Friday, January 23, 2015

Tomorrow is National Readathon Day

According to the National Book Organization, tomorrow is National Readathon Day. It's being sponsored by Penguin-Random House, Goodreads, and Mashable. So tomorrow, January 24, between 12pm and 4pm (in each respective time zone), pick up a book and participate in a national read. I shall be reading Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South.

Today is National Handwriting Day

I'm celebrating National Handwriting Day today by writing my Morning Pages with a Mont Blanc fountain pen with J. Herbin Terre de Feu ink in a Clairefontaine notebook. Ah! The bliss of a good pen in hand gliding over good paper with good ink.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

2015 TBR Reading Challenge: The Travelling Parsi by Kamal Sunavala

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Travelling Parsi by Kamal Sunavala
My Categories: nonfiction, memoir, literary fiction, anthology
Wendy Crutcher's Category: We Love Short Shorts

This book was recommended to me by a Parsi friend of mine, and it has been a delight to read. Before this, the only thing I knew about the Parsis was that they'd produced two of the world's best loved musicians: Conductor Maestro Zubin Mehta and Queen's lead singer Freddie Mercury (born Farrokh Bulsara).

A little background. In the seven hundreds, when Islam came to Iran, some of the Zoroastrians fled in boats to the distant shores of India. They landed in the state of Gujarat and settled there, adopting the language, food, clothes, and customs. Not completely, of course. They retained their original religious books and practices, married strictly within themselves, and otherwise behaved as all immigrant minorities do to preserve their old culture.

The Parsis, according to my friend and from reading the book, are also fairly westernized as compared to the average Indian. For instance, when the author was a kid, their parties featured meat dishes, whiskey drinks, and ballroom dancing; kids took piano and elocution lessons; far more women wore dresses as compared to the rest of the Indian population which wears saris; their knowledge of music was also of western classical music, not Indian; etc. So while the main language of communication is English sprinkled with Gujarati for the generation in their 50s now and older, my feeling from reading the book is that the Parsis seem to see themselves as separate from the rest of the Indian population. In fact, and unfortunately so, they seem to see themselves as superior.

This is a very broad outsider's perspective reported second-hand as opposed to a sensitive and accurate picture of the nuanced and complex culture of Indian Zoroastrianism. (By the way, Parsis are distinct from Iranis, though both are Iranian Zoroastrians in India.)

This anthology of short humorous memoir vignettes about the Zoroastrian Parsi community is narrated through the satirical voice of a Parsi girl. It talks about community, and the joys, wisdoms, customs, and prejudices that are contain therein. The book starts out as being a memoir of stories, but there's no way Sunavala could've accurately recalled all that dialogue that's sprinkled throughout the book. And given that all Parsi characters in their 50s in her book sound exactly alike, she made those conversations up out of whole cloth.

So this book is a curious amalgam of half-remembered incidences and pure fiction for dramatic purposes. There's no category box you can tick to make this book fit, and yet, the book pulls together and is an entertaining read for the most part. It's also informative—you get a good flavor of this minority culture from India.

I did find a few of the vignettes to be downright mean-spirited, which is the danger of humor. What is uproariously funny can quickly turn into uncomfortable silence. It felt like Sunavala had a couple of ideas, got carried away, and ran down rabbit holes with them. Judicious editing would've helped curb this tendency.

I also felt that overall, Sunavala didn't mean to portray a sympathetic or empathetic look at her culture, but a more satirical and pointedly critical one. This also made the humor come across as mean-spirited. Sometimes, vignettes written in this vein were wrapped up with upbeat conclusions, which were out-of-sync with the tone and content of the pieces. A pity.

That said, I enjoyed this little book. I recommend it to anyone wondering about India's Parsi culture or just wanting a quick light read.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Picture Day Friday: First Edition of Emma by Jane Austen

John Murray’s three-volume first edition (1816) of Emma by Jane Austen.

[Image copyrighted by The Paris Review.]

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mission Statements, Life Lists, Goals, Schedules: define, design, discharge

Here are four of my posts that have proven to be among the most popular on this blog. They have all to do with architecting your life starting with small daily steps.

A Personal Mission Statement is a set of mottoes for your life that define the boundaries of who you are, what your deepest held beliefs are, how you interact with others, and what you think of yourself.

A Life List is a mondo-beyondo list of your life's dreams. There are no limits as to how many items there can be on this list. It's a personal list, so don't be shy of wishing for the most outrageous, the most selfish, the most greedy, the most anything. Every deeply held desire needs to be on this list. Don't compromise on your dreams.

Goals Making and Keeping and committing to bringing your resolutions to fruition. Goals give you something concrete to work towards and to measure progress against. Goals also give you a sense of accomplisment once you've reached them.

Scheduling Your Life is important, because if you don't label your time to dedicated actions, then that piece of time is either attached to another task or frittered away. The most basic rule of thumb when keeping to a schedule is: There is no making up lost time.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Lindisfarne Gospels

From the British Library: "The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the greatest treasures in the British Library’s collections, is now back on display in The Sir John Ritblat Gallery. This Latin Gospel-book is thought to be the work of one remarkably gifted scribe and artist, who created it around 700 on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumbria. Its importance lies not only in the beauty of its carpet-pages and its miniatures of the four Evangelists, but also in the tenth-century gloss of its text that is the earliest example of the Gospels in the English language."

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Resolute About Resolving Your Resolutions

Are you resolute about resolving your new year's resolutions this year? Here are some tips to help you on your way that have helped me tremendously. This blog is a repeat from last January.

Don't make generalized resolutions, such as "Be Happy." Instead make specific, measurable ones, such as "Do a yoga retreat in Hawaii over the summer"—you can measure whether you achieved this goal or not and how you felt about it.

By all means, make smaller sub-goals with deadlines that will keep the bigger goal on track to being finished.

Work on only one habit at a time. Say, in January, you'll work on X and on Y in February.

Start with the smallest, easiest habit first. And do it just for a few minutes once a day. Feeling a sense of accomplishment from the very start is what keeps the habit of habit-forming (heh!) going.

And the first step in starting a habit is to simply start. Inertia, procrastination, a feeling of being overwhelmed can all lead to a tendency to want to only imagine you having the habit, but afraid to start the work in forming the habit. So, just start!

Write it down. Well, the mind's not good about keeping everything in the foreground. Old things often get pushed into the background, even though when the thoughts first came in, they were deemed high priority. We forget; we fall into old habits by, well, habit; new issues crop up that require our immediate attention; we're tired so we say we'll do it tomorrow; etc.

Accountability is the sticky glue that binds us to our resolutions on paper. If you have to report in to a friend or a group of like-minded individual or even to your online journal, it serves as a reasonably pressured deadline that has to be achieved.

Don't have only negative or "you-must"s resolutions. Have fun ones as well, such as the yoga retreat mentioned above. If you plan only drudgery for the year, then it's guaranteed that your list of resolutions will have nary a checkmark. This is the main reason, I call them goals, not resolutions.

And the complementary one to the above is that you should feel free to abandon a resolution part-way through or even before beginning, if you feel that it's something that's never going to happen no matter how many years it shows up on your list. For me, that would mean giving up on reading Tolstoy's War and Peace in this life at least.

Revisit your list constantly to revise, add to, or subtract from the litany. It keeps the energy alive about what needs to be achieved next and it keeps the list fresh and current.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

My Reading Goals & Blogging Perspective

I'm not a blogger. That is, I'm not a book blogger by the commonly-held definition of book bloggers. I don't comment on the publishing industry and trends, nor do I review books or critique reader perspectives and trends. My blogging is eclectic: books mais oui, but also history, humor, craft, conferences, the writing life, and so on. I'm a reader most certainly, but I'm also an aspiring writer, an editor, and a proofreader. So when I do comment on books online, I usually do so rarely and I go for my gut reactions as opposed to a detailed analysis.

However last year, I commented on fourteen books since I participated in Wendy Crutcher's TBR Reading Challenge and also talked about book gifts by Connie Brockway and Joanna Bourne. My blogging became more readerly.

When I first joined Romancelandia in 2006, it was as a reader. I joined Squawk Radio, a group blog by close writer friends; the Risky Regencies, a historical writers' blog; and the Word Wenches, another historical writers' blog. I became a Bluestocking at Candice Hern's message board and a Bon-Bon at Eloiosa James's (later Eloisa James's and Julia Quinn's) message board. I launched this blog, Cogitations & Meditations, that same year. I later became part of the Romance Novel TV community and blogged for them.

As I immersed myself in the community of other aspiring writers, published writers, and famous writers and their generous advising, I became entranced with the idea of becoming a romance writer myself. I was trained for other types of writing, editing, and proofreading, but I had never before thought to combine my reading love with my writing love. It took courage to admit to reading, much less writing, romance. My first step in this direction was to attend the Romance Writers of America annual conference. My blogging reflected my interests, veering away from reading to writerly interests.

And that's where my blogging stayed until last year.

Last year, many of my new Twitter friendships were readers. Suddenly I was involved in the reading side of Romancelandia. I became involved in kerfuffles, read reader blogs, and discussed books on blogs and on Twitter. Where kerfuffles were concerned, I quickly learned to step smartly over rabbit holes to avoid the stress of them all. However, I was totally seduced by book discussions with really smart bookish people.

So while I still wear all the other hats (writer, editor, proofreader), I'm pleased that my reader hat has come of age and is thriving.

Naturally, I now have reading goals.

1. More non-romance
2. More literary fiction
3. More nonfiction
4. More children's fiction AKA my daughter's recommendations
5. More poetry
6. More diversity
7. Wendy's TBR reading challenge

I achieved some of these goals last year. My detailed reading analysis post coming in February will show some trends as compared with previous years. However, I want the trends to go up exponentially this year. I already have a giant list of books I want to read this year, and it is most likely going to take me all the way through December.

I made a good start on #6 with Flower in the Desert by Lavendar Parker, thanks to tweets by Sonomalass, Liz, Ridley, and Meoskop. It was a complete departure for me—American contemporary romance featuring an African American heroine and a part Native American hero—and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I've made a start on #3 and #7 with a very interesting little book on vignettes of life in a minority community in India: The Travelling Parsi by Kamal Sunavala.

I've made a start on #4 with another of my daughter's recommendations: The Alchemyst by Michael Scott.

I just finished re-reading Flowers From The Storm by Laura Kinsale—read it with Marijiana. Religion plays a large part in the book—but this is not an inspirational—and this to me falls in the #6 category.

I've made a start on #2 with North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

I have The Writer's Life by Julia Cameron waiting in the wings for #3.

So far, 2015's off to a good reading start. And my reading list for the year is healthy (perhaps a tad overweight), but at least, it's robust.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A New Beginning...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Picture Day: Holiday Dining Party at Chatsworth

How does your Christmas dining spread compare to this sumptuous setup at Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, in England?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

I'm Signed Up! Are You? 2015 TBR Reading Challenge

Wendy Crutcher, Super Librarian, has posted her 2015 TBR Reading Challenge. I loved it so much this year that I promptly signed up for next year. I read off-theme but if you like themes, here are next year's suggestions:

January 21 - Category romance, novellas, short stories

February 18 - Recommended book

March 18 - Series book

April 15 - Contemporary

May 20 - Copyright date is 10 years or older

June 17 - An author who has more than one book in your TBR pile

July 15 - Past RWA RITA winners or nominees)

August 19 - Impulse Read (The book you bought because of the cover or The book you bought on impulse or The book you cannot remember why you bought in the first place!)

September 16 - Historical

October 21 - Paranormal or romantic suspense

November 18 - It's All About The Hype (a book or author that got everybody talking)

December 16 - Holiday Themes

Friday, December 19, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Parisian Book of Hours

This is a Book of Hours that was created in Paris in 1553 in the shape of a fleur de lys. It was sold by Christie's on June 6, 2006 for $28,000.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

2014 TBR Reading Challenge: Stradivari's Genius by Toby Faber

As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my comments on Stradivari's Genius: Five Violins, One Cello, and Three Centuries of Enduring Perfection by Toby Faber.

When the Faber of publishing company Faber & Faber writes a book, people sit up and take notice. It is reviewed everywhere, which means my expectations going into it were riding high. Luckily, it was not a case of "much ballyhooed, soon deflated" variety. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

What brought me to this book?

I played the violin from when I was eight to twenty one. I took lessons, I practised (reluctantly most of the times), and I performed. I have played the violin at events, at competitions, at school assemblies, and even at a state fair with the cows lowing in the barn next door. I loved the sound of the violin even as I deplored how difficult it was to learn and to play. After I became a paying guest with a professor's family in graduate school, I had to stop practicing and thus performing, and the violin fell into disuse. I briefly resurrected the playing at jamming sessions with a colleague at my first job. Since then though, the violin's bridge has fallen, the bow hair are matted, and the strings are hopelessly frayed. It will need a lot of TLC from a luthier to restore it to its former prime.

In 2005, I read a newspaper article, about a $6 million Guarnerius being on loan to the San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. It used to belong to Jascha Heifetz, widely considered one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century. The article traced the ancient history of the violin and how it came to be on loan to Barantschik. Coincidentally, a few days after I came across this book about Stradivari, and I was primed to buy it.

However, you know what happens when you're an eager book buyer. The book languished on my TBR bookshelf for nearly ten years. The TBR Challenge was the perfect tool to rescue it out of obscurity.

Well, on to the book...

"I have a violin that was born in 1713. It was alive long before me, and I hope it lives long after me. I don't consider it my violin. Rather, I am perhaps its violinist; I am passing through its life."

In a poignant statement in 2000, violinist and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador, Ivry Gitlis highlights what is at the heart of this book: Violins (and cellos) of ancient pedigree that flit through the lives of humans, illuminating everything and everybody in their paths.

Yehudi Menuhin expresses the same sentiment beautifully here:

"A great violin is alive; its very shape embodies its maker's intentions, and its wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners."

The book Stradivari's Genius traces the origins of the violin in the court of Catherine de Medici in the mid-sixteenth century. Violinmaking in Cremona, Italy began around the same time with the Amatis making the first memorable one in 1564. Everything of today's violins' form and function can be seen in that 1564 violin. A brief history of the Amatis, the Stradivaris, the Guarneris (beginning with del Gesù), the Rogeris, the Rugeris, and the Guadagninis follows.

In talking about the violinmakers of Cremona, Faber does an excellent job of explaining how the various parts of the violin were constructed and how the shape, size, thickness, type, etc. of the woods chiseled by the Cremonese artists affected the acoustics of the instruments they constructed.

The book follows the stories of five violins and one cello, from their origin in Stradivari's workshop to their ownership by various players and dealers. The Strads, as they're affectionately known, each have names, which they gained from their famous owners. Four of the violins are called: the Viotti, the Khevenhüller, the Paganini, and the Lipiński. The cello is called the Davidov. The fifth violin is called The Messiah from a joke by one of the dealers about its reputation.

The majority of the book is delightfully gossipy about the passionate violinists, their glories and their peccadillos, the men and women they consorted with, the dealing shenanigans of the collectors and luthiers, the benevolence of the patrons, and the daredevil schemes hatched by violin lovers to safeguard or steal the instruments. Have you seen the movie The Red Violin? That is the style of the book.

The book is characterized by occasional spurts of humor: "Complaints about the 'rubbish put out by the BBC' started almost as soon as it began broadcasting." Well, nothing has changed about that to this day.

One negative aspect of the book was the occasional sexism in Faber's writing. Here's how he describes virtuosa Marie Hall: "A slight eighteen-year-old, dark and beautiful, with lips that might nowadays be called sensuous." None of the men were described thusly. They were called handsome of charming but with no specific commentary. Another example: "It [the player and the instrument] is a marriage. The violin is such a feminine instrument that the metaphor seems almost inescapable at least for men. Women are more likely to regard their violins as an extension of themselves."

Pity about him descending to such lows in an otherwise well-paced and engrossing narrative.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Video Day Friday: Beowulf in Old English

Have a listen to the prose-poem Beowulf as read in the original Old English language.

From Open Culture: "As you can hear in the Beowulf reading above from The Telegraph, it’s a thick, consonant-rich language that may put you in mind of J.R.R. Tolkien’s elvish. The language arrived in Briton—previously inhabited by Celtic speakers—sometime in the fifth century, though whether the Anglo-Saxon invasion was a hostile takeover by Germanic mercenaries or a slow population drift that introduced a new ethnicity is a matter of some dispute. Nevertheless it’s obvious from the reading above—and from texts in the language like this online [written] edition of Beowulf in its original tongue—that we would no more be able to speak to the Anglo-Saxons than we would to the Picts and Scots they conquered."

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Big Fat Book December Update: The Game of Kings


The Big Fat Book Project of reading The Game of Kings, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, by Dorothy Dunnett is over. I have listened to the audiobook, read the paper copy twice, and read the companion The Ultimate Guide to Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings by Laura Ramsey.

For reference, here are my July, August, September, October, and November updates.

What an experience this has been—exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. For a text of this complexity in characterization, plot, and prose, this type of close reading was the best way to appreciate it. Doing any one thing would've made the experience so much poorer.

I have lived with the story for more than four months now. Scarcely has a day gone by when I have not thought of Lymond and his unceasing activities. I have endlessly debated the intentions behind everything that he does and utters. He is moralistic in his own way and has feelings just like anyone else. Nothing about him is obvious; sometimes, he is obscure even to himself.

I cannot say I like him. However, lack of likeability has not hampered my identifying him as the hero of his tale. Without Lymond, the story dwindles to nothing. He's larger than life and affects everything even when he's off-stage. Every person, every event in the story is a puppet under Lymond's control. His grandiloquence set against his vulnerability and his passion are what save him from being an out and out villain in his own story.

Lymond's, and Dunnett's, astonishing intellectual gifts are far more appreciable with the companion guide. What is also appreciable is the depth of research and historical authenticity Dunnett brings to this tale.

Samuel Gilles's reading added so much depth and texture to the emotional content of the story. He made the characters come alive as individuals, each with their own motivations and hang-ups. His reading was part of what delivered the redemption of Lymond's character to me.

This is historical fiction at its finest. The story is peopled with real historical people interacting with fictional people. At no point does anyone step out of character, time, or place. You could not take any of the characters out, displace them in time and place, and expect the story to remain unchanged. This was key for me. This story, these fictional characters could not have existed in any other time or place.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Canterbury Cathedral

I can only link to the virtual tour of the Canterbury Cathedral, not reproduce is here. But it is worth going over there for a look-see. Magnificent!

Friday, November 28, 2014

Picture Day Friday: Garden at Stourhead, Wiltshire, England

Stourhead in Wiltshire, England has one of the world's finest 18th-century landscaped gardens with classical and gothic follies, a lake, bridge, and other such small structures in addition to the parkland.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Big Fat Book November Update: The Game of Kings

Reporting progress on my Big Fat Book Project. What started out as a large project of listening to the audiobook has turned into a gigantic project: listening to the audiobook, two reads of the book, and a read of the detailed companion guide.

I've progressed swimmingly this month with my listening of The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett and the re-reading of the book. Correspondingly, I have been progressing along in the reading of the companion The Ultimate Guide to Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings by Laura Ramsey.

Last month, my exercising had been brought to a halt by a worsening old injury on my right knee. I am happy to report that said knee is doing a little better now with physical therapy. While I'm not back to exercising, the progress on the audio front is proceeding apace. I still have a ways to go before my December 31 deadline.

Having read, er, devoured, the paper copy last month, I thought that this month's listening would be an exercise in going through the motions. I already knew what was going to happen. Where was the newness, the discovery in that? Well, for one, I had discounted the fact that I was consuming the companion guide at the same time. Knowing all the previously-unknown material meant that I understood the complexity of the plot and Lymond's character far better.

Secondly, I had not taken into account performer Samuel Gillies's excellent reading. His interpretation of the characters' personalities added to the richness of the tapestry of Dunnett's prose.

And lastly, I had forgotten, in my paper copy reading, how very complex the story truly is. It was more work for me to keep the facts in my head during the listening since I didn't have the luxury of leafing back to re-read, nor did I like having to repeatedly stop/rewind/re-listen. So having read the story once and continuing to re-read it and to read the companion guide alongside helped to hold the facts at the forefront of my mind as I listened.

The companion guide is marvelous! What a treasure trove of myriad details. I had been impressed with Dunnett's library and knowledge before I read the companion guide, and now I'm even more impressed. How did she retain all those arcane snippets of information and then sift through her brain to find them just at the right moments?

Back to the guide, first up is a detailed list of all the characters, historical or fictional, with basic information on their titles, roles, and relationships. The guide's list of characters is far better than Dunnett's list of characters. I have always thought that the titles of the aristocracy were confusing, but this list of characters makes it even more so.

As an aside, when I looked at the list, I wondered when the "Master of" title became deprecated in history. It is used as a secondary title for either an heir or a younger son, as far as I can tell. However, when did it fall into disuse? By the time the Regency comes around, there's no "Master of" title, though courtesy titles were often granted to the heirs.

One of the best features of this companion guide is a detailed timeline of the events in the book. Another handy timeline is Lymond's backstory. If you read these two lists, you'll have the Cliff Notes version of the story. However, if you're reading Dunnett's book for the first time, I would not recommend that you read either of these two lists first. Treat yourself to the luxury of discovering the story as you read along.

As far as the main portion of the guide goes, nearly 350 pages, it is full of fascinating information. For example, I learned that the opening quotes of each of the chapters of Dunnett's book are either from The Game and Playe of the Chesse by William Caxton (1415–1492) or from The Book of the Customs of Men and the Duties of Nobles AKA The Buke of Ye Chess by Jacobus de Cessolis (1250–1322).

On the first page, a fragment of a sentence, ...the Sea-Catte reached Scotland from Campvere..., is explained as follows: "Campvere, a fortified seaport of the Netherlands on the islands of Walcheren, was once of considerable commercial importance as all goods sent from Scotland to the Netherlands were held there until sold."

A stray line such as, Tonight the Castle on its pinnacle was fully lit..., has an explanation of the origins of Edinburgh Castle, its history, where it's located on the map of Edinburgh, its relationship to Holyrood Abbey/House/Palace, and a map of a bird's-eye view of the English attack on Edinburgh and Holyrood in 1544.

A reference to the Battle of Solway Moss (November 24, 1542) cites the history of the battle and includes the roles the historical and fictional characters on the battlefield and off it.

Detailed biographical information about the central historical characters is included along with photographs. In general, almost every page is accompanied by a picture depicting the person, event, or thing being talked about.

As I said before, this guide is simply marvelous. If you really want to understand the plethora of off-the-cuff remarks and quotations in Dunnett's book, this guide is indispensable.

[For reference, here are my July, August, September, and October updates.]

Monday, November 24, 2014

How To Tell If You Are In a Regency Romance Novel

I was breathless with laughter as I read THIS! I had to share it with you all.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Picture Day Friday: A Medieval Multitasker

This is what it means to be a multitasker working on multiple screens medieval style. This is a painting of Venetian (then French) author Christine de Pizan (1364–1430), who was known as a proto-feminist of her day.

Here's what Wikipedia has to say about her: "She served as a court writer for several dukes (Louis of Orleans, Philip the Bold of Burgundy, and John the Fearless of Burgundy) and the French royal court during the reign of Charles VI. She wrote both poetry and prose works such as biographies and books containing practical advice for women. She completed forty-one works during her 30-year career from 1399–1429."

Pretty, pretty impressive!