Wednesday, July 27, 2016

BOOKS | 100 Books To Read 2016

I'm still working on my reading list for this year. I was thinking of streamlining it down to just 40 books, but what the hell - why break tradition? So, list in progress for my readings in 2016.
  1. Your Song Changed My Life • Bob Boilen
    [ 05/06/2016 ~
  2. Dig Me Out • Jovana Babovic
    [ 16/07/2016 ~
  3. White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World • Geoff Dyer
    [ 03/07/2016 ~
  4. The Wretched: A New Translation of Les Misérables • Victor Hugo [ translated from the French by Christine Donougher]
    [03/07/2016 ~
  5. The Folded Clock: A Diary • Heidi Julavits
    [ 05/03/2016 ~
  6. At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails • Sarah Bakewell
    [ 07/03/2016 ~
  7. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals • Michael Pollan
    [ 12/03/2016 ~
  8. In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto • Michael Pollan
  9. Just Kids • Patti Smith
  10. Their Eyes Were Watching God • Zora Neale Hurston
  11. Dune • Frank Herbertli>
  12. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome • Mary Beard
    [ 04/01/2016 ~
  13. If the Oceans Were Ink • Carla Power
    [ 15/08/2015 ~
  14. Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese • Patrick Leigh Fermor
  15. Go Tell It On the Mountain • James Baldwin
    [ 11/12/2015 ~
  16. Baghdad Sketches (1932) • Freya Stark
  17. The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (1934) [On Mazandaran, Iran]• Freya Stark
  18. The Southern Gates of Arabia: A Journey in the Hadhramaut (1936)• 
  19. A Winter in Arabia (1940) [On Hadhramaut] • 
  20. Perseus in the Wind (1948). [Essays on philosophy and literature] • 
  21. Ionia, A Quest (1954) • Freya Stark
  22. The Lycian Shore (1956) [On Turkey] • Freya Stark
  23. Alexander's Path: From Caria to Cilicia (1958) [On Turkey] • Freya Stark
  24. The Zodiac Arch (1968) [Miscellaneous essays] • Freya Stark
  25. The Minaret of Djam: An Excursion into Afghanistan (1970) • Freya Stark
  26. Where the Stress Falls • Susan Sontag
  27. On Photography • Susan Sontag
  28. Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 • Susan Sontag
  29. Against Interpretation: And Other Essays • Susan Sontag
  30. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 • Susan Sontag
  31. The Book of Disquiet • Fernando Pessoa
  32. Jane Eyre • Charlotte Bronte
  33. Venice • Jan Morris
  34. Bleak House • Charles Dickens
  35. The Age of Innocence • Edith Wharton
  36. A Time of Gifts (1977) • Patrick Leigh Fermor
  37. Between the Woods and the Water • Patrick Leigh Fermor
  38. The Broken Road • Patrick Leigh Fermor
  39. The Magician • W. Somerset Maugham
  40. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West • Rebecca Solnit
  41. A Writer's Diary • Virginia Woolf
  42. The Violet Hour • Katie Roiphe
  43. The Handmaid's Tale • Margaret Atwood
  44. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek • Annie Dillard
  45. The Abundance • Annie Dillard
  46. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books • Azar Nafisi
    [ 27/09/2015 ~
  47. I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen • Sylvie Simmons
    [ 25/04/2015 ~
  48. The Design of Everyday Things • Donald A. Norman
  49. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World • Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg
  50. Orlando • Virginia Woolf
  51. The Heart of the Matter • Graham Greene
  52. The Power and the Glory • Graham Greene
  53. Of Human Bondage • W. Somerset Maugham
  54. No Time to Lose: A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva •  Pema Chodron
  55. Quiet: The Power of Introverts • Susan Cain
  56. The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot • Robert MacFarlane
  57. Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark • Janet Fletcher Geniesse
  58. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks • Rebecca Skloot
  59. Felicity: Poems • Mary Oliver
  60. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  61. Real Happiness: The Power of • Sharon Salzberg
  62. The Seven Storey Mountain • Thomas Merton
  63. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind • Shunryu Suzuki
  64. Collection of Sand • Italo Calvino
  65. Landmarks • Robert Macfarlane
  66. A Book of Silence • Sara Maitland
  67. Acedia & me • Kathleen Norris
  68. The Red Parts • Maggie Nelson
  69. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered • E.F. Schumacher
  70. The Pirate King • Laurie R. King
    [ 23/12/2015 ~ 09/01/2016 ]
  71. Garment of Shadows • Laurie R. King
    [ 09/01/2016 ~ 10/01/2016 ]
  72. My Life on the Road • Gloria Steinem
    [ 09/01/2016 ~ 23/01/2016 ]
  73. Dreaming Spies • Laurie R. King
    [ 11/01/1016 ~ 26/01/2016 ]
  74. The Argonauts • Maggie Nelson
    [ 28/05/2015 ~ 29/01/2016 ]
  75. When Breath Becomes Air • Paul Kalanithi
    [ 23/01/2016 ~ 30/01/2016 ]
  76. H is for Hawk • Helen Macdonald
    [ 18/05/2015 ~ 08/02/2016 ]
  77. Girl Waits with Gun • Amy Stewart
    [ 01/02/2016 ~ 14/02/2016 ]
  78. In Other Words • Jhumpa Lahiri
    translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
    [ 27/02/2016 ~ 05/03/2016 ]
  79. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation • Michael Pollan
    [ 28/02/2016 ~ 12/03/2016 ]
  80. The Murder of Mary Russell • Laurie R. King
    [ 09/04/2016 ~ 10/04/2016 ]
  81. To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface • Olivia Laing
    [ 08/02/2016 ~ 14/04/2016 ]
  82. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone • Olivia Laing
    [ 14/04/2016 ~ 26/04/2016 ]
  83. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts • Joshua Hammer
    [ 30 April 2016 ~ 5 June 2016 ]
  84. Wild by Nature: From Siberia to Australia, Three Years Alone in the Wilderness on Foot • Sarah Marquis
    [ 16/06/2016 ~ 03/07/2016 ]

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The ironically f-ugly Elena Ferrante book covers

I was curious about the series of novels from Italian author Elena Ferrante last year. What kept me from purchasing the books though were the horrendous covers. Oh gawd - they look pastel and vulgar, like those dull novels about dutiful daughters, and long-suffering wives that I cannot endure.

But I did read a few pages of the first book once, and I found the writing interesting enough to want to continue. But - but - the covers. My prejudices won, and I had not ventured to read the series. There was something about holding those awful covers in my hands. I picked up the Australian version of the first book though. One is thankful for the Australian covers.

Why such bad covers? Really. Why? You would think with the phenomenal sales, the publisher could have gone with a better look.

So, I came across this essay from The Atlantic recently, and it seems the choice for the bad covers were deliberate, the intention ironic. Although, these ironic covers were so universally despised (Ha! It's not just me! Yes, while having a popular opinion does not automatically validate my prejudice, at least I am not alone in my bigotry of awful book covers), the publisher were a little concerned:

The complaints are so numerous that Ferrante’s publisher even expressed concern to Slate that “many people didn’t understand the game we we’re playing, that of, let’s say, dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.”

So what is the game?

...In interviews, Ferrante has said that the ambition of her writing is to make “the facts of ordinary life […] extraordinarily gripping when read,” which well captures the genius of her fiction.

It also captures the genius of her bad covers. Although the U.S. dustjackets are far from gripping, they’re wholly, unapologetically domestic. And by binding her novels with domestic images, Ferrante insists that the women’s domestic lives are as literary as any others. Her covers don’t deny the possibility that the Neapolitan novels could be construed as “women’s fiction”; they argue that her novels are “women’s fiction,” whether or not they’re compatible with modern romance. Her fiction testifies that women’s stories are important not because they’re universal, but precisely because they’re specific—because women’s experience of their “sex and its difference,” as Ferrante has described her subject, are worthy of art, and worth reading about.

The covers were chosen by Elena Ferrante herself. Ah. Author's intent. I appreciate irony, and I get the implication that our aversion to these stereotypical images is as much about our own snobbery of what "women fiction" is about. Yeah, I get that. But irony just isn't enough justification for how f-ugly the covers are. So far the covers haven't really hurt the sales, so I guess we're stuck with the ugly covers.

Thank goodness for the Australian covers though. From the designer of the Australian covers:

Everyone initially involved in the Australian edition of My Brilliant Friend – publisher, editor, marketing and publicity – was of one mind about the original Italian cover: “no”’ [source]

Thank you, Australians.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Story of Ultramarine

A brief history of Ultramarine, from the Pari Review. Stories about colours always intrigue me. I feel like I should collect these stories about colours in notebooks with coloured covered - blue notebook for the stories about blue in all its shades etc.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Read these books. Be a Better Person. It's Easy

Just saw this on The Guardian: Top 10 Books to Make You a Better Person. I used to buy for the Self-Help section in the bookstore I worked for. Some Self-Help books make more sense than others. At least this list isn't about recommending Coelho's The Alchemist (boring), Carnegie's How to Make Friends and Influence People (meh), or Tolle's The Power of Now (you realise he's just repackaging other people's ideas and selling it back to you, right?).

This list seems more like a introduction to soul-stirring prose that raises your consciousness.

Then a thought hit me: What if I don't want to be a better person? What if I just want to know about myself, as I am, warts and all, and not need to feel like I am not good enough, and I need to be better? What if I am good enough, imperfect as I am?

What if I don't believe books will make me a better person? What if I believe reading all the books in the world wouldn't mean anything unless you also live a full, rich life? Learning and reading might give you knowledge, give you a clue on what to do, where to go - depending on what you read. What if I believe what will actually make you a better person is experience. Doing stuff. Connecting with people. Living life. Learning from mistakes. Rinse and repeat.

Why do people think reading a few books will make you a better person? That's crazy. What might work for him, might not work for you. What makes this writer's life experiences better than yours? His life is his, just was your life is yours. What he brings to the reading of the book, will be different from yours.

This article makes me want to throw a book at the writer.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Some books bought, and things said that made me roll my eyes

I had a grand plan to reduce my spending on books this year. It was a good plan, a frugal, prudent one. It went very well early part of this year, but now that we are in May, it seems to have faltered a little. I was in a bookstore, and well - things just happened.

There was some self-restraint. I didn't buy over the store. Just two books - yes, entirely forgivable. There was this nice title I saw, Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-en-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind. It was one of those ideas that stuck with me when I first started reading about the Culinary Institute of America, and their work ethics - which was also something shared by chef like Thomas Keller etc. The idea of the mise-en-place; the ruthless organisation of their work space so that all energy is kept to its most efficient, and no energy is wasted. I wondered if this was something that could be applied to other areas. It would probably be an intense and highly focused way to live our lives. Some might even call it OCD. Perhaps I just want some focus in my life right now, so this work just looks really interesting.

Next up, Prague in Black and Gold: The History of a City. My readings reflect my travel interests - which often revolve around places and history I'm more interested in the history and culture of a city than its shopping. I have been looking at Prague lately, so it would be interesting to read up on it. Just as an aside, when I mentioned my interest in Prague, a friend asked if I was going to also make a trip to Vienna, to Salzburg. I said no. And then there was a confused, "Why not? That's what everyone do." This was the kind of statement that makes me roll my eyes.

To each their own. Your travel plans are yours alone, and while it's good to take advice from time to time, you are not obliged to follow the itinerary or travel plans of others, just because it has been done before. Same with reading, you don't have to read what others are reading. You don't have to always read the award winners, or the bestsellers, or those books recommended by famous people - though it's not a crime to just put those recommendations under consideration either. But - follow your our heart, and try something new, once in a while - because you want to, not because someone else told you to.

BOOK | Reading "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu"

I have to admit - the title was titillating: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Hint of Indiana Jones, exotic location and well, bad-assery. What do I actually know about Timbuktu? I know the saying, "from here to timbuktu" from school - which basically means a faraway no-man's land. A friend of mine once mentioned she wanted to go to Timbuktu.

"Why?" I asked.

"Just so you can say, 'Hey, I've been to Timbuktu!'" she laughed. And why not?

I wouldn't know where to locate Timbuktu on a map, but thanks to the book, I now know it's a part of the African state of Mali, the place where guitarist Ali Farka Toure came from.

Timbuktu's story is a familiar one. From the 13th-16th centuries, it was the seat of great Islamic scholarship and the centre of vibrant trade. The scholars sought out Islamic texts and manuscripts and brought it to the city. There was a flourishing trade in manuscripts in the city - this was a city that prided itself on its learning, that traded in the written word, and knowledge. Over time, the city's fortunes fall. The manuscripts scattered, hidden, kept in private hands, or lost. The story of the book started with a man, Abdel Kader Haidara. His father was a reputable scholar, and after the father's death, Abdel Kader Haidara was approached, and asked to be help seek out the lost manuscripts. At first reluctant (Abdel Kader had planned to become a merchant), but he was eventually roped into the job, and became a manuscript hunter of a sort - a job he became very good at, eventually setting up his own great library, responsible for the conservation and collection of many precious manuscripts.

Then the story turns, and we get the background of the growing Islamic fundamentalist militarism in the region. Then the local government was overthrown by rebels, and their president fled. Suddenly, the world changed and the manuscripts were under threats from destruction, because ignorant men will always want to destroy those things that they do not understand. It saddens me that this is a familiar tale, and we are no closer to ending this sort of ignorance. In fact, the rise of powerful ignorance seems to be growing in our world today. And it makes me afraid, that it might come to a point one day when it would be punishable by death to read.

But that is something for another day, and may it never come. The book tells of brave librarians, people who understand the value of the written word. They will risk their lives to preserve it. We need more librarians like these, even though I understand that not all librarians will risk their lives to preserve books. Sometimes though, I just need to remind myself that there are still people who will stand up and do the right thing.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Mary Beard and SPQR

I'm still barely mid-way through Mary Beard's SPQR. It's definitely a door-stopper, and an absorbing read that does not compromise on its scholarship. Life however, made it difficult to sit down with a good door every day. Okay, I also have to admit that my habit of reading several books at a time makes it hard to focus on big books like SPQR.

Saw the feature on Mary Beard yesterday, on The Guardian. She seems to me the sort of professor that would intimidate me back in the university - outspoken and takes no bullshit. She's something of a celebrity academic now, although she didn't ease into the position. Rather, the story of how she came to be on TV is quite interesting:

“It was [then BBC executive] Janice Hadlow who convinced me, basically on a feminist ticket. I thought it would be a waste of time, and she said: ‘You’re one of the people who says that television documentaries are presented by craggy old men, and now I’m offering you a documentary and you don’t want to do it? Money where mouth is, dear.’”

I respect a woman who has enough self-awareness to realize she has to stand by her words. Also, a good reminder to all women who complain that media is dominated by the male voice - all the more reason we have to step up and speak up. Loudly. Mary Beard isn't your typical glamour queen in front of the TV, but this makes her all the more endearing to me. She's intelligent, and she knows her worth, and really, getting dressed up to impress people in front of the camera is just not something she's interested in. She gets her fair share of trolls - seems like the era of social media just means we get more nasty along the way. Yet, she stands up to them. Mary Beard is the kind of woman you dream your daughters grow up to be, if they are intelligent and hardworking enough.

I love that she calls out the bullshit. She's spent her life among the classics, and she knows the hypocrisy of it - that it's useful as a rhetoric for many, but the same people who decry the destruction of art and culture wouldn't pay two cents worth to preserve it:

“I think the other thing that has bothered me about Palmyra: in some ways, everybody’s got a right to speak, but there’s an awful lot of commentating about its importance and wonder by people who, until Isis took over, had no clue what it was and would probably, if asked to provide some government money to do archeological research, have said that it was a complete waste of money.”

Fan girl moment is over. Time to continue reading SPQR. The paperback is out, which makes me wonder if I should continue with my hardcover from the library, or just get a copy of the paperback to highlight and flag with Post Its.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Story about a Don Quixote of Literacy to Remind me of Good in the World

Sometimes the evil things people do in the world gets me down. I try not to be too affected by negativity, but it does get to me eventually. There was this quote I read once from Mister Rogers, about what his mother said to him when bad things happen. She told him to, "Look for the helpers. You'll always find someone helping."

This is partly why I try to collect tales of people just spreading goodness in the world, because they want to. Like this story I saw recently while I was sick: This man in Indonesia, Ridwan Sururi has been providing a modest library for children at a remote village called Serang in central Java. He brings them library books on horseback. A "Don Quixote of Literacy".

I like to imagine the smiles and laughters on the children 's faces when the horse library comes into the village, and as they pick out the book they get to borrow for three days. We who are more affluent have forgotten the simple joys of having just a book in hand, and is it any surprise when parents complain their children don't read anymore?

I would like to see more of this kind of goodness in the world.