Category Archives: book review

Why Does Santa Wear Red by Meera Lester

Why-Does-Santa-Wear-Red

This is such a fun book for anyone who loves Christmas, fun facts, yummy recipes, crafts, pop culture, home decorating, traditions from around the world,  history….I love it! I haven’t even finished reading it from end to end (so far, I’ve zeroed in on information about Santa and Christmas traditions (in North America)). But, I would like to share a few interesting tidbits with you:

  • Christmas was illegal in New England until 1681 and “it was only in the years after the [civil] war that Christmas began to win slow acceptance as a cause for revelry in various regions of the United States, and only at the dawn of the nineteenth century did any meaningful references to the man we would call Santa Claus begin to appear.” (Christmas was illegal????)
  • Why Does Santa Ride a Reindeer-Driven Sleigh? Santa flying around in a sleigh pulled by one reindeer…had long been popular in Russia where Father Frost arrived in villages in a reindeer-drawn sleigh. The Norse god Wodin was said to ride his horse Sleipner through the air to make sure people were behaving; in Holland, Santa rides Sleipner to this day.”
  • Why a Red Suit? Think bishop’s cape and you have the answer. Nicholas…..was the bishop of the church at Smyrna (Izmir in modern Turkey). He lived during the fourth century and was known to be kind and generous to children, especially to the very poor, giving away his wealth to them. Tradition states that he tossed special little gifts or bags of gold to them through open windows or down chimneys.”
  • “The earliest Christmas ornaments consisted of edible goodies, typically fruits and nuts. Eventually, these made way for cookies, candy and cakes….the first commercial ornaments for Christmas trees were actually hollow, brightly colored containers that held good things to eat….originally, trees were the means by which presents were displayed  on Christmas morning before their owners claimed them.”
  • Why are red and green the colors of Christmas? No one really knows for sure, but there have been plenty of educated guesses. Green….is the color of the evergreens that symbolize so much that is important to the meaning of the holiday….the holly berry seems to be responsible for the red. This red berry lives through winter, thus symbolizing life in the face of death, a representation of Christ.”

Finally, (and this is not in the book, but it is for real) if you are planning to write to Santa Claus, you have until December 17. Yup, you can write to Santa and he will write back. You can write by regular mail to this address:

Santa Claus

North Pole HOH OHO

Canada

(No need to attach a stamp, if you’re mailing your letter from Canada.)

Or, click here to send an email.

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!

letterstosanta

Photo credit 1, Photo credit 2

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Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

I had been looking forward to reading this book for a long time. Many years ago I had a passionate love affair with ancient history and, every so often, I still feel it’s reverberations.

The book is beautiful, rich and engaging. Anyone interested in Cleopatra or her times needs to read it.

It’s that much more remarkable for it’s completeness given that we know very little about Cleopatra. What we do know, it seems, is based on educated guesses and the author seems to be Very educated on the topic (one would need to be to win a Pulitzer Prize).

As usual, I will not be doing any profound analysis (which, I often feel, doesn’t do any kind of justice to a book such as this); particularly given the book’s scope. But, I will say a few words about one of its many aspects that I found interesting.

For example, while reading Cleopatra, you will learn much about the ancient world and how it worked. Did you know that they had coin-operated machines? Again, not a profound observation, but I had no idea. And, does it not make you think twice about just how advanced our own society is? Perhaps, not very. And to what degree history repeats itself? It turns out that “Cleopatra’s subjects viewed time as a coil of endless repetitions”, which I would tend to agree with.

Even in Cleopatra’s time the Egyptian pyramids were already ancient and scrawled with graffiti, the most common one being: “I saw, and I was amazed”. Aren’t we still amazed by the pyramids? Doesn’t that sound quite like something that we might write about them? I just love when I can get into the skin of someone who has been dead for thousands of years and be able to relate. (Makes me think about God and reincarnation and how it’s-a-small-world-after-all.) The book is full of bits such as this, describing what people looked like, how they lived, how they thought.

Rich in history and filled with real-life intrigue, it’s one of those books that you keep forever.

To get a better idea of what the book is about, click here, to see Stacy Schiff speak about “Cleopatra”. If you’d prefer something quicker, here’s the author speaking about the greatest misconception that we have about Cleopatra.

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Interior Castle by St.Teresa of Avila

You know how I mentioned that I have a chronic illness? Well, it has swallowed my brain altogether as it is wont to do from time to time.

(I pre-wrote this post and saved it for emergency purposes such as this.)

So, please, help me out….have  a peek at Interior Castle and let me know what you think!

Photo credit: Pinterest

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“Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell or “It’s Good to Know That Anyone Can Make It Big”

I’m sure you’ve heard Edison’s famous words regarding genius: “10% inspiration, 90% perspiration”, but maybe you never quite believed it.  According to “Outliers”, we cling to the idea of the self-made man and that genius is exceptional and something one is born with (or not).

The book supports Edison’s words as well as provides proof and further expansion on it to show intelligence or talent are a given, but are only a small part of success or genius. Mr. Gladwell points again and again to the role that luck, hard work, social support and culture play in exceptional success.

For example, in Canada, the eligibility cut-off date for age class hockey is January 1. In any elite hockey group, 40 % of the players are born between January and March, then the percentages drop off steadily. What’s the relationship between the two? Those born at the beginning of the year are bigger and more physically mature than those born later in the year. They will appear to be better and, so, be given opportunities to practice, get the coaching and the encouragement that one needs to succeed, thereby fulfilling what is expected of them (ie. the self-fulfilling prophesy). This example covers most of the basics right there, but let’s look at this more closely.

Regarding extensive work: “the idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise…the magic number of true expertise: 10,000 hours.” (And this goes even for the biggest geniuses of all time, like Mozart.) And it seems that 10,000 hours of practice takes about 10 years, which is right about the time people start to show genius in their field of endeavour.

For example, “by the time [The Beatles] had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Do you know how extraordinary that is? Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire career.” That was after having the opportunity of playing non-stop in strip clubs in Hamburg for a number of years.

Bill Gate’s lucky series of opportunities are listed on page 54. “How many teenagers in the world had the kind of experience Gates had? “If there were 50 in the world, I’d be stunned…I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period of time , and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events.”” And, of course, all of these events were well timed.

One of the strongest examples of how the combination of extensive work, lucky opportunities and timing leading to genius is the following: when historians look at the top 75 riches people of all time (and all places) 20% of them are born within 9 years of each other in the 1830’s in the U.S.A.. Just in time to take advantage of the economic changes that were occurring in the 1860’s and 1870’s as a result of the coming of the industrial age.

The second half of the book looks at the depth of influence of culture. For example, the attitude towards work in Northern Asia is compared to that of Europe, based on agriculture. In Europe, people worked in the fields for half of the year and hibernated in the winter. Not so in Asia, where rice farming continued all year long. And the harder you work, the more reward you receive. Unlike in Europe, where you may have a large field, but are dependent on weather, if you have a rice paddy in Asia, you control the amount you grow based on your capabilities. “There is a clear relationship between effort and reward. Second, it’s complex work. The rice farmer isn’t simply planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall. He or she effectively runs a small business, juggling a family workforce, hedging uncertainty through seed selection, building and managing a sophisticated irrigation system, and coordinating the complicated process of harvesting the first crop while simultaneously preparing the second crop.”

Such experiences lead to beliefs about life in general. In Russia, they believe that “If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it”. In China they believe:”No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich.” That’s the attitude that breeds genius. (And is why there are so many Asian math whizzes.)

The book also looks at the value of the IQ and grades and suggests how kids can be raised to succeed.

Although a bit long in the second second half, the book is filled with histories and stories behind the stories and is a great read; the kind that makes you think differently about things.

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And Tango Makes Three by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

“And Tango Makes Three” is the true story of 3 penguins at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. It is the loveliest children’s book about love and patience, heterosexuality and homosexuality, families, cooperation and penguin behaviour. But, most of all it’s about love.

Roy and Silo are 2 boy-penguins, who picked each other during  the time that comes every year when “the girl penguins start noticing the boy penguins. And the boy penguins start noticing the girls.” And they do everything together, including making  a home together, “just like the other penguin couples”.

Roy and Silo want a baby very much, but it’s the one thing that they aren’t able to do like the other penguins. Until, one day….

The story is written by an assistant professor of psychiatry (Justin Richardson) and a playwright (Peter Parnell) and is so gentle and tender, it will touch your heart. If you want to introduce a young child to concepts that some find difficult to talk about, just give them this book and they will understand everything they need to know.

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The book has won many awards and, stirred up a lot of controversy since it suggests that Roy and Silo are gay. If you’d like to know more about homosexual behaviour among animals, click here.

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The Neurotic’s Handbook by Charles A. Monagan

Charlie Brown, one of the Neurotic Hall of Famers

This one goes back all the way to 1982. It is hilarious, helpful and accurate. I dare you to read this book and not find a decent length list of things you do or have yourself, just like the neurotic. (For example, I too have a scented sachet in my underwear drawer. A former co-worker brought one for everyone in the office from her trip to Greece and I didn’t know where else it would be appropriate to put.) This book is the proverbial mirror (that you’re supposed to hold up for yourself.)

The book goes through various descriptions of the neurotic

  • The Seven Ages of the Neurotic
  • The Private Lives of Neurotics
  • The Neurotic at Home
  • Health and Health Care for the Neurotic
  • The Neurotic Looks for Love
  • The World View
  • The Neurotic Hall of Fame

Here’s an excerpt from the Winter section, where the Neurotic is considering throwing an New Year’s Eve party:

The alternatives, of course, are even more chilling. To spend the night by yourself is unthinkable and perhaps even suicidal. To spend it among strangers at a lounge or a night club with a manic emcee at the helm is desperate and expensive. The only way of getting around the problem is to be madly in love, a prospect that is chancy to say the least“.

If you get to page 88 and you still aren’t sure if you fit the category of “neurotic”, there are 3 lists of points referring to the neurotic’s house, apartment and car. If your behaviours match up with these, you are, for sure, neurotic.

If, in the end, you are too frazzled from reading about all of these signs of neuroses, it’s best to go to back to the beginning, which begins like this:

It was no so long ago that most people were normal. They tilled the fields or worked hard in factories, they ate regular food that was hot and plentiful and served on thick crockery, they went to sleep shortly after it got dark, they prayed (all the time, not just when they were in trouble) and they engaged in sex under the covers with the lights out…

Photo credit for pic of Charlie: Pinterest

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