Friday, November 27, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Ely Cathedral

The central octagonal tower of the Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire, England is a feat of medieval engineering. Ely had its beginnings as an abbey church in c. 672. It was built by St. Etheldreda. The present building dates back to c. 1083. The original Romanesque style gave way to an exuberant gothic style of architecture.

[Image copyrighted by David Iliff.]

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

#TBRChallenge Reading: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: I am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
My Categories: nonfiction, memoir
Wendy Crutcher's Category: It's All About The Hype (a book or author that got everybody talking) — My book fits this category

Guess who won out over Taylor Swift and Peyton Manning for the 2014 Person of the Year award by the Time for Kids magazine (by Time Magazine)? MALALA. I have such hope for the future generation.

This book is written with joy in the voice of a young girl, despite the horrors, strife, discrimination, and pain detailed within its pages. Malala is such a hopeful person in the face of extremes. And in this past year, she received a Nobel Prize and six A*s and four As in her GCSE examinations. I adore this young person, and I'm in awe of her—as is my daughter who recommended that I read this book.

In her 2013 speech at the United Nations, Malala said, "They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed. And then, out of that silence came thousands of voices. [...] Weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage was born." She lays so much emphasis on being the right way, not on being right. Her unwavering focus is on goodness and possibility.

In her interview on The Ellen Show, Ellen tried hard to disrupt Malala's focus and equanimity, but Malala would not sensationalize or get emotional over her attack, display pride in her achievements and all the heads of state she's met, boast over preferential treatment in her family (she's treated the same as her brothers), and so on. She talked about issues in education for children and girls in particular, about all the successes of various people in the world in education, and her thanks to all the people she's met. And through it all, she maintained a sense of quick humor.

In the book I am Malala, I learned a tremendous lot of the history, politics, and emotional landscape of the Swat Valley of Pakistan and of the connections it has—tribal and sentimental—to Afghanistan, all through the eyes of Pashtuns, rather than Americans. The picture is rather different from the one our media regularly feeds us. The book's unsentimental narration that lays blame where it needs to be lain makes the picture starker and more vivid. It shows how and why the region that was completely peaceful before the American invasion of Afghanistan proceeded to get radicalized as the war went on and as the Taliban encroached into the Swat Valley. It shows the ambiguity, culpability, and greed of the Pakistani government. And it shows the cruelty and seductiveness of the Taliban.

Nothing the Taliban has done to outsiders can compare with the horrors they have inflicted (and continue to do so) on their own people, men and women and children. Music, dancing, movies, electronics, and TVs are all banned. Girls cannot go to school. Everyone has to wear traditional clothes only. Women can only wear the burqa (a full-length black gown that covers the head and the face, leaving only the eyes open) when going out of the house and should always be accompanied by a male relative, even when going to the market. In general, women are required to stay home and focus on housekeeping and childcare. Men must grow long hair and facial hair. Boys must wear caps and enroll in religious madraasaa schools. Girls as young as eight must cover their hair. People are killed daily on any pretext. The electric grid get blown up whenever they feel like it. They can barge into your house and destroy it with no reason. The Pakistani military is useless against them, because they have little local support, they're unfamiliar with the tribal areas of the Swat Valley, and many in the military are Taliban sympathizers or get direct benefits.

Despite this political turmoil, this book is also very much about family and friendships and volunteerism and activism and hope. Hope shines throughout this whole book no matter the topic under conversation. The book's about courage when fear is the only overriding emotion, and it's about empathy and caretaking when selfishness would be warranted.

It's a beautifully written book for the images it paints, for the framing of the story in the history, culture, society, and politics of the background, and for the story of the coming of age of the girl Malala. The humor that comes through—like her frequent soliloquies directed at God—shows her indomitable spirit. And it's all told with the immediacy of sitting in conversation in the family room with an unusually poised young girl.

In addition to reading the original adult memoir, I listened to the audio of the young readers' version. It's completely rewritten from the original but also incorporates more personal details and reflections and less of the politics and history. It is narrated by a young, first-generation Afghani reader and the voice and intonation and accent add a depth to that first person point of view of the book. It feels like Malala herself is talking to you and telling you her story. I loved that.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sign-Up for #TBRChallenge 2016

Librarian Wendy Crutcher, AKA @SuperWendy, is again hosting the #TBR Reading Challenge in 2016. Sign-ups are happening even as you read this.

I've been doing it for a few years now and have enjoyed myself thoroughly. Occasionally, I have missed a month or posted a review a week late or read a book that wasn't on the set theme for that month and I've found that it's all OK. So long as you're reading a book from your To-Be-Read pile of books (or TBR shelf or even bookshelf), they all count. You post your comments on the third Wednesday of every month, so Twitter lights up with a lot of book talk that day as people post their blogs, comment on each others' blogs, and of course, take to social media.

Sign-up Here! The themes and due dates for next year are...

January 19 - We Love Short Shorts! (category romance, short stories, novella etc.)
February 16 - Series Catch-Up (a book from a series you are behind on)
March 16 - Recommended Read (a book that was recommended to you)
April 20 - Contemporary
May 18 - Something Different (outside your comfort zone, unusual setting, non-romance etc.)
June 15 - Favorite Trope (a favorite theme - amnesia? secret baby? fairy tale? friends-to-lovers? etc.)
July 20 - Award Nominee or Winner (links to past RITA finalists and winners TBA)
August 17 - Kicking It Old School (publication date 10 years or older)
September 21 - Random Pick (a built-in off-theme month - go where your mood takes you!)
October 19 - Paranormal or Romantic Suspense
November 16 - Historical
December 21 - Holiday Themes

So are you going to join me in celebrating reading and bookish conversations? Sign-up Here!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Mosaics of Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo

Sixth century Byzantine mosaics of the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. It was built in c.504 by the Ostrogoth King Theodoric the Great. He was an Arian and dedicated the church to Christ the Redeemer. It was re-consecrated in c.561 to Sanctus Martinus in Coelo Aureo (Saint Martin in Golden Heaven). The basilica was renamed again in c.856 when relics of Saint Apollinaris were brought here.

(Fascinating detail about the Arian sect of Christianity is up on Wikipedia.)

[Image copyrighted by Europe's History.]

Friday, November 13, 2015

Picture Day Friday: What Is A Book? By Julia Donaldson

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Philobiblon: The Love of Books

Richard de Bury was the Bishop of Durham in the 14th century. He was also known as Richard Aungerville or Aungervyle. He was tutor to the future King Edward III, a writer, and a bibliophile. Just before his death, he wrote a 20-chapter book called Philobiblon, which is considered the earliest books to discuss librarianship in-depth. In it he wrote about "how he collected his books, how they should be taken care of, and the many joys he found in them," according to

Here are a couple of extracts from his book:

We must consider what pleasantness if teaching there is in books, how easy, how secret! How safely we lay bare the poverty of human ignorance to books without feeling any shame! They are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule, without angry words, without clothes or money. If you come to them they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them they do not withdraw themselves; they do not chide if you make mistakes; they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant. O books, who alone are liberal and free, who give to all who ask of you and enfranchise all who serve you faithfully!

Books delight us, when prosperity smiles upon us; they comfort us inseparably when stormy fortune frowns on us. They lend validity to human compacts, and no serious judgments are propounded without their help. Arts and sciences, all the advantages of which no mind can enumerate, consist in books. How highly must we estimate the wondrous power of books, since through them we survey the utmost bounds of the world and time, and contemplate the things that are as well as those that are not, as it were in the mirror of eternity. In books we climb mountains and scan the deepest gulfs of abyss; in books we behold the finny tribes that may not exist outside their native waters, distinguish the properties of streams and springs and of various lands; from books we dig out gems and metals and the materials of every kind of mineral, and learn the virtues of herbs and trees and plants, and survey at will the progeny of Neptune, Ceres, and Pluto.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Picture Day Friday: Regency Writing Desk

Jane Austen was said to be very fond of her writing desk, and it traveled with her wherever she went. It would've looked something like this:

[Image copyrighted by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and taken from here.]

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

My October Reading

This is a month when we typically start seeing a lot of cloudy, gray days and rain...the start of our winters. And on top of that I read Ta-Nehisi Coates's book Between the World and Me and it's been a heavy month for me. I struggled with the book, read it twice, grieved through it, and came away awed. AWED! And read five romances to compensate.

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Translated by Brian FitzGibbon
Categories: literary fiction
Commentary: I read about this book on Rohan Maitzen's blog and after reading her review, I instantly grabbed it off my TBR shelf. My comments are here.

Inspire: A Volunteer Adventure Inspiration Book by various authors for Me to We
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: Features international people of all nationalities, races, religions, social classes
Commentary: Recommended by my daughter.

"Inspiration is everywhere. It surrounds us. It gives our lives direction and purpose. And yet it can take an extraordinary adventure or moment to open our eyes to its potential. Once we have found our passions and the seed of inspiration has been planted, it's up to each of us to nurture it with small daily actions that reinforce our values and beliefs. That's how we live an inspired life that fulfills and sustains us."

The book is filled with small stories and quotes and pictures of people encouraging volunteerism and extolling the advantages of such service. Even as schools in our area ramp up with service learning as a required component for graduation, it is important to start the motivation to help others not as privileged as us in early childhood. Kindness is a virtue worth cultivating.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Categories: literary fiction
Diversity: by a male author
Commentary: Much, much has been written and said about this book for decades. So suffice it to say that I've read and re-read this book many times and enjoyed it every single time.

Between the World and Me from White Man Listen! by Richard Wright
Categories: poetry
Diversity: Male author, African-American experience
Commentary: Ta-Nehisi Coates took the title of this poem as the title of his book below. So I read the poem to see how it was relevant. And relevant it was. It was horrifying. In painful terms it 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. How are these monsters even human.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Categories: nonfiction
Diversity: Male author, African-American experience
Commentary: This is the Book of the Year for me. In light of rising racial turmoil in the U.S., it's a book with a timely message. And so well-written! Its complex message has been rendered accessible and understandable through the writer's compassion, intelligence, and talent. If you're going to read one book this year, let it be this one. My reflections are here.

Madalena by Sheila Walsh
Categories: regency, romance, category
Diversity: freed American slave turned majordomo
Commentary: It was a fast, fun read recommended by Sonomalass and Janet Webb. The story is almost fan-fiction of These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer. The heroine, Madalena, is a French ingénue smuggled out of France into England—innocent, feisty, unselfconscious, gamine, who captivates every male around her. She's referred to as "child" and "little one" by everyone of a certain age, including the hero. The hero is a duke, referred to by her as Monseigneur, and is considerably older than her. He indulges her, and she captivates him. He feels he's unworthy of her, and she feels that he feels duty towards her. She's French. He's an English duke of French extraction. Plenty of spying, jaunts in the dead of the night, captures, rescues, digging bullets out of shoulders, and various other hijinks. And despite all the improbabilities and Heyerisms and Heyeresque imitations, it was altogether enjoyable.

The Tenacious Miss Tamerlane by Kasey Michaels
Categories: regency, romance, category
Commentary: A witty romp through Regency England recommended by Anne Glover. Tansy is a bad governess on her way to yet another dreary post, when she happens upon a duke's sister in the middle of wanting to get out of the elopement she had embarked upon. Naturally, she rescues said pert miss and naturally, the madcap miss's said duke brother shows up, fulminating on a tight rein. The end of that tight, witty exchange results in Tansy on her way to the duke's house in charge of his sister. The world for a genteel lady out on her ear is suddenly looking up and up. She's furnished with a full wardrobe, made into a bosom bow by the outspoken dowager duchess fond of outspoken people, and embarks on the high society life. Hijinks and witty repartee ensue in a hand waved at a plotline and Tansy finds herself the object of deep abiding love from the duke—a satisfactory ending to a very light Regency in the traditional style. My one regret was that this duke wasn't very all.

River of Fire by Mary Jo Putney
Categories: regency, romance
Commentary: This is a painterly book with fabulously detailed information about painters, colors, implements, and painting techniques of the greater Georgian era. I had mentioned enjoying the painting aspects of B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger in my February Reading post, so author Victoria Janssen recommended River of Fire, and she was right. I was totally engrossed and pleased by the painting aspect of the story—to me it was the main character and the hero and heroine secondary characters with a mystery and tertiary characters thrown in. The mystery was alright but the people were done well. I enjoyed the portrayal of the hero's war history, drawing history, and the juxtaposition of the two. I also enjoyed how the heroine was depicted with her painting intensity and intensity of character in various aspects of her personality. Putney never fails to engage my interest and does Regency romance really well.

One of the minor characters is greatly bothered by the fact that the heroine's father, a famous painter in Regency England, paints private portraits as well as contemporary battle scenes. He believes that only historical themes painted in the Grand Manner is real art, the rest is rubbish. This reminds me of this discussion of should art be timeless in the New York Times.

Cordelia's Corinthian by Victoria Hinshaw
Categories: regency, romance, category
Commentary: This was a re-read from my stash. A charming, quiet story in which not much happens except that the hero and heroine notice each other more and more as the days pass by at a country house party. They'd met at the heroine's one and only London season. Since then she's become too poor to return to the frivolous, flirtatious, fancy scene. She's planning on becoming a governess or companion to an older lady in order to earn her keep and send money for her parents to move to Bath. The hero in the meantime was horse-mad and military-mad and went off to become an officer. Waterloo put paid to his war ambitions. He returned home with a limp and a painful thigh that barely escaped the surgeon's knife. Both the hero and heroine are battle scarred and gun shy and think they're not worthy of the other person. The fun of the story is in how they arrive at the conclusion that indeed they're perfect for each other.

One exchange between the hero and heroine caught my eye.

Hero (internal): "No one who had not been there could ever understand and he had made a fool of himself by telling her."
Heroine to Hero: "Yes, a nasty business, but not a topic unfit for my ears. I believe that those of us who remain ignorant will never understand. And I wish to understand, I really do."

It happens over and over again between civilians and returning military folks to this day. On one hand, they want their horrific experiences understood, on the other hand, they assume that no one can understand them.

Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell
Categories: contemporary, romance, category
Commentary: Recommended by author Miranda Neville and her review is here. I read that review and was a goner. Mary Burchell was writing contemporaries in the 1950s, so to some extent, I read it as a historical novel. The male-female interplay made more sense in that context, rather than as a modern-day contemporary novel.

Florian is an haut couture designer in Paris. Anthea is a Londoner, who's moved to Paris to escape a jilting and a scheming stepmother. There she falls into a job as Florian's mannequin showing off the models of his Collection at the spring show.

Look at this description of an haut couture gown: A dress of stiffened lace in an indescribably beautiful shade of iridescent green—so shining and exquisite that Anthea nearly cried aloud in her surprise and delight. And another: ...something like a cloud of morning mist, sparkling with dews of dawn.

The hero is very much an alpha, make no mistake, in spite of this opening description of him: a slight, fair-haired man with beautiful hands, thinning hair, and the air of an exhausted and impatient schoolboy. And out of this, Burchell spins gold. However, no matter how masterful Florian gets, I never warmed up to him. My heart was stolen by the worthy Roger, whom Burchell presents as a very viable alternative love interest. Roger is charming, warm, sensitive, and full of giving generosity in time and thought. On the other hand, Florian is imperious, tyrannical, and mercurial with inexplicable flashes of thoughtfulness.

On page 176, we have this scene: With her hand still in Roger's—that blessed contact which meant warmth and affection and reliability—she made her way slowly back through the crowd to where she thought her father might be.

And on page 185, she's passionately kissing Florian and declaring her love to him and vice versa. The only thought for Roger is this: "Poor Roger—I hope he was not too fond of me. At least we never quite reached the romantic stage."

I disliked her instantly. How dare she lead the poor man on. He had all but declared his love to her in so many ways, and she took advantage of it while it suited her and she was unsure of Florian's affections. But the minute, Florian was hers, Roger was a postscript.

And Florian merely wanted her as his wife. Roger wanted her to continue the job she loved of being a mannequin after her marriage to him.

And yet, this was a great read. Despite being written in the 1950s, this story did not feel dated. It was superbly developed in its short form with distinct, memorable characters.

Best line of the book? Il faut souffrir pour être belle. Indeed!