Sunday, December 31, 2006

Spam poetry? Really?

I get a fair amount of spam, and some of the subject lines are funny. Sometimes I send them to amuse TeaBird. She had a brilliant suggestion: collect spam subject lines and arrange them into poetry! I decided to make them into spamkus, that is, spam haikus. Here, Dear Reader, is my first effort, a poem which is fitting for New Year's Day.
"Look at this. Throw down
your doubts and fast join us. Pray
thee, scale greater heights."
Watch this space for more spamkus.
May you be blessed with all you need and lots of what you want this New Year.
(Moon Rani)

Tuesday, December 26, 2006


Thanks to blog reader, Jenny, who told me about It looks like another good site for us tea-lovers. I haven't ordered anything from there, but I recommend you visit the site now while its snowflakes still flutter and while a darling gift set is still featured.

(Moon Rani)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The gifts the "Gift-Tea" gi'e us!

A friend of a friend enjoys tea. Last year my friend gave his friend a box of English Breakfast tea, brand unknown. His friend was delighted enough to hint about this year's Christmas gift. My friend asked my advice. Naturally I was flattered, and sought to deliver my best recommendation.
I learned that the recipient did not know much about tea. I took this as a good sign, as was his pleasure with last year's gift. I had a vague idea of his taste, and I could assume he was open to new ideas. Only see what I suggested because you, too, may have a lovely gift tea to try or to give.
Since the gift recipient liked English Breakfast tea, I suggested blends of black teas known to be sturdy standbys. The first is loved tea-dom, PG Tips. It is hearty, bold and unassuming, takes well to milk or cream should you desire, and also has enough heart to accept honey or sugar. The second tea is Yorkshire Gold, which was, several years ago, named the best-tasting tea in Great Britain. It has similar properties to PG Tips while standing on its own for taste. It has a pretty box, too. I know that last sounds silly, but I think eye-appeal is part of a gift.
I took the liberty of ordering the tea, and I used The ordering was easy, the shipping was a lightning-stroke of rapidity, and the prices were so reasonable that I won't go anywhere else from here on. Ah, and there was a bonus: my friend told me to pick something for myself in payment for my help!
Here is another recommendation, and this one is for a honey that is copacetic with tea. Here I am with a few work holidays, so of course I also have another nasty cold. Today I am drinking a cuppa PG Tips (my "payment" tea mentioned above) sweetened with blueberry blossom honey. This honey is produced by Laney Family Honey, Inc., and was at my grocer. I find it congenial in my comfort tea. It was absolutely perfect during one of my spasms of health-seeking, when I bought Celestial Seasonings' Blueberry Breeze green tea. In fact, it was just what was needed to give the tea a blueberry taste.
(Moon Rani)

Super-Size, please

This is not a book review. It's not a tea review. It's a recommendation for a font size. I am so pleased with an early Christmas gift that I wanted to let others know about it in case they are in need of the same thing.
A friend and I agreed to exchange one Christmas gift apiece. We kept it inexpensive, and each specified the gift desired. My request was for a giant-print Bible. Illness and presbyopia combined to make my ordinary Bible harder and harder to read. In fact, I avoided reading it at all, of late. I buy large-print Reader's Digests and devotional books, and it occurred to me that there must surely be a large-print Bible, too.
What I found was that the "large-print" Bibles could be printed in fonts as small as ten-point. That's not very large. But a "giant-print" had thirteen- or fourteen-point fonts. It makes all the difference in the world! My thoughtful friend decided to give my Christmas present early because he said that no one should have to wait to read a Bible, so I can offer you this modest review.
Perhaps you or someone you know has trouble with ordinary size fonts. Now you know to look for GIANT-PRINT wherever the option is available. If it is a Bible you want, be sure to look at it before you purchase; this is one time when an online purchase might not be the best idea. The thin pages do not bother me, but I can see where they would make reading hard for people who are bothered by the print's showing through from the pages' other sides.
I keep learning how to make reading more accessible to people. Learning to read was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I have tried, in small ways, to help others enjoy reading, too. I used to read aloud on radio stations to blind and visually-impaired and physically disabled people. I used to tutor small children in reading-readiness. Now I am learning about giant-print and thin pages. I offer this information to others in case they don't know such things exist. These innovations might allow others to continue to enjoy reading.
This is an appropriate day to publish this post, as I look at the date. It was my late mother's birthday. Illness and age affected her reading pleasure, too, and I remember how thrilled she was when she discovered large-print books at the library. It was like watching someone learn to read, just seeing her excitement and pleasure when books were, once again, accessible to her.
Remember: if reading is hard for you, make an effort to find a way to work around your difficulties. Don't quit reading. Never quit reading!
(Moon Rani)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Slammerkin - "From the Stacks Winter Challenge"

Slammerkin - Emma Donoghue

I never leave the house without a red ribbon.

Mary Saunders, the focus of Slammerkin, is thrown out
of her house
after being raped for her desire for a red ribbon.

Does the red ribbon establish a kinship between Mary and
Perhaps. Lacking a common desire or situation, the
reader may have
difficulty opening herself to a character
– in my case, the relationship
between a middle-aged
librarian and a doomed teenaged prostitute.

Slammerkin places a very young woman in a desperately
household, where she is neither loved nor consulted
about how her life
will unfold.

All evidence points to a miserable and colorless
continuation of her mother’s life of poverty, drudgery,
subjugation that was sealed when her father
was killed in a misguided protest
by men who believed that
they were going to lose, literally lose,
eleven days of their
lives when the government changed to the
calendar in 1752 -that they would lose time.

I was fascinated by the subjective inconstancy of Mary’s
perception of
time. In her mother’s house, time is nearly a
solid mass, changing
only by suffering and the family’s
heartless response to Mary’s
pregnancy. This response, a
product of the times, is doled out without

How could the family understand the depth of Mary’s need
escape the faded beige of their lives, or the magical hope
by that red ribbon? And yet, how could a mother
cast out her raped,
pregnant daughter?

(As I write, I realize that Mary’s mother is the only truly
unforgivable character in the book. Perhaps my modern-time
sensibility intrudes. All of the subsequent damage and
tragedy that
defined Mary’s brief time, and all of the bitter
focus on the actual
material that she craved in this world,
began with this primal betrayal.
If she was not loved for
what was within, she could, at least, adorn
herself with the transitory beauty of clothes.)

Time, and the times, were different when Mary fled
to London. London
was fast-paced, and the woman who
accepted her into the sisterhood
of prostitutes were fast.
Doll’s love and practical
guidance showed Mary that society
can tolerate – even require –
actions and beliefs far larger
than she had ever imagined. Through
prostitution, Mary
acquired financial independence and freedom to see
some of
thewonders of her modern world. Likethe fireworks over
she and her sisters of the night were brief flashes
of beauty, dressed
in their colorful slammerkins (loose
dresses) and masked behind their

Mary’s sudden need to escape a street thug impelled her
to Magdalene
Hospital, a residence founded to purge the
evil from the street-wise
women. Time was suspended there,
with silence, blandness,
and time to think without fearing
starvation or death in the freezing
streets. With Doll’s death,
Mary realizes that she has to leave London,
and her
retreat ends in a desperate flight from the sanctuary
to the
town where her mother had grown up. Glimpses
of the possibilities
there almost melt her cynicism, but
her nature has been formed, and
she can not escape.

This novel is based, loosely, on the actual life of a Mary
Saunders who
was executed for murder in 1764. From the
beginning of the novel,
when Mary is 13, to her death by
hanging at age 16, Mary passes
through more lifetimes
than many experience in ten times the years.

How many such lifetimes can a child endure? For Mary is a
child, and
my working-class perception of childhood
makes me ache for this young
girl, whose only
transgression was the love of a piece of red ribbon.

How does the red ribbon bind me to Mary’s life? For both the
18th -
century child and the 21st century woman, the red
ribbon symbolizes
hope. Mary’s hope for a better life is
destroyed, but the
hopes of my Eastern European Jewish
ancestors for the children who would be born in the new
world, and would escape the Evil Eye of the old. have
realized. After reading Slammerkin, I realize anew
that I am, indeed,


Thank you, Stephanie, for giving me this book!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Reading Women

reading woman.jpg
I'm so lucky. I am a cataloger in a public library, and I get to handle every book that comes in. Children's books, reference books, fiction, poetry - everything comes through my hands. This compensates for a lot of the daily angst (oh yes, there is angst in a library!).

I just cataloged a new art book, Reading Women by Stefan Bollman. Every reading woman will see herself in paintings by Vermeer, Manet, Vuillard, or Alma-Tededma, or photographs, such as "Alice Liddell" by Julia Cameron (below).

alice liddell
I also found a review by the Guardian Unlimited - actually, not a review in the sense of criticism. It's a collection of short essays, each by a renowned writer who has focused on one of the images.

A. S. Byatt, for example, responds to "In the Library" by Edouard Vuillard, seeing a story in the setting of two children and a distant, perhaps disapproving young woman in the doorway of an ornate library.

Jeanette Winterson writes about a photograph of Marilyn Monroe by Eve Arnold, saying "She doesn't have to pose, we don't even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration."

Other Guardian essayists include Alison Lurie, Hilary Mantel, and P.D. James. If I owned a copy of this book, I would keep the article folded in its pages to remind myself to distill my visual pleasure into my own medium - language.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Early reading meme

I found this at Heather's site, The Library Ladder. (It was written by Kate, of Kate's Book Blog.)

1. How old were you when you learned to read and who taught you?
Family legend has it that I read at age 3, and that no one taught me. Family legend also has it that my mother read at age 2 1/2, and she could read upside down, from a newspaper. Family dynamic has it that everyone in the family is a genius, but some have more extravagant ways of proving it.

2. Did you own any books as a child? If so, what’s the first one that you remember owning? If not, do you recall any of the first titles that you borrowed from the library?
I owned many books. The first one I remember was a Little Golden Book about ballet. All of the little girls in the book were tiny blonde goddesses. I studied ballet for years, but I never achieved goddesshood, or blondeness. Fortunately, I learned the difference between fiction and non-fiction very early. As for books I borrowed from the library, The Little Lame Prince, which I borrowed so many times from the school library that I still remember where it was shelved!

3. What’s the first book that you bought with your own money?
Jane Eyre. My parents took me to the big Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue in New York because my mother wanted to buy art books. I wandered over to the fiction section and happened upon Jane Eyre. Reader, I bought it.
I should also mention another book I bought when I was very young: Franny and Zooey. I bought it in the local 5 & 10 cent store. The clerk was reluctant to sell it to me because she thought it was pornographic, and that I was too young to read it. I'm sure she hadn't read it. I've read it so many times since then that I can recite passages from it. I've never outgrown the notion that I am Franny's astral twin, nor the gratitude that my mother never tried to put me on a show like "It's a Wise Child." (How did she miss that one?)

4. Were you a re-reader as a child?
Yes. I still am a re-reader. As a child, I re-read Little Women (a gift from my paternal grandfather) and Jane Eyre (see above).

5. What’s the first adult book that captured your interest and how old were you when you read it?
Again, Jane Eyre. I identified with her loneliness and the way she had to repress her passions.

6. Are there children’s books that you passed by as a child that you have learned to love as an adult? Which ones?
Andersen's fairy tales, especially "The Emperor's Nightingale,""The Snow Queen" and "The Little Mermaid." I wasn't particularly interested in fairy tales when I was a child, but I became obsessed with them as I got older. Now, I see many things in everyday life as expressions of myth and tale and archetype, and I long to learn more.

Thanks, Heather, for passing on this meme - anyone may consider herself tagged. Please let me know if you do the meme so I can come over for a visit!


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Travel to the Republic of Tea!

The United States of America is my favorite republic, and the republic of India is a close second, but there's a third republic that is dear to my heart, albeit in a different way: The Republic of Tea. The Republic of Tea is a Novato, California-based company that produces consistently tasty, quality tea. Many flavored varieties are available. They also turn out a cracking good plain British Breakfast tea - - and that's quite an endorsement from this Irish Breakfast tea lover.
A great deal of thought (and market research) went into producing these teas, from their pretty canisters to the teas to the little, round teabags that contain of the some varieties. Many of the flavors have little slogans under their tea names. For example, the British Breakfast tea has the slogan, "the perfect cuppa." It is a very good plain tea, and I recommend it for those times when you are looking for a good, heart- and body-warming cuppa. It is wonderful for making tea toddies, and it stands up nicely to cream or sugar, but it won't tax you with exotic tastes. It just takes care of you, the tea lover who needs and wants a dependable cuppa, an arm around the shoulder, a pick-me-up.
I am wild for the Wild Blueberry tea (fair trade certified). The label itself is pretty, as, indeed, are all the labels from this company. The tea is delightful! I love blueberries, and I love this marriage of fine black tea with natural blueberry flavors and blueberries. It was (till I ran out - - oops!) my preferred cuppa, my "go-to" tea. Not only did it comfort my frequent stomach distresses, but it just plain tastes delicious. All tea acts as a restorative for me, but this one does that even more so. It stands alone or with sweetening. It is my current favorite.
Another tea worth the time to brew is Blackberry Sage, the "tea for wisdom." I tried drinking it by the gallon, but I'll be darned if I feel any wiser! This is a fine black tea blended with natural blackberry flavor and sage. I like sipping this tea while I write or read. It's a rich blend of bold black tea, a little fruitiness and a touch of the Middle East with its sage notes.
The Vanilla Almond, "sweeten the mind tea," would make a wonderful after-dinner tea or dessert tea. It goes very well with plain, lightly-sweet cookies for afternoon tea. It can sweeten a dismal morning, too, such as one of those mornings when you simply must go to work to keep body and soul together even though you would far rather stay home and curl up to read one of the books you found here on TeaReads.
"Tea for the Queen of Hearts" is the last of my Republic of Tea favorites. It is Rose Petal Tea, sold only for about a month, annually, to coincide with Valentine's Day. If ever I give a Valentine tea, I will certainly serve Rose Petal Tea in a red pot. I simply love the taste of flowers, so was drawn to sample this tea like a bee is drawn to, well, flowers. It is a very pretty loose tea, with visible rose buds and petals among the fine black tea leaves. If you make it, I suggest using a large mug instead of a teacup so you can watch "the agony of the leaves" and roses as it steeps. The first time I tried this tea I was overcome with romantic warmth - - little hearts fairly danced circles round my head. It is perfect for a romantic afternoon or evening in, and it tastes just as good when you have tea solo.
To arrange your own trip to The Republic of Tea, phone 1-800-298-4TEA, or visit
Bon voyage!
(Moon Rani)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Unnatural Death

Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner is my latest indulgence in true-crime reading. I picked up this book so quickly that I failed to notice its copyright is 1989. Although there is a 2005 foreword that updates some of the information in the book, the book itself is unchanged. Thus, some of the information presented herein is either outdated or now known to be in error.
The book is a compilation of case histories from Medical Examiner Michael M. Baden, M.D., with co-author, Judith Adler Hennessee. Some of the autopsies Dr. Baden conducted, consulted on or reviewed were of famous people, people as disparate as President Kennedy and John Belushi. He offers information gained through his work, then shows how it proves - - or disproves - - popular beliefs of celebrity deaths. He also writes of other deaths, those of people who were unknown beyond their immediate circles of friends and relations. Included in this book are tales of how Dr. Baden's refusal to play politics affected his career. Until I read this book, it never occurred to me that politics played any role at all in the world of medical examination.
I wish there were another edition of this book, an updated one. That's a drawback in my recommendation. However, I commend both authors for using plain and clear language that conveys information in a way that is easily understood by those of us who have no knowledge of autopsies and medical examining.
Instant gratification may be one reason I enjoyed reading this book. The deceased's physical state was described, and I paused to think about what would cause this or that condition, if it pointed to a certain type of death, what other explanations might be correct, and so on. Then - - presto! - - I had the answers right in my hand, waiting to be read. Another benefit is that the book provides the opportunity to learn and to become a little more informed. I love that.
Written by Moon Rani

Sara Teasdale

Something about the Plath poem makes me think of this, by Sara Teasdale:

There will come soft rains

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum-trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire.

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly.

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

A newly-discovered poem by Sylvia Plath !

What riches!

A newly-discovered poem by Sylvia Plath has been published by
Blackbird, an online journal of literature and the arts. Written when she was an undergraduate at Smith College, it "germinated from Plath's creative response to The Great Gatsby..." -

(And yes, of course, this is Daisy:"blase princesses indict/tilts at terror as downright absurd.")

ackbird has decided to publish it "to recognize and celebrate the disciplined hard work she put into her early writing." Click to read the whole poem, and to see two early typescripts.

Ennui -

Tea leaves thwart those who court catastrophe,
designing futures where nothing will occur...

I am so delighted that I don't even want to think yet! I just want to bask for awhile and reread "The Beast in the Jungle," which informs yet another allusive line ("The beast in Jamesian grove will never jump..."). Who can read that story and not shudder?


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Arianna Huffington, On Becoming Fearless

I'm reading this book because I want to be Arianna when I grow up, and because I can not believe that she ever was fearful.

Right now, I'm reading the chapter about the body.
How many times do we read that the key to taking control over parts of our lives is to change the negative self-talk to positive? And yet, affirmations have never worked for me, so I loved reading Arianna's take. "It was only when I began observing the critical voices inside me rather than giving in to them that I could start to take control over them. Instead of being drained by the negative self-talk, I found myself amused by it the way you are by a naughty child... We may not be able to tune them out entirely, but we don't have to let them run the show."

It never occurred to me to be amused by these voices - what a concept!

Arianna intersperses her text with excellent quotes, and by short essays by other strong women, including Nora Ephron, Sherry Lansing, and Diane Keaton. My favorite quote so far is by Maureen Dowd, whom I also want to be when I grow up: "It took only a few decades to create a brazen new world where the highest ideal is to acknowledge your inner slut."

To be continued...


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

An old love affair renewed

My recent cold and subsequent upswing in tea consumption depleted my honey supply (see "Comfort Tea"). I stocked up on a reasonably-priced, Floridian honey available at grocery stores. I looked, without success, for Tupelo honey, my favorite Then an old love caught my eye - - orange blossom honey. What a treat it has been to stir this lovely, flavorful honey into my cuppas this week! I forgot just how tasty it is. Now I would have to say that Tupelo has a challenger for first place on my list. Next time I go honey-shopping, I'll try a new one: blueberry blossom honey. It sounds so good that it just might provoke a three-way tie.
(written by Moon Rani)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Winter Reading Challenge

book challenge

Have you seen this? I've joined. My books will be:

Slammerkin - Emma Donoghue
Short History of Myth - Karen Armstrong
Rereadings - Anne Fadiman
Life Studies - Susan Vreeland
On Becoming Fearless - Arianna Huffington

Check out The Incredible Growing List for inspiration -

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Comfort tea

I've been down with a filthy cold for a week, now. I'll spare you the unpleasant details, but I will tell you how I find comfort when cold viruses lay me low. During the day, whether at work or home, I make piping cups of Sweet Ginger Peach tea, laced with honey [].
At night, I make tea toddies. Once I'm sure I'm home for the night, I boil a cup of water. While the kettle's on, I scald my mug, then add a teabag. In a pinch, I once used Lipton decaffeinated. I plunk a cinnamon stick into the mug, and, perhaps, a small grating of nutmeg or a tiny hint of clove (one whole clove or a whisper of ground). After I splash in a couple of tablespoons of rum (or whisky or whiskey) and a generous squeezing of fresh lemon juice (or lime juice, if that's all I have), the water has come to a boil, and I pour it in, too. A drizzle of honey, mixed in well, goes in last. Then I get into a comfortable chair or a warm bed, and wait four or five minutes for the toddy to blend before I drink. Although the boiling water takes the mule-kick out of the alcohol, it can still be potent, and I can be sensitive, so I make sure I'm safe before imbibing. I don't want to get lightheaded and risk falling, you see.
Tea toddies don't rid me of my cold, but they provide warm soothing comfort. When I'm sick in bed, I'll take soothing comfort in a cup any day.
(written by Moon Rani)

Sunday, October 29, 2006


Today I am thankful for peppermint tea and those few clocks that we own that set themselves. Hope everyone enjoyed their extra hour of sleep last night. I know I did.

What goes perfectly with poetry?

Why, tea, of course! And here is a site you might find fun to window-shop.
There is a large variety of all things tea-related. There is even an eponymous tea offered (haven't tried it, though). My favorite item? It might just be the bee-skep honey pot.
(writen by Moon Rani)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Wallace Stevens: Sea surface full of clouds

I came across this poem this morning, here, while I wandered around some writing and reading blogs. Maybe it snagged me because my husband and I have been watching "Brideshead Revisited." The last two episodes we watched took place on the ship, and the sea was a powerful influence on the development and dissolution of relationships.
Thank you, Bloglily, for sharing this poem.

Sea Surface Full Of Clouds

Wallace Stevens


In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And in the morning summer hued the deck

And made one think of rosy chocolate
And gilt umbrellas. Paradisal green
Gave suavity to the perplexed machine

Of ocean, which like limpid water lay.
Who, then, in that ambrosial latitude
Out of the light evolved the morning blooms,

Who, then, evolved the sea-blooms from the clouds
Diffusing balm in that Pacific calm?
C’était mon enfant, mon bijou, mon âme.

The sea-clouds whitened far below the calm
And moved, as blooms move, in the swimming green
And in its watery radiance, while the hue

Of heaven in an antique reflection rolled
Round those flotillas. And sometimes the sea
Poured brilliant iris on the glistening blue.


In that November off Tehuantepec
The slopping of the sea grew still one night.
At breakfast jelly yellow streaked the deck

And made one think of chop-house chocolate
And sham umbrellas. And a sham-like green
Capped summer-seeming on the tense machine

Of ocean, which in sinister flatness lay.
Who, then, beheld the rising of the clouds
That strode submerged in that malevolent sheen,

Who saw the mortal massives of the blooms
Of water moving on the water-floor?
C’était mon frère du ciel, ma vie, mon or.

The gongs rang loudly as the windy booms
Hoo-hooed it in the darkened ocean-blooms.
The gongs grew still. And then blue heaven spread

Its crystalline pendentives on the sea
And the macabre of the water-glooms
In an enormous undulation fled.


In that November off Tehuantepec,
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And a pale silver patterned on the deck

And made one think of porcelain chocolate
And pied umbrellas. An uncertain green,
Piano-polished, held the tranced machine

Of ocean, as a prelude holds and holds,
Who, seeing silver petals of white blooms
Unfolding in the water, feeling sure

Of the milk within the saltiest spurge, heard, then,
The sea unfolding in the sunken clouds?
Oh! C’était mon extase et mon amour.

So deeply sunken were they that the shrouds,
The shrouding shadows, made the petals black
Until the rolling heaven made them blue,

A blue beyond the rainy hyacinth,
And smiting the crevasses of the leaves
Deluged the ocean with a sapphire blue.


In that November off Tehuantepec
The night-long slopping of the sea grew still.
A mallow morning dozed upon the deck

And made one think of musky chocolate
And frail umbrellas. A too-fluent green
Suggested malice in the dry machine

Of ocean, pondering dank stratagem.
Who then beheld the figures of the clouds
Like blooms secluded in the thick marine?

Like blooms? Like damasks that were shaken off
From the loosed girdles in the spangling must.
C’était ma foi, la nonchalance divine.

The nakedness would rise and suddenly turn
Salt masks of beard and mouths of bellowing,
Would—But more suddenly the heaven rolled

Its bluest sea-clouds in the thinking green,
And the nakedness became the broadest blooms,
Mile-mallows that a mallow sun cajoled.


In that November off Tehuantepec
Night stilled the slopping of the sea.
The day came, bowing and voluble, upon the deck,

Good clown… One thought of Chinese chocolate
And large umbrellas. And a motley green
Followed the drift of the obese machine

Of ocean, perfected in indolence.
What pistache one, ingenious and droll,
Beheld the sovereign clouds as jugglery

And the sea as turquoise-turbaned Sambo, neat
At tossing saucers—cloudy-conjuring sea?
C’était mon esprit bâtard, l’ignominie.

The sovereign clouds came clustering. The conch
Of loyal conjuration trumped. The wind
Of green blooms turning crisped the motley hue

To clearing opalescence. Then the sea
And heaven rolled as one and from the two
Came fresh transfigurings of freshest blue.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Practical reading

Although I have not dived into any pleasure-reading since my last experience (see previous post), I am reading two books in a series which I wish to recommend. I work as a nanny. I returned to work last year after having been away from childcare for a number of years. Infants and toddlers have made up the bulk of my young charges, and my current job gives me fulltime care of a boy who is just over one year old. However, he also has two schoolage siblings, and I shall care for them on occasion, as well. Realizing my skills needed sharpening, I turned to some tried-and-true sources.
The Gesell Institute of Human Development has a book series from the late 1970s-mid1980s that draws portraits of children one year at a time. They are written by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. assisted by one of several coauthors such as Frances L. Ilg, M.D. and Carol Chase Haber, M.A. The titles go according to year, so there is Your Three-Year-Old, Your Six-Year-Old and so on. Each book gives excellent sketches of children covering their physical, mental and emotional characteristics. It gives practical hints according to age, too. Arming myself with such information helps me to, say, brush off the comment of one of my charges in a recent episode. She learned that my car was being repaired, and asked, "Oh, did your car break down?" I knew I was being setup by a creature who fancies herself crafty but who is both transparent and obvious, and who is in an age when she delights in saying things that are inappropriate.
"Yes, it did," I said.
"Oh, good!"she crowed, "I'm so glad!"
As her nanny, I could ignore her and deprive her of the attention she hoped her rudeness would garner.
[But if I'd been her mother, I would have taken her aside for a quick and firm reminder that we don't celebrate other people's misfortunes.]
Arming myself with information from these books allows me to detach from situations better, to take things less personally, understanding that so much of behavior reflects development. It also allows me to handle things in ways that actually work. Lots of power struggles can be avoided this way, as can some of the daily melodrama of childrearing. I like knowing which events and behaviors are important and which just ways to get reactions from adults, attempts at manipulation, testing of boundaries and so on.
I have read complaints on that this series is dated. It is true that some of the information is out of date; do not believe the statistics cited, for example, because they are old. Some of the examples used are no longer as common as they were at the time. But the basic information about how a child functions is solid, useful and trustworthy.
Another book I like is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Marsh. It's full of practical ideas for doing just what it says. Then I can avoid falling into traps such as asking a child, "Is it okay if Nanny changes your diaper? Please, Sweetie, please?" It is much more effective, for another example, to say firmly to a two-year old, "No hit," and not (as one mother I knew did), "Please don't hit Mommy, okay, Honey, because it hurts Mommy's feelings a lot and then she gets very sad." Age-appropriate boundaries are useful; so is knowing what appeals to a child at which age.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Animal talk

An animal-lover since I was a tot who doted on a Chihuahua named Bambi, I thought If Only They Could Talk, The Mircles of Spring Farm, by Bonnie Jones Reynolds and Dawn E. Hayman was perfect for a late summer reading choice. It was among the bargain books I purchased from Edward R. Hamilton, Bookseller. Owing to one pitfall of mail-ordering books, my choice did not suit at all. So many titles in the catalogue are unfamiliar that one must rely on the thumbnail sketches given. Sometimes one finds little treasures this way. Sometimes the books prove disappointing because the synopses were too short to give full and clear descriptions.
Thus it was with If Only... The book cover says it is "An inspiring true story about listening to the animals we love." I took that to mean discerning their behavior and sounds. Somehow I imagined it might tell stories about sick, disabled, unwanted and/or deformed animals that were taken in and which went on to live happy lives with the authors.
However, I was wrong. The authors believe they can communicate with animals telepathically; one says she receives messages from animals that died recently. If that concept appeals to you, I recommend this book. If you are skeptical, as I am, then you'll want to keep looking for another animal book. As for my copy, it is headed - - mostly unread - - for the next charity booksale.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield is being flogged at Borders and Barnes & Noble as a must-read novel. I'm about to plunge into Gulliver's Travels for Knit the Classics, but I wanted a palate-cleanser, so to speak, so I brought the book home from the library and settled in with a cup of tea.

The strange thing, since the book is based on twinnage, is that my reading experience was Janus-like. My middle name is Jan. Maybe Jan is the mediator between the happy-to-have-read-this Janusface and the oh-come-on! Janusface?

The book utterly, totally engrossed me as I was reading. The book also utterly, totally annoyed me. Can this woman write, or not? Is she leaving clues that make McGuffins look like Tinkertoys, or not? Am I reading on because I like the way the publisher made the flyleaves look like those in old-fashioned books, or not?

Margaret Lea is a young woman whose life balances between two obsessions: her father's antiquarian bookstore, and lonely grief for her twin sister, who died in infancy, and whose existence she discovered by accident. Victoria Winter is an old woman, a writer of popular books (Gothic mysteries?), who summons Margaret to be her biographer. Winter has spent most of her adult life creating the stories for her books, and creating false biographies for herself, but she wants to tell the truth before she dies of a mysterious, painful, wasting disease.

Victoria Winter is depicted as a wasted, painted crone with hair dyed to the copper color of her youth, wearing massive jewelry, and telling an enthralled Margaret a spellbinding narrative. (I thought of Isak Dinesen.) Jane Eyre figures in the plot. Rebecca comes to mind. Of course, Dark Shadows, whose young Victoria Winters began that Gothic series. Victoria and her twin sister, presumably dead from the massive fire that destroyed their childhood home, were wild, cunning, even evil children who may or may not have caused mysterious deaths and mayhem around them. Links amongst other characters abound - or do they? A gardener, a missing nanny, a woman who may or may not be a Mrs. Danvers-type, a fey man who haunts the burnt-out shell of the house in-between catering local galas, and ghosts, many ghosts - the plot is absolutely stuffed with recognizable characters and plots.

A key, I think, is whether they are cliches or inventions. Can one twin take the place of another? Can she control the other, even from beyond the grave? Can one book have this many twists and still remain respectable? I confess: I don't read Gothic romances, so I might be defaming an entire genre with my doubts...

I confess: I enjoyed a few details. The cat, Shadow, for example, who attaches himself to Margaret and even shows her the way to a few important clues. (I've always wanted a familiar.) A woman who knits socks, and who knits them with two heels when things are about to go wrong in her life. Margaret's cocoa Jones, and fetish for perfectly-sharpened pencils.

The ending did surprise me, as did at least one or two of the plot twists. Margaret, with her largely-unfulfilled desire for provable details and her obsessive longing for her dead sister, may not be the ideal narrator, but I trusted her to be honest about what she observed and what she doubted. I read the book in a few hours, and I never was tempted to put it down in favor of another book. I just can't really recommend it. Or, at least, Jan can't...

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Kerouac on tea:

from Dharma Bums:

Now you understand the oriental passion for tea," said Japhy. "Remember that book I told you about the first sip is joy, the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, and the fifth is ecstasy."

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Papers

Cassatt_woman_readingMary Cassatt is one of my guiding angels. Her paintings of women writing letters, drinking tea, reading, and doing needlework illuminate a life I often imagine for myself - a life surrounded by quiet beauty and the leisure to appreciate it.

Harriet Scott Chessman, the author of Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Papers, has gone beyond the escapist dream by bringing the reader into the life of Lydia Cassatt, the frail older sister who posed for many of Mary Cassatt's best-known paintings. "I have thought, imagined, and dreamt my way into her world," says the author. The narrative wanders as Lydia poses, musing as she holds up a teacup for hours or reads a newspaper. Lydia remembers the young man she once loved, the images she saw through her dead brother's telescope, the great artists she has known (Degas, Pissarro, Renoir), and her mother's sense of betrayal when Mary sells portraits of family members.

"Who is going to care about such pictures as much as Mary's own family?" asks Mother Cassatt. Lydia understands the core of Mary's art - how she works for hours to capture the image, gesture, and illumination of one moment, how beloved and iconic these paintings will become.

Lydia does not always understand what Mary sees, and especially not what Mary see is her, but she cherishes the gift that her sister has given her by using her image as the public face of Mary's genius.

Mary Cassatt creates the five paintings that comprise the narrative after Lydia is diagnosed with Bright's disease, inevitably fatal in the nineteenth century. Lydia's disease, her helplessness and agony, often delays the progression of the paintings. It does not affect the bond between Lydia and her sister, whose love and care seem to bathe Lydia's suffering in the rosy, caressing light in the portraits. Even Degas, whose brusque and sarcastic manner often upsets Mary, seems to become a more caring, softer presence as Lydia's life ebbs.

Chessman portrays the details of Lydia's disease and decline in prose quite blunt. One does not have to imagine the pain or embarassment of these symptoms; the prose leaves little room for imagination. However, Lydia is neither diminished by her disease nor severed from her essence. She retains the ability to observe, analyze, and understand her sister's vision and her own joy to have been a part of Mary's art.

At the end of her life, Lydia's deepest imaginings buoy her: "To live in that world you made... that creamy world of no difficulty, no blood... a life like a shell curling in on itself, glistening and clean on the sand, rolled in salt water, rolled and rolled, spent and spending." This book allows the reader to bask in both worlds - the world illumined by the magic captor of light, and the world in which we observe the mundane details behind the illusion.

Chessman has written a seamless and welcome glimpse of these worlds. Don't miss it.

Monday, September 04, 2006

When in doubt, do a meme

I got this one from Booking Through Thursday --

  1. What is most battered book in your collection? The one with loose pages, tattered corners, and page edges so soft that there's not even a risk of paper cuts anymore? Franny and Zooey - Franny, c'est moi, in so many ways, and for so long.

  2. Why is this book so tattered? Is it that you love it so much that you've read it a zillion times? Is it a reference book you've used every day for the last seven years? Something your new puppy teethed on when you weren't looking? Even today, a zillion years after I first read it, I pick it up, lose myself in the Glass family, and remind myself that everyone is the Fat Lady.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Who is Edward R. Hamilton?

This post is not, strictly speaking, about a book, yet it is hemisemidemi-qualified for TeaReads. There is a book catalogue - - yes, the old-fashioned, mail-order kind - - to which I've subscribed for several years. It is a collection of recent publications (within the past couple of years), older books and things you never heard, plus a few items you'll wish you never heard of. There is also an adults-only section.
This catalogue has a Website:
I do not use the Website because there is a (small) surcharge, and because I am so fond of mail-order purchases, but it does offer a larger selection than does the paper catalogue.
After beginning a new job this week, I sent a small order to Edward R. Hamilton. I find it takes about two weeks from the day I pop my order into the mail until the day I lug the new books off my doorstep and into my house. The shipping charge is always $3.50, a steal for large and/or heavy orders. Most of the prices are discounted, and the books' conditions are noted, as some may be shopworn.There is quite a variety available from ERH. Over the years, I have purchased the biography of John Adams, two compendia of Charles Addams cartoons, a cookbook, an illustrated guide to physical therapy exercises, a murder mystery and a book on quilting, among others. There are coffee table books, including one I covet (a book on the art of Klimt), weird and bizarre books, children's books, videotapes, DVDs, cassette tapes and more. Even if you purchase nothing, you'll enjoy browsing.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Goodbye, Summer Reading Challenge

I tried. I didn't fail completely. I read more books, more closely, than I would have otherwise. Thank you, Amanda - it was a great idea!

Next time, I shall challenge myself to a number of books, or a ratio of fiction to nonfiction, or discovering a new poet every month. I should have known myself better than to select specific titles months in advance. It was way too much like following a syllabus. By the time I finished my B.A. in English literature, way back in 1975, I had developed a lifelong allergy to Required Reading - even if the Requiring was self-inflicted!

The list of books also deprived me of this bookish soul's joy in discovering a book and plunging right in.

So, here's my list. I finished the ones in bold type:

Ackerman, Diane. An alchemy of mind.
Armstrong, Karen. A short history of myth.
Armstrong, Karen. The spiral staircase.

Briggs, Julia. Virginia Woolf, an inner life.
Bronte, Emily. Wuthering Heights.
Byatt, A.S. The biographer's tale
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: a biography.
Jewett, Sarah Orne. The country of the pointed firs.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Timothy, or, notes of an abject reptile.
Macmillan, Margaret. Women of the Raj.
Maddox, Brenda. Yeats's ghosts: the secret life ot W.B. Yeats.
Meade, Marion. Bobbed hair and bathbub gin.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita.
Prose, Francine. A changed man.
See, Lisa. Snow flower and the secret fan.
Tan, Amy. Saving fish from drowning.

I did start Yeats's Ghosts, but decided to apply Nancy Pearl's rule about reading 50 pages of a book and asking oneself, are you enjoying it? I was not enjoying it at all.

I chose the book because I love Yeats, and because the book promised a deep examination of the role of the subconscious and archetypes in his creative process. It may do so, but I find the book so tedious and plotting that I am bored. That is so rare, especially in a biography! Alas...

I discovered a few more bookish blogs and added them to the sidebar. I'd love discover more! Any suggestions?

Monday, August 07, 2006

An article from The Chicago Tribune: Nyala Press

I came across this article in The Chicago Tribune:
Ethiopian Publisher is Looking for Simple, Noble, Human Stories

This link will take you to a fascinating story about Ethiopian
publisher,Fassil Yirgu. The Nyala Press publishes immigrants'
writings about their journeys to and in America. Perhaps this is
of especial interest to me because I am a first-generation
American on one side of my family,and a second-generation
American on the other side.So many families have stories
about coming to America!

Follow this link to Nyala Publishing, to learn how to order a
book that is on my personal reading list, The Texture of
. It is a work of fiction by immigrant author, Fasil
Yitbarek, telling the story of anEthiopian man who moved to
New York City.

Sometimes the way to see your own home is through the
eyes of a newcomer,and this book will provide that perspective.

There are other selections from African authors on the Nyala
site.I believe they are worth a look, based on an experience I
had several years ago. My local public library offered
screenings of movies made in countries all over Africa.
Almost all of them were exceedingly good, surpassing much
of the popular fare in American cinema. They were fresh and
new, rich in detail, they had stories to tell, and the imagery
was gorgeous. Every single movie left me thinking about it
for a long time. I think all of that probably finds its way into
the books such as The Texture of Dreams.
--- SilverMoonRani --

Friday, August 04, 2006

Would you like to peek...

at my summer reading list? It's not a list, really, but a stack of books in the living room, plus one or two which I plan to buy in a more prosperous time.
My summer reading began with Blue Monday, by Rick Coleman (see post, "Of Domino and rock 'n' roll"). Having had a glimpse into the rich gumbo that is the blues and early rock and roll whetted my appetite. Perhaps my appetite can be slaked by my future purchase, The Language of the Blues: from Alcorub to Zuzu, by Debra DeSalvo. So many words and phrases, common and uncommon, originated in one place or another, were then picked up by blues artists and continue today, though frequently not with their original meanings. This book is a blues dictionary, backed up by painstaking research. I'm in love with dictionaries anyway, and this one will make a fine addition to my collection.
My current read is from the true-crime bookshelf. Eye of the Beholder, by Lowell Cauffiel, details the gunshot murder of Michigan television news personality, Diane Newton King. Clues are sparse; there seems to be no motive. Ms. Newton King left a husband and two babies. Are their lives also endangered by her killer? Did the police manage to stitch together what happened from the patches of evidence they collected, or did this remain a mystery? Well, you'll just have to read for yourself and learn. caveat: Mr. Cauffiel needed a crack editor, but didn't get one.
Next in my book stack is another self-improvement guide. You see, I'm hopelessly reclusive and socially backward. But perhaps reading the critically-praised The Art of Civilized Conversation will give me a modicum of sophistication on the rare occasions I do venture Out Among People. If so, I can thank the author, Margaret Shepherd (with Sharon Hogan). Ms. Shepherd also wrote The Art of the Handwritten Note, in case you, dear reader, wish to polish your epistolary skills.
Attempting to educate myself is an ongoing process, as the book above shows. The next two books in my stack are also self-improvement tomes. The first is The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had, by Susan Wise Bauer. The second is an older book that was rereleased recently, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar and Rhetoric, by Sister Miriam Joseph, CSC; PhD. Can I play Pygmalian to my own Galatea? Maybe. I'll let you know how educated and sophisticated I become, dear reader.
A friend recommended the last book in my stack, The Seven Levels of Intimacy, by Matthew Kelly. The book's subtitle is The Art of Loving and the Joy of Being Loved. The dust jacket notes say this book is "a brilliant and practical guide to creating and sustaining intimacy," and go on to say that this intimacy can be between romantic partners, parents and children, or in other love relationships. I missed seeing the author speak several months ago, but my friend's recommendation intrigued me enough that I bought the book.
There may be other books in my stack, but these are enough for now. Now if you'll excuse me, I want to go read...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Very Selective Book Meme

Very Selective Book Meme

(stolen from
The Library Ladder: Orange Blossom Goddess a/k/a Heather)

1. One book that changed your life:
Jane Eyre. I read it when I was about 10, for the first time - I remember that I bought a used, hardback copy in the old Barnes & Noble, downtown, Fifth Avenue. My parents had taken me there as a treat, so you know what manner of child I was. (The child is mother to the woman, eh?) I still have that copy, and I can open to any page and read with pleasure.

2. One book that you've read more than once:
Everyone seems to be saying Little Women, and that would be one of mine, too - but I'll say Mrs. Dalloway, which I practically have memorized.

3. One book you'd want on a desert island:
Savage Beauty (biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay) -Nancy Mitford. (The meme doesn't say the ONLY book...)

4. One book that made you laugh:
I'm reading Lolita right now, and it's drop-dead funny, despite (because of?) the sheer monstrousness of Humbert Humbert, and the utterly awful object of his desire. Nabokov's language is outrageously funny and beautiful, and now I know why Amy Tan reads this book yearly, just to plunge into the language.

5. One book that made you cry:
Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This?, by Marion Meade. Something about Dorothy Parker touches my heart, and Meade illuminates this sad, frustrated life. Another woman whose biographies make me cry: Zelda Fitzgerald.

6. One book you wish you had written:
The Time Traveller's Wife.

7. One book you wish had never been written:
Heather said, "I can’t say there are any books I wish hadn’t been written…just books I wish I hadn’t read." Ditto.

8. One book you're currently reading:
Yeats's Ghosts - Brenda Maddox.

9. One book you've been meaning to read:
A Changed Man - Francine Prose. It's on my Summer Reading Challenge list, and I'm going to read it before September begins. I am. I am!

Anyone who is reading this may consider herself tagged.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Booked to Die

Booked to Die is the first in the Cliff Janeway series by John Dunning. I don't have much reading time lately and prefer to listen. It makes the time pass by easier when I'm doing what little housework that I don't manage to avoid.

What I went through to be able to listen.... I couldn't find a copy on CD. I was resourceful, though; I downloaded a copy from NetLibrary. That was easy enough, except that NetLibrary only works with Windows. I have an old Toshiba laptop that has caused me nothing but grief. I would have sold it years ago but it does such bizarre things that I consider it unsellable. I'm to the point where as long as I can use it to print a few pictures and listen to a book, I'm fine.

Long story short, I was happily moving along through the recording, at the eight-hour mark, when I moved the laptop and suddenly was met by a screen too dark to do anything. I used my wonderfully reliable Mac to check out the Toshiba help files ... and a short time later I'm armed with a couple of screwdrivers, practically beating up the thing. [literally. really.]

Cliff Janeway is a former police detective turned book dealer. Dunning himself is a full-time writer and book dealer, having owned the Old Algonquin Bookstore in Denver for ten years. Booked to Die won the Nero Wolfe award.

Dunning's biography is as interesting as his writing. Check it out here. Like me, Dunning has an affection for old typewriters:

"This may explain my affection for typewriters," he says. "Unlike a computer, a great old manual typewriter is an honest machine. You do your work, it does its work. There's no sneaky nonsense, no hidden screens that pop up and won't go away, and at no time in my 35 years as a writer have I ever 'lost' anything because I hit a certain key, failed to hold my mouth right, or sneezed at the wrong moment."

Luddites unite! (says the gadget girl)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Capote , as if by wizardry

I toyed, briefly (see Tea Leaves), with the idea of reading Proust instead of my Summer Reading Challenge books. The idea did not toy back. It's just not the right time for me.

Instead, I plunged into Gerald Clarke's Capote. Since I'm only 1/3 through the book, I suppose I should wait to post - but - I can't contain my enthusiasm. It reads more like a novel than many novels - the characters, even the minor ones, are living, breathing, catty, yearning people. The plot begins like a Southern Gothic, with Truman alternating living with three wierd sisters and his self-centered, self-delusional parents. He comes to New York and, as if by wizardry, becomes the beloved sprite of the publishing world before finishing his first novel.

I remember Truman Capote's appearances on television in the time of In Cold Blood and after. The black-and-white ball glittered in my imagination. Capote himself would go on talk shows, sprawl in the guest-seat, and speak in that baby-voice, his words either dripping with sarcasm or honeyed with admiration. Clarke's book captures what I remember, and illuminates what went on behind that very public life.

I can't wait to read more. (Thank you, SilverMoonRani, for giving me the idea to read it!)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties - Marion Meade.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zelda Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Edna Ferber. These names conjure a mystique, almost a mythology: bad girls, notorious woman of the Roaring Twenties.

What fresh hells (with apologies to Dorothy Parker) were behind these exemplars of the energy, freedom, and creativity of those years? Marion Meade chronicles the lives of these women, from the height of their fame through the self-destruction or disappointment of their lives.

Since many of the high points and crashes have attached to these myths, many readers may believe they already know these women. I thought I did. I am a junkie for biographies of women writers, especially writers of the twenties. When two biographies of Edna St. Vincent Millay were published within months of each other, I was ecstatic. I have read two biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald, and her novel, Save Me the Waltz. Meade's excellent biography of Dorothy Parker, What Fresh Hell is This?, was thorough, evoking both admiration and compassion for this brilliant, brittle woman. (I confess to little knowledge or interest in Edna Ferber.)

I wonder whether this book would hold the interest of a reader who was not, already, an aficionado of these women. Meade's narrative is not biographical or thematic, but chronological. Each episode of each life is presented piecemeal as the decade progresses. The advantage of this approach is that the reader is shown how these lives intertwined, and their social context. The disadvantages to this episodic approach is that the reader never learns enough about any of the women to engage the imagination.

The book ends in 1930, but not for any narrative or biographical reason. Brief end notes follow the lives of the main characters (both the writers and their friends, male and female). Honestly, familiar as I am with these women and their times, I was not sure who some of these people were.

If you're looking for a shallow overview, this is the book for you. Otherwise, invest the time in full-scale biographies. These women are worth it.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Tea Shakes

Have you ever had the tea shakes? You'll get them after you try this recipe, which I deemed appropriate for this blog. I found it in my newspaper, and will credit the originator if s/he contacts me to claim credit. This sounds divine for a summer's day.
1 quart boiling water
6 Lipton Brisk Cup Size teabags
2 C. (1 pint) sherbet/ice cream [n.b., I think sorbet would work, too], slightly softened
Scald a teapot, then add teabags and boiling water. Cover and steep three to five minutes. Remove teabags. Chill fifteen minutes. [NB., you could chill for fifteen minutes, too, if you cool two of those used teabags and plonked one on each eye - - they're said to be soothing.] Remove teabags from eyes; save used leaves to sprinkle on bare floors to make sweeping easier [again, a note from MoonRani]. Combine 2-1/2 C. tea with sherbet in a blender. Process on high until well blended. Serve immediately [I'd chill some glasses beforehand to add to the delicious coolness of this recipe].

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Spiral Staircase

Before Karen Armstrong became an authority, both learned and accessible, on the religions of the world, she spent seven years in a convent. Her first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate, recounted those seven years. This book takes the reader beyond those years. through a period of intense sufferings and trials, and to the point where she discovers her true vocation.

The first part of this book recounts the end of her time in the convent. The brutal and, sometimes, absurd practices of the nuns numbed her mind and undermined her judgement. Ordered to practice sewing by a superior, she was punished for telling the older nun that the machine had no needle. ("You will go to that machine...and work on it every day, needle or no needle, until I give you permission to stop.") When she developed fainting attacks, complete with auras, she was told that she was looking for attention and sent to bed in disgrace. She lost her religious faith and faith in her academic abilities at the same time that her conscious mind became unreliable.

When she left the convent, she was emotionally exhausted and physically ill. Although she never thought that the fainting spells and terrifying visions were religious, she did believe what her doctors told her: they were "anxiety states" that could be treated by psychotherapy. (One doctor's words: "As long as you keep producing these 'interesting' psychic states, you are postponing the moment when you have to accept the unwelcome fact that when push comes to shove, you're not that interesting.")Her initial experiences in the outside world were unsatisfying and frightening. She tried to hide her lack of worldly skills with "a hard, intellectual manner that, [I] thought, provided me with some protection." The spells grew much worse as she began to find herself in places or situations but had no recollection of how she had gotten there.

Help came on a strange path: a job as a babysitter for a bright young boy with autism and epilepsy. Although her Oxford thesis had been rejected, although she began to relinquish hope for a normal life, and although she attempted suicide, she received a gift - a strange gift, but a gift, nonetheless. She fainted in a subway station and was taken to a hospital, where she was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy. No longer were her fainting spells, hallucinations, or unremembered activities a sign of emotional instability: they were physical symptoms of a brain insult, and they could be treated like any other physical illness.

"I could have been as emotionally stolid as a sloth and it would have made no difference," she writes. "For many people, a diagnosis of epilepsy must be unwelcome news, but for me it was an occasion of pure happiness."

As she recovered from the strain of years of needless suffering, she began to be interested in religion again. Commissioned to write and host television pieces about religion, she began to investigate and re-think all she had been taught. Her research began as an academic exercise, but led her from one surprise to another.

Historical scholarship about the New Testament led her to realize that not even Paul had considered Jesus divine: "... even he would have been dismayed by some of the theological conclusions that were later drawn from his letters." Her research expanded to other Abrahamic faiths, and, later, to Eastern religions.

As for Judaism :"From my earliest years, I had been taught that Judaism had become an empty faith: wedded to external observances and with no spiritual dimension... [Jews] could no longer understand the spirit that had originally inspired these now soulless commandments."

A Jewish advisor, Hyam Maccoby, led her to understanding that Christianity (especially the Catholocism she knew best) did not have the same structure or expectations as other religions. "Theology is just not important in Judaism, or in any other religion, really. There's no orthodoxy as you have it in the Catholic Church. No complicated creeds to which everybody must subscribe. No infallible pronouncements by a pope. Within reason, you can believe what you like." Instead, he said, Jews have "orthopraxy": "right practice rather than right belief. That's all. ... It's just poetry, really, ways of talking about the inexpressible. We Jews don't bother much about what we believe. We just do it instead."

Her research and understanding of Islam ("surrender") led her to realize "we seemed to find it difficult to regard Muslim faith and civilization with fairness and objectivity. The stereotypical view of Islam, first developed at the time of the Crusades, was in some profound way essential to our Western identity.... Westerners had needed to hate Islam; in the fantasies they created, it became everything that they hoped that they were not, and was made to epitomize everything that they feared that they were."

Ultimately, Armstrong developed her own philosophy of religion, including her conclusion about the religious ecstasy that can be found in stepping outside of one's own ego, and developing a compassionate nature that is brought to bear in all of one's dealings with the world.

Armstrong continues to research and write about religion in a way that causes this "spiritual agnostic" understand and admire its achievements even while its abuses have changed the world - especially the modern world.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Of Domino and rock & roll

Perhaps it is downright heresy to write of this here, but I do live dangerously, so...I am having coffee as I read this morning! There, kick me off the TeaReads blog, but the truth is coffee is my morning companion, and nothing else will do. Perhaps coffee is fitting as I read a book that is set in, around and about an American city much in the the national conciousness for nearly a year now, New Orleans, a city known for strong coffee (hold the chicory for me, please).
Can you imagine any connection linking Napoleon, Plessy v. Feguson, the 1791 Haitian Revolution, Pat Boone, John Lennon and Fats Domino? No, it isn't a certain date, but that's a good guess. To find the common thread among these disparate factors, you'll simply have to read Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'N' Roll. This is no meager, pallid recitation of half-supported facts, but a vivid and visceral historical tracing showing the inextricable path from the African diaspora via slavery to Louisiana's earliest recorded days to the advent and development of rock and roll.
But does that sound dry? What a disservice I have done, if so! This book, by Rick Coleman, is vital and juicy, sometimes bloodsoaked and sorrowful, and always gripping as it shows how rock and roll could not have been had there never been a New Orleans nor a Fats Domino. It is rich in historical moment and in geographical fact.
The name Fats Domino may call to mind the now-standard songs "Blueberry Hill" and "Blue Monday," and a little more thinking might also jostle to recollection "Walkin' to New Orleans" or, perhaps, a vague memory of a ripe plum of a man in suit and tie, but probably little more. One must read this book to find how it elevates the humble Mr. Domino to his rightful place in American musical history as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll (or, "rock 'n' roll," as the author writes it). The book conveys information on an intellectual as well as an emotional level, uncovering little-known facts and events, and bring fresh air to well-known ones, lacing the whole with quotations from those who were there and from those who have made in-depth studies of the times. Did you know, for example, that there's an old New Orleans tradition called Blue Monday? I did not until I read this book. I learned how many phrases and references in rock and roll were then-current slang terms that spoke to those in the know, meanings that have been all but lost over time, distance and geography.
And yet, for all the things that are right about this book, I must mention a thing or two that is wrong. In his clear appreciation for rock and roll and for the African roots of that genre`, Mr. Coleman draws totteringly close to a precipice. Swept up in his enthusiastic defense of the maltreated African and American Black people who built rock and roll, Mr. Coleman edges closer and closer to enshrining them as Noble Savages, whose nature is not just different to that of White people, but also superior. Loving classical music is not anthithetical to loving rock and roll music. I, myself, find room in my heart for both and for other genres` as well. A culture that is earthy in its expression is not necessarily superior to a culture that focuses on less visceral things. The African/Black view that related things to everyday life is posited to be above the European/White view that divides body, soul and mind, and which sees the soul as the acme of importance.
We read, for example, that "To the Eurocentric aesthetic, classical music was the apex of sophistication, but African-rooted music was more complex rhythmically, improvisationally, and socially - - that is, in the human terms of the everyday world." Rhythmically more complex? Really? More so than, say, Mozart, with his "too many notes?" More complex than the mathematically beautiful compositions of Bach?
Moreover, music has always served as a conduit for feelings in cultures, and few things rouse such fervent patriotism as music that is meaningful to particular societies. So how African-rooted music can be said to be more socially complex than other kinds is beyond my ken. let me leave you with a hearty recommendation for this book. It will amuse you, surprise you, inform you and challenge you. You might want to have a cuppa joe with it, too.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Tea and respectability

You sipped plum tea while drinking in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan? An excellent tea choice, and one I have been known to indulge in myself. Green tea is not at the top of my drinking list; however, I do appreciate one or two of them. Snow Flower... might have been enhanced by a cuppa gunpowder tea, a drink that stands up for itself, always a plus for me. I am also fond of dragon pearls green tea, and that is nicely Sino-suggestive. Of course, TeaBird doesn't fancy green tea, so this is not a suggestion.
You know me, and yet you don't know me, as is the case for friends who seldom, if ever, meet in the flesh - - in my case, the all-too-substantial flesh. Let us imagine a visit to my home. I greet you at the door, and welcome you into my modest but comfortable dwelling. The furnishings are not new, but you can see they are cherished by the care that has been taken with them.
I sweep my arm across the breadth of the living room as I tell you to make yourself at home, then I trot into the kitchen, just a few steps away. Next thing you know the kettle's on, and I'm asking you what kind of treats you'd like for tea. Your eyes follow me even though I'm now out of sight. I'm round and curvy with a funny, little walk, silvery grey hair, dusky skin, and silver, wire-rim glasses that frame black-brown eyes. I wear a dress or a skirt and blouse - - warm colors, probably red as I love red - - earrings, a gold necklace (a family piece) and a gold family ring. I gimp about in the shoes I wear always, flat, brown, "sensible," lace-up walking shoes. I'm the picture of middle-aged, middle-class respectability.
From your worn, comfy seat, you let your eyes wander across my library. The profusion of lurid titles you see is, well, frankly bloodthirsty. These books are not the fantastical gore of horror novels, but the real gore of real murders. Glance after glance reveals one true crime book after another. As you riffle through dozens of books, you see dreadful photographs to accompany the titles, hideous descriptions of inhumane and inhuman acts; a chill caresses your spine.
Then I'm bustling through the door with a tea tray. You do like almond cookies, don't you? And Yorkshire Gold tea? It has such...such body, you know, really gets the blood pulsing....What, no cookies? Oh, but please do....I made them myself....Bitter almond? No, I think they taste fine, nicely sweet, in fact....More tea, dear? Some sherry, then? Nothing more? Oh, must you go? But you just got here, dear, and we've not had time to chat....Oh, well, of course, if you just remembered an appointment, then you're right to hurry off like that....Some cookies to take with you, dear? Dear? Oh, my, mind you don't slip while running to the car...

Monday, June 26, 2006

The mark

As usual, I make my mark with a comment or two which are, well, not quite on the mark. Your reviews always make me long to cast aside whatever I'm reading right now in order to pick up the books you describe. What a talent!
In this case, your book review reminded me of a tidbit I read in online news this weekend. It seems that Darwin's tortoise died at an age estimated to be (I believe) ~140 years. Isn't it remarkable to think of a creature that lives that long? Imagine Darwin's tortoise as the eponymous animal of the book you just reviewed...Imagine the tea one would drink while reading.

Abject reptile, indeed!

Timothy, or, Notes of an Abject Reptile - Verlyn Klinkenborg

What can I say about a tortoise whose vocabulary is wider than mine? Within the first 20 pages, I had to look up umbrageous, tegument, venerey, borecole, hirundines, and sainfroin. (Thank heavens, Timothy provided a glossary.) Timothy, the eponymous abject reptile, was not showing off. He simply was using the best, most precise words he needed for his observations - the same vocabulary that Gilbert White, a 18th-century naturalist, used when he described Timothy in The Natural History of Selborne, published in 1789.

It was White who called Timothy "abject reptile." Abject he may have seemed, but he was, really, a close observer of humanity - and not a particularly fond observer, at that.

Humans, he concluded, made their fundamental mistake when they ceased to think of themselves as animals and replaced instinct with intellect.

Timothy scoffed at the animals that humans have become. "Every garment a divorce from nature... Disdaining the flesh that keeps them from heaven ... but able to argue upward from themselves to God." He is amused particularly by sentimentality ("now the rooks are saying their prayers," says a little girl).

White writes that Timothy is "a reptile that appears to relish [life] so little as to squander more than two thirds of its existence in a joyless stupor, and be lost to all sensation for months together in the profoundest of slumbers."

"Mr. Gilbert White's stupors! How joyful are they?" sputters Timothy. As well he might.

This book is a phrase-perfect parody of a well-meaning amateur's notes. Timothy himself is a worthy companion, whose story includes a plot twist that shows just how inobservant humans can be.

Don't miss this one!

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Pride and Prejudice and Romeo and Juliet and Lily and Snow Flower

I'm sipping some Adagio plum tea and contemplating how I feel about this book. The title of the blog entry says it all - except that it probably should say "Juliet and Juliet," since the eternal love in this book is between Lily and Snow Flower.

Why Pride and Prejudice? Because both ruled and warped the Chinese lives -- especially their inner lives. The historian and social observer in me recognizes that conditions in those times were difficult, sometimes brutal, and a more relaxed society might not have been able to dominate the elements or survived. Still. The physical and emotional claudrophobia that ruled the society were soul-deadening.

It occurs to me that the rigidity, ritual, and rigor of the lives of the Chinese women, and the rules that guarranteed men's absolute power over women, eliminated the possibility that men could be loved. They could be admired, they could be venerated, and they could be feared, but they could not be loved as human beings. Not one man in this book is loved. Boys are loved - but not even boys who might be less than strong and commanding. Much as I abhor and pity the lives of the women, I have to wonder how the men survived without any outlet whatsoever for their anima.

Some women found ways to love each other, although even those relationships were governed by commerce and their families' desire for status. The love of women, and the nu shu language women developed to express that love, were true miracles in that society. As always, I am awed by the strength and adaptability of women. Despite their differences, despite misunderstandings and secrets, Lily and Snow Flower were soulmates and sisters, made more beautiful and powerful by their love.

Lisa See has written an amazing book. That's all I can say. Amazing.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Halfway through, and I realize that I am reading through a kaleidoscope of cultural personae. The thoroughly modern American woman reads a tale of a patriarchal society that expresses its disdain for women (except as sexual objects or, pardon the expression, breeders of sons) through brutality. The pain is inflicted on women by women, footbinding (hideously and graphically described) being the most obvious example, and abuse by mothers-in-law being more subtle. The second-generation daughter of Ukrainian and White Russian Jews relates to some of the rituals (food, certainly, and using arcana to support matchmaking). The literary woman delights in vivid and sensual writing, real characters, and the powerful evoking of place.

All that aside, the love story between the two young women, Lily and Snow Flower, is extraordinary. So few Chinese women of the time were allowed to develop a lifelong friendship, a sisterhood. How lightly we take our friendships compared to these women! And how lightly we take our relatively-recent ability to choose the paths of our lives.

Also, how nonchalant we are with our literacy. The special, secret language developed amongst Chinese women, nu shu, was a type of rebellion against the isolation that was required of them. It could express poetic sentiments, or pleas for pity, and it was unreadable by men.

I probably will finish this book tomorrow - it's an amazing read. Just amazing.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Never Apologize

Betty Rosenberg said it best: Never apologize for your reading tastes.

I'm more apt to listen to a book than to read one. And usually the closest I get to a classic these days is laughing at Jasper Fforde's take on things. (That Miss Haversham is wicked behind the wheel....) My tea is usually iced and, if it's after two in the afternoon, it's decaf.

Right now I'm reading Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear. So far, so good. This book is where we meet Maisie. (I am a huge fan of book series.) It's just after World War I and she's gone into business for herself. Her card reads PSYCHOLOGIST AND INVESTIGATOR and her skills in both areas are well honed.

On a personal note, I love gadgets and one of my favorite is actually tea related. Check it out.