Thursday, May 5, 2016

7 day nature challenge

I generally don't respond to forwards, dares/challenges and chain posts on facebook, but when a friend challenged me to post 7 Nature pictures for 7 days I felt like responding to this one. But again, I am not very regular on the social networks, so decided to put all 7 pictures here at the same time. So here they are. (Photo courtesy: the spouse)

#1 - Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah

Our family loves the outdoors and in a recent trip to Utah we hiked about 50 miles over 6 days and hit the 3 famous parks - Zion, Bryce and Arches. This picture is from the trail to Queen's Garden and Navajo loop. It was cold, slippery and windy and that added to the beauty of the hoodoos. I post this picture as a representative of all the beauty in the National Parks in the US from Yosemite, Yellowstone, Crater Lake, Sequoia, Grand Canyon and many many more.

# 2 - Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania

This crater in Tanzania is close to the Olduvai Gorge where homnids have been traced back to 3 Million years. Today the crater is home to the Big 5 mammals and the sight of a solitary black rhino against a backdrop of pink flamingos will remain permanently etched in my mind.

#3 Vedanthangal near Chennai

We seldom pay attention to things in our own backyard, until we are forced to move away. Vedanthangal never received enough respect from me when I was growing up in Chennai. Only now do I realize what a paradise it is for bird lovers and more importantly for the birds themselves.  On those rare occasions that I am in Chennai in December, I make a pilgrimage to this sanctuary.

#4 Amazonian Ecuador

Waiting patiently for about 40 minutes on a boat in the Napo river one gets to see hundreds of parrots come down to the clay lick, to, you guessed it, lick the clay to cure their stomach ailments. As with all things in nature there is nothing predictable about this. The parrots choose to come only when they feel comfortable that there are no predators lurking in the waters or on the lick. We were lucky to have witnessed this amazing sight!

#5 Canadian Rockies

Wherever we go, whatever we see, the Canadian Rockies remains our favorite. The Peyto lake below is just one reason among many others. Pristine wilderness, beautiful lakes, glaciers, waterfalls, and bears galore.

# 6 - Alaska Denali National Park

It is OK that the highest mountain remains shrouded under clouds perpetually, that you might never catch a glimpse of its peak even once during the entire time spent in the park. It was enough to be under the shadows of the mighty Denali. The last frontier for the grizzlies. The sheer size of the park, and the number of grizzlies is just astounding.

#7 Torrey Pines State Park

Home Sweet Home! The cliffs, the beach, the blue sky and the ocean. Nothing more to say. Just filled with gratitude to be living in America's finest.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Flag art

Nothing like the MIngei for a quick art fix on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Mingei is the name coined for “folk art” – wherein everyday objects used by ordinary folk is worthy of a place in a museum. A preservation for posterity of everyday life from the past. I have dragged my daughter along to her share of museums everywhere from The Getty, The Louvre, Musee De Orsay, LACMA, the Huntington, and the local museums here and if she has to pick her favorites, I think she will pick Mingei first and the Orsay as her second. 
Let a child mess with a pepper tree once so they won't do it again. Messing with the #4 company is like trying to defeat a crocodile

The clever Anasi rules here
Loved this one as it had a woman leading a company!

Trust this company to protect and care for the diverse chicks
The Mingei, because of its focus on folk art makes it very approachable to everyone and you don’t need to have a degree in art history or know your periods or the difference between Monet and Manet, to spend an afternoon gazing there. Also due to their focus on folk, they exhibit art from around the world. The "artists" are everyday people and mostly remain unknown, so there is no pressure on the viewer to acknowledge something as a masterpiece even if it doesn’t feel that way just because of the name at the bottom. 

The mighty antelope wins the stool
Only a brave man will stand under a big tree
This week we went to see the 36 Asafo flags from Ghana that were on display.  The “Asafo” were military organizations that wielded power over towns in Ghana. These organizations were often in violent conflict with each other and their flags depicted either proverbs or sayings that were intended to put fear into the heart of their enemies. These days this has morphed into friendly competitions and rivalries.  

Think twice before taking on the eagles
Flags by their nature are political symbols and are often used in ceremonial associations. So I’ve never viewed flags as art and never associated art with armed militia, but these flags made me change my mind. The flags were used as tools to communicate ideas and customs in what was primarily an oral culture. The influence of Colonialism is also seen by the Union Jack on some of these flags (those made before Ghana’s independence). These cotton flags showed appliqued designs mainly of birds and hence appealed to me a bit more than usual.

Trust the female spirit to protect you

The wise owl who brings you luck
And then as always Mingei invited us to create our own art inspired by what we saw. I usually stay away from “art making” as I am quite terrible at it. Elementary school ‘needle and thread’ efforts have left me with very little confidence about my abilities except perhaps sewing on a loose button. But this time my daughter cajoled me into getting my hands dirty. Obviously we both went for birds, and obviously one can easily tell what her bird was – an owl, and obviously one can barely guess what I made. 

She came up with the idea of communicating a message through the flags we made. Hers was a noble one. She wants more people to love owls, and so she added a clover to hers to indicate owls can bring luck. I was struggling with mine. She thought, given the comical nature of my bird (kilew – let’s see if you can guess from the word blend which two birds are combined here), maybe I should make it a fire-eating kilew, that creates dread in the hearts of those who catch a glimpse of it.

If you are not frightened by the Kilew, I am sure you are positively frightened by my stitches. This is the stuff nightmares are made of!
The fire eating curlew who looks like a kiwi (hence Kilew)

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Books of January

While Mr. George RR Martin continues to demand every free minute I can spare with his brilliant Songs of Ice and Fire saga I found myself wanting to slow down from the feverish pace of the Storm of Swords and Feast of Crows with a number of "speed bumps" (and I mean that as a compliment) - books that are slow, haunting and savored and set a million miles away from Westeros.

Louise Erdrich was first introduced to me by a friend from the blogosphere, and since then she has quickly risen to become one of my favorite writers. Meditative, dark and funny at the same time I feel all her novels have the tendency to stir something in one's soul. I was mesmerized by the Painted Drum and Plague of Doves, that I don't know why I took so long to read "The Roundhouse" which picks up the stories of some of the characters from Plague of Doves. A violent rape (as though there is any other kind) in a reservation opens the novel and the effect it has on the close knit family and the community forms the crux of the novel, which is told from the point of view of the 13 year old son (Joe) of the victim. The politics of jurisdiction, rights of the Native people and the role of law should have made this novel a very political one, but by centering the story around Joe and his attempt to seek vengeance when justice fails his family it becomes a personal coming of age story instead of political. Mooshum is one of my favorite characters of all time and now I have to add Joe's friend Cappy to that list. Something about the book reminded me of River Phoenix's movie "Stand by Me".

J.G.Farrell's empire trilogy has long been on my book wish list, and I finally got to read Troubles this month. Troubles won the Lost Booker prize back in 1970s and details the collapse of The Majestic hotel in Kilnalough Ireland in the 1920s as a proxy for the collapse of the British Empire. If the background of the story was not the actual Troubles you could mistake it for a Wodehousian novel poking fun at the elitist British upper class. The Spencers who own the hotel are strong unionists, and the Major who arrived in Ireland following his "fiancee" is a confused spectator. While the rest of Ireland is erupting and regular clashes between the SInn Feiners and Unionists form the backdrop, the people staying in the Majestic are caught in their personal microcosmic drama while at the same time being touched by the events on the fringe. As all order collapses in the outside world, The Majestic reflects that and starts collapsing itself. The ending is no fairytale, which is true about the ending of many empires around the world. Although a bit dragging in some sections, the book is worth one's time.

I came to the audiobook version of "Third Policeman" on seeing a Facebook recommendation by the amazing Neil Gaiman. The Third Policeman is a cult classic by Flann O'Brien but Neil Gaiman was correct to recommend the audiobook version - read by Jim Norton. One has to listen to it for the voices and accents that Jim Norton has brought to life. The story is a big "pancake conundrum", with a combination of murder, physics, philosophy and bicycles. Reading this would've been fun, but listening to it was simply top notch!

Last book for this month is one of President Obama's favorites - "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson. If the Roundhouse was a speed bump this was stop and go traffic on the 405, but still very enjoyable. Set in the small town of Gilead in Iowa, the story is about John Ames a 70+ preacher who is dying due to a failing heart. As he approaches death he wants to leave behind letters to his 7 year old son so he can "speak" to him from the great beyond as his son enters adulthood. Through these letters we learn about his past, his pacifist father and his fiercely abolitionist grandfather who were all preachers. When the prodigal son of his best friend returns to Gilead, John Ames fears that his namesake would exert a negative influence over his son and his wife especially after his time. A story about religion, spirituality, liberal vs conservative values, politics of color and fathers and sons, I found the book quite captivating that I wouldn't mind being with it when stuck on the freeway.

That along with the two books from George RR Martin wrapped up my January. Daughter and I have also wrapped up "The Two Towers". I have paused in my reading of The Antropocene, but hope to get back to it soon. Edna O'Brien and Neal Stephenson are leading the charge for next month. More on that later.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

To catch the time thief

3 months seem to have been stolen from me by the infamous Time Thief as i finally (re)turned to my blog today. I decided that the best way to get this done is to actually begin, and so here I am. Family, work, Netflix (more or less in this order) took up my 3 months and now as I try to recall everything that I read I am having a hard time.

So before I start, here is a glimpse of my reading pile by my bedside - more a memory aid for me for the future.

As I mentioned in my September post I worked through three books in October - Slade House by David Mitchell, Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood and Sorcerer to the crown by Zen Cho. I preferred the books in the same order that I have listed them.

Slade House - what can I say? David Mitchell can't seem to do anything wrong according to me! My only complaint was that this book was too short and not scary enough. After having read Cloud Atlas, Thousand Autumns, Bone Clocks, I wanted more pages, more visitors to the mysterious Slade House, more portals, more scary stuff and more of Marinus.

Heart Goes Last is another dystopian world view by the prolific Margaret Atwood. After the collapse of the world economy, people live in cars eking out a living in whatever way they can. So when the Positron project promises clean sheets, comfortable beds and full time employment why would anyone pass up on this opportunity! The only catch is that your year is spent in two distinct periods like a modern day King Vikramaditya. You have full employment for 6 months, and then you spend 6 months in a prison within the community - not the type of prisons you see in Hollywood movies, more the type you might see in Scandinavia. As with all Atwood novels there is a lot of dark humor, and weird science (most of which is already real in some shape or form). A fast read, not as fantastic as the MadAddam trilogy, still enjoyable.

Sorcerer to the Crown was the most talked about book among fantasy fans and its release was highly anticipated.  England is facing a magical crisis as some kind of squabble with the fairies has led to a reduction in magic. Politically England is also dealing with France (non-magically) and the kingdom of Janda Baik (magically). It is also the time when women are not allowed to practice magic openly and are usually sent to a finishing school of sorts so they learn how to control their "unfortunate" magical abilities. Not a great time for the Sorcerer Royal to die and have his adopted black son Zacharias succeed him to the post. How does Zacharais deal with all these issues? He has a bit of a help from Prunella Gentleman - also dark skinned, and a rebel who wants to escape her finishing school and actually practice magic. Feminist fantasy novel, still it didn't manage to ensnare me. Maybe the hype was a bit too much and raised my expectations too high for Ms.Cho to jump over.

November and December I spent with Game of Thrones and Clash of Kings and am about 1/3rd done with Storm of Swords. I am officially now a fan, completely hooked by the plot and following the fates of all the different clans and dragons. Very medieval so needless to say there is a lot of death, murder, rape, war, and even incest, but there are enough strong women characters to keep me interested and the plot is just amazing! I don't think I will be able to watch the HBO series though as some things are best left to words than to pictures. I am now taking a break from the books and reading a couple of Wodehouses just for a change.

Also read Corsairs for OBOC- Qatar by Abdulaziz-Al-Mahmoud. Set in early 19th century in the Arabian peninsula, it is a great piece of historical fiction. Britain is trying to get control of the waters around the peninsula as it is an important trade route from India, so as usual they enter into many shifting alliances. Wahabbism is also gaining popularity in the region and Britain wants to use the pirate Erhama Bin Jaber to help them achieve their strategic aims while forming an alliance with Oman, Persia and Egypt. Erhama is his own man and refuses to join the English and only wants to pursue his personal vendetta. Erhama's son strikes an unlikely friendship with an English Major who is the custodian of a priceless sword to be used to seal the deal with Egypt. A very well written book and is a must-read for anyone trying to understand the geopolitics of the Arabian Peninsula. Although it is fiction, there are lessons here that could apply even today as politics makes strange bedfellows.

These are the only books I recall having read in the past 3 months. I have more to write about other things (especially the unprecedented floods in Chennai and my short visit back home), but that requires more thought. Today I just wanted to get started with blogging and free myself from the captivity of the time thief.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Hits and Misses

The last month has been one of hits and misses for me in terms of the books I picked up. Reminded me of a quote I read somewhere "There comes a time when you have to choose between turning the page and closing the book".

As the Booker longlist was announced I couldn't wait to read some of the books that made the list. By the time I sat down to write this post, the shortlist was announced and none of the books I had read (completely) made the list.

Started with Anne Enright's "The Green Road", a woman Irish writer, I can't believe I had not read her before! The Madigan family's trials and tribulations are traced over the course of many decades and we see Ireland's boom and bust cycles as we go through the decades. The novel is told in different voices (from the point of view of each child) over different time frames. So each chapter seems to be a short story with a loose connection to the previous ones. As the children grow up and some leave Ireland we travel along with them to the US and even Africa. The final action takes place once again in Ireland as the four Madigan children (Dan, Constance, Emmet and Hannah) are forced to come together as their mother decides to sell their childhood home. I should say I liked the sections set in Ireland the best and found the US and Africa sections a bit tedious - decided to turn the page instead of closing the book, but it left me wanting.

Then I picked up "The Moor's Account" by Laila Lalami. The book tells the story of the little known (at least to me) attempt by the Conquistador Panfilo de Navraez to capture Florida coast and claim it for the Spanish crown back in 1527. The journey starts out with 600 people and ends with 3 survivors, one of whom is the Moroccan slave Estebanico who is the narrator of this novel. The Moor is trying to provide a more honest version of what really happened as opposed to the sanitized version of the expedition supplied by the other two "gentlemen". Facing death, disease, and starvation the survivors managed to get from Florida to Mexico where they are eventually rescued thanks to the many Indian tribes they meet along the way - some hostile, but most willing to provide some food and shelter in exchange for labor or gifts. I enjoyed Estebanico's (formerly Mustafa) backstory, how he sold himself to slavery due to poverty, and then spent the rest of his time trying to get himself out of that state. It is also a story about stories and words - how powerful they are. Overall this was one where I kept turning the page, and I am sad it didn't make the short list.

"Satin Island" which has made the short list was one that definitely was not my cup of tea. I closed the book half way through, as it was more form over function, style over substance kind of book similar to "A visit from the goon squad" the 2011 pulitzer winner. If this one wins the Booker and someone explains to me why maybe i will revisit it, but that seems unlikely.

The non-fiction of the month was "Brilliant Green: The surprising history and science of plant intelligence". It is a short and easy read even for someone who might not be scientifically minded. Stefano Mancuso is a valiant defender of plants and wants to bring to light the step-daughterly treatment they have been receiving from humans who don't seem to understand that without plants their future would be pretty bleak! The book gives us a cliff notes type overview of the scientific discoveries in the last few decades pertaining to plant intelligence, sensing, social behavior. Very thought provoking, and yes while I still devour plants, I am more respectful of them these days. One of the side effects, is that my 10 year old has taken to practicing her recorder near our raised bed in the hope of encouraging the plants in our bed, similar to "Mozart for babies" (which I never did!)

The last two books for this post gave me an insight into pre-teen/teen boys almost like the movie "Boyhood" did! Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and David Mitchell's Black Swan Green are both Bildungsroman novels that trace one year in the life of Paddy Clarke (in Dublin)and Jason Taylor (in the fictional village of Black Swan) respectively. Roddy Doyle won the Booker back in the '80s for his book. It was not an easy read unlike Black Swan Green, but both were very educational for me.

Continuing this theme of Bildungsroman and teenage boys, I am the middle of reading "The Fishermen" by Chigozie Obioma. If I were the betting kind my money for the Booker would be on this one! I am only about 2/3rd of my way through, and this is a hard to put down book.

October looks exciting thanks to Slade House, Heart Goes Last and Sorcerer to the Crown - three books I've been looking forward to for quite some time. Also after much hesitation decided to pick up Game of Thrones (the books, not the show) - late to the party, but want to see what it is all about. My curiosity was piqued because of the comparison to Tolkien.

For now daughter is into The Hobbit which I am reading to her for bedtime, and we want to move onto Lord of the Rings even if that's going to take a couple of years to get through. How long she will want me to keep reading to her at night, I don't know but I intend to savor it as long as I can and if Tolkien can't help me, no one else can!

Thursday, August 13, 2015

4 out of 6 for women

July was a great month for women writers at our home! While J.K. Rowling held my daughter captive, I had a lot of peace and quiet to catch up on my own reading.
Calligraphy of characters from the series

Go Set a Watchman - everything that needs to be said about the book has been said already by countless critics and readers. As everyone debates about Atticus, my main takeaway was about Harper Lee's craft! Every time you hear great writers talk about countless previous drafts and how different the current novel was from the one they originally started with, you have no clue how truly different it turned out. To me this was the revelation from Go Set a watchman - how Harper Lee was able to finish a story, then go back and completely re-do it from scratch as though she had a clean slate. I was blown away by that. I sometimes struggle to re-order power point slides or even worse rearrange bullets within a slide, so this to me was a remarkable achievement, something that i think all budding writers should take note of. Now that both the books exist it is hard to discount one and focus only on the other, and harder still to not think of them as sequels.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was another book I finally got to this year. Was it science fiction or romance? I didn't care as I enjoyed the plot of a modern day Penelope waiting for her Odysseus who is chrono-impaired and has no control over when or where he time travels to.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler was a disappointment to me. I came to this after "We are all completely besides ourselves" and the Jane Austen book just didn't do it for me. The premise of the book of course was interesting - 6 people, 6 novels and each person a representative of one of the legendary Austen characters, unclear who was narrating the story. Frankly most of their lives seemed boring and predictable like every person's life. While Austen is legendary for taking the mundane and making it exciting, Karen Joy Fowler was not able to pull it off (i.e IMO)

The next book was "At the water's edge" by Sara Gruen. I had enjoyed her first book "Water for elephants" and so when I walked into the library and found the book in the 2 week lease section, and read the blurb I couldn't resist it. One of my main regrets when I visited Scotland was not to have been to Inverness and the Highlands (something i hope to rectify in the future).So I am a sucker for a story which is set there and has the Lochness monster as a character. Once again this book was a good summer read, but not close to the previous book.

End of July the Booker longlist was announced. As I read through the blurbs I was fascinated by a few of them. I picked up "Illuminations" by Andrew O'Hagan. The Booker blurb described it as a book about "war, homecoming and families". I should say the war bit was tedious maybe because there have been other books that have done a much better job. So I almost skipped the parts about the war (Luke) and waited to read the bits about the families (Anne), dealing with old age, dementia, memories and confronting long buried family secrets - this part was very well written. Don't know if it will make the shortlist though.

The highlight of the month was a nonfiction book. "Sapiens: a brief history of humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari was one fascinating read! I have been recommending this book to everyone I meet.Of all the human species that once roamed the earth, what made the Sapiens unique and so successful? Our ability to cooperate in large numbers enabled by religion, money, empires, gossips, cognitive dissonance - in short our ability to believe and imagine a future not just as an individual but as a group. These charactersitics are not always for the better as they also led to imagined hierarchies (slavery, racism), rapid extinction of other species and the not so positive impact we've had on the planet. Human history has been often spin doctored to portray our species in a positive light but in Sapiens we see that History is just a collection of accidents. The book lays out our history in 3 sections - Cognitive revolution, Agricultural Revolution and the ongoing Scientific revolution. It is very hard to summarize our entire history in 400 pages, but the book pulls it off. It is certainly the best non-fiction book I've read this year.

Have more books from the Booker long list to get through in August. I am especially curious about "The Chimes" but finding it hard to get my hands on it. I am sure if it makes the shortlist it would be more widely available. Also want to read "Brilliant Green"  - a nonfiction book about plants, but if it proves that plants are indeed sentient beings I don't know what i will eat anymore :)

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The wait is over....almost

5 more days to go before "Go Set a watchman" will be at my door. I don't recall awaiting a book release with this much eagerness. I know many people have been waiting for half a century for this and I have only waited for about three decades.

Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" was introduced to me like so many other things by my dad. I was in 8th grade and was spending most of my time engrossed in murder and legal mysteries of the Perry Mason kind that my dad thought it was time to rescue me and improve my taste. So he handed me his copy of the Mocking Bird without giving me any clues as to what the story was about. Little did I know that something that begins so innocuously with a 13 year old boy breaking his arm, will have the power to break my heart.  I remember finishing it over one weekend and being moved beyond words. How can a story that is so distinctly American touch the heart of someone growing up in India, even before the onset of satellite TV and globalized culture! Maybe Scout was right when she said that there are just one type of folks, "Folks", and folks everywhere have related to the book over the last 50 years.

I have re-read the book many times. I go back to it almost every other year and have gifted the book to numerous friends and family members. In Scout and Atticus I have secretly seen myself and my dad, and now that he is no more I go to this book for most of my parenting and life advice.

So as you can imagine, as soon as the news first broke in February that a previously unpublished Harper Lee's novel was going to be released on July 14th, 2015, I was one-clicking my way to pre-ordering it. All the books I have been reading since that announcement seem like "opening acts" for the headliner, and I don't mean that derogatorily. Some of the opening acts are stars in their own right.

It has been a month of David Mitchell for me and J.K.Rowling for my daughter. While she wrapped up 5 of the Harry Potters in one month, I managed to finish "Cloud Atlas" and "Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" by Mitchell. While everyone raves about Cloud Atlas, I felt Thousand Autumns was a much better book. I enjoyed the pace, the setting (Japan), the period (beginning of the 19th century) and the voices. I am looking forward to Mitchell's Slade House to be released this October.

I had never heard of Karen Joy Fowler until the book "We are all completely beside ourselves" made the short list for the Booker. I finally picked up this book and I am glad I did not read a single review of it on the web as I believe most reviews contain spoilers. This was a book that I wrapped up in one day. When my alarm rang at 5AM for me to wake up and hit the gym, I simply turned on the light and picked up the book and read for 3 hours straight! I don't want to say more so I don't give away anything. But this is a book worth reading!

As part of my trip to Tanzania I read "Out of Africa", having previously only seen the Meryl Streep movie. This of course is the famous memoir of Karen Blixen who spent 17 years in Kenya trying to manage a coffee farm. Her fiercely independent spirit comes through in her writing and while some of the writing is written from a position of power, she also offers some deep insights into African culture, the people and their customs, and also about the colonists.

So i read two women writers in June, and two male writers. The second male writer was Colm Toibin who has become another of my favorite writers. I have previously raved about how well he writes women in his books. Nora Webster is another jewel in his crown. This also belongs to the category of hard-to-put down books for me. At 46, the heroine Nora loses her husband, is teetering on poverty, and is trying to do it right by her 4 kids and by herself. How she deals with her loss in a small Irish town where everyone knows everyone else and gossip and grief go together while "The Troubles" are also brewing in the macro world is just so beautifully written! The book is a triumph not just because of how Nora's character is portrayed, but also because of the care with which every single supporting character has been etched by Toibin! Once again he is hands down the best male writer to write women.

Now i am trying to read "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt, but unfortunately the mind is wandering to "Go Set a watchman" and I feel that maybe I should read "To Kill a Mockingbird" instead so I can prepare myself for the almost 30 year old Scout and the much older Atticus. My only regret is that my dad is not alive for this event. As I turn the pages on the adult Scout and the elderly Atticus, I know i will miss my own father, who would've read the book along with me and discussed it at length. Will Scout still have the same closeness with Atticus? Will Atticus remain the ideal man that he was 20 years back? Will Go Set a Watchman live up to the expectations?

Few more days to find out....