Pages from a very early copy of the Qur'an from the 7th century.
[Image copyrighted by Matthew Ward.]
Friday, May 1, 2015
Thursday, April 30, 2015
This is the third and last post of my commentary on my reading this month.
The Mill on the Floss (abridged) by George Eliot
Categories: literary fiction
Commentary: Rohan Maitzen's work on George Eliot inspired me to re-read one of the books I remember from my childhood. I dug through my shelves to find a copy of The Mill on the Floss from middle school. I enjoyed revisiting the story far more than I remember liking it as a child. Here is Rohan Maitzen's commentary on the book and on George Eliot. I understood the book so much better after reading it. SPOILERS AHOY!
The story was heartbreaking. My heart bled for Maggie Tulliver for having her intelligence and vivid personality stuck in a box of Victorian values and strictures. Indulged beyond wisdom as a child and buffeted without restraint in her adolescence and young adulthood by life, Maggie's the epitome of the tragic heroine.
And then the ending. Oh, the ending. "The denouement shocks the reader most painfully," protested Henry James. "Nothing has prepared him for it; the story does not move towards it; it casts no shadow before it."
Eliot seems to side with Maggie's brother Tom in condemning Maggie's actions with Phillip and with Stephen. Eliot shows no empathy or sympathy in Maggie's sincere attachment to Phillip and then to her attraction to but repudiation of Stephen. Eliot and Tom stand against Maggie in her departure from the strict rules Victorian society has set out for its women. Why is Maggie so undeserving of happiness? The only way for Maggie to redeem her good name is for her to die while coming to Tom's rescue. When looked at this way, the ending of the story is a foregone conclusion—I disagree with Henry James. The minute Maggie deviates from the straight and the narrow, her doom is certain.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
Diversity: By a male author
Commentary: Recommended by my dad and by Jessica Tripler. I am so impressed with the book. I am so impressed by his bio. Even his notes on sources are impressive—wide-ranging, detailed, numerous. Some people live so fully and pack so much into their days. "I see it now—this world is swiftly passing" by the warrior Karna in the Mahabharata (as quoted in the book).
Gawande writes in his acknowledgments, "I have never been a facile writer. I don't know what those authors who describe the words just flowing out of them are talking about. For me, the words come only slowly and after repeated effort." I have read his New Yorker articles. I have read this book. What in the world is he talking about? His writing has a narrative style that does truly flow.
The book is a sucker punch to the solar plexus. It deals with that subject that makes us the most uncomfortable: dying. We're all going to be doing it, but none of us wants to talk about it. Well, Gawande is talking about it—how impossible the choices are for the elderly to get the medical and physical help they need while maintaining their dignity, their autonomy (to what extent possible), their privacy, and their zest for life.
No culture has a good solution—every positive has a negative. Old age gets treated as a medical problem, because there are always plenty of health issues that crop up the longer you live. However, gerontologists, doctors who specialize in elder medicine, are the ones who concern themselves with whole person care, not just the medical problems portion of it. By just confining care to simply physical and medical matters, the elderly are treated like infants with no thought paid to their lively brains. So gerontologists are essential to our society. However, gerontology is a department absent from many hospitals, the first department to get cut in tight financial situations, and insurances are reluctant to support private practice gerontology.
Gawande certainly has not come up with a magical solution. But he's the only one willing to bring up the topic in a straightforward fashion and lay it out in all its ramifications. That he does it with elegant prose and anecdotes, makes what would otherwise be a dry read into an engrossing read.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough
Categories: parenting, nonfiction
Diversity: Written by a male author
Commentary: Recommended by Bill Gates in his 2013 Summer Reading post. I'm still reading it.
Friday, April 24, 2015
Announcing the 2015 Historical Fiction READERS' SURVEY!
It's a short 5–10 minute survey and seeks input on reading habits, historical fiction preferences, favorite authors, favorite book titles, etc.
THE SURVEY WILL BE OPEN UNTIL MAY 14.
According to historical fiction author M.K. Tod, "Writers and readers have a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought along with their backgrounds and attitudes to interpret those stories, deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. A story is incomplete without both writer and reader."
Tod then goes on to ask, "What do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? What are their attitudes to pricing or their favorite reading blogs?"
A survey such as this reaches out to readers to seek their opinions.
So if you are a reader or a writer of historical fiction, please take the survey and share the link [https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7] with friends, colleagues, and family and on your favorite social media sites. Robust participation across age groups, countries, and other demographics will make this year's survey even more significant.
If you so choose, at the end of the survey, you can sign up to receive the survey analysis report when it becomes available.
In 2012, author M.K. Tod conducted the first survey of historical fiction readers. Then in October 2013, Tod conducted a second survey.
Some of the highlights of the 2013 survey include:
Survey author M.K. TOD writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE, is set in WWI France. The survey is supported by JENNY QUINLAN of Historical Editorial and by BEATRIZ WILLIAMS, an author of historical fiction.
Please participate in the 2015 survey and share the URL [https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/GXRD9B7] with others.
THE SURVEY WILL BE OPEN UNTIL MAY 14.
Posted on: 4/24/2015 08:39:00 AM
Copyright 2007–2015 Keira Soleore (keirasoleore.blogspot.com)
An illuminated manuscript produced in the eighteenth century of the Qur'an.
[Image copyrighted by Matthew Ward.]
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
I sure read a fair number of books this month, and I sure talked a whole lot about them. It was a good idea to split my over-long reading post up into three parts. The month isn't over yet, so I'll have a third post up next week.
The Notorious Rake by Mary Balogh
Categories: rom, regency
Commentary: Recommended by author Megan Frampton and bloggers MissBates, Vi_dao, and DabneyGrinnan. The book started with a love scene between utter strangers who despised each other with no sense of there being any attraction between them. I was disappointed. I do not like books where the protagonists boink their way to a HEA. This was the book so highly recommended? I felt distanced from my romance-reading peers—perhaps my tastes had changed. Yet, for some reason I continued reading with what Victoria Jansen called a "vague completiest instinct." And thank goodness I did.
The book quite suddenly got better. I found I had some sympathy for Mary and then gradually for Edmond. I enjoyed reading about Edmond's very earnest soul-searching—a drink of water after being parched in the wasteland of London's gutters. As I read on, my sympathies with Mary didn't evolve but for Edmond they sure did, to the level that Mary started losing brownie points every time she gave Edmond a setdown. Despite his history of debauchery, he was willing to be vulnerable, to search through his emotions for the whys and wherefores, though he did leap for the security of his previous "devil may care" attitude from time to time. I did understand where Mary came from and why she was so reluctant to commit to Edmond, but her character arc was quieter, less dramatic as compared to Edmond's. Towards the end, I did wonder what it was that Edmond saw in her, what it was that inspired his passion and his love for her. She redeemed herself right at the end by her leap of faith.
On some level, this book had a predictable storyline and the characters, including the secondary characters, played their respective parts correctly. What made this book acquire a "re-readable" status was the emotional responses of the protagonists in their dialogues and their internal monologues.
A Counterfeit Betrothal by Mary Balogh
Categories: rom, regency
Commentary: This book was less successful than The Notorious Rake. It's the prequel to Rake and tells the story of two couples, the parents and their daughter and her childhood frenemy. Trying to tell two stories in 261 pages makes for sparse character development, a light hand at moving the romances along, and severely limits the choices for the impediments to the success of the romances. I prefer more focus, more in-depth exploration of plausible issues, and a slow build-up.
Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
Diversity: Book in translation by a male author
Commentary: Recommended by authors Jo Bourne and Sarah Mayberry. This is book one of the Inspector Maigret series. Originally printed in French as Pietr-le-Letton (1930), this is a 2013 translation by David Bellos. I had seen two episodes of the miniseries produced in the UK and France and so was when I found out that the book had been reissued with a new translation, I was eager to read it. After reading some of the star-studded reviews, of the book, I was even more eager. André Gide: "The greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature." P.D. James: "A writer, who more than any other crime novelist, combined a high literary reputation with popular appeal." And so on.
Well. It was plodding and boring. There was anti-Semitism, sexism, disparaging comments about Eastern Europeans, fat people. Then there were quite a few passages like this:
When they [suspects] had got back into their car there as a moment of indecision. The couple were having an argument. Mrs. Levingston was agitated. her husband lit a cigarette and put out his lighter with an angry swipe of his hand. Eventually, he said something to the chauffeur through the intercom tube, and the car set off, with Maigret in a taxi following behind.
So if Maigret was in a taxi behind, how in the world did he see all of that? Even if he was standing curbside, how could he observe all of this inside a darkened car? Assuming the dome light was on for him to observe, would he be able to find a taxi to follow so quickly given that the theater show had just ended and a huge crowd of theatergoers were thronging outside and looking for taxis? This book was a DNF for me.
The One Skill: How Mastering the Art of Letting Go Will Change Your Life by Leo Babauta
Categories: nonfiction, life skills
Diversity: Self-published in e- format by a male author
Commentary: Read this book first in January, and re-read it this month to write the March TBR Challenge post. (Yes, I was late! Eep!) Excellent meditation on how letting go of idealism in life about situations and people leads to a happier, calmer life. This is not a cerebral book, but rather a very practical how-to book.
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
After complaining last month that my positions in various hold queues at the library were dismally large, many books suddenly showed up. I now have the reverse problem this month: too much to read. I had to cram a bit before due dates, which was a less pleasant reading experience, but overall, it was a good reading month. I read mystery, witty, inspirational, multiracial, historical, medical, spiritual, and parenting books. The original books post got so long, I decided to split it up into two.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Categories: literary fiction
Diversity: Book by a male author
Commentary: Recommended by Bill Gates in his 2014 Best Books post. The jacket cover copy calls this "arrestingly endearing and entirely unconventional". Hmm...perhaps for a literary fiction book. However, the book read like genre romance to me, and the story was par for the course. That is not to say that it wasn't enjoyable—in fact, I liked it very much—but there was nothing revolutionary there. What was unique to the book was the humor—it was clever and uproariously funny while the delivery was low-key. I despise slapstick, in books and movies, so I always look for clever humor, and this had it in spades.
Unlike The Madness of Lord Ian Mackenzie by Jennifer Ashley, where you're supposed to feel sorry for Ian with his Asperger's and admire his wife Beth, Don and Rosie in this book require no such emotions. Don has high-functioning Asperger's but is such a capable, brilliant man, Rosie's such a capable, brilliant woman, and they're together because they admire/like/want each other, not because they need each other in a dependent way. As a result, as a reader, you relate to them head-on as people with strengths and foibles and moments of laughter, but not as characters requiring our emotional support. It was refreshing to read about intelligent, mature people behaving in an intelligent, mature way; the uproarious humor is only on the part of the reader; the characters are very much in earnest. And so endearing!
She Wore Red Trainers: A Muslim Romance by Na’ima bint Robert
Categories: romance, young-adult
Diversity: Author and characters are British-Muslims. Author has African roots. Book is a strong inspirational romance, a first for me. My only other inspy has been Kinsale's Flowers From the Storm, which has a significant Amish presence in the story; however, the religious aspect of it isn't the main message of the story. Here it is.
Commentary: Recommended by SmartBitches. I was part-way through the book, when I ran across this excellent review of the book. It made me want to continue with the book even more.
Robert's bio is really important, but more about that in a bit. This story is very much about the author and the two messages she wants to convey and the characters and plot she uses to outline that message; the story is less so about the organic growth and actualization of the characters. Robert wants to show what typical Muslim youths look like, even religious ones. On one hand, the deep religiosity of the message was uncomfortable for me; however, in all other ways, the story's told exactly the way it needs to be told to do the job.
Muslim youths are very much a product of their times. The characters here are British citizens and behave as all teenagers do: they dramatize their woes, every emotion is too much, their dreams and hopes for the future, their interest in the opposite sex, and so on. They're ordinary teens. Their religion adds stressors for good behavior, for being good Muslims, for following the tenets of Islam, and so on. In addition to this, they have modern familial stressors: the boy Ali's suffering through the loss of his mother and their home in the countryside and the move to the big, bad city; his father is a converted Muslim so his grandparents are Caucasian Christian; the girl Amirah lives in a broken home from which her mother's fourth husband has run off and she's managing all her five brothers and sisters; she is having to consider an arranged marriage to a Saudi national.
Robert's Muslim kids are just ordinary kids. This message is of supreme importance in today's times, where the western world demonizes Muslim youths. Nothing in the above paragraph cannot be said about teens of other religious backgrounds. And that is what my take on Robert's message is.
Robert has South African Zulu and Scottish roots and was born in England, grew up in Zimbabwe as a Christian, and converted to Islam in 1998 at the age of 21. She went to college in London and is now editor-in-chief of the UK-based Muslim women's magazine, SISTERS. She has published many children's books with Muslim themes. Her family name is Thando McLaren. She divides her time between England and Egypt.
Given how Roberts straddles the different cultural and religious spheres, I feel that she's keen on conveying what she perceives is the true portrait of Muslims for the world at large. Through her books, she seems to want to engage in a dialogue about the similarities of people, rather than their differences.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Categories: children's, nonfic, memoir, prose-poetry
Diversity: Features African-American people
Commentary: Recommended by my daughter. Woodson won the National Book Award for it. This has got to be the most gorgeous book I have read in ages. And I mean beauty—beauty of words, beauty of thought, beauty of emotions, beauty of relationships, beauty of images—and I luxuriated in it. It is billed as a middle-grade book, but it is a book for all ages with everyone taking something different away from it. The story is recounted entirely in flashback, je me souviens..., and the prose-poetry style works very well in evoking that mood.
Jaqueline spent a part of her childhood in segregated South Carolina and she puzzled over the separation between the two races. Her musing is not done in anger, or even in straight out deep hurt, but in a complex range of emotions of which a child's curiosity forms the biggest part. That aspect of the book made it heartbreaking for me—for a child to puzzle out why she's being discriminated against, why others think it is OK to do so, would it ever change, should it?
What's the thing, I ask her, that would make people
want to live together?
People have to want it, that's all.
In downtown Greenville
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn't use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.
I liked Jacqueline's relationship with her grandfather the best. See here:
Summer is over, a kiss
of chill in the southern air. We see the dim orange
of my grandfather's cigarette, as he makes his way
down the darkening road. Hear his evening greetings
and the coughing that follows them.
Not enough breath left now
to sing so I sing for him, in my head
where only I can hear.
Moving to Brooklyn to live with her mother, after the freedom of living in a small town South Carolina and under the comforting blanket of her grandparents' love, was very difficult. Yet she endured and adjusted and made friends and found something to like in the "gray rocky" place as well.
Down south already feels like a long time ago
but the stories in my head
take me back there, set me down in Daddy's [grandfather's] garden
where the sun is always shining.
And when they're heading back home after their summer with their grandparents...
Our suitcases sit at the foot of our bed, open
slowly filling with freshly washed summer clothes,
each blouse, each pair of shorts, each faded cotton dress
holding a story that we'll tell again and again
all winter long."
Ah, I could go on and on quoting from the book. Every page, every stanza, such beauty.
Friday, April 17, 2015
Wednesday, April 15, 2015
2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
My Categories: nonfiction collection
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Contemporary (Book was a contemporary when it was written :)
What an excellent look at life and events in the 1960s. Didion brings her incisive words to portray those things and also the thoughts that were important to her then, what she'd read, seen, experienced. So it's a look at life in the 1960s and the person Didion was then.
The section of essays that caught my interest best was the Personals section: "On Keeping a Notebook," "On Self-Respect," "On Morality," "On Going Home," and "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind."
The Monster piece is the most dated in comparison with the other pieces. It is essentially a rant against Hollywood. It has a ton of Didionesque off-hand remarks about people and movies that are no longer in casual memory, thereby rendering the piece unreadable by modern eyes.
The Respect piece is a beautiful meditation on what it means to have respect for oneself, always. Being driven back on oneself and the ending of innocence by being "stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself," is the beginning of self-respect. According to Didion, "people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was one called character." In effect, self-respect is a discipline that life is sometimes about doing things that you do not want to do, putting fears and doubts aside, delaying gratification of immediate concerns for perhaps larger, intangible returns later. What this all means is that anything worth having has its price. And knowing this, "people who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk of investing something of themselves." What is fascinating, and reassuring, is that this discipline, this habit of the mind "can be developed, trained, and coaxed forth." So what is this self-respect all about? "To have a sense of one's intrinsic worth is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love, to remain indifferent." On the other hand, if we do not respect ourselves, "we're in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out their false notions of us." This compulsion to please others is not an attractive trait—this is "alienation from self."
In Home, Didion reflects on what home means to an adult. To her, it had never meant the house where lived with her husband and daughter, but rather, the house where she grew up—the place, the people, the attitudes, the memorabilia, the conversations, the quality of the silences. In this essay, Didion says something that I thought was simply my weirdness. Whenever I go away to someplace new for a few days, my precious daily life seems remote. Then when I return home, the rhythm of the new place seems remote, covered by a semi-opaque film. It was interesting to see Didion reflect at length on this, because while it didn't bother her, it obviously bothered her husband greatly. In a very poignant ending to the essay, Didion writes that modern life is so different from her childhood that we can no longer promise our children a "sense of home" that she had: cousins, river, great-grandma's teacups, wild picnics, which to me translate to freedom, companionship, belonging.
What is Morality, Didion asks? "It is loyalty to a social code we learned as children," and if we are vigilant, it is something we continue to learn as adults. Didion calls a conscience, or rather the "ethic of conscience (where something is dangerous or admirable)" to be "a slippery slope to coercion and a power imbalance" (my way or no way). Morality is not where "all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum confer on any one an ipso facto virtue." When we start thinking "not that we want something or that it's a pragmatic necessity for us, but that is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land."
The essay on Notebook is why I read this book. According to Didion, "the impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily." I get this! Any time I mention I handwrite Morning Pages, I get a blank look and a peremptory "Why?" What to explain? How to explain this peculiar need to write, to set down your thoughts—mundane, profound, and every type in between—on paper? Didion says, "Keepers of private notebooks are lonely and resistant re-arrangers of things, anxious malcontents." So I'm a neurotic? Do I have to be? To me, it is not important why I write, but that I write.
To Didion, a diary is "an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking," whereas a notebook is a clutter of ephemera that may not have met reality recently. To me, a diary is a record of my doings and a notebook is a record of my thinking, all factual. That is how I delineate my two types of writings. What Didion writes in her notebook is "How it felt to me"—which often results in a departure from verisimilitude. Her notebook is not for public consumption—"a series of graceful pensées"—but is unashamedly, implacably about herself. I think that the scratchings in her notebook are really indexes into her memory of people and events, thus even if they're factually wrong, they bring up memories in lush detail, physical and emotional, in narrative and in dialogue.
Ultimately to Didion, notebooks are a good way to keep in touch with our younger selves and how/what was important to us then.
Friday, April 10, 2015
Duomo di Milano or Milan Cathedral was started in 1350 and built over the 14th and 15th centuries but completed only in 1965. This Gothic cathedral is dedicated to St. Mary of the Nativity and is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan.
Thursday, April 9, 2015
This is my new fountain pen acquisition: The Lamy Safari with a fine nib. I have now owned it for 24 hours and am ready to write about my first impressions.
These are my three current fountain pens: the one closest to us is a Mont Blanc (bought in the late 1990s; I have long since forgotten the model name), the middle one is a Hero from Japan (bought in 1985), and the farthest one is the Lamy.
The MB and Hero both have slim barrels and caps, whereas the Lamy has a chunkiness to it. Despite the bigger size, the Lamy is very light. Probably because it's made of plastic. The Hero has a metal cap and a denser plastic barrel. The MB has metal accents all over and the heaviest plastic body.
I like to write with my caps posted on the end of the pens—it gives me the length and balance that I like in my hand. The Hero is the shortest, whereas the MB and Lamy are the same length. The Lamy cap is the heaviest by far and makes writing posted harder, because I feel like my hand has less freedom to move so the writing comes out stilted, constrained.
The Hero and MB barrels are smooth, whereas the Lamy has distinctive grooves—there's only one right way to hold the pen. This took some getting used to. I'm used to shifting the pen around a bit as I write, but with the Lamy you can't; the nib writes only when you hold it in one exact position.
The MB has an 18-carat gold nib and is the smoothest fine point. The Lamy's fine steel nib is not as smooth as the MB but better than Hero's fine steel nib. Speaking of nib sizes, the Hero exposes just the tip, a quarter inch, whereas the Lamy nib is the broadest and longest.
I'm still learning to write with the Lamy but the writing certainly improved the more I wrote with it. Overall, I'm happy with my purchase and am looking forward to trying out some more ink samples from Goulet Pens. After all, what's a fountain pen purchase without new ink purchase?
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
2015 TBR Reading Challenge: The One Skill: How Mastering the Art of Letting Go Will Change Your Life by Leo Babauta
I know, I know, I know. I'm LATE! This is March's TBR Challenge book and it is now APRIL! In fact, April's book is due next week so I had to get the March one out of the way before then.
2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The One Skill: How Mastering the Art of Letting Go Will Change Your Life by Leo Babauta
My Categories: nonfiction, male author, life skills
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Series Catch-Up (oops!)
The main thrust of Babauta's book is that "the root of many of our problems is our inability to let go." We tend to overthink situations and that combined with our resistance to letting go causes anxiety, frustration, depression, and anger over things that happen, might happen, and have happened to us. Letting go of the fear of failure, of wanting to control people and situations, of needing to go to distractions all day, and other such habits will lead to being better in control of self and life's problems. After detailing why we hold on to such habits, he details how you can practice the art of letting go.
I'm going to briefly sketch in his book here. You can download the entire book for free here.
There are two sections to this book: a) the factors that we don't let go and the resultant problems they cause and b) a step-by-step approach to letting go and the aftermath of letting go.
We procrastinate out of fear of failure or fear of a task being overwhelming or difficult. We build an ideal in our heads about how life will be successful and easy. So when there's a hint that things are not going to be that way, we avoid them.
Fear is the current underlying a lot of our unhappiness. For example, anxiety that something you want isn't going to happen, fear that you're not good enough, fear that others will judge you, fear of letting go of control of the other person in a relationship, fear of discomfort, or fear that you won't be able to accomplish all that you want to and how you want to. Problems are rooted in fear and fear is rooted in ideals.
Holding on to ideals of how everyone should act, which isn't reality, and wanting to control people so they will act in the "right" way is what causes anger, frustration, stress, and disappointment.
Distractions are comfortable things that we're good at and won't fail at. The process of letting go of a distraction is to first see what appeal it has for you. Then notice the disadvantages it has for you, how it is hurting you, and the impermanence of it. Let go of the distraction for a day and see what positive things you can do to fill that void. Be grateful for the positivity you've invited into your life.
We want things to stay the same, and yet they never do. This is why we suffer. Unfortunately, the constant and impermanent nature of change is reality. So see the impermanence as the freedom to reinvent yourself. The past matters, but we're not completely bound to it. You can start a new self.
Developing the Letting Go Skill
Noticing Signals: When you're holding on to something harmful, symptoms like anger, frustration procrastination, etc. show up. Learn to recognize the signals when they happen.
Seeing the Ideal: You have expectations of others, ideals for yourself, and ideals of how the world should be. This isn't reality. They're fantasies of what your reality should be. And that is what is causing the signals. So once you notice the signals, turn inward and try to locate the ideal you're holding on to.
(Of course, there are positive ideals that result in positive signals and bring positivity in your life. Hold on to them by all means and act on them. It's the negative ones that are being addressed here.)
Seeing the Harm: Acting on the negative signals or holding on to them can cause us unhappiness, prolong our stress, and harm our relationships with ourselves and with others.
Letting Go With Love: Letting go of the ideal or the expectation is a compassionate towards yourself. It's painful to let go of an ideal, because it is part of our makeup, but the benefit you'll receive after you've let go will be worth it.
Seeing Reality: Turn now to reality, see it as it is, accept this, and react calmly and appropriately to it.
What Letting Go Isn't
Babauta is at pains to explain how letting go isn't giving up, being a victim, not improving, letting someone else get away with something, letting the other person be right when they're wrong, giving up standards of common decency, etc. This is the charge that is always laid on life skills coaches when they talk of detachment. Acquiring a clear-eyed, emotionally-unclouded view of reality doesn't mean that you feel things less intensely, it just means you know how to manage your emotions and act appropriately.
Get an accountability partner. Practice each of the mini-steps of Letting Go for 2-3 minutes every day. Journal about it. Report to your partner. Set up reminders for yourself so you don't forget to practice. At the end of the day, simply reading the book is not going to gain you a new skill. It's by practicing that you'll learn it.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
I had to shuffle around my reading plans a bit this month, because the books I had planned to read have long hold queues at the library. With Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, I'll be lucky if I get to read it this year. In the end, after much agonizing over what to read, I ended up with a LitFic, a middle-grade, a memoir, a self-help, and a mystery.
The Bookman's Tale: A Novel of Obsession by Charlie Lovett
Categories: literary fiction, male author
Commentary: The book at the heart of the story is Pandosto, a tale of romance, by 16th century writer Robert Greene. In Lovett's story, the antiquarian bookseller protagonist, Peter Byerly, unearths a copy that has marginalia written in Shakespeare's hand on an original copy of Pandosto, proving that it was the inspiration for Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale. That is, IF, it's proven that this copy of Pandosto is not a forgery.
The story is told from the viewpoint of different characters throughout the history of the Pandosto. We follow Peter as he verifies the provenance of the book by tracing its various owners and having the paper, ink, and type expertly tested. The various threads of the story fit in jigsaw-like as we zigzag through history. Peter's personal life story is a sweet romantic subplot that is done well. The mystery elements are handled well, too, in a cozy mystery fashion. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book: Good research, good storytelling, and good bookish details of conservation and forgeries.
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Categories: children's, middle grade
Diversity: Protagonist born with severe facial anomalies
Commentary: Recommended by my daughter.
What a tender story this is. A few chapters in and my heart felt like a ball of wax to be molded by this lovely boy of ten. He was born with severe challenges and homeschooled till fifth grade, at which point he went to a private school. This book is about his experience there—the challenges he faces, the friendships he makes, and the personality growth that occurs.
One of the highlights of the story is the commencement speech that the headmaster of the middle school gives his fifth and sixth graders: "Be kinder than is necessary. Because it's not enough to be kind, one should be kinder than needed. We carry with as, as human beings, not just the capacity to be kind but the very choice of kindness. Such a simple thing, kindness. A word of encouragement. An act of friendship. A passing smile."
And this is at the heart the gist of the book. The kindnesses extended to this boy and the kindnesses he gifts to others.
As I was discussing this book with my daughter, I told her that in the beginning, I had felt the story was being narrated by a girl, even though I found out a few pages in that his name was August. She called me on this. She said that just because the character talked about his feelings and it was in such a tender, vulnerable tone, it immediately "sounded" like a girl to me. I was aghast at my gendered thinking. I think I am open-minded, and here I was unconsciously labeling based on an old stereotype—such thinking is so subtle and so insidious; it creeps up on you despite being vigilant.
Who Buries the Dead by C.S. Harris
Categories: mystery, Regency
Commentary: Every spring, I read a C.S. Harris mystery novel. I never fail to pick the newest one up, because it's a guaranteed great read for me. No one I have read thus far does ominous scene-setting like Harris does. You fall into the mystery from the first page, immersed into the crime and into Regency England. She writes good stories with a muted but stylized approach to plotting and characterization. While her plotting is good, it's her characterizations that are the chief draw for me. Her protagonist, Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is marvelously complicated.
She writes her stories so if a reader were to drop into her series any where in the middle, they'd be able to orient themselves with the setting and main characters and proceed to enjoy the story. At the same time, the character backstory is as subtle as possible so as to not detract from the story for readers reading her series right from the beginning.
I often puzzle about how to do this well. Given that Harris's central character is incredibly complex, sprinkling in a few details must make it difficult for a newcomer reading the series out of order to get a bead on his character. And yet, repeating basic details over and over again in every book for every new reader can get on loyal readers' nerves. What is the correct balance? Should the character not be made complex? But then how can that character sustain a long series if the character himself is not growing and changing and if the reader is not learning more and more about him with every book? How best to intertwine the details into the fabric of the story so that it is least noticeable by the long-term reader, and yet, for the new reader, it's an Aha! moment. To me, this is where the skill of a mystery writer is most evident.
The Little Book of Contentment: a guide to becoming happy with life and who you are while getting things done by Leo Babauta
Categories: nonfiction, life skills
Diversity: Written by a male author
Commentary: I have read other books by Babauta. He writes sparingly and well and persuasively. His self-confidence in the material and his manner of explaining go a long way in convincing me that his words might have merit. This book was no different from the others I have read. It is not a book for idle reading, but rather a book whose conclusions you can put into practice and he tells you exactly how to go about it.
In Contentment, he tackles the root of many problems in our lives: discontentment. We're discontented because of an ideal or a fantasy we're holding on to, unhappiness with who we are, lack of trust and confidence in ourselves, and seeking happiness externally. On the flip side of the coin, what is contentment? It is being happy right now with ourselves and our lives while stopping comparison with others/ideals/fantasies, stopping judgment of ourselves, and trusting ourselves. In the succeeding chapters, he talks in detail about all the factors of discontentment and contentment, finally leading to the techniques for self-acceptance and summary of action steps you can take.
Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! on PBS by Rebecca Eaton
Categories: nonfiction, memoir
Commentary: Recommended by author Mary Jo Putney.
Here's Eaton's job description, in her own words, of an executive producer of the two PBS series, Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!: "You work hard to stick to your vision while still being open to the possibility that someone else's good idea, or just the serendipity of events, could change things dramatically for the better. You have to stay firm and flexible. And you must always push to reveal something new: an insight, a juxtaposition of images and ideas, a unique expression of an emotion, a piece of information."
I enjoyed her conversational, at times gossipy, style of writing as well as the honest look at her actions and those of others. She doesn't shield herself, nor does she aggrandize herself. Given how successfully she ran one of PBS's longest running series (and the sister series), her deprecating look makes her success all the more apparent. I was starstruck by the people she's worked with and her sangfroid in the face of their fame. Having said this, she was at times a little too eager in talking about her mistakes and talking up her boss's contributions, which saved her face, that she did come across as incompetent. I was in two minds about this. She definitely should've taken workshops on developing people's skills.
Over the years, Masterpiece has bought numerous shows and series from the BBC and ITV to American audiences and co-produced many more (where they put up funding, have some editorial say, and but overall, they're hands-off the projects). Every time Eaton goes on a fishing expedition to London, she's much wined and dined and pitched to by various producers with their current favorite projects. Her involvement has led to all these British shows being noticed at American Award shows, such as the Golden Globes and SAG, and to many of these actors going on to lucrative Hollywood careers.
Eaton's chapters on Downton Abbey are fascinating and best illustrate what it was she and all the various people do to bring a project of that magnitude to fruition. The sheer number of people involved—executive producers, producers, writers, directors, costumers, the crew, the star attraction (Maggie Smith), and the rest of the cast—boggles the mind. Then there's the expense of costuming and sets, not to mention details of housing and feeding since everyone had to be transported to the Highclere Castle estate of the Carnarvons for the "upstairs" part of the shooting and to London for the "downstairs" part of the shooting.
One interesting comment by Juliann Fellowes is worth noting for a reader of romance: "With drama, all the time, you're trying to think of tension. I always say that one of the hardest things to dramatize is happiness. That's why, in the old days, Hollywood films ended with the marriage and the kiss—because the drama was over."
A historical tidbit from Fellowes: "What was interesting to me was the rather longer relationship you had with servants in the country. In London, there was tremendous turnover. The average time for a footman to stay was eighteen months. If you read letters at the time, they were absolutely filled with the search for servants."
I would've liked to have seen a chronological trajectory of Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery!. Her narrative jumped around a fair bit leading to discombobulating conclusions at times, which had to be continually reassessed. I would've also liked to have seen her express more of an appreciation of how much her husband gave up to be Mr. Mom, including sacrificing his art (he's a sculptor). He did everything, while she worked and traveled for work and had a career.
Overall, this was a very interesting look behind the scenes of how Masterpiece has been put together over the years. I'm a fan of the series, and I have enjoyed its programming and contributed to their funding.
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Excellent advice by the famous Bernard Cornwell to the first-time historical novelist:
"The most important thing, the all important thing, is to get the story right. Write, rewrite, rewrite again, and do not worry about anything except story. It is story, story, story. That is your business. Your job is not to educate readers on the finer points of Elizabethan diplomacy or Napoleonic warfare, your job is to divert and amuse people who have had a hard day at work. What will get you published? Not style, not research, but story."
This is a good reminder for me as an aspiring novelist. I may have this fabulously researched piece of history, but if I do an info-dump without weaving it into the story, it's no good. Better to have a strong story that's light on history, rather than to have a mediocre story bogged down by heavy research. It's not simply good enough to get the historical details right—make no mistake, they have to be right—but it's important to know which details are pertinent to the story and how to minimally employ them. History in service of a good story, that is a historical novel; not the other way around.
Friday, March 27, 2015
The world's oldest cookbook is on a clay tablet from Babylonia c. 1750 BCE. The Akkadian cuneiform writing system was so complex that it's the general consensus that only scribes could read it. So, this tablet wouldn't be a household commodity and was probably written to preserve typical Mesopotamian cooking examples for posterity.
Given that the recipes call for rare ingredients, this book probably represents cuisine for royalty. The Mesopotamians were great record keepers. So daily foodstuff purchases by the middle and lower classes are available as are vocabulary lists for foodstuffs. So the supposition of this clay tablet as representative of haut cuisine is borne out.
From the Yale Library site: "This tablet includes 25 recipes for stews, 21 are meat stews and 4 are vegetable stews. The recipes list the ingredients and the order in which they should be added, but does not give measures or cooking time - they were clearly meant only for experienced chefs."
Friday, March 20, 2015
The romance book publishers on February 27 decided to build book forts and tweeted them. First out of the gate was Avon, HarperCollins. They inspired the rest of the publishers, and a battle ensued.
Avon's was more of a palisade than a fort, in my opinion.
To combat that, St. Martin's Press built a throne.
Harlequin decided to up the ante on Avon's palisade with a solid wall.
Then came Kensington to conquer them all with a fortress.
Friday, March 13, 2015
Ibn Battuta (1304–1377) was a great medieval Muslim explorer from Tangier, Morocco. He is largely considered as one of the greatest travelers of all time. Over a period of thirty years, he visited North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and China.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Right Honorable Phyllis Dorothy, Baroness James of Holland Park, died in her home in Oxford, England on Thursday, November 27 at the age of 94. Ever since that day, I've been meaning to write about my love of James and her books, but for some reason kept putting it off. My March has opened up with open blog spots, so here goes.
James was the person who introduced me to the world of British classic crime stories. I can't remember now which one I picked up first, but I do remember falling in love with her elegant prose, her erudite references, her characterization, attention to detail, and her intricate plotting. Every book I read of hers has never failed to renew my enjoyment in her writing. I enjoyed the energy of her Dalgliesh series more than her Cordelia ones, so I was glad to see the latter a short-lived series. Adam Dalgliesh, the poet scholar and Scotland Yard sleuth, will forever be remembered as an expert policeman and crime solver. His love life, will he / won't he, was the tension that ran through the series.
I was at loose ends after that, till I discovered Josephine Tey, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Dorothy Sayers. And also Elizabeth George and Deborah Crombie, modern authors writing in the similar police procedural style. I gave romantic suspense a try, cozy mysteries, thriller mysteries, and hardboiled American detective stories all a try, but I keep on
Since that first public library James discovery, for months, I read nothing else but James. Then I followed it up with her memoirs and then her musing on detective fiction. Recently, I was among the few who enjoyed her Death Comes to Pemberley. While I loved her mysteries, it were her memoirs, Time to be in Earnest that really made me like her as a person. It's a day-by-day (sort of) accounting of her activities, which act as jumping off points for a discussion on diverse issues.
In her book on detective fiction, James dismisses the boundaries between literary fiction and genre fiction. "And it is surely the power to create this sense of place and to make it as real to the reader as is his own living room—and then to people it with characters who are suffering men and women, not stereotypes to be knocked down like dummies in the final chapter—that gives any mystery writer the claim to be regarded as a serious novelist."
In James's work, a murder story is not merely a well-plotted tale. Murder is the start of the exploration of the minds and the hearts of her characters and the emotions it arouses in them. It explorers what makes her characters human—their foibles, their peccadilloes, their joys, their fears, their sorrows—and when life is shattered, these rise to the surface as never before.
In an interview she said of her detective Dalgliesh: "From the first I was aiming at credibility," she told the Guardian newspaper. "I thought, amateurs don’t really have the resources to investigate a murder. I must have a professional. And I couldn’t have a woman because there were no women in the detective force then. I simply produced the kind of hero I’d like to read about: courageous but not foolhardy, compassionate but not sentimental. I thought if I got fed up or bored with this man, the readers would too."
In her real life, she had to deal with a mentally ill husband, while holding down high-profile civil service jobs, raising her two daughters, and doing all the work that involves running every aspect of a household. In addition to this, in her early forties, she started writing. How in the world, did she find the energy and the courage to write Cover Her Face, her first book? Amazing woman, amazing writer, and I mourn her passing.
Friday, March 6, 2015
Heddal Stave Church of Notodden, Telemark is the largest stave church in Norway. It is also a living church and has been in continuous use since it was first built in 1200.
A stave church is a medieval wooden building once common in northwestern Europe. The name derives from the post and lintel construction structure of the buildings, a type of timber framing with the load-bearing posts called stav in modern Norwegian. The stave design are descended from the post design and palisade design of churches. At one point, closer to 2000 such stave churches were built in Norway alone. The numbers elsewhere in Scandinavia are unknown.
Tuesday, March 3, 2015
I carefully planned February's reading so I could place holds at my library for the books and have the books show up on time. Luckily, I was successful. March, on the other hand, is looking iffy. My place in the various queues is dismally distant from the top.
This month, I had stellar nonfiction and poetry reads but so-so fiction ones. (Don't ask how many times I listened to the poetry audio.)
North & South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Categories: literary fiction, victorian, big fat book
Diversity: written in the mid-nineteenth century
Commentary: Recommended by Miss Bates and Sunita. I finally finished reading this book from last month. It was so much better than the miniseries, Richard HAWT Armitage notwithstanding. The romance was muted and that allowed the class and culture differences to stand out more starkly and vividly. I especially enjoyed reading the religious discussions (that Rohan Maitzen mentioned in the comments here), the business discussions including the ones about the rights of workers to unionize and strike as opposed to masters' rights, and seeing Margaret's relationships with her parents and her aunt's family and her role in the presence of these people. Gaskell's language is beautiful and accessible. In spite of its length, it's a fast-paced novel, and Gaskell's writing was a joy to read.
Despite this tale being largely Margaret's, I found her to be dimmed/diminished as a character. She suffers, she endures, she does not rebuke, rage, sob uncontrollably, etc. From the story, I gather that this bland calmness was (Gaskell's or a Victorian notion (yes?) of) a desired quality in a young woman. Such a woman was admirable.
Personally, while I found it admirable most of the times, I found it exasperating at times, too. I found that Margaret's romance lay gasping for breath for so long because of her inability to correct Le Big Mis (a standard romantic plot device). What were puzzling were the two times Margaret showed some spirit that were contrary to the desired biddable acquiescence that characterized her personality otherwise. Both times were when she so abruptly, curtly, without much thought or consideration, and with considerable sense of self-consequence and pride repudiated Lennox's and Thornton's marriage offers. She was spirited at the two times that served her the least. She who prided herself on being thoughtful of everyone was thoughtless of those whom she hurt so much. She did regret hurting Thornton, but I feel that was more because she realized that she returned his feelings; on Lennox she dwelt not at all.
An aside: Gaskell's prejudice against the Irish, which was unfortunately par for the course for the times, still gave me pause.
To Wed a Stranger by Edith Layton
Categories: romance, regency
Commentary: Read with SonomaLass, Willaful, Meoskop, SusieFelber, DougalGodfrey, JanetNorCal. Layton's writing was superb as always and beautiful at times. Annabelle's and Miles's slow build-up of romance was very well done. However, all throughout the book, I felt that there was too much navel-gazing going on. The story might've worked better in the shorter, traditional category length thereby cutting down on the repetitive nature of the introspection. Layton does category masterfully well. I enjoyed Miles's character for the most part. It was Annabelle who made me sigh. She was by turns spoilt and annoying, and kind and understanding. The story plot hinged on her looks and the emotions it engendered in every character around her, including Miles. It was interesting for me to see how everyone pivoted around this plot point.
Classic Love Poems read by Richard Armitage
Commentary: Recommended by SmartBitches. Richard Armitage reading love poetry. Need I say more? Collective swoon, everyone! Memorable collection of poems, 80% of which I had studied in school, and so I listened with twice the pleasure: nostalgia combined with Armitage's voice and diction. Shakespeare, George Eliot, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Andrew Marvell, John Keats, Robert Browning, Christopher Marlowe, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, e.e. cummings, Lord Byron, and Ralph Waldo Emerson among others.
The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
Categories: literary fiction
Diversity: very minor gay & poc characters
Commentary: Recommended by Pamela Badass Romance (here) and WA State Senator Pramila Jaypal. The background to this mystery story is the real-life Gardner Museum heist. I greatly enjoyed learning all the painting details. I know very little about working in oils and certainly nothing about copying and forging works of art. So learning all of that was a big draw for me with this book. I greatly enjoyed the side story of the founder of the Gardner museum and her "relationship" with Edgar Degas. All these painterly sections were the best parts of the book. The last quarter was exciting. Stuff was happening faster and on multiple levels. It was fun to read despite the mystery elements being obvious due to clumsy, heavy-handed foreshadowing.
Where the book fell flat for me was with the two protagonists. They were meh—marginally annoying at times, boring at others, but oh, they were industrious, which is always a pleasure to read. The problems began when they were on the page together. There was no chemistry between them, even though we're told that they're hot for each other and they have a lot of marvelous sex. There was no charm, no romance, no respect for each other, except towards the end when he professes concern for her. All we know is that she has distrusted him through most of the book, even when she was sleeping with him. Begs the question, why in the world did she begin sleeping with him? Beats me. His declaration of love also comes out of nowhere. Wut?! Guess my background in the rom world means I expect a very minor but well-defined romantic arc. If the story has a romance, it better be plotted well.
There were a couple disquieting moments in the book. I realized that there was only one very minor POC character, and I discovered that because her skin color was mentioned. Otherwise, the assumption was Caucasian even in a city like Boston. The other disquieting moment was when the protagonist was honored with gallery shows in London and Tokyo, but: "One at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the other at a Tokyo gallery whose name I can't pronounce." She's being honored there. Get it right! This prejudice here on display is clearly the author's.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Categories: nonfiction collection of essays
Commentary: Last year, I read The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, and I came away awed by her writing and my emotional journey as a result of reading it. So I was eager this year to delve into more of her writings. I picked up Slouching, because it is universally acclaimed as a modern classic by one of the finest journalists. It is said to perfectly capture the mood of 1960s America with an incisive look at contemporary American life—within and without—then.
The section of the book that most interested me was what she titled Personals, and covered essays: "On Keeping a Notebook," "On Self-Respect," "On Morality," "On Going Home," and "I Can't Get That Monster Out of My Mind." I loved reading about her keeping a daily notebook. After all, it's a topic near and dear to my heart. Much more on this section is my April TBR Reading commentary.
At the end of her introduction, Didion has a cautionary note for anyone who hangs around writers. "Writers are always selling somebody out." In other words, don't forget that their presence runs counter to your best interests. How's that for neurosis? (I'm only an aspiring one, so I'm harmless, I hasten to assure you.)
Didion's distinctive voice shines through every sentence as does her spare style. As I read, I saw her in my mind's eye and I heard her voice in my head (from that one talk I attended a while back).
I had a tough time with this book despite how much I loved it. Paradoxical, right? It reminded me of Sunita's comment on Liz McCausland's blog: "...when I read disproportionately in a genre [...] the opening pages are familiar enough in style and approach that it's like a warm blanket. When a book is outside my default reading zone [...] it takes longer. And some books just take longer to engage you anyway."
Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne
Categories: nonfiction, georgian, history
Diversity: African slaves and African-British characters
Commentary: I loved the movie Belle when I saw it recently, so I was eager to read this companion guide to the history behind the movie. What could've been a dry recitation of facts was brought to life by Byrne getting out of the way and allowing the reader to see the characters and their actions and the events that happened to them so vividly. A superb piece of narrative nonfiction writing. (Writers: This is an excellent book on Georgian research to have.)
A portrait painted in the late 18th century at Kenwood House showed two beautiful, happy, young girls, one Caucasian and one African, on par. It was unheard of during those times that the African girl was not shown subordinate to the Caucasian one. The Caucasian girl was Lady Elizabeth and the African girl was Dido Elizabeth Belle, both British, half-cousins by blood, and adopted children of the Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice. Very scant details are known about Dido's birth—she was the issue of the union between Lord Mansfield's nephew and a slave woman under his command. As the book distinctly shows, wherever history fell short, the film industry took over and in nuanced details painted in Dido's story. Some history was bent to serve the story, especially Mansfield's rulings in conjunction with the abolition of slavery on English soil and the start of worldwide abolition by the British. The book is a fascinating account of real-life events depicted with formidable research skills.