Author Archives: Delia

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

When everything goes to hell, sex and booze is all we want.

I came to this conclusion after reading “The Heart Goes Last” in which Atwood describes a dystopian world quite close to reality. Charmaine and Stan are a young married couple trying to make ends meet after a big financial crash left them with no jobs and living in their car. Charmaine found work in a bar (because, after all, when everything goes to hell, sex and booze is all we want) and Stan’s main occupation is to make sure nobody steals their car. It’s a derelict existence. It’s survival. It’s not much of a life. That is until Charmaine sees an ad on TV in the bar where she works. There is a city named Consilience/Positron and anybody can apply to live there. There are jobs to be had, a free house, food and clothes, everything that was taken away by the crash. A clean bed with ironed sheets! Heck, a bed! Even that seems like a dream. The catch: once you’re in, you can’t get out. But Charmaine is a “glass full” kind of person and she wants in. Why wouldn’t she, when every night she sleeps in fear of her life as the violence has escalated and she’s always afraid of being beaten or raped or God knows what. So she convinces Stan and they get in.
For Charmaine, it’s a perfect place. She finds comfort in routine, in the cleanliness of the house, in cooking meals, in doing her job. It’s a routine, yes but this is so much better than their other life. So, so much better. Until it isn’t.

There is so much going on but things really start to get weird in the second half of the book. It’s like this book has double personality – half grim, half really funny. It was really depressing to read the first half and I seriously considered giving up but then I hoped things would pick up later. No city is perfect, especially one that’s so perfect on the outside. I imagined the place looked like in the video for “Chained to the Rhythm” by Katy Perry. Even the lyrics match. I wanted to quote them here but I’m not sure it’s allowed.

My patience was rewarded. The gloomy Orwellian atmosphere was dispelled. There were prostibots, Marilyns and Elvises, vampire references, a prison, and teddy bears. The blue, knitted ones, the kind you’d give a child. But oh, how Atwood twisted that into something disturbing and hilarious. It’s very likely next time I’ll see one in real life I’ll burst out laughing.

I enjoyed following Stan’s thought process as he was faced with some hard decisions. Charmaine was tough but in a superficial way – she seemed like a no-nonsense woman when it came to making sacrifices and it was entertaining and at times scary to watch how far she would go and the lies she would tell herself so she could keep what she had. There’s some trauma in her past but it’s only hinted at, a possible explanation to why she seemed so willing to accept anything to stay in Consilience/Positron.

I found interesting the duality of things – the city for a start, Consilience/Positron has a double name because everybody lives a dual life: for one month they live in their beautiful houses, then other month in prison. The irony does not escape me.
Life in prison is seen more like a succession of chores: there’s a laundry section, a knitting circle (for knitting blue teddy bears), even exercise classes. The city is soon to be franchised, there’s big money to be made and possibilities are endless. Just like possibilibots, life-like sex robots that are being made in the city. Because when the world goes to hell, yes, sex and booze is all we want. And maybe headless chickens, just because it’s better if we don’t have to decapitate them in order to eat them. More humane.

It’s interesting that Atwood sees only two possibilities: either a harsh life where everything is volatile, your job, your money, your transport, but you at least have your freedom, or a secure, sedate, domesticated version of a life where you get what you want but you’ll have to follow the rules. However, the human race being what it is, unpredictable, rules are broken and things really go to hell. There is no middle ground, unless you’re willing to compromise because every bit of comfort and happiness has a price. And you pay and pay and pay until there’s nothing left of you to pay with, no dignity, and no personal freedom.
Some of the things I saw coming but they were still entertaining to read and they had a satisfying twist. There are endless topics for discussion but that would mean giving away more of the plot and I’d rather not do that. I recommend it if you like dystopian fiction with a lot of swear words thrown in.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in June, 2017






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The 10-day silent meditation retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh – Things to consider and practical advice

I wrote about my experience at Wat Suan Mokkh in 3 previous posts. You can find them here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. This is the final post with practical advice and things I wish I knew before going there.

The hot spring. Bliss for my aching back.

Bring comfortable, loose fitting clothes. You can also buy clothes and toiletries at the meditation place. You can also wash your clothes there, in the dorm.
Bathroom conditions are a bit unusual. Women have to wear a sarong while bathing (a piece of cloth wrapped around the body – you can buy that at the retreat) and men have to wear shorts. There are no showers, but a big water basin and plastic bowls. It’s not comfortable but it’s doable and after a couple of showers you get used to it. Cold water only, but Thailand is a hot place anyway and after a day spent outside, cold water can be quite refreshing. Women and men have separate bathrooms.
Try the hot springs. There are two separate hot springs, one for women and the other for men. Women have to wear a sarong, same as when taking a shower. The place looks like a cross between a swimming pool, with steps leading to the water, and a spring. The water is hot, about 40 degrees Celsius and might be a bit of a shock at first but it helps a lot with the aches and pains, especially after sitting meditation. I went there twice a day and every time I felt like a new person.
Follow the schedule. Every day the schedule is posted in the dining hall and in the dorms. You don’t need to have a copy with you, just follow the others and you’ll be fine.
Free drinking water is provided and even a plastic bottle if you don’t have one. The water is filtered – you can’t buy bottled water or food so make sure you’re ok with that.
No food in the dorms. Not unless you want a whole colony of ants to come for a visit. And since you can’t use any kind of insecticide (remember loving kindness), you’d better not risk it. One guy found an entire army of ants in his backpack. I don’t know if it was because of food, but he had to change the room.
Bring a flashlight. You have one of those old fashioned lanterns in your room, complete with candle and matches but if you’re lucky like I was, you’ll break the candle and your matches won’t light because of the damp.
Bring slippers/flip flops and a bath towel.
Get lots of mosquito repellent. You can buy this at the retreat.
Bring a yoga mat. Unless you really want to have the full experience – that means the concrete bed and wooden pillow – make sure you get an extra thick yoga mat. Also an inflatable pillow. You can use the mat for the yoga sessions in the morning.
Don’t use makeup, perfume, body spray or any other beauty products. You’re supposed to give these up for the duration of the retreat. Besides, you’ll be spending all day outside and it’s too hot for makeup anyway. I did use deodorant because I don’t consider this a beauty product but a necessity. It’s not fun walking around smelling of sweat.
Don’t worry about having only two meals a day. You don’t need a lot of food because you don’t do any physical effort. The most strenuous thing you’ll do is your daily chore – either sweeping, mopping, washing toilets or wiping the tables in the dining hall.
Arrive one day early if you can. The retreat starts on the 1st of every month, but the registration takes place one day earlier. It’s nice to get to know some people before you stop talking for 10 days.
Don’t be afraid of the creatures. During the retreat I saw frogs, spiders, big geckos, centipedes, a snake, a monitor lizard and a tiny dead scorpion. In the event that you get bitten or stung, the people who are in charge of the retreat will help you. When I was there they said last time a guy was stung by a scorpion was 3 years ago. He spent the day in the infirmary and was in a lot of pain but he survived. They claim to have a cure for a scorpion sting so you should be fine.
Accept the fact that it’s going to be challenging. I don’t want to say difficult because it’s not the same for everybody, but it’s definitely going to be different to what you’re used to, especially if this is your first time doing this kind of retreat.
Don’t give yourself a hard time if you can’t meditate for more than two minutes. 🙂 I know I didn’t. I wanted to go to this place to relax. Everything else was just a bonus.
Ask questions. The organizers of the retreat and the monks in charge will be happy to talk to you, whether it’s a question about meditation or life in the monastery. Don’t expect an hour-long conversation but more like a quick chat.
Be respectful and helpful. That means follow the rules, no smoking or drinking and absolutely no drugs or sex. Also, no chatting with the other participants at the retreat. If you break these rules you might be asked to leave.
Take plenty of pictures before you hand in your camera. I only took a few and on the last day it rained, so that was it. No more pictures.
Remember this is only 10 days of your life. You may go through a whole range of emotions before the end but this is normal. This is a time of introspection, of spending time with yourself. It could be uncomfortable but it can be done.
One of the girls had a really hard time at the retreat. She would walk around in her own world of sadness. The organizers tried to help her, to convince her to stay on. She left on the seventh day. Many people will leave. It’s a fact. You’ll see the empty seats in the meditation hall and you’ll wonder where they are. Before I left I asked one of the organizers how many people were at the retreat. I was told 120. By the end there were about 93 left. You can leave at any time but I really encourage you to stay.

Thai monk in the library.

I really enjoyed my time at the retreat and would recommend this to anyone. The hardest part was dealing with the sleeping arrangement but after the third day I got used to that to some degree. However, I was never able to let go of a tiny fear of waking up in the middle of the night with a centipede or scorpion crawling inside the mosquito net. There was no insect screen at the window and I had to leave it open to get fresh air during the night.

Touring the monastery grounds. There’s a forest going up a hill at the back of the monastery. There’s also a pond with steps leading out to water. Very quiet and peaceful.

On the last day (day 11), I went on a tour at the main monastery. The purpose of the tour was to find out more about Ajarn Buddhadasa, the founder of the retreat. “Ajarn” is a term of respect and it means “teacher” in Thai, but not only in the strict school way. It’s also used when addressing someone who’s an expert in their field, or someone who has spent years studying and teaching a particular thing.
After becoming a Buddhist monk at the age of 20, Ajarn Buddhadasa wanted to build a retreat where international visitors could come and find out more about Buddhism, a place where people could go back to nature and simplicity, living a life based on a few basic principles.
We saw where he lived, the place where he was cremated, a library of sorts (it looked a bit like a church, with painted walls and pillars), but I didn’t see any books; a monk was there, available for questions. I didn’t ask any, my mind felt blank and relaxed and I just walked around looking at the inscriptions on the walls.
Coming back to Bangkok felt like slowly re-entering another world. I was not used to speaking loudly and the noise felt abrasive to my ears. For a few weeks afterwards I felt calm and relaxed, even though I didn’t practice meditating on my own, and even now, some of that calmness has stayed with me. I know I’ve said this before but I am very grateful to have participated in this retreat. I do believe I came out of it a better person.

Translated text of Ajarn Buddhadasa’s talks on Buddhism.

These are some of the books I got after the retreat, one of them “Life Should Be Harnessed By Two Bufflaoes” – I love that title.

This is the official page of the retreat Wat Suan Mokkh






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Ten things I’ve learned from the retreat at Wat Suan Mokkh (part 3)

Part 1 and Part 2

Interesting musing. Any thoughts?

1. It’s liberating not to place so much importance on the way I look, at least sometimes. At the retreat we all wore comfortable clothes, that means baggy pants and loose T-shirts. Shoulders needed be covered, no transparent outfits, and the pants or skirts had to reach below the knee. Nobody cared if you haven’t brushed your hair or you were so sleepy you were about to pass out during meditation. Many of us felt the same. I didn’t see my face in a mirror for 11 days. When I did see my face, in the airport restroom, I was surprised to see I had a tan but other than that I was pretty much myself. I don’t know what I expected. 🙂
2. Not talking for a while can be a blessing. You see so much more and your mind quiets down. Imagine you’re standing in line for lunch but the person in front of you is taking their sweet time getting the food. There’s no point in getting angry. You will eat, eventually. And there’s no hurry. It’s not like you have to be somewhere. So you let go of your irritation (because, remember, you can’t talk and tell the person in front of you to hurry up because you’re hungry) and you just wait for your turn.
3. Not wearing a watch can be liberating. Time was measured with the bell. I heard the bell and I knew I had to change the activity. The schedule was easy to follow and I didn’t even have to think, just follow the routine and if I forgot what was next, I just followed everybody else.
4. Complete silence would have been ten times harder. We listened to talks given by monks and laywomen and we chanted in Pali (the language of the Buddha). Actually the chanting was one of my favorite activities because the monk who guided us made some really good jokes (many of them involving the wooden pillow). I did not find the silence hard to deal with because there were always people around. Besides, I’m a quiet person by nature so this was actually quite nice. But not to hear another voice for ten days would have been a lot more challenging.
5. A smile is an amazing thing. It transforms people in incredible ways and makes them beautiful. One of the women at the retreat – she was tall and a bit scary and she always had this intimidating look on her face – she smiled at me one day and it was such an incredible thing, it transformed her completely. For a few moments she changed from a grumpy woman to an amazingly beautiful one. That smile lasted only a few seconds but it’s something I will remember for a long time. I smiled a lot, since this was the only means of communication with the other participants at the retreat. A smile can make someone’s day. I know it made mine.
6. Pain can come and go, like a visitor. We were told to try and acknowledge the pain, even make friends with it, then let it go. Pain is not ours so we should not hold on to it. Three days into the retreat I wanted to cry, that’s how much my back was hurting from sitting meditation. But I realized it was my fault for trying to keep a rigid posture. I relaxed, and in time the pain went away.
7. I don’t need as much food as I think I do. During this retreat I was able to distance myself from what I wanted and to eat only what I needed. It was one of the best things I learned and it changed my relationship with food. From eating for pleasure, I began to think of food as fuel for the body. It’s true that I’ve heard this countless of time – food is fuel – but it never quite got through me. I also lost a few kilos, something I haven’t been able to do in a long time, even after months of exercise.
8. Practice “loving kindness”. That means refraining from killing any creature, from the mosquito to the snake. Spiders don’t want to be in your room, cockroaches don’t hate you and snakes are not evil. They’re all creatures, trying to live, just like we do. This is a practice I’ve been familiar with and I try to follow as often as I can. I used to kill cockroaches – they give me the creeps, but I’ve become more tolerant of them now. That’s a big improvement for me.
At the retreat, I spent a few minutes every evening looking around the room, hoping there wasn’t anything in there bigger than a mosquito. There wasn’t. Some of the girls at the retreat really freaked out when they saw a spider or a frog. I really like frogs, and had fun removing a couple of them from windows and putting them away, in the grass. I don’t feel quite the same about spiders but they don’t freak me out as much as they used to.
9. Speaking in public is still not something I’m comfortable with but I can do it and I actually say things that make sense. On the last evening we were invited to share our experience at the retreat. Usually being in front of a microphone makes me incredibly anxious. My voice shakes and my palms get sweaty. But I got up and I went and said something and the next day people came to me and told me how much they enjoyed my speech. I don’t remember all of it. It’s like somebody else took over my voice. But people’s reactions made me happy.
10. I should keep trying new things, even sleeping on a hard bed with a wooden pillow. Monks and nuns sleep like that every night. The body gets used to it. (We visited the nuns’ house. The rooms look pretty much like cells, except there are no bars at the windows. Everything is clean, neat, no personal touches. It felt…oppressive.) Besides, unless you want to follow the monastic life, this is temporary. If they can do it for years, why can’t I at least try it for ten days? That’s what I told myself. Besides, you never know what life throws at you and maybe one day you can say “hey, this is nothing, I once slept on a wooden pillow.”  So I did sleep on the wooden pillow one day during nap time and then again for one whole night. I woke up a few times and wished that bell would ring because waking up at 4 a.m. was suddenly more appealing than putting my head on what I lovingly called “the chopping block”. But I’m glad I tried. I also cheated a little. In the storage room I found a thin sponge mat and together with my yoga mat they made for an acceptable bed. I also had a small inflatable pillow. It wasn’t the same as sleeping in a normal bed but it was an improvement.

I’m sure there are many things I’ve missed when putting together this list. It could have very well been 20 things instead of 10, but I tend to run away with the words and 10 seemed like a sensible number.

Next time I’m posting the 4th and final part: Things to consider and practical advice






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Ten Days at Wat Suan Mokkh (part 2)

CLICK HERE to read the first part.

4 a.m. – Rise and shine. Meditation eludes me. Silence.

After a night at the monastery I was looking forward to seeing The Dharma Hermitage. I went there in the morning with the other travelers, most of them in their 20’s and 30’s, backpacking through the world. It took about 20 minutes to walk there, while our bags were being brought up in a pickup truck. We went through the registration process which involves a short interview, picked a chore to do from a list and left our “distractions” (books, phone, camera) at the office. These 10 days are free from any form of technology, although some quick notes are permitted while listening to the talks. I wrote in a notebook nearly every day, in my room.

Inside the women’s dorm area. I loved waking up to see that tree just outside my door every morning.

The schedule was the same every day with small changes: rise, meditation, yoga, meditation, breakfast, chores, more meditation, talks about Buddhism and meditation, more meditation, lunch, chores, meditation, chanting, evening tea, more meditation, walking, meditation, lights out. You may think it’s a lot of meditation but all the activities are arranged in such a way that you don’t spend more than an hour doing each of them. Chores ranged from sweeping leaves to cleaning the toilets. I saw that chore list early on and because it’s a “first come first served” kind of thing, I was able to put my name down for sweeping the dining hall after breakfast and lunch. We also had some free time which I spent taking a nap. You can be sure that after waking up at 4 a.m. every morning, a nap was essential for my sanity and most of us made it a daily habit.

My bedroom for 10 days. That’s my backpack, my yoga mat, and in the corner it’s the old fashioned lantern with a candle.

I made some improvements. Notice my comfy mattress?

The famous wooden pillow. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Waking up at 4 a.m. is challenging. The first couple of mornings I didn’t know where I was or where that terrible sound came from. It was the bell. But I learned quickly on that it was best to have my flashlight handy, look around before I got out of “bed”, and try to be awake and alert on the way to the bathroom (even if I was too sleepy to walk straight), because it was dark and I certainly didn’t want to step on a frog or spider or even a scorpion or a snake.

We were told the type of meditation we practiced at this retreat was called Anapanasiti (mindfullness of breathing). This means being aware of our breath and trying to focus on it. This was my first serious attempt and it was not easy, but I didn’t give myself a hard time over it. Breathing in and out, trying to visualize the air going through my body and back out without allowing my mind to wander was a hard task. My mind went like this:

Breathe in. Out.
In. Out.
Hey, this feels so relaxing.
I wonder what bird makes that shrill sound.
What time is it?
Breathe in. Out.
Slow. Don’t rush.
Oh, I could do this all day….this is not difficult at all.
How many people are in this hall? There are five rows on the women’s side, and it must be like 12 people in a row, so that means….
Don’t think! Just breathe, in and out.

Well, you get the idea. I was actually amused to see how my mind went off in different directions. What I found really interesting was that I never got bored. I would remember things, visualize things and have these funny internal monologues, but it never got bored and I found this strange. I would get bored at home, with so many things to occupy me: books, movies, and that bottomless pit called THE INTERNET. But there, at the retreat, walking around barefoot under the trees, watching the birds and the bugs and just being in the moment, there was nothing but a feeling of contentment. I felt carefree, light, even happy.
It was during one of those moments when my mind was doing anything but meditating that I really understood what this retreat was about. What I got from this retreat was something so simple it could be condensed into one word: TIME. I had time to spend with myself, for myself, time away from distractions, from people (as much as I love people there are moments when I’d rather be alone), from obligations, from doing things that are expected of me. Time, this essential concept we never seem to get enough of these days. Time to breathe, to be alone, to be in the moment, to enjoy watching a bird or a tree. Having to follow a certain program every day can be monotonous but it also frees one’s mind from having to make decisions. You just go with the flow. It’s an incredible thing, to be able to give yourself to the present. Sometimes I forget that.

Next time: Ten things I’ve learned from this retreat






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Ten Days at Wat Suan Mokkh

Hello, again. I know it’s been a year since my last post but here I am, writing about something I’m excited to share with you. Don’t ask me what happened this past year. A lot has happened and most of it wasn’t that great. But what you’re about to read was (great, I mean).
In May I went on a silent meditation retreat for 10 days. I’ve never tried meditation before and I’m not Buddhist but ever since I’ve read about Wat Suan Mokkh in a book of travel essays called “To Thailand With Love”, I’ve wanted to go see this place for myself.
Because this was going to be a really long post I decided to split it into several parts and add a new one every few days.

“A retreat at the Suan Mokkh monastery is an emotional roller-coaster. But if you survive it, it will cleanse your soul.”

Colin Hinshelwood

For days I’ve been sitting in front of my computer trying to put my experience at Wat Suan Mokkh into words. It’s harder than I thought. There are so many things I want to say and to explain, but taken out of context they will probably mean little to anybody else. But I will try, hard as it is, to tell you about my personal experience.

That’s what I like to call “a letter to humanity”. Written by the founder of the retreat, who died over 20 years ago.

Even though I’ve spent nearly half my life in a Buddhist country I haven’t really paid much attention to Buddhism as a way of life. Sure, I knew some of the rules and what’s appropriate and not, especially when visiting temples, but not much more than that. I know Thai people who go to meditate at temples for a few days, but these temples are in Bangkok and frankly this city is such a tumultuous place that somehow, in my mind, it seems like the last place suitable for meditation. However, when I read about Wat Suan Mokkh something clicked in my mind. This, I told myself, this is where I should go. The prospect of spending 10 days in silence, sleeping on a hard bed with a wooden pillow and eating two vegetarian meals a day appealed to me. Okay, maybe not the hard bed part with the wooden pillow but the rest of it, especially the silence. I wanted something different, a bit of adventure, something I haven’t done before. A boot camp for the mind, I thought. As it turned out, Hinshelwood’s words were spot on.

I did my research – read anything I could find about the place and watched videos of people talking about their experience. I booked my ticket and flew to Surat Thani province (an hour away by plane from Bangkok and about 8 hours by train) two days before the retreat started.

Arrival. Abandon all worries, all who enter here. Chaiya
I arrived at Wat Suan Mokkh on the 29 of April, at around 10 a.m. I figured this would give me time to familiarize myself with the surroundings and prepare for the days ahead. The retreat starts on the 1st of every month but participants at the retreat need to be there before 3 p.m. on the previous day. I was so excited about this journey I just wanted an extra day.
There are two separate places – one is the monastery “headquarters”, where anyone can stay for up to 7 days, and the other one, called International Dharma Hermitage, is where the 10-day retreat takes place. They are within walking distance of each other.

Wat Suan Mokkh or “The Garden of Liberation” lives up to its name. As soon as I passed through the gates at the entrance to the monastery, the world seemed to have altered. I was in awe, the kind you feel when you’re seeing something extraordinary. There were trees everywhere, tall and green and loud with cicadas. Monks and visitors walked around. Everyone was smiling. I felt welcomed and relaxed instantly. I was so immersed in the atmosphere I almost forgot to take pictures. My relaxed attitude was somewhat altered when I saw “the room” where I was going to spend the night. Sure, I’ve seen pictures online, but reality still took me by surprise. The bed was a slab of concrete, and the wooden pillow its worthy companion. My first night felt a bit like sleeping in a crypt, which is no surprise considering how many vampire stories I read.

Chaiya, near the train station

That day I went to Chaiya with a couple of young American travelers I met at the monastery. A small town just a few kilometers away from the monastery, Chaiya’s most impressive feature is probably a coffee shop, which has Wi-Fi, fancy cakes and even fancier drinks. Think Starbucks on a smaller scale. There’s also a small train station, and the rest is just rows of town houses with shops on the ground floor.

At the monastery, bedtime is 9.30 p.m. Facilities include individual showers with cold water, there is only soap so you have to bring your own toiletries, and something I found extraordinary: there were NO BINS anywhere! Isn’t that a scary thought? Visitors are responsible for disposing of their own trash. I had a vision of myself carrying a plastic bag with me for ten days. What if there were no bins at the meditation place? As it turned out, there were bins at the Dharma Hermitage. That was a relief. It did make me more aware of the trash I produce and I did my best to keep that to a minimum.

Next time: 4 a.m. – Rise and shine. Meditation eludes me. Silence.






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Musings on time & spine poetry

It took me a while to realize that time was not what it used to be. There’s less of it now or so it seems to me. That being said, instead of complaining that I don’t have an hour or two or four to write my next blog post, I’m going to steal pieces of time and use them to write shorter posts until I can manage to get a bigger chunk in which to think and dwell in order to find all the beautiful words I want to use to write my next review. Also, shorter sentences would probably be better. That, however, is a hard habit to break.

*

I saw the “book spine poetry” on a few blogs but it wasn’t until reading the ones on TJ’s blog that I suddenly got the urge to go and look at the books on my shelves. If you haven’t read them, go have a look. The second poem she posted made me smile. It’s perfect.

For each poem I wrote I chose a book. The first one had to include Winnetou, because it’s one of my favorite books which I’m hoping to re-read soon. For the second one, there was something about On the Holloway Road which called out to me. I quite enjoyed that book.

In the Desert
Our Mutual Friend
Winnetou
The Deer Slayer
Haunts
Weaveworld

Red Earth and Pouring Rain
On the Holloway Road
After Dark






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Mircea Cartarescu – Why We Love Women (De ce iubim femeile)

Mircea Cartarescu’s book is a collection of personal essays on women. I’m not sure why I picked it up; maybe it was the idea that soon enough I would be far away from Romanian literature (the odds of finding anything in this language in Bangkok are pretty slim) so I’d better take advantage of the time I had left and the books available. Strangely enough, a few days after finishing the book I found out about Romanian Writers Challenge hosted by Snow Feathers and thought this was too much of a coincidence. Hence the review.
I really liked this book up to the last story. That one robbed it of a 5 star rating. But bear with me, we’ll get there.

Mircea Cartarescu

Mircea Cartarescu

Twenty-one short essays about women – women who were unforgettable for different reason, some, because of their beauty, others because of what they did (or didn’t do), or the way they came back into the author’s life after a long time. Stories of lust, love, eroticism, betrayal, tragedy, all plucked from the folds of memory, dusted and printed on the page, ready to be smiled upon, frowned upon and even shed a tear upon. I smiled reading about Carturescu’s self-professed awkwardness and I can very well imagine the strange, thin youth who used to go around quoting favorite authors to the dismay of acquaintances and girls in particular. I kept smiling when he talked about finding a room filled with old books in a dilapidated building, and spending hours of pleasure immersed in reading, sealed away from the world until one day the room along with its treasure was gone.

It’s hard to describe with accuracy the tone of some of the stories. Imbued with the air of a long gone era – some of them take place during the communist regime that ended in 1989 – I found myself laughing at some of the expressions I found nearly impossible to translate. I wonder what the English translation of this book is like. Although Cartarescu is older than I am (he was born in 1956 and is still living), he talks about a Bucharest that doesn’t seem that old – a dilapidated house, a subway station, the gray apartment buildings rising tall and ugly (they’re still there), a black and white photograph (my parents still have those, where people look like ghosts printed on hard pieces of paper with jagged border all around), a big market that still exists where Gypsies are on the prowl for wallets belonging to inattentive customers. This is probably the main reason why I felt such a connection with these stories – he writes about the familiar, things and people I can readily imagine and accept because at some point I’ve seen/met them.

There are some stories that are not that personal – Zaraza is one of them. This is one of my favorites because it’s a tale of a love story so intense and dramatic I couldn’t help but be moved and immensely saddened by it. According to the author, this is a true story that happened in 1944 when Bucharest was caught in the grip of war and the nightlife was luxurious, loud and tumultuous. Two famous singers vied for public attention, Cristian Vasile si Zavaidoc. They were rivals and both under the protection of local gangs. Because they were so popular nobody would touch them, although Zavaidoc wished his rival’s death and even asked a local gangster to kill him. But the man liked Cristian Vasile’s music and refused to kill him. He killed his lover instead, the famous Gypsy woman Zaraza. Her death was the end of Cristian Vasile’s life as a singer. After she was cremated, he stole her ashes and ate them one spoon at a time, then tried to kill himself by drinking a toxic substance. He survived, lost his voice and kept on living, a broken man who made his living as a stagehand in a theatre, nearly voiceless and forgotten.
Probably his most famous song which bears the name of his beloved has survived and you can listen to it here:

The last essay in the book is an ode to women everywhere. Carturescu sees women as candid beings, sensual, sometimes difficult to understand but always great to be loved. He also shows a somewhat archaic understanding of women by claiming they don’t do things I’m sure most of them are familiar with. Here’s a 5 minute YouTube reading of that last essay. I found minute 4.20 particularly funny.

I enjoyed these stories/essays. They kept me alert, the writing is smooth and lyrical and sensual, with a pinch of the bizarre, and Cartarescu’s flair for the dramatic stands out. This is certainly a great book and one I recommend. You can find the English translation by following this link.

My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in February-March 2016






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A little bit of everything, including Easter eggs and squirrels

I am now back in Bangkok after eight months spent at home in Bucharest. Those were probably the most intense months I have experienced, save perhaps for the first year I came to Thailand (nothing will beat that year). These months left me feeling like I’ve been through an emotional cyclone – I’ve seen hospitals, scars and suffering, and I’ve experienced the horrible feeling of watching someone very dear to me fight unbearable pain without being able to do much to help. I’ve been to a funeral, two weddings, and was there when my two best friends announced their pregnancies. All this made me look at life in a new way and it is also the reason I was mostly absent from the blogosphere – spending time with family and friends took over everything else, even reading and most definitely writing.

Books for sale in central Bucharest

Books for sale in central Bucharest

It didn’t really dawn on me I was coming back to Bangkok until the last week – I had a “moment” while in a café & bookshop near Cismigiu Park, a moment when I realized it might be a while before I would be back. It was definitely a goodbye moment, something I didn’t really want to think about but apparently that wasn’t up to me.
And so here I am, and as I made my way out of the Suwarnabhumi airport, I got to experience all over again the overwhelming heat – it’s the hot season and the difference in temperature is shocking, even if Bucharest was warm enough for short sleeves when I left. Bangkok air is heavy and humid and it has an almost liquid quality – it feels as if the air itself pushes its sticky claws into your lungs.

Last Sunday was Easter day and I woke up thinking I should get up and do something before it got too hot to do anything. So I painted some eggs and took some photos and just about managed to avoid the worst of the heat. It’s hellishly hot from around 12 to 5 in the afternoon, which is the time I usually spend watching a movie and reading or aimlessly browsing Facebook posts and lying to myself that I’m just getting settled even if it’s been more than I week since my return and this is my first blog post in a long time.

Ship of Destiny As for reading, last year I left in the middle of a trilogy – I was reading book two of The Liveship Traders, a wonderful work of fantasy by Robin Hobb, and now I’m almost halfway through the last book. Ships with talking figureheads, a pirate, and a family drama unfolding against a backdrop of political unrest, this trilogy is truly wonderful (even if not as amazing as The Farseer Trilogy).

I’m still participating in the Romanian Writers Challenge and the review for the first book will be posted next week if the internet cooperates. It’s been behaving erratically these past few days.
I look forward settling back into a routine, definitely reading more and hopefully writing more as well. It may take me a while to catch up with all of the blog posts I missed but I’ll get there.
And finally, a squirrel, because why not. I took this photo with my phone, in a park back home, sneaking up on the little creature as it was in the middle of a feast.






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Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Daphne du Maurier

Nu-privi-acum-si-alte-povestiri-Daphne-Maurier-Editura-Univers-1983 I must confess, I expected a lot from this book. With a title like that, I thought, this must be a great book. As it turned out, it really was. There are four stories and I loved them all but one truly stands apart.

Don’t Look Now is about a couple on holiday in Torcello, Italy. What seems like an innocent holiday game of making up stories about strangers begins to be more than that when John and Laura spot two elderly ladies at a nearby table. And when one of them claims to see the couple’s recently deceased child, a girl named Christine, things really get interesting. Told through vivacious dialogue and dropping clues one after the other, the story reaches the end and everything comes full circle, leaving one more mystery behind but providing satisfying closure nevertheless.

The narrator of Not After Midnight is Timothy Grey, a 49 year old bachelor who remembers his fateful trip to Crete and the horrible incident that changed his life. He’s not an unreliable narrator, plagued by bouts of madness concealed into the folds of everyday routine. On the contrary, the accuracy of detail makes him a highly credible story-teller and I couldn’t help but sympathize with him and wishing things had ended on a different note. Timothy seems like the kind of person who’s almost pedantic in his routine. It’s obvious he likes things done a certain way and he highly values his privacy. That is why, when he meets an odd couple – the big, drinking man and his silent wife, he tries to keep his distance. I really liked how the author gave a new spin to a famous snippet of Greek mythology.

A Border-Line Case is about Shelagh, a young woman who tries to find out more about her father’s best friend. The men had had a falling out after Shelagh’s father got married. Her mother can’t stand the man. And following her father’s death in such strange circumstances – he was watching his daughter when it happened – Shelagh decides to employ her talents as an actress to fabricate a story that will allow her to find out the truth. What’s really behind the mysterious, reclusive man living on an island with a few trusted companions? And why does he have a picture of her parents on their wedding day but with himself as the groom? As Shelagh finds herself caught in the mystery, it is Shakespeare who ultimately unlocks the past and reveals the terrifying truth. This is perhaps the most dramatic story in the book and also my favorite.

The Way of the Cross takes place in Jerusalem. A group of people under the supervision of young reverend Babcock visit the holy city. They are quite a mix – the young couple on their honeymoon, an older couple from the high society and their spoiled nephew, a businessman and his wife, and an elderly spinster. It’s obvious from the start that things aren’t as they should be. Reverend Babcock had to take the place of an older and much beloved reverend on this trip, a fact that will have devastating consequences for all in the group. With uncanny precision, the author unveils the insecurities, weaknesses and secrets of all involved. Shocking revelations, betrayal and humiliation follow in rapid succession. Come here all, and have yourselves be stripped to your very soul – this seems to be the motto of the story.

I was fascinated by the stories and only wished there were more in the book. Du Maurier doesn’t waste any time in lengthy descriptions or flowery turns of phrase. Straight to the point using dialogue for the most part, this seems to be the best way to tell the stories. A clever manipulation of clues dropped here and there throughout make them almost seamless. It was not until quite close to the end that I remembered them, and when the ending came it was as unexpected as it was natural. Of course this is how it happened, I told myself, there couldn’t have been a better way. I went back and forth a couple of times, because I had forgotten some of the clues that were vital to the story. Who knew Shelagh’s love for acting and Shakespeare in particular were more than just a literary allusion? Or that a half-god’s legacy would find a new victim in poor Timothy? Or that a strange prophecy of an old blind woman will prove to be so accurate? The characters are exposed, their flaws and hopes and desires revealed. There’s cruelty but also love and vulnerability.
I couldn’t praise this book more. I had no idea such a little gem was hiding in my library. The edition I have is a Romanian translation from 1983 which I discovered one night when sleep was slow to come. If you’re a fan of mystery, I recommend you give this book a try.

My rating: 5/5 stars
Read in February-March, 2016

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roch
A few days ago I was ver excited to read about a Romanian Writers Challenge on Bellezza’s blog. The challenge is hosted by Snow Feathers, a Romanian blogger, and lasts until 1 December 2016, so there’s plenty of time if you want to join. Coincidence or not, I found out about this event not long after I finished a Romanian book, Why We Love Women, by Mircea Cartarescu, so this event seemed too good to pass up. As soon as I’m done with Dan Brown and the mysteries of the Vatican (I’m about halfway through “Angels and Demons”) and write a review for Cartarescu’s book, I’ll see what other Romanian writers I can read for this challenge.






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Celebrating – a blog anniversary and an old tradition

05 I completely forgot about my blog anniversary until today when I read Deepika’s post. My blog turned five in January.
Five years seems like such a long time. Even though I’m not as active here as I thought I would, I decided that since this is a hobby and life does get in the way often enough, I will only post when I can and feel like it. If you’ve made this place a regular stop during your browsing sessions, thank you. If you left a comment, know that I really appreciate it.

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If you come to Bucharest between the 1st and 8th of March, you will see a city in celebration. On these two days, and the days in between, girls and women receive flowers, chocolates and “martisoare”(pronounced “martzishoare”). “Martisoarele” are small brooches to be worn pinned to the clothes during this time, and they come with a red and white little cord. They are a symbol of spring and can also be worn as bracelets. According to tradition, between the 1 and 9 of this month we can also choose a day which is said to foretell how the year will be for us. If the weather is good, we’ll have a great year, but if it’s rainy, our year will be one of challenges and hardships. This belief is said to come from ancient times, before we were conquered by the Romans and became Romanians. An old woman named Baba Dochia (baba means “old woman”) climbed the mountains on the 1st of March and every day she took off one of the sheepskin coats she was wearing. Every day it got warmer and every day she cast away a coat – a symbol of the spring to come.
I’ve missed this tradition. Living in Thailand can mean a blur of months melting into one another. The weather is pretty much the same most of the time (hot) and I would often lose track of the holidays we used to celebrate back in Bucharest.
I also call it a holiday because some companies give their employees a day off.

When it comes to reading, I’m off to a slow start this year. I’m almost done with a collection of four short stories by Daphne du Maurier. “Don’t Look Now and Other Stories” has proven to be a wonderfully bizarre book. I hope to finish it this week and review it soon. The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman is another book which I read recently and should also write about because it’s a beautiful novel, even if it took me a while to warm up to it.






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