book review

Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

Neither Here nor There: Travels in EuropeNeither Here nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When John Steinbeck, who wrote The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and Travels with Charley: In Search of America, met a young man in traveling across America in his converted camping car named Rocinante, he met a young man who longed to travel to Europe with the idealization of the continent as he had seen in magazines and books. Steinbeck, being already weary of the existential dealings on the road, advised him, “What’s the need when the world is conveniently at your fingertips in colors without all those travel-related hassles? You can see the world in books and films and still keep your ideal images of Europe.” Which is exactly why Bill Bryson, an American- born British writer renowned for his great sense of wit and superb command of the English language, decided to embark on his journey once again twenty years after he and his pal Katz backpacked across Europe. Bryson wanted to see Europe in itself with a tabula rosa and write something about the cultures that seemed at once so different and yet so oddly similar in his own eyes. The result is the touchy-feely, impetuously hilarious, and astonishingly insightful Neither Here Nor There.

Bryson’s journey began and ended in the two geographical outposts of Europe, Hammerfest and Istanbul. By virtue of his narrative both so inviting and vivid with the use of languages both colloquial and literal that are so characteristic of his writing style, readers will easily and willingly follow his train of travel through the chapters, as he first takes us to Hammerfest to watch the beautiful shimmering gossamer of Northern Lights. We find Bryson feeling not-so-attractive while sitting on a bench at a park in Copenhagen, where all people looked handsome and beautiful. Such existential estrangement became heightened in Belgium, for all along he felt homesick, reminiscing about an old diner in Iowa and its cantankerous but hearty old waitress he frequented. In Amsterdam, he was concerned about the country’s “oddly wearisome” social conventions in regard of its complacency toward untenable political stance under the banner of tolerance. We see Bryson in the streets of Stockholm disappointed in the perfect socialist country littered and defiled by wastes mindlessly thrown away anywhere by its civilized residents without a shade of shame.

And who would not but sympathize with Bryson’s pathos in Florence? Here in this City of Flowers, Bryson saw the ubiquitous Gypsies importune everyone, with their haggardly clothed little children as an instrument for orating their poverty to passers-by at which Bryson was righteously indignant. He questioned himself why the police were not making any efforts to stop the Gypsies from harassing people. Further in Austria, we feel for him as his idealization of Austria as the epitome of all things European was ungraciously punctured by unfriendly services, an irritatingly slow mode of business operation, and a lack of charming coffeehouses where he could rest his spent body and spirit for a time. What a Don Quixote-like journey full of episodes  it was.

Bryson’s cultural notes of each country he visited were, however, devoid of malicious sarcasm or jingoistic ignorance of its customs or social conventions. Things that he experienced in his travel in Europe was a clash of cultures he came from – originally Iowa, The U.S. and England afterwards – and cultures he had imagined in his mind, all of which spellbound him like a Boy in Wonderland. In fact, what fascinated him in Europe was his discovery that the world could be full of variety in which there were many different ways of doing essentially identical things, such as eating and drinking and buying movie tickets. Unlike other travel writers who only write about the sunny sides of the countries and peoples in their interests, Bryson is unafraid of telling readers his observations through his experience with a certain kind of fraternal or avuncular affection added by his trademark wits wonderfully interwoven with intelligence and humanism.

The travel ended in Istanbul with his hope of seeing more of the world, his everlasting wanderlust still luring with a vision of Asia across the Bosporus Bridge. He’s all up for the unforseeable happenings awaiting for him to encounter because that’s the glory of foreign travel, a travel to a terra ingonita where anyone can become a stranger, a wanderer blissfully ignorant of almost anything. To Bryson, the whole existence of traveler is to be constructed by a series of instantaneous guesses and endless actions. Notwithstanding all the woes of a lone traveler who was culture-bound, Bryson’s travels in Europe was something of his experience in Wonderland filled with a great sense of childlike wonder and appreciation of the wonders of each country in its own colors. Neither Here Nor There is his tale of veni vidi, vici experience and entertaining accounts of the world through his eyes with amusing and telling details resembling none other than themselves.

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book review

The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney

51emoQ2iSAL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic by Darby Penney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I believe that reality is always better than fiction in truth of events and artifacts that accompany the stories. Besides, if such story chimes the bell of my emotion even in the faintest decibel, I dive into it. In this regard, this book was a sure thing to read about people who were inflicted with “sacred disease” -as termed by Hippocrates – how they got there and what they were really like as individuals with dreams, memories, hopes, and wishes.

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One of the suitcases found in Willard Psychiatric Center courtesy of phaidon.com

Hundreds of derelict suitcases came into light when Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York were closed in 1995, ending its century long history of a public mental institution. Each suitcase has a story to tell with pictures, bus/train tickets, diaries, letters, and even teacups contained herein. In the eyes of the author, it was like the fateful revelation of the outcry of the people who had come to live in the hospital. What I have found in reading this book is that many of the patients do not seem mad or needful of being institutionalized. Many of them suffer from loneliness, abandonment, and ill treatments from others. To my consternation, if a spouse or a family member was regarded irksome, bothersome, and troublesome, a ticket to the lifelong institualization was a sine qua non solution to get rid of the person forthwith.

A truly powerful testimony to the dignity of the people who found themselves on the edges of society, The Lives They Left Behind is comprised of heart-wrenching accounts of those whose lives were immortalized in the artifacts they forgot to claim ever more; that there is only a thin layer of difference between those within and without gives rise to requisite re-examination of what constitutes normalcy of behaviors as “socially and culturally” accepted because in one way or another we all carry a certain degree of “madness” within -for better or worse.

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book review

The Rise of Fido : Book review on Dogs by Raymond Coppinger

513eG+OX1CL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution by Raymond Coppinger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We claim to love dogs, and yet we know so little about them. We long for their unconditional affection, but we are ignorant of their needs and our faults altogether. Moreover, we like to think dogs as wolves and believe it so. Since I am a kind of person who says hello to a dog I encounter in the streets, this book caught my eyes and mind to know more about dogs, a beautifully different organism worthy of our attention and care, and to find out how they got their way based upon scientific and cultural examinations of dogs.

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Raymond and Lorna Coppinger with their fido friend courtesy of google

This book, written principally by Raymond Coppinger, professor of biology at Hampshire College, a former sled dog racing champion, is unique among many other books about dogs I have read in terms of its scientific bases of anthropological and behavioral studies of canine familiaris, i.e., the dog. The most significant fact about this book is that the author forthwith and forthright argues that dogs are not direct descendants of canis lupus, the wolf. Furthermore, he counters Darwinian evolutionary theory based upon the three factors of anthropological evidence, behavioral ecology, and Belyaev’s tamed foxes.

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Pemba Village Dogs courtesy of marinebiologist.com

To begin with, the author takes readers to to a village of Pemba, an island off the East African coast in the territory of Tanzania, where the inhabitants still live on a boundary between hunting-gathering of the Mesolithic period and agriculture of the Neolithic period. In Pemba, dogs exemplify village dogs with a prevalent display of the uniformity of shapes, sizes, and colors of the coat, all of which indicate isolated gene pool untainted by any other strain of dog that would introduce a variation in appearance. The Pemba village dogs have co-habituated with their human inhabitants by choosing a niche close to human existence as a place of steady supply of food, safety, and reproduction. This leads to a conclusion that they are the descendants of the first evolved domestic dogs from the Mesolithic period of human history.

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Dmitri Belyaev and his tamed Silver Foxes courtesy of es.turopedia.com

First, people created a new niche called the village. Then some curious wolves came to the niche and gained access to a new food source. These wolves adapted to this new convenient niche are “genetically” predisposed to show less “flight” distance than those of their wild peers and become tameable. A Russian geneticist named Dmitri Belyaev’s long term experiment with the Russian Silver Foxes corroborates this domestication process: after 18 generations (36 years on our evolutionary clock), the foxes became naturally tamed and remarkably resembled dogs in appearance and temperament.

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Characteristics of  juvenile features of wolf pups courtesy of evolution-slideshow.net

Moreover, Coppinger ardently disagrees to the wolf-turned-dog theory. Rather, dogs descended from a “wolf-like” species that became extinct is their paramount contention to the widely accepted opinion. In addition, dogs possess characteristics of neoteny by retaining wolfish juvenile shapes and features, such as round and short facial shape with floppy ears, and care-soliciting behaviors into adulthood. That is, by keeping the cute and lovable appearance of wolf puppies into adulthood, the behavioral developments of dogs still remain in perpetual juvenile stage, which makes themselves well adapted to the human inhibition and thus able to survive in their niches for their safe existence.

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A Little heartbeat at my feet courtesy of naver.com

Dogs are one of the fewest animals who share our lives and require our tender attention and care for the reasons concerning the above and most of all, the feelings we get when we see the eyes of dogs that are so soulful and insightful. We need to take a close look at our canine fellow creatures in their true form based upon their biological needs and behavioral tendencies, to love them as they are, and treat them as a wonderful creature of nature that has been with us for so many years in our human history.

Don’t forget the little heartbeat when a dog is at our feet. Never forget that they are only dogs.

book review

The Timeless Art of Jean Francois Millet: Book Review on Jean Francois Millet by Estelle M. Hurll

Jean Francois MilletJean Francois Millet by Estelle M. Hurll

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was 13 years old when I first saw “The Gleaners” reprinted on a small tin plate as a complementary bonus to a carton of vanilla ice cream my mom had bought for me and my little brother. The painting had a peculiar charm that diverted me from the love of my favorite ice cream; its serene but picturesque impression of the three working women and the pastoral scene produced in me a peace of mind and a sense of comfort. Since that time, the painter of “The Gleaners, ” Jean Francois Millet, has become my favorite painters of all. So when I came upon this book by Hurll published in 1900 on Kindle Bookstand, I was already downloading it on my kindle with a kind of same delight I felt when I was 13 years old.

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“The Gleaners” By Jean Francois Millet courtesy of wikipedia

Jean Francois Millet (1814-1875) was born into a hardworking and caring peasant family who had been residing in the old province of Normandy, France through the generations. The rustic, chaste beauty of the pastoral scenery and the coarse but artless and diligent village people who toiled to grow life out of land and tended flocks of livestock for living were imprinted on the senses and sensibilities of Millet. His subject matters were already indelibly marked in his nature. It is in fact, this natural beauty that became his muse and the epitome of his aesthetic beliefs. He spurned the artificial beauty of the forced setting. He believed, “The beauty is the fitting,” which links to what Saint Augustine explained in his “De Pulchra et Apte,” meaning “The Beauty and The Fitting,” in which two kinds of beauty: beauty inherent in the thing itself, and beauty by virtue of thing’s use were explained. In this regard, Millet’s tranquil beauty pertains to the latter as shown in his paintings of the pastoral life and its inhabitants.

What’s special about Millet’s paintings are distinctive features of his art. To illustrates, in “The Angulus,” “The Gleaners,” and “The Shepherdess,” the landscapes cease to be a mere setting or background in figure pictures and become “organic” parts of the compositions, focusing on the human sides in the expressiveness of the figures, and thus make both figures and the landscapes interdependent, fitting together in a perfect unity. Millet also mastered in the effects of changing the light during different hours of the day, which creates the ambience of the normal and the quiet in the paintings.

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“The Shepherdess” by Jean Francois Millet courtesy of 1000 museums.com

Although it was “The Gleaners” that allured me into the world of Millet’s paintings, my favorite is “The Shepherdess” completed in 1862. There is a young shepherdess knitting like she is transfixed, while her flock of sheep and her assistant black little dog are following slowly their pensive guardian. The expression of her face begets many thoughts on the sacredness of work and its worker that strikes into your heart with a sense of respectfulness, which is stretched to the far distance in the scene where men working on piles of hay and their carts to carry them over. This painting gives an impression of a suspended action captured in the eyes of the painter as if it were photographed that would proceed to move in any moment soon. Also, it renders the 3rd dimension of space with the figure of the shepherdess having a solid, tangible appearance and the space that seems so infinite, so boundless, and so eternal with the quality of surrounding light of space composition evocative of religious serenity.

This book does not contain a biography of Millet but rather serves as a reference book of his paintings to get readers acquainted with the artistic world of Millet in a short period of time. One of the reasons I chose this book is its year of publication. It was published in 1900, only 25 years after the death of Millet. Therefore, Hurll could glean information on Millet’s life from surviving friends of his, which is all the more authentic and factual, devoid of myths, legends, and fables that are so prevalent in the books on the famous who were long gone.

For these reasons, Millet is one of the fine artists whose intense love of human nature and expression thereof is the chief element of beauty. In his paintings, nothing is ignored in the landscapes as well as the figures. He was indeed a master of the arts who could use the seemingly commonplace with the feeling of sublime that gave to art its true meanings. Many years might have passed since the first time I saw “The Gleaners,” but the kind of mysterious delight of peaceful awe I felt at that time still remains with me after all those years. Millet was right: the true beauty knows no boundary of time and place.

book review

The Classic Wisdom on Food and Drink

Food and Drink: A Book of QuotationsFood and Drink: A Book of Quotations edited by Susan L. Rattiner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Inspiration can come from anywhere, but it is most well conveyed in quotations from famous writers, thinkers, artists, and many well-known figures in the matters of positive thoughts, great advice and ideas on human existence and humanity. As Oscar Wilde said, “Quotations are serviceable substitutes for wit,” inspirational quotations stimulate our minds to fresh endeavor, gives us a new viewpoint upon our existential matters, and enable us to get a fresh hold upon ourselves and things that are necessary for our human existence, such as elegantly compiled in this charming book of quotations about food and drink.

The cover of the book showing Renoir’s beautiful painting of “A Luncheon Of The Boating Party,” imparts lightheartedness of the subject matters of the book encompassing the festivity of celebrating them both as a pleasure and a necessity. The quotations in this lovely little book, which readers can finish at one setting, comprehends all the aspects of food and drink -ranging from a necessity of our existence to an object of pleasure, from a means to measure our temperance to a touchstone of inculcating etiquette to achieve our self-respect and dignity- with insights, thoughts, and witticism from writers, thinkers, and proverbs. Included in this review are selected quotations from my personal reading of the book.

Food is sacred, a victual for the nourishment of the body and the mind. Therefore, it should be taken in a peaceful, civil manner, as to appreciate its values both physically and ethically. In this regard, Rudyard Kipling seems to disfavor the American way of fast food as we can hear him saying that Americans had a habit of “stuffing for ten minutes thrice a day.” And who says eating alone invokes a sight of pity when Charles Lamb glorifies “Oh, the pleasure of eating my dinner alone!” Aesop also agrees to the importance of eating food with peace of mind as follows: “A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.” Mark Twain’s aphorism of “To eat is human, to digest divine” can become a mantra to reconstitute insalubrious eating habits.

A host of the notable emphasizes on the power of coffee as a tonic to awaken our sleepy senses. Take Johann Sebastian Bach’s humorous claim that without his routine morning coffee, he is just “like a dried up piece of roast goat.” Honore De Balzac concurs with Bach metaphysically because he trusts a cup of coffee to be his Muse by confessing “Coffee falls into the stomach [and] ideas begin to move… [and] the shafts of wit start up like sharpshooter, smiles arrive, the paper is covered with ink.” Accordingly, President Teddy Roosevelt’s immortal approval of good coffee as being “good to the last drop.” still reverberates in radios and televisions.

However, there is also the other side of food when it is indulged beyond the pale, as Ludwig Von Beethoven cautions against gluttony by which man “sinks almost to the level of an animal when eating becomes his chief pleasure.” The Talmud tells us how to eat in moderation as follows: “In eating, a third of the stomach should be filled with food, a third with drink, and the rest let empty.” Desiderilis Erasmus attests to the moderate way of eating by testifying, “When I got a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food.”

In fact, moderate eating has been a matter of importance throughout the human history from the ancient time until now. For instance, Ovid counsel for the universal topic does not sound new to readers at all: “Stop short of your appetite; eat less than you are able.” The American Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin gives readers gives readers more detailed advice on the exercising and moderation of eating as follows: “If, after exercise, we feed sparingly, the digestion will be easy and good, the body lightsome, the temper cheerful, and all the animal functions performed agreeable. Eat to live, and not live to eat.” To cap it all, the simplest way of calorie expense is given by the Jewish proverb: “He that eats till he’s sick must fast till he’s well.”

As illustrated above, these witty and reflective quotations about food and drink (mostly about coffee) from the great minds who lived before us are universal in their appeal and still applicable to our ways of life in terms of the manners of understanding the nature and values of eating and drinking as a pleasure as well as a necessity. In this delightful, light-volume of book, readers will enjoy more quotations without a need of contextual interpretation or psychological analysis of the words of motivation, reflection, and humor. This book will make a good companion at a coffee-shop when you wait for someone, rest yourself before heading in to work, or just enjoy your solitary comfort.