Friday, February 26, 2016

Picture Day Crisis: A Book Having an Existential Crisis

Courtesy of the Des Plains Library...

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Meme: Coffee & Book Pairings

Memes don't seem to be as popular these days. In the old days of LiveJournal's heyday, new memes cropped up every day. So I was excited to this bookish coffee meme. Here are my coffee/tea and book pairings.

Black Drip: A series that’s tough to get into but has hardcore fans

Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series have legions of fans but the bar for entry is rather high. I found that I couldn't get into it, the first time I tried reading it, because there are a lot of references to books, people, and events about which I knew nothing. Then I tried listening to it, but the cast of characters is so large, it was confusing at times to know who was saying what. So then I went with a three-prong approach: I got a companion guide to explain all the references, listened to the audio for the characterization, and read the book to put it all together. What a rewarding way to read The Game of Kings. After this, it made the rest of the Lymond series go easier.

Peppermint Mocha: A book that gets more popular during the winter or a festive time of year

Romance novels are always popular in February. Romances during Christmastimes are always popular during December. Beach romances are popular in the summer. For me, it's organizational or motivational books in January. This year's book was The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Hot chocolate: Favorite children’s book

I loved the first book of a series by Maud Hart Lovelace called Betsy Tacy. Such an engrossing book about girlish friendships. Every girl dreams of having a close friend like this living in her neighborhood, going to the same school, and sharing a close friendship where they share virtually everything.

Double shot of espresso: A book that kept you on the edge of your seat from start to finish

The Cuckoo's Calling was an exciting start to a mystery series by JK Rowling's pseudonym Robert Galbraith. The characterization was detailed and real as was the mystery.

Starbucks: A book you see everywhere

If I see a book everywhere, I rarely read it right then. Ennui sets in and I'm afraid the book will never meet all the expectations raised in me by all the comments and reviews and word-of-mouth praises. In spite of these reservations, I read Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. And every word of praise and all the awards fell short of reality. It was my best book of 2015.

That hipster coffee shop: A book by an indie author

Last year, I read a funky nonfiction-fiction memoir The Travelling Parsi self-published by Kamal Sunavala. It's a real account of life among the Parsis, India's ancient Zoroastrian community. It was laugh-out-loud funny in parts, eye-rolling in some, and merely angsty and ridiculous in some. Thoroughly entertaining.

Oops! I accidentally got decaf: A book you were expecting more from

With a title Secret of the Templars, who wouldn't expect great historical adventure and mystery? Well, the book as written by Paul Christopher was false advertising where the Templars made nary an appearance except for one reference in passing. And far from being an engrossing intricate mystery, it was a thriller where characters showed up on page merely to die a few pages later; no one's life was sacrosanct; and not much happens after all.

The perfect blend: A book or series that was both bitter and sweet but ultimately satisfying

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande about the state of geriatric medicine was a terrible thing to read. That is what awaits every one of us unless something miraculously changes about how the medical world and society at large views old age. This was such an important book to me and what made it accessible and eminently readable was Gawande's elegant prose and storytelling skills.

Green Tea: A book or series that is quietly beautiful

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson immediately comes to mind. It's a sorrowful book about childhoods rent by racism but it's also about hope and about the triumph of the spirit. And it's written in gorgeously lyrical prose. I read it slowly, luxuriating in the words and word paintings.

Earl Grey: A favorite classic

Gosh, so hard to narrow it down to just one. Austen's Pride & Prejudice is too easy a choice. Instead, I'm going to go with a book I loved as a kid: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas.

Chai tea: A book or series that makes you dream of far off places

I'll again reach back into my childhood for books by the beloved British author Enid Blyton. I loved all her books, especially her magical ones where the children met all kinds of fairy folk and went on all kinds of adventures. Such fun derring-do. But the best part of all of Blyton's books were the depictions of typical British homes, foods, rituals, and customs. As a child, I dreamed of going to be there on that green isle and living those lives.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Picture Day Friday: Sumela Monastery, Turkey

Sumela Monastery is a Greek Orthodox monastery devoted to the Virgin Mary at Melá Mountain in the Trabzon province of Turkey. Those mountainsides are steep and high: nearly 3,900 vertical feet. I wonder how the monks managed to climb up from the village with their supplies.

According to Wikipedia, the monastery was founded in AD 386 during the reign of the Emperor Theodosius I (375 - 395). Despite it falling into disrepair and disuse many times, it's been restored and rebuilt many times over. Currently, it's a big tourist attraction in that ancient region of Trabzon.

Trabzon, on the Black Sea coast of northeastern Turkey, has been on the world map since 700 BCE. It was a major port city on the Silk Route and a gateway to Iran and the Caucasus region.

["Sumela From Across Valley" by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen (own work Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.]

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

#TBRChallenge Reading: The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer

2016 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere
Author: Pico Iyer
My Categories: Nonfiction
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Series Catch-Up
(Ahem, so my book doesn't match the monthly theme. The book I'd planned to read hasn't arrived yet, so I had to substitute this book.)

There is such a meditative quality to the book. It's a book about meditation written in the same quiet vein. That is what I like best about Pico Iyer's writing. His words reflect his subject matter. Take for example, one of his beloved essays In Praise of the Humble Comma. It entertains while showing the practical and metaphorical uses of commas by doing so in the text. He brings that same demonstrable ability to The Art of Stillness.

Leonard Cohen is someone who keeps cropping up in the narrative like a coda. Famous for his Hallelujah Chorus, what is less known is that he frequents a Benedictine monastery in Southern California in monks' robes for months on end. Of his meditation practice, Cohen explained to Iyer:

"Sitting still, he said with expected passion, was 'the real deep entertainment he had found in his sixty-one years on the planet. 'Real profound and voluptuous and delicious entertainment. This seems to me the most luxurious and sumptuous response to the emptiness of my own existence.' Going nowhere was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else."

You hear so much about meditation as a calming aid, something that grounds you in your day-to-day functioning. In fact, taking time out to sit still will allow you to "find fresh time and energy to share with others". So somehow, taking time out for yourself is offering more of yourself to the world. This reminds me how people regularly tell me, I'm too busy to meditate. It's precisely when you're so busy and stressed that taking time out to sit still for a few minutes will allow you to engage with the world with renewed enthusiasm and energy. You'll bring a focused attention to the world that'll elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary.

Let me hasten to add here that I'm a novice meditator. So look to Iyer's words and not so much to my adumbrations.

"Hurrying around in search of contentment seemed a perfect way of ensuring I'd never be settled or content. Instead, talking about stillness is a way of talking about clarity and sanity and the joys that endure."

This reminds me of something Marcus Aurelius wrote: "If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment." So your reaction to something is what really causes the pain, not the thing itself. Since your reactions are presumably under your control, you can choose to be happy instead of unhappy. You can choose to be calm instead of harried. You can choose to re-engage with the world differently than how you did with your initial gut reaction. To this Iyer quotes Thoreau (Iyer often quotes Thoreau): "It matters not where or how far you travel but how much alive you are."

Of writers, Iyer writes: "Writers, of course, are obliged by our professions to spend much of our time going nowhere. Our job is to turn through stillness, a life of movement into art." In my post "What Are Morning Pages?," I wrote that writing Morning Pages is a valid form of meditation, because writing in the still early hours of the day allows you to pour your thoughts unedited onto the page.

Dr. Matthieu Ricard was a brilliant molecular biologist who gave it all up to become a Buddhist monk. Ricard travels extensively as the Dalai Lama's translator and gives lectures on and about Buddhism. When Iyer asked him how he deals with the hassles of travel and jet lag, he said: For me a flight is just a brief retreat in the sky. There's nothing I can do, so it's really quite liberating.

Then Ricard talked about how the Buddhists look at the nature of the mind as clouds in the sky. In short: If there are dark clouds passing up above, it just means that the blue sky is hidden. You just need the patience to sit still until the blue shows up again. This is about how things change all the time and how nothing changes at all. This is about motionless journeying, how the same place looks different even though you go nowhere and do nothing. To this Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, wrote: "One of the strange laws of the contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life solves them for you."

Referring back to Ricard's retreat in the sky remark, many of us go on vacation looking to de-stress from our hamster's wheel lives. We arrive at our destination stressed hoping to relax over the break. In contrast, Iyer had this experience. He encountered a German woman en route to a holiday in Hawaii. For the entire Frankfurt to L.A. flight, she sat in complete stillness, without sleeping or entertaining herself in any way. At the end of the flight, he asked her how she was doing. She said that she was a social worker who had a very stressful job. So she was using the flight over to Hawaii to get all the stress out of her system so that "she could arrive in the islands in as clear a state as possible, ready to enjoy her days of rest." So simple, isn't it? And so sensible.

I can't seem to stop talking about this book. Ah, just go and read it.

The book's best summarized by this illustration by Maurice Sendak for the book Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss:

Friday, February 12, 2016

Picture Day Friday: Thumbnail-Sized Illuminated Prayer Book

Only 35mm x 20mm, the size of a stamp, this is a Parisian prayer book from c.1520. Can you imagine this: It has writing and detailed drawings in it, some of which were drawn with brushes with a single hair. Exquisite!

The book was originally made for an English owner—it is inscribed by Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey. However, there are 16th century ownership marks in French. Sir Hans Sloane acquired it in the 18th century and it passed into the hands of the British Museum upon his death in 1753. The British Library now owns it and lodges it under the shelf-mark Sloane 116.

The binding has gold metal-work and red velvet, with clasps and the parchment folios have gilt edges. There are eight full-page miniatures, in various colors and as well as in gold. All text pages are framed in gold and the rubrics are in gold as well. This was a very expensive book in its day.

[Image copyrighted by the British Library.]

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Best Romance Books of 2015

I read a total of 84 books in 2015. I read fewer romances but had an overall superb reading year.

My list of Best Romance Books of 2015 is published by All About Romance.

My list of Best Non-Romance Books of 2015 is HERE.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Picture Day Friday: Royal German 1716 Marquetry Cabinet

In 1716, Journeymen cabinetmakers Jacob Arend and Johannes Witthalm created an elaborate writing cabinet in Servacius Arend's workshop for Jacob Gallus von Hohlach. Servacius was the cabinetmaker to the court of Würzburg in Germany. The Baroque cabinet is about 70 inches tall, 65 inches wide, and about 30 inches deep.

According to Lost Art Press: "The carcase is pine with veneering in walnut. Marquetry woods are burr walnut, sycamore, tulipwood, boxwood, ebonized and stained woods; other materials include ivory, bone, turtle shell, pewter and brass. The cypher of von Hohlach is laid into snakewood. The drawers are lined with embossed decorative papers; cupboards are lined with red silk."

[Image copyrighted by Lost Art Press.]

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

My January Reading

The first month of the year and so begins another year of reading and blogging and bookish conversations. I'm looking forward to it in delight. I have so many books lined up to read already.

One new thing that I'm going to be mentioning in these round-ups are children's picture books. I read so many every month. Don't worry I won't list every one here or the 18273 times I read each one. However, there are some books that rise to the top, and I'll mention those.

Last year, I tried to read story collections of poets I already knew or had read before. This year, I'm going for new singleton poems. As a result, many will be modern, a new area for me. I'm a diehard Romantic Era fan and a fan of pastoral lyricism. We'll see how I fare this year. I have no training in poetry reading so the commentary will be superficial at best—more in the vein of "this is what I feel."

In my reading goals for the year, I said I would try to mention any facts that I have learned. In my reading this month, I learned that an amputation of the leg below the knee is vastly different from the one above the knee in terms of future mobility with prosthetics. The teenage heroine of The Running Dream had one below the knee and was able to run with her new running leg (different from her walking leg).

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Categories: Nonfiction, Life Skills
Comments: This was the first book of the new year for me. I shall be reading a little bit in it every day, so it's an ongoing project.

Cold-Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Categories: Romance, Victorian
Comments: Kleypas is an auto-buy author for me for her historicals and Travis series. Going into this book, I was determined not to read any reviews of the book, because I wanted a pristine reading experience. And I'm so glad I did. My commentary is posted at All About Romance. Kleypas spent a lot of time setting up the rest of the series here. The book I'm looking forward to isn't Helen's story (next) but rather West's and Pandora's story.

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Categories: Play
Comments: Recommended by SonomaLass and Liz McCausland. It was my January TBR Challenge read and my comments are here.

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron
Categories: Nonfiction
Comments: I skipped through and read a few sections of the book. My subsequent blog "What Are Morning Pages?" is posted.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen
Categories: Literary Fiction
Comments: I have nothing new to add to the hundreds of thousands of words already written about this.

The Temporary Wife by Mary Balogh
Categories: Romance, Regency
Comments: I really wanted to like this book. It's a Marriage of Convenience plot with people who start out as promising characters. He finds a wife to marry by advertising for a governess. She needs money to raise her brothers and sisters and dig themselves out of their dead father's debts. They strike a deal. She will pose as his loving wife in front of his father, the duke, and his family at their ancestral pile. In return for this temporary playacting, he will give her a house, a carriage, and a large allowance. Well, naturally, things go awry. They start having feeeeelings for each other. All in all the relationship was moving along at a smart clip and I was enjoying it, and then came The Scene. I don't mind deliberate rudeness, casual thoughtlessness, thwarting, and avoiding. But I don't countenance cruelty.

"Where did you get it?" His nostrils flared.
"Your father gave it to me," she said. They had an audience — a very attentive audience.
"Take it off," he said.
"Your father—"
"Take it off." His face was white. And suddenly she was terrified of him.
She did not move her hands fast enough. He raised one of his own, curled it about the topaz, his fingers grazing over her skin none too gently, and jerked at the necklet. The catch held fast and she grimaced with pain.
"Turn around," he said.
She turned around and tilted her head forward. His fingers fumbled at the catch for what seemed like endless moments before she felt the weight of the necklet fall away from her neck onto his hand. She did not lift her head or turn around — everyone was behind her and everyone was loudly silent.

And yet, ten minutes later, she's forgiven him and is smiling at him. Two hours later, he acknowledges to himself that he's falling deeply in love with her. What kind of love is this? His anger at and hatred of his father is so consuming that he hurts his wife, makes her neck bleed, insults and humiliates her horribly in front of his entire family, just so he can score a point and drop that necklace onto the floor at his father's feet. Four hours later, she smilingly and affectionately tries to effect a reconciliation between her husband and the duke. She's too nice, she's too understanding, and it was slightly difficult for me to believe in her character.

Despite this, I appreciated how well-written and well-plotted the story was. That entire scene above is perfect in its timing and delivery. The story after all is a Balogh!

The Running Dream by Wendelin Van Draanen
Categories: Children's
Diversity: Children with physical challenges, multicultural children
Comments: A stellar read recommended by my daughter. I sobbed my heart out reading this book. Easily my best read of the month. This is what good children's books should be about: hope, joy, the power of dreaming big, hard work, focus, and living in this big wide world of ours with people of all kinds.

In short, a gifted teen runner loses part of her right leg after a tragic accident. This story is about her recovery from the depths of despair towards hope for herself and compassion for someone she perceives is not as lucky as she is. It is also the story of sheer grit and courage as she learns to run with a prosthetic and not just run for herself on the school track but to run 10 miles while pushing a wheelchair with a 100-lb girl with cerebral palsy. Unadulterated awe! (Yes, it's fiction but its effect is nonetheless just as powerful.)

Jessica brings such joy into Rosa's life, just as Rosa brought hope into Jessica's life by helping lift her out of depression.

"Jessica Carlisle wants to help Rosa do something she would never be able to do on her own—go for a run."
"When Jessica runs me," Rosa says, "I feel like I'm flying."

What is the cause Jessica and Rosa are running for?

"Quite simple, it's to have people see us, not our conditions. That's all anybody with a disability really wants. Don't sum up the person based on what you see, or what you don't understand; get to know them."

An Unexpected Family by Molly O'Keefe
Categories: Romance, Contemporary
Comments: O'Keefe is such a good writer. She does emotions really well, with depth and nuance. In this book, there seemed to be one story about the characters' actions and another story about their emotions. The story told in emotions is superb. The story told in the characters' actions doesn't make them very likeable or reliable. The hero always seems to act from anger and the heroine from questionable casualness to everything. That makes their final scene where they confess their love and forgive each other great for the story arc, but it left me with some doubt about the longevity of their HEA. That's where O'Keefe's wonderful epilogue comes in. The two wait a year and marry at the end of that. By then I was on board for their HEA.

There's also a secondary romantic story with the heroine's mother and that one is very well done. Again, the emotions are superbly handled. In fact, I liked that story better than the main one.

There's over-the-top writing, like "radiating tension like a nuclear reactor" and "blood pooled in his brain." It was a tad too much. But it's all forgivable, because overall, the writing is great.

For example, here's Lucy waiting to find out the bad news from her accountant:

She closed her phone and watched a bird—maybe a hawk, she wasn't sure—swoop along the ridgeline and ride the wind current off the Sierras. Not a care in the world, that bird. Must be nice, she thought, totally aware that she was jealous of a creature with a pea-size[d] brain.

About Jeremiah:

His smile was lopsided, rueful, and utterly self-aware. A heartbroken cowboy who was self-aware? Good Lord, he was a country song brought to life.

A romantic moment for them:

His lips fell across hers like sunlight. Light and warm and sweet and she melted into the moment, into him. He breathed out, she breathed in, and the earth stopped rotating, as if someone had just pressed pause on the rest of the world.

Mawṭinī Mawṭinī (My Homeland, My Homeland) by Ibrahim Tuqan
Categories: Poetry, eBook
Diversity: Translated from Arabic
Comments: Palestinian poet Ibrahim Tuqan composed this three-verse poem in 1934. It was adopted as the Palestinian national anthem then, and since 2004, as the Iraqi anthem. You can have a listen here to the music that supports this rousing, patriotic song composed by Muhammad Fuliefil and you can also read the original Arabic poem.

No matter our political views today, every nation believes in pride in its land, hope for its future, and the goodness of its people. For Palestine and Iraq there's anguish in every word. Will they see that future they envision?

My homeland, my homeland
Glory and beauty, sublimity and splendor
Are in your hills, are in your hills
Life and deliverance, pleasure and hope
Are in your air, are in your air
Will I see you, will I see you?

New Year by Ed Ochester
Categories: Poetry, eBook
Comments: In the fictional surreal world of dreaming, a man learns a truth he never realized in reality. He'd always assumed his mother had never said, "I love you" to him and implicitly questioned whether she ever loved him. To which, she replies:

"You’ve always been somewhat of
a fool; don’t you remember how,
that time you passed out at my birthday party,
one of your cousins told you later
I cried out ‘My son, my only son!’?"

To What You Said by Walt Whitman
Categories: Poetry, eBook
Comments: Whitman is addressing a woman saying that though she entreated him passionately to be with her, he cannot belong to her like she cannot belong to him. He is consumed by his love for his male comrades (erotic and platonic). And he's always conscious of society's censure and suspicion. In speech at least he defies it and seems to urge society to do so as well.

Behold love choked, correct, polite, always suspicious
Behold the received models of the parlors — What are they to me?

A Not So Good Night in the San Pedro of the World by Charles Bukowski
Categories: Poetry, eBook
Comments: My first reaction was to laugh at this narcissistic piece.

I have no idea of what would be of
interest to you
but I doubt that you would be of
interest to me, so don't get
in fact, come to think of it, you can
kiss my ass.

On second thought, it's a poem of deep depression.

it’s unlikely that a decent poem is in me
let us celebrate the stupidity of our

It's not a poem of anguish, of struggle, but rather one of depression where he's given up. He feels he's completely alone, no one has the slightest interest in him or what he does, and he's defiant in his loneliness. What may be defiance to him, comes across as dangerously low esteem to the reader.

In the Land of Punctuation by Christian Morgenstern
Categories: Poetry, eBook
Diversity: Translated from German
Comments: A delightful poem about the war punctuation marks wage against each other even as they tout their own usefulness.

The peaceful land of Punctuation
is filled with tension overnight
When the stops and commas of the nation
call the semicolons "parasites"


But, woe! A new war looms large,
as dashes against commas charge
And cut across the commas' necks

The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski
Categories: Children's, Picture
Comments: This book came highly recommended by a children's book librarian, but it was less successful for me. This is a case of a framing story filled with little stories inside. The framing story is about a girl who discovers a special book at school and borrows it from her teacher. When she arrives home she realizes that it is full of pictures but there are no words. A whisper tells her to not cry over the loss of words but to imagine her stories for the pictures. Every page of the book for at least a dozen pages is then filled with a picture and a 2-3-sentence fragment of the story the girl has imagined for that page.

Mr. Ox, you must please promise not to tell anyone, but we need your help. Last week..."


Their hundred-mile journey began in a sturdy wooden boat. "Are we there yet?" asked Rabbit. :In another two days and one night," replied Lion. "Oh, that a very long time. I forgot, please remind me again—where are we going?" asked Rabbit

The stories were short, discombobulating, and uninteresting. These story fragments along with the dreamlike, disjointed, superimposed pictorial characters were confusing for me for 2-3 pages and completely confusing for the audience it was meant for.

Last Stop of Market Street by Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson
Categories: Children's, Picture
Diversity: Hispanic author, POC and multicultural characters, people with physical challenges
Comments: This is a brave book that has all sorts of characters from the lower socio-economic classes. The boy and his grandmother cannot afford a car, for example, and have to ride the bus everywhere. His Nana gives the best explanations for all the questions he has.

"Nana, how come we don't got a car?"
"Boy, what do we need a car for? We got a bus that breathes fire, and old Mr. Dennis, who always has a trick for you."

Every Sunday after church, CJ and Nana head over to the poorest part of the town to help serve in the Soup Kitchen.

"How come we always gotta go here after church?" CJ said. He stared out the window feeling sorry for himself. He watched cars zip by on either side, watched a group of boys hop curbs on bikes.

But his grandmother's teaching holds true. When an old woman with curlers and a jar of butterflies got on the bus, he gave her a big smile and said "Good afternoon." When a man with dark glasses, a cane, and a seeing-eye dog got on board, CJ gave up his seat. When the tattooed guitarist played a song, CJ closed his eyes to feel the magic of music and in the darkness, the rhythm lifted CJ out of the bus, out of the busy city.

Nana shows him that there's magic and joy everywhere you see. You just have to look for it.

"How come it's always so dirty over here?"
She smiled and pointed to the sky.
CJ saw the perfect rainbow arcing over their soup kitchen. He wondered how his nana always found beautiful where he never even thought to look.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Coloring My Medieval Art

Oxford University's Bodleian Libraries have created an event called Color Our Collections set up for February 1 to 5. They've put together a coloring book of images of popular art from their collection. But don't feel restricted by just those images. They've suggested that art enthusiasts can color any of the images available online from their collections. The event calls for people to put their colored artwork on Twitter tagged with #ColorOurCollections Feb 1 to 5.

I decided to do image 5 from their coloring book. The original medieval manuscript is here: Auct. 4Q 2.15, Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, Lucain, Suetone, et Salluste [French] folio a2 recto.

This was a dream exercise. After months of studying medieval manuscripts, I could pretend to be a scribe coloring in a colophon in a parchment manuscript.

Here's the black-n-white image.

Here's my colored image.