Tuesday, June 30, 2015

My June Reading

With family visiting us this month, sustained nanny troubles, and a major upset, I've had less reading time than usual. As a result, I read no meaty books. I also read more romance this month as compared with other months this year. Next month, I have many nonfiction books queued up, depending on which holds come due at the library. I hope to also start with my summer Big Fat Book in August: The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope
Categories: literary fiction, victorian
Diversity: By a male author
Commentary: On the 200th anniversary of Trollope's birth, I decided to read one of his novels. The Warden was recommended by Liz McCausland and Sunita. I'm still reading it. It was tough going at first. I'm not used to so much exposition unleavened by dynamic back-n-forth dialogue. Once I got used to the narrative style, the pace picked up. Liz said: "Trollope’s attention to the plight of the middle-class man is fascinating." And I agree in my reading so far. This is the character he’s always most in sympathy with and for whom he’ll willing to do a lot. I'll write in more detail on this next month.

A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer
Categories: romance, regency
Commentary: A discussion on Heyer with Heyer's biographer Jen Kloester made me hanker after reading one of Heyer's books. Every time I read one, I'm always reminded how very creative she was with her characters, her storylines, and the pacing and plotting of each book. This book was usual in the sense that a nobleman marries a wealthy Cit girl to save his estate from ruin. It's a marriage of convenience plot (one of my favorite tropes) with the heroine in love with the hero and he being completely oblivious to her and hankering after the noblewoman he would've married if he had not been impoverished. This book was unusual in that, once married, the hero doesn't cleave to the heroine in an insta-lust/insta-love pair of emotions. Sometimes he's even 'mean' to her, and he's not always likeable. However, what the hero and heroine eventually settle for is not intense passion but a gentle, loving marriage that sustains all difficulties with each being supportive and knowledgeable of the other. This is the sort of marriage that you can easily believe will endure forever. The high-passion/high-drama/high-grovel kind of marriages fill me with some misgiving on their future tranquility and longevity.

Truckers by Terry Pratchett
Categories: children's
Diversity: A fantasy novel by a male author. I'm trying to read more children's fantasy this year.
Commentary: On the day Pratchett died, I realized I hadn't read a single of his books. What a hole in my reading history! Set about to correct that error with this recommendation by Liz McCausland. What a delightful story about a race of "nomes" who are little people who came from outer space and now live under the floorboards of a department store. It was funny, silly, and heartwarming. The nomes have built an entire world within the department store, including a religion. We always talk about detailed world-building within fantasy novels, and this is (according to my limited knowledge of the genre) one of the finest.

Poetry of Walt Whitman edited by Jonathan Levin
Categories: poetry
Diversity: Written by a male author
Commentary: On May 31, I discovered a link to James Earl Jones reading "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman, and I realized that I had a book of Whitman's poetry languishing on my TBR. So I pulled it out, and hey, presto, I had my September TBR Challenge book. (I'm a shameless off-theme reader.)

Beloved Stranger by Joan Wolf
Categories: contemporary, romance
Commentary: Recommended by blogger Miss Bates. It's an old skool Joan Wolf, and I was bound to like it, despite it being a trope I don't like: snowstorm, strangers getting stranded, having unprotected sex, resulting in a baby. I know the story's set in 1980s, but the dominating male where the female runs after him picking up, getting ordered around, etc. is not a storyline that works for me. Despite the deck stacked against it, I enjoyed the story, because Wolf's characterization is very good. Joan Wolf does people really well—every book of hers that I have read has characters that I remember long after the book's done. MHarvey said it best: "The best books are the ones that make me love a trope I hate."

This book had an interesting storyline for me—it was very much the hero's book and about his journey arc, but told mainly from the heroine's perspective.

Sweet Talking Man by Liz Talley
Categories: contemporary, romance
Commentary: Recommended by Miss Bates. The premise of the story about second chances set in a small Southern town is something that I have always been fond of. I liked the characters, main ones as well as the large cast of adjunct ones—some were standard small-town fare (love!) and some like the hero were "interesting" (yay!). Talley did a great job of making the "opposites attract and complement each other" work really well in this story. I was also pleased to see both characters grow over the novel.

However, I had problems seeing the unfurling of the romance. I was told a lot that the other had completely changed the game for them, but I didn't see it happening. The part about romance novels I like is watching them appreciate each other, watching them notice and imprint upon the smallest details, watching them fall in love. I don't want to be told they're in love, I want to see it happening. And here I didn't get to experience that. So despite the good characterization and familiar setting, I wasn't able to sink into the story.

But please don't take my naysaying word for it. Do read Miss Bates's fabulous review for the definitive word on the book and how much she enjoyed it.

There were other things that bothered me about this story, and they are all tied into the historical versus contemporary sub-genres. There are storylines and plot details that I forgive in historicals that I would never tolerate in a contemporary. Being so close to my present-day life, I have opinions on what is happening to contemporary characters. Plausibility and possibility play a big part in my buying into the story. For a historical, the distance of two-hundred years and lack of intimate knowledge of the reality make it easier for me to swallow improbable and implausible storylines. It's not that I'm not seeking accuracy in historicals (because I most definitely am), but that the suspension of disbelief is easier. In a contemporary, I'm judging every tiny detail against my values. Knowing too much about something always spoils the magic of the romance.

[However, Jodi Thomas's modern-day small-town westerns always work for me, because the setting of those stories is like a foreign country to me.]

The Adventurers by Michelle Martin
Categories: Regency, romance
Commentary: Michelle Martin is one of my absolute favorite traditional Regency writers. Her wit and her Heyeresque characters and plot make her very few books one of the highlights of whichever month I choose to re-read them in. This book has derring-do, a cross-dressing heroine, an imposing peer of the realm bested by our intrepid heroine, a worthy quest, noble sacrifice, and laughter. And implausibility of plot. But who cares? I was enjoying reading the book too much to be bothered about practicality and reality.

Secret of the Templars by Paul Christopher
Categories: mystery/thriller
Diversity: Male author
Commentary: I read the word "Templar" in the title and borrowed the book from the library without reading the back cover copy. I figured it'd be a fast-paced thriller with religion, history, spying, McGyvering, and haring off to parts exotic at the drop of a hat. It was that. Except that the history and religious parts were thin on the ground; the Templars—the reason I picked up the book—non-existent. What was highly prevalent was the phenomenon of minor characters dying horrific deaths every ten paces. Our hero led a charmed life, just one pace ahead of the dozens of bad guys from all over the world, while around him everyone dropped dead like flies. It was a disappointing read and despite being fast-paced, boring. The mystery element, which should've been the driving energy behind the story, was completely dissipated by no character being safe from death. There was not a single character to sustain the intrigue, to provide a foil for the hero and his sidekick.

An aside: I had an interesting discussion with blogger Amy, Buried by Books and author Isobel Carr about the format and price of the book. It's in the larger mass market paperback size, called an upback or venti/grande. This one is taller and narrower than normal MMPBs. There are wider versions, too. Both are priced at $9.99 versus $7.99 and have larger fonts. It looks like the publishers are experimenting with seeing if people will pay more money for certain authors—the larger format signaling the price increase for otherwise similar fare to an MMPB. "Guy books," i.e., thrillers written by male authors seem to be more prone to this experimentation.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as the Apostle Paul

The Rijksmuseum in The Netherlands has digitized a staggering 210,000 of its works of fine art, including the masters, and they're all available online for free. They've organized it all by artist, subject, style, and even by events in Dutch history. More here about the incredible public service work the Amsterdam museum is up to.

This is a self-portrait as the Apostle Paul by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn, painted in 1661.

The Rijksmuseum's Notes:
"His brow furrowed and eyebrows arched, Rembrandt peers out at us meaningfully. He has portrayed himself as the Apostle Paul, recognizable by the saint’s attributes, a sword and a manuscript. Paul preached Christianity and wrote about salvation through Christ. Is this what Rembrandt is trying to remind us of in this painting? Rembrandt rendered the light on the turban, forehead and book with heavily modelled brushstrokes (impasto)."

[Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum. Click above to see a larger version.]

Friday, June 19, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Durham Cathedral

The nave of Durham Cathedral in England was built during Norman times from 1093–1135. It is a brilliant example of Romanesque architecture.

[Image courtesy of @EuropeHistory.]

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

2015 TBR Reading Challenge: The Writer's Life by Julia Cameron

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Writer's Life: Insights from the Right to Write by Julia Cameron
My Categories: nonfiction, writing
Wendy Crutcher's Category: More Than One (I have more than one book by Cameron in my TBR pile)

In January, Sunita wrote about wanting to try writing Morning Pages. I was struck by the perfectness of this idea. And lo and behold, I had The Writer's Life in my vast TBR. So I promptly retrieved it and read it within a few days and started on my Morning Pages. I have now been writing since the beginning of the year, and some days are easy and some days just aren't, but I have persisted. I have yet to see the pay off from this writing practice, but I shall be patient.

In order to write this commentary, I re-read the book last month. On with the book...

How does one eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

That's the theme running through this book. People always take writing too seriously or try to appear smart or to approach writing as wanting to have written the perfect novel. But Cameron says that "writing happens a sentence at a time." And that "it's not so daunting to think of finding time to write a sentence or a paragraph." Enough sentences and paragraphs and you have a novel. People approach writing with an end product in mind and so find the task overwhelming. However, coming at writing by getting started and moving forward baby step by baby step is the way to achieve the goal.

Many consider that the biggest obstacle to writing is time. Cameron says, "The myth that we must have time in order to create is a myth that keeps us from using the time we do have. One of the biggest myths about writing is that in order to do it we must have great swathes of uninterrupted time." The trick to finding time is to tackle a writing task one bite at a time by integrating these small pockets of time into your daily routine.

If it is so hard, why take up writing in the first place? "It's human nature to write," much like singing or dancing. "The writing life is a simple life, self-empowered and self-empowering. It brings clarity and passion to the act of living." Cameron even compares writing to breathing. I took that to mean that like pranayama teaches us to breathe better, we can learn to write better, but just like breathing, the point is to do it no matter what.

Cameron says, "Doing it all the time, whether or not we are in the mood, gives us ownership of our writing ability." When your pocket of writing time shows up on your schedule, you write. All moods are good writing moods. Power through the mood and write. "It is choosing to write even when writing feels 'wrong' to us—because we're tired, we're bothered, we're any number of things that writing will change if only we will let it." Writing can take you out of your less felicitous mood. Let it do so.

Writing about a change will allow you to lean into it, to help it along, to cope. Writing also allows you to rewrite your life if you so desire. Write out your anger, your pain, your revenges. "You [can] turn the dross of your disappointments into the gold of accomplishment." Thus, writing becomes an act of self-cherishing.

Writing is also celebratory. You can brag as much as you want over your accomplishments. In fact, remembering to enjoy your triumphs and channeling those emotions into writing helps to change you and that affects how you write. Every mood can be mined for writing.

For all these reasons and more, I write my daily Morning Pages and Gratitude Journal.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Theatine Church, Munich

A rare white Baroque church, the Theatine Church St. Cajetan, was built in Munich in 1663–1690. The façade in Rococo style was completed in 1768. It's outer Mediterranean appearance and yellow coloring has become a well-known symbol for the city.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Medieval Manuscripts Paleography Summer School

The University of London's Institute of English Studies is offering a summer school in medieval manuscripts studies and paleography in June this year. Subject areas include Latin, English, Anglo-Saxon, German, and Greek paleography; history of scripts; illuminated manuscripts; codicology; vernacular editing; and liturgical and devotional manuscripts.

The summer school is hosted by the Centre for Manuscript and Print Studies with the co-operation of the British Library, the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House Library, the Warburg Institute, University College, King's College London, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

After half a year of online medieval manuscript studies offered by Stanford and Cambridge universities, titled Digging Deeper 1 and Digging Deeper 2, this summer school sounds like a heaven-sent opportunity to further my education in paleography (study of medieval scripts) and others areas of manuscript studies. Unfortunately, this is not something I can take up.

But if I were to go, these are the courses I would've signed up for:
—Introduction to the Insular System of Scripts to 900 A.D.
—Approaches to the Art of Insular Manuscripts
—Liturgical and Devotional Manuscripts I
—Liturgical & Devotional Manuscripts II
—Introduction to Latin Paleography
—Intermediate Latin Palaeography
—Intermediate Old English Paleography

The London Rare Books School also offers the following week-long courses with paleographical content: The Medieval Book, The Book in the Ancient World, and Latin Paleography. In July, it'll be offering an Introduction to Latin Paleography course.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Strahov Theological Hall Library in Prague

The Strahov Monastery in Prague was founded in 1143. The Theological Hall Library was built in 1679 under the reign of the abbot of the monastery Jeroným Hirnheim. He was a philosopher and theologian and encourage the collection of precious manuscripts from Christiandom. The successors continued the practice, thus building a remarkable library.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

My May Reading

This was a rather slow reading month for me. I'm mystified as to why though. Perhaps tiredness from the super-achievement of last month, which required three posts to unpack. It's not that life was especially crazy either. But the days just slipped by and it was the end of the month and this post was due. I sound so lackluster, but the books I read weren't. I read good, engrossing books. There was a parenting book, too, this month in addition to all the ones listed below, but I shall let that one be undescribed.

The Last Hellion by Loretta Chase
Categories: romance, regency
Commentary: Read with Jessica Tripler. It's one of my favorite Chases and I never tire of her quirky humor and strong heroines. The hapless hero has the requisite rock-hard abs and a stiff uppercut...but the heroine can deck him. The H & H are poles apart in personality and station and circumstance, but Chase makes a convincing case of why each needs the other in their life to make it better than before. The goofiness the characters exhibit towards each other is historical romance humor, as in humor you'll find only in historical romances that has nothing to do with history or romance. But the goofiness works as part of the character arcs and combined with occasional genuine Chase humor, wraps it up into an attractive whole.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Categories: spirituality, children's, fantasy
Diversity: A fantasy novel, a relatively new genre for me
Commentary: Recommended highly by Liz_Mc2, sonomalass, willaful, OliviaWaite. Is there any adult of a certain age who hasn't read this book? Apparently, there's one! So I set about changing that. And...I'm ambivalent. If I had read it as a teen, I would've been wowed. I had a little fantasy in my reading then, but not that much. This kind of a story would've blown my socks off. However, I came to fantasy as an adult in the last 2-3 years, thanks to my daughter. Having read some of her current books, this story was underwhelming in its fantasy elements, in its plotting elements, and in its character-development elements. Perhaps the most off-putting were the religious speeches. They weren't that many but they were certainly superfluous to the story and I felt put upon. I have read inspirational romance; I have read Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm; in each of those cases, religion was an integral part of the story of the characters. Here? Not so much. I feel like I should apologize to those who recommended the book to me—it's just not for me.

Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
Categories: mystery
Commentary: Recommended by Rohan Maitzen. In fact, it were Rohan's posts on the book (here and here) that made me want to read this particular book. I have read Sayers before and have really enjoyed her detective Lord Peter Whimsey and how he and his (now) wife Harriet aid each other in solving mysteries. However, it was Rohan's commentary on how the Whimseys negotiate and conduct their marriage that had me interested in reading this particular book. What intricately developed subtlety between Whimsey and Harriet about each other's identity, sense of self-worth, respect, and wishes. They demonstrate what love is, with what care one must nurture it, with what delicacy one must treat the other, with what forethought one must treasure it. As Harriet says, "Being preposterously fond of a person didn't prevent one from hurting him unintentionally." That Sayers managed to skillfully write such a story despite her opinion of romance is a testament to her writing chops. "It has been said, by myself and others, that a love-interest is only an intrusion upon a detective story. But to the characters involved, the detective-interest might well seem an irritating intrusion upon their love-story."

Miss Cayley's Adventures by Grant Allen
Categories: literary fiction, victorian, mystery
Diversity: Written in the nineteenth century by a male author with non-Caucasian characters. Read it in e- format.
Commentary: Recommended by SmartBitches. Carrie wrote a wonderful detailed review of the book and I commented on the book at length in my TBR Challenge Post earlier this month. So all I'll say here is that it was endearing, entertaining, required a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief, and had a few "British Empire attitude" uncomfortable moments.

The Writer's Life: Insights from The Right to Write by Julia Cameron
Categories: nonfiction, writing
Commentary: I picked up this book at the start of the year when I decided to start writing Morning Pages. I read it in January and re-read it this month in prep for writing up my June TBR Challenge commentary. It has been very helpful to read a few pages every now and then—it's a short book. Sometimes when I couldn't think of anything to write about in my Morning Pages, I picked a page from this book and "discussed" it.

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 started reading it last month, then put it down this month as books with long holds came due. Picked it up again just a few days ago. Hope to finish it by next month.