Friday, March 25, 2016

Picture Day Friday: Vigée Le Brun

The portrait of the Marquise de Pezé and the Marquise de Rouget with her two children was painted in oils in 1787 by Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. It's displayed at the National Gallery of Art and was a gift of the Bay Foundation in memory of Josephine Bay Paul and Ambassador Charles Ulrick Bay. Vigée Le Brun was famous for her portraits of the royal court before the French revolution and was a favorite of Marie Antoinette. She was France's most famous painter of the 18th century and often had a waiting list. She painted more than 800 (!!) portraits in her lifetime and is most known for her life-like depictions of women and children.

Monday, March 21, 2016

#TBRChallenge Reading: The Lady Hellion by Joanna Shupe

2016 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Lady Hellion
Author: Joanna Shupe
My Categories: Romance, Regency
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Recommended Read

This book was recommended by Sarah MacLean in her Best Books of 2015 in WaPo.

The meet cute is very cute. Lady Sophia saunters into Lord Quint's life after months of separation to ask him to act as her second in a duel. Quint naturally is flabbergasted.

And this is how Quint becomes embroiled in Sophie's quest to find justice for women whose bodies were washing up on the shores of the Thames with missing right hands. They were all women of the night for whom no one cared to find justice. Sophie goes from clue to clue dressed as Sir Stephen, entering gaming hells and brothels. Her questions endanger her again and again. She gets stabbed once; she's threatened with gang rape once. And yet Sophie continued undaunted.

Unbeknownst to Quint, Sophie had saved his life many months ago as he lay dying from an infected stab wound. He recovered, but as a result of that stabbing, he becomes housebound with post-traumatic stress disorder and agoraphobia. He despises himself at his, what he terms, "cowardice," because he was unable to help or protect Sophie. He believes that like his father, he is slowly going mad. That is why he refuses to marry Sophie, even when they become intimately involved.

Sophie helps him to slowly overcome his agoraphobia. In the end, when Sophie is taken by the killer, Quint comes through with the help of his friends. What I really liked about this long scene is that Quint doesn't magically get over his diseases and become the alpha hero that's usually the norm for such situations. He has his issues; he knows his limits; and he leans on his friends to help him. And together as a team, they rescue Sophie and dispatche off the villain.

Quint doesn't fully recover at the end of the book, far from it. However, Quint is willing to risk his health for the love of his life, and both Quint and Sophie are committed to helping him recover little by little.

One quibble I had with the book was that once Quint and Sophie have sex for the first time, the pacing of the book became uneven. The main storyline ground to a halt as page real estate was devoted to love scenes and they followed one after the other for a bit with the story not making much forward progress. Once those were out of the way, the story picked up again.

Overall, it was an unusual storyline that was well-told.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Picture Day Friday: A Church Inside a Tree

Well, alright. The church is not exactly inside the tree but the two yew trees flanking the north door of the church make it seem like the church is part of the trees. St. Edmund's parish church is a medieval church that's in Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire, England. It's one of the dozens of Grade 1 listed buildings in the Cotswolds district.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Picture Day Friday: Spanish Medieval Costumes

Spanish clothing circa 1400, according to Costumes of All Nations (1882)

[Image copyrighted by]

Friday, March 4, 2016

Picture Day Friday: Staircase of Book Titles

Isn't this book staircase simply marvelous?

[Image courtesy of CarolinaReader.]

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

My February Reading

In my January Reading post I discussed poems and pictures books and had a lot of fun doing it, so I've decided to continue to do them in my monthly round-ups.

This month's big idea that came out of my reading was "stillness"—sitting still going nowhere as a daily practice. The benefits are myriad from bringing calmness and contentment into your life to allowing you to process the stimuli you receive daily. It's an adult timeout from constant engagement with the world. Such a simple notion. Sit there. Do nothing. Every day for a few minutes. And just like that, you reap immeasurable healthful benefits.

One fact I learned this month is that children love books of all kinds, and they can process sophisticated ideas and facts even at very young ages. So there is no reason to feed them only simplistic fiction. Introduce books of all kinds, the more varied the better. You may think it's above their heads in the beginning, but you'll be surprised by what they can come back with after they've contemplated the material.

One other fact that was borne home to me was that raising children—all children of every disposition and inclination—devoid of expectations is a virtually impossible task and yet so necessary.

Island Fling by Ros Clarke
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, Short Story
Comments: Recommended by Kelly. This is the first romance short story I've ever read. I had assumed that I would not believe in a HEA in such a short form. But this second-chance story works really well. And it's the skilled writing that makes it so.

Here's an example. This is their first love scene after their separation seven years ago.

It ought to feel hurried, urgent, after so long without her. And yet there was a glory in the slow languorous loving that she offered him. Patience that forced him to pleasure in each moment without always rushing on to the next. There would be more and it would be better and deeper, but there was also now and that held its own perfection. So he let her set the pace with her tender kisses that held so much healing. They weren't just making love with their bodies tonight, they were making peace and reconciliation.

Lovely, isn't it? For a short story, it has such a leisurely approach to the storytelling, a place to dream, a place to believe. I loved it. My detailed review is here at All About Romance.

The Innocents by Margery Sharpe
Categories: Literary fiction
Diversity: Features a child on the autistic spectrum
Comments: Recommended by Willaful. This book really made me think and feel. Oh, mostly feel. With such a deft, delicate hand Sharp navigates the mind and circumstances of a girl on the autistic spectrum and through it all she opens this innocent child to our understanding. We learn about her personality, what she values, what she needs, and most importantly, what she gives to those around her.

This is not a saccharine look at autism as Hollywood has it. It is a quiet look at a human being in all her complexity despite her paucity of years. And it is a quiet look at the adult human being in her twilight years who has an enormous capacity for patience, understanding, and caring to bring up a child in comfort and security and respect.

That last word is important: respect. She treats the child with a lot of respect for who she is just the way she is without expectations. I can't imagine how enormously difficult that must've been. Yet, this woman succeeds, because she doesn't think of herself but rather of the child. This is how parenting should be regardless of who your child is.

The child's mother has deposited her three-year-old with this woman, who's also the narrator. The first World War separates them—between New York City and East Anglia—for five years, though the narrator suspects the mother exaggerated the danger of the crossing. It is with sorrow that the narrator shows how the child's mother returns to fetch her like a parcel but instead of getting to know her, she is willfully and neglectfully convinced that psychotherapy, speech therapy, and nannies would help fix the child up in no time. She blames the narrator for unfortunately cossetting the child and getting her to this state. The mother is shown as a flighty, shallow beauty, more concerned with herself and the attention showered on her by others than a caring of those around her.

The book moves at a measured pace, set in a small village in the English countryside. It isn't slow by any means, but it definitely speeds up and becomes suspenseful towards the end. And...Egad, the end. It would be a huge spoiler to even allude to it, so I'll end these thoughts here.

Baby Makes Three by Molly O'Keefe
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, #SuperMonth
Comments: Recommended by Miss Bates, SuperWendy, and SonomaLass. Does O'Keefe take you through the wringer! It was one of those rare books these days where I stayed awake till 1 o'clock and then resumed again at 6 o'clock till I was done. O'Keefe does emotions really well. She truly can enter into her characters' feelings (all of her characters, primary and secondary) and to choose words with care to show them to the reader. The heroine's interaction with a troubled youth was brilliant as was showing how her life experiences had scarred her and her path to recovery from that. What was a stumbling block for me was that the end was rushed so I didn't see a similar maturation of the hero's feelings to where I believed in the complete stability of their second-chance HFN. Given that the hero and heroine had been married, had divorced, and were giving their relationship another go, I really needed to see more of an exploration of that HFN. But gosh, I'm really enjoying exploring O'Keefe's œuvre.

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words by Randall Munroe
Categories: Nonfiction
Comments: Recommended by Bill Gates and his mini review is here. This was the first time one of his recs haven't worked for me. It was a total DNF. The font's miniscule and light gray-blue so very hard to read. The book's imitating a blueprint. However, I've read many far more legible blueprints than this. Each page, or a pair of facing pages, explains simple to complicated facts using diagrams. The complicated diagram to explain something simple like a bridge (called cutesily "tall roads") is ridiculous. Ditto for boxes that make clothes smell better (washers and dryers) and others. He also uses the sample style and complexity of diagrams to explain a fuel rocket, which would've been great to learn about if only I could've read it. Given Munroe's pedigree (he's the author of a science question-and-answer blog called What If? and the author of the comic xkcd), I had high expectations of this book. So it was a disappointment not to be able to appreciate its quirkiness.

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere by Pico Iyer
Categories: Nonfiction
Diversity: Indian-American writer. Book features people from all over the world
Comments: As you know, I'm a huge fan of Iyer's work. I haven't met a book or article he's written that I haven't instantly fallen in love with. Something about his Oxbridge style of confessional writing really appeals to me. This book extolls the virtues and benefits of taking timeouts from the world to be still. I wrote about the book in detail here as my TBR Challenge post for this month.

When Falcons Fall by C.S. Harris
Categories: Mystery, Regency
Note: I received a print ARC from NAL for review
Comments: I have always enjoyed Harris's Sebastian St. Cyr series. I consider them among the top few historical mystery series. My review will be available at All About Romance in March. [Edited: The review is here.]

Lotem Abdel Shafi by Aharon Shabtai
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: Israeli poet. Poem in translation from Hebrew
Comments: Recommended by Eric Selinger. This poem is taken from the poetry collection J'Accuse. Shabtai is an Israeli Jewish professor living and working in Israel. In "Lotem Abdel Shafi," he holds his nation accountable for what he perceives is complete dominance over the Palestinians. He yearns to reach out to the Palestinians, to make them his own.

The heart dies without space for love, without a moral horizon:
think of it then as a bird trapped in a box.
My heart goes out with love to those beyond the fence;
only toward them can one really advance, that is, make progress.
Without them I feel I’m half a person.

Shabtai writes that he's a disciple of Shakespeare, not of Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister. He hopes his daughter will marry the grandson of Haidar Abdel Shafi, a physician and a Palestinian political leader. Shabtai feels betrayed by his own country. He had a vision of what Israel would be like, what its future would be like in that part of the world, and the reality shocks and horrifies him. He had hoped that it would be...

our Land as a whole, belonging equally to all of its offspring,

I'm taking a risk writing about this poem here. I could simply have read it and not posted about it, but I feel that's not being honest with the intent of these monthly recap posts. They're there for me to learn from recapping my thoughts and to share them. I will have to weather accusations of being cruel and unfeeling. I freely admit that as a non-Jewish, non-Arab American living in America, I have very little clue of what reality is like on the ground. But it is only through the words of the great thinkers and writers of the region (Mahmoud Darwish also comes to mind), will I gain a modicum of understanding. So I offer the poem here and my brief commentary on it as my attempt to understand.

Exodus by Taha Muhammad Ali
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: Israeli Arabic poet. Poetry in translation from Arabic
Comments: Recommended by Eric Selinger. This is a poem of such heartbreak, such sorrow. This is what it feels like to be in Palestine. I have no words of my own to share. My fingers are leaden, my stomach is in knots. Here are some words from the poem.

No vein can bleed
more than it already has,
no scream will rise
higher than it’s already risen.
We will not leave!

The shields of light are breaking apart
before the rout and the siege;
outside, everyone wants us to leave.
But we will not leave!

Outside they’re blocking the exits
and offering their blessings to the impostor,
praying, petitioning
Almighty God for our deaths.

In Poetry’s Emergency Room and Avantgardists by Kim Seung Hee
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: South Korean poet. Poems in translation from Korean
Comments: In Poetry’s Emergency Room, the poet writes: Poetry is emergency room, poetry is oxygen tent and also one of your poems, a steaming bowl of rice. Poetry encompasses all life, large life-changing events, such as the birth of a child and deep sorrow, and also the minute grains of rice and small paddy fields. Poetry also has the ultimate power and influence over life: I am saved, you are saved.

In Avantgardists, the poet is trying to explain the boundaries of what an avant-gardist means to society. They have to be evanescent like butterfly wings and soap bubbles, because not doing so would feel obsequious. But they also have to be stalwart like the wind and the waterfall that does not turn but causes others to turn. Avant-gardists are fierce and they're lonesome as they [draw] a line between heaven and earth with a very sharp knife.

They have to stand on the gold thread known as a one-off.
There must be no reserves or repetition in courage. Choice
is seen as a form of suicide

If Only We Had Taller Been by Ray Bradbury
Categories: poetry
Comments: According to Brain Pickings, "On November 12, 1971—the day before NASA’s Mariner 9 mission reached Mars and became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet—Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke sat down for an extraordinary conversation about the future of space exploration and the perennial spirit of discovery." Bradbury read this poem of his during that conversation.

He talks about his hope for humankind's great achievements in space exploration. And he wishes that when God sees what we have achieved He will think us good and accomplished, that He will be pleased.

Aching to hear a voice cry back along the universal Mall:
We’ve reached Alpha Centauri!
We’re tall, O God, we’re tall!

Go Not to the Temple by Rabindranath Tagore
Categories: Poetry
Diversity: Indian Poet
Comments: I believe this poem was written in English and is not in translation from Bengali or some other Indian language. I have read Tagore's work before and always come away with a deep appreciation of the lyrical beauty of his words and the pictures he paints. What a gifted writer!

This poem to me is very Buddhist. God resides within and it is in your power to become more and more God-like through perseverance and patience and humility. You have to strive to achieve God's grace and the way you do so is by working on yourself, your thoughts, your personality, your behavior within and without.

Go not to the temple to bow down your head in prayer,
First learn to bow in humility before your fellowmen...
Go not to the temple to light candles before the altar of God,
First remove the darkness of sin from your heart...

I have a funny story about Tagore. In my first year composition class as a freshman undergraduate, my instructor compared my essay to Tagore's writing. (Imagine that!) But wait. He was not praising it, but rather, denigrating it. He thought Tagore's writing was rather clichéd. (Imagine that!) An English graduate student at a second tier university had the arrogance to call Tagore's writing clichéd. He told me that instead of writing about the rising sun in colorful and musical language, I should compare it to a blonde waitress waking up for breakfast. There was much, MUCH I wanted to say, but I kept it all behind my teeth. All I did was nod. And then went back and changed nothing.

Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold
Categories: Poetry
Comments: The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

In this poem, Arnold is comparing the sea to religious faith. Like the waves surge and ebb against the pebbles of the shore in a melancholy cadence, so is the depressing ebb and struggling flow of the status of religion in people's hearts and minds.

...on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

The light of faith is blinking out while the cliffs of pain and sorrow and struggle stand stalwart. He tells his love let us be true to one another, because while they may think that a land of dreams awaits them in the years to come, reality...

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain

And this is because religious faith is at an all-time low in society. Fewer and fewer people are believing in it as deeply as before.

Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah OHora
Categories: Fiction, Children's Picture Book
Comments: The story is that one day, the Bunny family returns home to find a baby in a basket on their front doorstep. Mama and Papa fall instantly in love. But their daughter Dot is horrified. He's a wolf and she shouts: "He's going to eat us all up!" But the Bunny parents care not a whit for that and lavish their love equally on Wolfie and Dot.

As much as Dot resents and fears Wolfie, that much he adores her and follows her around. One day, they run out of carrots and the two kids are sent to the Carrot Patch to buy some. Dot grudgingly allows Wolfie to tag along behind her. They get to the store and the Bear shopping there takes one look at Wolfie and shouts: "Dinner!" and grabs Wolfie.

Now this was Dot's chance to run away home to her Bunny family and never see Wolfie again. But what does tiny Dot do. She goes toe-to-toe with the Bear and shouts: I'll eat you all up!" The Bear and Dot have an intense exchange with increasing threats from Dot and bewilderment, and fear, from the Bear. Finally, the Bear drops Wolfie and runs away.

Wolfie is so delighted that his hero saved him. Then Dot says to him: "Come on, little brother. Let's go home and eat." And she holds his paw and this tiny bunny and the towering wolf go home.

Such a beautiful, tender story of family and love. It doesn't matter what your loved ones look like, all that matters is that you love them. And you'll do anything for them.

Water is Water by Miranda Paul, illustrated by Jason Chin
Categories: Nonfiction, Children's Picture Book
Comments: This book is about the cycle of water in nature: how it moves, how it changes. It starts out as a cup of water, which becomes steam when it heats up and becomes condensation when it cools up high. Page after page the book describes: fog, rain, puddles & streams, ice, snow melt, and so on until we return to a glass of liquid that we drink. While the concepts are hard-hitting, they're told through very simple words and few words per page that are beautifully and realistically illustrated with a lot of children in motion.