Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My September Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were a couple sections that I really liked.

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

and here's a description of a bedroom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 25, 2015

Picture Day Friday: A Blacksmith's Forge

[Provenance unknown.]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Nose by Nikolai Gogol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 18, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Library in Cake

[Provenance unknown.]

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

2015 #TBRChallenge Reading: Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim
My Categories: Nonfiction, Memoir
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Historical

"When I visited Pyongyang for the first time in 2002, I felt more at home than I had since I left Seoul as a child. There was a sense of recognition. The past was all right there before me: generations of Koreans separated by division; decades of longing, loss, hurt, regret, guilt. I identified with it in a way that I could never shake off. [...] And it is the unrequited heartbreak of those separations that last generations that brought me North. [...] Like most Koreans, whether from the North or [the] South, I dreamed, perhaps irrationally, of reunification. I returned repeatedly until 2011."

South-Korean-American author Suki Kim visited North Korea in various guises since 2002, but lastly in 2011, as an English teacher. She was primarily a journalist, who disguised herself as a missionary—so she was acceptable to the group of missionary volunteers—who in turn disguised themselves as teachers—so they could get entry visas to teach English. She taught the 2011 summer and fall terms at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the elitist of colleges in North Korea. Her teaching ended when their leader Kim Jong-Il died and his son Kim Jong-un ascended the throne became head of state.

Since the transfer of leadership to Kim Jong-un, the country has greatly strengthened its ties to China and allowed foreign brands into the country, according to a recent article from The Economist. However, at the time this book was written, despite the close ties with China, Chinese goods were allowed in but anything foreign was disbarred.

Even foreign thoughts were disbarred. Teaching simple things like obituaries was like a field of mines. Cut out discussion of politics, cut out discussion of Chinese repression, of religion, of morality, of even cable TV and 24-hour electricity and running water. The students had no access to the Internet, just an intranet. None of the computer science majors had heard of Steve Jobs. Everything was heavily censored.

As a result, the people lived in extreme isolation from the world and were devoid of any knowledge of what was happening out there. "The DPRK purposely infantilized its citizens, making everyone helpless and powerless so that they depended on the state. [...] The entire system was designed not to be questioned, and to squash critical thinking."

This allowed its two leaders to brainwash their citizenry into thinking of their nation as one of the most advanced and prosperous in the world. National pride was at an all-time high. The reverence shown to their great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il bordered on God-like worshipful. They could do no wrong. They strove for their people. Their solicitude allowed everything in their nation to be free. "Our Great General Comrade Kim Jong-il is the greatest in leading our powerful and prosperous nation."

The Economist mentions the obligatory pin of the three Kim leaders (Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un) that everyone is required to wear. Suki also mentions the pins featuring the first two leaders worn by everyone.

The students at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) always traveled together in small and big groups. No one was ever alone—"every meal was shared, every second of the day was spent in the company of others"—and privacy was unknown. They marched in unison from their dormitories to meals and to classes. Without You, There Is No Us was a common marching song sung in honor of Kim Il-sung. Towards the end of Suki's teaching term , the song came to poignantly refer to her as well, as she brought the forbidden outside world to these highly isolated boys.

In various parts of the book, Suki puzzled over the students' universal ability to fluidly, unselfconsciously, and unrepentantly lie.

"The speed with which they lied was unnerving. It came too naturally to them. I was not sure if, having been told lies as children, they could not differentiate between truth and lies, or whether it was survival method they had mastered. [...] And so I went from love to pity to repulsion and distrust, then back to empathy and love again."

The North Korean's society was so conservative and patriarchal that a simple writing assignment "How to Successfully Get a Girl" caused great confusion. No one had ever had a girlfriend or thought about it. The PUST students were from the capital city of Pyongyang and the brightest of the country's students. "These were some of the most eligible bachelors in the country, and yet the methods they came up with to woo their dream girl were almost childlike. [...] More than one student described his ideal girl as one who would obey him, listen to him, and be a good mother to his son."

Contrarily, the government hired young, attractive, virgin women in all visible service-oriented jobs, including as part of the Pleasure Brigade for Kim Jong-il and the party leaders. These were clearly not seen as desirable or as desirable wives by these boys.

The Economist mentions that troops are the state's ready labor on construction sites. They forgot to mention the college students. Suki wrote that even the elite college students (wealthy and brilliant) were required to take extended breaks from their studies for this type of work. When the annual fall kimchi-making time arrived, all students had to abandon their classes to participate in the garlic peeling and cabbage chopping. No one had any say in what they did with their lives. The mothers of these PUST students saw their children rarely. Everything was in service to their leaders.

Time off was a rarity for the students. "'We're going outside tomorrow!' He could barely control his excitement. 'We don't know yet where we're going, but we are going outside! [...] Maybe for an hour. It is our first time since we came to PUST [months ago].'"

Time off was a rarity even for the teachers. They were watched constantly by the minders. There was no entertainment other than rare organized trips to rigidly curated and artificially manufactured presentations off-campus. At the Victory Day celebration, Suki had a chance to see what went for popular, classy entertainment. Songs included, The Song of National Defense," "To a Decisive Battle," "The Song of the Assassin" and songs in praise of their Great Leaders. Many of these songs disparaged (or even were murderous towards) South Koreans and Americans, referring to them as Yankee noms (bastards).

And yet, and yet...this is a North Korean song Suki and the students sang together at their dinner one night:

"Dandelions blooming on the hills of my hometown,
Those times when I played flying a white kite,
Ah, that blue sky I saw as a child,
Why didn't I know then that was the pride of my motherland?"

She was speechless as she shook hands with her students in goodbye. "I could not say, 'Leave this wretched place. Leave your wretched Great Leader. Leave it, or shake it all up. Please do something.' Instead and I cried and cried, and I smiled." The students only said, "Teacher, please smile. Thank you and goodbye, Teacher."

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Book Talk by Salman Rushdie

Last night, I attended a book reading by Salman Rushdie for Two Years Eight Months Twenty-Eight Nights.

This was my first experience seeing him in the flesh. Having read a couple of his books, his reviews, people's discussions about him, and his tweets, I had formed an impression of his personality that was borne out by his commanding stage presence and formidable display of intelligence. What I had not realized is how funny he is. He really seemed to focus in on the questions that were being asked of him and sometimes his answers were flippant and irreverent, sometimes serious, but always witty. Even when he was promoting his other books, he did it jocularly.

He started off the talk with saying how many brilliant young writers there were "these days...taking up space. I should get a T-shirt that says: 'Not Dead Yet.'"

He talked in generalities for a moment or two before launching into a précis of the book from memory. Here's a shorter version from the front jacket of the book:

In the near future, after a storm strikes New York City, the strangenesses begin. A down-to-earth gardener finds that his feet no longer touch the ground. A graphic novelist awakens in his bedroom to a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub-Stan Lee creation. Abandoned at the mayor's office, a baby identifies corruption with her mere presence, marking the guilty with blemishes and boils. A seductive gold digger is soon tapped to combat forces beyond imagining.

Unbeknownst to them, they are all descended from the whimsical, capricious wanton creatures known as the jinn [djinn], who live in a world separated from ours by a veil. Centureis ago, Dunia, a princess of the jinn, fell in love with a mortal man of reason. Together they produced an astonishing number of children, unaware of their fantastical powers, who spread across generations in the human world.

Once the line between worlds is breached on a grand scale, Dunia's children and others will play a role in an epic war between light and dark spanning a thousand and one nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights. It is a time of enormous upheaval, in which beliefs are challenged, words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse.

It's a novel of magic realism. Rushdie said that in this book, he deliberately set about having "stories crowding each other and the narrative. The main narrative then had to disperse these stories and emerge" like Lazarus to the surface of consciousness. "Minor characters were introduced and wasted."

In this book as in his other books, he said that there are two threads to his narrative that intertwine: the fabulist or surrealist one and the historicist one. (He trained as a historian.) In all his novels, he attempts to say something truthful about the world in a surreal dramatic way. He went on to say, "Underneath all the news of the world, there's conflict between unreason and reason, between belief and disbelief. This is among people and also within us. So a jinn is like the psychological Id within us and emanating from us."

When asked what advice would he give beginning writers, he said, "Read widely. Writers don't belong to any team. They're one individual voice saying, 'This is it.' Thus, reading changes you. And you look at the world differently."

When asked, how does he know a book is done, he described some of his creative process. His imaginative energy drives his first draft. He stressed that he always advices first-time writers to get the first draft down any which way they can, then they can tinker with it. Only after the draft is down that he can see the big picture and what needs fixing. "At some point, I reach the point when I'm not making the book better. I have reached creative exhaustion." Then he shows it to beta readers, but never before then. He's not looking for praise from these readers but detailed critique on what doesn't work. Of course, then he went on to say that he continues to tinker with the book till the publisher puts its foot down and the book is sent off to be printed.

When asked, what does he do when he hits the blind wall and is stuck. He said that that happens to him in every book. What he has learned is that the problem is never at the point where he's stuck but further back. He then sets about finding what went wrong. "In doing this, I discover the book I am writing as opposed to the one I thought I was writing."

"Beginning writers are always told, 'Write what you know.' But what if what you know isn't all that interesting? Go and find an amazing idea if you don't have one." Famous writers of all stripes have scoured newspapers, researched books, attended talks and court trials, and eavesdropped on conversations searching nuggets of stories."

Of the Man Booker 2015 Longlist, Rushdie recommended Laila Lalami's The Moor's Account. (It unfortunately did not make the shortlist announced today.)

On winning prizes, he said, "It's wonderful when you receive one, and you don't care when you don't. The best acceptance speech of the Booker Prize I have heard is by Kingsley Amis who lurched up to the podium drunk and said, 'I have always despised the Booker Prize...until tonight.'"

When asked about the first book he fell in love with, he answered that there were a pair of books: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. He said that the imagination therein is superlative and the writing so beautiful. It greatly influenced his own imagination and writing. "These days, while the action is exciting, the prose in children's books is not very special." And he says that not being taught to appreciate beautiful prose in addition to the story is a loss for children.

It was a very entertaining talk: humorous, erudite, articulate, confident, and radiating general bonhomie.

[Edited 9/29/15: Great podcast interview with Brian Koppelman on Slate.]

Friday, September 11, 2015

Picture Day Friday: An Octagonal Georgian House

A la Ronde is a sixteen-sided house near Exmouth in Devon, England and is owned by the National Trust. The house was built in the 1790s to exact design specifications by two Parminter relatives—independently wealthy single ladies who preferred to share a house together rather than embark upon uncertain marriages.

The shape of their house was influenced by "the octagonal basilica of San Vitale at Ravenna in Italy that they had seen during their [seven-year] Grand Tour. Inside the house, there was a central octagon and all the other rooms came off this and linked to each other by means of tiny lobbies. The rooms facing east were the ladies’ two bedrooms and they moved round the house during the day, following the natural light."

What a cool concept of a house. And how ideal for English weather, where every modicum of natural light is precious.

Rachel Knowles has written a wonderful post describing the house, its architecture, and its interior furnishings and curiosities, all accompanied with personal photographs.

[Image copyrighted by Andrew Knowles. Used with permission.]

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Old English Wisdom

Eleanor Parker tweets as A Clerk of Oxford and also Old English Wisdoms. I would like to be known as a boccræftig, a learned person; but alas! It is not to be so. In lieu of that, with Parker's permission, I have extracted a few Old English quotes from her tweets. All the translations are her own. The comprehensive list of "proverbs, maxims, and other miniature bits of wisdom and advice from Old English poetry and prose" is here.

As one poem says, Gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan (wise men should exchange sayings), so I'm sharing some with you.

From Durham Cathedral, MS B. III. 32...

Geþyld byþ middes eades.
Patience is half of happiness.

Hwilum æfter medo menn mæst geþyrsteð.
Sometimes men are thirstiest after drinking mead.

Ne mæg man muþ fulne melewes habban and eac fyr blawan.
No one can have a mouth full of flour and also blow on a fire.

From The Seafarer from the Book Exeter...

Stieran mon sceal strongum mode, ond þæt on staþelum healdan.
One must steer a strong mind, and keep it steady.

From Widsith also from the Book of Exeter...

Sceal þeodna gehwylc þeawum lifgan.
Every ruler ought to live virtuously.
(Would that King Alfred the Great could rise from his grave and admonish our politicians!)

From Maxims I from the Book of Exeter...

Swa monige beoþ men ofer eorþan, swa beoþ modgeþoncas.
There are as many opinions as there are people on earth

From Solomon and Saturn II...

Bald bið se ðe onbyregeð boca cræftes.
Bold shall he be who tastes of the skill of books.

And my favorite one is from the poem Deor...

Þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.
That passed away; so will this.

So why the picture of King Alfred the Great up top? "Alfred ... is closely associated, in history and legend, with teaching, translation, and the tradition of English 'wisdom.' Among his other achievements as king, Alfred arranged for the translation of—or perhaps even translated himself—a range of religious and philosophical texts into [Anglo-Saxon or Old] English, many of which have interesting things to say about how wisdom is to be gained and used."

Friday, September 4, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Picturesque British Tearooms

I'm simply going to link to the post with fabulous photos of twenty-one tearooms and all the necessary food for elegant and delicious cream teas.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

My August Reading

I was not able to get as much read this month as I'd planned, because the whole issue surrounding the book For Such a Time took up so much of my time and energy. But what I did read was a welcome departure from the horrors of that read.

The Venetian Affair by Helen McInnes
Categories: mys
Commentary: Recommended by Janet Webbb and Liz McCausland. My first McInnes. Just started reading it.

For Such a Time by Kate Breslin
Categories: rom, hist
Diversity: Jewish characters
Commentary: I wrote about it in detail earlier this month.

Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim
Categories: memoir
Diversity: Based in North Korea featuring North and South Korean people in addition to volunteers from other countries.
Commentary: I started reading it last month and finished it this month. What a powerful look into a closed culture. Despite the division of Korea in recent times, the difference in the cultures of the two countries separated by a common language is vast. South Korean-American journalist, Suki, posed as a teacher and traveled to Pyongyang to teach English to elite college students. This gave her a rare insider authority on North Korean culture and student life. I'll be commenting much more on this in my September TBR Challenge post.

Shadowskin by Shveta Thakrar
Categories: poetry
Diversity: POC character, in e- format
Commentary: This poem was recommended by author Victoria Janssen. The poem talks about how two girls dream similar things, but one girl's dreams are achievable, acceptable, but the other's are not. Why? The first girl is white-skinned with blonde hair and blue eyes, the other is brown-skinned with black hair and eyes.

Brown-Eyed Girl by Lisa Kleypas
Categories: romance, contemporary
Commentary: I've been dying waiting for this book from Kleypas's fabulous Travis series. They are the strongest of all her books other than some of her historicals, such as the New Orleans series and Devil in Winter among others. Her Texan contemporary voice is very distinct, as is her characterization. The experience of being married to a Texan and having lived there for many years shows in the ease and confidence of her voice. I was hooked from the beginning of this story. Her writing is superb and easily matches the rest of the series despite the many years between Smooth Talking Stranger and Brown-Eyed Girl. There're passages like these...

Sofia let out a little yelp of excitement. The atmosphere in the studio seemed instantly diluted—my lungs had to work harder to obtain the necessary amount of oxygen.

The heroine tells the hero how some people make the proposal into an event, like proposing mid-air on a hot-air balloon ride or proposing underwater on a scuba dive.
"That's ridiculous," Joe said flatly.
"Being romantic is ridiculous?"
"No, turning a private moment into a Broadway musical is ridiculous."

I had a great discussion with Robin about Kleypas's aggressively alpha heroes in all her books, whether historicals or contemporaries. Their caring side comes out really strong and ever-present in the story, and that makes their stories and the longevity of their HEAs believable.

Reykjavík Nights by Arnaldur Indriðason, translated by Victoria Cribb
Categories: mys
Diversity: Male author
Commentary: It was recommended by Miss Bates and her review is here. Set in Iceland, the beauty of the setting is what drew me to the book. However, this is set wholly in Reykjavík with no forays into the countryside. My interest was still sustained by this look into Nordic summer city life. This mystery story is just my speed: painstaking police procedural work minus violent gore or horrifying psychological twists (except for one terrible DV). This is policeman Erlendur's first foray into detecting. Unlike later in the series, he isn't a detective here yet, but has a personal stake in the investigation that he follows through on his own time and his own dime. Dogged, unflappable, and meticulous, he interviews people, carefully parcels out information, and uses his policeman status sparingly. His approach is as a friend of the deceased and a concerned citizen. I enjoyed Indriðason's writing style very much and look forward to more of his books.

Thrush Green by Miss Reed
Categories: lit fic
Commentary: Recommended by Sunita and her review is here. For a big fan of Enid Blyton books and the miniseries Cranford, I instantly fell in love with this novel. Like the Enid Blytons, there are pen-n-ink illustrations sprinkled throughout the text. The voices and scenes are so distinct, I could picture them in my mind as I read the book. It's been a while since I read a book where the images are so vivid. The inciting event is that the owner of the fair, which does a show every May Day in Thrush Green, might be closing down the show after this last hurrah. Set against this event, the lives of the main inhabitants of the small village revolve. The enjoyment of this book is in the very small details. While to some this could be boring, to me they're what make the story so enjoyable. Entire lifetimes and personalities unfold in those delicious details.

Then there are also passages like this one...

People nowadays seemed too busy for gaiety, and what was worse, appeared to frown upon innocent enjoyment. Life was too dreadfully real and earnest these days and all the young people were middle-aged at twenty.


He felt his dislike of this tough ungainly woman growing of an hour, her massive legs planted squarely apart to display the sturdiest pair of knickers it had ever been dr. Lovell's misfortune to observe. In shape and durability they had reminded the young man of his father's Norfolk breeches used in the early days of cycling.

Veranda: A Passion for Living: Houses of Style and Inspiration by Carolyn Englefield
Categories: nonfiction, coffee table book
Commentary: I LOVE THIS BOOK! Ahem! I discovered it thanks to Vassiliki. I enjoy gawking at the furnishings and inner architectures of the houses of the wealthy, but especially, oh, so especially, the old estates of England. I'm always interested in what taste people exhibit when money is largely not an issue. Englefield writes, "Houses are like Wunderkammers, those curiosity cabinets of the Renaissance where each carefully selected object has a story waiting to be told. A Passion for Living is a synthesis of the belief that our homes are the places where we live our lives with joy, grace, honesty, and personal style." This is not to say that all the photos are picturesque or très élégant. Some of them are hideous. But that's the fun of reading a book like this. Even when it cannot possibly work for you, it's fascinating how on earth they managed to put those things together in that way.

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula Freedman
Categories: children's
Diversity: People of various ethnicities and religions
Commentary: Recommended by my daughter and Smart Bitches and the review is here. First of all, let me GUSH over the cover and book design. I have the cover here, but the inside book design from its endpapers to its beginning pages, font and so on are also beautifully done. This has to be the best one of the year for me. Totally appropriate for the story and a work of art by itself. Delicious!

I would've leveled a charge of "exotiticizing" at the author if I had not been aware that the girl depicted in the story will be similar to her children's blended family experience (when she has children). The author herself is Jewish-American, who's married to an Indian -American, so a Basmati Bar/Bat Mitzvah would be in her children's future as well. From the get-go I liked the young girl's voice: clear, personal, and age-appropriate. Too many kids in books sound precocious where their voices don't fit in with the type of story the author's trying to tell through them. Here, it felt like the girl herself is telling her story. Great characterization!

Tara Friedman's father is Jewish-American and her mother is Indian-American, who converted to Judaism before her marriage. Tara is in Hebrew school preparing for her Bat Mitzvah but she's struggling with her commitment to her faith and the process of the Bat Mitzvah. At the same time, she's concerned whether she's losing her Indian side to her Jewishness. She doesn't want to lose the affinity she has with her Indian grandparents who've now passed away, while at the same time, she loves the closeness she shares with her Jewish grandmother. She wants to feel at one with both her cultures and the story is about her working through this.

She's also grappling with her belief in G-d and can she be Jewish without believing in G-d completely. She discusses this with her Jewish and Christian friends and also tangentially with her Rabbi.

It seemed incredible t0 me that someone could keep believing in G-d after living through something as terrible as [the Holocaust]. And if he did, then why did I have any doubts whatsoever?

Tara's also disturbed when she finds out from Hebrew school that Jewish people used to own slaves. That they could do so when Jewish people themselves faced constant persecution throughout history is abhorrent to her. Again she brings this up with her Rabbi. He reminds her that the Jewish faith places very high value on dialectics and debate, and nothing was sacred from discussion.

What's interesting to me about this story is how unlikable and at the same time likable she is. Her confidence, her easy friendships, her smartness make her likeable on one hand, but her sense of self-entitlement is off-putting at the same time. She receives far more than she gives and is always upset when she isn't receiving what she insists she deserves. A treasured saree that her Indian great-grandmother carried with her safely through the chaos and horror of the partition of India and Pakistan is bequeathed to her. She plays with it with her friend regularly. And one time, they spill burning incense on it, which burns holes in the ancient fabric and ruin it. I gasped out loud with anger and sadness. She and her Jewish grandmother then convince her mother that the only way to save the fabric was to cut it up and make it into a dress for her. I again gasped aloud with anger and sadness though it is the logical solution to the problem. A precious heirloom has been destroyed by her carelessness and the only thing she feels is fear of her mother's anger. Yes, she's young, but at 12-13, she's not too young to be able to appreciate what she has destroyed.