Monday, 17 April 2017

remembering Karen Blixen

Happy Easter! Today is the birthday of Karen Blixen (b. 17 April 1885, d. 7 September 1962), a Danish author who wrote many tales under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen (Babette's Feast and Other Stories, Shadows on the Grass, Seven Gothic Tales, Winter's Tales, and Last Tales). She was a gifted storyteller, best known for her book Out of Africa, often described as a lyrical meditation on her life in Kenya, where she had a farm, a coffee plantation (the book has no chronological order). Most people know of Blixen because of Sydney Pollack's film adaptation: While the film may give you an idea of Blixen's life in the stunning African landscape, only by reading the book will you experience its true atmosphere. For me it depicts an Africa I will never experience. A bygone era.

In one of my journals there is a quote by Blixen. Once she was asked how a story begins for a writer and this was her reply, in Danish:
Det begynder med atmosfære, et landskab, der for mig er vidunderligt skønt, og så – så kommer menneskene pludselig ind i billedet. Med det er de der, de lever, og jeg kan lade dem leve videre i bøgerne.
Basically, she is saying that first comes atmosphere, a landscape, which she finds wonderful and then, suddenly, people enter the scene. With that they are there, they live, and she can let them live on in the books. (I found the quote on the FB page of Karen Blixen Museet.)

In February came great news for Karen Blixen fans when it was announced that her book Out of Africa will be turned into a TV series.

image by me | the photo of Karen Blixen appears in the book Letters from Africa 1914-1931

Monday, 10 April 2017

a talk with textile designer Lisa Fine

The late American photographer Ansel Adams once said: 'You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.' One can apply his words to any kind of creative art and I used them to start an email conversation with textile designer Lisa Fine. On the blog I have already described her as a designer with a sense of history and I stick to my words. She has a knack for colours, for patterns, and it feels as if each fabric by Lisa Fine Textiles tells a story. She was born and raised in Mississippi. Today she lives in New York with her dogs and travels widely, often to India and other exotic places. Miniature paintings have inspired her career, and so has painter Henri Matisse.

Wherever possible, also in direct quotes, I have added links to e.g. short essays on museum websites that I found interesting and educational. Except for the Matisse paintings, all the images were chosen by me.

[Fabrics by Lisa Fine Textiles shown in my top image (click each for info): Cairo, Kashgar,
Luxor, Malabar, Malula, Mandalay, Pasha, and Rajkot. See the books further below.]

Persian miniature: Mir Sayyid 'Ali, Night-time in a City, c. 1540, Tabriz, Iran, Safavid Period

To go back to Adams's words, what has left its mark on Lisa Fine (given how much she has discovered through her work and travels).
LF: My life is very much about people, however, books and art not only inspire and teach but are the best refuge.

My favorite painter is Matisse. I love his mix of color and pattern, especially in his orientalist portraits. Irving & Fine [collaboration with textile designer Carolina Irving] peasant blouses were very much inspired by his work. I also love the Fauvism movement.
Her other two favourite artists are Kees Van Dongen and Amedeo Modigliani.

Henri Matisse, Zorah on the Terrace, 1912

She doesn't have a favourite Matisse painting but said: 'I love his Moroccan period most, especially the portraits.' Later I found his work Zorah on the Terrace in my inbox with the words: 'Love Moroccan portraits.' The other two by Matisse followed, the one below with the words: 'Love odalisque series.'

Saturday, 1 April 2017

colourful fabrics by Lisa Fine Textiles

Motifs, patterns, textiles, colours. Having recently received a batch of samples from Lisa Fine Textiles, I have spent my latte moments with hand-printed, colourful fabrics and textile books spread all over my desk, as captured in my images. Here we have three designs she introduced last year, Kalindi, Cochin and Ayesha Paisley, which are a beautiful addition to her exotic collection, inspired by her travels. Soon I will be sharing with you a little chat I had with Lisa Fine herself through email, about books, art and other inspirations.

Cochin by Lisa Fine Textiles, colour in foreground: rose

Of these three designs, the floral fabric Cochin is the one that has won my heart and soul, especially the colour rose with a saffron background. The pattern is hand-printed on 90% natural linen blended with 10% nylon, available in four colours: rose, cinnabar (the red and blue one - see image above, top-right), burnt sugar, and saffron (with pink flowers). Many of Lisa Fine's designs bear an Indian name. Cochin is the colonial name of the Indian city Kochi, situated on the southwest coast in the state of Kerala.

Ayesha Paisley, colour in foreground: ruby

The Ayesha Paisley fabric is hand-printed on 100% natural linen, available in four colours: ruby, sapphire, coral, and spinel (I don't have a sample of the last one).

Ayesha Paisley, in the foreground: sapphire

In foreground: Kalindi in every available colour (under my cup are two samples of the fabric Luxor)

The Kalindi fabric has a floral pattern with dots, hand-printed on 90% natural linen blended with 10% nylon. It's available in five rich colours: monsoon (the light blue one), indigo, saffron, dusty rose, and lipstick. I'm assuming the fabric is named after the Kalindi River in the state of West Bengal in eastern India.

To view the full range of fabrics, visit the website of Lisa Fine Textiles.

Perhaps some of my readers are in the mood for a new look for one of their spaces or even thinking about redesigning their home. In an interview that appeared in Lonny a few years ago, when her guest flat on the Left Bank in Paris was featured in the magazine, Lisa Fine gave a solid advice: 'Never be a victim of trends. If modern is in style and you love Victorian, go Victorian. Style is an expression of yourself and not what fashion dictates' (Inspiration India, Dec/Jan 2010). In the same feature she shared a few design tips and this one could help you start: 'Similar to how many designers will start with a rug and then build a room, choose a fabric to inspire the space and work from there.' My choice of fabric would be clear.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

carnations in my study

The other day my son and I were having breakfast when he asked me what were my favourite flowers. Without thinking I said carnations (on the table was a vase with yellow ones). 'Why?' he asked. 'Because they are durable,' I said, 'they last long.' A few years back I would have said white tulips or peonies, without a doubt. When I think about it I cannot really choose between these three, but carnations are the flowers I buy most of the time (the Spaniards were on to something when they chose the red carnation as their national flower). This is an image I snapped in my study this morning while enjoying a nutmeg latte. Carnations and stacks of books on my desk is a common sight. Happy hump day!

Monday, 20 March 2017

№ 8 reading list | North Korean stories by Bandi

The first day of spring calls for a new reading list, wouldn't you agree? Three publishing houses, Head of Zeus (Apollo), Pushkin Press and Serpent's Tail, provided the first three books on the list and for that I thank them. I will later be reviewing the novel Pachinko and A World Gone Mad, Swedish author Lindgren's WWII diaries (known for her children's books), but today I want to specially mention a unique North Korean story collection, The Accusation by Bandi (pseudonym). The author, unknown to us, still lives in North Korea and risked his life by writing and smuggling his work out of the country (see more below). Here is my № 8 reading list:

· Pachinko  by Min Jin Lee
· A World Gone Mad: The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren, 1939-45 
· The Accusation  by Bandi
· Seize the Day  by Saul Bellow
· The Blue Touch Paper  by David Hare
· Another Country  by James Baldwin
· Pale Fire  by Vladimir Nabokov
· The Sea, The Sea  by Iris Murdoch

Seize the Day is my first Saul Bellow read - about time! An Instagram bookworm-friend called it 'an incredible novel' and added 'it's haunted me most of my adult life.' I meant to start with Herzog but it wasn't available at the library. Playwright David Hare is on my list of favourite people. Listening to him talk about writing is a pure pleasure and now I'm finally going to read his memoir. He e.g. wrote the screenplay for the film The Hours (2002), based on the book by Michael Cunningham. Loved the book, loved the film. There is one reread on the list: The Sea, The Sea by Murdoch. I was probably too young when I read it because I don't seem to remember half of it.

Forbidden stories from inside North Korea: The Accusation by Bandi

The Accusation by Bandi contains seven stories about ordinary men and women in North Korea. The author is unknown: Bandi is a pseudonym (means firefly in Korean) and to protect his identity some details have been changed. In a note from the publisher it says they 'believe it to be an important work of North Korean samizdat literature and a unique portrayal of life under a totalitarian dictatorship.' Apart from the news, what we have read so far are works by people who have escaped from the regime. What makes this book unique is that for the first time we have stories written by an author still living there. Instead of a preface and acknowledgements there are untitled poems by the author, who describes himself thus in one line in the former: 'Fated to shine only in a world of darkness'. The latter has a poem where he begs to be read:
Fifty years in this northern land
Living as a machine that speaks
Living as a human under a yoke
Without talent
With a pure indignation
Written not with pen and ink
But with bones drenched with blood and tears
Is this writing of mine

Though they be dry as a desert
And rough as a grassland
Shabby as an invalid
And primitive as stone tools
I beg you to read my words.
If only the entire world would read these stories and that one day Bandi would be able to enjoy the royalties as a free man. I haven't finished the book but what I have read so far is heartbreaking. The social and political circumstances in North Korea, the lack of human rights, are known to us, but when reading stories by someone living in these conditions, suddenly, it becomes all too painfully real.

The Accusation
By Bandi
Serpent's Tail
Hardcover, 256 pages

Utagawa Hiroshige, A Red Plum Branch against the Summer Moon, c. mid-1840s, colour woodblock print

My next reading list will be the Japanese one I have mentioned more than once. Therefore, I chose to include this painting by Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (also Andō Hiroshige, 1797-1858). Blooming trees in spring, mon dieu! Soon I will be sipping my latte on the patio and reading under the pink blossoms of a cherry tree ... a quality moment in the life of a book lover.

images by me | Utagawa Hiroshige art via The Art Institute of Chicago | first three books on the list provided by these publishers: Head of Zeus (Apollo), Pushkin Press and Serpent's Tail

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

a year in reading - part 2

Shall we pick up where we left off in A year in reading - part 1, my blog entry where I commented on books from my last year's reading lists? As stated in that entry, I don't comment on books that I have already talked about or on those I was rereading. My reading lists are based on my mood when I put them together and consist of books that have been on my to-read list for a long or short time (that list gets longer and longer!). Unsurprisingly, there were a few disappointments. Below are my thoughts on some books on my № 4, 5 and 6 reading lists:

№ 4 reading list (4 of 10):
· Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. This classic is probably more interesting for beginners on a spiritual path or for those unfamiliar with Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. It did very little for me and I only finished it to cross it off my list. (Interested in Buddhism? Choose a non-fiction by a leading Buddhist teacher. To give you an idea, here are some that I read at a certain point in my life: Thich Nhat Hanh, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Pema Chödrön.)
· The Summer Book and A Winter Book by Tove Jansson. When I shared the list I had read about two stories in the latter and was well into the former, which I loved. In The Summer Book you will find a stronger collection of stories, more coherent, mainly because they have the same memorable characters.
· In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Felt like a gem when I picked it up but at some point the plot of these loosely interconnected stories became predictable. There is so much corruption and injustice on the pages that I was beginning to long for something a bit more uplifting. I was hoping this book would teach me more about Pakistani culture, and given the good reviews I was expecting it to be richer.
[Another from the list: The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking (see separate blog entry).]

№ 5 reading list (4 of 7):
· A Time for Everything by Karl Ove Knausgård. Nothing wrong with the writing but I decided to not finish it because I simply wasn't in the mood. This is a book about angels and he changes the setting of biblical stories; takes us from the desert to a Norwegian landscape. Maybe I will pick it up again later but I think I will first revisit the originals.
· White Teeth by Zadie Smith. The book I so wanted to like and recommend to you. I still haven't finished it. I like the writing style but the characters don't interest me at all. Occasionally I pick it up - reluctantly, I admit - and after a few pages I give up. I found the characters in her book NW much more interesting. In that one Smith experiments with the form of the novel, which may not be everyone's cup of tea. I struggled a bit through the first part of NW, but as soon as I reached the second I was hooked.
· Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Loved the prose and characterisation in her family drama that sometimes left me shocked - the father is a religious fanatic who uses domestic violence. For sensitive readers I have to add that there is also beauty and hope. The quality of Adichie's writing is such that following horrific descriptions, her beautiful sentences seem to subsequently soothe and heal. This story has not left my mind since I finished it. Adichie is one of my favourite living authors.
[Another from the list: Avid Reader by Robert Gottlieb (see separate blog entry).]

№ 6 reading list (4 of 8):
· The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. I liked the first two parts but I think this is one of the novels I will forget having read. In this one Barnes has reimagined the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin. It just didn't leave me with anything; I finished it and moved on to the next.
· All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan. I mentioned in my entry that I liked his writing style. Parts of this book are very dark; I think I even held my breath sometimes. For me, the character of Mary stole the show; I found her much more interesting than Melody, the main character. The fault of this book is the ending; everything is possible in fiction but it didn't work (I cannot say more without revealing it). However, Ryan is an author who has made it to my list and I intend to read his previous works.
· Boyhood Island: My Struggle 3 by Karl Ove Knausgård. Of the three My Struggle books I have read, this one was my least favourite. Its strengths are the picture he paints of the father he hated (understandably) and the family dynamics. Its weaknesses are the too many repetitive descriptions of him playing with the neighbouring kids or schoolmates. This book could have been 100 pages shorter and better.
· The Return by Hisham Matar. One of those books I was really looking forward to reading but except for the first five chapters, I was rather disappointed. The first five chapters have a different writing style, which I loved, and it wasn't until after I had finished the book that I learned that part of them appeared in an article in The New Yorker called 'The Return', which Matar wrote in 2013, before the publication of the book. To be frank, just read the article.
[Another from the list: The Makioka Sisters by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (see separate blog entry).]

That's it, I'm done with the 2016 lists.

This year I intend to do things differently and share my thoughts sooner, but I will let some time pass between sharing a reading list and my opinion on the books on it.

Friday, 24 February 2017

a year in reading - part 1

Here it is, the blog entry I have wondered whether to write or not, the one with comments on a few books that appeared on my 2016 reading lists. First I thought of writing these notes in a comment under the list in question but later thought it best to keep them separate. I see no reason to repeat comments that I have already made on certain books, or to comment here on the ones I reread; I only read books again if I like them or they hold a special place in my heart.

Speaking of rereading books: Scottish author Ali Smith was recently featured in the 'By the Book' column (NYT), where she said something that reasoned with me:
[A] rereading can feel like a first-time read in itself, which is another great thing about books and time; we think we know them, but as we change with time, so do they, with us. (Sunday Book Review, 12 Feb. 2017)
I saw this feature a couple of days ago and noticed that she mentioned the book Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. If you are following me on Instagram you may have seen it in a photo I shared last Sunday. It so happens that I borrowed it at the library on Saturday and it will be on my next reading list.

Below are some of my ideas about books that appeared on my № 1, 2 and 3 reading lists. On my first list I included design books but later decided to only include novels, auto/biographies, travel books, etc. Let me add that it's not my intention to steer you away from the books I unfavourably comment on, or those I didn't finish. Our literary tastes are different, so are our cultural and social backgrounds, and I certainly don't want to appear as an authority on what to read and not to read. However, I know that I have blog readers who are using my lists as a guide to books, which is why I think it only fair to mention those that perhaps didn't live up to my expectations.

№ 1 reading list (2 of 8):
· The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski. I read a few chapters before putting it away, only because Africa by John Reader has been on my list for some time and I wanted to read it before reading other Africa-related books on my to-read list. Polish journalist Kapuscinski covered Africa for decades and I believe that one day I will pick up his book again and finish it.
· The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux. The biggest disappointment of my 2016 reads. Started brilliantly with an observant and humorous Theroux - I could hardly put it down. At some point his tone becomes annoying, as if all he can do is complain. I lost both my interest and patience, and tossed it. A travel writer that doesn't inspire me to travel has no place in my bookish heart.

№ 2 reading list (1 of 6):
· Off the Road by Carolyn Cassady. Lost my patience and gave up. Way too revealing and not in a good way. The times were different but it astonished me how she allowed Neal to disrespectfully treat her right from the start of their relationship. The first chapters are a good lesson in how not to pick a husband.
[Another from the list: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (see separate blog entry).]

№ 3 reading list (2 of 6):
· Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir. The first volume of her autobiography, in which she covers her early life, her childhood in Paris and her Sorbonne years. My only fault with it was her serious narrative; her tone of voice was too intellectual for a child but fitted better as she grew older. The next three volumes will appear on my reading lists in the future.
· Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. In my opinion, overrated. In the beginning the narrator is a young girl which means an easy read with a simple vocabulary, and there is plenty of humour (the mother is priceless!). The author lost me when I reached the last third or fourth part of the book (when the girl leaves home); the narrative became sloppy somehow. This was one of those books that I really wanted to like and be able to recommend but it left me rather disappointed.

'Part 2' is coming soon, with comments on a few books from the № 4, 5 and 6 reading lists.

[Update: click here for part 2.]

Monday, 13 February 2017

a last sentence by Tanizaki | Virginia Woolf

I don't know about you but in bookshops I often find myself reading the first sentence of a book or its first paragraph. I never look at the last sentence, as that could give away the ending, but I know people who do. In January I finished reading The Makioka Sisters by the Japanese writer Jun'ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965), translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (an Everyman's Library edition). Without giving away its plot, I have to share with you the book's last sentence: 'Yukiko's diarrhea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo' (p. 498).

Do you need to read it again? I did.

Usually when I finish reading a book I contemplate on the characters, plot, theme, etc., and perhaps write a few lines in my notebook. This time my mind was going, Okay, is there a chapter missing? Is this the ending? I honestly turned the book upside down - I believe I even shook it gently - in the attempt to find that missing final chapter. And when I realised that this was it, this was indeed the last sentence, I just burst out laughing. This is the single most memorable last sentence I have ever come across.

I'm still looking at that page and laughing; this last sentence is so unexpected.

The prose of The Makioka Sisters is very calm (during the reading I told friends it often felt like meditation). I don't remember a book with such a quiet prose. It's quite long, divided into three books, but I enjoyed it. Basically, it's about the search of the Makioka family for a husband for the third sister so they can marry off the fourth and youngest, who already has a suitor. The theme is like any Jane Austen novel but the style is completely different. It's an interesting social study of Japan, its culture and customs, in a certain era: It starts in 1936 and ends in April 1941; Europe is already at war but the attack on Pearl Harbor hasn't happened. When you finish reading the book you know that there are major changes ahead.

The Makioka Sisters was on my № 6 reading list and I told you then that I was noting down ideas for a Japanese list. On that one you will find The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese classic from the 11th century, often referred to as the world's first novel, translated by Tanizaki into modern Japanese. On the list you will also find Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles - I won't tell you more until I share it.

From a Virginia Woolf feature, 'Bloomsbury & Beyond', Harpar's Bazaar UK, March 2017, pp. 324-25

You may already have seen the Vanessa Bell feature I shared on Instagram last week, from the March 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar UK. It's been months since I last bought a fashion magazine but almost ran to the shop when I learned that the cultural section of this one included both Bell and her sister Virginia Woolf. The Woolf feature is called 'Bloomsbury & Beyond' and opens with a photo of her desk at Monk's House, her home in Sussex (spotted in my top image), and ends with her short story The Lady in the Looking Glass, which appeared in the magazine's January 1930 issue. An inexpensive Penguin edition of The Lady in the Looking Glass also includes her stories A Society, The Mark on the Wall, Solid Objects, and Lappin and Lapinova. The last one appeared in the April 1939 issue, which you can spot in the top-left corner of my image above. If short stories are your thing I believe all the ones by Woolf are available online.

images by me | credit: Harper's Bazaar UK, March 2017 · Harry Cory Wright | map of France from the book Map Stories: The Art of Discovery by Francisca Mattéoli (Octopus Publishing Group) © Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

№ 7 reading list | Vanessa Bell exhibition

In an old notebook of mine there is a quote that always makes me laugh. Actress Emma Thompson was in the NYT feature By the Book and when asked about the last book that had made her cry, she said: 'I was on holiday years ago with “Corelli’s Mandolin.” Rendered inconsolable and had to be put to bed for the afternoon' (Sunday Book Review, 23.09.2012). I adore Emma Thompson. It's time for another reading list and Bernières's book is on it, a Vintage Books edition, beautifully illustrated by Rob Ryan. There is also a novel by my favourite Icelandic author, Sigurdur Palsson, whom I often spotted at cafés in Reykjavik, always impeccably dressed, usually wearing a patterned silk scarf or a beret (he studied in France). I have already mentioned Doris Lessing and me rereading Little Women. Here is the № 7 reading list, the first of 2017 (for convenience I have numbered the lists):

· Fictions  by Jorge Luis Borges
· The Grass is Singing  by Doris Lessing
· The Golden Notebook  by Doris Lessing
· Captain Corelli's Mandolin  by Louis De Bernières
· Instead of a Book: Letters to a Friend  by Diana Athill
· Local Souls  by Allan Gurganus
· Parísarhjól  by Sigurður Pálsson (Icelandic)
· In Montmartre: Picasso, Matisse and Modernism in Paris, 1900-1910  by Sue Roe
· Little Women  by Louisa May Alcott

I almost feel guilty for not having read Athill's memoir, Instead of a Letter, but when I saw Instead of a Book on sale at Waterstones I knew it was going on my list. It contains the letters she wrote for over thirty years to the American poet Edward Field, who kept them and wanted them published. In the introduction, Athill wittily observes:
Usually when someone's letters are published the writer is dead. In this case there was a problem: Edward is six years younger than I am, but since I'm ninety-three that doesn't make him young. If he waited until I was dead he might be dead too. (p. vii)
Kudos to writers who crack you up in a bookshop! Gurganus is an author I have never read. I bought his book after listening to Michael Silverblatt's conversation with him on the Bookworm (from Nov. 2013) and ended up listening to all their conversations. I thought about keeping it on the shelf until I had read Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, but it kept pulling and on the list it went. I was delighted to find Roe's book at that library. At this point I cannot say much about it, but I do wish it had more illustrations (in my image you see Modigliani's painting Caryatid, 1911).

Vanessa Bell, Nude with Poppies, 1916

Sometimes I wish I lived closer to the London area. If I did I would hop on a train to see the Vanessa Bell exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery that opens today (a short train ride from central London). Artist Vanessa Bell (1879–1961) belonged to the bohemian Bloomsbury group and was Virginia Woolf's sister (the photo of her in my image above is taken at Charleston in 1925). The exhibition closes on the 4th of June. There is an accompanying publication, Vanessa Bell, edited by Sarah Milroy (Philip Wilson Publishers) that I would like to have. If you are a Bell fan perhaps the March 2017 collectors' edition of Harper's Bazaar UK will interest you, exclusively available at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

PS. Thanks to blogger Diana Mieczan of exPress-o for her delightful entry about my blog. She is correct, my coffee cup is almost every time set on a cloth napkin. I have been doing this for a long time and like to believe the coffee tastes better.

top image by me | photo of Vanessa Bell appears in the book Charleston: A Bloomsbury House & Garden | Amedeo Modigliani's painting appears in the book In Montmartre © Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris | Vanessa Bell art via Art UK © 1961 estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett, Swindon Art Gallery