight. And another: ...something like a cloud of morning mist, sparkling with dews of dawn.

The hero is very much an alpha, make no mistake, in spite of this opening description of him: a slight, fair-haired man with beautiful hands, thinning hair, and the air of an exhausted and impatient schoolboy. And out of this, Burchell spins gold. However, no matter how masterful Florian gets, I never warmed up to him. My heart was stolen by the worthy Roger, whom Burchell presents as a very viable alternative love interest. Roger is charming, warm, sensitive, and full of giving generosity in time and thought. On the other hand, Florian is imperious, tyrannical, and mercurial with inexplicable flashes of thoughtfulness.

On page 176, we have this scene: With her hand still in Roger's—that blessed contact which meant warmth and affection and reliability—she made her way slowly back through the crowd to where she thought her father might be.

And on page 185, she's passionately kissing Florian and declaring her love to him and vice versa. The only thought for Roger is this: "Poor Roger—I hope he was not too fond of me. At least we never quite reached the romantic stage."

I disliked her instantly. How dare she lead the poor man on. He had all but declared his love to her in so many ways, and she took advantage of it while it suited her and she was unsure of Florian's affections. But the minute, Florian was hers, Roger was a postscript.

And Florian merely wanted her as his wife. Roger wanted her to continue the job she loved of being a mannequin after her marriage to him.

And yet, this was a great read. Despite being written in the 1950s, this story did not feel dated. It was superbly developed in its short form with distinct, memorable characters.

Best line of the book? Il faut souffrir pour être belle. Indeed!

Friday, October 30, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Tobit and Anna by Rembrandt

Tobit and Anna with the Kid was painted on oil by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn in 1626 in Leiden, The Netherlands.

Tobit’s blindness has condemned him and his wife to a life of grinding poverty: his once expensive tabard is torn and tattered. When Anna comes home with a kid, a reward for her hard work, Tobit thinks she has stolen it. In desperation, he prays God to grant him a quick death. Anna looks on in bewilderment.

The Rijksmuseum has made 210,000 masterpieces by master artists free digitally for you to download and use at will.

[Click on the image to see it in its full glory.]

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Comments on Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates was one of the 2015 recipients of the MacArthur Genius Grants. The foundation called Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic, "a highly distinctive voice [who is] emerging as a leading interpreter of American concerns [...] and having a profound impact on the discussion of race and racism in this country." I happen to believe Between the World and Me was the catalyst to him winning the award.

As I read Between the World and Me, I tried to do what Robert Frost advised his daughter to do while reading: "One idea and a few subordinate ideas—[the trick is] to have those happen to you as you read and catch them—not let them escape you. The sidelong glance is what you depend on. You look at your author but you keep the tail of your eye on what is happening over and above your author in your own mind and nature." So I stuck sticky notes in the book, noticed my thoughts as I read along, and after a few pages stopped to write them here any which way they sprang to my mind. So what you have here is not the rambling first draft but the tinkered third draft that is still expansive. In contrast to the conciseness of the prose I read, I seem vastly voluble. I was simply unable to distill my emotional response in a few words.

And that is what this post is about. My emotional response. There are various erudite reviews of the book by the likes of The Guardian, The New Yorker, New York Times, Washington Post, and others. I have not read them. I wanted my reading to be a pristine read and my comments uncluttered by others' thoughts. I will get to those reviews later on to read all the insights I missed, but here are my unvarnished thoughts.

I was in the middle of the book, when I got into a discussion with author Alyssa Cole about the book and she said, "So happy to hear that you're loving it so much!". To which I replied, "I don't know if 'love' is the word there. I'm moved by it. I'm excited by it. I'm awed by it. I'm awed by the power of his words. I'm awed by the progression of his thoughts—the compassion is devastating. My heart's grieving. And I'm learning."

That is the power of this book. It evokes a visceral response to the sharp precision of his words that paint a stark and eloquent picture of what it means to be a young African-American man in present-day America. Toni Morrison says of the book: "This is required reading." Yes. It is. You only think you understand Black America until you read this book and realize the true depths and breadths of what it truly means.

In my September Reading post, I talked about Claudia Rankine's book Citizen: An American Lyric. It dwells a lot on what it means to be the person inhabiting a black body. She talks about the body as separate from the person. What happens to the body has nothing to do with the person. Similarly, Coates brings up the same separation. From the cover jacket: "The bodies of black men and women have been exploited through slavery and segregation, and today, are threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it?"

This is what racism is. "Racism is a visceral experience, that dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscles, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth."

This is brought home brutally in the poem "Between the World and Me" from White Man Listen! by Richard Wright, which inspired Coates's book title. In stark terms, the poem describes how a young black man is tarred and feathered and burnt at the stake by a crowd of watchers who smoke and drink while he screams in agony.

In BTWAM, Coates writes, "Americans believe in the reality of 'race' as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone-deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body." There's nothing new about differences in hue and hair. But believing that a particular hue and hair has preeminence and that society can be organized around this belief is indelible.

At a New Yorker festival panel on police brutality, endemic racism, and the construct of whiteness, Coates explained how being at the top of a racial hierarchy requires an explanation. "When you’re born into a situation, into a class of people who have their foot on somebody’s neck, metaphorically, you have to justify this you have to somehow clean yourself and make yourself innocent. Part of how this has historically been done is the reimagination of that other as a threat."

Coates talks about "othering" at length in his book. He ponders again and again how to truly consider how do I live free in this black body. How to be safe, how to not be cowed by society, by imminent danger lurking down every street, around every corner, ever present in the very air.

He talks about fear a lot in the book. The fear that seeps deep into the bones of every man, woman, and child in Black America until they are never without it, waking or sleeping. The fear that shapes everything that they do, everything that they think. It affects how families treat each other, how children are raised.

Whenever Coates misbehaved as a child, his father reached for his belt. "Either I can beat him, or the police." This was to teach him the boundaries of what behavior is allowed him, what behavior will keep him safe. He's not allowed the freedom to play his music loud, to mouth off to authority, to hang around corners with be a teenager. "The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls." His father's fear of wanting his son to be safe overshadowed all else.

This fear is linked to the White America that was beamed nightly onto the television of Coates's childhood in West Baltimore. It was vastly different from his reality. He calls it The Dream. His reality was to survive the walk from his home to his school, survive the day there, survive the walk back home, and not give up his body to the violence of the streets. There were no green lawns, white picket fences, bake sales, pie and pot roast. "The galaxy belonged to them, as terror was communicated to our children, mastery was communicated to theirs. No one told them to be twice as good. Their parents told them to take twice as much."

He points out to his son how he lives without this all-pervasive fear. In doing so, Coates explains how privileged a life his son leads and how much he's experienced, despite being black. "There is no real distance between you and Trayvon Martin, and thus Trayvon Martin must terrify you in a way that he could never terrify me. You have seen so much more of that is lost when they destroy your body." While Coates feels that he has done his best by his son by allowing his son to feel distanced by fear, he cautions him that "to be distanced from fear is not a passport out of the struggle. We will always be black, you and I."

For White America, "Good Intention is the hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures The Dream. What any institution intends for you is secondary. Our world is physical. Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. The forgetting is a habit" on part of the Dreamers.

Coates protests against the movies on the Civil Rights Movements that were shown to the kids during Black History Month when he was a kid. The schools extolled the African-Americans who forgave being raped, tear-gassed, fire-hosed, cursed, spat upon. This is the morality the kids were held to. It was very much in evidence when the black church leaders forgave the white supremacist who shot up Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. These black leaders were said to be gracious and showing compassion. Anger and rage was denied them. In Citizen: An American Lyric, Rankine writes that it is very difficult for black people to express rage because the stereotype of the angry black man is so prevalent that most people bend over backwards to stifle even normal human anger.

Over and over again, he warns his son never to forget that for 250 years, black people were born into chains. You, the reader, and I know this number, but seeing 2 5 0 in stark black on white—it hits you like a sucker punch. Whole generations didn't know a world that was different. "Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It's a particular, special enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is an vast as your own." When he visited Civil War battlegrounds, tour guides talked of rifles and battle plans; slaves were hardly mentioned. The complete erasure of why the war took place in the first place was profound. Like Holocaust denial is a crime, slavery denial should also be a crime. "You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold."

At the New Yorker festival panel, television producer and creator of The Wire, David Simon spoke at length about the issue of over- and under-policing of poor and black communities. "We’re savagely over-policing our poor. At the same time ... where you need the police to step in and arrest the violence, they’re either functionally incapable ... or they just don’t give a damn." Coates said that this is the result not of the police being particularly racially biased but the existence of widespread and unchecked endemic racism in the society.

In BTWAM, Coates writes, "Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail." And then you read that a judge took money from juvenile detention centers to send nearly 4,000 kids there for trumped-up or minor charges that the kids had no way to defend against. All those cases have been now dismissed but all those lives are now ruined. It's an easy guess how many of those kids were black.

"At this moment, the phrase police reform has come into vogue, and the actions of our publicly appointed guardians have attracted attention presidential and pedestrian. These are all fine and applicable, but they understate the task and allow the citizens of this country to pretend that there is real distance between their own attitudes and those of the ones appointed to protect them." This then is the prevalence of The Dream that allows White America to hide behind it and pretend to be post-racial. The reality is that the police are mere byproducts of the attitudes and beliefs of the society in which they live. You cannot expect reform among the police force without reform in the society at large. Unless those things are changed, sensitivity training and body cams are going to do nothing. Black bodies will continue to be disproportionately broken and jailed. Because make no mistake, it's not solely the criminal element that is treated this way, any black person can be. Witness the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for trying to un-jam the front door to his own house.

Coates's saving grace have been books—in early childhood, in college, in his daily life. He learned to read at four. His mother taught him to write not simply as a means of organizing his sentences, but as a means of investigation. Whenever he had a question, something troubled him, or he was in trouble at school, she made him read books and then answer a series of questions and in so doing find the answers. Brilliant parenting! His house was full of books by black men and women about black men and women, since his father was a research librarian at Howard University. Coates read through his home library while in school and through the Howard library at university.

Malcolm X was his hero and his role model. Malcolm recovered from his mistakes by reading, reading, reading. "I loved Malcolm because Malcolm never lied, unlike the schools and their morality, unlike the streets and their bravado, unlike the world of dreamers. And like Malcolm, he was enthralled by the world of books. "The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was learning to live in the disquiet, in the gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo. It was not alarm. It was a beacon." This has got to be the best testimony of a good Liberal Arts education.

Howard University was the making of Coates. He was exposed to a wide diaspora of people who identified as black. Here he was comfortable in his skin. The fear was always there to some extent but lessened here among the thinking cosmopolitan peoples. He learned that "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,", that universal properties of mankind belong to everyone; they're not exclusive to certain tribes. This thinking allowed Coates an entrée into the bigger America, into the bigger consciousness. He discovered that there were white people who "saw in my unruly curiosity and softness something that was to be treasured and harnessed." Journalism allowed him to bring his thoughts and his emotions to a wide readership. Witness the adulation and awards he is receiving for BTWAM as he lectures around the country to packed lecture halls. Perhaps America is ready to begin a dialogue of fundamental change.

I've said this before. I'll say it again. If you're going to read only one book this year, let it be this one.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Amiens Cathedral

The Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Amiens is located 75 miles north of Paris and is said to be the 19th largest cathedral in the world. The cathedral was built over the course of 50 years, starting in 1220 CE. This view is of the southern transept portal of the western façade and is emblematic of the gorgeously colorful Gothic architecture prevalent in those times.

From Wikipedia: "During the process of laser cleaning in the 1990s, it was discovered that the western façade of the cathedral was originally painted in multiple colours. A technique was perfected to determine the exact make-up of the colours as they were applied in the 13th century. Then, in conjunction with the laboratories of EDF and the expertise of the Society Skertzo, elaborate lighting techniques were developed to project these colours directly on the façade with precision, recreating the polychromatic appearance of the 13th century. When projected on the statues around the portals, the result is a stunning display that brings the figures to life."

[Photograph copyrighted by Stan Parry. Used with permission.]

[Photograph copyrighted by Stan Parry. Used with permission.]

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

#TBRChallenge Reading: Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon
My Categories: literary fiction, in translation
Wendy Crutcher's Category: paranormal or romantic suspense

The prologue of the book starts out with a bang and covers most of the salient features of the narrative. But this story is not in its broad strokes but in its details, the ones it carefully sets down on the pages and the ones it chooses to leave off.

This is how the narrator (whose name we never find out) describes herself and the person who's going to be central to her life and her life's journey around the Ring Road of Iceland.

"There we are, pressed against each other in the middle of the photograph. I've got my arm draped over his shoulder and he is holding onto me somewhere—lower, inevitably—a dark brown lock of hair dangles over my very pale forehead, and he smiles from ear to ear, clutching something in his outstretched clenched hand. His protruding ears sit low on his large head and his hearing aid, which seems unusually big and antiquated, looks like a receiver for picking up messages from outer space. Unnaturally magnified by the thick lenses of his spectacles, his eyes seem to almost fill the glass, giving him a slightly peculiar air."

Her divorce is the impetus for her journey eastwards—and a touch of melancholia.

"...who would miss me if I never resurface again? And also can a young woman drown, out of the blue, in her bath? Is it possible to die from an overdose of serenity in a bubble bath? Would he mourn me? Am I missing out on something?"

Despite her realistic opinion of her herself, she takes on the charge of her friend's four-year-old son Tumi when her friend's hospitalized with twins.

"Although I'm not a bad person, as such, I'm totally inept at looking after things or cultivating them."

Her approach to her journey is as minimalistic as possible, so much so that she leaves with her friend's four-year-old son without a mobile phone to back her up in an emergency. While her journey seems to be as much about the discovery of the sights along the road and insights about herself, there is a purpose to it: She's been awarded a summer cottage and she's asked for it to be delivered to her grandmother's village, where some of the happiest memories of her childhood lie.

"I’m not taking much with me. The main thing is to hold onto as little of the old clutter as possible. It’s not that I’m fleeing anything, just exploring my most intimate and uncharted territories in a quest for fresh feelings in a new prefabricated summer cottage planted on the edge of a muddy ravine with my hearing and sight-impaired four-year-old travelling companion. The most important thing is to never look back, to only ever sleep once in the same bed and to use the rear-view mirror out of technical necessity and not to gaze into one’s own reflection. Then, when I eventually return, I will have become a new and changed person, by which time my hair will have grown down to my shoulders."

As she and the boy Tumi journey along the Ring Road, she does end up with—what in another person would be significant events in the singular—a sanguine approach to a multitude of experiences: running down a goose, cooking it, killing a sheep, a car whose windshield has broken by said sheep, carrying bleeding carcasses in her front passenger seat, digging part of the road out after an avalanche, arriving at a farmhouse with a soaking wet sleeping bag and a wet and hungry child, sleeping with three men within 300 kilometers, living in the summer chalet without electricity in November with temperatures in 50s and pouring rain, getting a divorce, having said divorced husband pop up frequently to visit her and yearn for her, and so on.

The narrator does nothing in small measures, but her laissez-faire attitude, bordering on callous at times, allows her to handle these situations as they happen without getting herself into a tizzy or tantrum. In fact, her reactions to everything, including the child, are very much as an observer rather than a participant.

Her inability to take others' words to heart, be they complimentary or insulting, is a good quirk of her personality. In a humorous exchange, her husband is insulting her about her lack of sexual experience. Her reaction?

"I note that he's using the word vaster for the second time. If I were proofreading this, I would instinctively cross out the second occurrence, without necessarily pondering too much on the substance of the text."

While her husband is divorcing her, he tells her: "Having a child might have changed you, smoothed your edges a bit. But still, what kind of a mother would behave as you?".

Well, he is right. Tumi does change her, and for the better. She was too prickly to begin with and too selfish. He takes her out of herself. By being so little and disabled, he forces her to deal with him and consider him before herself at times. He is the making of her as a person.

"I feel such an overwhelming responsibility;, it's worse than being alone—I'm responsible for another person's happiness. I mustn't forget that mute children don't attract attention to themselves the same way other kids do and require another kid of care."


"Time passes slowly if you're traveling with a carsick child. But when you're sitting with your loved one in the car, twenty kilometers are like the flutter of a butterfly's wings on the wall, the buzz of a fly, the fraction of a moment, no time at all."

Her soul is finally connecting with another's.

That is, her soul is finally repaired from when another child had ripped it out. She was fifteen when from her hospital bed she gave up her newborn child to its adoptive parents.

"There is no way of discerning from the cry, as it is being carried away, whether it is a boy or a girl. The woman is from the east of the country, not very young. I only catch a brief glimpse of her and say nothing, buried under the pillow. I'm not sure the crying can be heard for long because the corridor stretches far away, the coffee percolator is brewing, and the singing of the plover can be heard through the window."

Friday, October 16, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, or Temple City, is a temple complex located in the Siem Reap region of Cambodia. It's the world largest religious monument. It was originally constructed in the early 12th century as a paean to the Hindu God Vishnu by the then Khmer King Suryavarman II. The temples tell many of the stories from Hindu mythology and Hindu religious beliefs.

The earliest name for the Cambodian Khmer kingdom was the Sanskrit Kambooja. The site of the original temple was in the town of Yashodharapura, now known as Angkor.

Towards the end of the 12th century, the temple complex transformed into Buddhist themes while retaining all of the Hindu architecture. Construction continued in the same Khmer architectural style of the temple-mountain and the galleried temple.

In the 20th century, Angkor Wat went through significant restoration efforts and is now a very popular tourist destination. Some day, I, too, hope to view its splendor in person.

[Click on the images for larger views.]

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Going to the Library Can Make You Very Happy

OK, this is not just Keira being her usual rah-rah-rah BOOOOKKSS!!! There's apparently a study. And there's apparently data. It's legit.

The study is called Quantifying and Valuing the Wellbeing Impacts of Sport and Culture organized by the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport in the UK. "DCMS commissioned researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) to undertake analysis of Understanding Society data to develop the evidence base on the wellbeing impacts of cultural engagement and sport participation."

Two of the findings of the study are: "A significant association was also found between frequent library use and reported wellbeing. Using libraries frequently was valued at £1,359 [$2,086] per person per year for library users." In fact, going to the library comes in a close third behind dancing and swimming in terms of a valued activity.

In a series of studies conducted by the Pew Research Center, it is found that "Libraries loom large in the public imagination, and are generally viewed very positively: 90% of Americans ages 16 and older say that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community." People feel that libraries give everyone a chance to succeed, promote literacy and a love of reading, and improve the quality of life in a community. For 75% of the people, it is important to have this quiet, safe place.

According to another Pew study, "The more people are engaged with their public library, the more they tend to feel connected to their community as a whole." Library users “are also more likely to say that they like their communities and that they would call their communities good or excellent places to live," Pew Research Associate Kathryn Zickuhr told TIME.

To us diehard readers and library users, libraries are priceless. A free library system is one of the central pillars of civilization.

That is why every year, we donate money to our library system. Some years, we earmark it for books, interlibrary loans, programs for young readers, book readings, and sometimes, we donate without instructions. We buy an annual Friends of the Library membership and buy books from their annual book sale. We also donate gently-used books.

Ever since I was young, I've visited libraries. I started my kids out at six months of age. I delight in looking back on our checkout histories. Just entering a library is like entering a church: the hushed atmosphere, the special fragrance, the joy the view brings (books as far as the eye can see), and the peace and contentment that seeps into my bones. The older the library, the more heightened the impact on my wellbeing.

Edited 11/6/15: The fabulous Ursula Le Guin on the importance of libraries. Marvelously put!

Friday, October 9, 2015

Picture Day Friday: c.18th Darby House Kitchen

Eighteenth century kitchen in Darby House at Ironbridge, Shropshire in England. It looks very similar to the kitchen in the 2005 movie Pride & Prejudice, though the actual location used in the movie is Groombridge Place near Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

An interesting note about the Darbys. They were Quakers, who were against slavery and all its associated trades. Given that very few wealthy people of those times in England were uninvolved in the slave trade, it's interesting that the Quakers were all against it.

[Image copyrighted by the Ironbridge Museum.]

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Top Beautiful Medieval Manuscripts

Here're what expert Giovanni Scorcioni has determined are the top ten most beautiful medieval manuscripts. Scorcioni is the co-founder of Facsimile Finder, a leading provider of facsimile editions of medieval manuscripts and quality copies of rare books.

1. Lindisfarne Gospels (I blogged about it before)
2. Hours of Jeanne d'Evreux
3. Godescalc Evangelistary
4. Prayer book of Claude de France
5. St. Alban's Psalter
6. Westminster Abbey Bestiary
7. Vienna Genesis
8. Black Hours (I blogged about it before)
9. Morgan Crusader Bible
10. Grimani Breviary

I'm going to talk about three of them here. The rest are blogged here by All photographs are copyrighted by Giovanni Scorcioni and used with permission.

Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux, Queen of France
Shelfmark Acc. No. 54.1.2 from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The medium used is grisaille (shades of gray), tempera, and ink on vellum. Use of vellum, instead of parchment, and extensive, detailed imagery and hues indicates that this was an expensive book made for a wealthy patron. It was made in Paris c. 1324–1328 by Jean Pucelle. According to the Met: "The figures are rendered in delicate grisaille that imparts an amazingly sculptural quality, and the images are accented with rich reds and blues and touches of orange, yellow, pink, lilac, and turquoise."

Godescalc Evangelistary
Shelfmark MS. Nouv. acq. lat. 1203 from Bibliothèque Nationale de France
The manuscript was commissioned by the Carolingian King Charlemagne on October 7, 781 and finished by the Frankish scribe Godescalc on April 30, 783. According to Wikipedia: "The Evangelistary is the earliest known manuscript produced at the scriptorium in Charlemagne's Court School in Aachen. The manuscript was intended to commemorate Charlemagne's march to Italy, his meeting with Pope Adrian I, and the baptism of his son Pepin."

Prayer Book of Claude de France
Shelfmark MS M. 1166 from the Morgan Library & Museum
It is a tiny jewel-like book that fits in the palm of a hand. It was finished by the artist in Tours in 1517, the year Claude de France was crowned Queen of France. According to the Morgan: "Her coat of arms appears on three different folios. The book is richly illustrated: the borders of each leaf are painted, front and back, with 132 scenes from the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and numerous saints. The colors of his delicate palette are applied in tiny, seemingly invisible brushstrokes."

Friday, October 2, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Medieval Record of the Blood Moon

Here's a medieval record of blood moons happening in their times as well. Thought it so apropos to our modern-day event of a few days ago.

This manuscript illumination (folio 181 recto) c. 1410–1430 is the Book of Hours of the use of Paris known as the Bedford Hours, found in the British Library at the shelfmark Add MS 18850.

The script says: "And the moon became as blood; And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth."

[Image copyrighted by the British Library via Robert Miller. Used with permission.]

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My September Reading

This month, I decided to abandon planning my reading. What with two kids in school and after-school activities every day, my days were too full and my nights too short. With the pressure off, I was able to read leisurely and enjoyed the experience more, rather than racing through the books in order to put my thoughts down here in the monthly recap blogs. I had a mix of books this month: literary fiction, a short story, essays, poems, children's and adult nonfiction, mystery, and romance.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: Male author
Commentary: Just started reading....

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol
Categories: fiction, short story
Diversity: Male author
Commentary: A great satirical story in which Gogol skewers a vainglorious man. I wrote about the story in detail here.

Three Poems by Edward Hirsch
Categories: poetry
Diversity: Jewish male writer
Commentary: I have read Special Orders before, so it was good to revisit two of his poems from there: "A Partial History Of My Stupidity" and "Branch Library". The latter is naturally my favorite, extolling the virtues of being lost between the pages of books in a library as a boy. The poem is also a lament for those lost childhood days of carefree existence. "Stupidity" deals with the heedlessness with which he perceives he lives his life. He moves through life like a caged tiger waiting to spring; instead of reflecting on things, he reacts to things; instead of worrying about people dying in the thousands in the world, he is concerned about what other people think of him. In "Early Sunday Morning," he realizes that that which he had derided in his father, he was now living in his own life. This is one thing that I have found about Hirsch's poems—they're a stark, unflinching examination of his own life without the veil of highfalutin ideas or technical phrasing.

By Possession by Madeline Hunter
Categories: romance, medieval
Commentary: I evasdropped on a conversation between Willaful and a couple other people where she recommended this book, Hunter's first medieval. Hunter really does the medieval well with period feel conveyed through specific details of household goods, clothing, foods, dwellings, warfare, and so on, and also through language (no accents), events, and most importantly, through thought processes (no medieval window dressing here). This really anchors the story into the Middle Ages.

Addis and Moira knew each other as children: he a golden youth enamored with a golden girl, she a bondwoman's daughter and the golden girl's shadow. Moira was infatuated with Addis, he barely knew of her existence. Fast forward to present day, Addis has returned from his crusade where for six of the eight years, he'd been enslaved. He resurrects bond-hood (is that a word?) for Moira even though she was a landholding serf. Adventures ensue with warfare, much emotional back-n-forth, and sexytimes. Through it all, the story remained well-paced and my immersion in it was total.

Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio by Peg Kehret
Categories: children's, nonfiction, memoir
Diversity: suffers post-polio disabilities
Commentary: Recommended by my daughter. An achingly sad, true story of a child suffering from polio at the height of the disease and its lifelong aftermath. And Kehret was the lucky one. She learnt to move all her limbs, was able to talk, and was eventually able to fulfill her dreams of becoming a writer. Most sufferers either die, get paralyzed, or are besieged by agonizing afflictions their whole life. To all the naysayers of vaccinations, I say, "Read this! Read how much this twelve-year-old innocent child suffered. Read how much her life changed for the worse once she had the disease. Read and forever hold your peace." I grieved for that little girl as I read the book. So much suffering at such a young age.

To Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the polio vaccine, I say, "Thank you!" for keeping my children safe and for saving hundreds of millions of children the world over by refusing to patent the vaccine, thus making it widely available. Yet, it is only in recent months that The Gates Foundation was finally able to make inroads into tough polio-afflicted areas to eradicate the disease. The world is 99% free now.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: race and microaggressions in the context of African-Americans
Commentary: Recommended by Liz McCausland. Her review is here and The New Yorker review is here. I also read Rankine's essay on Serena Williams.

I was drawn to this book, because I had just finished reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson and it dealt with race in the 1960s and 1970s. Citizen is 21st C, so it seemed like an ongoing conversation to have. I agree with Liz on this: "One thing lyrical poetry does well is convey intensity of feeling and experience." This was exactly my experience with Brown Girl Dreaming. I read Citizen to better understand what The New Yorker writes: "...realities [that]include the acts of everyday racism—remarks, glances, implied judgments—that flourish in an environment where more explicit acts of discrimination have been outlawed."

These days, as societal events have shown and #BlackLivesMatter and #IStandWithAhmed have highlighted, racism is no longer under-wraps but very much out in the open. But there are also some people who consider themselves post-racial and are still involved, perhaps unknowingly, in microaggressions. What do these microaggressions feel like by the recipient? That's the thrust of Rankine's book.

I could not possibly write more eloquently about Rankine's book than Rankine herself. So I'm merely going to quote a few things that stood out for me.

Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx. Cough. After it happened I was at a loss for words.

You take in things you don't want all the time. The second you hear or see some ordinary moment, all its intended targets, all the meanings behind the retreating seconds, as far as you are able to see, come into focus.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having. Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?

...there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people expose to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure..

Rankine writes that it is very difficult for black people to express rage because the stereotype of the angry black man is so prevalent that most people bend over backwards to stifle even normal human anger. Controversially, the stereotype has been used by black artists successfully. However, this is what she calls "sellable anger" not real rage, which remains bottled up. She gives the example of Serena Williams who when she expressed genuine anger was penalized and fined by the establishment and excoriated in the press. On the other hand, the times when she swallowed her anger at wildly unfair calls, she was called to be displaying grace under pressure.

When such things happen, he [France's soccer star Zinedine Zidane] must grit his teeth, walk away a few steps, elude the passerby who draws attention to him, who gives other passersby the desire either to follow the example or to come to his defense.

And this one about the past really connects to the comment about the past that Helen McInnes makes below.

The past is a life sentence, a blunt instrument aimed at tomorrow. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stores in you.

The Venetian Affair by Helen McInnes
Categories: mystery/thriller
Commentary: Recommended by Janet Webb. I enjoyed reading this fast-paced spy thriller that read like a police procedural. It certainly wasn't a "guy book" but far more quiet and introspective.

The main protagonist is a male newspaperman named Fenner, a hard-hitting investigative journalist turned drama critic. A soul-searing incident with his ex-wife Sandra led to his change in career. He's sent to Paris by his boss presumably to interview an ex-college professor. This gets him accidentally foisted with ten $10,000 bills. (Remember this was written in 1963 when this was a lot of money.) And his involvement in a cloak-n-dagger affair starts with the American, British, French, and Italian intelligence services and takes him from beautiful Paris to gorgeous Venice. His sidekick is the lovely Claire, an American amateur agent. By luck and sheer smartness, the two manage to stay ahead in the game till almost the end when emotional involvement with each other leads to their downfall.

I never know how much to write in a spy/mystery book that won't give away details of the plot.

There were a couple sections that I really liked.

...the past was never over. As long as you lived, you carried it with you. It shaped your life: what you were, today, depended on all you had seen and felt and heard yesterday; and what you now accepted or rejected would mold your tomorrow. We are, because of what we were....Shall we be, because of what we are?

and here's a description of a bedroom:

It was marked by simplicity, comfort stripped down to the essentials, a place to sleep deeply, with no intrusions except from the closet (cleared for his use and the only one left unlocked.) which had a haunting scent, faint, delicate, lingering. Behind the shower curtain in the bathroom, he found a flowered cap, a charming piece of rubberized froth, forgotten on a faucet.

Essays from Tropical Classical by Pico Iyer
Categories: nonfiction, essays
Diversity: South Asian male writer
Commentary: I love, love, love Pico Iyer's writing—wit, verve, and old English public school. And sharp! And acute! While not as densely allegorical as Salman Rushdie's books, the Oxbridge writing style is allegorical in nature with parenthetical remarks and shorthand references to events and people in popular culture and books.

"The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said—could it not?—of the humble comma." So starts Pico Iyer's essay "In Praise of the Humble Comma." He, then, goes on to write: "Add it to the present clause, and, of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it, and the mind is deprived of a resting place. By establishing the relations between words, punctuation establishes the relations between the people using words. Punctuation, then, is a civic prop, a pillar that holds society upright." I wrote more about the essay and Iyer here. Read the entirety of the piece here. It's marvelous, isn't it?

In "Excusez Moi? Speakez-vous Franglais?," Iyer tells you that "The best way to deal with a foreigner, any old-school Brit will tell you, is to shout at the blighter in English until he catches on." Then he goes on to describe the dilemma that faces every tourist in a foreign country. "It comes down to a question of whether 'tis better to give, or to receive, linguistic torture." Iyer is a nomad, so this essay, despite its humorous ponderings is a discourse on what it means to find yourself in a foreign city and how that experience changes you.

Iyer's musings on being dogged by the manuscripts that land on his doorstep demanding blurbs are so funny—you can feel his exasperation and his puzzlement. "Not long ago, almost simultaneously, I received tomes on Hasidic children, wine-making impresarios, and the whorehouses of Saigon (who do these people think I am?)." He's well aware that while the marketing departments assiduously hound authors for those blurbs, "seasoned book-lovers, and people who simply recall that 'blurbing' is an anagram of 'burbling,' come now to relish the art of judging a book by its cover." And who can really believe all that hyperbole, all those 'high concept' similes.

He takes a potshot at Salman Rushdie: "The great problem with Salman Rushdie, I have often felt, is that he is simply too talented. And no writer I know has seemed more captive to his gifts: his powers of inventions and imagination are so prodigal and so singular that he often gives the impression of not knowing when to stop."

His two pieces on Tibet and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama are superb! I really want to read the book he wrote on the Dalai Lama. I have another of his books where he talks about his travels through Bhutan and other Himalayan kingdoms. He seems to really understand the region on a level much deeper than most journalists and most travelers. He travels with his heart, rather than his head—trite, but in this case, true—and with a rare clarity of vision.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Picture Day Friday: A Blacksmith's Forge

[Provenance unknown.]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol

The Nose, a short story by Nikolai Gogol, is a satire about a self-important man who loses his nose and the agonies he goes through as a result. The story is set in 1836 St. Petersburg and is in three parts.

In part one, a barber finds a nose in his newly baked loaf of bread at breakfast. He immediately recognizes it as belonging to as his regular customer, minor government official, a municipal "committee man" Major Kovalyov. The barber tries to get rid of it by throwing it into the Neva River from Issac Bridge, but he gets caught by a police inspector.

This story is a cross between magic realism and sheer nonsense with humor and entertainment mixed up together and dressed in elegant writing. The "telling details" are what beginning writers are always told are important—this here is a fine example of that.

In part two of the story, the major has woken up and discovered a flat patch of skin where his nose should be. He is horrified first for vanity's sake and then for the loss of power in his promotion bid and the loss of consideration as a suitable mate for an acquaintance's daughter and as attractive to other pretty girls.

He rushes off to the chief of police but on the way there encounters his nose dressed up in the gold-embroidered uniform of a state councilor, a higher ranking official as compared to himself. He tries to engage the nose in conversation but is brushed off.

The rest of part two deals with the major's various attempts to retrieve his nose, to no avail. By the time he return home, a police commissary arrives with his nose wrapped up in paper. The major is delighted almost beyond reason. However, his doctor friend cannot fit it back on his for him and advises him to forget about it.

Kovalyov is aghast. He dare not show his face anywhere. Meanwhile rumors run rampant in the city about the doings of the nose, which people pay money to view, though there's of course nothing to see now that the nose is in the major's safekeeping.

On occasion, Gogol talks to the reader directly, at one point saying, "Strange events happen in this world, events which are sometimes entirely improbable." (Just in case, you believed the story to be true...)

In part three, without much fanfare, the nose is back in its appointed position of the major's face. And it's as if all the events in part two were a dream. His barber from part one shows up as scheduled. And Kovalyov struts off into the city.

There are many suppositions about the deeper meaning behind the loss of the nose—some even going so far as to equate it with emasculation. However, most critics maintain it is a study in absurdity.