Friday, October 30, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Tobit and Anna by Rembrandt

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 23, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Amiens Cathedral

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

#TBRChallenge Reading: Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Her soul is finally connecting with another's.

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

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

Friday, October 16, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Angkor Wat

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

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

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

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

[Click on the images for larger views.]

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Going to the Library Can Make You Very Happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 9, 2015

Picture Day Friday: c.18th Darby House Kitchen

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

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

[Image copyrighted by the Ironbridge Museum.]

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Top Beautiful Medieval Manuscripts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 2, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Medieval Record of the Blood Moon

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

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

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

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