Friday, December 27, 2013

Reading Challenge - 2013

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Rachna has read 99 books toward her goal of 100 books.

This year I discovered Goodread's Reading Challenge. You set your reading goal for the year and try to achieve it. This came at a great time for me because since I had stopped working last year, I had been planning on catching up on my reading. I have always loved to read but with all of life getting in the way, it had been difficult to make time to read.

I started with a simple goal of 50 books for the year, but within a few days changed it to 100 - it's a challenge after all. Although each book I read has it's review on the site, I wanted to highlight some of them that made me think.

1. A Dog's Tale by Mark Twain - It's only a few pages long but manages to squeeze in so much heartbreak that it was difficult to read the whole thing without pausing and reflecting on it. I would encourage people to have their hearts broken by this story.

2. The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins - There was a time when people imagined the future as a Uptopia, but now we think of it as being Dystopian. I loved the concept of war and peace tackled in the book and how history  too often repeats itself. The story is exciting, but it was the underlying thought-provoking dialogues that I loved more.

3. Until Tuesday by  Luis Carlos Montalván - This was such an inspiring story. It's partly about a service dog named Tuesday, which has enough heart-warming power on it's own. The difference I found in this book was the way Luis explains what PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) means from the point of view of someone who has to go through it everyday. I have studied psychology in college but never was it so clearly explained as here. 

4. 50 Shades of Grey series by E.L.James - It was my first foray into erotica and is not a great story but I bring it up because the lumpy series takes you completely out of the reality sector and keeps you there till you finish all 3 books. You will want to finish the whole series out of plain curiosity about how the author can drag the story through hundreds of pages (hint: 99% of the pages are a guide and just 1% of it has some semblance of a story line). Leave all commonsense and logic aside when you read it though.

5. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini - Not much happens in the book, but it is not slow or boring by any means. I love the way he understands relationships and drags you into the lives of the people he writes about. Just a good piece of simple writing.

6. Total Recall by Arnold Schwarzenegger - I was never a fan of hard-core action movies but I loved Arnold and Stallone because they didn't put all their eggs in the action basket. It is inspiring how he pushed himself to be better when he could have taken it easy - it fills you with optimism because he puts his personality in the pages. He does talk about his mistakes and doesn't just glaze over it. A complete look into his life till now.

7. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck - The book is beautifully written and makes you feel every emotion as it were happening right in front of your eyes. I didn't read up on the background in which the story is set till after I read it (in one sitting because I couldn't put it down) and it was close to what I had gathered from my reading - so expertly it has been presented.

8. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo - It reads like fiction but it is not. The stories of a handful of people from the slums is brought alive. It is often easy to dismiss people you see begging on the streets as someone who doesn't want to work, but when you look into the environs they've been forced to live in, you wonder what makes them smile so joyously sometimes.

9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë - Having read books like Twilight and 50 Shades, and hearing of current books that depict girls and women as self-pitying creatures only interested in bagging a boy, this age-old book was such a fresh breath of air. The dialogues of a woman secure in her independence and self-worth fill you with pride: 
“I am not an angel,' I asserted; 'and I will not be one till I die: I will be myself. Mr. Rochester, you must neither expect nor exact anything celestial of me - for you will not get it, any more than I shall get it of you: which I do not at all anticipate.”
9a. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen - I re-read this classic and was blown over by it again. It is a book that gives you something different each time you read it in different stages of your life. The first time I read it, I looked at it as a love story. This time I saw how the strong-willed Elizabeth stood out in comparison to her sisters and friends. I classify it in the same bracket as Jane Eyre in terms of girl-power.

10. Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi - I was never able to understand how anorexic women don't realize that being skeletal is unattractive or that if they don't eat something, they will die. Portia explains it in this book. No matter what kind of support system you have in your life, sometimes it is just not enough. One can only hope that self-realization comes before it is too late.

11. The Fault in our Stars by John Green - It is a typical book for teenagers, with young humour and romance. The only difference is that the protagonists have cancer and they look for ways to make the most out of life while they can. What really got to me though was the story within the story: an author writes a book from the point of view of a terminally ill girl and ends it mid-sentence. Powerfull stuff!

12. The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony - Elephants are such perceptive creatures and have strong family ties. The instances from their behaviour Lawrence relates are so relatable as human traits that you stop to wonder why they are inside fences.

13. The Reason I Jump by Naoki Higashida - There have been many books on autistic children by parents and care-givers but this is one of the first by the child himself. He debunks many myths surrounding autism - they're not immune to feelings and don't want to be isolated. An important book to read to have a clearer understanding of people around you.

14. I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai - I was impressed by how this young girl from a small rural town spoke even with International audiences. She exudes confidence. She talks of her village and the troubles that plague it, but unfortunately instead of promoting her stand on education for all, her countrymen have criticized and attacked her for airing their dirty laundry in public. I was also touched by the support she has received from her father even in the face of threats. Even if you don't read her book, hear her speak.

15. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - I like the way the book is presented as a monologue, and how he points out the discomfort of his companion with naivete. I especially liked how ambiguously he ended the narrative.

16. An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield - His life is a classic example of picturing your goal and working backwards from there to achieve it. His life lessons and descriptions of what life is like as an astronaut are a pleasure to read, mixed with enough light-heartedness and anecdotes.

Biographies of Prominent Indians
Although every story in this section was inspiring to the core, and of Indians who have excelled in their fields, the books were written and edited in a way that put a dampener on my experience. The sequence of events are presented in a very matter-of-fact way and doesn't make you empathise or feel (unless you try very hard). Indian editors should encourage the concept of ghost-writing and making the story relatable, otherwise how is it better than a Wikipedia article?

17. The Race of My Life by Milkha Singh - I was very excited that he was sharing his story. I have always heard of his achievements as one of India's greatest athlete (and only prominent runner) but how he got to that point is an even better story although one filled with sadness and hardships.

18. The Victoria Cross by Ashali Varma - Written by the daughter, it is the story of the first Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, and his wife. I had picked this book up from a random selection without knowing about Lt. Prem Bhagat - a great military man and manager.

19. UnBreakable by M.C. Mary Kom - Coming from a region largely ignored my the mainland, she has achieved much and is an inspiration to young girls who are boxed into 'girlie' life-roles. One of the few sportswomen who has been able to achieve greatness on an international playing field solely on her dedication and hard work (and the amazing support of her husband), even after giving birth to three children.

20. Wings of Fire by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam - You would assume a scientist would be an atheist and not be impressed with poetry, preferring reality and straight-forwardness. But Kalam is in a different league. He quotes and writes beautiful poems, quotes religious texts and is very spiritual. As outsiders to someone whose life is focused on a single goal, we feel like they are missing out on the rest of the world. But he reminds us that if he is getting his happiness and contentment from the work he is doing, then who are we to judge.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Cake Box

Recently I had to take a home-baked cake to someone's home and hadn't yet invested in a cake carrier.

I have previously resorted to making cupcakes or brownies instead, but I wanted to try making a cake box - it couldn't be more difficult than making the actual cake, could it? It wasn't.

I found a helpful guide on how to go about making a box instead of just winging it (Crystal's Creative Creations). Tip: It makes life a lot simpler if you use a cutter to score the card before folding it. I tried folding the first line without it and it didn't some out clean.

The only changes I made was to go with a fully-covered top with some drawings instead of the clear film, and since the card paper I got wasn't very thick, I trimmed the cardboard base covering the whole base instead of circular.

I drew over the top sheet after marking the folds, but before sticking them into place, and I lined the cardboard base with aluminium foil - some fancy foil would have looked looked but I didn't have any.

The box and cake were highly appreciated. Recipe for cake.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ganesh on the Wall

My sister-in-law wanted a Ganesh painting for her wall. Instead of painting one big Ganesh I decided on doing a set of four. One reason being it was hard for me to choose just one design out of the million; second reason being it is just very difficult for me to manage one big painting because I lose patience fast; and lastly, it's easier to carry on flight.

I had just a week to finish them so I did some preliminary sketches and went to the hobby store, stacked up on acrylic paints and rushed home - only to find that the gold and silver bottles I picked up were powdered pigments and I needed a medium. But they didn't have any at the store! The Internet didn't give me any helpful alternatives either. Since we were travelling to meet some people on the other side of town, I checked their other branch if they had any - thankfully they did.

I had to use 2-3 coats of colour to get some consistency in the paintings. They seemed very diluted on their own. 

For the silver Ganesh, I wanted to use the silver powder to highlight the edges but the wind blew and scattered the pigment a little. It seemed to work so that's what I did on purpose - just dabbed a little powder on the edges then blew lightly in the direction I wanted the powder to scatter. It would be better to do this in parts to avoid a mess.

My metallic pens from my previous projects came in very handy to discreetly outline the edges of the drawings after the colours had been filled in. I thought about doing some detailed Zentangles over the images but then opted to keep it clean and simple. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


I have fallen behind on my little Zentangle notebook that I tried to scribble in everyday, mainly because I've been travelling, and also because I was working on a bigger scale. These are some of the sets I made last month.

The first one took me over a day for each letter (10x10 inches each). I had to pencil in the dimensions for the borders and letters for uniformity, otherwise I prefer freehand. The next step was to watercolour it. I have to admit that I was disappointed with the way it looked with just the watercolours and I thought I have wasted a whole lot of time for nothing. But when I outlines it with my micron pens, it started to really stand out. Phew!

The animal set just started out as a trial with the peacock, but I liked the owl I saw somewhere so that came next. But just two seemed incomplete, so I found a curious giraffe. I made this on thick printing paper so the pens were gliding on them as opposed to the watercolour paper I used for the previous one.

The other two pieces were also experiments. I had some good art paper but were too dark for the micron pens. Even the metallic ones I got didn't stand out too well. So I used watercolour to lighten the background, then used the pens for the design. These are all freehand therefor not too straight at the borders.

Love for All Seasons (watercolour on paper, with coloured pencils and pens)

Animal Kingdom (Coloured pencils on paper)

Joy & Freedom (Watercolours and metallic markers on paper)

Floating in Space (watercolour and metallic markers on paper)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Heidelberg - Philosophenweg and Neckar Cruise

In August, the weather in Heidelberg is quite pleasant with the temperature hovering around 20 degrees Celsius in the daytime. But we realised it can still be hot enough if you have to go for a walk. We took plenty of water the day we decided to walk the Philosopher's Way trail.

Apparently, professors and philosophers from the university nearby used to walk here often, drawing inspiration from the solitude and splendid views of the town.

We walked up a gradual slope and reached a small but colourful garden that offers panoramic views of the Old Town. There are plenty of sites to see along the way - old building, vineyards, flora, some fauna, maybe some large lizards.

The small garden is a good place to catch you breath and take in the scenic beauty the place has to offer. Also in the garden is a memorial stone to Joseph von Eichendorff, a romantic poet who studied in Heidelberg in 1807.

The trail continues for about 3 kms, but we took the exit via the Snake Path (so called because of the narrow, winding lane that leads to the river).

There are also some 'Insect Hotels' you will see here and other places around town. It is basically a small stand made of untreated wood with many drilled holes for insects to hibernate and breed. This is especially helpful since many natural forests here are heavily guarded against pests and diseases, leaving the insect population especially bees and wasps, out in the cold.

Later in the evening, we had booked a short cruise on the river, and since the 400th anniversary celebrations were on full swing, there would also be a fireworks display at the end of the tour. We boarded the cruise boat and got a front seat. If you don't want to be stuck inside the cabin with limited views, get there early and bring a warm jacket. It wasn't cold to begin with but it got pretty chilly by the time we got off.

The cruise offers stunning scenic views of forests and homes surrounded by nature. It was an hour long gentle cruise, and by the time we got back it was starting to get dark. Normally you'd alight the boat, but we were there at the front lines for the fireworks as well. Those lucky enough to have homes on the riverfront were out in their balconies, and the rest were lined up along the river with their picnic baskets and beer.

There was another fireworks display the next day as well, but we were in the car on the bridge. We saw some of the cars slowing down so we pulled over for a while as well. With that, the weekend celebrations ended, but there was still plenty more to do.

Heidelberg - Around Town

Most of the places in Heidelberg are walkable if you like walking or cycling. The town is pedestrian and cycle friendly. We opted for the bus since we were in the suburbs. A day ticket is the best deal - it lets you use the bus or tram as many times during the day as you want.

We walked along the Neckar River (meaning Wild Water). It is a pleasant walk, with picnic spots, or for water sports. It has a clear view of the picturesque Castle and Old Town. You can spot some creative graffiti or stop for a chat with the ducks on the shore.

Going further along the river, you'll see the old Bridge which was built in 1742. The statue of Prince Elector Karl Theodor is there to honor him for building of the bridge. Once you get off the bridge towards the old university, you'll see another statue - the "Brückenaff" (or bridge ape). The legend surrounding this curious statue tells us that it symbolizes the fact that neither the city-dwellers nor the people who lived outside the city were better than the other, and that they should look over their shoulder as they cross the bridge to remember this.

Hauptstraße is the main street in the Old Town, lined on both sides with shops and restaurants. About a mile long, it is supposed to be Germany's longest market street. We were there at a time when they were celebrating the 400th anniversary of the marriage of Frederick V to Elizabeth Stuart.
On Valentine’s Day, the 14th February 1613, Frederick V of the House of Wittelsbach and the English king’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart got married in London at the age of 16. In the same year, they left England by ship and traveled over Den Haag, where Frederick visited his uncle Moritz of Orange, to Heidelberg. Frederick's return home with his bride was an event of international standing at the time. The couple was welcomed by the cheering population of Heidelberg and a celebration of several days’ duration took place at the Heidelberg Castle, which also included a huge fireworks display. This is the starting signal for today’s illuminations of Heidelberg Castle. (Source)
The town had been decked up with old world style markets and people in period costume. The tents showed how people traded in ancient times, and there were some games to play as well. There was even a display of some magnificent birds of prey.

We sampled as many varieties of food as we could handle - fries,apple chips, wienerschnitzel, and gelato. There are numerous stores selling books new and used (it is a university town after all), and since it is a pet-friendly country, don't be surprised to see dogs browsing in stores or resting comfortably under the table at a restaurant.

There are different market squares in the area.

The Marktplatz has a fountain with a statue of Hercules on a column, built between 1703 and 1706. This hero of Greek myths, known for his strength, symbolizes the heroic efforts that Heidelberg’s residents made to rebuild their devastated city in the years after 1700. The Hercules statue in the fountain today is a replica, however; the original is in safekeeping in the Kurpfälzisches Museum. There are several outdoor cafés and in pleasant weather is a good place for a beer.

 The Kornmarkt (Corn Market), this market square, as its name implies, was once used for the collection and trade of agricultural goods. It is home to the Madonna statue that was erected in 1718 by the Jesuits, to try to motivate the people of Heidelberg to switch to Catholicism. The Count Elector had been, since 1685, trying to get his subjects to come back to the Catholic faith, and the Jesuits were very supportive; they published leaflets, organized pilgrimages, and put up other statues of the Virgin Mary as well. The Count, try as he may, was unable to persuade many of the Protestants, who chose instead to emigrate to other areas of the country rather than changing their beliefs.

The large building complex of the University Library was erected in 1901, previously it had been a monastery. The main sights, the facades pointing to the east and to the south, are abundantly decorated by sculptures, structuring architectural details and plant ornaments extending all the way up to the roof. The two sculptures flanking the main entrance at the "Plöck" were created by Prof. Hermann Volz (Art Academy of Karlsruhe). They both symbolize the intentions of the University Library: Prometheus (left) gave mankind fire and knowledge. The woman and the child (right) stand for the passing on of wisdom from one generation to the next. The two masks, one laughing and one crying, symbolize comedy and tragedy. An inscription refers to Grand Duke Friedrich of Baden who, being sovereign, also was the university's chancellor and thus sponsor and promoter of the new building. Baden's coat of arms therefore had to be included in the building's architecture. Portraits of the Prince Electors are to be found above the windows.

The Church of the Holy Spirit is located in the marketplace. The Heiliggeistkirche (Holy Ghost Church) was built from 1344 to 1441, its tower completed in 1544. It was the burial place of 55 Prince Electors and hosted the famous Bibliotheca Palatina until 1623. The church frequently changed its religious denomination and was used at different times by Catholics as well as Protestants. Even a partition barrier was erected in 1706 because both denominations wanted to hold service here. For 230 years, the barrier stayed in its place until it was removed in 1936. Today, the Church of the Holy Spirit is a Protestant Church.

We were to attend an organ concert here, but we arrived exactly 2 minutes late and found the gate closed. But could hear the music which sounded entrancing.

The Zum Ritter St. Georg hotel is the oldest building around and one of the few houses of Heidelberg to survive the demolitions during the Wars of Succession. . The cloth dealer Carolus Belier and his wife Francina had it build in the year 1592; today, the venerable gable house of sandstone, full of fluted columns and ornately carved window blocks, is a listing building. 

There are other interesting things to spot in nooks and crannies and the narrow lanes - like the statue of Madonna with child embedded in a building, or the building that marks the water levels during the floods in the area. If you have the time and patience, there are many things to explore even in this tiny place.

The street ends at Bismarckplatz which is the hub for trains and trams as well. This is a more modern area and has larger stores, a mall, and some restaurants. It's a good place to sit and watch the city, especially towards the evening.

Be prepared to walk a lot here, and wear comfortable shoes with god cushioning for the stone-paved streets. There is no better way to explore this town than by walking. Language wasn't a big issue especially in the popular sites since it is a student town with many speaking a splattering of English (but then we were with people who spoke German so don't take my word for it).