Tuesday 31 July 2018

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

This is the book that inspired that famous movie - Practical Magic, the story of the Owens sisters, Gillian and Sally, and their aunts. The book, like Alice Hoffman's others about children (The Story Sisters, The Rules of Magic), has a fantasy element that will delight and surprise, although this also focuses on their grown up lives.

“There are some things, after all, that Sally Owens knows for certain: Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can.” 

It's also about sisters - the bonds, the fights, the rivalry and the constancy. It's deep, and real and beautiful and precious. 

“No one knows you like a person with whom you've shared a childhood. No one will ever understand you in quite the same way.”

It's also about love - is it ever everlasting? 

“Avoid men who call you Baby, and women who have no friends, and dogs that scratch at their bellies and refuse to lie down at your feet. Wear dark glasses; bathe with lavender oil and cool fresh water. Seek shelter from the sun at noon.”

It's beautifully written, and plotted, and has magic on every page.

You'l love it for that - its whimsy and playfulness, yet truth shimmers underneath, and has the power to break hearts and heal them at the same time.

ISBN: 9780425168462

You may also enjoy The Story Sisters by the same author, or The Accident Season by Moira Fowley-Doyle.

Monday 30 July 2018

No excuses

I'm sitting in bed, trying to get inspired to run this morning, and what do I find? A post I wrote in November 2015, when I was recovering from major surgery. It's titled No More Excuses.

[It's reproduced here with my own permission]

"So here it is. Monday. The day that I start the week running. And what am I doing? Sitting in bed. Sigh.

There are always reasons not to run. Most of them are excuses, not reasons. But every now and then, there are some real reasons. And if we run anyway, we will probably be sorry later. Today is one of those.

So, to make myself feel better, because I genuinely honestly truly would rather be running than writing this post, I thought I’d write something to inspire you all to get moving. Those excuses that you’re making right now. Here’s why they’re not valid. I see you wanting to find something else to look at. Don't do it. Keep reading.

EXCUSE #1      I am so unfit/overweight. Just getting out there and walking or running is good for you. 

Stop thinking about it, get into the exercise clothes, chanting “it doesn’t matter how fast I go, or how far, I’m just going to run.”

EXCUSE #2: I don't have the time. “I have to run, I need the head space,” was what a fellow fitness fanatic said to me a few weeks ago. It’s true. Moving about has a strange way of decluttering the mind. You will see things more clearly and solve problems you didn’t think you could. The time you spend exercising will be paid back in much more effective working, whatever it is you do.

EXCUSE #3. I’m too down/sick to run. Exercise regulates and balances the multitude of chemicals and hormones in our brain that directly affect our mood, specifically depression. Chances are also good that you will want to run tomorrow. And the next day and the next. 

EXCUSE #4. I can’t face a run, it’s just too much for me. You don't have to. What about a walk? We’ve learned that any exercise is better than none. Those reasons that you can’t run? Maybe you can walk? Or start running slowly, and let yourself walk when you cannot anymore. 

EXCUSE #5: I just don’t feel like it. Take someone else with you. It helps. Whether it’s a pet, or a talking friend, use it as an opportunity to socialize. Or even plan a stop at a favourite place to get a coffee, or a water. Plan to enjoy your run, you know you’re going to. Just look at that face.

So off you go. Enjoy. And think of me, dying to run, but cooped up in bed for the day, when I'd much rather be running."

And funnily enough, more than the "no excuses" inspired me to go today, that old post was the biggest motivation of all. Because you see, when I wanted to, I couldn't and now I can, so I definitely should.

Come with me. Here's our music. It's Megan Trainor. No Excuses.

Last week's motivation - Monday Meeting

Saturday 28 July 2018

Ten of the Best #127

Hey everyone - such great stuff to share this week, I've really enjoyed putting it all together. Click the images for the articles/clips, and if you've seen it, keep scrolling.

This is a great read by Sam Knight in the New Yorker - if you have the time. Clue - the audio is just over an hour, but you can probably skim through it in about 10-15 minutes. It has little gems, mostly about Theresa May and Brexit, but also Dover, and S.L.S. which is a term that doctors are using informally to describe an over-all feeling of depression and ill-health; it stands for "Shit Life Syndrome." Really great insights and writing.

Speaking of Dover, Lewis Pugh (who lives in Cape Town) is doing a long swim from Cornwall to Dover - 560km. He hopes to take 50 days, and raise awareness for the oceans in so doing. Click the pick to read his daily blog. He's 168km in, and it's tough going, it seems.

Friday 27 July 2018

Friday Books - Alexander Hamilton

So glad it's Friday, time to read.

At Book Beginningshosted by Rose City Reader, you share the first line, and  a few thoughts about the book.

 Here's the beginning of the book I'm featuring today.

"In the first full-length biography of Alexander Hamilton in decades, Ron Chernow tells the riveting story of a man who overcame all odds to shape, inspire, and scandalize the newborn America. According to historian Joseph Ellis, Alexander Hamilton is 'a robust full-length portrait, in my view the best ever written, of the most brilliant, charismatic and dangerous founder of them all.' "

At Freda's Voice, you'll find the Friday56, where the excerpt comes from page 56 or 56% in your Kindle.

Here's page 56 of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

I'm listening to this on Audible, which is great - the narration is excellent, but it's a whopping 35 hours and 58 minutes. I got quite a lot done this week, but still I've got part 5 5 to go. It's a fascinating history of the founding fathers, and is very useful in understanding a little of American politics and how the system works.

Hope you all have lots of reading plans for the weekend.  Leave me a comment with what you're featuring and I'll check it out.

Thursday 26 July 2018

Someone by Alice McDermott

At around 200 pages, this little book called out in the massive pile of books I need to get through in my TBR pile. "Read me. I'm good, I won't take up too much time or space," it said. "And you'll enjoy me."

But it took a while. I tried the first few pages, and couldn't get into the story - I kept going back and re-reading, and thought that if I continued in this vein, this would be the only short book that I somehow doubled in length, because I re-read everything. 

Marie is the girl we meet on the steps on page one, where she has a memorable encounter with Pegeen, who tells her how and why she is called fool, "amadan". We meet Marie's parents and her studious brother, her friends, and the other adults in this NY neighbourhood. Each encounter tells a little story by itself, and they build and merge, and intersect, just like life does, until Marie is an old lady, and the problems of "will he like me?" and "can I trust you?" become "is there medication for that?" and "please don't leave me".

It's always good when a recommendation works - even if it's a dicey first 20 or so pages.But this little book did pack a powerful punch, and the stories,  and the story were succinctly and masterfully told by an expert in her craft.

Written in 2013, look out for it in a second-hand bookshop, you won't be disappointed.

4 stars


You may also enjoy Anne Patchett's Commonwealth (or Bel Canto). Or Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott?

Wednesday 25 July 2018

The Paris Secret by Karen Swan

Flora Sykes is an art agent. She lives in London. So does her brother, Freddie, and her aging parents. But her job takes her Paris, where an apartment, locked up since WWII, is revealed as belonging to her clients - the Vermeil family, and with which she is tasked to go through, particularly the art, checking its provenance, so it can be sold.

The family, including 'tense and brooding Xavier' (doesn't that give you a hint about what is going to happen in terms of relationships and is yet another reason I don't read blurbs?) becomes more anxious as 'provenance' reveals so much more than art ownership. That apartment was locked up during WWII, remember.

I'm not going into more details here, but the plotting was quite deftly done, and well constructed - even though it took me forever to get into it. I don't mind a few tantalising secrets and surprise set-ups to draw me in to a book, but here there were so many untold truths, and chapters ending just before big reveals, that it felt a bit tacky - soap opera-ish, if you will.

The art and Paris were beautifully described, and the style of writing was more show than tell. The romantic aspect was a little tacky, but I suppose combining history, romance, mystery and suspense in a single book of around 400 pages is an enormous task. What I especially liked was that the author didn't flip between the two timelines (war and present) to tell the story,which kept things moving nicely ahead. And when all was said and done, it worked - saved by the clever plotting, likeable characters and Paris, of course. 

A very enjoyable few afternoons.

3 stars

ISBN: 9781447280293

You may also enjoy  Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, or what about The Alice Network by Kate Quinn?

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In Skin in the Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb advocates that you should never take advice from anyone who doesn't have a similar risk symmetry as you - i.e. they must win if you win and lose if you lose, preferably to the exact degree. Here's a summary of issues covered from the blurb:

 For social justice, focus on symmetry and risk sharing. You cannot make profits and transfer the risks to others, as bankers and large corporations do. You cannot get rich without owning your own risk and paying for your own losses. Forcing skin in the game corrects this asymmetry better than thousands of laws and regulations.
• Ethical rules aren’t universal. You’re part of a group larger than you, but it’s still smaller than humanity in general.
• Minorities, not majorities, run the world. The world is not run by consensus but by stubborn minorities imposing their tastes and ethics on others.
• You can be an intellectual yet still be an idiot. “Educated philistines” have been wrong on everything from Stalinism to Iraq to low-carb diets.
• Beware of complicated solutions (that someone was paid to find). A simple barbell can build muscle better than expensive new machines.
• True religion is commitment, not just faith. How much you believe in something is manifested only by what you’re willing to risk for it.

I've read a few of Taleb's earlier works, The Black Swan being the most recent. As with that book, this one, and the issues it covered caused me to think about these things in a different way - which is the point, I suppose. However, my initial thoughts while reading were that: 

a) The writing style is aggressive, antagonistic and arrogant - far more so than his other works;
b) He is extremely dismissive of arguments and people he considers to be idiotic; and
c) There is not a great deal of structure to the book, the arguments and the thoughts expressed.

I've avoided reviewing this book for a while, wondering if I should re-read the whole book before I make comments, but I'm not doing that yet. And I suppose it is that very desire for a re-read before being overly critical that makes me realise that Taleb didn't pay his fellow authors/speakers the same degree of respect. At the very least, he owes it to his audience to disagree in a way that is easy to understand, and that does more than simply berate his contemporaries.

I also felt that the title lends itself to the exploration, in a far more nuanced way of what skin  in the game can involve, and I felt a little disappointed that this wasn't done.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed thinking through some of these issues,  and no doubt I'll return to this for a more critical read someday.

ISBN: 9780241247471

2 stars

You may also enjoy The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, or Superforecasting by Philip E Fetlock.

Monday 23 July 2018

Monday Meeting

We all have those  days, right?

You know what I mean - those days when this feels so hard, that you just wanna stay in bed, and pretend that you never meant to get up and run. What were you thinking, anyway?

You were actually thinking 'Monday, need to start the week right', or maybe 'Exercise is good for me, and if I don't go tomorrow, the rest of the week's a write-off' - both of which are true things. Now you're thinking 'Monday shmonday, I have rights too - isn't there a right to lie in bed for once?' I know, me too.

But that's why, when you plan this (before Monday) you ask someone else to meet you and join you in the pain. So that, in case you are feeling that Monday shmonday feeling, you can rest assured at least one other person is feeling the same pain of getting out from under the covers - they're probably already dressed - and if you bomb, they're going to be a) mad as hell and all shouty;  b) so pissed off they run anyway, and tomorrow you can't keep up or c) disappointed - the worst, I won't unpack that any further.

Today's song is a shout out to those waiting on the other side, and if you don't have anyone, there's a whole community of us - we'll do this with you. Because it's always better together.

It's Meet Me Halfway by the Black-eyed Peas.

Let's walk the bridge, to the other side
Just you and I (just you and I)
I will fly, I'll fly the skies, for you and I (for you and I)
I will try, until I die, for you and I, for you and I, for for you and I,
For for you and I, for for you and I, for you and I
Can you meet me half way
Can you meet me half way
Can you meet me half way
Can you meet me half way
Meet me half way, right at the borderline
That's where I'm gonna wait, for you
I'll be looking out, night n' day

Now get going out there, before you change your mind.  I'll meet you halfway.

Last week's motivation - Word Up.

And here're some more.

Saturday 21 July 2018

Ten of the Best #126

The clip EVERYONE's been sharing is Trevor's response to the French Ambassador's criticism of his joke - where he said the World Cup wasn't won by France, but by Africa. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a watch.

In other news, Americans taste Australian food - vegemite with a spoon - really? I wouldn't even do that, and I like it.

An excellent take, from the Eusebius McKaiser show on truth, lies and bullshit.

Friday 20 July 2018

Brutal Legacy by Tracy Going

South Africans know Tracy Going's face so well. Even thirty years later, we remember her. She was a television presenter when we all woke up to the morning show, every morning. That's how we caught up on what had happened while we were asleep, in those days - the traffic, the gossip. No Twitter, morning news on TV. Imagine that. This book tells her story of what happened behind the scenes, and reveals the shocking and horrific behaviour from an abusive partner, who remains unnamed throughout the telling. It's her story, at last told.

As the title warns, it is brutal. It made me angry and sad. And although I was mostly sad for Tracy, I was also sad for all the other women treated in this manner. Tracy talks about her life as a child, which wasn't perfect. She also tells us the part when, against all odds, she decides to tell the truth about what happened, in a court of law, and then it isn't only her ex-partner that she must stand up to, its the legal system, the public, and the patriarchy is everywhere.

It's well written. Tracy has a way with words, and she tells her story her way, in a strong and powerful voice.

I was left thinking that just as society seems to raise little boys who believe that their voices are the only ones worth listening to, as little girls are often conditioned to keep quiet and not speak up, this culture enables unforgivable behaviour, and makes it more difficult for the abused to gather their courage and speak, it also must have silenced a lot of stories, stories that, even with movements like #MeToo, are still untold.

So despite the feelings of sadness and despair that this book evokes, hearing and reading this story, and others like it are even more important, given what has happened while we were asleep.

ISBN:  9781928420125

Friday Books - Just Mercy

TGIF, Book time.

At Book Beginningshosted by Rose City Reader, you share the first line, and  a few thoughts about the book.

Today I'm featuring Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Here's the beginning.

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, who lands up helping prisoners in an organization that furthers social justice, especially for those who land up on death row. He writes their stories, and his story in this beautiful book.

At Freda's Voice, you'll find the Friday56, where the excerpt comes from page 56 or 56% in your Kindle.

Here's page 56 of Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson.

I cannot explain how much I loved this book - it's finished already, and my review is here. I can't stop quoting large parts - it's had a profound effect on me.

Hope you all have lots of reading plans for the weekend.  Leave me a comment with what you're featuring and I'll check it out.

Wednesday 18 July 2018

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

When someone who reads abundantly and likes the same books I do makes a comment about a book that reveals it has profoundly affected her, and gives it 5 stars, it goes straight to my "to-read" list. But sometimes you start the book, and wonder - now what about this book did she find so very good?

Not so in this case. From page 1, I was gripped and entranced by the stories - Bryan's and those of the people he encountered.

Bryan Stevenson studied philosophy initially, and realised in his senior year that "no one would pay me to philosophize when I graduated," so he picked up a law degree, because, in America, you weren't required to know anything about law before you studied it as a post-grad. After a one month intensive course on race and poverty litigation which required Bryan to go off campus and do social justice work, his future career was decided, and a pathway forged, in which, somewhat ironically, no one would pay him to work for them either - they couldn't afford to - he would help the poor and the unjustly treated - those on death row, in particular.

The stories of these prisoners are shared honestly from a perspective of a young, compassionate hard-working lawyer, who is humble enough to let his life be transformed by those he encounters, as much as he is able to change the lives of those on death row, and the system of justice in the United States, which seemed to be set up in a way to further inflict pain on those who have already been hurt and damaged by a society determined to root out evil and evil-doers without really caring whether it did that justly, and with mercy. As part of this journey, he also finds the young people, tried in adult courts, and placed in adult jails when they're still juveniles, and those incarcerated for minor crimes, at risk of becoming real criminals because of their unfair treatment and the harshness of the environment in which they're placed.

I'm going to share some powerful quotes, and I realize that too many is going to risk putting you off reading the rest of this review, but I'll take that risk - these are too good not to share. 

“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

“The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is, Do we deserve to kill?” 

“The power of just mercy is that it belongs to the undeserving. It’s when mercy is least expected that it’s most potent—strong enough to break the cycle of victimization and victimhood, retribution and suffering. It has the power to heal the psychic harm and injuries that lead to aggression and violence, abuse of power, mass incarceration.” 

"Constantly being suspected, accused, watched, doubted, distrusted, presumed guilty, and even feared is a burden born by people of color that can't be understood or confronted without a deeper conversation about our history of racial injustice.”

"The closer we get to mass incarceration and extreme levels of punishment, the more I believe it's necessary to recognize that we all need mercy, we all need justice, and-perhaps-we all need some measure of unmerited grace.” 

"We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken."

“There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can't otherwise see; you hear things you can't otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.” 

“But simply punishing the broken--walking away from them or hiding them from sight--only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” 

The chapter, towards the end, where Stevenson confronts his own brokenness, had me in tears, and later transcribing and memorising the inspiring and memorable words, not only for their eloquence, but for the power within them.

I was deeply moved by the stories, the author's own story, and his plea for compassion in a world where we've largely lost our way. It's powerful and transformative. Read it.

Get it online from Loot.co.za or Takealot.com for around R200, or Amazon for around $13.

5 stars

ISBN: 9780812994520.

More books.

Tuesday 17 July 2018

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

An extract from the blurb:

"Over five years in the writing, The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman's most ambitious and mesmerizing novel, a tour de force of imagination and research, set in ancient Israel.In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman's novel is a spellbinding tale of four extraordinarily bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path." 

I've read quite a few Alice Hoffman novels recently. I've enjoyed the fantasy aspects of them - the idyllic childhoods, but with pain and hardship too (The Rules of Magic, The Story Sisters, Practical Magic). This is not like any of those. It's not like Faithful either.

It's great historical fiction, written with a poetic touch. 

“Being human means losing everything we love best in the world," she murmured as she released me. "But would you ask to be anything else?” 

“But now I understood that, although words were God's first creation, silence was closer to His divine spirit, and that prayers given in silence were infinitely greater than the thousands of words men might offer up to heaven.”

The dovekeepers - the Assassin’s Daughter; the Baker’s Wife; the Warrior’s Beloved; the Witch of Moab are all completely different, all unique, strong and subject to incredible hardships. History is subject to the personal stories of these beautiful women in this book. It's enchanting, absorbing, mesmerising and unforgettable,  yet also sad, and difficult to get through in parts.

3 stars

ISBN: 9781451617474

You may also enjoy Faithful by Alice Hoffman or Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Monday 16 July 2018

Word up

Morning all. It's C.O.L.D. where I live today. So we're going to need a little more motivation than usual. Well, I am anyway...

So before we get to the fun music, which is especially chosen to get us inspired to move, let's just have a little recap on why, again. I've taken this information word- for-word from www.brainhq.com.

"...you can actually get an additional brain boost by donning your sneakers and hitting the gym. The benefits of physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, have positive effects on brain function on multiple fronts, ranging from the molecular to behavioral level. According to a study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions.

Exercise affects the brain on multiple fronts. It increases heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to the brain. It also aids the bodily release of a plethora of hormones, all of which participate in aiding and providing a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells.
Exercise stimulates the brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in a wide array of important cortical areas of the brain. Recent research from UCLA demonstrated that exercise increased growth factors in the brain—making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections.
From a behavioral perspective, the same antidepressant-like effects associated with "runner's high" found in humans is associated with a drop in stress hormones. A study from Stockholm showed that the antidepressant effect of running was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory."
Ok, I'm in. I'm dressed, layered up, and ready to run - that's the other benefit of cold - you'd rather run than walk, to warm up more quickly, right? Right - work with me here.
And then there's the music. Little Mix - Word up! It's catchy, cute and has a music video that'll get you moving.
Here are some excerpts:
"There's got to be a reason - And we know the reason why"

"Wave your hands in the air

Like you don't care
Glide by the people
As they start to look and stare
Do your dance
Do your dance
Do your dance quick, mama

Come on, baby tell me what's the word
Word up
Everybody say
When you hear the call
You've got to get it underway
Word up
It's the code word
No matter where you say it
You know that you'll be heard"

Happy Monday. Happy training. Happy week.